House of Commons
Wednesday 17 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind colleagues that a deferred Division will take place today on the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020. I have approved new arrangements for deferred Divisions to help ensure the safety of Members and staff. The deferred Division will take place in the Members’ Library between 11.30 am and 3.30 pm. Members will cast their votes by placing the completed Division slip in one of the ballot boxes provided. Guidance on the new arrangements has been sent to all Members. The result will be announced in the Chamber as soon as possible after 3.30 pm.
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Covid-19: Self-Employed Women
We have introduced an unprecedented package of support for businesses to get through this incredibly challenging period. More than £10 billion of grants has been paid and over 830,000 businesses of all sizes have been able to access more than £34 billion of finance through our loan scheme. As of 7 June, the self-employed income support scheme has paid out on 2.6 million applications worth £7.5 billion. Of these, 701,000 claims were from women, totalling £1.609 billion.
The Government clearly understand the challenges for the self-employed, in particular, arising from the arrival of a new baby or adoption. We are working on additional guidance for individuals who took a break from work to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child, and for whom no income tax self-assessment tax return was submitted.
Covid-19: Public Health England Review
We are taking the findings of PHE’s report, “COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes”, which was published on 2 June, very seriously. The next steps are to fill the gaps in the report, which necessarily had some limitations. The Race Disparity Unit and the Department for Health and Social Care are working with me to do this. This vital work will help us to take appropriate, evidence-based action to address the disparities highlighted.
Given the delays between publishing the report and publishing the recommendations, and the likely delay now in implementing those recommendations, how do the Government propose to rebuild trust and confidence in their actions with black and minority ethnic groups and individuals?
I believe the hon. Lady is conflating two different reports. There was no delay in publishing the first report, which did not have recommendations. The second report was published by PHE only yesterday, and many of the recommendations are already in train. I refer her to the written ministerial statement that I laid yesterday, which should hopefully provide additional clarity on that.
I begin by paying tribute to the very many BAME staff I have worked alongside in the NHS, including in recent months. They are an absolutely vital part of the NHS team. That is why it is really important that we get this review right. It is crucial that we get the necessary expert advice to help us to do that. What steps is the Minister taking to get that expertise to support the work she is undertaking?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We are determined to proceed with this in an evidence-led way, and we will be engaging with experts in the field. On Friday, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and I held a virtual roundtable on these issues with a number of public health consultants and leading academics in this field, including Professor Michael Marmot. I am very grateful for their input. We intend to continue in this spirit by engaging with other experts such as the Office for National Statistics.
Professor Fenton’s report, finally published yesterday, highlights yet more evidence that socioeconomic inequalities, racism and discrimination are root causes of BAME communities being disproportionately harmed by covid-19, and that these injustices were already known and have already cost lives. The Government’s denial and delay further compound despair at their lack of care and concern. The seven practical recommendations that the Government should have acted on much sooner include risk-assessing our black and minority ethnic workers on the frontline. Black lives matter is more than just a slogan. So what immediate and decisive action will the Minister take now to develop and deliver culturally competent occupational risk assessment tools?
I refer again to the ministerial statement that was laid yesterday, which covers this. The Government did not delay publishing any report, and the recommendations that were published, on which most of the actions are already in train, can be seen on the gov.uk website.
Covid-19: Women in the Workplace
The Government are committed to helping all employees during this challenging time. The coronavirus job retention scheme is an unprecedented scheme to protect employment, and it has supported more than 9 million jobs. As always, equalities legislation requires that employers must not discriminate based on gender, or pregnancy and maternity, in the workplace.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that women are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs since the start of the crisis and 15% more likely to have been furloughed. We know that social distancing has severely impacted hospitality, leisure and retail, where women are disproportionately employed in customer-facing roles. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that women do not emerge as the accidental casualties of the crisis?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and, in particular, for highlighting the situation with regard to the hospitality and leisure sector. I speak to many of the people in that sector on a daily basis. We are actively monitoring the impact of covid-19 on the labour market, but it is too early to draw any firm conclusions. Equality legislation requires that employers must not discriminate based on gender, and this law continues to apply.
As with any other economic downturn, it is women who are at risk of being worst hit by the economic consequences of coronavirus. As childcare responsibilities overwhelmingly fall on women, the closure of schools and childcare facilities could mean that many women are forced to leave work or to reduce their hours as the furlough scheme is wound up. The U-turn yesterday on free school meals is welcome and will help many families, but what will the Minister do to ensure that women are able to return to work in a flexible way in order to balance childcare commitments and not lose out financially, particularly as schools are not yet fully open?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we manage to supply childcare. That is why women should be able to go to their local authority. They may not get their first choice of childcare provisions, but their local authority will be able to guide them. None the less, it remains the case that there should be flexible working: if people can work from home, they should be able to work from home, and employers need to be mindful of that.
Covid-19: Female Entrepreneurship
The Government’s Rose review into female entrepreneurship found that £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men. We must take the opportunity, as we recover from the covid crisis, to help make this happen.
I recently highlighted to my right hon. Friend that very point about the £250 billion, and, as part of that solution, I have been working to try to deliver a set of women’s business hubs across the UK, which I know the British Library is also working on. What other steps can she take to ensure that part of the covid recovery benefits women across the UK and encourages more female entrepreneurs?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work for the all-party group on women and enterprise. He is absolutely right: we need to make sure that, as part of our levelling-up agenda, this is a cross-UK phenomenon. We have growth hubs across the country. We are also working on mentoring schemes and on trying to ensure that investment is available right through the UK to help those start-up businesses get going.
My right hon. Friend has shown real passion and commitment to female entrepreneurship, which will be absolutely crucial as we seek to recover from covid. Unfortunately, those same women will not be able to start up their own businesses or to be assisted to go back into the wider workforce unless they can have reliable, accessible, available childcare. What specific discussions is she having across Government to ensure that that childcare is available? We recognise that there are challenges around social distancing and the hours that schools can operate, but will she please enlighten us on what she is doing?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the vital importance of childcare. We also need to ensure that the flexible working practices that have developed during this covid crisis are available to both women and men following the crisis. We are making sure that educational settings are open as soon as possible. More than 90% of nursery schools and colleges were open on 4 June, and I am working very closely with the Secretary of State for Education and his Ministers to ensure that we reform childcare and make more places available.
Black Lives Matter Movement
No one should face discrimination. Individual Departments and their Ministers must take account of the equality impact of their policies, and I can assure the House that my ministerial colleagues take this very seriously. Across the whole of Government, we have already taken significant steps to tackle the sorts of concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, including continuing to act on the Lammy report, working to improve trust between citizens and police forces and ensuring that record numbers of ethnic minority people continue to go to university.
Over the past two weeks, we have heard members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, repeat that black lives matter, yet their policies fail to reflect that. The Unity Project’s report presented the Home Office with evidence that the “no recourse to public funds” policy discriminates against black British children and leaves them growing up in poverty. What steps can the Minister take to protect black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, and black people in particular, against further discrimination to ensure that the UK Government’s words are matched by their actions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The issue of no recourse to public funds has been raised multiple times, and the Government are doing many things to tackle situations in which people who may not necessarily have been able to access public funds are able to do so. For example, the Government are ensuring that anyone who needs NHS treatment is not being charged, and programmes such as the coronavirus job retention scheme are available to people who have no recourse to public funds.
I wonder whether the Minister agrees that some racism is down to unconscious bias, and helping people to recognise and address their own bias could make a real difference. If she agrees, will she welcome the creation of the all-party parliamentary group on unconscious bias? It will conduct several investigations, starting with racial bias, so will she commit to working alongside us and to consider any recommendations with an open mind?
Conversion therapy is a vile, abhorrent practice that we want to stop. We have commissioned research to look at the scope of the practice in the UK, and we will publish our plans shortly after we receive that research.
