House of Commons
Tuesday 1 September 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
The House will know that a Member has been arrested in connection with an investigation into an allegation of a very serious criminal offence. I have received assurances from the Member and from the Government Chief Whip that the Member has voluntarily agreed not to attend the House of Commons for the period of bail.
I, the House of Commons Commission and the House Service take the safety of our staff and of the parliamentary community as a whole very seriously and are ensuring that any necessary measures are taken in respect of MPs, employees and staff. All Members and staff have access to the Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service by contacting the new single, independent ICGS helpline and should not hesitate to use it.
While the investigation is ongoing, I believe that it would be wholly inappropriate for any further reference to be made to this matter in the House, including any attempt to name the Member concerned. I would appreciate your co-operation on this matter.
Oral Answers to Questions
Health and Social Care
The Secretary of State was asked—
NHS Test and Trace
NHS Test and Trace is consistently reaching tens of thousands of people who need to isolate each week. In the latest week’s data, 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided. Since its launch, we have reached over 300,000 people who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus and transmitting it, to ensure that they keep themselves safe and keep their community safe.
Scientists in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have continually warned that, for the test and trace system to be successful, 80% of people in contact with those who have covid must be reached. We are well off that target, I am afraid to say. Will the Secretary of State consider seeking advice from our European partners who have had a functioning system since May, or is he going to continue to allow the private sector to do this, on which it has no proven track record, and protect the interests of particular companies that certain civil servants allegedly may have links with? Are we going to see a serious approach to this?
Unlike the question, we will have a serious approach to this. I will absolutely defend to all ends the teams who work on our NHS test and trace system, the private sector companies without which this would be impossible and the civil servants who are working day and night to make this happen. I will not have disparaging remarks about civil servants, who have done so much during this pandemic, made in this House by the hon. Gentleman. I do not think he was listening to my answer, because the latest week’s data show that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided.
Cheadle residents welcome the release of the intervention measures that will take place tomorrow and the more local approach to this. Effective test and trace has been a vital part of getting us to this position and keeping the rates low. To continue with that, will the Secretary of State consider devolving the testing of cases to local authorities such as Stockport, which has a 99% rate of success?
My hon. Friend has played a very important role, and I pay tribute to her and her community for playing a role in the success of the local action that we had to take in Stockport and other parts of Greater Manchester, which meant that we were able to release the measures last week. I am grateful for her work, the work of her council and other local leaders and, most importantly, the people of Stockport, who have worked hard and followed the rules, and the case rate is coming down. She is right that the integration of a national system that can move fast at scale and a local system, which can often reach more contacts because there are boots on the ground and people who know the communities inside out, is critical.
In my right hon. Friend’s assessment, how does our track and trace programme compare with those of other countries, and what lessons are we learning from countries such as Germany and South Korea, which seem to be having some success with their systems?
Of course we learn the lessons, and I talk to my international counterparts, including those in Germany and South Korea. Compared with international systems, with the figures that I just read out, we are absolutely in the top tranche, and we are constantly looking all around the world to see how we can improve the operation of test and trace.
Devon’s director of public health has confirmed that we in North Devon have had no statistically significant increase in cases as a result of the return of tourism. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that test and trace will ensure that that remains the case?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for everything she has done to stick up for North Devon at this difficult time. I am really pleased that there is no evident increase in covid in Devon as a result of tourism. So many people go to Devon, during the summer especially, because it is such a wonderful place. We must ensure that, through test and trace and through social distancing, which is the first line of defence against this virus, that remains the case.
Covid hit Croydon and the rest of London early and hard, but Croydon has done us proud, and the number of infections has been very low for a number of weeks, thanks to the hard work of the people in the borough. We welcome the move towards more local track and trace, where expertise and local knowledge make all the difference, but as my director of public health said to me, we have just finished the beginning of this thing and we are now starting the next chapter. One of the things that keeps her awake at night is the need for certainty about budgets for outbreak control plans beyond the end of the year. Can the Secretary of State provide some reassurance?
Absolutely. I am glad to hear what the hon. Lady says about the constantly improving integration between the national and local systems. We have worked hard to make that happen, and I am glad to hear that it is happening in Croydon, as it is in other parts of the country. The budgets in that respect are of course important, and we have been clear that financial provision will be made. I cannot make any more definitive statement than that at this stage, but it is of course an important consideration.
Since June, the Scottish public health-based tracing system has managed to trace 99.7% of positive cases and almost 99% of their contacts, yet in England the commercial Serco call centres have traced less than 60% of contacts. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether any targets are included in the £10 billion contact with Serco? If so, are they being met?
If I may correct the hon. Lady, there is no £10 billion contract with any private company. The private companies have been critical in the work to make sure that the whole testing system could be built at the scale that it has been. As I said, the improvements are continuing. We are seeing local engagement, which is critical, and we are seeing testing rolled out right across the UK. For instance, when there was a local outbreak in Aberdeen over the summer, we were able to use UK resources to get huge amounts of testing into Aberdeen, thanks to the collaborative work between the UK Government, who provided the UK testing, and the Scottish Government, who were responsible for the lockdown.
That does not address the fact that the call-centre system run by Serco has managed to contact only 60% of people’s contacts. Regional Public Health England teams have been working flat out for the past seven months and are tracing more than 95% of the cases with which they deal. Does the Secretary of State really think that the middle of a pandemic is a good time to be threatening the job security of those teams with a huge reorganisation?
The answer to the first part of the hon. Lady’s question is that when we are trying to reach scale fast, we use the national system. That then engages with the local system—for instance, in Croydon, as we just heard—so that we can get the boots on the ground to find those contacts who cannot be contacted through the national system. It is the combination of the two that works best. As for making sure that our systems are in the best possible place to tackle coronavirus going forward, I absolutely think that it is right constantly to be seeking to make improvements to how things operate, which is why I announced the changes that I did.
In some areas, the private companies involved in test and trace have been reaching less than half the contacts they are supposed to reach, not the 80% that the Secretary of State has claimed. We do not need an algorithm to work out that those companies’ performance, compared with that of local public health teams, is where test and trace is failing. Why, then, are the Government rewarding private sector failure by extending the contracts?
As I have just explained, the test and trace system at the national level makes the immediate and rapid first attempt at contact. If no contact is made, the local teams can then go in. It is the combination of the two that works best. I really think that the Opposition —especially coming from the Front-Bench team—are making a mistake in trying to divide people between public and private. Actually, everybody is working very hard together to deliver the control of this virus.
NHS and Social Care Resources: Winter 2020-21
We recognise that there will be increased pressures on the NHS and social care during winter, and substantial preparations have been and are being made. The NHS has already published its winter plan, and we will shortly publish the winter plan for social care.
That is exactly why there is a need for significant additional funding to prepare for a surge this winter, and that has to include a fully funded pay rise for health and care staff. At the height of the crisis, the Secretary of State was saying, “Now is not the time to consider a pay rise.” When will the time be? Is it now or some time in the future?
As I expect the hon. Gentleman knows, we have announced £3 billion of additional NHS funding for the winter and are continually looking at additional funding needs for social care.
There is a looming mental health crisis this winter, and as such it is vital to meet with experts. I know the Secretary of State believes that that is important, so I asked him several parliamentary questions wanting to know how many mental health trusts and organisations he had met during the first three months of lockdown. I was told that he “holds these meetings regularly”, but a freedom of information request revealed that he and the Mental Health Minister organised only two meetings with mental health trusts and organisations during that entire period. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he did not attend either of those two meetings? Does he think that is an acceptable track record?
The Secretary of State has regular meetings with stakeholders about the future of mental health.
Public Health Protection
On 18 August, I announced the establishment of a brand-new organisation to provide a world-leading approach to public health protection and resilience, the National Institute for Health Protection. It will bring together the health protection expertise of Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace under unified leadership and will start work immediately so as to boost the UK’s ability to deal with covid-19.
Everyone accepts that my right hon. Friend’s priority at the moment is fighting the invisible enemy, but with winter approaching many people will be worried about the threat of flu, so will he tell the House if there are any special arrangements for those people who want the vaccine? Does he have any further news about the reopening of all GP surgeries?
The flu vaccination programme this year will be the biggest in history. As I was going to say in my statement—I will say it now for my hon. Friend—we will be putting before the House proposals to expand the number of NHS qualified clinicians who can administer vaccinations, whether for the flu programme, which is coming, or for a covid vaccination programme, should a covid vaccine come out.
The NHS Confederation, the British Medical Association, the British Dental Association, NHS Providers, the Royal Society for Public Health and many health charities have expressed real doubts about the Secretary of State’s plans for Public Health England. It is evident that, come what may, he will have his own organisation for tackling disease and that, come what may, he will pick which of his pals he wants to lead it, but he seems to have ignored the fact that Public Health England also leads crucial work on tackling drug and alcohol misuse, reducing smoking, promoting sexual health and much more. Six weeks ago, obesity was the Prime Minister’s priority, and now the Health Secretary wants to cut the organisation that leads our fight against it. Will he end the confusion today by committing to the remaining functions of Public Health England continuing to be led by a dedicated national organisation?
The hon. Gentleman obviously did not read the announcement, because part of the purpose of having a dedicated national institute for health protection is also to ensure that the ill health prevention agenda—the health improvement agenda—is embedded in the health system, including the NHS. This is a good day to discuss this, because just this morning the NHS set out the next steps in its diabetes prevention and remission programme. Embedding the anti-obesity drive right across the health system, including the NHS, is a critical part of its future, and we are consulting widely on making sure we have the right and best organisational structure to deliver that.
NHS Capacity: Winter 2020-21
In July this year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced £3 billion of additional funding to help the NHS to address the challenges of winter. In addition, in August this year we set out an £300 million for the enhancement of urgent and emergency care capacity and to provide infection control measures.
I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for the forward-thinking measures to support winter capacity in our hospitals. We should not, however, forget the work of our hospices, which have no seasons and work compassionately all year round. Will my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State join me in visiting one of the jewels in the crown of my constituency—Mary Stevens hospice, which due to covid-19 has had to delay the official opening of its day services unit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the amazing work of hospices. She is also right to highlight the work of Mary Stevens hospice in her constituency, of which she is a great champion. I very much look forward to taking up her offer to visit.
I thank the Secretary of State for the investment into Warrington A&E announced recently. An additional £4.3 million will create a treatment plaza and, most importantly, a new paediatric A&E unit for the hospital. This investment is very welcome for the short term, but will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the longer-term issues for our hospital—plans for a better healthcare facility in Warrington South, better parking, and, in the long term, a new hospital?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to highlight the investment we are making in NHS infrastructure, as he did recently in his Warrington Guardian column. He is well known for his energetic campaigning, on behalf of his constituents, for a new hospital. Although such decisions are for the spending review, I would be very happy to meet him.
I welcome the extra £1.6 million the Government are investing in Ipswich Hospital’s A&E department ahead of the crucial winter period, but will the Minister build on this work by ensuring that the new plans for a £25 million A&E department at Ipswich Hospital are accelerated? If this were to happen, it would go some way towards alleviating my constituents’ concerns about the merger with Colchester Hospital.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I visited him earlier this year, he made a powerful case for the longer term for a new A&E department at his hospital—a cause that he has been a driving force behind. I know that the trust is keen to progress this, and I would hope and expect that it is engaging with him. Although the spending review will see the Chancellor’s final decision on spending on this, my hon. Friend’s voice is being heard loud and clear.
The capacity of Barnet Hospital to cope with winter pressure is being assisted by a brand-new modular ward with 35 beds. Can the Minister assure me that there will be continued investment in expanding NHS services in Barnet so that it can cope with any covid pressures this winter and also help to clear the backlog of people who have been waiting for treatment for other conditions?
As my right hon. Friend highlights, the new modular 35-bed ward at Barnet Hospital will add to its capacity to cope with winter pressures. More broadly, we have invested £2.5 million in Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, of which Barnet is part. She is of course right to make the case for continued investment in longer term, with her typical effectiveness and commitment to her constituency, and I am always happy to discuss that further with her.
We have developed capacity to over 200,000 antigen tests per day across the testing programme. We are planning for the next phase of testing and are committed to rapid and accessible testing at scale for everyone who needs one. Localisation of testing in accessible places is absolutely critical.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He may well be aware of the outbreak in my community of Newcastle-under-Lyme centred on Silverdale working men’s club. The outbreak appears to be under control. I praise his Department for its support, and also Staffordshire County Council. Close to 2,000 tests have been carried out, a number of those at the new local centre at Ryecroft. If I could make one suggestion based on our experience of this outbreak, it is that the online booking system needs to react more quickly to make spaces available. Spaces always have been available, but not always online. Will he comment on that?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the work he has put in over the summer to make sure that the challenges we have seen in Newcastle-under-Lyme are dealt with as well as possible. Of course, when we put in extra testing and extra mobile testing units, making sure that that is tied in with the online booking system is critical. I am very happy to work with him to resolve the specific issues in Newcastle.
Alongside the need to increase capacity, there is a real need to make sure that what is already there is working properly. In Chesterfield, I have had many people contact me over the summer to say they have been waiting four or five days to get a test result back. I have also had people who have applied online and been told to go for testing 20 or 30 miles away, when there is a testing centre in Chesterfield. With Chris Hopson of the NHS Providers organisation saying that the current system is not even
“fit for purpose, much less world class”,
will the Secretary of State tell us what he can do to ensure that the system is ready when we approach the potential increase in cases in the autumn and winter?
Of course, we are constantly working to improve the system, but as the statistics that I read out at the start of this Question Time show, we have made very significant progress over the summer. NHS test and trace is just over three months old, and is now reaching 84% of contacts when contacts are given. On testing expansion, of course when a testing site is full, people will be directed to a nearby but not immediately close testing centre. That does sometimes happen when there is an increase in demand for testing, but we try to respond by putting in more testing where it is needed and in the highest-risk areas, of which, thankfully, Chesterfield is not one.
