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Topical Questions

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021

Yesterday, we launched our UK vaccines delivery plan, which sets out how we will vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people every day, starting with the most vulnerable and staff in the NHS and social care. I am delighted that across the UK 2.3 million people have already been vaccinated. We are on track to deliver our commitment to offer a first dose to everyone in the most vulnerable groups by 15 February. At the same time, I add my voice to all those who are passing on their very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is undergoing further treatment on the NHS. I personally thank all those in the NHS who are looking after him and all the other patients in their care.

The NHS is overwhelmed, and critical clinical choices are having to be made due to the limitations of estate and staffing. So I ask the Secretary of State if he will do two things: first, bring all independent hospitals under the NHS to provide a response to the national crisis and, in particular, provide cancer care capacity; and secondly, call all former health professionals to return to practice and re-register even if they are beyond the three years out of practice limit, so they can work with an element of supervision and no one is denied the clinical need they have.

Of course, all these things are being looked at. The pressures on the NHS are very significant. I also want to say to people who have a healthcare condition that is not covid-related that they should come forward to the NHS. The promise of the NHS, of always treating people according to their clinical need and not ability to pay, is crucial. It is just as crucial in these pressured times as it is at any other time. If you find a lump or a bump, if you have a problem with your heart, or if there is a condition for which you need to come forward for urgent treatment, then the NHS is open and you must help us to help you. So, yes, we absolutely will do everything we possibly can to address the pressures, including looking at the measures the hon. Lady set out, but also let the message go out that, if you need the NHS for other conditions, please do come forward.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed of the vaccine roll-out and, in particular, his foresight in setting up the Vaccine Taskforce as far back as last April, which has made that possible. Personal thanks from my mum, who is getting her vaccine tomorrow at Epsom racecourse. Understandably, however, the public’s expectations about how quickly they will get their vaccine are now running well ahead of the system’s ability to deliver, causing floods of calls to GPs’ surgeries, which are already very busy. What can we do to set expectations among the public that getting to population-level immunity will be a marathon, not a sprint?

That is right. The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee is wise to say that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. As of the early hours of this morning, we have vaccinated 39.9% of over-80-year-olds in England. We will reach all over-80-year-olds and ensure that they have the offer a vaccine in the coming weeks, and we will reach all of the top four priority groups by 15 February. We are on track and I am confident that we will deliver that. The other message that my right hon. Friend will perhaps help all of us to pass on to all his constituents, including his mum, is that the NHS will get in contact with them and offer them an appointment. That is the best and fairest way in which we can get the roll-out happening.

The Secretary of State will know that we cannot protect the NHS unless we also protect social care, yet there are worrying signs that the Government risk losing control of the virus there too. Infection rates in care homes have tripled in a month; homes are reporting staff absence of up to 40%; and the latest weekly care home deaths are the highest since May. So can the Secretary of State set out what immediate extra support he can provide so that the sector can cope, and will he commit to publishing daily vaccination rates for care home residents and staff, so that we know whether the Government are on track to completing all those vaccinations in less than three weeks’ time?

We have made that commitment and it is incredibly important that vaccinations are offered to everybody in care homes. The NHS is working hard to deliver on that with its colleagues in social care. Across the board, colleagues are working hard to deliver this life-saving vaccine. Of course, we are always open to further support for social care and it is something that we are working on right now to ensure that we can get the right support for testing, in particular to support the workforce, who are absolutely central to making this happen.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are excited to be the planned home of a mass vaccination centre. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is working around the clock, as it has done throughout the pandemic, to ensure that everything is ready from its end. Can my right hon. Friend give his assurances that the necessary equipment and staff will be ready to go on 25 January so that we can get more jabs into arms? (910550)

I am delighted that there is going to be a mass vaccination centre. I can give that assurance—we are working as hard as we possibly can to ensure that all the equipment is there. Everybody thinks about the vaccine—that is very important—but it is also about all the other things that are needed, such as the specialist syringes. The vaccine is so valuable that inside the syringe is a plunger that goes into the needle to squeeze the extra bit of liquid that would otherwise be left in the needle into someone’s arm to make sure that every last drop of vaccine is used. A whole series of other equipment is needed alongside the actual liquid of the vaccine. I will ensure that my hon. Friend the vaccine deployment Minister makes sure that the Stoke-on-Trent mass vaccination centre is up and running and ready for 25 January.

The covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and widened the tremendous health inequalities in Stockton, where healthy life expectancy is among the lowest in the country. It also has by far the highest number of covid cases on Teesside—now well in excess of 10,000. Secretary of State, when can we have a new hospital for Stockton to help to tackle those inequalities? (910552)

The importance of tackling health inequalities and levelling up parts of the country that have so much opportunity, such as Stockton, but need further support to unleash that opportunity is an incredibly important part of this agenda. On the hon. Gentleman’s precise question, we have discussed that issue before. As he knows, we have the largest hospital building programme in the modern history of this country. I look forward to continuing to discuss with him the extra infrastructure needed in Stockton.