Covid-19: Economic Opportunity
The Government take the public sector equality duty into account when developing, implementing and reviewing all policies, including the response to the covid-19 pandemic. We are gathering and developing evidence for the equalities impact of covid-19, which will be used to support and influence planning for the economic recovery.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising flexible working. The Government have been clear about the benefits of flexible working for employers and their employees. The manifesto we stood on talked about an employment Bill, which we will bring forward when possible, to make flexible working the default. We look forward to introducing those measures, subject to consultation.
Disabled People: Benefit System
We remain committed to ensuring that the benefit system is effective and positive in supporting disabled people. That includes several measures, such as suspending face-to-face assessments, extending personal independence payment awards where necessary, and increasing the universal credit standard allowance and local housing allowance rates.
We know that people with existing health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill with or succumb to covid-19 than the population as a whole. For example, more than one in four of all people who have died of covid in hospital in England also had diabetes. What assessment have the Government undertaken of the proportion of people with health conditions in receipt of social security support who have also died of covid?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. The Department for Work and Pensions looks to identify and learn lessons swiftly. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon is engaging extensively and holding conversations with charities and stakeholders on exactly these kinds of issues so that we can understand the impact on the most vulnerable.
Global LGBT Equality
We want LGBT people across the world to be free to live their lives without discrimination or persecution. I am working closely on that with the Foreign Secretary and, as we launch trade negotiations with Australia today, I am delighted to have worked with high commissioner George Brandis, who played a leading role in Australia’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. We will continue to work with close allies to lead the world on this issue.
In the month of Pride, being celebrated around the world, and looking forward to the rescheduled global LGBT conference being hosted here under the chairmanship of the right hon. Nick Herbert, does the Minister agree that it is essential for us to deliver on our 2018 LGBT action plan in order to preserve our place as a co-chair of the global Equal Rights Coalition?
I take this opportunity to wish everybody the very best for a happy Pride. I am sure that we will be doing a lot of things virtually rather than on the streets, but it is very important that we celebrate, and I am delighted that we are hosting the LGBT conference on the theme of “Safe to be me”. In response to my hon. Friend’s question, we will be updating our plans for LGBT rights for 2020 and we want to continue to lead the world on this issue.
Covid-19: BAME Key Workers
All NHS organisations continue to make appropriate arrangements to support their ethnic minority staff, and NHS human resources directors are considering a range of mitigating actions, including redeploying staff to alternative roles, stringent testing procedures, equity of personal protective equipment provision and training, and improved occupational health support. For those in other key roles, Government have issued safer workplace guidance, which emphasises the need for employers to carry out risk assessments, to engage with their representatives and to take account of equality impacts.
In my constituency of Burton and Uttoxeter, we have sadly lost a number of dedicated frontline workers from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. My constituents are understandably worried, and I have raised concerns previously in the House about how we can protect those in at-risk groups who work on the frontline. Public Health England’s recent stakeholder engagement work contains a number of recommendations. Can the Minister give an outline of Government’s progress on them?
Many stakeholder recommendations are already in progress, as my hon. Friend states, and as part of existing Government work, we are collecting better data on ethnicity—that was one of the recommendations. We agree that that is imperative and we are working to overcome technical barriers. NHS employers have published some excellent frameworks and occupational risk assessment tools, which can be used now; the race disparity unit is working on communication with covid teams across Departments; and I have said that further research to fill the gaps in PHE’s review is one of my immediate priorities.
Covid-19: Disabled People
The Government are committed to supporting disabled people through the covid-19 outbreak and beyond. We continue to monitor its impact on disabled people and those with a health condition, using existing and new data sources to improve our understanding.
Many people with disabilities and parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities have contacted me, feeling very fearful that they will face abuse for not wearing a face covering on public transport. Labour supports the use of face coverings, but the Government’s messaging needs to be very clear. Will they ensure that their public advertising campaign includes and explains the exemptions and look at supporting local charities that are trying to address that?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this point. We need to recognise that some people with disabilities face particular difficulty when it comes to social distancing and are impacted on by the reaction of others due to their inability to socially distance—I understand, particularly, the situation for young children. I reassure her that the Department for Transport has revised transport guidance for travellers and operators and considers the details needed for disabled travellers. I hope that that reassures her.
Covid-19: Gender Pay Gap Reporting
To ease the burdens on businesses due to coronavirus, we suspended enforcement of the gender pay gap reporting in March. Despite that, more than 5,500 companies have reported to date, and employers continue to do so.
Gender pay gap reporting was removed in March, yet even then, just two weeks before the deadline, only around half the businesses expected to report had done so. This cannot become a lost year for narrowing the gender pay gap. Eliminating pay inequality, especially for those women in low-paid, insecure work, must be at the heart of the recovery. Will the Minister tell me exactly when gender pay gap reporting will be restored and how the information will be used as part of the coronavirus recovery?
We are in a serious economic situation due to covid-19, and my priority, as the Minister for Women and Equalities, is to make sure that women stay in employment where possible and are able to get jobs where possible. That is where I am putting all my efforts.
As we recover from the covid-19 pandemic, the Government will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed, which is why the Prime Minister announced that we are setting up a new commission on race and ethnic disparities, and why we will be hosting an international LGBT conference once international travel allows. We will work to support businesses to maintain some of the positive changes we have seen, such as greater flexible working, which benefits women, men and their families.
In the light of that answer, I refer the Minister to the latest report by the Social Mobility Commission, which highlights that in the past seven years there was little or no action by successive Governments on a third of its recommendations, including on ensuring that child poverty is not exacerbated by universal credit, which received the lowest, red rating, based on evidence showing that 72% of children living in poverty live in households where at least one adult is in work and that black, Asian and minority ethnic children are more likely to be in poverty. Given the total lack of leadership by the Minister’s UK Government, as highlighted by the report, will she take ownership so that her Government can finally step up and ensure that that report, and the millions of children in poverty, are not ignored?
The most vital tool in social mobility is education, which is why we are absolutely determined to get children back to school and to support children who are not in school through virtual lessons. I encourage the Scottish Government to follow the leadership that we are showing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and touches on why the Government have set up the commission: to understand why disparities exist, what works and what does not, and to present recommendations for action across Government and other public bodies. It should report by the end of the year.
The Government ran a consultation on ethnicity pay reporting that closed back in January 2019. Nearly 18 months on, the Government have failed to publish a response to the consultation and have said twice in replies to written questions on the issue that something will be published “in due course”. That is not good enough. Mandatory pay gap reporting will be one small but significant step towards addressing pay equality, so when will the Government finally publish their response to the consultation and take urgent action to introduce mandatory pay gap reporting?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a disgrace that that was being used as a defence in criminal cases of murder. I pay tribute to Members from all parties who have run an effective campaign and congratulate the Ministry of Justice on taking action on the issue.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The journey of Munira Mirza from the pages of the Srebrenica-denying Living Marxism and the Revolutionary Communist party into the heart of No. 10 has not gone unnoticed. On Monday, the Prime Minister appointed them to lead the commission—the Government’s commission—on racial inequality, and it was greeted with some disbelief, given their well-known views on the matter. So I wonder: can the Prime Minister tell us today, does he agree with Ms Mirza that previous inquiries have fostered a “culture of grievance” within minority communities?
I am a huge admirer of Dr Munira Mirza, who is a brilliant thinker about these issues. We are certainly going to proceed with a new cross-governmental commission to look at racism and discrimination. It will be a very thorough piece of work, looking at discrimination in health, in education and in the criminal justice system. I know that the House will say we have already had plenty of commissions and plenty of work, but it is clear from the Black Lives Matter march and all the representations we have had that more work needs to be done, and this Government are going to do it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can tell her and the House that any incident of vandalism or attack on public property will be met with the full force of the law, and perpetrators will be prosecuted. I can also confirm that we are looking at new ways in which we may legislate against vandalism of war memorials.
Can I start by welcoming the announcement of a major breakthrough in the treatment of coronavirus by UK scientists? That is really fantastic news. We are all behind it and I pay tribute to all of those involved.