Covid-19: Support to Scottish Government
The UK Government are supporting the covid-19 response right across the country. We have established the joint biosecurity centre, ensuring decision makers in Scotland and across the UK have the best possible information when responding to outbreaks. The UK-wide test and trace programme has significantly enhanced the ability to respond to covid-19 in Scotland, notably through the six Department-funded testing sites and 18 mobile testing units, with additional ones deployed such as the one to Aberdeen during the recent outbreak there.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. One of the things that has been welcomed in Scotland has been seeing both of Scotland’s Governments working together to fight this pandemic—for example, the British Army working with the Scottish Ambulance Service and local NHS boards to increase our testing capacity. Can he confirm that this one nation approach to tackling covid will continue in the future?
There is absolutely no doubt about the combination of the UK Government putting in place the capacity that we can get only because we are one united nation, working in concert with the Scottish Government and local councils, which have people on the ground who are in the communities. That combination is the strongest possible approach to responding to an emergency such as covid-19.
Cancer: Alternative Therapy Regulation
The Government are clear that we will do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable. We will not tolerate the false advertising of alternative cancer treatments. It is dangerous, but it is also cruel, and we will ensure penalties are handed out for any breaches of the law. While there are no plans to bring complementary therapies into regulation at present, many are registered on voluntary registers accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, ensuring patients can access safe care.
My constituent Linda died of untreated breast cancer after she had been seduced, we believe, by advertising on the internet offering alternative therapies such as scans and pastes that were actually caustic to her body. She died alone in my constituency some months ago. Will the Minister consider bringing in tough restrictions on advertising on the internet, particularly as people are accessing internet therapies more now, and also tough restrictions on the people who practise these bogus therapies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I was really saddened to hear of the death of his constituent, and fully agree that we must protect people who are often so desperate to find something that will help them and give them hope of recovery. Under the Cancer Act 1939, all advertising of cancer services and treatments is prohibited wherever advertised—online or in the paper—including complementary or alternative services and treatments that purport to be able to cure cancer. We know the role that the internet can play in spreading harmful messages about alternative treatments. It is dangerous, and I have discussed the issue in its broadest sense with my Digital, Culture, Media and Sport colleagues. I give him an assurance that we are committed, across Government, to taking any further action needed. He knows that my door is always open, and I would be happy to continue this conversation at any point.
Social Care: Covid-19
We know that those who receive social care are among the most vulnerable in our society. The Department of Health and Social Care has strived to support the sector throughout this pandemic, providing it with a sense of guidance, extra funding, and emergency supplies of personal protective equipment, and prioritising access to testing.
May I express my very sincere thanks for all the help that social care services have provided throughout this ongoing crisis, but can the Minister assure me that we have learned all the lessons from the shielding programme and that the social care sector is adequately prepared for the coming winter months?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking all those who work in social care for their commitment and compassion since the start of the pandemic. We have indeed carried out work to understand the impact of shielding on people’s health and we will shortly be publishing our winter plan for adult social care, setting out our preparations for the winter and in the event of a second wave.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that every care home in England has either received a coronavirus test or is about to receive one?
Yes, I can confirm that. Every Care Quality Commission-registered care home in England has been offered testing. Care homes for those who are over 65 and with dementia have been offered repeat testing. We have now opened up repeat testing to care homes for working age adults.
Following on from that question, Ministers initially promised weekly testing for care home staff by 6 July. They then abandoned that pledge and said that routine tests would not happen until 7 September. With more than 15,000 deaths from covid-19 in care homes so far and with winter and the flu season fast approaching, regular weekly testing of care home staff is critical. Will the Minister now guarantee that every care home will have weekly testing for their staff by Monday to help all of our loved ones in residential care keep safe?
We are indeed determined to support social care, and particularly the care homes, with repeat, regular testing. As the hon. Member knows, because we have spoken about it, there has been a delay with our repeat testing of care homes because of a particular issue with some of the test kits. That was communicated to her and to the sector. As I said in my previous answer, we have now been able to offer repeat testing to all care homes for older people, to open up the portal to those care homes with working age adults as residents, and to initiate our second round of repeat testing for the older sector.
Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He and I have had the opportunity in the past to discuss his hospital trust and I pay tribute to its work. I am conscious that his trust has faced financial challenges, running a £57 million deficit a year ago. That has now been halved, meeting the financial control total. I also understand that income levels at his trust increased by 22% from 2015-16 to last year.
I thank the Minister for replying and also for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) before the recess. May I emphasise the importance of the Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby that serves my constituency as well? It needs £150 million to £200 million of major infrastructure work to avoid infrastructure failure. I urge him to consider that and bear in mind the pressures on the trust as he considers the additional resources?
My hon. Friend quite rightly raises the Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby. He has raised it with me before, and I give him that commitment.
The Prime Minister is clear that we must care for the health of our population. In July, we published the ambitious strategy to empower adults and children to live healthier lives, taking forward actions from the previous three chapters of the childhood obesity plan and laying out a series of initiatives. It sets out an overarching campaign to reduce obesity and has measures to get the nation fitter—to protect, importantly, against covid-19, to protect the NHS, but most importantly, to improve individuals’ health and wellbeing and quality of life.
There is strong support for the Government’s ambition to reduce obesity among children and young people, in particular. There are many calls for advertising bans for broadcasters for high salt and sugar content, for example, but those are not as straightforward as is suggested, because there is the risk of driving advertising online, which is far more targeted and, as some believe, might be much more effective in communicating the message to attract people to buy those products. Does the Minister recognise that this is a complex picture that needs lots of analysis before clear policies are decided upon?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I know that as a keen marathon runner, he has a keen interest in us all keeping fit. I could not agree with him more: our children’s online watching is considerably greater than their watching of terrestrial television, and that is precisely why we have included a consultation in the online space to ensure that we have fully considered all the impacts that he just mentioned before we move forward and any changes to advertising restrictions before they are introduced.
We will deliver 50,000 more nurses for our NHS. We are increasing the number of student nursing places on degree courses and improving the experience of working in the NHS so fewer nurses leave, and we will also add to our home-grown nurses through international recruitment. I am happy to report that we now have 13,840 more nurses in the NHS than a year ago.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that the changes made by Project 2000 in 1986 led to a large group of caring people being excluded from training to be nurses? If we are to recruit many more nurses, this approach should be rethought, with recruits once again being able to learn on the job, as they did prior to 1986. This would bring nurses’ education much more in line with the Government’s recognition that university is not for all children and fulfil our objective to have apprenticeships in all walks of life.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We want all those with the capability and aspiration to become nurses to be able to do so. That is why we are supporting multiple routes to becoming a nurse. While the majority of new nurses take the university route, another option is the degree apprenticeship, which enables students to earn while they learn. Last month, we announced a £172 million funding package to double the number of nursing apprenticeships.
I am delighted to hear that we are successfully recruiting into the nursing profession. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just school leavers, but dedicated and caring people of all ages and diverse working backgrounds who have the transferable skills needed to start nursing qualifications? Will she outline what steps her Department is taking to engage with these individuals and encourage them to consider nursing as a vocation?
I completely agree that nursing should be open to all men and women from diverse backgrounds. Our £5,000 grant to all nursing degree students, starting this autumn, will help students with the cost of that degree course. In addition to the apprenticeships route that I just mentioned, in January we are launching an online blended nursing degree to give another route into nursing.
Diabetes Screening: Covid-19
Diabetic eye screening has continued throughout the pandemic for those at the highest risk. NHS England and NHS Improvement are working closely with service providers to ensure that where services took the decision to reschedule screening appointments during the pandemic, those services are restored as soon as it is safely possible to do so in order to minimise any risk to individual patients and with appointments based on clinical need.
It is nice to see you in your place again, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her response, which is, as always, comprehensive. In relation to diabetes, I wish to ask about both screening and weight loss. What funding has been set aside for those who are morbidly obese and need gastric procedures urgently to set them on the path to better health, in line with the Prime Minister’s statement and reaction to the massively increased risk of death from covid-19 for those who are obese? It is important that we address all the issues.
As well as our world-leading obesity strategy, we have today announced a targeted dietary approach to diabetes. From next week, thousands of people will be able to access a rigorous weight-loss programme to help tackle type 2 diabetes. The diet and lifestyle plans have been shown to put diabetes into remission for many people who have been recently diagnosed. This will provide 5,000 more patients with the first stage in an NHS drive to increase access to the NHS diabetes prevention programme and builds on the commitment to get another 200,000 people into the life-changing programme. We know that diabetes increases the risks of other health challenges and coronavirus, so it is vital that we take immediate action to help people.
NHS Expenditure and EU Negotiations
As the hon. Lady knows, the negotiations with the EU on our future relationship with it following the end of the transition period are ongoing. This Government are delivering on their pledge to respect democracy and the referendum result, with the UK engaging continuously and constructively in the negotiations. We must await the outcome of those negotiations, in which health-related aspects are very important, rather than prejudging what will emerge from them.
In just four months’ time, new customs bureaucracy will lead to increased drug costs for the NHS, including for insulin, which the UK does not produce. Pharmaceutical and medical supply firms report that they are struggling to rebuild last year’s stockpiles because of global shortages due to covid. How does the Minister plan to ensure that patients will not face shortages next year?
The Department is putting in place a multi-layered approach to help to ensure continuity of supply of medicines and medical products in any case that might fall out of the negotiations and the end of the transition period. We are confident that we will maintain continuity of supply.
Covid-19 Testing for GPs
GPs with symptoms can be tested through the self-referral portal. In addition, we are launching pilots in Northamptonshire, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire to provide regular covid-19 testing for professionals who visit care homes regularly and provide services within 1 metre of residents.
That is all in the future, of course. I was talking to GPs in Cambridge last week, and they told me about the difficulty they have with getting tested before going into care homes. Indeed, one of them told me she had to pretend to be a care worker to get a test. That cannot be right after all this time, can it?
As I said, the pilots are now being launched in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire to provide regular covid-19 testing for professionals, and I think that problem has probably been resolved.
Medicine and Medical Device Safety
I call Yasmin Qureshi to ask her supplementary question.
The Minister is aware that the Cumberlege review has clearly set out Government failure, with Primodos not being withdrawn and thousands of babies being born with severe deformities. Does she think it is acceptable to cite legal action, which has no bearing on the report’s findings, to continue to delay justice for the families? Will she meet me and the all-party parliamentary group to discuss a road map to implement the recommendations for all the three causes without further delay?
We welcomed the Cumberlege report and we are looking into the recommendations made, but the hon. Lady knows that, as a result of live litigation, I am not able to comment further.
Guidance to explain the Government’s policy on face coverings continues to be updated and fully takes into account groups with protected characteristics. This guidance makes it clear that there are exemptions for people who are unable, for a variety of reasons, to wear face coverings. We have also run a proactive communications campaign to ensure that people are aware that some people are unable to wear a face covering in certain circumstances.
Georgina Fallows is a rape survivor who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder when her mouth is covered. Georgina and others like her have been challenged for not wearing a mask in shops and on public transport, and this causes further stress and anxiety. Does the Minister support Georgina’s campaign for a badge to identify people who legitimately cannot wear a mask, and will she consider raising awareness of this issue via a public information campaign?
I was incredibly sorry to hear what Georgina has been through, and fully understand that she and others who have undergone traumatic experiences cannot wear a face covering without distress. That is why our guidance and public messaging have been very clear that there may be people who should be exempt from wearing a covering for a variety of reasons. It is also clear that people do not need to prove it when challenged. We are actively engaging with stakeholders and charities to ensure that these messages sensitively get across, and we will continue to do so, but I would welcome a fuller discussion with the hon. Member about anything we can do further to help individuals such as Georgina.
As well as our work to fight coronavirus, we are continuing our historic levels of investment in the NHS. Good progress is being made in the projects for 40 new hospitals. The number of NHS nurses in England has increased by more than 13,000 compared with this time last year, and the number of doctors is up by over 9,000. This landmark investment is bearing fruit.
I welcome back my good friend, Tony Lloyd.
Thank you very much for that welcome, Mr Speaker. I am one of those who most certainly owes an awful lot to the care and dedication of NHS staff. May I ask the Secretary of State a very simple question? One waiting list that is going up is the amount of time that overseas doctors offered jobs in the UK have to wait for a visa. Will he have a quiet word with Home Office Ministers to ensure that we have a joined-up Government and that these doctors, who are part of the solution, can get their visas?
May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Member back to the screens—and hopefully, one day soon, back to the House in person? The question that he raises is an important one. I am working with the Home Office to introduce the NHS visa, which will mean not only that the numbers are uncapped, but that the administration around visas is much reduced. It is not just about Home Office administration; it is also about reducing the burden of bureaucracy from the General Medical Council and others. The GMC is working incredibly hard to reduce the bureaucratic requirement while still ensuring that any doctors who come to practise in this country are fully qualified and can speak English to a high enough standard, as the people of Rochdale and the whole country would expect.
I call the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.
The ongoing problems in maternity units in Shrewsbury, Telford and east Kent hospitals have shown that independent, blame-free investigations into baby deaths have never been more important. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to put the healthcare safety investigations branch on to a statutory footing, and that those plans will remain in the Queen’s Speech later this year?
Nobody has done more for the cause of patient safety in this country than my right hon. Friend. We are seeking to put the health service investigatory branch into law at the earliest legislative opportunity. He will know that, as a Minister, I could not possibly pre-empt what Her Majesty might say in a few months’ time in the other place, but I will say that, in the same way that we introduced the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill just before the election, it is our full intention to legislate for it at the earliest chance.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). Can he guarantee that he has currently sourced enough flu vaccine to vaccinate all 50 to 64-year-olds by Christmas?
We have the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and we set out very clearly when we announced the plans our proposals, which are that we will vaccinate those who are clinically most vulnerable—that starts with the over-65s and those with another health condition that causes them to be particularly vulnerable to flu—and then move to vaccinate the 50 to 64-year-olds. We set that out several weeks ago. It is exactly as clinically recommended, to make sure not only that we have the biggest flu vaccination in history but that we get it to the people who really need it first.
I think the Secretary of State was saying there that he cannot guarantee vaccinations for all 50 to 64-year-olds. We are heading into a difficult winter. He knows that; the whole House will know that. One area of the health service that is particularly under pressure is rehab services and community mental health services, because they often now treat people who have had covid and have long-term conditions associated with having covid, yet many local areas are currently putting local community and public health contracts out to competitive tender. That could mean staff being made redundant. It could open the door to Virgin Cares coming in. At the very least, it is distracting and wasteful. Will the Secretary of State halt all competitive tendering of community and public health contracts until the end of the pandemic?
