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Topical Questions

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2021

I can tell the House that today, working with local authorities, we are providing a strengthened package of support, based on what is working in Bolton, to help Greater Manchester and Lancashire to tackle the rise in the delta variant that we are seeing there. The support includes rapid response teams, putting in extra testing, military support and supervised in-school testing. I encourage everyone in Manchester and Lancashire to get the tests on offer. We know that this approach can work: we have seen it work in south London and in Bolton, stopping a rise in the number of cases. This is the next stage of tackling the pandemic in Manchester and Lancashire. It is of course vital that people in those areas, as everywhere else, come forward and get the jab as soon as they are eligible, because that is our way out of this pandemic together.

Currently, all primary care providers in Wales remain on amber alert, which means that many of my constituents in Bridgend are unable to access necessary services unless it is an emergency. Will my right hon. Friend explain how this situation compares to his Department’s strategy to provide catch-up services as we come out of lockdown?

It is very important that, across the country, the UK is open, the NHS is open and that people can come forward and get treatment if they need it. As my hon. Friend knows, I work closely with the delivery of the NHS in Wales. The NHS there is of course the responsibility of the devolved Administration, but I am happy to take up his concern with the new Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services to see what we can do.

We have seen reports today of how exhausted NHS staff are. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in the media this morning that he was not sure what more the Government could do to support NHS staff. Obviously, the Government could give them a pay rise, but will the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care also commit today to extending free hospital car parking for NHS staff beyond the pandemic?

Of course, we have made hospital car parking free for staff during the pandemic. That is one of the many, many things that we have put in place to support staff. Staff wellbeing support and mental health support have also been incredibly important, learning, as we have done, from the support that we give to others in public service who go through traumatic episodes. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a wide array of things that we need to do to support NHS staff on the frontline.

I wanted a commitment to extend the relief of hospital car parking charges beyond the pandemic.

The Secretary of State knows that waiting lists are at 5 million and that 432,000 people are waiting beyond 12 months. Once we are through this pandemic, the priority must be to bring those waiting lists down, but he is about to embark on a reorganisation of the NHS with his integrated care legislation. Local boards permit the private sector to have a seat on them. Virgin Care has just been given a seat on the integrated care system in Bath and North Somerset. He once promised that there would be no privatisation on his watch, so will he instruct that ICS to remove Virgin Care from its board?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that integrating the health service with services provided by local authorities, such as social care, is absolutely critical, and I know that he supports those proposals that have come from the NHS. When it comes to delivering services in the NHS, what matters to patients is that they get high-quality services, for instance, to deal with the backlog, and what matters is getting those services as fast as we possibly can. People care much less about who provides the service than they do about the service getting delivered, and that is the approach that I take, too.

Today, the Health and Social Care Committee published its report on NHS and social care staff burnout, which chronicles the emotional exhaustion and chronic fatigue felt by many frontline staff in the past year. Much support has been put in place; the 50,000 nurse target is welcome, the extra doctors and nurses hired during the pandemic extremely welcome, but still we have shortages in nearly every specialty, leading to a sense of despair. Will my right hon. Friend consider the recommendation that we make today that Health Education England should be given the statutory power to make independent workforce projections, rather as the Office for Budget Responsibility does for Budget forecasts, so that we can at least look doctors and nurses in the eye and say that we are training enough of them for the future?

I am very happy to work with the Select Committee on the forthcoming health and care Bill. The Committee has already had a huge amount of input into that Bill, and I am sure that, during its passage, we will be working together on making sure that this piece of legislation, which has cross-party support, can come through the House in the best possible state. I am very happy to look at the specific proposal, but what I would say is that we have been recruiting record numbers of doctors and nurses to try to make sure that the NHS is always there for all of our constituents and their families.

The British Medical Association has warned that the freezing of the lifetime and annual pensions tax allowance until April 2026 could significantly impact the retention and overtime of health and care staff, with 72% of doctors that it surveyed saying that it would make them more likely to retire early. What consideration has been given to the BMA’s proposal of offering a tax unregistered scheme, similar to that of the judiciary, for those in the NHS? (900881)

We made very significant progress on this in the Budget immediately following the general election, as the hon. Lady will know. That has removed this problem for the vast majority of doctors who serve in the NHS. I am very glad that we were able to make that progress. I am always happy to look at suggestions from the unions and others, but I am glad to say that we have made a good deal of progress on this one.