Can I also welcome the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn, this time on free school meals? That was the right thing to do and it is vital for the 1.3 million children who will benefit. It is just one step in the fight against child poverty.
A report last week from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now
“600,000 more children…living in relative poverty”
than in 2012. The report went on to say:
“Child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.”
What does the Prime Minister think caused that?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said about dexamethasone, and I am glad that he is finally paying tribute to the efforts of this country in tackling coronavirus. But I can tell him, on free school meals, that this Government are very proud that we set up universal free school meals. I am very pleased that we are going to be able to deliver a covid summer food package for some of the poorest families in this country and that is exactly the right thing to do. But I must say that I think he is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government and there are hundreds of thousands—I think 400,000—fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.
The Prime Minister says that poverty has not increased. I have just read a direct quote from a Government report, from a Government commission, produced last week, which says that it has gone up by 600,000. The Social Mobility Commission has a clear answer to my question:
“This anticipated rise is not driven by forces beyond our control”.
I gave the Prime Minister the number: 600,000. He did not reply. The report goes on to say, and this is a real cause for concern—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is chuntering. He might want to listen. This is a real cause for concern because the commission goes on—[Interruption.] I am sure that the Prime Minister has read the report. On the increase to 5.2 million, it states that
“projections were made before the impact of COVID-19, which we expect to push more families into poverty.”
This is a serious issue. I am sure the Prime Minister would agree that an even higher child poverty rate would be an intolerable outcome from this pandemic. So what is he going to do to prevent it?
I have understood that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about what he calls an anticipated rise rather than a rise that has actually taken place. A new concept is being introduced into our deliberations. What we are talking about is what has actually happened, which is a reduction in poverty. I can tell him that of course we are concerned. The whole House will understand that of course this Government are deeply concerned about the impact of coronavirus on the UK economy. I think everybody with any fairness would acknowledge that this Government have invested massively in protecting the workforce of this country, with 11 million jobs protected by the coronavirus job retention scheme, unlike anything done anywhere else in the world, and £30 billion-worth of business loans. We intend to make sure that we minimise the impact of coronavirus on the poorest kids in this country. One of the best ways in which we could do that, by the way, would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now, because their schools are safe. Last week, I asked him whether he would say publicly that schools were safe to go back to. He hummed and hawed. Now is his time to say clearly that schools are safe to go back to. Mr Speaker: your witness.
The Prime Minister obviously has not got the first idea what the social mobility report, from a Government body, actually said last week. He talks to me about consistency and U-turns. The Government have had three U-turns in the last month. First, we had the immigration health charges; then we had MPs’ voting; and then we had free school meals. The only question now is whether U-turns at the Dispatch Box are before or after. Three U-turns. He argues about one brief one week and one the next; he is an expert in that.
This is not the only area where the Government are falling short. During the pandemic, local authorities have been working flat out on social care, homelessness, obtaining protective equipment for the frontline, and delivering food and essential supplies. On 26 March, the Communities Secretary told council leaders directly and in terms, in a letter to council leaders and in a speech:
“The Government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to support councils in their response to coronavirus”.
Does the Prime Minister believe that the Government have kept that promise?
We put £3.2 billion extra into local government to tackle coronavirus, but I must say that we did not hear an answer, did we Mr Speaker? How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman talk about tackling the effects of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged? It is the most disadvantaged kids who need to go back to school, and it is those groups who unfortunately are not going back to school. Let’s hear it from him one more time: will he say that schools are safe to go back to? Come on!
This is turning into Opposition questions. If the Prime Minister wants to swap places, I am very happy. I could do it now. The only bit of an answer he gave to the question I asked was about £3.2 billion—[Interruption.] It is a lot of money. The Conservative-led Local Government Association has said that councils will have a shortfall of £10 billion this year—[Interruption.] The Health Secretary heckles. The Conservative leader of Lancashire County Council wrote a letter to the Communities Secretary a month ago, on 7 May. He said that
“the overall financial impact on councils nationally and locally will be far in excess of the £3.2 billion provided to date”.
He went on to say that
“we…would like some assurance from you that all councils will be fully reimbursed for the costs of…covid-19”.
These are the Prime Minister’s own council leaders. He must have known about this problem for months. Why has he been so slow to act?
We have not, because in addition to the £3.2 billion, we have already put in another £1.6 billion to support councils delivering frontline services, plus—from memory—another £600 million to go into social care. I want to return to this point about poverty. We want to tackle deprivation in this country. I want kids to go back to school. The unions will not let the right hon. and learned Gentleman say the truth. A great ox has stood upon his tongue. Let him now say that schools are safe to go back to.
The Prime Minister just does not get how critical this is. I spoke with council leaders from across the country this week. The Prime Minister must know that they face a choice between cutting core services and facing bankruptcy under section 114 notices. Either outcome will harm local communities and mean that local services cannot reopen. That will drive up poverty, something the Prime Minister says he does not intend to do. Local councils have done everything asked of them in this crisis—the Government have not. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility and actually do something?
With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have outlined what we are doing to support local government, and I think this country can be very proud of the investments that we have made. It can be very proud of the incredible work that local government officials have done across this country, but I must say that there are some councils, particularly Labour councils, alas, that are not opening their schools now when they could be opening their schools. I say to him, for I hope the last time: now is the moment when he can say to those Labour councillors that it is safe for kids to go back to reception, to year 1, to year 6, to early years, as they can. Will he now say it?
Every week, the Prime Minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at Prime Minister’s questions. If he wants to swap places, so be it.
Finally, I want to return to the Prime Minister’s other recent U-turn, which was on the immigration health surcharge for NHS and care workers. Following Prime Minister’s questions on 20 May, the Government announced that they would drop that deeply unfair charge—that is nearly a month ago. Nothing has happened. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and Unison have all written to the Prime Minister, so he must know about this. One doctor was quoted on Monday as saying:
“My colleagues who have applied, even yesterday, one of them said he had to pay for himself, his wife and four kids so that is £6,000…The Home Office is…saying that…nothing has been implemented”.
These are people on the frontline. The Prime Minister said he would act. When is he going to do so?
I am genuinely grateful for an important question, because it is vital that people who are working on the frontline, and NHS workers in particular, get the support that they need. That is why I said what I said a few weeks ago. What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that NHS or care workers who have paid the surcharge since 21 May will be refunded, and we are getting on with instituting the new arrangements as fast as we possibly can.
I can tell my hon. Friend that it certainly will when we become once again an independent coastal state. I know how brilliantly she campaigns for fisheries in Grimsby and I urge her to engage with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that the people of Grimsby can exploit the recapture of our spectacular natural marine wealth.
Marcus Rashford has shown more moral leadership in tackling poverty in a matter of days than this Tory Government have in the past decade of cuts, but, as he says, people are struggling all year round and more needs to be done. This morning, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children published research showing that the ongoing health crisis is causing six in 10 families to borrow money, seven in 10 to cut back on essentials and over five in 10 to fall behind on rent and other essential bills. An extra £20 a week in social security support would prevent millions of families from having to make the choice between paying their bills or feeding their children. Will the Prime Minister now immediately uplift the child element of universal credit and child tax credit by £20 per week?
This is a Government who have done everything we possibly can so far to help families in need to make sure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing during the crisis. I know how difficult it has been. That is why we uprated the universal credit by £1,044, benefiting, I think, 4 million families in this country. I say in all sincerity to the right hon. Gentleman that we are fully aware that there will be tough times ahead and we do stand by to do more where we can.
Twenty pounds a week—twenty pounds a week to help families with children. That is what we are asking for. We are talking about an extra £20 a week to stop families having to make the choice between paying their bills or feeding their children. That is the harsh reality, Prime Minister. This is a question of helping people survive. This Tory Government have seen a decade of austerity that has driven people into poverty, and they have scrapped child poverty targets. Rather than reversing their damaging policies that have pushed millions into poverty, the Prime Minister is more interested in finding money to spend on his own vanity project: a luxury VIP plane. Is he seriously saying that he will not find £20 a week to help families who are struggling to survive?