What I will do is ensure that we put in the best possible resources to improve the public health of the nation. That is our goal; that is our policy. It of course follows on from the policy that was put in place by the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a behind-the-scenes part. He knows very well that I admire the work that he did when he was trying to expand the provision of health services. No matter where those health services come from, what matters is the quality of the service that people get on the frontline, and that is what we on the Government Benches will be focused on.
My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for Burnley. He is quite right to praise the people of Burnley, who have had local restrictions put in place. Because of the actions they have taken—because they have followed their duty and followed those tougher rules—and the sacrifices they have made, the case rate has come down in Burnley, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to every single resident of Burnley who has played their part. Absolutely, the enhanced support will continue in Burnley, as it does across those parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire that we have been able to take out of the most restrictive measures, and we continue to watch with vigilance.
Of course we have put in over the last two and a half years some very significant pay rises for nurses, and the whole House commends the work that the nursing profession as a whole, and each individual nurse, has done during this pandemic. Of course we are putting unprecedented sums into the NHS, and we work to make sure that everybody has the best possible working conditions, both now and in the future.
Yes, I will. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that so-called conversion therapy is abhorrent. I praise her for the campaign she is running on this. I agree with the Prime Minister who, from this Dispatch Box, committed to ensuring that that practice is stamped out. We have a review under way. I will make sure that I work very closely with my hon. Friend, who has done so much to make the case.
Yes, we have been rolling out the asymptomatic testing for residents and staff in care homes. As the hon. Member will know from the statement I gave to the House in July, we had a problem with the supply of tests from one particular company, which caused some difficulties. We have spent the summer catching up on that programme.
Yes. The direct provision of healthcare is of course devolved, but as the UK Health Secretary I take an interest in ensuring we have high quality healthcare right across the country. I am very happy to work with my colleagues in the Welsh Government on improving the delivery of services in the Betsi Cadwaladr health service. I wish the new chief executive all the very best. I am sure she will take the service, improve it and work with her colleagues in this House to make sure that the people of north Wales get the very best health services that they deserve.
In response to the last point, the turnaround time for test results is now the next day for almost every one. However, there has been a challenge, referred to just now and in a previous question, with the Randox kits. The test results from the Randox kits that were withdrawn were accurate. The challenge was that the Randox kits did not pass our very high and stringent standards; essentially they were not as clean as we would have wanted. I am informed by the clinicians that there is no evidence of any health threat from that, but of course we have to make sure that we protect people as much as possible. Hence, we had to withdraw the kits. As I said, we have a catch-up programme that is under way.
So they will be replaced, just to help the Member.
Yes, I would love to come up to Stockton and have a look round. I have enjoyed my many visits, especially the one in December, which went particularly well, just before the House reconvened after the general election.
My heart goes out to the hon. Member and to the family and friends of his friend, about whom he spoke so movingly just now. He is absolutely right to raise this. The early diagnosis of cancer is a critical part of improving cancer survival rates in this country. We have talked an awful lot in this House over the last six months about the testing and diagnosis of covid, but frankly this country needs to increase its testing and diagnosis of all diseases, including cancer. For a generation, we have not had enough testing. He is quite right to raise this issue, because it is not just about people coming forward; it is also about the problems being spotted earlier. We are investing £2 million in more rapid diagnostic centres, and we are trying to get diagnostics not just in the major hospitals but out into the community so that they are closer to primary care. There is also a major piece of work under way to recover the backlog that was necessarily built up during covid—that is under way and the backlog is down by about half—and also to go further and never give up on trying to have earlier diagnosis of cancer.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members who have participated in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.
With your permission, and indeed your encouragement, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. The latest figures demonstrate how much progress we are making in our fight against this invisible killer. There are currently 60 patients in mechanical ventilator beds with coronavirus—that is down from 3,300 at the peak—and the latest daily number for recorded deaths is two. However, although those figures are lower than before, we must remain vigilant. I said in July that a second wave was rolling across Europe and, sadly, we are now seeing an exponential rise in the number of cases in France and Spain—hospitalisations are rising there too. We must do everything in our power to protect against a second wave here in the UK, so I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to that end.
To support the return of education, and to get our economy moving again, it is critical that we all play our part. The first line of defence is, and has always been, social distancing and personal hygiene. We will soon be launching a new campaign reminding people of how they can help to stop the spread of coronavirus: “Hands, face, space and get a test if you have symptoms.” Everyone has a part to play in following the social distancing rules and doing the basics. After all, this is a virus that thrives on social contact. I would like to thank the British public for everything they have done so far, but we must continue and we must maintain our resolve.
The second line of defence is testing and contact tracing. We have now processed over 16 million tests in this country, and we are investing in new testing technologies, including a rapid test for coronavirus and other winter viruses that will help to provide on-the-spot results in under 90 minutes, helping us to break chains of transmission quickly. These tests do not require a trained health professional to operate them, so they can be rolled out in more non-clinical settings. We now have one of the most comprehensive systems of testing in the world, and we want to go much, much further.
Next, we come to contact tracing. NHS Test and Trace is consistently reaching tens of thousands of people who need to isolate each week. As I mentioned in answer to a question earlier, the latest week’s data shows that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate, where contact details were provided. Since its launch, we have reached over 300,000 people, who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus. Today, we also launch our new system of pay to isolate. We want to support people on low incomes in areas with a high incidence of covid-19 who need to self-isolate and are unable to work from home. Under the scheme, people who test positive for the virus will receive £130 for the 10-day period they have to stay at home. Other contacts, including, for instance, members of their household, who have to self-isolate for 14 days, will be entitled to a payment of £182. We have rolled out the scheme in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, and we will look to expand it as we see how it operates on the ground.
The third line of defence is targeted local intervention. Over the summer, we have worked hard to integrate our national system with the local response, and the local action that we are taking is working. In Leicester, as the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) knows well, as a local MP, in Luton and in parts of northern England, we have been able to release local interventions, because the case rate has come down. We also now publish significantly more local information, and I put in place a system for building local consensus with all elected officials, including colleagues across this House, wherever possible. Our goal is that local action should be as targeted as possible. This combination of social distancing, test and trace and local action is a system in which we all have a responsibility to act, and this gives us the tools to control the virus while protecting education, the economy and the things we hold dear.
Meanwhile, work on a vaccine continues to progress. The best-case scenario remains a vaccine this year. While no vaccine technology is certain, since the House last met, vaccine trials have gone well. The Oxford vaccine continues to be the world leader, and we have now contracted with six different vaccine providers so that whichever comes off, we can get access in this country. While we give vaccine development all our support, we will insist on safety and efficacy.
I can update the House on changes to legislation that I propose to bring forward in the coming weeks to ensure that a vaccine approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency can be deployed here, whether or not it has a European licence. The MHRA standards are equal to the highest in the world. Furthermore, on the development of the vaccine, which proceeds at pace, I will shortly ask the House to approve a broader range of qualified clinical personnel who can deploy the vaccine in order of clinical priority, as I mentioned in questions. As well as the potential vaccine, we also have a flu vaccination programme—the biggest flu vaccination programme in history—to roll out this year.
Finally, Mr Speaker, in preparation for this winter, we are expanding A&E capacity. We have allocated billions more funding to the NHS. We have retained the Nightingale hospitals to ensure that the NHS is fully prepared, and we published last month updated guidance on the protection of social care. As well as this, last month, figures showed a record number of nurses in the NHS—over 13,000 more than last year—and record numbers of both doctors and nurses going into training. We are doing all we can to prevent a second peak to prepare the NHS for winter and to restore as much of life and the things we love as possible. As schools go back, we must all remain vigilant and throughout the crisis we all have a role to play.
This is a war against an invisible enemy in which we are all on the same side. As we learn more and more about this unprecedented virus, so we constantly seek to improve our response to protect the health of the nation and the things we hold dear. I commend this statement to the House.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op): We are indeed all on the same side in fighting this virus. I hope that the Secretary of State understands that when we raise issues, we do so because we urge the Government to improve their response to fighting this virus. This remains a lethal virus that leaves many with serious, debilitating sickness. Everything must be done to drive down and eliminate infections and suppress the virus completely.
With that in mind, I hope that the Secretary of State can answer a few questions today. I am grateful for advance sight of his statement. First, to avoid a second national lockdown, which we all want to avoid, an effective test and tracing regime is vital. I listened carefully to the figures that he outlined, but he did not tell the House that the numbers going into the system have actually fallen in the past week, from 79% to 72%. This system is not yet world beating.
Throughout questions the Secretary of State has rejected criticisms of the private sector contractors who are involved in delivering the system, so there is no point in me raising them again, but would it not be better if money was spent on investing in local public health teams, particularly in those areas where restrictions are in place, so that they can do more door-to-door testing, as we have seen, for example, in Leicester? Surely that would be a better use of public funding, for example, than paying for so-called influencers on Instagram to big up test and trace.
On testing itself, the Secretary of State now supports mass testing as a policy aim. It is something I have been calling for, for some months. It is something the former Health Secretary, the Chair of the Health Select Committee, has been calling for. Indeed, we tried to persuade the Secretary of State of its merits before the summer when we asked him to introduce regular testing of NHS front-line staff. He whipped his MPs to vote against it, but will he now, given that he is in favour of mass testing, introduce regular weekly testing of all front-line NHS workers?
To move to mass testing means evolving our testing regime from one that provides antibody tests and diagnostic PCR—polymerase chain reaction—tests effectively to a system of mass screening using more rapid, on-the-spot antigen tests. The Secretary of State referred to rapid tests in his statement. Can he tell us when rapid, on-the-spot antigen tests will be rolled out across society and which sectors of the workforce will be first in the queue to access those tests?
Will the Secretary of State also look at introducing saliva testing, which is being used in Hong Kong, for example, and will he ensure the quick turnaround of tests? I wonder whether he has seen the study from Yale that suggests that saliva testing could be as sensitive as nose and throat swabs. What is his attitude towards pooled testing, which would surely increase the capacity in areas of low prevalence? Does he have a plan to introduce pooled testing? Will he allow GPs to carry out testing or, at the very least, to arrange a test for their patients directly? They currently have to ask their patients to log on to the national system, which is causing huge delays.
On local lockdowns, the Secretary of State said that he wants to involve MPs and elected officials. What process will be used to properly consult local Members of Parliament? What can MPs expect? When a decision has been made to put a local area into restriction, will he publish the specific evidence behind that decision? Why is it, for example, that our constituents in Leicester are not able to gather in private gardens? Can he publish the scientific evidence for that decision?
In Trafford, we have seen infections increase. The local authority leader and the director of public health felt that restrictions should continue, but the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) felt that they should be lifted. Why did the Secretary of State overrule the advice of the director of public health and instead endorse the representations of the chairman of the 1922 committee? There was a similar story in Bradford, and in Bolton, where restrictions are due to be lifted tonight, infections are increasing. Is it still his plan to lift restrictions tonight in Trafford and Bolton, even though infections are increasing compared with last week, when he made his initial decision?
The Secretary of State is right: in the end, a vaccine is our best hope to stop this pandemic. Vaccines save hundreds of millions of lives every year, and I repeat my offer to work with him on a cross-party basis to promote uptake and challenge the poison of anti-vax myths, including those that we witnessed at the irresponsible and dangerous demonstration this weekend in Trafalgar Square. We will work constructively with him on the proposals he brings to the House. Does he share my concerns about those leaders, such as Putin and Trump, who are trying to short-cut testing to rush out a vaccine, undermining safety and efficacy, potentially damaging millions of lives and giving succour to the anti-vax movement?
Finally, health protection is built upon good population health. Poverty makes people sick. Ending cuts and tackling deprivation as a determinant of ill health is vital to improving and protecting people’s health. But the Secretary of State is now embarking on a risky, distracting restructuring of Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic. Tory MPs like to blame Public Health England—it is such rotten luck that these decent, hard-working, competent Ministers are always let down by the people who work for them—but is not the reality that this restructuring will sap morale and focus and should wait until the end of the pandemic? The UK has suffered the highest per capita death rate of any major world economy. To get through this winter safely, our NHS and public health services need resources, and staff need personal protective equipment, fair pay, security and support. I hope he can deliver that.
I will answer as many of the hon. Gentleman’s questions as possible. His first question about the effectiveness of NHS Test and Trace is very important. He is right that we are investing in public health teams, and so we should. As we discussed in Health questions earlier, it is important to have the combination of the national system and the local one. It is also important that we communicate to people that it is important to engage in testing and contact tracing for those who test positive and their contacts. It is important to be able to communicate to people so that they get those messages, and we will do that in whatever way is effective to get those messages across.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the importance of mass testing. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for mass testing and am glad that he supports my drive for it. He might remember the exchanges we had some time ago when I rather stuck my neck out in pushing for mass testing when we needed to get to hundreds of thousands of tests. We now need to increase the number of tests again.
The hon. Gentleman mentions both saliva tests and pool tests; we are trialling both of those. As with vaccines, to which I shall come briefly, we will only use testing that is validated and for which the results are safe, so it is important that we use the world-class facilities that we have at Porton Down to make sure that tests are validated before we use them in public. Saliva testing and pool testing are both options that we are working on.
Local lockdowns are working. Local action, taken jointly between national and local government, is having an effect, as the hon. Gentleman knows well from Leicester, where the case rate is right down. We do publish the data on which such decisions are made. In fact, from last Thursday, we now publish data at lower-super-output-area level, which is the lowest level in terms of how local the test results can be reasonably published. We also provide extensive data to directors of public health.
