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Covid-19 Update

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

I am honoured to have been asked to become Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I understand the responsibility that comes with this job, especially at this critical moment. As someone who has sat on the Front Bench for many years, this past year has been a difficult one. I have been frustrated not to be able to play my part in helping to meet the greatest public health challenge that our country has ever faced, so I am especially proud to have been given this opportunity for public service.

Nothing embodies the spirit of public service more than our national health service and those who work in our social care. I have seen it in my own constituency; I saw it again just this morning at St Thomas’s Hospital, where I met doctors, nurses and volunteers who have moved mountains over this past year. Now, they are helping us vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. I pay tribute to them all, and I pledge to do everything I can to deliver for them and the people of this great country. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the House on this vital mission.

We are making phenomenal progress with our vaccination programme. Vaccination is now open to every adult in the country, 84% of adults have got a jab and 61% of adults have had two doses. This progress has allowed us to safely take the first three steps out of the lockdown and towards the greater freedoms that we can enjoy today. We owe this strong position not only to the NHS, but to everyone who has played their part.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who has worked hard throughout all these testing times. He achieved a great amount in the work that he did, and I know that he will have more to offer in public life. I wish him the very best.

There remains a big task ahead of us to restore our freedoms—freedoms that, save in the gravest of circumstances, no Government should ever wish to curtail. My task is to help to return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great, while, of course, protecting life and our NHS. That task has been made all the more difficult by the delta variant, which we now know makes up some 95% of new cases in the UK. Not only does it spread more easily, but the evidence points to a higher risk of those who have not been vaccinated needing hospital treatment, compared with the previously dominant alpha variant.

This narrowing of the race between the virus and the vaccine led to this Government’s difficult decision to pause step 4 on our road map until 19 July. We are using this extra time to protect as many people as we can. When the Government took that decision on 14 June, more than 4.3 million over-40s had had a first dose but not a second. The figure is now down to 3.2 million people over 40. We can all be reassured by how many more people are getting the life-saving opportunity that a vaccine offers.

At this two-week review point, I want to update the House on our progress on our road map to freedom. Our aim is that around two thirds of all adults in this country will have had both doses by 19 July. We are bringing forward second doses, and bringing forward our target for first doses too, so we can meet that 19 July goal. Vaccine uptake remains sky-high. We have seen that age is no barrier to enthusiasm for getting the jab: as of this weekend, more than half of adults under 30 have taken up the chance to be vaccinated—including, in the past couple of weeks, all three of my own adult children.

Our vaccines are working, including against the delta variant. The latest modelling from Public Health England shows that they have saved more than 27,000 lives and have prevented more than 7 million people from getting covid-19. We know that, after a single dose of vaccine, the effectiveness is lower against the new delta variant, at around a 33% reduction in symptomatic disease, but two doses of the vaccine are just as effective against hospital admission with the delta variant as with the alpha variant.

The jabs are making a difference in our hospitals, too. In January, people over 65 who were vaccinated earlier in our programme made up the vast majority of hospital admissions; the latest data shows that that group now makes up less than a third. While cases now are ticking up, the number of deaths remains mercifully low, and we will continue to investigate how our vaccines are breaking that link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. I am also encouraged by new data just today from Oxford University’s mix and match trial, which shows that a mixed schedule of jabs, such as getting the AstraZeneca jab first and the Pfizer second, could give our booster vaccination programme more flexibility and possibly even some better immune responses.

Finally, we continue to see a rise in hospitalisations. Although in line with the kinds of numbers we had anticipated at this point in our road map, the number of people needing hospital treatment for covid-19 has doubled since the start of May. Admissions are most clearly increasing in the north-east and south-west of England, so we have been boosting testing centres and vaccines in those areas and keeping a close watch on the numbers.

I spent my first day as Health Secretary—just yesterday—looking at the data and testing it to the limit. While we decided not to bring forward step 4, we see no reason to go beyond 19 July because, in truth, no date we choose comes with zero risk for covid. We know we cannot simply eliminate it; we have to learn to live with it. We also know that people and businesses need certainty, so we want every step to be irreversible. Make no mistake: the restrictions on our freedoms must come to an end. We owe it to the British people, who have sacrificed so much, to restore their freedoms as quickly as we possibly can, and not to wait a moment longer than we need to.