No, of course not. That is why we are investing massively in universal credit, employment and support allowance, and benefits across the board, to say nothing of the novel schemes we have introduced, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, which is a model that I think the whole world is admiring. There is no other country that has put its arms around 11 million workers in the way that this Government have supported jobs and supported incomes across the whole of the UK. We are going to get this country through it, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman supports our measures.
I have studied my hon. Friend’s proposals with interest. He is an expert in what he speaks of and we will certainly look at all kinds of imaginative ways in which we can stimulate a strong rebound, a strong economic recovery. He should stand by for what the Chancellor is going to be announcing in the next few weeks.
Due to the covid crisis, tens of thousands of British businesses face bankruptcy and millions of British people face redundancy. In Britain’s hour of need, will the Prime Minister put the practical imperative of saving jobs before his Brexit ideology, rather than risk a bad deal or a no deal due to the deadline set before coronavirus? Why does the Prime Minister not show some good old-fashioned British common sense, give our economy the chance to breathe, and accept the EU’s offer of a delay?
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that there is another way of looking at it. The first point is that the people of this country are heartily sick of us going on about Brexit. They wanted to get it done. We got it done and we are going to move forward. The other point is that when we come to the end of the transition period, we will be able to do things differently. We will be able to respond to our economic needs in a creative and constructive way, looking at regulation and looking at ways in which we support industries in a way that we have not been able to do before. That will be very productive for this country. Let us not delay that moment; let us get on with it.
Yes, indeed; it is absolutely crucial that we do that. There is a big catch-up plan that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is going to be announcing very shortly. It is vital that kids catch up on the education that they have lost, but even more vital, as I think I may have mentioned to the House already this morning, that the kids who can go to school should go to school. Would it not be a fine thing, Mr Speaker, if we heard from all parts of the House that schools are safe to go to, rather than the wibble-wobble we have heard from the Opposition this morning?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, because we take the issue of the UK steel industry very seriously. We are doing everything we can to maintain UK steel production. Clearly it was always facing difficulties, even before corona struck. I will make sure that I look at the particular needs of the concern that she raises in Newport East. We will ensure that we do everything we can. I just remind her that we have supported 9,200 workers in her constituency through the furlough scheme.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have provided 100% business rate relief for all new fibre investment. I am very happy to join her in thanking telecommunications workers for their amazing work. Many of them have kept going throughout the pandemic to put in that broadband infrastructure. I thank them with her.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I certainly had no correspondence about the matter myself, nor as far as I am aware did any of my officials, but if there is anything to be said, I think the hon. Gentleman has written to the Cabinet Secretary, and I know that he will be writing back.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for the way he campaigns for business in Aylesbury. We will do what we can to flex the social distancing rules, but only as we make progress in driving the incidence of the virus down. I think everybody understands the tension that the whole country is operating under and the trade-off that we have to make. We must continue to defeat the virus. We will stick ruthlessly to our plan to continue with the opening of hospitality sectors on 4 July at the earliest and proceed on that basis.
My hon. Friend is right. We will be bringing forward legislation that focuses on protecting people who have been involved, whether victims or veterans alike, ensuring equal treatment in Northern Ireland for our veterans and also for those who have served overseas.
Of course they should be eligible for those, but as I have said to the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly in the Chamber, those who have no recourse to public funds do have access to the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the measures that we have introduced to protect renters and the mortgage holiday for those who need it. When an individual has been working for long enough in the UK and enough national insurance contributions have been made, they may also be entitled to employment and support allowance. Although “no recourse to public funds” sounds as though it means just that, it is a term of art. There are many ways in which we support the poorest and neediest in this country. We are proud to do so, and we will continue to do so.
I welcome efforts by companies such as Facebook to make the internet a safer and less misleading place. I know my right hon. Friend will agree that we cannot leave online platforms to regulate themselves, so may I urge him to allow no further delay in bringing forward the Government’s response to the online harms White Paper consultation and legislation that will enable this country to play the global leadership role on this that it can and should play?
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue, and I remember the interest that he has taken in online harms. They are an evil. There is a real risk that, during the lockdown, terrible things have been going on behind closed doors and closed curtains in this country on the internet. We had a summit on the matter in No. 10 recently, and we are working at pace, as he knows, on new legislation against online harms.
I am concerned about the behaviour of some companies, and many colleagues in the House will have received similar representations from their constituents. I do not want to single anyone out, but it is important that companies recognise that the Government —the taxpayer—have gone to huge lengths to help and to put our arms around UK business. They should do what they can as well to look after their workers in very difficult times, because those workers will stand them in good stead when the economy turns up again.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I have the incredible Chatterley Whitfield colliery. Once the beating heart of the industrial revolution, Chatterley is now, sadly, at risk of being lost. Will my right hon. Friend support me, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Historic England and the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield to protect and preserve this historic landmark by creating an industrial heritage park to stimulate tourism, create new green jobs and memorialise the history from the pits to the pots?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield colliery on the ambition that he has just outlined for a heritage park. It is a proposal that he needs to work up in more detail and bring to the Government, and we will certainly look at it with interest.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that as our country emerges from this crisis, we have an opportunity to be bold in putting innovation at the centre of our response, to support high-growth sectors such as green energy and FinTech, and also to use innovative financial solutions such as social impact bonds as a tool in delivering our levelling-up agenda?
Yes. My hon. Friend may not believe it, but when I was the Mayor of London we pioneered social impact bonds to tackle the most entrenched rough sleepers and to give value to companies and charities for their success in dealing with that terrible problem. I am proud to say that those social impact bond schemes are now being used in seven projects across the country to tackle rough sleeping. We have made huge progress in dealing with rough sleeping. The number of rough sleepers has been a scar on our consciences. It has got much, much better over the crisis, but we must make sure it does not recur.
Beef farmers in my constituency produce high-quality products in which consumers can have confidence because our farmers can demonstrate lifelong traceability of their cattle. Their efforts, however, are undermined by labelling legislation in this country, which allows beef from anywhere in the world to be labelled as British beef as long as it is packaged in this country. If the Prime Minister is serious about maintaining food standards, especially in light of any future trade arrangements, will he do something to close that loophole?
Yes. If what the right hon. Gentleman says is indeed the case—I am sure that he knows exactly whereof he speaks—I can only say that it must be one of those things that is currently governed by the laws of the EU, to which he is bound to return an independent Scotland, should that catastrophe ever arise. On this side of the House, we intend to take advantage of the freedoms that we have—the freedoms that the British people have decided to take back—to make sure that Scottish beef farmers have the protections that they need.
I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the urgent matter of coronavirus.
Yesterday’s treatment breakthrough shows that British science is among the best in the world. As a nation, we can be incredibly proud of our scientists. The UK is home to the best clinical trials, the most advanced immunology research, and the most promising vaccine development work of any country. We have backed the science from the start, and I am sure the whole House welcomes the life-saving breakthrough that was announced yesterday. Today, I will briefly update the House on all three aspects of that national scientific effort.
First, on clinical trials, our recovery programme, which looks at the effects of existing treatments in real-world hospital settings, is the largest of its kind. As of yesterday, 11,547 NHS patients had been recruited to the programme, which is operating across 176 sites in all four nations. In Oxford University’s dexamethasone trial, over 2,000 NHS covid patients were given a course of the drug—a commonly used steroid—over 10 days. For patients who were ill enough to require oxygen, the risk of dying fell by a fifth, and for the most seriously ill patients on mechanical ventilators, the risk of dying fell by over a third.
This is an important moment in the fight against this virus, and the first time that anyone in the world has clinically proven that a drug can improve the survival chances for the most seriously ill coronavirus patients. In February we began the trial, supported by £25 million of Government funding, and in March we began recruiting patients, and started the process of building a stockpile in case the trial was successful. As of today, we have 240,000 doses in stock, and on order. That means that treatment is immediately available, and already in use on the NHS. I am incredibly proud that this discovery has happened right here in Britain, through a collaboration between the Government, the NHS, and some of our top scientists. It is not by any means a cure, but it is the best news we have had.
