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Covid-19: Government Handling and Preparedness

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will update the House on the pandemic preparedness of the Department of Health and Social Care.

What we have done to handle this coronavirus pandemic has been unprecedented in modern times. Throughout, we have been straight with people and this House about the challenges that we as a nation face together. The nation, in my view, has risen to these challenges. Of course, there were unprecedented difficulties that come with preparation for an unprecedented event.

This pandemic is not over yet. Our vaccination programme has reached 73% of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still have not been jabbed; 43% of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs give.

Yesterday, we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus—the highest since 12 April—but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and deaths is being severed. About 90% of those in hospital in hotspot areas have not yet had both jabs, so the continued delivery of the vaccination effort and the ongoing work to control the virus through testing, tracing and isolation are vital.

Yesterday, we saw the opening of vaccinations to all those aged 30 and above. I am delighted to tell the House that the vaccination programme is on track to meet its goal of offering a jab to all adults by the end of July. It has met every goal that we have set. Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in Government.

As a nation, we have many challenges still to come. I know, and one of the things I have learned, is that the best way through is to work together with a can-do spirit of positive collaboration. The team who have worked so hard together to get us this far deserve our highest praise. I am proud of everyone in my Department, all those working in healthcare and public health, the armed forces who fought on the home front, the volunteers who stood in cold car parks with a smile, colleagues across the House who have done their bit and, most of all, the British people. Whether it is the science, the NHS or the people queuing for vaccines in their droves, Britain is rising to this challenge. We have come together as one nation, and we will overcome.

Families who lost loved ones will have noticed that the Secretary of State, in his opening remarks, did not respond to any of the specific allegations from yesterday—allegations that are grave and serious: that the Prime Minister is unfit for office; that his inaction meant that tens of thousands needlessly died. We had allegations from Dominic Cummings that the Secretary of State, specifically, misled colleagues—an allegation from Mr Cummings, Mr Speaker—on our preparedness and lack of protection for people in care homes.

The allegations from Cummings are either true, and if so the Secretary of State potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles, or they are false, and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street. Which is it? Families who have lost loved ones deserve full answers from the Secretary of State today. Is he ashamed that he promised a protective shield around care homes and more than 30,000 care home residents have died? Why were 25,000 elderly people discharged from hospitals into care homes without any test? Did he tell Downing Street in March that people discharged from hospital had been tested, even though it was not until 15 April that there was a requirement for testing to take place?

In public, the Secretary of State has often claimed that little was known of asymptomatic transmission at the time, so testing was not necessary, but the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies in January flagged evidence of asymptomatic transmission. A study in The Lancet in February flagged it. On 5 March, the chief medical officer said that

“there may well be a lot of people who are infected and have no symptoms”,

so why did the Secretary of State not insist on a precautionary approach and test all going into care homes?

On 6 May, at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State claimed that it is

“safer for them to go to a care home.”

Yet 12,000 people had died in those early months. How could he justify that comment? In April, he told the House:

“What is important is that infection control procedures are in place in that care home”.—[Official Report, 19 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 494.]

However, care homes, like the NHS, struggled with the most desperate of personal protective equipment shortages. He was telling us in March from the Dispatch Box that supplies were extensive, but apparently in private, in Downing Street, he was blaming Simon Stevens for the lack of PPE.

The reality is that the Secretary of State and his Department were responsible for PPE, and the National Audit Office report said that the supplies were inadequate. Some 850 healthcare workers died. How many could have been saved had they had PPE? Families lost loved ones and have been let down by the Government, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, but the truth matters. Those families and the country deserve clear answers from the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister today.

The allegations that were put yesterday and repeated by the right hon. Gentleman are serious, and I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and that I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout. Every day since I began working on the response to the pandemic last January, I have got up each morning and asked, “What must I do to protect life?” That is the job of a Health Secretary in a pandemic.

We have taken an approach of openness, transparency and explanation of both what we know and what we do not know. I was looking at it this morning. Since last January, I have attended this House more than 60 times. With the Prime Minister, we have together hosted 84 press conferences. I have answered 2,667 contributions to this House and answered questions from colleagues, the media and the public, and we will keep on with that spirit of openness and transparency throughout. As well as coming to the House today, I will answer questions and host another press conference later.