With the numbers heading in the right direction, all while we protect more and more people each day, 19 July remains our target date. The Prime Minister has called it our terminus date. For me, 19 July is not only the end of the line, but the start of an exciting new journey for our country. At this crucial moment in our fight back against this pandemic, we must keep our resolve and keep on our road map to freedom so that together we can beat this pandemic and build back better. It is a task that I am deeply honoured to lead and one I know will succeed. I commend this statement to the House.

Can I just say at the outset that, despite our fierce political differences, my dealings with the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), were always courteous, respectful and professional, and I wish him well in resolving his personal difficulties.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) to his place and thank him for advance sight of his statement. He will find working with the NHS and social care staff both inspirational and rewarding, and I hope he will agree to make arrangements for them to receive a fair pay rise and not the real-terms pay cut that is currently pencilled in.

Today, the Secretary of State has let it be known that the 19 July reopening will effectively go ahead. He told the news this morning that there is “no going back” and that lifting restrictions will be “irreversible”. A word to the wise: I have responded to a lot of these statements these past 15 months, and I remember Ministers telling us there was “nothing in the data” to suggest that 21 June would not go ahead. I remember children returning to school for one day before the January lockdown. I remember, “It will all be over by Christmas”. I remember, “We will send it packing in 12 weeks”.

Well, we have seen around 84,000 cases in the past week—an increase of around 61%. Today, we have seen the highest case rate since January. If these trends continue, we could hit 35,000 to 45,000 cases a day by 19 July. That will mean more long covid—the Secretary of State did not mention more long covid—and it will mean more disruption to schooling. For some, it will mean hospitalisation, and we know that even after two doses, someone can catch and transmit the virus, so what is he going to do to push infections down? Vaccination will do it eventually, but not in the next four weeks.

I want to see an end to restrictions and our constituents want to see an end to restrictions, but I hope the Secretary of State’s confidence today about 19 July does not prove somewhat premature or even, dare I say it, hubristic. Can he confirm that by “irreversible” he is ruling out restrictions this winter? Has he abandoned the plan that the previous Secretary of State and officials were drawing up for restrictions this winter?

Increased infections will impact on the ability of the NHS to provide wider care. Today, the Secretary of State has promised to give the NHS everything it needs to get through the backlog, so will the hospital discharge and support funding be extended beyond this September, or will trusts have to make cuts instead? How does he define getting through the backlog? When will the NHS again guarantee that 95% of patients will start treatment within 18 weeks of referral? We know thousands are waiting too long for cancer care, so when will the NHS meet its cancer target that 96% of patients wait no longer than a month from diagnosis to first treatment? When will he give primary care the resources to meet the challenge of the hidden waiting list of over 7 million patient referrals that we would have expected since March 2020?

Given the pressures on primary care, is it still the Secretary of State’s plan to press ahead with the GP data transfer? To be frank, Mr Deputy Speaker, if the Department cannot keep its CCTV footage secure, how does he expect it to keep our personal data secure? Will we see a plan to fix social care, or is today’s Telegraph correct when it reports that he, the Secretary of State, is of the opinion that we are completely at the wrong stage of a Parliament to launch a new social care strategy? Is that really his view? Given the pressures across the whole of the healthcare service, will he abandon the ill-thought-through top-down reorganisation of the NHS that the previous Secretary of State was set to embark on?

Finally, given the recent questions of propriety around covid contracts, the Secretary of State will understandably want to present himself as a new broom. Can he confirm that he will not use a personal email account to carry out Government business? Can he explain why the social care Minister has been using a personal email account to carry out Government business? Why was the Minister for Innovation, the noble Lord Bethell, using his personal email account to discuss the awarding of Government contracts, and why did he have meetings with a firm that won a contract but not declare it? Can he tell us whether he maintains confidence in that Minister? Is it not time that that particular health Minister was relieved of their ministerial responsibilities as well?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for what he said about my predecessor.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, he started by rightly pointing out the incredible work that our NHS staff across the country have been doing, even before the pandemic, but especially, I think we would all agree, throughout the pandemic. I heard about that myself this morning during my visit to St Thomas’s Hospital talking to staff—doctors, nurses, consultants—and hearing directly about the challenges they faced at that time but also the challenges they continue to face. I wanted to hear from them what more the Government can do, whether on recruitment or resources, and what more help can be provided. So it remains an absolute priority. Of course, it is absolutely essential that, when the pay settlement process is complete, that is a fair process. Of course, it absolutely will be and it will be a fair pay settlement.