It is important that all elected officials are engaged in the process of making lockdown decisions, so, as we set out the week before last, we require councils to seek consensus with local elected officials, which includes colleagues in this House. For instance, if your area, Mr Speaker, were under consideration for the need for intervention, we would require your local council to seek consensus with you—although that consensus is not always possible, and there have been a couple of examples where it has not been—and would then make as targeted an intervention as possible. We want to get to the point at which everybody is on the same side in the battle against the disease. I am glad to say that in nearly all council areas the process has worked well. I urge all council leaders to work to engage with their local MPs and with colleagues from across the House to make sure that colleagues’ views are taken into account in trying to seek consensus.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that a vaccine must be deployed only when safe and effective, and he is completely right. He and I are as one, along with every single Member of this House, in our abhorrence at the anti-vax people who peddle lies, and in our abhorrence at the anti-test people who similarly try to argue that testing is somehow wrong when it is not. In the UK, a vaccine will be deployed only when it is safe and signed off by the regulator. The UK health regulator, the MHRA, is one of the finest regulators in the world. It is robust, independent and technically brilliant. People should know that we will sign off a vaccine only when it is safe. Having said that, we will also work incredibly hard and give all the resources that the vaccine development teams need to try to get a vaccine over the line as quickly as possible.
The Secretary of State has made impressive progress in making testing available to everyone with covid symptoms, but I wish to press him on the availability of tests for people who are asymptomatic. Will he confirm that it is the Government’s intention to introduce regular weekly testing for NHS staff, teachers and other people who are in regular contact with the public and who could potentially transmit the virus? Even if it cannot be done right away, is it the intention to do that as soon as possible? Surely that is the best way to reassure patients that their hospital is safe and parents that their kids’ school is safe.
It is my intention to deploy as much testing as possible using the new testing innovations coming on stream and to do so as widely as possible following clinical advice. We have set out the process we propose to use for the current generation of testing capability, but if a new, easier type of test gets over the line, of course we will always keep that under clinical review, being guided always by clinicians.
Is the Secretary of State aware that some people are being refused home-testing kits because the credit-checking company TransUnion has not found their names on the public version of the electoral register? Can he explain why he contracted this American company to verify people’s identities and what he will do to resolve the issue? He still has not addressed the poor performance of Serco, which has failed to trace 40% of contacts and apparently did not even have contact details for over 2,500. This compares poorly with the public health-based systems of the devolved nations, which are managing to trace 90% or more. Instead of breaking up PHE, will he not provide it with the necessary resources to develop a public health-based tracing system for England, too?
Finally, Chris Whitty says it is not possible to open up everything and keep the virus under control. While it is really good to see the number of deaths from covid falling, the number of new cases in the UK is currently higher than when we had to go into lockdown in March. If getting children back to school is his Government’s priority, why are they pushing people back into offices at the same time?
I have addressed several of those points already in questions. The idea that, instead of the large-scale national system working together with local contact tracers, we should disparage one part and praise the other—this divisive approach proposed by the SNP spokesperson—is wholly wrong and would lead to things getting worse, not better. Instead, we need to work together to improve the system, in the same way the Scottish Government and the UK Government worked together to provide testing capability right across Scotland.
On the arrangements for the future of PHE, we look around the world for the best way to ensure we have systems at a national level that can respond to the virus, in the same way we put in place the Joint Biosecurity Centre, when we worked closely with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Administration to ensure the best possible system—for instance, when cases move over a border. Some of the best systems in the world, such as the German system, have an institute dedicated to infectious disease control. I am convinced that the enormous amounts of extra money we are putting into health protection, along with the extra support going in and the clarity and dedication of the new National Institute for Health Protection, will be a step forward. I pay tribute to all those who have worked in PHE and right across the board to keep people safe during this crisis.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of two groundbreaking tests that will allow people to be tested for coronavirus in less than 90 minutes. Will he aim for these tests to be rolled out as soon as possible, particularly in care homes, and may I suggest that the roll-out begin in Buckinghamshire, particularly Beaconsfield?
I will certainly look into whether the roll-out can start in Buckinghamshire. Thankfully, it has a relatively low rate of the virus, which is good news, and we are working to ensure that the testing system there is as effective as it can be. That will include using this new generation of testing when we can begin to roll it out more broadly than the current pilots.
Cancer is rapidly becoming an even bigger catastrophe than anything else. The number of new cancer patients presenting is down by more than a quarter this year. The number of appointments for cancer specialist treatment is down by more than a quarter. The amount of money available for clinical trials has completely fallen through the floor. There is a real danger that lots and lots of people are going to die of cancer this year unnecessarily, when there is treatment that could be available, and that new treatments will not come online. Will the Secretary of State please put together a single taskforce to deal with cancer during this process, increase the amount of money for new kit, in particular in radiotherapy, make sure that we have enough pathologists, histopathologists and haematologists for the future, and make up the additional money for the clinical trials?
The hon. Gentleman’s point about research is important. In the places where research has paused because of the virus, the programme of restart is well under way. I am glad to say that although the backlog of cancer cases had increased—because it is not safe to treat cancer during a pandemic and because of some of the surgery that had to be paused—we are now halfway through recovering from that backlog on the latest figures. Obviously that recovery is incredibly important, and it is important to look at the catch-up as well as the absolute drop in overall delivery of cancer services. It is also critically important that people who fear that they may have cancer come forward to the NHS.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. My question today is about support for people with mental health conditions during covid-19. One of my constituents, Nicola Kulawsky, went missing just over a week ago. Thankfully, she was found within four days. During 2018 and 2019, there were approximately 176,000 reported incidents of people going missing. Charities such as Missing People have highlighted the huge strain that the covid-19 pandemic has put on people with mental health issues. Charities working in this sector have had to make budget cuts. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to ensure that individuals who suffer from mental health conditions during covid-19 get the support they need, as part of the wider covid-19 strategy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise these issues, which are very important. I acknowledge and can see the challenges that mental health services face. Some cautiously positive news announced today by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of suicides during the peak of the pandemic was down from 10.3 per 100,000 to 6.9 per 100,000, but of course we have to ensure that mental health services are there for people as we come out of lockdown, so that they can access them again more easily, and that we do all we can to support those who need them.
Following on from the Secretary of State’s answer to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked about cancer, obviously winter is a time of huge pressures on NHS services, with pressures on acute beds in recent years. Can he tell us more about his plan to tackle the backlog and deal with cancer patients, and about the treatments they will receive in the wintertime?
Yes; the hon. Gentleman is right to raise exactly this point. Now is the time to get through as much of the backlog as possible. At the same time, we have introduced changes to the way that the NHS operates so that it is more risk-based, so that infection control procedures, which are important, can also be more risk-based, to try to increase the amount of surgery that can happen, essentially splitting the NHS into areas that are deemed “covid green”, which are secure from covid, and “covid blue”, which means the areas where there may be covid, to allow the throughput of surgery to increase. Of course, cancer services have continued all the way through, but obviously they were diminished during the peak. With winter coming, we want to put the extra funds into the NHS to try to ensure that those services can continue all the way through, as much as is possible. The flu vaccination programme is also an important part of protecting the NHS from higher demand this winter.
May I help the House by saying we are going to finish at 4.40 pm? I am sure the Secretary of State will want to help as many Back Benchers as possible to ask their questions by giving shorter replies. That would be helpful.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the announcement last month of £900,000 extra for Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust to upgrade A&E facilities in the county ahead of winter. That will make a huge difference as we continue to battle coronavirus as well as prepare for other winter illnesses. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that those very welcome upgrades will be completed in time for this winter to treat Buckinghamshire patients?
It is very good that we have been able to give funds to over 100 A&Es across the country so that they can expand, both to be able to cope with infection control procedures and to ensure that there is more space. I pay tribute to the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who has driven through this programme along with the NHS. I am confident that this can be built in time for winter to ensure that we are ready by December.
All of west London rejoiced when the Secretary of State axed the hated “Shaping a healthier future” programme, which was established by his predecessor. Will he now stave off the rumours circulating and confirm that the stopping of services at Ealing Hospital—that programme would have put an end to those services, as we know it—does not mean that the closure programme is coming in through the back door? There are a lot of rumours around. Will he start by restoring in full the CEPOD surgery and trauma services, so that we ward off the second spike that he and I do not want?
We have indeed stopped “Shaping a healthier future”, as it was called. We are continuing with the investment into primary healthcare services that was a part of that programme, but not with the rest of it. I am happy to arrange a meeting between the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood, who is brilliant on this stuff, and the hon. Lady and other west London colleagues, to ensure that that commitment is kept to.
I thank the Secretary of State and his Department for the additional funding for Milton Keynes University Hospital of £1.5 million for winter preparedness. May I stress—and hope that he agrees with me—that it is not just about the threat of covid this winter, but the dual threat with the winter flu?
Yes. Both my colleagues from Milton Keynes have been assiduous in making the case for the need for expansion at Milton Keynes Hospital. The team there have been absolutely brilliant, even while the chief executive has also been stepping up to national responsibilities in response to this crisis. I hope that the expansion of A&E will help to ensure that my hon. Friend’s constituents can access emergency services when they need them.
Given that the Secretary of State decided to announce the scrapping of Public Health England in the middle of recess, when there was no opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, I find it astonishing that his statement did not make a single reference to the bureaucratic reorganisation in the middle of a pandemic. The King’s Fund described scrapping PHE without a full public inquiry as finding it “guilty without a trial”. The Prime Minister has committed to an inquiry. Will the Secretary of State now set out when that inquiry will happen?
This is all about ensuring that we are as well prepared as possible for tackling this virus and that the total focus of the new National Institute for Health Protection is on the prevention of infectious diseases. I have set that out very clearly, as I did in my speech. Sometimes we have to make changes to ensure that our systems are working as effectively as possible, and, critically, we had to do so to bring together the different parts of the infection response that had ended up in different places and needed to be brought under single leadership.
What work is ongoing to ensure that all the PPE needed by the NHS this winter is procured in good time, and will details of all previous PPE contracts be published immediately in order to address serious concerns about the appropriateness of some of the earlier deals?
Yes, absolutely; we are working very hard to ensure not only that we have PPE for now and for winter, and that we rebuild the stockpile that we used during the peak of the pandemic, but that as much as possible of the PPE available and used in this country is made in this country, so that we are less reliant on international contracts and the international flow of PPE, which obviously became difficult at the height of the crisis. We are one United Kingdom in ensuring that we have the provision of PPE for now and in the future.
Does the Secretary of State agree that achieving the biggest ever flu vaccine programme will need local GPs and pharmacies to work together, not compete for revenue, so can he find a way of incentivising such working together, not fighting for every jab?
It is incredibly important that pharmacists as well as GPs and others are able to make the flu jab available. We have got to make sure that happens as effectively as possible, and it is a massive operation. If I may, I will talk to my hon. Friend and we can have a discussion about the specific problems he has found and try to resolve them, but it is going to be one huge national effort.
I thank the Secretary of State for all he has done: he has not been found wanting when it comes to responding in the way he should. Can the Secretary of State further outline if he has reviewed routine operations—such as for tonsillitis and hip, knee and shoulder replacement surgeries—and when will he be able to address the massive backlog, which has occurred because of coronavirus, but must now be worked on?
We are working through that backlog. I am glad that, over the summer, we were able to re-contract with private providers of healthcare to help us to get through that backlog, and on a better contract than before—better value for money. I pay tribute to the private providers of healthcare that have been there and delivering improvements for people throughout the summer and now on into winter. They play an important part in improving people’s health, and it is a big team effort.
It is very reassuring to hear how far we have come in terms of our lines of defences against this invisible killer over the past six months. May I, through the Secretary of State, thank everyone who has helped us get here? On the second line of defence, the testing, can I have an update on how the NHS is working with the private sector to make sure that all aspects of our economy can reopen safely?
If I understand the question correctly, the ability to provide tests to parts of the private sector that need to know people do not have the virus in order to be able to reopen parts of the economy or just enable things to happen is a very important part of where we would like to get to when we have the next generation of testing. At the moment, we of course have to follow a clinical protocol for the roll-out and the use of the capacity we have. We have very significant capacity, having built it up over the pandemic, but the work with the private sector is very important, and we will be publishing more details on this shortly.
I have had personal experience of track and trace over the last couple of weeks. Having filled in my initial form, I was contacted at least three times to be asked for the same information again, so it is a question not just of the contacts, but of what is being done with the data. My assessment is that there is poor management of the data and a waste of time and effort in duplication, including in contacting members of my household and telling them to isolate from the wrong date. Improvements are needed to what is done once track and trace gets in touch with people. Does the Secretary of State agree?
I am very happy to look into these individual circumstances. Of course, we are constantly seeking to improve the system. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman was contacted so assiduously by the system, and I take the point about the need for the data to be collected as effectively and efficiently as possible. I hope that he and members of his household are following the rules and doing the isolation that is necessary.
Following the recent outbreak in Stoke-on-Trent, I would like to thank local authorities and the community for their actions, which have helped to stem the spread of the virus locally. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is thanks to these rapid actions that we are now seeing positive covid results decline, and that everyone must continue to play their part by closely following Government guidelines if we are to see cases fall further?
Yes, absolutely. Stoke-on-Trent provides another example of a local action that worked. We did not have to go to a full lockdown, which I am very glad about. The combination of enhanced support from the national system plus assiduous work locally and the responsible and strong voice of the local MPs, including my hon. Friend, has meant that the cases are coming right down. I am very grateful to the people of Stoke-on-Trent for responding as positively as they did to what were challenging circumstances. At one moment, it looked like there might be a full-blown local lockdown, but that did not happen because Stoke-on-Trent got in there fast and acted.
The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of local efforts in keeping infections down, so can he tell me what additional financial support the Government will now provide to support local test and trace efforts, specifically in those areas where the level of infection places them on the watch list or under lockdown?
We do enter into those sorts of discussions. Of course local councils have a statutory obligation as well, but what matters most is that the response is as effective as it can be. Thus far we have been able to ensure that councils have the support and the capability to be able to respond, but, with their statutory duties, it is absolutely at the top of their priority list to prevent a local outbreak as well.
The truth is that young people of working age who are fit know that there is very little chance of their becoming seriously ill from this thing. I know that the Secretary of State will say, yes, but they can pass it on to older people, but may I speak on behalf of older people? I am one. I think that, at 70, I am the oldest person here and I am still kicking—just. What I can say to him is that older people do not want to be patronised. They are very well aware of their own health needs. They can be trusted to isolate if they have to. We do not want to have this thing whereby the man from Whitehall knows best. The man from Whitehall does not know best, especially as he changes his mind every two minutes. Can we get back to being a proper Conservative Government who trust the people and who let the people decide how to look after their own health?