Despite the recent rise in infection rates, covid-related deaths and hospital admissions remain low across my constituency. Surge vaccinations and testing have been effectively rolled out in high-risk areas, and pop-up vaccination centres, such as the Darby and Joan Club in Clayton West, are doing a fantastic job. Given that, can my right hon. Friend assure the people of Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale that there will be no need to introduce local restrictions in the future? (900883)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the whole team on the incredible work that they did in pretty difficult and urgent circumstances. I reassure him that, as the Prime Minister has said and as the Secretary of State has said from the Dispatch Box, we want the whole country to come out of this lockdown together.

My constituents continue to be concerned that covid-19 is being used as an excuse to remove services from Ealing Hospital permanently. Accepting temporary suspensions for covid-19 is fine, but will the Secretary of State confirm that this public health crisis will not be used as an excuse to scrap services without following proper consultations and undertaking rigorous impact assessments? (900882)

The Airedale General Hospital celebrates its 51st birthday this year, despite having a life expectancy of 30 years when it was originally built and 83% of it being built from aerated concrete, which is known for its structural deficiencies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of my campaign to get a rebuild of the Airedale hospital, so that we can mitigate the risk of those structural deficiencies. Will he visit the hospital to meet me and Brendan Brown, the chief executive, so that we may discuss the plans in more detail? (900887)

Mr Speaker, not only has my hon. Friend made a compelling case for me to visit, but you have just told me to visit, so I have my marching orders. I look forward to my now forthcoming visit to Airedale hospital. I have not been yet, so I am very keen to come.

The Minister of State responsible for the hospital building programme has been heavily involved, and I have been looking at the paperwork. As my hon. Friend knows, on top of the 40 hospitals we announced—six of which are already being built—we have eight further slots to come, and Airedale hospital is very much on my radar for those slots. We will run an open competition and will make sure it is fair, but I will certainly visit.

This week, the Prime Minister praised the major benefits of the private finance initiative companies that are part of the LIFT—NHS Local Finance Investment Trust—initiative running GP services. That is why I am sure that the Secretary of State will be disappointed to learn that here in Walthamstow, Community Health Partnerships, a PFI LIFT company that we estimate has made several millions of pounds of profit from the deal on top of its service charges, and which the Secretary of State is ultimately in charge of, has just handed our local toy library a business rates bill of £30,000 for during the pandemic. I hate to add to the Secretary of State’s busy diary, but will he meet me to discuss what we can do to ensure that such companies stop making major profits from our NHS services and that benefits such as a toy library are not lost due to their antics? (900885)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend saw Fergus Walsh’s report on the BBC news last week on spinal muscular atrophy and the importance of the UK’s newborn screening programme. Surprisingly, the UK screens for only nine rare diseases in the heel-prick test, compared with other European countries such as Iceland and Italy, which test for 47 and 43 diseases, respectively. The sooner the diagnosis for a child with a rare disease the better, because it can change their life and their life chances. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK should now consider expansion of the newborn screening programme? Will he meet, or ask a Minister of State to meet, me and campaigners on the issue? (900889)

Yes, absolutely, I 100% agree with my hon. Friend. We have the funding to expand that programme. She will have seen in our national genomics healthcare strategy that newborn screening is specifically highlighted. It is a personal mission of mine to make that happen. I am happy to meet her and Baroness Blackwood, the chair of Genomics England, who has been driving the project forward.

Early diagnosis gives the best chance of survival, but a GP in my constituency has expressed serious concerns about delays in accessing urgent blood tests, which are critical to diagnose cancer. Will the Secretary of State ensure that local issues such as this do not worsen the already significant cancer backlog and put more people’s lives at risk? (900888)

Yes. The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, and if she writes to me with the full details, we will get right on it.

I am delighted to report back to my right hon. Friend that the University of Brighton, which has a campus in Eastbourne, has experienced a significant rise in the number of applications to study for careers in health professions. A shortage of training placements is the only real brake on the numbers of would-be students. I understand from having talked to the university that in the UK students must complete over 2,000 hours in placement. That is in contrast to Australia’s and New Zealand’s 1,000 hours. Is that seemingly high requirement under review with Health Education England so that we do not miss an opportunity to capture this new interest, build the NHS workforce of the future, open opportunities to all those who have the talent to succeed, and further secure my home town as a destination for studying? (900890)

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. Nurse education standards are set by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Its current standards are based on EU law, but that no longer applies to the UK, and it has launched a survey on whether those standards should change. Acceptances for pre-registration nursing programmes at English universities for 2020-21 increased by over 5,000 since the previous year.