Sometimes what we have had to say has not been easy. We have had to level with people when it has been tough—when things have been going in the wrong direction. Also, we have learned throughout. We have applied that learning both to tackling this pandemic and ensuring that we are as well prepared in the future as possible, but beyond all that what matters remains the same: getting vaccinated, getting tested, delivering for our country, overcoming this disease and saving lives. That is what matters to the British people.

The House should know that when serious allegations were made at yesterday’s Joint Committee hearing, we asked for evidence to be provided, and until such evidence is provided, those allegations should be regarded as unproven. In the meantime, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we need the Health Secretary to be doing his job with his customary energy and commitment.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about comments made by Neil Ferguson on this morning’s “Today” programme. He said that the Indian variant is now dominant in the majority of local authority areas and, indeed, is the dominant variant, and that the opening date of 21 June is now in the balance. Given how desperate businesses up and down the country are to return to normal, what additional measures can my right hon. Friend take in the short term to ensure that, in terms of surge testing, the vaccine roll-out and improvements to Test and Trace, we really are able to open up as everyone wants on 21 June?

It is true that the Indian variant is spreading across the country, and estimates vary as to what proportion of new cases each day involve that variant first identified in India, which is more transmissible. My assessment is that it is too early to say whether we can take the full step 4 on 21 June. Like my right hon. Friend, I desperately want us to do so, but we will only do that if it is safe. We will make a formal assessment ahead of 14 June as to what step we can take on 21 June, and we will be driven by the data and advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent in those decisions, both with this House and with the public. That is the approach we have taken, that is the approach he and his Select Committee would expect, and that is what we will deliver.

In Dominic Cummings’ opening statement yesterday, he said:

“The truth is that senior Ministers, senior officials and senior advisers… fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its Government in a crisis like this. When the public needed us most,”

we “failed.” We then heard a litany of evidence that the disease was not taken seriously in February last year, further compounded by the ignoring of SAGE advice to lockdown in September, resulting in a worse second wave. Does the Health Secretary agree that the UK Government failed the public? Had he acted sooner, how many lives could have been saved or restrictions avoided? Will he act urgently to prevent further unnecessary suffering and death in the immediate future by holding a comprehensive public inquiry immediately?

I have been working on the pandemic since January of last year—before the disease was even evident in this country. That is when we kicked off work on the vaccine, and I was told at first that it would typically take five years to develop a vaccine. I insisted that we drove at that as fast as we possibly could, and I am delighted at the progress that we have been able to make.

Of course it is right that we learn from everything that we understand and everything that we see and all the scientific advances. We should do that all the way through. This idea that we should wait for an inquiry in order to learn is wrong, but it is right that we go through all that happened at the appropriate time in order to ensure that we are best prepared for the inevitable pandemics of the future.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to the Royal Cornwall hospital in Truro earlier this week. We met staff, toured the site of the new oncology wing and looked at the start-of-the-art plans for the new women and children’s hospital—part of our manifesto promise for 40 new hospitals.

Given the gravity of the situation that the Government faced at the beginning of the pandemic, and considering we now know that Dominic Cummings was a hugely disruptive force, I congratulate Ministers, not least my right hon. Friend, on staying focused on the evidence presented by the experts at the time as events changed quickly. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will ignore unsubstantiated Westminster gossip and stay focused on delivering the vaccine roll-out and our manifesto promises?

I think that is what the public expect us to do. I had a brilliant visit to Cornwall on Monday. It was a pleasure to go to Treliske to see my hon. Friend there and to talk about the new women and children’s hospital that we are building as part of the biggest ever investment in healthcare in Cornwall. Delivering on these priorities on which we were elected, and of course dealing with this pandemic and keeping people safe, is what the public want to see. That is what the expectations of the public are and it is my total focus.

There was no manual to guide Governments going into this new global pandemic and most people feel that the Government responded as well as anybody could. In particular, over the past six months government has worked well together to deliver a phenomenal amount of testing and one of the best vaccine roll-outs in the world. Is the Secretary of State aware of anything that has changed during that time to help the way that government has worked on improving the covid response?