The challenge is that this disease passes on without people knowing. I have seen the challenge of older people trying to stay away from and stay safe from the continuing spread. In the United States of America, we saw that, at first, the increase in rates was among younger people and then it spread and the hospitalisation rate went up and then the number of deaths went up. Unfortunately, we are seeing a similar pattern on parts of the continent. I understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. The goal is to have as little intervention, as targeted intervention, as possible, subject to keeping the virus under control. That is what we are trying to do. Essentially, we want to protect the ability of schools to go back and to make sure that we get the economy going as much as possible. These localised interventions, whether through test and trace to the individuals who have tested positive or to a local area where there is an outbreak, is the approach that we propose.
Office for National Statistics data show that 75% of disabled people are extremely worried about life post lockdown and a further 46% report that this is having a serious impact on their mental health. Will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to support them, and will he commit to ensuring that disabled people, who have felt like an afterthought throughout this crisis, are at the heart of any recovery plan, as called for by Scope and many other charities?
Yes, absolutely. Our approach is to ensure that the support that is given, including with the vaccine if and when that comes, goes to those who are clinically most at risk. That is the answer to ensuring that disabled people get the support that they need. People who are disabled for different reasons have different needs. We must be cognisant of that and not try to treat all disabled people with different disabilities the same. Instead, we should support people according to their needs and that is at the heart of the approach that I take.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent coronavirus outbreak from the Crown and Anchor pub in Stone in Staffordshire next to my constituency demonstrates how vital it is that we all—including businesses—follow the track and trace guidance that has been put in place, so that we can reopen our economy safely and control this virus?
Yes, absolutely. Everybody has a role to play. Businesses have a role to play especially, including with contact tracing, so that people can safely go to the pub and know that if there is a problem they can be contacted. We all have that part to play.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern that, of the £2.5 billion of covid-related Government procurement activity, at least £1 billion has been awarded without recourse to open competitive tendering, including a contract to a close friend of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser? Why is it that, six months into this pandemic, the Government are still citing unforeseen circumstances to explain a lack of openness in the tendering process for contracts?
We need to move fast sometimes in the response to a pandemic, and we need to move fast to contract with those who are best able to provide the support that people need. The constant attempt by those on the Opposition Benches to divide people in this way runs precisely counter to what people want to see—what people want to see is people working together, instead of these divisive tactics.
I want to start by thanking my right hon. Friend and his officials for the way in which they have communicated with me and my colleagues in Sandwell, as we have seen some rather concerning figures, particularly during the summer. May I ask him for some clarification? We have had a unique situation in Sandwell, where certain parts of the borough have had an exponential rise in the number of cases, which have been very localised. The number of cases in other parts of the borough—particularly in the west, in my communities of Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton—has thankfully been quite low. Can he confirm that local authorities should be taking a targeted and pragmatic approach when instituting local restrictions?
That is absolutely right. From the first nationally imposed local lockdown, in Leicester, we worked with the local authorities to decide what the appropriate geography was, and it is not necessarily the entire local authority geography. In the very first of those interventions, we worked with the Leicestershire leaders to decide what areas should be in it—the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is one of the representatives of that area, is nodding away. Indeed, last week, in parts of West Yorkshire, we went down to a sub local authority geography. That is absolutely one of the options available. Sometimes it is at a local authority level, and sometimes it is at a sub local authority level. We are driven by the data.
The Secretary of State has always rightly claimed that he is guided by the science and data, so I welcome his decision to release Stockport from local measures. The data, the director of public health, the council and the borough’s four MPs support it, but I represent a cross-borough seat. Local measures have been tough for us, and we need confidence in them. Does he understand the interconnected nature of Greater Manchester’s boroughs? What is his message to my Tameside constituents on whether the decisions he has made to lift restrictions in Bolton and Trafford, where covid is now spiking, will keep the rest of us in lockdown for longer?
The detailed local nature of the question shows how important it is that we engage with local representatives, including colleagues in this House, so that the local intelligence that the hon. Member has can be brought to bear on this decision, for instance. The decision to take Stockport out of and leave Tameside in the measures was taken with the agreement of the leaders of both councils. I absolutely concur with the hon. Member that we should have as targeted an approach as possible, and local councils need to ensure that if it is appropriate for some of their area to come out of a local lockdown and some to stay in it, that is what we should do. We should be driven by the data.
Joint partnership working and effective test and trace have been essential in ensuring that we have reduced covid cases in Cheadle and kept the pressure off our NHS. Public Health England has indicated that the flu jab is one of the most effective measures that we can take to further reduce the pressure on intensive care units. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order to avoid a flu outbreak at the same time as we are tackling coronavirus, we need to encourage people to take up flu jabs and ensure that we get test and trace and flu jabs working in conjunction?
Yes, I emphatically agree with my hon. Friend. I could not have put it better myself.
Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of students will be returning to universities, which is very, very welcome, but what we are seeing at the moment is each institution having to make its own decisions. Universities UK tells us that most students will be getting in-person teaching, but what advice is the Secretary of State giving to those universities and what support is his Department giving?
We are working very closely with the Department for Education to have a successful and safe return of universities, just as, from today onwards, we are seeing a successful and safe return of schools.
I am really pleased to hear my right hon. Friend talk about the largest flu vaccine programme ever being put in place, particularly for those over the age of 50. In normal times that would be a challenge and it is going to be even more difficult in the light of covid. I would be grateful if he would talk about the practical steps he is taking to make sure that things are simple and secure enough to deliver it, but not too prescriptive for those delivering the vaccine; whether or not adequate funding is in place to support the flu vaccine; and any other steps he has taken to make sure we have a successful flu vaccine campaign over the winter, given the covid situation.
We are putting enormous sums into the flu vaccine programme and have released extra funds to buy more vaccine. We are deregulating and making sure that we have a wider group of people—who will all be clinically qualified—who can administer the flu vaccine; those regulations will come before the House shortly. My hon. Friend is right to say how important it is to get the communications out that everybody should get a flu jab. We will start with the free jabs for the over-65s, the frontline healthcare workers and those who are clinically vulnerable, and we will then move on to the 50 to 64-year-olds. But everybody, of every age, can get one—it is just not free to others. I encourage everybody to get one. We must tackle these online rumours that spread the pernicious anti-vax lies.
Only 40% of the 90 care homes in Enfield have had covid testing to date, so when will the Secretary of State roll out the mass testing promised to the care homes? What progress is being made to increase the use of rapid turnaround tests in care homes, in Enfield and across the country?
We are introducing more rapid turnaround tests and validating that technology. We are also rolling out asymptomatic testing to care homes. We did have a problem with the delivery of tests from Randox—these were the leading tests we were using with care homes—as I made clear to the House in July. We have spent the summer recovering that programme.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and recognise his and his Department’s Herculean efforts in leading our national fight against the virus. Throughout my constituency, there exist growing concerns that the lockdown measures to tackle localised spikes of covid-19 that have been imposed on swathes of West Yorkshire, across the Pennines and beyond may well be imposed on Wakefield, thus harming livelihoods. In order to help manage these fears and encourage adherence to the guidelines, will he publish the criteria that inform his decisions to impose or ease specific lockdown measures in certain areas, such as Kirklees, Greater Manchester and Leicester?
We publish the data on which the decisions are made and we have published the so-called “contain framework”, the one in which those decisions are taken, in consultation with the local authority and local representatives, should such an intervention be needed. What I would say to residents of Wakefield, and indeed of any other area, is that the best way to avoid local action and a local intervention is to follow the social distancing rules: “hands, face, space, and get a test if you have any symptoms”. By following social distancing we are more likely to be able to control the virus without the need then to resort to local action.
I would like to start by paying tribute to public health officials and community partners in the east end of Glasgow, who have been managing some of the local clusters. It really has been a team effort.
Part of the Secretary of State’s test, trace and isolate strategy is based on people following the advice to isolate when they show symptoms. What discussions is he having with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy regarding the pitiful levels of statutory sick pay? Anecdotally, a lot of constituents tell me that they are worried about the financial pressure of having to isolate. So what discussions on that is he having with his colleagues in Government?
As I set out in my statement, we have introduced a new scheme today.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Research on immunity once you have had covid remains critical. What progress has been made in understanding how immunity is developed and how long it lasts? What work is being undertaken in terms of rapid testing for immunity and analysis, and the technology that sits around that?
This is a very important question. Essentially, part of the research into the vaccine is research into its efficacy, which is about research into the immune response that it provokes—the antibody response and the T cell response, both of which have an impact. We are doing a huge amount of work on that and I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend with more details.
Could the Secretary of State now answer a question that he has been asked repeatedly this afternoon about the creation of the National Institute for Health Protection? What persuaded him, in the middle of August, that it was a great idea to reorganise the structure of public health in the middle of the worst pandemic for 100 years, which is a bit analogous to reorganising the fire brigade in the middle of a blaze?
It is important to bring together the leadership on test and trace, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the leadership from Public Health England into one place to make sure that our response is as effective as it possibly can be and that we are constantly searching to have the best possible response to the virus.
I know my right hon. Friend will share my excitement over the two new groundbreaking tests that can detect coronavirus in as little as 90 minutes. Does he agree that we should get that tech rolled out as quickly as possible, but particularly in care settings?
Yes I do, and I put everything I possibly have into driving it as fast as possible, subject to it working effectively.
Today’s Office for National Statistics suicide statistics show that middle-aged men remain at the highest risk of suicide. It is well established that recessions can lead to increases in suicides, but that is not inevitable. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that suicide prevention is a Government priority and that this group of people is supported through the recession caused by the covid-19 pandemic?
The hon. Lady is quite right to raise this issue. It is good to see the figures showing that suicide rates have fallen, but we absolutely must and will remain vigilant.
I thank the Secretary of State for the written ministerial statement he published after my last question to him in July. May I ask a bit more about the National Institute for Health Protection? Who was consulted before the decision was made? What is the legal basis for its present operation? Does it require legislation? What kind of public body is it intended to be: a non-ministerial department, an executive agency or a part of the Department of Health and Social Care? How will it be funded? When will there be a proper White Paper or Green Paper on the subject? Will the political appointee put in as interim head be replaced by a properly appointed public appointments-approved person? I could go on—there are plenty of unanswered questions.
I counted eight questions. Let me try to answer them. The National Institute for Health Protection does not require a legal basis; these PHE duties were not done on a legal basis. It will take on some UK-wide responsibilities, but also have responsibilities for England only. It is funded from the Department of Health and Social Care. It will be an executive agency of the Department. There is a global search under way for long-term, permanent leadership. As I said in response to the previous question, it will bring together the leadership of several different parts of the response. It was imperative, as far as I could see, to try to make sure we have that single unified leadership for the next stage of our response to the crisis. I pay tribute to the work of Public Health England. It has done an enormous amount, especially through its scientific work, which has truly been among the best in the world and has helped us to respond as well as we possibly could. I think that the new National Institute for Health Protection, established on the basis that I have set out, will make sure that we are constantly learning to have the best response, in terms of both the science and the scale, and to deliver for this country.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments in relation to dealing with anti-vaxxers. He will recall that I asked him a question before the recess and he said he was meeting Sir Nick Clegg, formerly of this House and now of Facebook fame. I wonder whether he can update the House on that discussion. It is still a reality that Facebook takes millions of dollars from anti-vax sites, and it is still the case that an increased number of people in this country fear what the vaccination could or could not mean, so may I press him to start a campaign to tackle anti-vaxxers head-on and to ensure that all Members across the House are able to take a lead on this? It really is a cross-party issue.
That campaign is under way. We are constantly looking to strengthen it. Of course Facebook and other social media providers have an important role to play. I had that meeting with Nick Clegg, who in fact broke off his holiday in order to take the meeting. [Interruption.] Zoom reaches all parts. In fairness to my former coalition ministerial partner, he absolutely understands the importance of this issue, and Facebook has been doing very significant work. That does not mean that there is not more that it can and must do, but the response was positive. Further work needs to be done to make sure that we get the positive messages across.
The Secretary of State will know that, as somebody who knows PHE well and knows what it actually does, I have some concerns about the changes that he announced last month. Although I can see the arguments about future health protection and future pandemics, of which sadly there will be more, we need to know who is taking ownership of the long-term public health work on smoking, air quality, obesity and childhood vaccinations, and the inequalities work that PHE does. Is he considering bringing that experience and vast expertise, which I benefited from as a Minister, back into the Department of Health and Social Care, for instance?
My former ministerial colleague, a distinguished former Public Health Minister, raises an incredibly important point. We are undertaking consultation on precisely this question right now; in fact, I invite him to come into the Department to give his views. The critical thing is that we need to ensure that we drive the health improvement agenda, the obesity agenda and the wider health improvement agenda forward very strongly. Local councils have a huge role to play in this, and they must be bound yet further into the health improvement agenda. The NHS has a huge role to play, and that must be bound more strongly again. Today’s announcement is good progress from the NHS. This is incredibly important. We are going to get it right. It is a very high priority of the Prime Minister, and I look forward to working with him on making it happen.
Will the Secretary of State commit to raising healthcare funding to help prevent a potential second wave, while ensuring that Scotland’s NHS receives the necessary levels of Barnett funding to help it prepare effectively for a potential winter wave and ensure that Scotland’s health workers have all the resources that they need?
Yes. This country has never increased health spending in a year more than it has this year, and the Barnett consequentials mean that many billions of pounds have flowed to Scotland to improve the response in Scotland, too.
Will the Health Secretary join me in thanking the people of Kirklees for the sacrifices that they have made during the period of the local restrictions? As he knows, thanks to the use of localised granular data, much of Kirklees will come out of those local restrictions tomorrow. Will he continue to work with me, with parliamentary colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood), with the leadership of Kirklees and with the local director of public health, and use that data, so that we can get the rest of Kirklees out of these local restrictions very soon?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has behaved with great dignity in arguing that people need to follow these restrictions but that the restrictions should be targeted and based on the data. Our approach is to have objective local action where it is necessary—only where it is necessary—based on the data. We have reached a good solution to this question in Kirklees, which will be put into force tomorrow, but I look forward to continuing to work with Kirklees to make sure we get the virus under control right across the district so that every part of Kirklees can be released from these measures, which nobody wants to put in place but which are there for a reason.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members who have participated in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.