Many constituents have con, deeply concerned by Government proposals to grab, store and share GP health data. Can the Secretary of State tell me this: if I opt out of this data grab, will my health data be available to a hospital outside my home area should I have an accident, for example? If I do not opt out of it, how can I control how my data is shared, whether individually or in aggregate? I do not want to have to choose between privacy and my health. (900892)

The hon. Lady is quite right, and if she was in the Chamber earlier, she would have heard the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), say that we are going to delay the deadline for this programme, including the opt-out, which is currently scheduled to end on 23 June. That has already been welcomed, while we have been in here, by the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association, and then we will work through these issues. Everybody agrees that data saves lives. We have to make progress in this area, and it is very important that we do it in a way that brings people with us and resolves exactly the sorts of issues that she raises.

Although covid cases remain above the national average across Kirklees, thankfully hospitalisations and deaths remain low. Locally, my constituents are getting vaccinated and tested. Can the Health Secretary please confirm that he will not reintroduce local restrictions? (900891)

I am really glad to say that in Bolton and other parts of the country where we have sent in a big package of support, including surge testing—as we have done in Kirklees—we have seen a capping-out of the increase in rates without a local lockdown thanks to the enthusiasm of people locally and, of course, the vaccination programme. That is our goal. Our goal is that England moves together. That is what we are putting these programmes in place to do, and we are seeing them work.

Northwick Park Hospital, which serves my constituents, was the first to be hard hit by covid last year. At the height of the second wave in January, its remarkable staff were looking after some 600 patients. It needs investment in intensive care and recovery services. When Ministers receive the business case, can I ask them to look particularly sympathetically at it? (900893)

Macmillan estimates that the current backlog of people awaiting a first cancer treatment across England stands at 39,000 people. What plans can my right hon. Friend outline to bolster cancer services so that those people get the treatment they need? (900894)

Recovering the backlog that has been caused by the pandemic is a huge task for the NHS, and was raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) from the Opposition Front Bench, quite rightly. The backlog has unfortunately been increased as a consequence of the pandemic. We have put in extra money—an extra £1 billion this year—and we are seeing cancer services running at 100% of their pre-pandemic levels, and in some cases above 100%, in order to get through the backlog. The most important thing for the public watching this and for my hon. Friend’s constituents is to make sure the message gets out loud and clear that the NHS is open, and that if they have a problem, they should please come forward.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office regarding the successful clinical trials in the use of psilocybin in helping to deal with depression? It is a natural chemical found in fungi. (900907)

That is not something that has yet come across my desk, but I will make sure that the relevant Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman with as much detail as we know.

Community defibrillators are vital potential life savers, and many community groups fund investment in them. However, it is concerning to hear that members of the public are denied access to defibrillators when they are on private land. What can Ministers do to ensure that access is presumed rather than subject to permission? (900895)

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. Of course if someone puts a defibrillator on private land, access to it should naturally be open to anybody who needs it. I will look into the exact legal status, but let us set aside the legal status for a minute. If there is a defibrillator on private land that could save somebody’s life, the landowner should of course allow access to it for anybody who needs it.

As current Government investment in motor neurone research is not the targeted funding that is needed, will the Minister meet charities, researchers and patients to examine this discrepancy and commit to additional funding of £10 million a year for five years for a virtual motor neurone disease research institute, with a specific focus on helping us to get a world free of MND?

I will look into the hon. Lady’s specific request, but I can tell her that the Government are actively supporting research into motor neurone disease. For instance, in April I jointly hosted a roundtable event on boosting MND research with the National Institute for Health Research/Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre, which brought together researchers and others. We are absolutely committed to this area of work.

Mr Speaker, I am very grateful that you could fit me in at the end.

Yesterday during the statement the Secretary of State did not have the information to hand on the efficacy of the covid vaccines in reducing serious disease and hospitalisation. He made a commitment, rightly, to set them out today at Health questions at the Dispatch Box; and I am delighted, with this question, to give him the opportunity to do so.

First, I can say that a single dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca jab offers protection of 75% to 85% against hospitalisation, while data on two doses, which is currently available only for Pfizer, indicates 90% to 95% effectiveness against hospitalisation and 95% to 99% effectiveness at preventing death. However, my right hon. Friend also asked specifically about the delta variant, and I said that I did not have the figure in my head for the reduction in hospitalisations. I do not know whether I should be glad, but I can report to him that the reason is that there is not yet a conclusive figure. This morning I spoke to Dr Mary Ramsay, who runs this research at Public Health England, and she told me that the figure is currently being worked on. The analysis is being done scientifically and should be available in the coming couple of weeks. This is obviously an absolutely critical figure and I will report it to the House as soon as we have it.

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

Sitting suspended.