All I would say to my hon. Friend is that it is very difficult responding to an unprecedented challenge of this scale, but over the past six months people have seen that governing has become a little easier and we are being able to deliver.

In February, I called for localised, community-based vaccination centres, and I want to pay tribute to Dr Helen Wall, Bolton’s clinical commissioning group, the NHS and volunteers for the roll-out of the vaccine. Last week, my constituents were wrongly accused of vaccine hesitancy, and then we had a quasi-lockdown that no one knew about and many people’s travel plans were thrown into chaos. My constituents can forgive the Government for that, but I am sure I speak for the country when I say that we cannot forgive the fact that:

“Tens of thousands of people died, who didn't need to die”.

Those were the chilling words of Dominic Cummings. Will the Secretary of State tell me when the Prime Minister and others will be investigated by the police for alleged corporate manslaughter? Why did we not follow the example of New Zealand, where they managed to control the virus with a minimum number of deaths?

What I would say to the people of Bolton is that they have again risen to this challenge. The number of vaccinations happening in Bolton right now is phenomenal—tens of thousands every single day.[Official Report, 7 June 2021, Vol. 696, c. 2MC.] It is heartening to see the queues of people coming forward both for testing and for vaccinations in Bolton. This has not been an easy pandemic anywhere, but it has been especially difficult in Bolton. In particular I want to pay tribute to the leadership of Bolton Council and Councillor David Greenhalgh, who has done such a remarkable job in very difficult circumstances.

I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting North Devon District Hospital this week, where he personally thanked the wonderful staff and discussed future development plans. While this Government have worked tirelessly to save lives and protect our NHS, Labour has spent the past year flip-flopping over curfews, lockdowns, schools and our borders, and I am sure he shares my disappointment that even now the Labour party is still more interested in playing politics than working constructively with us. So may I seek his reassurance that as we emerge from the pandemic he is committed to lowering NHS waiting times and improving access to vital GP services, as he continues to make sure that everybody who need care gets care?

Absolutely I am. GP access, in particular, is very important. This morning, I met the British Medical Association and the BMA GP leadership to talk about what more we can do to strengthen access to GPs. These are the sorts of things that matter to our constituents, as does the new hospital that we are going to build in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It was a wonderful visit to Devon on Tuesday, and it has been great going around the country to look at what we can do to invest further in the NHS, strengthen it and support it to deliver better care. North Devon does not have a better champion than my hon. Friend. As for what she said about the Opposition, all I can say is that sometimes the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) offers constructive criticism, he has generally had a good crisis and perhaps he will return to that approach soon.

In the words of the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser:

“Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with covid back to the care homes.”

If that is true, this is one of the biggest scandals and tragedies of the pandemic. Can the Secretary of State please confirm when testing on discharge from hospitals into care homes was routinely offered? Will he apologise to the tens of thousands of bereaved family members whose relatives died in care homes?

It has been an incredibly difficult time for those who have worked in and lived in care homes throughout this pandemic. That has been true across the world, and I pay tribute to the staff in social care who have done so much. It was, of course, a difficult challenge, especially at the start when many characteristics of this virus were unknown. As I have answered many times in this House, we have published full details of the approach that we are taking and that we have taken. We have worked with the care home sector as much as possible to keep people safe and followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.

May I take the Secretary of State back to what he said in his statement about the B1617.2 variant first discovered in India, which I think will be of the most concern to my constituents and the country in the days and weeks ahead? We are bound to see an increase in cases as we open up; that is inevitable. The important thing is breaking that link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. My understanding of all the current evidence is that our vaccines are very effective in stopping serious disease, including from that B1617.2 variant. If that remains the case, does he agree that, on 15 June, there would be no reason not to go ahead with opening up fully on 21 June? That is the important question to which we need an answer.