Schools and Colleges: Qualification Results and Full Opening
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the full opening of our schools and colleges from this week, but before I do I would like to update the House on the current position regarding exam results for this year’s GCSE and A-level students.
As the House will be fully aware, exams had to be cancelled this year because of the covid-19 outbreak. Students have now received results for GCSE, AS and A-levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications, which will allow them to progress to the next stage of their lives. The independent regulator Ofqual had put in place a system for arriving at grades that was believed to be fair and robust. It became clear, however, that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A-level and AS-level students and that it was not reasonable to expect them to be dealt with through even a boosted and enhanced appeals process. Instead, students have been awarded the grades that schools and colleges estimated they would most likely have achieved, or their calculated grades if they were higher.
The situation has, I know, caused a great deal of stress and uncertainty, and I am deeply sorry that those who have borne the brunt of it have been students themselves. I can only apologise to them again for that. We took immediate action to provide certainty as soon as it was clear that if we did not, too many students would have received grades that did not reflect their hard work and ability.
For vocational and technical qualifications, the situation was different because most were not subject to standardisation like GCSE and A-level grades. Awarding organisations that used a similar model have, however, also reviewed their results to ensure that each student has been treated as fairly as possible. We recognise, however, that some students may still be unhappy with their summer grade, and that for some—such as home-educated students—there was not enough evidence for any grade to be awarded at all. To support those students, in the autumn we are running an extra exam series in all subjects at GCSE, A-level and AS-level. Additional opportunities will also be provided for some other vocational and technical qualifications that received calculated grades.
We have been working with the further and higher education sectors to manage applications for this year’s places. To ensure that students can progress to higher education, we intend to remove the temporary student-number controls that had been introduced for the coming academic year. We set up the higher education taskforce and are working closely with the sector to create additional capacity and encourage it to be as flexible as possible. Providers have agreed to honour all offers to students who meet the conditions of their offer, wherever that is possible. If a course is full, universities will give students a choice of suitable alternative courses if they are happy to take one, or a deferred place if they would prefer to wait an additional year. This year, many more students have been successful in meeting the grades required to study medicine and dentistry. The Government have removed the caps on student numbers that were in place for both subjects.
The Ofqual board has agreed temporary arrangements with Ofsted to support the ongoing work on this summer’s GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels, and on vocational qualifications, including appeals and autumn exams, as well as preparations for next year’s exam season. We are determined that exams and assessments will go ahead next year and are working with the sector to ensure that that is done as smoothly as possible.
The former chief regulator, Sally Collier, decided that the next stage of the awarding process would be better overseen by new leadership. As a result, the Ofqual board has asked Dame Glenys Stacey to act as acting chief regulator until December 2020. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sally Collier for the commitment that she has shown over the past four years and wish her well.
Although none of this disruption is what we wanted for our students, I believe that they now have the certainty and reassurance they deserve and will be able to embark on the next exciting phase of their lives. I hope the whole House will join me in wishing them all the very best for their future.
Let me now turn to the full opening of our nation’s schools and colleges. Welcoming pupils back will be a massive milestone for schools throughout the country. On 2 July, we published detailed plans for nurseries, schools, special schools and colleges that set out what was required to deliver full return as safely as possible for all our children. The guidance has been developed with medical and scientific experts and Public Health England and follows regular engagement with the education sector. The recent letter from all four UK chief medical officers, which emphasised the low risk of long-term harm from covid-19 due solely to attending school in comparison with the high risk of long-term harm from not attending school, particularly for more vulnerable children and young people, has, I hope, given parents extra assurance that with the protective measures in place, our pupils are returning to a safe environment, and an environment they will gain so much from.
As they return, pupils will be kept in consistent groups and the older children will be encouraged to distance wherever possible. At a minimum, this will mean keeping whole year groups in schools and colleges separate. This is in addition to the other protective measures, such as enhanced cleaning and hand washing. We have also advised that pupils in secondary schools should wear face coverings in communal areas if there is a local lockdown in place, unless they are exempt.
Strict hygiene protocols are in place and PPE has been distributed to every school to bolster their supplies for use in the unlikely event that a pupil develops covid symptoms on the premises. A small number of home-test kits are also being distributed for anyone who develops symptoms and who would not otherwise have access to testing themselves. All schools will also have access to direct support and advice from local health protection teams to deal with any cases that may occur.
Together with colleagues from the Department for Transport, we have announced an additional £40 million in funding for local transport authorities to ease pressure on public transport. We have also published guidance for local authorities to manage capacity and reduce the risk of infection on school transport. We have urged all students and staff to walk or cycle to school or college if this is a suitable alternative for them.
I know that these past few months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and, most of all, children have faced. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud all our dedicated education staff for the incredible efforts that they have made to keep children learning at this difficult time. I am confident that we have the necessary preparations in hand to ensure a successful return for all our pupils. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement this afternoon, but, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am afraid I must complain that I did not receive advance sight of it until 4.36 pm. You will know that, under the ministerial code, I should have had it much, much sooner.
I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place after a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion that has caused enormous stress to children, young people, their families and their teachers. Ministers must now learn from their mistakes and ensure that keeping schools open and pupils learning is a national priority. Labour is absolutely clear: we want children back in school and we want them to stay there. I will always work constructively with the Secretary of State to achieve that and I hope he will hear my questions this afternoon in that constructive spirit, because while I am delighted that the vast majority of schools will reopen fully in the next few days, there remain many issues of concern.
Let me start with the ongoing situation regarding this summer’s exam results. After days of confusion following A-level results day, the Secretary of State finally heeded calls from young people and from the Labour party and accepted the centre-assessed grades—the CAGs. While that was the right thing to do, it leaves many of the problems created by his previous flawed standardisation model unresolved.
The Secretary of State should have known of the risks. It has been reported that a former senior official of the Department raised serious concerns, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he first knew of the potential problems with his approach and what he did about them? What advice was he given specifically about BTEC students, who faced more uncertainty and delay? Can he now assure us that all BTEC students have received their results?
The Secretary of State alluded to external candidates, who do not have a CAG and who remain in a difficult situation. I do not think they will find the offer of resits sufficiently reassuring, but perhaps he can tell us what support they will receive as they undertake those exams.
There are also significant consequences for higher education, as the Secretary of State rightly noted. Can he tell the House how many young people who missed their first-choice university because of his now discredited approach to awarding grades have now been granted those places? What assessment has he made of the impact on universities that will lose students because they can now take up their original choice? What discussions has he had with the Treasury about providing those institutions with additional financial support?
With the reopening of schools, we are all pleased to see children returning to class. School is the best place for them to be, not only for their learning but for their emotional and social wellbeing, and I pay tribute to the school staff who have worked through the holidays to welcome them back safely. The test now for the Secretary of State is whether pupils continue to receive a full education throughout the year and catch up on the learning they have lost. When will pupils begin to receive support through both the catch-up premium and the national tutoring fund? Why are early years and post-16 providers ineligible for the catch-up premium? Why is the funding available for just a single year, when the impact of any further disruption to education is so significant? Can he guarantee that every child will have full access to learning in the event of a local lockdown?
Parents’ top priority as schools return is the wellbeing of their children. What plans does the Secretary of State have to provide additional pastoral support? What extra support will be available for children with special educational needs and disabilities? Parents will not be able to return to work without childcare and wraparound care. What plans does he have in place to ensure that every parent can access the care they need? Can he tell us a little more about how he will ensure that all children travel safely to school, including respecting social distancing on public transport? Finally, what additional financial support, if any, will schools receive to cover any additional covid-related costs this term?
Looking at the year ahead, I was glad to read this morning that the Secretary of State has apparently once again listened to Labour and will delay exams in summer 2021. Pupils entering year 11 and year 13 have already experienced significant disruption to their learning, and the assessment process must recognise that, but schools, colleges and universities need time to plan. What discussions is he having with the sector and UCAS to ensure that workable arrangements are in place? Can he guarantee that a contingency plan will be put in place this month in case exams are disrupted again?
Children and their families should have been the Government’s top priority, but for weeks their interests have taken a back seat while the Secretary of State U-turned on everything from CAGs to face masks and left officials to take the blame. He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay. I implore him to listen to the concerns of parents, of teachers and of the Labour party. He must now make the education of our children and young people a national, and his personal, priority.
I apologise to the hon. Lady for her receiving the statement late. I will ensure that it does not happen again.
I am delighted to hear that it is the Labour party’s priority to see all children going back. The leadership the hon. Lady is showing is a refreshing change from that of her predecessor, who was more ambivalent about children returning to school. The Conservatives have continuously argued for children to be back in the classroom at the earliest possible stage.
The hon. Lady raises some important issues about children who are not in school and so were not able to receive centre assessment grades. We always recognised that that situation was going to present challenges. That is why we put forward an autumn series as there was going to be no other viable way to be able to provide the assessment.
The hon. Lady raises important points about higher education, which is vital. I would also like to flag up some of the challenges in the further education sector. As not everyone will be progressing on to university, many youngsters will want to take the opportunity to progress on to further education. We have been working with both sectors to ensure that that is the case. We will be increasing funding for the higher education and university sector through the teaching grant. We have also lifted the cap on medicine and dentistry places to create extra capacity within the system. We have seen a drop-off in the number of students coming from European Union countries who would traditionally have come to the UK to study, and this has obviously created extra capacity within the system as well.
We have already delivered a £1 billion covid catch-up fund that is targeted at helping youngsters from the most disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds. We have used evidence to see how we can help to improve their outcomes, working with the Education Endowment Foundation to ensure that that money is targeted at interventions that will deliver results.
The hon. Lady touches on the potential for moving exams back. Back in June in this House, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), I said that that was something we highlighted that we would be doing. On 2 July, Ofqual held a public consultation about potentially moving the exam dates back. I have checked whether the Labour party suggested that it would support this move and found that it did not make a submission supporting the idea. Therefore, I very much welcome the Labour party to our position.
We will continue to work with local authorities in ensuring that we have the transport infrastructure in place. I have touched on the fact that £40 million has been made available. Transport for London and other transport authorities have been working very closely with the Department for Transport and the Department for Education—and, most importantly, with schools—to try to deal with any transport bottlenecks that may occur. We will continue to work with all local authorities to ensure that this is done as smoothly as possible. It is absolutely vital that we do everything we can do to ensure that every child has the opportunity to get back to school. I think we all know, on both sides of this House, how important it is to see all children benefiting from a brilliant education—having the opportunity to be back in the classroom to be inspired by their teachers. That is what we will be delivering. That is what we will see over this week and next week as all schools return and welcome their pupils back.
I thank my right hon. Friend for this statement. In July, our Education Committee report suggested a delay in the date of the exams. Given that we now know that millions of children have not been learning during the lockdown, does he agree that the way forward should be an urgent assessment, or benchmarking, of all children in school, with data collected by the Department for Education and regulators to inform the Government’s decision as to when the exams are to take place next year?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of benchmarking and making an assessment as to where pupils are. We will be doing that, working right across the sector to ensure that there is a clear understanding of where some of the learning gaps are in order for us to best deal with them. It will also be absolutely vital in informing policy for the year ahead.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement; I nearly had time to read it before he started speaking.
Scottish schools have been back for three weeks now, and although there have been cases of covid, track and trace has meant that disruption has been kept to a minimum. May I thank everyone who has helped to prepare our schools for reopening? May I also wish schools in Northern Ireland, England and Wales the very best of success as they start to return?
This has been a summer of confusion for young people across the UK, who found themselves at the mercy of algorithms. When Scotland’s young people received their results on 4 August, it became clear that something had gone wrong. But John Swinney sat down, he listened to the young people, he apologised for the turmoil and, crucially, he took decisive action. Predicted grades were awarded and new funding was found for universities to ensure that any young people with the entry grades would secure their place. Despite what the Secretary of State has said this afternoon, his actions were certainly not immediate. He had both foresight and time on his side, but squandered both, and managed to mess up further over the validity of appeals. By the time of his U-turn on results, university places had been lost.
The schools Minister has maintained that he did not see the algorithm until results day, suggesting that something went wrong with its implementation. So what questions were Ministers asking prior to the publication of results? Did anyone ask for a trial run of the algorithm? Although there are calls to delay next year’s exams, any postponement introduces further issues in terms of marking and certification, so what consideration has been given to rationalising courses, which would allow quality, rich learning, rather than superficially covering everything in a reduced time?
I know the Secretary of State is reluctant to follow Scotland’s lead on anything, but Scottish youngsters have accepted the need for masks in corridors without any great issues. Why is he determined that England will not follow World Health Organisation advice? We do not need local lockdowns for people to wear masks; young people are willingly participating. He has a duty of care to young people and teachers.
In any normal Cabinet, the Secretary of State’s repeated failure to take responsibility would lead to his sacking, but in this blame-passing Government, when the PM himself talks of mutant algorithms, his coat is not even on a shoogly peg. Will he now listen to the scientific advice and ensure that pupils, staff and the wider school community are as safe as possible as their schools return?
The hon. Lady will probably have witnessed the fact that over 1.6 million children returned to school before the summer holidays here in England. It is interesting that she raises the issue of listening to the best scientific and medical advice, which is exactly what we do. We have followed the best scientific and medical advice at every stage. That is something the Scottish Government did not do when they did not listen to the chief medical officer in Scotland, who did not support their proposal on face masks, which was basically a political decision, as against one that was informed by the best science and medicine.
There have been many individual initiatives over the summer to help children to catch up, including the brilliant Invicta Academy, which was started in Kent. Can my right hon. Friend outline the steps that his Department is taking to help all children to catch up, especially the most deprived, who we know have been hardest hit by the gap in education?