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the whole ministerial team on the excellent start to the vaccination programme. However, my question is on schools. I know that the Government worked hard to keep schools open for as long as they possibly could, but unfortunately, under alert level 5, schools sadly had to close. Will he outline what costs schools are expected to cover—whether state schools or public schools—to roll out coronavirus testing in their schools once they reopen? (910551)

Extra funding is available through the NHS Test and Trace budget for state schools for the testing programme. We are working with independent schools to make sure that they can reopen as soon as safely possible to reopen schools across the country.

Will the Secretary of State set out what additional measures are being put in place to support areas with diverse communities, such as Luton, where English not being a person’s first language could be a barrier to ensuring the equitable roll-out of vaccinations across all our communities? (910553)

I answered a similar question from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). This is an incredibly important point, and we are working hard with councils, pharmacists, GPs and those who are trusted in the community to get out the message of the importance of vaccination to all communities across the country. This subject will be increasingly important, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), the Minister for the vaccine roll-out, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and with colleagues all across this House to get out the message of positivity around the vaccine.

The good news is that, over the last month, the proportion of people who are enthusiastic about taking the vaccine has risen significantly, and the proportion of people who are hesitant has fallen; I think people can see the enthusiasm that others have for taking the vaccine. However, we have to make sure that that message of hope reaches all parts of and all communities in the UK.

In Burnley and Padiham, a large number of people cannot work from home; they work in areas such as manufacturing and construction. The deployment of the Army in our largest employers to do mass testing has been really welcome, but we have to go further if we are to break that chain of transmission. Will my right hon. Friend set out what my constituents need to do if they have to keep going into work but need access to some of these tests? (910554)

I hope that by working through the Burnley and Lancashire councils, and by working with the national testing programme, we can get asymptomatic testing available for those who have to go to work. Key workers need to go to work, even through this most difficult of times. I will make sure that the testing Minister picks up with my hon. Friend straight after this, and that we work together to make sure that everybody across Burnley who has to go to work has access, if they want it, to a testing regime, to help ensure that they can be safe in work.

The Secretary of State will know the unprecedented physical and emotional strain our frontline nurses and medics are facing in the fight against covid-19. This is exacerbated by staff shortages, with increasing demand for care falling on our already worn-out staff. Would he agree that to encourage more people into nursing, and to retain our healthcare heroes in the NHS, we must look at increasing pay to a level that recognises the skills, responsibility and commitment that the nursing and healthcare professions require? (910555)

I am really pleased that over the past few years in the English health service that I am responsible for, we have increased the pay of nursing staff. I am also pleased that when the new Northern Ireland Administration were set up about a year ago, one of the first things they did was to resolve the challenges in terms of nurses’ pay. This is a very important subject. It is one that is devolved, but I look forward to working with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, who is doing a brilliant job in supporting the Province through these very difficult times.

I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who have concerns about vaccine distribution. They are old and vulnerable, some are shielding, and some have no cars and have difficulty using public transport to get their vaccine. There is also a concern that some local GP surgeries are vaccinating only people over 80 with surnames from A to H. What is the Department’s plan to facilitate local distribution, especially in places that do not have good transport links, and to increase the roll-out to other groups? (910556)

Among the over-80s we have not put in place a more specific prioritisation, because we need to ensure that the programme can get to all the over-80s as fast and efficiently as possible. Access is incredibly important, hence the commitment to ensure that there is a vaccination centre within 10 miles. I think that that is true across the whole of Morley and Outwood, and 96% of the population of England is now is now within 10 miles of a vaccination centre, including, I think, the whole of my hon. Friend’s constituency. This has to be done fast but it also has to be done fairly, and she is quite right to raise that point.

As a proud Unison member, I ask the Secretary of State to join me in congratulating Christina McAnea on being elected the first female leader of the country’s biggest union. Many of Unison’s members effectively work for the Secretary of State, including care assistants, hospital porters, nurses and cleaners, and they are now under huge stress and facing mental and physical challenges that we, fortunately, cannot imagine. Does he agree with another recently elected leader, Joe Biden, who said to health workers:“It’s not enough to praise you. We have to protect you, we have to pay you.” (910557)

I want to add my congratulations to Christina McAnea. It is another sign of progress in this country to see the first female leader of Unison, and I look forward to talking to her very soon and to working with her, as she represents a significant number of people who work for the NHS and are valued members of the NHS and social care teams. The importance not only of valuing our NHS and social care workforce but of demonstrating that value is vital, and improving all the elements and conditions under which people work is important. Of course pay is one part of that, and the hon. Lady will know that the NHS was exempt from the pay freeze set out by the Chancellor, but it is also about ensuring that everybody’s contribution is valued and that everybody is encouraged to give their very best contribution. In a pandemic situation like this, when the pressures on the NHS and social care are very great, that is more important than ever, and it is important that we value all of our team all the time and that everybody plays a part in improving the health of the nation and improving and saving lives. I want to say a huge thank you to everybody who works in the NHS and in social care, and I want to work with them on improving working conditions and making sure that everybody feels that they can give their very best so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question.

We have had a poor day of getting through questions. They have taken far too long and a lot of people have missed out. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.