That is literally the most important question to which we do not yet have a full answer. The data that we have suggest that, in the hotspot areas, around one in 10 of those in hospital are people who have had both jabs. That is a function both of the protection that we get from the vaccine against this variant and also of the age profile of those who are catching the disease. Those who have not been vaccinated include those who are old enough to have been offered the jab and those who have not yet been offered the jab. The fact that 90% of the people in hospital are those who have not yet been double vaccinated gives us a high degree of confidence that the vaccine is highly effective, but the fact that 10% of people in hospital have been double vaccinated shows that the vaccine is not 100% effective. We already knew that, but we are better able to calibrate as we see these data. We will learn more about this over the forthcoming week or two before we make and publish an assessment ahead of 14 June about what the data are saying about taking the step that is pencilled in for not before 21 June.

I thank the Secretary of State for all that he has done to deal with the coronavirus disease and for the roll-out of the vaccine. My mother-in-law died last year from the virus. On Monday, she was taken to hospital, and five days later we lost her. I want to put it on record that we do not blame anybody, but we miss her every single day.

There are those in Northern Ireland who have questions to which they need answers. Our Prime Minister has committed himself to an inquiry, and the Secretary of State has committed himself to that inquiry. I want to ensure that those people from Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones and who have sincere questions can ask their questions—they do not want to blame anybody—and get an answer. Will the Secretary of State assure us that people from Northern Ireland who have those questions can and will be part of that inquiry?

Yes, of course. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, will welcome the fact that this morning Northern Ireland has been able to open up vaccination to all adults over the age of 18, showing the progress that we are able to make working together with the UK vaccination programme and local delivery through the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. Of course the inquiry must and will cover the entire United Kingdom. In the three nations that have devolved Administrations, of course it will have to cover the activities both of the UK Government and of the devolved Administrations. Exactly how that is structured is yet to be determined and it will be done in consultation with the devolved Administrations. But as he rightly says, it is vital that we use the inquiry to ensure that people can ask questions and get answers in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Everyone recognises that lessons can be learned as a result of this pandemic and we do not necessarily need to wait for the inquiry to take place. Does the Secretary of State share my view that integration of health and social care is critical and would absolutely be a lesson to be learned from the pandemic? I was delighted to welcome him to the Isles of Scilly on Monday—the first visit of a Health Secretary, we understand, at any time. Will he affirm that the model that we are developing on the Isles of Scilly to integrate health and social care and improve the outcomes for everyone living there is right for the islands but also a model that could be used elsewhere across the United Kingdom?

Yes, absolutely. It was an enormous pleasure to go to the Isles of Scilly on Monday morning. I did not know that I was the first Health Secretary ever to visit the Isle of Scilly, but frankly it is so wonderful that I would really quite like to be back there before too long. The integration of health and social care that my hon. Friend mentions is happening on Scilly. It is important on Scilly, but it is actually a lesson for everywhere. I have discussed it with the new Conservative-led Cornwall Council—the first ever majority Conservative-led Cornwall Council. The team there and on the Isles of Scilly are doing a great job of integrating health and social care. Scilly, in particular, needs investment in its health infrastructure and support because it is more remote than almost anywhere else. We will deliver these things. Throughout the length and breadth of this country, we will invest in the NHS and integrate health and social care. The Isles of Scilly could hope for no better advocate than my hon. Friend.

Yesterday’s revelations have only served to reinforce what many have suspected: a tale of chaos, deception, dishonesty and failure, including the reckless suggestion of herd immunity and chickenpox parties. While so many watched aghast, the Secretary of State chose to respond to these very serious allegations by claiming he had been too busy saving lives to even bother. My enduring memory of the Secretary of State yesterday will be of him quite literally running away from his responsibilities.

I want to focus on one vitally important matter that emerged yesterday regarding deaths in care homes. Did the Secretary of State, as alleged, categorically tell Mr Cummings and unspecified others that people would be tested before being transferred into care homes? If he did not, why then was transfer without testing the adopted policy across England and the devolved Governments, including Scotland? On 17 October last year, I asked the Secretary of State to consider tendering his resignation. Surely if all these allegations are substantiated, he must do so.

So many of the allegations yesterday were unsubstantiated. The hon. Gentleman’s most important point was that the Scottish Government, with their responsibilities for social care, had to respond to the same challenges and dilemmas as we did, as did other countries across Europe and across the world. We were driving incredibly hard as one United Kingdom to increase testing volumes. We successfully increased testing volumes, including through the important use of the 100,000 testing target, which had a material impact on accelerating the increase in testing, and because of this increased testing we were able to spread the use of tests more broadly. It was the same challenge for the Administration in Edinburgh as it was here in Westminster, and the best way to rise to these challenges is to do so working together.