Turning to the right hon. Gentleman’s next question about the timing of the move to step 4, I set out, I think clearly in my statement, the Government’s plan and the rationale for that plan. I point out that what is at the heart of this is the vaccination programme and the excellent work that has been done by many across the country: the volunteers, doctors, and nurses. I visited a vaccination centre today, as well as St Thomas’s Hospital. Excellent work has also been done by the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). More people are getting vaccinated. We are seeing clear evidence that we are breaking the link—this is absolutely crucial—between the number of cases of people getting infected by covid-19 versus those who sadly end up in hospital or even, in some cases, lose their lives. The more evidence we see of that, the more confident it can make us that we will put this pandemic behind us. That is what gives me confidence about the date of 19 July. With all the data I saw yesterday—I sat down and discussed it with the experts and my colleagues—it is very clear that we are heading in the right direction, and I am very confident about that date of 19 July.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the backlog. The focus, for all the right reasons, of the NHS and social care system on dealing with the pandemic has, sadly, seen a significant backlog of cases build up. The Government have already provided record amounts of funding to try to deal with some of that backlog. In total to deal with the pandemic, some £92 billion of extra funding has been put into the NHS and social care system, and much of that is targeted at the backlog. It will be an absolute priority—it was for my predecessor, and it certainly will be for me—to see how quickly we can deal with that and what the best and most efficient way is to do so. Just today, on my visit to St Thomas’ Hospital, I heard some excellent new ideas from people on the frontline. We will certainly be listening to them as we set out further plans.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about social care, and I should warn him not to believe everything he reads in the press—and I think he should know that. Social care remains an absolute priority for this Government, and for me. The Prime Minister himself has rightly made some very clear commitments on social care, and we absolutely intend to meet them. When it comes to reform, of course we are committed to the Bill on NHS and social care reform, which my predecessor has talked about at the Dispatch Box. If hon. Gentleman sits down with me, perhaps I can persuade him a little of the virtues of that Bill, and I am sure I can convince him that it is essential. If, like me, he believes that what matters most are the patients—we want the people who go into hospital feeling unwell to be seen quickly and efficiently and to get better—the people in our social care system, and having better integration, then he will believe in the virtues of that Bill. I hope, eventually, he can come to support the Bill and do the right thing.

Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asked me about my Ministers. I have such a fantastic ministerial team—all and every single one of them. It is not just a question of confidence; it is a group of Ministers who are incredibly talented and who have delivered both in this House and in the Lords. Having led five Departments previously, I have had some considerable experience of working with Ministers, and this is one of the best teams I have ever had.

Mr Deputy Speaker, my apologies for missing the start of this statement. May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his post? He will bring experience, ability and integrity to this role, and I have no doubt he will do it with great distinction. He will understand, of course, that in my role I have to scrutinise him, so I want to say to him now that he is welcome to as many seven-hour sessions of the Health and Social Care Committee as he is willing to attend, and we look forward to talking to him there. I do want to wish him well, and I also want to echo his comments about his predecessor. To be Health Secretary in a pandemic is the most difficult job imaginable. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) brought enormous energy and determination to that role, and the country is in his debt.

As the Secretary of State deals with what we hope are the final stages of this pandemic, can I ask him whether he will also be giving thought to how to prepare the NHS and care system for future pandemics, and whether at the top of his list will be putting more resilience into the social care system—not just meeting our manifesto promises on a cap on social care, but making sure that local authorities have long-term stability in funding to ensure they can look after every older person with dignity and respect?

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks, and I welcome the scrutiny that he and his Committee will provide. I am not sure about the seven hours bit, but I very much welcome the scrutiny and the intention.

On his question about preparing for future pandemics, a huge amount of work is already going on. Just yesterday, I met the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, which will work on much of that. As I think my right hon. Friend knows, in the best part of a year that I have been away from the Front Bench, I spent time as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School where my project was looking at potential future pandemics. I will put that knowledge, and everything I learnt through the process in doing that preparation, to use.