Throughout this crisis, our actions have been guided by the science, and that is what good science looks like: randomised control trials; rigorous and painstaking research; moving at pace, yet getting it right. The result is that we now have objective proof—not anecdotes, but proof—that this drug saves lives, and that knowledge will benefit many thousands of people all around the world.
Seven other drugs are currently being trialled as part of the recovery process, and a further nine drugs are in live clinical trials as part of the ACCORD programme, which is looking at early-stage treatments. We look forward to seeing the results of those trials. I thank everyone involved in that process, and put on the record my thanks to our deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who led the work in Government, as well as to NHS clinicians, the scientific teams, and the participants in the trial who took the drug before they knew that it worked.
Our immunology research, again, is world leading. Last month I announced a new antibody testing programme to help us understand the immunological response to the disease, and whether someone acquires resistance to coronavirus once they have had it and recovered. I am part of that programme, and as of yesterday, 592,204 people have had an NHS antibody test. The nature of immunity research means that it takes time, and we must wait to see whether someone with antibodies gets reinfected. However, with every test, we improve our picture of where the virus has been, and we grow the evidence to discover whether people who have had the disease and have antibodies are at lower risk of getting or transmitting the virus again.
Crucially, that work will help to inform how we deploy a vaccine, and it is moving at pace. Earlier this week Imperial College began its first phase of human clinical trials, and 300 participants will receive doses of the vaccine. Should they develop a promising response, Imperial will move to a large phase-3 trial later this year. Yesterday, AstraZeneca signed a deal for the manufacture of the Oxford vaccine, AZD-1222, which is the world’s most advanced vaccine under development. Its progress, while never certain, is promising.
None of that happened by accident. It happened because the British Government, scientists, and the NHS put in place a large-scale, programmatic, comprehensive, well-funded, systematic, rigorous, science-led system of research and innovation. We have been working on it since the moment we first heard of coronavirus. There is more to do in this national effort, but that is how we will win the battle. We will leave no stone unturned as we search for the tools to hunt down, control, and ultimately defeat this dreadful disease.
May I just say to the Secretary of State that he has gone way over the allocated time? It would have been easier for him to make a statement rather than having to have an urgent question. In future, perhaps he could come forward with a statement if he needs the extra time, and I will certainly grant that and support him in doing so. Some extra time for Jonathan Ashworth as well, and for Philippa Whitford.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I welcome the news from the Secretary of State about Dexamethasone. As he said, this is an important moment and good news, and I congratulate all those involved. It is a reminder that we can be immensely proud of our science base in this country. I note what the Secretary of State said about vaccinations. A vaccine is crucial, and I hope he will join me—I am sure he will—in saying that when a vaccine is available, we must have no truck with those who spread poisonous anti-vax propaganda on social media. Vaccinations save lives, and ultimately that will be the exit strategy from this dreadful, horrific disease.
The good news is tempered by the high death rate. The Prime Minister likes to boast of flattening the sombrero, and it is certainly true that deaths from hospitalisations are coming down, but we still have 58,000 excess deaths across England and 13,000 in care homes; and 300 health and care staff have sadly lost their lives. All our NHS staff deserve great praise, so may I ask the Health Secretary about a specific matter that has emerged in the past couple of days? Why are student nurses who joined the frontline six months ago as part of the coronavirus effort now seeing their paid placement schemes terminated early, leaving them with no income? That is no way to treat student nursing staff.
This week, the World Health Organisation has warned that the UK remains in a “very active phase of the pandemic”.
The right hon. Gentleman will accept that if a second wave comes, especially if it coincides with flu season, that would be completely disastrous. Can he reassure the House that the decisions that he and the Prime Minister are making on easing lockdown measures, such as the mooted relaxation of the 2-metre rule and the opening of non-essential retail this week, will not precipitate a deadly second wave of the virus? Would he update us on the latest thinking on that by the Home Department? In the past, the right hon. Gentleman has said that he is prepared to institute local lockdowns, but local authorities continue to say that they do not have the resources or powers to enforce that. Can he update us on when he will give local authorities powers to enforce those lockdowns?
Yesterday, the Health Service Journal said that for people in the shielding group, shielding will come to an end at the end of July. We were promised a full update on shielding on 15 June, two days ago. Can the right hon. Gentleman update the House now on what is happening and what the future is for the shielding group with regards to getting their medicines and supplies and whether they will be able to leave their homes by the end of July?
We have always said that testing, tracing and isolating is crucial to the safe easing of the lockdown. On testing, local authorities say that they are still not getting the specific test data that they need. Indeed, the Deloitte contract, as confirmed in a written answer from the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, did not specify that it needed to report test results to GPs and local directors of public health. We need to fix that.
Why is the right hon. Gentleman still not publishing the number of people who have been tested, and can he explain something that is puzzling many of us? The tracing figures that he revealed—we are grateful for them—suggested that 8,000 people went into the contact tracing system in England, but in that week, the Government testing figures said that there were around 12,500 positive cases in the UK. Even if we can make an assumption about how many of those cases are in England, that still suggests that there are around 2,000, perhaps 3,000, cases not being traced and contacted. Can he explain why that is and what he is going to do to fix it?
Finally, we have now seen Public Health England recommendations on the impact of covid on those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Those recommendations are welcome. Many of them, such as mandated ethnicity data collection and recordings on death certificates, should have been done years ago, but when will those recommendations be implemented? Black people are nearly four times as likely to die from covid as white people, and over 90% of doctors who have died during the pandemic were from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, so surely this is a matter of urgency. We cannot wait, and we need those recommendations to be implemented straight away.
I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can. First, I concur entirely that we should have no truck with anti-vaccination campaigners. The reason we are working so hard with full-blown clinical trials on these vaccines is to ensure that they are safe, and if they are declared scientifically safe, anyone who is recommended to have one should have one.
The hon. Gentleman made a case on student nurses. It is wrong to suggest that student nurses and midwives are being made redundant. All student nurses and midwives are required to complete placements during their training. As part of the response to covid-19, those hours have been paid and will be until the end of the summer. NHS England has been provided with the funding for student salaries as part of our response to covid-19. The chief nurse has taken that forward.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about local authorities getting data. We have provided more data to them, and we will continue to do more. He asked about the steps that will be taken in future on lifting the lockdown. As ever, we will move carefully and cautiously. Thankfully, all the main indexes—the main ways that we measure this disease—are moving in the right direction. We are winning the battle against this disease, but we will be careful and cautious in the next steps that we take.
We are working very closely with local authorities on local lockdowns. The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the point about powers, as he has before. I have powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020, passed by this Parliament. If powers are needed by local authorities, then there is a process to raise that requirement up through a command chain that leads to a gold command, which I chair, and then those powers can be executed on behalf of local authorities if they are needed.
The hon. Gentleman asked about shielding. We will bring forward the proposals for the next steps on shielding very shortly.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the positive cases that do not go into the NHS test and trace scheme. That is largely because they are in-patients in hospital, and therefore testing and tracing in the normal sense does not apply because we know exactly where the person is and who has been in contact with them as they have been in hospital, in a controlled environment. That is the case for the large majority of the gap.
On that last point, 20% of the people with coronavirus in hospital are estimated to have caught the virus while in hospital. So when does the Health Secretary plan to introduce weekly testing of all frontline NHS and care home staff as a way of bridging the still very significant gap between the number of people we test and trace and the number of people getting the infection every week?
The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee makes an incredibly important point. The approach we are taking is a targeted one of repeat testing, which has started already but needs to spread much further. The reason is that some people in hospital settings are at higher risk, and it is better to focus the resources for repeat testing on those at higher risk. For instance, somebody working in finance might be at lower risk than somebody in a frontline setting. The NHS has a strategy on this, and I will write to him with further details of how that is going to work.
I, too, welcome the positive outcome of the recovery trial showing the contribution of dexamethasone—a drug that is cheap and accessible across the world.