We have a connection problem with the line to Dr Andrew Murrison so we will go straight to Caroline Lucas.

The families of the bereaved deserve better than the grotesque pantomime of the Cummings evidence session yesterday. At the very least, they deserve the publication of the internal lessons learned review. A constituent of mine whose father died from covid acquired in hospital wrote to me to say that the refusal to release it is

“an insult to bereaved family members, who, in the midst of our own suffering, are determined to prevent other families from experiencing the loss we have”.

She is right because the big question is not just about mistakes the Government made last March, but why Ministers never learn from those errors and continue on a path that risks lives and livelihoods. The Secretary of State says he is being straight with the public and this House, so as continued Government negligence risks a third wave of the pandemic, will he finally publish that review urgently, not least so that it can be scrutinised before restrictions are due to be lifted next month?

Of course, we learn lessons all the way through and we follow the scientific developments that teach us more about this virus all the way through, and then we will also have a full inquiry afterwards to make sure that we can learn further lessons for the future. The thing I did not quite understand about the hon. Lady’s question is why she did not refer to the single most important programme that is saving lives, which is the vaccination programme. She should be urging her constituents and others to come forward and get the jab because that is our way out of this pandemic.

Thanks to this Government and the vaccine taskforce led by Kate Bingham, it is Britain that has led the way in vaccinations and it is Britain that has given so much to the world through our vaccination technology and innovation. Globally, over 1 billion jabs have now been given, most of them Pfizer, Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca, and it is this Government who backed Oxford university with over £60 million of funding to give the gift of hope to the world. So may I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts and his remarkable achievements in this regard, and may I ask him when he thinks the Teesside vaccine, Novavax, will be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency?

The last point is very tempting, but I will leave it to the independent regulator to make that decision and determine its timing—but we are all very excited about the progress of the Teesside vaccine, as my hon. Friend calls it, the Novavax vaccine. He is also right to raise the point about vaccinations around the world. The UK can be very proud of having played such a critical role because of the investment we made in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine right at the start of this pandemic, and because we decided together with Oxford university and AstraZeneca to make this vaccine available at cost around the world. I can give the House an update: over 450 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have now been deployed around the world at cost. That is the single biggest gift to the world that we could make with respect to vaccines. It is because of the attitude that the Government took, working with one of our greatest universities and working with one of our greatest industrial partners. It is another example of the big team effort that is helping in this case the whole world get out of this pandemic.

At Prime Minister’s Question Time in July, I raised concerns of a care home owner in Bedford who was told as late as 21 May that, if she refused to accept the return from hospital of a covid-positive patient, they would be discharged to an unfamiliar home. I know the Secretary of State is desperate to dismiss Mr Cummings’ version of events on care homes, but to do so would mean calling the care home owner a liar. Who is responsible for the high numbers of unnecessary deaths: the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister?

As I said, we have answered this question many times before. What I would add to those answers is that it is another example of constantly learning about the virus. As we learned the impact of asymptomatic transmission in particular, we changed the protocols in care homes over the summer and put in place the winter plan that led to a greater degree of protection in care homes over the second peak. We are constantly looking to make sure that we can learn as much as possible and work with the sector to help people to stay as safe as possible.

Mr Speaker,

“When it comes to the Health Secretary, I’m a fan.”

Those are not my effusive words; they come from some of the highest levels among our health team in Bolton. Like colleagues on both sides of the House, we have been on countless calls with the Health Secretary, with upwards of 100 MPs on many occasions. As he has done today, he has taken the time to respond or come back after each and every interaction with helpful advice and solutions. I say this in private, I say it in public, and I say it—this is a plug—in the “Red Box” in The Times today: these last two weeks, he has thrown his Department’s kitchen sink at Bolton to help us through the recent variant-driven spike. Can he provide an update on the current situation, as well as giving a continued commitment to work hard for Bolton?