My right hon. Friend is also right to raise the importance of social care reform and the work that needs to be done, including on sustainable funding. He will remember how in the past we often worked together as Ministers. In these different roles, I look forward to working with him on that same issue of how we provide a long-lasting, sustainable solution to the social care challenge that this country faces. As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), that remains a huge priority, and I look forward to talking to my right hon. Friend and learning from him, too.

In welcoming the new Secretary of State to his place and thanking him for advance sight of his statement, I would like to ask how he plans to review or modify current covid policy? The management of any epidemic is not rocket science but infectious diseases 101: avoiding the importation of dangerous variants through border control and quarantine; and stopping the virus spreading from one person to the next. Does he plan to revise the Government’s quarantine and traffic light system to avoid importing more variants, which, like the delta, would threaten the reopening of the domestic economy and society?

On Friday, the National Audit Office released a report on the NHS Test and Trace system, which did not quite get the media coverage one would have expected. One year on, Serco is still reaching only 83% of contacts, while Scotland reaches 98% and Wales 95%. Both of them have used public health and health protection teams from the start. As covid restrictions are eased, a well-functioning test, trace, isolation and support system will be critical to detect and control small clusters and avoid future surges. Therefore, instead of awarding Serco a new contract for more than £300 million, should the opportunity not be taken to reform the system?

It is only isolation that stops the onward spread of the virus, and while the £500 isolation payment is welcome, it is less than the minimum wage, and many are excluded by the eligibility criteria. With no results at all registered for almost 600 million issued lateral flow tests, will the Secretary of State shift some of that funding to provide more generous and accessible financial support for those who are asked to isolate? While vaccines are reducing the likelihood of hospitalisation, cases are rising exponentially. Does he recognise that allowing the current surge to go unchecked would put pressure on the NHS and run the risk of even more infectious or vaccine-resistant variants emerging?

The hon. Lady first talked about the importance of border control, and she was right to do so. That is why the Government have already put in place the so-called traffic light system, with this Department working across Government with the Home Office, Border Force, the Department for Transport and others. The system absolutely needs to be kept under review to ensure that it is doing its job in protecting the people of this country from viruses, and especially from any new variants of covid-19 that may emerge. I can give her reassurance on that.

The hon. Lady also raised Test and Trace. She should know that the NHS Test and Trace system is the largest diagnostic exercise of its kind in British history. We have carried out more than 200 million tests, identified more than 4 million positive cases and found more than 7 million of their contacts. Every time that happens, whether in England, Scotland or any part of the United Kingdom, that breaks the chain of transmission and saves lives.

May I say how delighted I am to see my right hon. Friend back on the Front Bench? I congratulate him on his appointment to this crucial role, and I welcome his approach, as set out in his statement. He will be an excellent Health Secretary.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that 19 July will mark the end of the road map out of lockdown, that “terminus” means the end of the line, not an interchange, and that it is his intention that all restrictions will be lifted on that date?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. As she will have heard in my statement, it is absolutely our intention to have step 4 commence on 19 July and to remove restrictions and start returning to normal. She asked me specifically about all restrictions, or which restrictions. It is certainly our intention to remove restrictions, but as we follow the data in the coming days, we will set out more in due course.

May I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State to his place? I look forward to engaging constructively with him on a range of issues.

The Secretary of State will be aware that during the course of the pandemic, well in excess of 40,000 people lost their lives to covid in care homes, and the “protective ring” that his predecessor talked about being in place at the start of the pandemic went in far too late. He will also be aware that two in three unpaid carers looking after loved ones—some 7 million people—have reported their mental health worsening as a result of the pandemic. Will he help his boss to make good on his promise of almost two years ago on social care reform and honour his manifesto pledge to work cross-party on this issue, and meet me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) to urgently start work on it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about working together. She is absolutely right to say that, especially on something as important as social care, which she is right to raise as a priority for the Government and for this House. She reminded the House that, sadly, so many people in care homes have lost their lives through this pandemic. She will be aware that, even before the pandemic, the Government had pumped billions more into the social care system, and during the pandemic there was a lot of support, but a lot more needs to be done, and I think that is what she rightly gets to. The Government have said that the best way to find a sustainable solution to the country’s social care challenge is for parties to work together and co-operate, and I would happily meet her.