It is great to hear about the brilliant work of the Invicta Academy. We have seen brilliant examples right across the country of schools doing so much to support learning when children have been out of school, but also over the summer as well. The reason for the £1 billion covid catch-up fund is that we recognise that more needs to be done and more assistance and help needs to be available. That is why £350 million of the fund is targeted at children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—those who need the most support to catch up—to ensure that their life chances are not impacted by this virus. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will receive the benefits of that in Sevenoaks and right across Kent.
More than 14,000 schools submitted a claim for exceptional costs since schools closed in March. What does the Secretary of State think will happen when that support is simply cut off this term?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we announced last year a £14.4 billion increase in school funding. That was a three-year deal, and we are seeing it rolled out in this academic year, the following academic year and the year after that. It will have a truly beneficial effect on every pupil right across the country.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement that he brought to the House today, and I also thank him and all his team for the huge efforts they have put in over the summer in an evolving situation that must have been really difficult to manage. Does he agree with the result of a recent study showing that the risks to children from covid-19 are actually very tiny, and that the benefits children will gain from a return to school far outweigh any risks posed by covid?
I am very aware that my constituency neighbour, who has been out campaigning and doing everything he can to get all children in his constituency back into school, is a real champion of their educational achievements and what children are doing right across Dudley North. He is right to highlight that study, and the fact that there will be more harm done to children by their not returning to school than by coming back to school. We all know the benefits, and this is not just about education; it is also about the physical health and mental health that children gain from being back in school. That is why it was vital to open schools before the summer, and that is why it is so vital to have every child back in school enjoying the true joy of what school is able to offer them.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Deputy Speaker. Watching the A-levels results fiasco from back home in Wales, it seemed that the policy of the Labour Government in my country closely resembled the policy of the Secretary of State’s Department. Can he outline how closely the Governments were working together?
It is fair to say that the Scottish National party in Scotland, the Conservatives in England, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Wales, and the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland had a very common approach. The Labour party, as well as all parties, has been of the view that calculated grades and moderation within the system were an important part of ensuring fairness within the system. It was a common political consensus across the United Kingdom.
I recognise the focus of the Secretary of State and the ministerial teams on supporting pupils, parents and teachers throughout what has been one of the most difficult periods in policy development. I also recognise that these challenges have been equal in all parts of the United Kingdom. My constituents have faced similar difficulties to those in England, as the Secretary of State has just recognised. May I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend for the guidance that has led to so many pupils returning to school? Does he also recognise that guidance is guidance, that it cannot account for every circumstance and that judgments will need to be made at the most local of levels?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. He will know all too well that many schools across the Vale of Glamorgan have different pressures, and we are seeing this right across England as well. Whether a school has 40 pupils or 1,400, it will need to adapt and change to ensure that it creates a safe and secure environment for the pupils and for those who are working in the school. By doing that, it creates greater safety and confidence in the wider community. Guidance is there to support teachers, headteachers and all those who work in schools, and it is leading to all schools returning and the opportunity for all pupils to benefit from a great education.
Schools across the country could be spending hundreds of millions of pounds to meet the costs of covid-19. With budgets already at breaking point, many will have to cut spending in other areas, such as support for disadvantaged students, in order to afford these costs. To ensure that no child is left behind, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government could meet the full costs of making schools covid-secure and ensuring that they can return safely?
The Government have outlined increases in school budgets for not just this academic year but the next one and will be increasing school funding further in the academic year after that, in one of the most generous settlements of any Department.
I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on all their Herculean efforts to get children back into schools, which is where they need to be. It is estimated that more than 2 million young people are behind in their education, so the additional funding is warmly welcomed. What guidance is he giving, for example, on extending the school day in secondary schools by 30 minutes, which would enable young people to catch up and teachers to catch up with teaching the curriculum, so that we do not have to reduce the impact of GCSEs or A-levels in examining what children have learned?
As part of the advice that was worked up along with the Education Endowment Foundation, one of the key recommendations was looking at how to extend the school day and at provision on weekends, in order to support children who need that little bit of extra help and have had a real impact on their educational attainment. All these measures can have an enormously positive effect. That is why we developed the £1 billion covid catch-up fund, so that schools have the ability to take such action.
It is truly shocking that either the Government did not ask to see the A-level algorithm applied to real-world results, or they did ask to see it and did not notice that it hit pupils in disadvantaged schools the hardest. To understand what happened, will the Government publish details of the equality impact assessment that I am sure they conducted during the process that led to the original grading approach?
One of the key reasons we took the decision to move to moderated grades in March was that many of the studies previously carried out showed that going to purely predicted grades was most likely to disadvantage those from the most disadvantaged communities and those from ethnic minority communities. That is what informed the approach. One of the key elements that I highlighted when I wrote to Ofqual was the need to ensure that those who are disadvantaged were not disadvantaged by any approach that was taken.
We heard this morning that disadvantaged children and boys were likely to be most behind as a result of missed school. I also saw on the BBC a fantastically articulate child who said that she was anxious about going back school because she was fearful about how she would catch up. Can my right hon. Friend explain in greater detail when the tutorials that he is working so hard on with the Education Endowment Foundation will begin and what benefits children will see?
We are working closely with the Education Endowment Foundation to ensure that those tutorials are rolled out through this academic year. All the studies point to the fact that the benefits that accrue to children are incredibly rapid, over quite a short period. Having small group tuition can deliver real leaps in learning within four to five months, so there is an immediate benefit from doing it, and that shows the urgency of bringing it forward. My right hon. Friend points to the slight trepidation of a child she saw on TV about returning to school. What we have seen across the board is that when children get to school, their faces light up, and the teachers are there to welcome them and are so keen to see them. That is what we want to see, and that is what we are seeing across the country. The benefits will be truly profound, not just for those children but much more widely in society.
New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that 98% of teachers believe that pupils are behind where they would normally expect them to be in the curriculum. Across the country, pupils have lost months of learning, and it is clear that many will need sustained support in order to catch up on the time lost. Can the Secretary of State tell me when those pupils will start to receive additional support from the catch-up premium and national tutoring fund?
The national tutoring fund and the covid catch-up premium will be implemented for this coming academic year, so children get the benefit of it immediately.
I pay tribute to the staff across the Aylesbury constituency for all the work they have done preparing for children to get back to class safely this week. Will my right hon. Friend set out what his Department is doing specifically to help support children with special educational needs and disabilities, particularly those who are in mainstream schools?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I join him in paying tribute to all those who work in the schools, nurseries and colleges across the Aylesbury constituency for the work they have been doing over the summer to welcome children back. We recognise that there are some unique challenges for children with special educational needs not just in the mainstream sector, but in special schools. This is why we have consistently provided targeted advice on how to support them, recognising that some of their needs are going to be extra for them and that schools are in the best position to be able to support them on their return.
Some BTEC students in my constituency are still to receive their grades. Qualifications such as those underpin the social mobility of some of our most disadvantaged students, 50% of whom got into university with at least one of them in 2018. Can the Secretary of State confirm when every BTEC student will receive their grades and what steps he will take to ensure that the life chances and career prospects of these students have not been fatally undermined?
I know that the awarding organisation Pearson is working very closely with the centres where there are still some students who have not received their grades. This is something that occurs each year, and the number of youngsters who received their BTEC awards was significantly higher than the previous year, but there are some centres where there continue to be some challenges. I know that Pearson is working closely with those centres to resolve those and ensure that those grades and qualifications are awarded as swiftly as possible.
It has been six months since many of our young children have been in school, and for many of us parents that means witnessing our children losing not just their educational opportunities, but their social development, so I congratulate the Department, the ministerial team and all in the sector on getting our schools open. It is the most important thing. The Secretary of State is aware that I have concerns about the use of face masks, but if that means we get the schools open, then so be it. Can we please keep that evidence under review, because it would be ideal if young children had the message that their school is safe and there is no encumbrance on their education?
My hon. Friend speaks incredibly passionately about the importance of ensuring that youngsters are in the best position to be able to learn in the best and most comfortable environment. We do not believe it is necessary for youngsters or people at school to wear a face mask, except where we have made it mandatory in local lockdown areas. The chief medical officer and the deputy chief medical officer have been consistent in their approach—that this is not something needed in every school right across the country. Where people are not in local lockdown areas, there is no need to wear a face mask, but what is so important is to see all children welcomed back. That is what we will see over this next week, and I think the whole House joins me in thanking all the staff who have made that possible.
I think the World Health Organisation might disagree with what the Secretary of State has just said, but I want to reflect on the impact on universities and higher education. They are already feeling the impact of the lack of international students coming in to pay fees, and now funding extra places as a result of the regrading is also going to cost money. He talks about increasing capacity, but what that has to mean is increased funding, which of course, as Barnett consequentials, would be passed on north of the border to allow the Scottish Government to continue to do the same. What discussions is he having with the Treasury to make sure that universities are fully resourced throughout this crisis?
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the World Health Organisation. He will no doubt have read the World Health Organisation’s guidance, which mentioned areas of high transmission. I am aware that Aberdeen has had a local lockdown, but I certainly was not aware that the whole of Scotland was an area of high transmission. If World Health Organisation advice was followed, he would probably find that the measures need not have been applied right across Scotland, but that is obviously a devolved decision and I very much respect that. We continue to work right across the university sector with Universities UK. Obviously funding follows English students as they go to university in all four corners of the United Kingdom, but we will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the brilliant university sector continues to prosper in the future.
I sincerely hope that no school in South Suffolk finds itself in full local lockdown at tiers 3 and 4, but I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has promised that all pupils will have access to remote learning if schools find themselves in that situation. Will he clarify a point? In partial lockdown—tier 2—where there is attendance by rota, would those pupils who were not attending physically also have the chance to participate in remote lessons?
In what we would certainly hope to be a very unusual situation—whereby there was a local lockdown and where every other measure had been taken, including extra social distancing, and the closure of other businesses and facilities—we would then move to a tier 2 level. There is a clear expectation that in those circumstances, as was set out in the guidance on 2 July, there will be continuity of education, and youngsters—even if they are not in school, on a rota basis—would still be expected to be learning at home.
The Secretary of State mentioned in his statement that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A-level and AS-level students, and that it is not reasonable for these all to be dealt with, even through a boosted appeals system. Will he outline how he intends to provide additional support for students who wish to sit their exams to bring their grades up through no fault of their own, and will he cover the exam fees for those students?
I can confirm that that is the case; we will cover those exam fees. We are looking at running the series in the autumn. Obviously, these are GCSE and A-level papers, some of which will be taken by Northern Ireland students, who use a number of the English boards to take more specialist subjects. We will be running this series in the autumn, and it is an important opportunity for young people if they want to take it up.
Some parents have raised issues about the quality of online learning for their children during the summer. Although I know that all schools in Gloucestershire are doing their best, I am struck by the campaign group “Sept. for Schools”, which has highlighted the discrepancies in online learning. Does my right hon. Friend agree with them and with me that it would help to create minimum quality thresholds for remote learning in all schools, with additional funds for digital disadvantage, so that pupils from whatever school—in Gloucester or elsewhere—will all get quality online learning whenever it is needed?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is why we set out in guidance a clear expectation of what is a minimum. As part of Ofsted’s inspection regime, it will be looking at the evidence to see what has been put in place to ensure continuity of education for children when there has been disruption to normal classroom learning.
The postcode of where people are born should never limit where they end up in life; yet that is exactly how young people in Luton North felt when their results were downgraded. Some BTEC students are yet to receive their grades. Does the Secretary of State truly understand the level of hurt that he has caused? And I will ask again, because I did not hear an answer earlier: when will BTEC students get the grades?
The hon. Lady tries to imply it was about postcodes. At no stage has the system been anything to do with postcodes, and it is misleading to imply otherwise. As one would expect, we have always aimed to ensure as much fairness in the system as possible; we have done that at every step of the way. On BTECs, I allude to the answer I gave a few moments ago. Where colleges are still awaiting final qualifications, it is usually because there is a gap in the final information that Pearson, the awarding organisation, needs to make the awards, but it has assured us it is making every effort to close that circle and ensure that all youngsters due a qualification receive one, once it gets all the information required.
As many children and young people head back to school across Keighley and Ilkley in the coming days, they and their teachers, who have done an excellent job over the last few months, may naturally be concerned and have higher anxiety levels about going back. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to support the mental health and wellbeing of children as they go back to school in the coming days?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I touched on it earlier in answer to another hon. Friend about the importance of going back to school not just for the educational benefits, but for physical and mental health. We recognise, however, that we have been living in extraordinary times, and that is why we have established a £9 million fund to help those youngsters and people who work in the sector to deal with mental health issues.
As the furlough scheme comes to an end, there will almost certainly be a sharp rise in unemployment. Has the Secretary of State considered using this as a one-off opportunity to get a new generation of mature students into further and higher education so that when the economy does recover from the covid crisis, our workforce is fully skilled for the challenges that lie ahead?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Sadly, some people will be out of work as a result of this crisis. How do we retain that human capital and give them more skills to open up new opportunities, whether through the higher education sector or our further education colleges? Measures such as the skills toolkit we introduced for furloughed workers and the skills package the Chancellor announced before the summer recess are an investment in ensuring that not just young people but people of all ages can get the skills they need to succeed, skill up and get the best opportunities and jobs in the future.
As I understand it, from what is reported, the overall results this year are 10% to 12% higher than they might have been if people had sat exams. I am thinking of next year’s cohort and particularly of those who have slipped their university place to next year on their exam results this year. This will make it very difficult for people who might have got an A under this year’s rules but get a B next year. There seems to be a measure of unfairness there that will have to be sorted out by universities and employers. Does the Secretary of State have any idea how we can equalise this apparent unfairness?
My hon. Friend highlights the challenges of competition between year groups and ensuring fairness across year groups. We will work with Ofqual and the whole sector to achieve that fairness because we do not want youngsters taking exams in 2021 to be disadvantaged in any way.
What does the Education Secretary have to say to his friends the Scottish Conservatives? Just when he was copying the Scottish Government’s approach to resolving the exams crisis, they were supporting a motion of no confidence in the Scottish Education Secretary, who was just doing what the Education Secretary was about to do. At any point, did they come to him and similarly ask him to consider his position? If they did not, would he like to comment on their consistency?