Despite claiming to be well prepared for this epidemic, the Secretary of State has struggled to provide sufficient personal protective equipment to NHS staff in England. He has now awarded £350 million of PPE contracts, but can he explain why £108 million of that was awarded, without being advertised, to Crisp Websites Ltd, which trades as PestFix, a small pest extermination company? Why was such a large contract awarded to a company with no expertise in trading or supplying any PPE, let alone highly specialised equipment for NHS staff? How do the Government think that such a small company, with only £18,000 of registered assets, can manage the cash flow required to procure £108 million-worth of PPE? Is this not just a reprise of the Seaborne Freight scandal—the ferry company with no ships?
No. We have enhanced, under the leadership of Lord Deighton, the supplies of PPE across the whole United Kingdom. I work very closely with the SNP Government on this matter. We have made sure that PPE is now available, in large part, across the whole NHS and social care workforce, and for all those others who need it. Demand for PPE rose exponentially across the world in this crisis. It was difficult for a time—there is no point denying that—but we have made huge strides in ensuring that we now have long-term contracts in place. I am really glad that the supply and distribution of PPE is much wider.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his science-led strategy, from which we are now reaping the dividends and which is genuinely saving lives. But the science also tells that as we reduce the propensity of the virus in the population, we can also reduce the social distancing that we applied. Businesses, residents and teachers across Arundel and South Downs are united in their appetite to move to 1 metre as quickly and as carefully as possible. Will he update us on that?
The answer is that we keep all of our non-pharmaceutical interventions—the social distancing measures—under review. The 2-metre rule is another social distancing measure in the same way that other parts of the lockdown have been. It is the sort of thing that, of course, we want to lift, but we need to do that in a way that is careful and safe. The scientists, along with the economists, are reviewing it, and we will take forward further measures on this when it is possible and safe to do so.
I declare an interest as vice-chair of the all-party group on pancreatic cancer. My colleague the other vice-chair is the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), whom you referred to earlier on, Mr Speaker. After discussions with other Members, I am glad to hear that she is showing some improvement. Very clearly, Mr Speaker, that is an answer to our prayers.
The Secretary of State has been made aware of the concerns of the leading cancer charities, which say that it is estimated that 2.4 million people are waiting for cancer screening due to the delays caused, in part, by lockdown. Can he outline his intention to implement the 12-point recovery plan, which is backed by 24 cancer charities, including the one for pancreatic cancer?
I am incredibly grateful to the cancer charities for the work that they are doing, highlighting the importance of people coming forward for screening, which has been part of the problem, and making sure that we get the screening programmes back up and running in the full sense as quickly as possible.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, although we have reached the peak of the transmission later than other areas, the virus is in decline in the midlands, and my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent are safe to go out and shop and can do so as long as they follow social distancing guidelines?
Yes, that is right. In the midlands, as in other parts of the country, this virus is abating. The number of cases is coming down, which is good news. That means that we were able to relax some of the social distancing measures, for instance, on Monday, saying that it is perfectly safe for people to go and shop and that the shops can open so long as they do so in a covid-secure way. I am glad to say that the vast, vast majority of shops have been very careful about how they have reopened, making sure that that social distancing is in place, and therefore it is safe to shop in the west midlands and in the rest of the country.
One in six people in the UK have hearing loss and rely on lip reading and facial expressions to communicate. The use of face coverings, while important for controlling the virus, is a real barrier for them and risks increasing misunderstanding, anxiety and isolation. That is particularly the case when they are used in hospitals. What is the Secretary of State doing to accelerate the development, testing, production and use of clear-panel face masks, including for clinical settings, and, more immediately, will he support a public awareness campaign on good communication tactics?
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that matter. It is a really important consideration. I have been talking to audiologists in the NHS about what we can do to try to make sure that we have the least negative impact as possible. Obviously, a face covering has an impact on people who are lip reading. It is an unfortunate but entirely natural consequence of wearing a face covering, and anything that we can do to mitigate that, I am up for doing.
Remarkable consultants, doctors, nurses, support staff and domestic workers at Princess Alexandra Hospital in my constituency of Harlow have saved and nursed back to health more than 270 patients from this awful coronavirus. Will my right hon. Friend pay special tribute to the workers at Princess Alexandra Hospital and the management team and also confirm—because of the pressures on that hospital—that we will get our new hospital and a new site as soon as possible?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend is the greatest friend that there is to the Princess Alex Hospital in Harlow. He has campaigned on it absolutely rigorously—ruthlessly, too—since he was first elected. First, I pay tribute to all the frontline staff and support staff, who have worked so hard at the Princess Alex through this crisis, for their service. Secondly, I reconfirm that we will rebuild the Alex and make sure that it is a world-class hospital.
One of the recommendations of the now fully published Public Health England report into the impact of covid-19 on the BAME community is that the Government should look to reduce health inequalities, and fast. This is something the Welsh Labour Government are taking seriously, with a comprehensive risk assessment of BAME workers devised by Professor Keshav Singhal being rolled out across the NHS in Wales. The risk assessment is simple to use, produces clear outcomes and will save lives. Can the Secretary of State outline exactly how and when a comprehensive risk assessment will be implemented in England to protect our BAME communities and prove that black lives really do matter?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. We are rolling out a risk assessment across England for all those with a higher risk of suffering from coronavirus, including BAME staff in the NHS in England, who do so much to keep the service on its feet.
The impact of coronavirus has been significantly greater in less affluent areas, such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, where one in four children have free school meals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tackling the health inequalities in constituencies such as mine is essential if we are to make progress on the issue of inequality of opportunity?
I agree 100%. The need to level up is no greater than in health inequalities. The differences in life expectancy between different parts of our country is stark and has been laid bare further by this crisis. The crisis has been like sheet lightning that has laid a light on some of the health inequalities that were there before but which must with increased urgency be addressed. That is one of the big learnings from this crisis. It is something we all knew before but which we must redouble our efforts to resolve after this crisis is over.
Last Friday, it was confirmed that the UK was eligible to participate in a European scheme to place advanced orders for vaccines currently in development and to ensure priority access to any successful vaccine. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the potential merits of UK participation in such a scheme?
We are having such discussions—I have had conversations with my German, French and Italian counterparts on exactly this subject—but the most important thing is that we will not let those discussions get in the way of the much more advanced discussions we are having directly with the vaccine producers to make sure that even if the two great British vaccine hopes do not come off, or if one from somewhere else in the world comes off first, we have access to a vaccine for citizens across the UK.
It is fantastic news for the whole country that Oxford University has successfully trialled a drug to reduce mortality rates by up to one third for covid patients on ventilation. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that will be made available soon so that the people of North Cornwall can benefit from it as part of the wider NHS?
Any reduction at all in social distancing inevitably carries a risk of increasing the spread of the disease, so can the Secretary of State give an assurance that before the Government announce any reduction, he will publish his assessment of the public health, transmission and infection implications of any such change?
The drug trial breakthrough is fantastic news and will save a huge number of lives, and it is great news that, as the Secretary of State said just now, the drug treatment is already available on the NHS. On the vaccination trials, it is great that Britain is leading the world, but this is a global problem. What steps are we taking to work with vaccination trials across the world so that we can get a vaccine as soon as possible?
That is a really important point. Not only do we contribute more to the global vaccination funding programme than any other country—and we hosted the GAVI summit, which raised over £8 billion for global vaccine research—but we are engaged with other countries on the two British vaccine candidates, particularly the Oxford one, because it is so much further advanced. It is the most advanced in the world and the soonest hope for a vaccine, should it come off—touch wood; none of these things is certain. We secured early doses here in the UK, and it was confirmed yesterday that these are being manufactured, with the contract agreed between AstraZeneca and the manufacturer. AstraZeneca is now engaging with countries across the world—in Europe, in the United States where a deal has already been signed, and elsewhere—to ensure that, if the vaccine works, it will be available globally.