I welcome my right hon. Friend back to the Government, and I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.

The Feilding Palmer Hospital in Lutterworth is the only hospital in my constituency. It was threatened with closure but is now being used as the principal covid vaccination centre in the southern part of my South Leicestershire constituency. Once the Secretary of State has settled into his important role, will he meet me to discuss the important future that I hope to see for that much-valued district hospital?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue about his local hospital. As a constituency MP, I absolutely understand the importance of local hospitals and having that support in the local community. This hospital in particular has done a great job with vaccinations, and it continues to do a fantastic job. I think that is a very good sign of the contribution that it can potentially continue to make for the local community, and I would very happily meet him.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and, as the Democratic Unionist party health spokesperson in this place, I wish him well, on behalf of my party, in his new role. I have absolutely no doubt that he will do an excellent job.

If we are aiming for progression and moving away from restrictions such as the wearing of masks, may I ask when people will be able to attend worship and sit in churches self-distanced, without wearing a mask, just as diners can sit in a restaurant self-distanced without a mask? If we are going to have parity, then I believe that churches should have parity with restaurants.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I agree with him that as we move towards removing restrictions and step 4, we should take seriously into account what he said about people attending churches and the restrictions that they currently face. That is certainly my intention.

The Secretary of State will rightly focus on the immediate challenges of covid, but his Department is also about to make decisions related to integrated care systems, which have potentially enormous long-term implications for the provision of healthcare for my constituents and the constituents of fellow Cheshire MPs. The NHS wants to create a Cheshire-Merseyside ICS, which will not serve the best interests of our residents. Will the Secretary of State meet us urgently to discuss the proposal before it is quietly pushed through?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he personally has done to support the NHS, especially through his work in A&E departments. I also thank others who have contributed in that way. On his particular question, no final decisions have been made on ICSs. I absolutely understand the importance of his point. I want to make sure that we get these things right and, although I understand that he has already met Ministers in the Department, I would happily meet him myself.

I welcome the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to his new role. During the past 10 years, nearly £8 billion has been lost from budgets for adult social care. Too often during the covid pandemic, social care has been an afterthought for Ministers and officials. The results have been all too clear in the tragic levels of mortality in care homes. The social care sector is desperate for investment and reform, so will the new Secretary of State commit today to bringing forward proposals to invest in and reform social care as soon as possible, and at the latest by Christmas this year, as promised?

I agree with the hon. Lady on the importance of social care and that it should be a priority for reform, as it is for this Government. I do not agree with her characterisation that under this Government it has not been a priority or her suggestion that there has been under-investment. When in my previous role as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and certainly as Chancellor, we increased funding a number of times. I think we agree that we need a long-term, sustainable solution—we are not there yet—and that is something the Government are absolutely committed to.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role, I wish him every success and I support his plan to unlock soon. Will he look at expediting trials of other drugs and treatments that may help covid-19 patients and have been looked at elsewhere? Will he also encourage work on air extraction and cleaning systems, to see what more can be done to stop transmission of the disease, as we are going to have to live with it to some extent?

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. He could begin by launching cross-party work on social care reform by responding to the 2018 report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, because three years later we are still waiting for a Government response.

On test and trace specifically, the NAO report on the national system that was published the other day was hardly complimentary. The Secretary of State will be aware, from his previous role as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, of the great professionalism of directors of public health and the work that they do. As the NAO report says, in many cases they are still waiting for up-to-date data to deal with local covid outbreaks. Will the Secretary of State commit to rectifying that situation and ensuring that directors of public health are fully involved in the new model for testing and tracing that will be undertaken from July this year?

I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on the importance of social care, which we have discussed in the past and will no doubt discuss again going forward. He mentioned the NAO report; if he will allow me, I will take a closer look at that and write to him.