One of the great pleasures that I have had over this period is working very closely with the Education Minister and Deputy First Minister, Mr Swinney. We have always tried to work together in a collaborative manner. We do recognise that there are some real shared challenges right across all four nations of the United Kingdom. What is clear is that, as a United Kingdom, we are so much stronger together, because the support that is there—whether it be job retention schemes or the extra £6 billion-plus towards universal credit—shows that every one of the four nations of the United Kingdom is richer and stronger as a result of a Union, which, sadly, the hon. Gentleman always wants to break up.
The Government did the right thing in lifting the cap on places at medical and dental schools, but there is still a practical problem. Constituents like a number of mine are still waiting to know whether they will get places this year or have to defer. That is because the negotiations on funding have still not apparently been resolved between the schools and the Department of Health. Will my right hon. Friend tell his colleague the Secretary State for Health as a matter of urgency that we need to give these young people, who are embarking on lengthy professional qualification courses and whose skills we desperately need, some certainty as to when they are able to start their courses? It is a huge stress for them and their parents and hardly in the country’s long-term interest.
I would be more than delighted to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to discuss this matter and ensure that we get as many young people as possible taking medical and dentistry degrees. We also want to consider how, if there is some expansion in the area, this can be something that is long term, by which I mean actually growing the talent as much as possible within our own country in order to support the NHS long into the future as against bringing doctors from abroad in order to support the brilliant work of our NHS, which has so often been the case in the past.
The Secretary of State will be aware that research from the National Foundation for Educational Research shows an increase of 46% in the gap between children from wealthy households and children from more deprived households. The Children’s Commissioner estimated that 540,000 children would require a laptop because they did not have provision at home, but only 200,000 were supplied. In my question to the Secretary of State on 2 July, I asked why there were so few; why they were so late; and why there was a discrepancy between the date I received in a written answer, which was mid-April, versus mid-May, which is when it was claimed that those laptops were actually ordered.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I do not quite recall the answer that I gave him in mid-April to his written question, but I will write to him with reference to that if he will be so gracious as to accept a letter. We saw the dispatch of more than 200,000 laptops, as well as additional devices for internet connectivity. We have ordered an additional 150,000 devices to support those communities that are most disadvantaged in terms of local lockdowns. This is one of the biggest purchases of computing equipment that the Government have undertaken, and I am sure he will understand that it is not feasible to procure that number of laptops and have them arrive within a week. They have to be procured and ordered and, as I am sure he will understand, there are some shipping delays. None the less, we have done it in good order and on time and when we said that we would do so.
The Secretary of State rightly made mention of Ofqual’s consultation over next year’s exams that took place this summer. One idea that emerged was to increase optionality in written exams to help those students who would not have completed the full syllabus. Ofqual rejected that, arguing that students were “independent learners” and therefore did not need that assistance. Can he revisit that particular decision by Ofqual, because, in my view, it is far better to adjust the start of the exam process than the end of the exam process with the consequential impact on both college and university admissions?
We have been looking at ways of reducing assessment burdens, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in greater detail some of this thoughts and ideas.
Education is rightly a devolved matter across the UK, but the past few weeks have shown that even good decisions taken in one jurisdiction can have knock-on effects on the others, on student flows across the UK and on the balance between higher and further education. Will the Secretary of State consider a more formal structure in order to engage the four education Ministers across the UK to ensure that lessons are learned and we can better prepare for other crises?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He refers to the strength of the United Kingdom and of working together. I pay tribute to Peter Weir, the Northern Ireland Education Minister, who worked incredibly closely on some of the issues that all four nations of the United Kingdom have had to tackle. A co-ordinated approach across all four nations is important. What happens in one area has an impact on the other three. Ensuring that there is as much collaboration as possible, as is the tradition in the education sector, is vital if we are to get the best outcomes for all children and students in each of the four nations.
My constituency has significant disparities in wealth so I am concerned about the attainment gap that appears to be emerging between the affluent and the disadvantaged. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we are doing everything to level up pupils from poor backgrounds?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight this. It is why we made the unprecedented move of announcing the £1 billion covid catch-up fund back in June, recognising that there are some real challenges in communities, especially the most disadvantaged. We believe that it will have a direct impact on many of the youngsters in schools right across my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Given the surge in demand for testing in Scotland related to the recent return of all children to full-time education there, which incidentally my family and I were part of last week, what engagement has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government to inform and mitigate a likely similar situation in England and support a successful safe return to learning?
We are always learning right across the spectrum about some of the challenges that can occur. We had more than 1.6 million pupils back into school before the summer recess, and I am sure that that provided many lessons and benefits for the devolved nations in terms of what a safe return looked like for children.
The hon. Lady highlights the importance of having testing readily available. We have worked incredibly closely, hand in glove in fact, with Public Health England. The guidance that was developed, especially scientific and medical advice about how we ensure a safe return, has been informed by Public Health England, and it has collaborated with the public health authorities in Scotland. It is why we have test kits in every school. We recognise that not all youngsters—especially some of those from the most deprived families—will necessarily be in a position to access testing easily. We recognise how important it is that they have a test and return to school at the earliest moment possible.
Last week I visited Inspire Suffolk in Ipswich with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Children’s Minister, to see the excellent work that they have done for their school holiday programme to help disadvantaged pupils stay engaged and motivated throughout the summer holiday. I welcome the significant DFE funding that is enabling Inspire Suffolk to run 1,700 sessions across Suffolk.
Will my hon. Friend commit to support charities such as Inspire Suffolk so that in future, as we tackle these challenges, we back charities that have a key role to play, in partnership with schools, in ensuring that our kids can catch up and get the support that they need?
My hon. Friend has raised this issue in the House before and has championed the work of holiday activity programmes across his constituency and more broadly. We have rolled out the holiday activity programme for a second year. We are looking at how we can do more and build on an incredibly successful programme. I would be happy to work with him and other organisations to see that delivered.
Regarding the departure of both his permanent secretary and the chair of Ofqual, when did the Education Secretary first realise that his handling of the examination debacle was so useless that other people’s heads had to roll?
At every stage, everyone, whether in Ofqual or the DFE—across the whole education sector—has been looking at how we ensure fairness and the very best for every child in this country. That is what we would all expect to see and that is what we have been doing. Yes, we did have to make changes, but the right thing to do was to make those changes, because fairness for young people is the most important thing for me and all those who work in education.
May I join my right hon. Friend in commending everybody in schools and all they have done to ensure a full return this week and welcome the clear message that, if there were to be future localised outbreaks, all possible measures would come before restricting attendance in education? Will he outline some of the contingency planning going into that so that, even if there were to be disruption, education would still continue? Will he confirm that although IT and online lessons may be a part of what needs to be considered, it certainly is not all?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how this is not just about IT; it is about ensuring that youngsters are supported at home in their learning and that can be done through so many means other than just through a laptop. However, we have made the commitment of rolling out and increasing the purchase of laptops by another 150,000 to ensure that, where communities are in local lockdown, schools who have children from the most deprived backgrounds have access to that resource. But that has to be an absolute last course of action we take, because we know that nothing substitutes for the learning a child gets through being in the classroom with their teachers and being inspired by those teachers, who are giving the enthusiasm to learn. That is why this Government will do absolutely everything they can do to ensure that schools remain open at every stage of our response to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
I am afraid that this is just not good enough; the Secretary of State cannot wash his hands of responsibility for this summer’s fiasco. I am afraid that it is worse than incompetence; it stems from his Government’s obsession with testing and grade inflation, and their profound aversion to teacher assessment and coursework. So does he not agree that these are political, ministerial decisions, not bureaucracy? When will he take responsibility?
I hate to remind the hon. Lady, but a Labour and Lib Dem Administration in Wales took the exact same policy decision on moderated grades, because of a belief that this was the fairest approach to ensure that there was a good standard of assessment and that youngsters got the grades they had worked for over the previous 11 or 13 years.
From speaking to teachers across my constituency this summer, I know that they share my passion for narrowing the attainment gap for children from more deprived areas. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend share his plans for ensuring that every child is given the best possible chance to achieve, regardless of where they are from?
My hon. Friend, who represents West Bromwich East, highlights exactly why we had to have the covid catch-up fund. It was because in so many constituencies such as hers youngsters from really deprived areas really need that extra support. That is why we have targeted that support in the way that is best going to assist them to do that catch-up. That is not just for years 10, 11, 12 and 13, but for youngsters right through the education system, in order to make sure they are in the best place to be able to succeed and to make sure that our agenda and our commitment to level up right across the country, on which we got elected back in December 2019, is something we deliver on.
Coming from the constituency that had the highest attainment gap, it is deeply troubling for me that research published today highlights the fact that the gap has increased by 46% in an education system in which disadvantaged young people already experience significant detriment. Does that not indicate that for this academic year and the next, a recovery curriculum should be put in place and end-of-year assessments adjusted away from exam-only assessment, so that inequalities are not entrenched and no young person is further disadvantaged?
That is why we have introduced the covid catch-up fund: we recognise that there are challenges for youngsters who have missed out on learning and we need to make sure that we give schools and those youngsters the maximum amount of support so that they are able to catch up. One thing that is clear is that the best form of assessment is always examination. Any other route is certainly less good than an exam route.
I welcome the fact that there is money in the tutoring fund for 16-to-19 providers, but sixth-form colleges such as St Brendan’s in my constituency get less for pupils if they have to stay on for three years—perhaps because they are retaking GCSEs—than for pupils who just do the two years. Is it not time to rectify that anomaly and make sure that all pupils get the same funding, so that providers can give extra attention to those pupils who need it?
The aim of the covid catch-up funding and the reason why we are covering across 16 to 19-year-olds is because we recognise the fact that youngsters of all ages have suffered as a result of coronavirus. I will take up the hon. Lady’s point and write to her separately on her particular concerns about those youngsters who have to have a resit year and therefore do three years of study as against two years.
I had the pleasure of visiting Marshlands School in my Stafford constituency earlier this summer and was very impressed by the efforts of staff and Staffordshire County Council to support students during the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State outline today the steps that his Department is taking to assist children with special educational needs and disabilities, to ensure that they can return to school?
First, I congratulate the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, of course, Staffordshire County Council on their work to ensure that there is a smooth opening of schools right across Staffordshire, as we are seeing throughout the country. We have been particularly careful to ensure that there is specialist guidance for special school settings because it is vital to ensure that every child has access to education. One decision that we took early on—we were one of the first nations in the world to do so—was to make sure that children who are vulnerable, including those with education, health and care plans, had access to continuity of education all the way through this crisis, because we recognise that some children with acute special needs, and their families, need support at every stage of the coronavirus pandemic.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Will those who are leaving the Chamber please take care? The sitting is suspended for three minutes.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier this afternoon, I asked a question of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about prevention of suicide, with reference to middle-aged men and today’s Office for National Statistics figures. The Secretary of State replied briefly and started by saying that it was good to see suicide figures going down. Sadly, he was mistaken. The ONS figures published today show an increase over the previous year, particularly in the group to which I referred: middle-aged men. Can you advise me, Mr Deputy Speaker, how I can ensure that the record is corrected and whether you will request that the Secretary of State comes to the Chamber to correct the record?
I thank the hon. Lady for advance notice of her point of order. I was not here for the statement, so I did not hear the question or the answer, but I would ask those on the Treasury Bench to bring that point of order to the attention of the Secretary of State. If he unintentionally made a mistake in the response that he gave, then I am sure that he will correct it in the normal way. Thank you.
Immigration (Health and Social Care Staff)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to grant indefinite leave to remain to health and social care staff; and for connected purposes.
It is fair to say that I did not appreciate that I would need the national health service and its medical staff to save my life until they did. When my hospital bed was surrounded by doctors and nurses in the middle of the night, talking in terms and about things that I was in too much pain and had too high a fever to understand, I did not stop to think about their visa status—and neither, fortunately, did they.
That was a while ago now, but sadly it is a feeling that has been all too common to too many people in this country—our families, our friends and even the Prime Minister—since covid-19 hit our communities this past spring. What has rightly mattered to all of us and all the staff is that people get the best care possible. I do not think it is stretching the point to say that it has felt at times that this country, like most of the world, has been at war with covid-19. Our hospitals and care homes have felt like this generation’s frontline. Again, we have not stopped to think about anyone’s visa status, and neither have they.
Our media these past few months have not been full of stories of foreign nationals in the NHS refusing to work because it is dangerous and puts their lives at risk. No; quite the opposite. What we have seen is row after row of pictures of NHS workers, many of them foreign nationals, who have lost their lives to this virus. We have seen their names; we have read their stories. The 57-year-old healthcare assistant who died on 14 April, and the 51-year-old dental nurse who trained in the Philippines before coming to Swansea and who died on the same day, were both on visas.
Earlier this summer, through the advocacy organisation EveryDoctor, I met someone who had been working on the frontline of this pandemic. A specialist in emergency medicine, he has lost colleagues and knows the daily strain of fighting to keep alive those people struggling to combat the virus, while never being completely sure whether he has been infected himself. He is a migrant. He has been working on the frontline, paying tax and national insurance to the Exchequer, working for us, contributing, but he will in time have to apply for a fresh visa and pay for it—£700.
One reason I find that difficult to accept is that I have been so immensely proud of the way our communities came out on their doorsteps every Thursday to applaud those working in our health and care sectors. I am sure that most, if not all, of us in this place took part. It was spontaneous, it was heartfelt and it was moving—but was it enough? Will it be enough if we have to suffer this winter when, as is widely predicted, the virus returns? I think we all know that the answer to that question is no, it will not. There has to be more, and that has to be down to us in this place.
Our Government have not yet done enough, either for those born and brought in this country or for those who have come here to work. For all those working in our NHS for the past year, there must surely be more recognition and thanks for putting themselves in harm’s way. The virus has not discriminated in whom it attacks—we are all vulnerable, our black, Asian and ethnic minorities more than any other community—but what we are doing could be seen as discriminating in how we thank those who defend us. It is time we recognised properly the contributions that have been made.
To be fair, the Government have to some extent acknowledged that with their one-year visa extension for about 3,000 health and care staff with visas that a