There are issues around Bolton in my red box very regularly, Mr Speaker. I was waiting on tenterhooks to find out whether, as well as his constituent being a fan, my hon. Friend is a fan—maybe he can tell me later in private. But he makes a very serious point: we have a significant challenge in Bolton right now, with a high rate of covid transmission, and we have done everything we possibly can to support Boltonians to solve this problem with increased vaccination. It is great to see the huge enthusiasm for vaccination and the queues of people coming forward. I say to everybody in Bolton, “Please come forward if you have not had both jabs yet.” Also, the testing effort, which has seen people come forward and get tested, is helping us to break the chains of transmission. That is the approach that we are trying to take now that we have built this huge vaccine and testing infrastructure over the past few months.

The Secretary of State claims that he has always been straight, yet his response to my question last week suggests otherwise. Remember, he was not straight over the need for higher-grade FFP3 masks for our frontline NHS and care workers, he was not straight over the need for the public to wear masks at the start of the pandemic, and he has not been straight over Test and Trace, for example with his fabricated test numbers last April. Given yesterday’s revelations, however, will he apologise to Warwickshire families for the 344 excess deaths resulting from his decision to discharge hospital patients directly into our care homes?

I do not recognise those figures, but I do recognise the enormous challenge of keeping people safe in care homes at the height of a pandemic in unprecedented circumstances. The other thing that I would say is that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency we are building one of the biggest testing laboratories, if not the biggest, that this country has ever seen. The ability to have this huge testing capacity is an asset that this country has. It will mean not only that we can help to tackle the virus now, spot the new variants and make sure that we have an understanding of where it might be popping up—such as in Bolton, for instance—but that we are better prepared in future. I would like to work with the hon. Gentleman to deliver this brilliant laboratory in Leamington Spa and make sure that it is a model for how we do diagnostics. That working together is the best approach that we can take.

How does my right hon. Friend account for the yawning difference between the account given to the Select Committee yesterday and rehearsed by the Opposition today, and the balanced and objective accounts that continue to be given by the National Audit Office on this pandemic, notably the one published earlier this month detailing the Government’s response to the pandemic? May I ask specifically how he will take forward one of the principal recommendations of that report—that we need to plan for a sustainable healthcare workforce that can be organised at pace in the event of a future emergency of this sort, and that we particularly need individuals who are properly skilled and updated to fill gaps that may arise as a result of a future pandemic?

My right hon. Friend is quite right on both points. Not only have we been transparent and accountable to this House, and straight with this House about the challenges, but we have welcomed the National Audit Office into Government throughout the pandemic, and it has published repeatedly. For instance, it published on personal protective equipment, showing that we successfully avoided a national outage of PPE. It has reported on every aspect of the pandemic, and we have learned the lessons that are in those reports. I recommend to the House the National Audit Office’s latest publication, which summarises all these lessons and learnings. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of those is making sure that we have high-quality workforce planning for the future.

Has my right hon. Friend noted the various ironies of yesterday’s Committee? It must be personally difficult for him and others who needlessly defended someone so willing to throw them into the road—presumably a road full of those behind the wheel testing their eyesight. But is not the greater irony the strange epiphany in many who have gone from regarding the Prime Minister’s former adviser as a latter-day King Herod whose words and deeds could not be trusted, to regarding him as a prophet who, fresh from the wilderness, brings with him supposed truths written on tablets of stone? Irony of ironies, all is irony.

I think what the constituents we serve are looking for is a Government who are focused four-square on delivering for them, getting us out of this pandemic and building back better. Observations on ironies I will leave to my hon. Friend.

Delaying a public inquiry until 2022 could lead to the rewriting of memories, the potential loss of key documents and a lack of full transparency on the decisions that were taken based on the evidence. Given the seriousness of the testimony of Mr Cummings, including that statement, the scale of the disaster is so big that people need to understand how the Government failed them and learn from it. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a quicker start to a public inquiry than the Government currently plan?