I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his new role. Now that thousands of people are allowed to gather together at a football match to shout and cheer as much as they want, is it not time that we allowed congregations in church to sing hymns together?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that that is certainly what I would like to see and it is certainly my intention to allow that to happen as soon as possible. When it does, I hope we can sing a hymn together.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State back to the Front Bench. One vector of the current surge in cases has been the rise in cases in schools. On 17 June, we had a quarter of a million pupils away from school. What steps does he think need to be taken to address the decline in the number of tests being carried out in schools? Does he think that the wearing of masks should become mandatory?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue, because it is very important. The point he is rightly making is that when we are asking children not to be in school for those reasons, to try to control infections, it is having a huge knock-on impact on their education, and none of us wants to see that. I have already asked for fresh advice from my Department on this issue and I intend to discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to see what more we can do.

I wholeheartedly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Given his extensive experience, both inside and outside Government, does he agree that the UK’s success post-pandemic will depend on the Department of Health and Social Care working closely with local councils, social care providers, businesses and community representatives to ensure that we protect both lives and livelihoods in the years ahead?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. As someone who has also been the Local Government Secretary and the Business Secretary, I agree with him even more, just directly from that experience.

The new Health Secretary has not been on the Front Bench for a year, but in that time he has been very busy—very busy indeed, lining his own pockets. He has been getting £1,500 per hour for his second job and £1,500 for his third job, all while NHS staff at Seacroft Hospital and St James’s University Hospital in my constituency have been working harder than ever, getting our communities through this covid crisis. Given that he has done very well out of the past year, bagging hundreds of thousands of pounds during a national crisis, would it not be the height of hypocrisy for the new Health Secretary to refuse our NHS staff the pay rise they so clearly deserve?

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, as others have done. I also welcome his optimistic and confident statement, which is so refreshing and is music to millions of ears. I concur with him when he says that we must learn to live with this virus, which will continue to throw up variants in the years ahead. Many constituents are having trouble actually seeing their GPs. Will he help by persuading some in the profession to return to physical meetings?

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. Even before I had this job, that issue came up again and again when I was a constituency MP just like him, and I absolutely understand it. It has especially been raised by older members of my constituency; people have brought this issue up where they are perhaps not as familiar with technology and they want that face-to-face meeting. I have already asked for advice on that and I will write to him on it, if I may.

Many constituents have contacted me about GP provision too, particularly the letting of key practices to private US healthcare companies. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to reassure me and my constituents that he intends to keep our NHS public?

The hon. Lady will know that the NHS is one of our greatest public services. In fact, it is one of the greatest public services that any country has, and it is an example to the rest of the world. It is something that we will cherish and continue to support in every possible way.

I warmly welcome the return of my right hon. Friend to the Front Bench. Some services such as maternity were temporarily suspended at Stafford’s County Hospital so that those wards could be used to treat covid-19 patients at the height of the pandemic, but does he agree that it is vital that those services are now returned to the hospital as soon as possible?

That is an important issue for many hon. Members. Services, in this case maternity services, were understandably, I think it is fair to say, suspended to deal with the pandemic. As we return to normal, it is important that those services, on which local people rely, begin to return to normal as well. If it is helpful for my hon. Friend, I can certainly set up a meeting for her with my hon. Friend Minister for Health so that she can discuss that in more detail.

Now that the Health and Social Care Secretary is in post, will he break with his predecessor’s outright refusal to deliver the pay rise to NHS staff in England that they deserve? Will he, at a minimum, commit to matching NHS pay rates in Scotland, delivering a pay rise for staff in England, and to providing more money in consequentials to help devolved Governments support NHS staff in devolved nations?

The whole House would agree that the Government must absolutely make sure that there is a fair pay settlement for all NHS workers, and that is certainly what there will be.

I am absolutely delighted to see my right hon. Friend back in his rightful place on the Front Bench. There can be no clearer example of the Government’s commitment to recycling. I hope that he will bring his customary consistency in approach to the covid crisis, and tell us whether we are following dates or data. As for the data we get, it is not just about the number of infections—it is about who is infected, what age they are, whether they have pre-existing conditions, and whether they have been offered a vaccine, but have refused. It is not just about hospitalisations and how many people are in hospital. How long have they been hospitalised compared with the figures for previous parts of the pandemic? How many of them require extra care and how many are in intensive care units? We need to understand much better how the Government are reaching their decisions. The British people are not stupid, and Parliament needs to be taken into the Government’s confidence much more. I trust, given the previous examples of how he has conducted himself, that my right hon. Friend can do that.