All of us who grew up in Wythenshawe are very proud of Marcus Rashford today. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Health Foundation that people facing the greatest deprivation have a higher rate of exposure to covid and more severe outcomes when they contract the virus? Wythenshawe residents are twice as likely to die as those in neighbouring areas.
Yes, I do agree. I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford. The way he has conducted himself in making his argument has been absolutely brilliant. I was reading Harry Potter to my son last night, and it was clearly still stuck in my mind at 7 o’clock this morning, when I started on the TV. We all make errors sometimes, and I apologise to Marcus for getting his name wrong on one occasion. I had no reason to make that mistake, but what really matters is his brilliant campaign and the volunteering that he has done throughout this crisis.
It is great news that steroids can save some lives, and I pay tribute to those involved, but as the Secretary of State has said, many people will not get a treatment that works. He says that there are seven other treatments in tests, which presumably started at a similar time, using different groups and families of drugs with different impacts. When will we know the results of those?
As soon as possible. The trials will also look at whether, in combination with dexamethasone, which we now know is effective, these drugs save lives. The way the trials work is that we will keep the treatments in trial until we know, to a point of rigorous scientific proof, that they work. As soon as that point is reached, we will roll them out. That point was met on Monday; I was told on Monday night about this success. We had stockpiled in advance, so we could immediately make the announcement and make the change through the NHS. I do not have a date, because it is all driven by the science.
The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been marked by complacency. Complacency led to NHS cuts and PPE stockpile shortages; complacency led to a delayed lockdown, the disaster in care homes and the neglect of test, track and trace. We have one of the highest death tolls in the worlds, and scientists say that tens of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. Will the Secretary of State end the complacency, put public health before private profit, and ease lockdown only when it is safe to do so?
We will of course ease lockdown only when it is safe to do so, but had the hon. Lady listened to my statement, she would know that the case I was making was that right at the start we put the science in place and started to stockpile. We gave scientists support and funding so they could deliver on the sort of research on which we have led the world and delivered ahead of anybody else.
Despite the virus being with us since January, it took until mid-April for the Government to issue guidance for routine testing to take place before discharge into care homes, and now, regardless of whether or not people have the virus, homes are still expected to take residents. Every week, I speak to distressed staff and heartbroken families. Over 16,000 people have died in our care homes. Does the Secretary of State accept any responsibility for that?
I accept responsibility for everything that happens across the health and social care piece. It is incredibly important to work with care homes, as we have, and to fund care homes, as we have, to put in place infection control. Of course, being in hospital is also not a safe place for people who do not need to be in hospital. The infection control procedures are now there in care homes, with the funding, and that has been the case since the start—since well before the date the hon. Lady mentioned. Although the challenge in care homes has been very significant, we have thankfully seen in this country a lower proportion of overall fatalities from this disease in our care homes than in those across the rest of Europe. That is a good thing, but that is not to say that there have not been significant challenges.
Co-trimoxazole is another the prospect that we are looking at, but I am afraid that, as with my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), the timing has to be driven by the science. If we get success, when a result in which the clinicians have scientific confidence can be met, we will stick with the clinical trial methodology that leads to concrete results. Too many other places around the world have pulled clinical trials early because of promising results that have turned out not to be well founded.
The Fawcett Society has completed an important report that addresses the mental health issues of women with disabilities during this pandemic. As chair of the all-party group on disability, I am particularly concerned that the report found anxiety and isolation in more than 50% of respondents. Will the Secretary of State increase funding to mental health providers, with a view to helping disabled people to access the specialist support that they so crucially need?
The hon. Lady asks an important question. We have been increasing funding to mental health services, which are an incredibly important part of the response. Our mental health services, certainly across England, the area for which I am responsible, have risen admirably to the extraordinary challenge presented by coronavirus and I pay tribute to their work.
I represent a number of aerospace manufacturing companies; the whole sector is currently very hard hit and is particularly worried about the impact of the 14-day quarantine. The Secretary of State will know far better than I, but is it not possible to do very simple temperature checks on people as they come into this country?
I have looked into that idea in great detail, and I am afraid that I am advised, and have been persuaded by that advice, that it will not work. It has been tried in other parts of the world and they have found that the number of false positives is very high, meaning that they end up quarantining more people. The number of false negatives is also very high, so such checks actually find very few of the people they are looking for. I am afraid it is not a recommendation that I feel I could make on the current evidence that I have seen.
First, I would rather not see any new infection coming to the UK. Secondly, on a point of policy, the approach that we are taking is to ensure that we protect this country from the incidence of disease coming in from abroad, and also to look at travel corridors when we can be confident that we can have that travel without reimporting the virus.
The chief executive of the Nuffield Trust has written:
“Even if a second wave is prevented, resuming routine hospital, primary care and dental services…is going to be all but impossible without a vaccine.”
The Secretary of State will be aware that losing such vital services will simply lead to lives being lost through a variety of other causes, so what discussions has he held with healthcare professionals about a medium to long-term strategy to allow vital services to resume under the changed conditions of the new normal?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the British Army units based in my constituency, in Wiltshire, on the support that they have given to the NHS in coping with the crisis on logistics, building the Nightingale hospitals and so on? Does he welcome the new spirit of collaboration and openness by the NHS, which has shown a great willingness to collaborate with other parts of the public sector? Can we hope that that might be sustained?
Yes, it must. I agree with my hon. Friend strongly on both counts. The Army and all the armed services have played a huge role in responding to this crisis, on the logistics, the delivery of testing, the building of Nightingale hospitals right across the UK and much more. The NHS has worked like never before with organisations public and private outwith it, and that culture of openness, porous borders and working collaboratively with councils, the armed services, private companies and the rest of Government has been a huge step forward for the NHS and one that we should never take back.
Research from Harvard and Queen Mary University clearly shows a dramatic increase in the level of deaths and infections from covid-19 in higher pollution areas. Given that BAME communities tend to live in higher pollution areas, will the Secretary of State accept that this is a major factor in their disproportionate death rate? What is he doing with colleagues to ensure that we have low pollution levels as we come out of covid? Will he meet me to consider proposals from scientists, businesses, academics and local authorities, published by the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution, on a strategy for coming out of lockdown with low air pollution to reduce death and infection rates?
The hon. Gentleman—he is my hon. Friend when it comes to air pollution—and I share a passion for clean air. He is right about deaths being correlated with areas of high air pollution. We are looking at the reasons behind the disproportionate number of BAME deaths, and we will take air pollution into account in that work. On the final point, it is a bit like an earlier question asked by one of my hon. Friends from a completely different angle—some things have got better in this crisis. Overall, of course, the crisis has been terrible, but some things have got better. One is air pollution. Let us cling on to that and redouble our efforts to keep clean air for the future
During the covid crisis, the relaxation of constraints on data sharing has enabled my local hospital, Stepping Hill, Stockport Council and other bodies such as the CCG and partners to work together. The information sharing that they have been able to do has given a better service to patients. Is that something we could take forward? Perhaps a report could be commissioned by the Department or the National Audit Office on the benefits of enhanced data sharing.
Yes. This is the third question in a row on some of the benefits we have learnt about during the coronavirus crisis. We made clear at the start of the crisis that data-sharing rules should not get in the way of treatments that can improve and save lives. That has had a hugely positive impact on people’s capability to treat individuals and do research, and we will not be going back on that. The one pager that we put out to the whole NHS on how to manage information governance in a way that keeps information secure but does not get caught up by some of the out-of-date data protection rules that had been followed will stay. Indeed, I hope to strengthen it in order that data can be better used right across the NHS.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving us this update. Groups such as Links Counselling in my constituency report that referrals to children and adolescent mental health services are down as much as 50% in some areas during lockdown, which he will agree is very concerning. Can he outline what recent assessments have been made of the impact of covid-19 on children and young people’s mental health—specifically the impact of school closures—and what steps he will take alongside the devolved regions to address this vital issue?