What do we know about the Secretary of State? We know that he is exceptionally hard-working, and that every day he woke up to try to save lives. He has been exceptionally good at coming to the House and answering questions. He has also held press conferences and answered questions from journalists. Yet yesterday, we had some outrageous claims by an unelected Spad who broke covid regulations, admitted he had leaked stuff to the BBC, and by his own admission was not fit to be in No. 10 Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that the only mistake the Prime Minister made in this pandemic was that he did not fire Dominic Cummings early enough?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I will continue to compliment him while I think of how to respond. The honest truth is that, from the start, I have been totally focused on how to get out of this pandemic. It is absolutely true that the operation and functioning of Government has got easier these last six months, and I think all the public can see that. We are laser focused on getting through this, getting this country out of it and delivering the vaccine programme that we have now been working on for almost a year and a half, which is remarkable. I pay tribute to all those who have been working on this effort. The way to fight a pandemic is by bringing people together and inspiring hope.

Five hundred and nineteen residents in my borough of Tower Hamlets have lost their lives to covid—in my own family, we have lost five of our relatives—and their family members are grappling with that loss to this day. The hearings yesterday were incredibly distressing. Mr Cummings has admitted to Government failures in handling the pandemic, and said that it meant

“tens of thousands of people died who did not need to die”.

Out of respect for the over 128,000 families of people who have lost their lives, will the Secretary of State admit to the failures today and apologise? Will he, instead of his simple no to the earlier question, bring forward urgently the date of the inquiry, because families like ours, those of my constituents and all those who have lost loved ones up and down the country deserve answers now and deserve for lessons to be learned so that these mistakes are never made again?

The pandemic has taken far too many people away far too soon, and that has happened in the hon. Member’s family and it has happened in mine. She is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we learn as a country how to prepare as well as we possibly can for pandemics in the future—because it is likely that pandemics will become more frequent, not less—and it is vital that people have the opportunity to get answers. We must learn the lessons all the way through, not just wait until afterwards, and we must have a full inquiry afterwards, so that we can ensure that every detail is assessed and everybody has the opportunity to ask those questions. I think that is the right approach.

On Sunday, I had the absolute joy of going to the Winding Wheel in Chesterfield and receiving my first vaccine. Will my right hon. Friend thank all the volunteers and staff at the Winding Wheel for what they have been doing? Can he tell me what monitoring has been happening at the Department of Health of an outbreak of opportunism and revisionism that seems to be spreading through Opposition politicians? If it helps, I have an idea of who patient zero might be for that outbreak—Captain Hindsight, if you will.

I am absolutely delighted my hon. Friend has had his first jab; I did not know he was old enough yet. It is very important that you take decisions in government based on the information that you have at the time. Of course, you can go and assess things based on information you have afterwards, but you can only take decisions on the information that you have, and that is why an unprecedented crisis like this leads to unprecedented challenges, and what you have to do is tackle those challenges as best you possibly can.

At the start of this pandemic, covid-19 was seeded into care homes by a discharge policy that required care homes to take asymptomatic patients. A letter from Kent and Medway CCG to care providers dated 26 March 2020 made it clear that they were asked to take such patients whether they had been tested or not. Yesterday, the joint Select Committee inquiry heard that the Prime Minister was told by the Secretary of State that testing would be in place for these patients. I am asking quite specifically: did he know that the discharge process did not require testing, and did he sign off this policy, which led to thousands of avoidable deaths of vulnerable people and many deaths of care staff?

I have answered this question many times, and the challenge is that we had to build the testing capacity. At that time, of course I was focused on protecting people in care homes and in building that testing capacity, so that we had the daily tests to be able to ensure that availability was more widespread. That is at the heart of the importance of the then 100,000 target, and we are now up to a position where we have millions of tests available per day.

Surely it cannot be in anyone’s interests, least of all those who are mourning loved ones, for the mob to descend and judge and preoccupy my right hon. Friend at this point in the pandemic. The Government have made clear that there will be a full public inquiry, and that is when hindsight can and should prevail. Now, surely, it is in all our interests that he gets on with his work, bringing his experience to bear on saving lives and carrying out this excellent vaccination programme. Will he meet a cross-party delegation of West Midlands metropolitan leaders who are keen to work with him to deliver those common objectives?