I should first tell my right hon. Friend that I am happy to be recycled. Recycling is something that we are all in favour of. On his important point about data, I saw the data in the Department for the first time yesterday. I saw the detail that it provides and how granular it is. I was impressed with that data, so I can give my right hon. Friend reassurance that the Government are looking at the data, and are absolutely taking it into account. I would also like to find a way to make sure that we can share as much of that data as possible so that others can benefit from it, and I will certainly look at ways in which we can do just that.

Despite the best efforts of our hard-working NHS staff, covid-19 has created a backlog in cancer care. Macmillan estimates that the backlog of people receiving their first cancer treatment stands at 37,000 people across England. One of the key ways in which the Secretary of State can help with the Government’s goal of recovering from the pandemic is ensuring that we have enough well-trained and motivated NHS staff now and in future, so will he commit to addressing the cancer backlog and investing in the NHS workforce to build back better for the future now that he is in post? Will he meet me and Macmillan Cancer Support to discuss this urgent matter?

Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a top priority, and rightly so, throughout the entire pandemic. Some 2.47 million urgent referrals have been made and over 618,000 people have been treated between March 2020 and April 2021. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that following the “Help Us, Help You” symptom awareness campaign, many of the so-called missing patients are starting to come forward and urgent referrals are rising. That is what we all want to see.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his post and place on record my thanks to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who was always assiduous in attending the Science and Technology Committee and, indeed, in coming to the Dispatch Box.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the heroes of the Oxford vaccine, recently told my Committee that we need to be aware that new variants are likely to infect even the vaccinated, but:

“If…high protection against hospitalisation continues despite spread”

of cases

“in the community, the public health crisis is over”?

What will my right hon. Friend do to inform the public, and perhaps some officials, that we must move from being concerned about the number of cases of covid to focusing squarely on hospitalisation?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. This is a such a crucial point and it is one that I referred to earlier. Of course, cases are not unimportant, but because we now have the vaccine, thankfully, and in this country in particular so many people are getting vaccinated—of course, we want to see more and more people coming forward, but the take-up is excellent, especially compared with other countries—it is the vaccine that is going to break the link between case numbers and hospitalisation. As I said, we are absolutely starting to see that. The indications are very, very positive on this, and I hope that is the kind of news that my right hon. Friend will welcome.

The Home Office recently updated its visa guidance to say that new international students and those returning to the UK must be here by 27 September or lose their post- study work rights. Around one fifth of our international students are from red list countries. Their arrival risks a surge in demand that will overwhelm the hotel quarantine system. Universities UK, the Confederation of British Industry and others have written to Ministers urging flexibility on visa rules to enable blended learning to continue with phased entry to the UK, so will the Secretary of State urgently meet his successor as Home Secretary to seek this change?

I was not aware of this issue. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to my attention, and I will certainly raise it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his challenging new role. One of the big challenges in my area is parents, grandparents and guardians having to deal with children and students from local schools and colleges who have to isolate for sometimes a third or fourth time in the past couple of months as a result of having been a close contact of a positive case. This is having a huge impact on education, mental health and wellbeing, so what extra PCR testing, and what new approach to isolating, can be introduced to help to support local families and children?

This is another very important issue. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the impact of the isolation that is demanded of children—understandably so, but it is having an impact on their education, their mental health and in so many other detrimental ways. That is exactly why I have asked for fresh advice on this. I want to see if there is anything more that we can do—any more flexibilities. I am aware that there is a pilot programme in place at the moment that certain local authorities are using whereby tests can be used in lieu of isolation, but I want to see if we can go further, and I will be happy to discuss that further with my hon. Friend.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State and wish him well.

In Bexley borough we have some of the highest-performing vaccination teams in the country, and we are all grateful to those involved for their tremendous work. However, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vaccine roll-out remains his top priority, so that my constituents can be confident that we will defeat this pandemic, ease restrictions and see life return to normality after 19 July?

I can certainly confirm that to my right hon. Friend. As he suggests, the vaccine is the best way out of this pandemic. Let me share with him that four fifths of adults have had their first jab and three fifths have had both jabs—that is almost 77 million jabs across the country, with millions more to come. This is going to be our way out of this crisis, I am grateful for the huge amount of work that NHS staff and volunteers are doing in his constituency and throughout the country to achieve that and to get more and more people vaccinated.