This is a vital issue and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. We have to ensure that we have the mental health services and that, crucially, people come forward for support for their mental health if they need it. We have found in paediatric mental health that telemedicine—treatment and psychiatry over a screen—can in fact be more effective than face-to-face treatment, because it is easier to do it in one’s own home rather than having to go through the worry and concern of travelling. That is an interesting and important finding. We have to make sure that we seize those benefits, as well as, of course, ensuring that people come forward and that the availability of mental health treatment is there.
In Buckinghamshire and the south-east, accident and emergency activity is still down by about 22%, and cancer referrals are running at about 60% of the baseline average. Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending out a clear message once more that if people think something is wrong and they need medical treatment, our incredible NHS is open and they should seek the help they need?
Yes. The NHS is open and we need people to help us to help them by coming forward, especially if they have a fear of cancer, heart disease, stroke or any of the predictive signs of a much more serious illness. On A&Es, we have seen a very sharp decline in the number. We want people who need emergency treatment to come forward. The sharpest decline has been in the number of people attending with the lowest acuity problems. They may be able to find healthcare more appropriately elsewhere. People should consider carefully whether they really need to go to A&E. Instead, it may be beneficial to call 111.
Further to that question, there are two other aspects of the coronavirus lockdown. First, a lot more people are using bicycles, which has led to a very significant increase in the number of head injuries, in particular to children who are not wearing helmets. Some areas are reporting that the total this year has already exceeded the total they had for the whole of last year. Secondly, a lot more people are in the open air and in the sun. Many of them are not covering up and getting sunburnt, which is a real danger in terms of future skin cancers. Can the Secretary of State please start two specific pieces of work: on skin cancer and ensuring we get the right message out about covering up in the sun; and on wearing a helmet and looking after people who have had brain injuries?
Yes. I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about what we can do in those two areas, on which I know he has campaigned very hard. The one thing I would say on the positive side is that over the past few months the early signs are that the likelihood of dying as a 5 to 14-year-old has probably been at its lowest ever. It has been much safer in lockdown because, for instance, there are far fewer road traffic accidents and because the likelihood of dying from coronavirus as a child is very, very low. Overall, it has been a safe time if measured by that ultimate measure of how many children have died. It is much lower than usual, which is a good thing, but he is right to raise the points he does.
Over 10,000 people in the UK, including my wife, suffer from cystic fibrosis. Coronavirus adds a significant risk to CF patients, who already have a limited life expectancy. CF sufferers and their families were offered a significant lifeline when the Secretary of State agreed to fund the lifesaving drug Orkambi last year, but there is a new drug called Trikafta that has been granted a licence in the US. This is a wonder drug that will extend the lives of CF patients. The father of Sarah Jayne Lilliman, from Eastwood in my constituency, who sadly passed away a few years ago, has asked if the Secretary of State can assure the CF community in the UK that he will do all he can to make sure this drug is available and extend the lives of thousands of people.
Yes, I will do absolutely everything I can. I did not know that my hon. Friend’s wife suffered from cystic fibrosis. I am absolutely determined to make this happen. I worked really hard with the CF community to land Orkambi and I was very proud when we managed to do that. Thank goodness we did that before coronavirus struck, because for many who caught coronavirus it was literally a lifeline. Trikafta has great promise: it promises to be able to treat almost all CF sufferers, as opposed to the approximately half that Orkambi successfully treats. I have been working on that even during the crisis and I really, really hope we can make some progress.
On 5 May, the first trial of the NHS covid-19 app started on the Isle of Wight. Since then information on the app’s development has been scarce. It has been beset by delays, with media reports suggesting that the app has some technical problems with accurately estimating distance between phones. That is worrying because the app is intended to expand contact tracing in England. When will the Health Secretary publish the results of the pilot and outline his plans for a wider roll-out of the app?
The staff at Epsom General Hospital and the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust have done a fantastic job in recent weeks dealing with the virus. The Secretary of State will know that this is one of the trusts that has a provisional allocation of funds to build a new hospital in the area. I am particularly concerned to ensure that before final decisions are taken on exactly how that money should be spent, the lessons from the pandemic are learned and any changes that need to be made as a result of what we now know and that may be needed for future hospital services are taken into account. Can he give me an assurance that he will make sure that happens?
My right hon. Friend is an incredible campaigner for Epsom General Hospital. The injection of approximately half a billion pounds into the local health economy will be a very welcome step. We absolutely have to ensure that the lessons of covid are learnt before the new development goes ahead, but I commend all those staff at the Epsom and St Helier hospitals for the work they have done, some of which has been done under great pressure. I also commend the leadership of the trust, who have done a fantastic job.
The Secretary of State did not answer the question from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), so I thought I would give him another chance. Can he explain why £108 million of the £350 million of personal protective equipment contracts was awarded, without being advertised, to Crisp Websites Ltd, which trades as PestFix, a small pest extermination company? Why was such a large contract awarded to a company with no expertise in trading or supplying any PPE, let alone highly specialised equipment for NHS staff? How do the Government think that such a small company, with only £18,000 of registered assets, can manage the cash flow required to procure £108 million of PPE?
When the demand for PPE shot up, as it did not only here, but around the world, we worked with so many companies to deliver extra PPE, and we have managed to deliver on what was needed. That is why we have now the medium-term supply chains in prospect. I pay tribute to all my commercial team, who did extraordinary and sometimes innovative things in order to make that happen, and that is what they did.
From the very beginning, clinicians in every developed country in the world have thrown the entire contents of the medical cabinet at this disease in the hope of finding something that works. To what does the Health Secretary attribute the success that he has reported today?
I attribute the success to great British science, Government-supported funding, the NHS, and the three working together. I put it down to British ingenuity in our brilliant university base, combined with the funding that we put in right at the start and with the fact that with the NHS we can get easy access to a very large patient base, which means we have the biggest clinical trials in the world. In addition, crucially, when we were under pressure and others around were saying, “Hydroxychloroquine is going to solve all your problems”, we stuck with the clinical trials and with the science, and we have successfully delivered this one treatment. It is not a cure, it is a treatment, but it is a good stride down the road.
The Secretary of State mentioned student nurses who were taken on for six-month extended clinical placements back in March and said that he would continue to pay them until the end of the summer. Can he just clarify for the House that that means the full six-month contracts will be honoured? Many of these nurses gave up other paid jobs and will be left in hardship if they do not have their contracts honoured.
Loneliness and isolation have been the constant companions of many over these past few weeks, so I warmly welcome the social bubbles that will help ease them. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking my constituents Tracy Carr of Talk It Out, Beverley-Jayne Last of Super Neighbours, and the occupational therapist Justine Norris, who have been working tirelessly over the past few weeks to support the mental health and wellbeing of so many people at home during this pandemic?
My hon. Friend speaks movingly of the support that so many have given, and her three constituents deserve our praise for their work—along with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others—to support those who have been living alone. Whether the 2.2 million people who are shielding because they are clinically extremely vulnerable, or the over 8 million people who live on their own and therefore have had to stay on their own during lockdown, this has been a difficult time for many. I pay tribute to the community spirit and support for others that so many have demonstrated.
The link between poverty and poor mental health is well understood. As the covid easing continues, we face the prospect of an economic depression the likes of which we have not seen since perhaps the 1930s, and ahead looms the potential for a post-covid mental health pandemic. What specific and additional resources is he prepared to commit to alleviate that risk?
Nobody wants to see the sort of economic consequences that we have already seen—even if there are more to come—but we have to take these measures in order to tackle this pandemic. We have put extra support into mental health, and more is to come. It is a really important part of the solution.
This is the first opportunity that I have had on the behalf of my constituents to thank publicly the Secretary of State, his ministerial team, the entire civil service team and all their families for what they have contributed in this national effort. I thank all those people through him.
Local authorities in Bedfordshire have the highest incidence rate of coronavirus across the east of England. The Secretary of State said in his statement that the processes are in place to escalate concerns if there needs to be a local lockdown, but there are local concerns about the availability of local data. What is the current state of localised data? What efforts is he making to improve its availability?