Yes, those are common objectives. The way my right hon. Friend puts it is absolutely spot on. I would be delighted to meet him and west midlands leaders to ensure we can roll out the vaccination effort as quickly and as effectively as possible in order to both save lives and get us out of this pandemic.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, by and large, many of us who have been in Parliament for a long time prefer Select Committee inquiries to public inquiries, because we get a faster and sharper look at a problem while the evidence is fresh? I know he has been very good at coming back quickly to Members of Parliament, including myself in Huddersfield in Kirklees. However, last week was not as good as possible. It seemed that he did not give us a heads-up and we were very much taken aback by the new advice given to local authorities like mine.

One last point: the fact of the matter is that this pandemic and these viruses have not gone away. The disturbing thing that came out of yesterday’s evidence was that there seemed not to have been any national plan for this sort of emergency. Every local authority has an emergency plan. Have we now got one?

Of course, we have learned a huge amount about how to respond to a pandemic. We have built assets and capabilities such as the vaccination programme and the testing, which is so important both to protect people directly and break the chains of transmission, and to understand where the virus is spreading.

I am glad that we cleared up the issue the hon. Gentleman raised with respect to Kirklees. I worked with colleagues in Kirklees and elsewhere while I was in the west country to make sure that we got the best possible solution to the need in Kirklees: to have a turbocharge on the vaccination programme, to have mass testing to break the chains of transmission, and for people to be cautious and take personal responsibility as we lift measures to make sure that things stay under control.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about me personally, and for the leadership he has shown in his community.

Yesterday, our Committee meeting was supposed to be about lessons learned. In that spirit, we know that the World Health Organisation stated on 14 January that there was no human transmission. On 11 February, the WHO actually named the virus. We then know that on 14 February, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in update No. 4, stated that the risk to health systems in the EU and the UK was “low to moderate” and the risk to the population was “low”. We also know that the UK had a plan, but it was mainly based around flu, not brand new viruses. Look at where we are now. Is not the biggest lesson learned that we need a global response and a global resilience plan? Will the Health Secretary be pushing the Prime Minister to make that case at the G7, when we host it here in the UK in June?

I think that is one of the lessons. I do not need to push the Prime Minister on that; he is absolutely seized of the point. We will be developing the work on that next week at the Health Ministers G7, which is being held in Oxford, and then, of course, at the leaders’ summit which is being held in Cornwall later next month. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the view he takes as to the importance of reforming and strengthening the global institutions, as well as learning the lessons here at home.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the donation of surplus vaccines and other PPE and medical equipment to India and other developing countries. How does that square with the Government’s determination to cut their overall contribution to international aid? Are those donations being counted towards the 0.7% or 0.5% targets and, if they are, can he assure us that that will not be to the detriment of other projects that were already committed towards those targets?

Of course we are donating items directly—for instance, to India, Nepal and others—but the single biggest global contribution that the UK has made is the Oxford vaccine, which is being delivered at cost by AstraZeneca around the world following funding from Oxford, AstraZeneca and the UK Government. That has already led to 450 million jabs globally, two thirds of which are in low and middle-income countries. Everybody, in all parts of this country, should be proud of that, and there was Scottish support in the development of that vaccine. Of course, we will do as much as we can within the official development assistance budget directly, but that decision to waive the intellectual property charge has been called for from others—from President Biden down—but it is something that we in this House and the whole country should be very proud of.

The vaccine roll-out is going really well in my area and I cannot help but note that the turning of the tide against covid, because of that roll-out, seemed to exactly mirror the turning of the year. Is not it the case that, far from the world being divided into people who are either useless or brilliant and the British state failing at every turn, we have a Government in this country who did their best and a public who came together, as always in the UK, when the chips were down?

My hon. Friend, who was a superb Health Minister, has captured not just the spirit of what this country has been through in the last 18 months, but the spirit of the debate today in this House. The truth of the matter is that we work best when we work together, and we work together when we have a common mission, and the common mission has been tackling this virus. It is absolutely true that we must always do that with an open mind on how to do it better in future, but, in my view, the attitude needed is one where you welcome people in and take things forward in a spirit of positive partnership. That is how you get stuff done, and that is how we have made the progress we have been able to make.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.