In Newcastle, infection rates are doubling every week and are now at over 400 per 100,000. The Secretary of State may think that that is not important because, thankfully, hospitalisations and deaths are not rising at the same pace, but more and more people are being asked to self-isolate. My constituents want to do the right thing, and the vast majority do, but support is woeful. Does he recognise that that is one reason for higher rates in areas with higher levels of low-paid and insecure work? As a former Chancellor, will he fight for more support, including extending eligibility to anyone without access to workplace sick pay?

I could not hear the question entirely, but I think I got the gist of it. Areas that are seeing rising case rates—as I mentioned, some parts of England are seeing particularly high increases—are, as the hon. Lady knows, being given extra support through testing, tracing and other means, including extra financial support. We will absolutely keep under review how much further support can be provided to help with the issues she mentioned.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and warmly welcome his return to the Front Bench. Does he share my concerns regarding this winter, when we predict that an increase in covid hospitalisations may be superimposed on normal NHS winter pressures? Can he confirm that plans and preparations are being put in place now to support our NHS in what may be a very difficult winter indeed?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I can absolutely confirm that plans are being put in place. A huge amount of work was done by my predecessor and, of course, I will continue that work—just yesterday, I had meetings on winter plans. I can give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance, not just on vaccinations but on dealing with the backlog, that there are plans in place, and in due course I will come to the House and set them out.

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) earlier, the Secretary of State said that he is working on a plan for social care and that we are not there yet but that we are getting there. However, the Prime Minister told us that he had a ready-made plan back in July 2019. What has changed? Does that plan exist, or has it been changed?

May I also congratulate the Secretary of State and welcome him to his position? Does his optimism on the end of domestic restrictions extend to those who want to take up international travel again or who work in the industry? Is he also confident that the three fifths he mentioned who have been double-jabbed will be able to go to amber list countries without quarantine? Would he be willing to meet me and other colleagues who share a concern that we need to do more to try to help our industry?

First, my hon. Friend will know that, in terms of 19 July and the restrictions that will be removed, we are focusing on domestic restrictions. He knows that, separately, we also take very seriously the border controls, the border restrictions and the so-called traffic light system. In terms of making any further decision on that, he will know that it is kept under constant review on a very regular basis, and it is something that I intend to sit down and discuss with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary as soon as I can.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s return to the Front Bench. I know from my experience of dealing with him in Government that he is a man of real integrity, which is an essential quality in a Health Secretary at a time like this, so I welcome his appointment.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s tone and his intent to get us back to normal, but let me pick up on his earlier answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer). There are those in government, from documents that I have seen, who are preparing the ground for the return of restrictions in the autumn and the winter. Will he rule out the use of lockdowns and restrictions in the winter as a mechanism for managing covid, and look at alternatives to ensure that the NHS is able to deal with us getting back to normal?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind and warm remarks. I know that he has taken great interest throughout the pandemic in the restrictions in particular, and I absolutely understand why it has been so important to him and others. I am very happy to meet with him to discuss the issues in more detail and listen to his views. He should know that it is my intention, and the Government’s intention, as I have said from day one on this job, to remove all restrictions as quickly as possible.

I give a warm welcome to my right hon. Friend. I wish him very well. I am looking for a change in policy as much as a change in tone. I return him to the subject of education. Estimates suggest that a quarter of a million children are missing school today due to precautionary isolations, the vast majority of them sequential due to the bubbles that they are caught in. Under the current rules, 10 days of isolation is then unavoidable, even with a negative PCR test. Have our young people not suffered enough? Are we really going to continue to do this to ourselves? Is this not an area, given the availability and reliability of testing now, where I might find the change of policy that I am looking for?

Other hon. Members have rightly raised this very important issue, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it once again. It is something that I have focused on from day one on the job. That is why I have asked for fresh advice on it. As he knows, that decision was made with the data that was available at the time. Clearly, data is changing all the time, and we must ensure that we keep that under review for exactly the reasons that he has just set out. As I say, I have asked for advice on that and will hopefully be able to say more on it as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for Health for his statement. In his first outing in the new role, he has responded to 31 questions in one hour, so thank you very much.