The following is a major speech from Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders. In Parliamentary terms it is extremely critical of the government. Even though the prime minister may have lowered the tone of debate, this is polite, measured, and at the end, does threaten the PM with his P45. I work with Justin a lot, and have developed considerable respect for his honesty and integrity over the years.
Jean Hardiman Smith
As we know, we are now a year into this pandemic. It has been a year unlike any we have experienced before, and it certainly was not the one we would have hoped for. The virus has turned the world as we know it upside down. We have seen the very best of many: our frontline health and social care workers who have selflessly looked after us, our key workers who have kept our vital services running and our country going, and our communities who have come together to support one another, especially those in need. But it has also been the very worst of times for many: families kept apart for months, individuals and businesses left with no support and, of course, the grim milestone of more than 120,000 deaths from coronavirus, which was reached this weekend. We know that each life lost is a tragedy that leaves behind devastated family and friends, and that death toll does need explaining. I will return to that issue later, but I would like to start on a more positive note.
As the Minister referred to in his opening remarks, more than 17.5 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the covid-19 vaccine. I echo his congratulations to everyone who has been involved in that roll-out. From the scientists to the NHS to the volunteers, it has been nothing short of brilliant, and it is something for us all to celebrate. While we are on the subject, we should also extend our congratulations to Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government for becoming the first country in the UK to get through the first four priority groups.
I am sure that all of us have breathed a sigh of relief or even shed a tear when a parent or vulnerable family member or friend has received their first vaccine dose. Yesterday’s news that all adults in the UK will have been offered their first dose by the end of July is very positive indeed, but can more be done? When Simon Stevens says that the NHS could deliver double the number of vaccines it currently is, we will all be asking, why is that not happening? With research showing that some minority groups are well behind the general population in terms of take-up, another question that I am sure Members will want to raise about the roll-out is: what can the Government do to vaccinate more people in hard-to-reach communities?
I am sure that many Members will have been moved by the story of Jo Whiley and her sister, Frances. She has talked about the anxiety shared by many families across the country. We know that people with learning disabilities are much more likely to die from coronavirus than the general population, with the death rate in England up to six times higher during the first wave of the pandemic, but currently only people with severe learning disabilities have been prioritised for the vaccine. I am sure the Minister is aware that over the weekend, at least one clinical commissioning group announced that it will be offering the vaccine to all patients on the learning disability register as part of priority group 6. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on whether there are any plans to consider that issue again.
I have one last question regarding the vaccine. We have asked a number of times for the Government to publish figures on how many health and social care staff have been vaccinated. The Secretary of State said last week that a third of social care staff had still not been vaccinated, so I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will be able to update us on those figures and on what more we can do to improve take-up in that group. It is vital that we look after the people who look after us in social care and the NHS. Our NHS rightly deserves huge congratulations on its impressive and speedy vaccine roll-out, but despite its incredible efforts, it will still take many months before the vaccine offers us widespread protection. With the emergence of new variants, increasing pressures on our health service and continuing high rates of transmission, it is vital that Ministers do everything possible to ensure that frontline health and care workers, who are more exposed to the virus, are fully protected.
Healthcare staff deaths are now estimated to be approaching 1,000. That is tragic. We know that our frontline workers face higher risk. During the surge in cases last month, the British Medical Association reported that more than 46,000 hospital staff were off sick with covid-19 or self-isolating. A survey conducted by the Nursing Times during the last two weeks of January found that 94% of nurses who work shifts reported that they were short-staffed due to similar absences. We support calls from the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing to urgently review PPE guidance and increase stockpiles of high-grade PPE such as FFP3 masks for all frontline NHS employees. I hope the Minister can update us on what plans the Government have to ensure that health and social care staff are fully protected.
Finally, we need a plan for staff to address what comes next. Just as the nation needs a recovery plan, the NHS workforce needs one too. We must not forget that we entered this crisis with a record 100,000 vacancies in the NHS. What I hear from staff, who have now been working flat out for a year, is that they desperately need a break, and they need a tangible demonstration that their efforts are truly valued. The NHS rightly has a special place in the hearts of the people of this country, but without the staff, the NHS ceases to exist. That is why we need to recognise that we cannot keep dipping into that well of good will, and that at some point, NHS workers need cherishing as much as the institution itself.
I cannot mention PPE without briefly addressing last week’s High Court ruling that the Government had acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of covid-related contracts. Why has the Secretary of State not come to Parliament to explain himself? Is breaking the law such a common occurrence in Government nowadays that it does not warrant an explanation from those responsible? The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by a toxic mix of misspending and cronyism. We all understand that the Department was and is dealing with many pressing issues, but transparency is important, and accountability matters. Of course, we need to remember why there was such a rush to get PPE in the first place—it was because the Government had ignored the warnings and allowed stockpiles to run down. The pandemic has been used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, but it really should not need saying that transparency goes hand in hand with good government.
Another area where we need greater transparency is the Government’s general response to the pandemic to date. With the highest number of deaths in Europe, those in power now need to answer why that has been the case, because such a grim death toll was not inevitable. If it is the right time to undergo an expensive and disruptive reorganisation of the NHS, it is also the right time to have the inquiry into covid that the Prime Minister promised more than six months ago. The families of the deceased deserve answers, and we all need to know that lessons have been learned and that the same mistakes will not be made again. If we look at what has happened so far, we can see that there has been a tragic failure to learn the right lessons. That is why what we have heard from the Prime Minister today matters, because we are not out of the woods yet. Infection rates, though they are reducing, remain high; there are more people in hospital now than there were at the start of the second lockdown; and there are still more than 1,000 people being admitted to hospital every single day. So, what we do next, when we do it and how we do it remains critical.
The Opposition have been clear all along about the importance of following the science. We know where not following the science takes us: it leads to the worst death rate and the deepest recession in Europe. It leads to the farce of the Prime Minister refusing to cancel Christmas plans, only to U-turn three days later, and it leads to the shambles of children returning to school for one day, only to find it closed the next. We know that the virus thrives on delay and dither. As we approach a year of life under restrictions, any ambiguity over when, where, why and how the restrictions will be eased in the coming weeks and months is just as big a threat as the virus itself.
Before I conclude, I just want to say a bit about test and trace. We did not hear anything new from the Prime Minister on that today, but it nevertheless remains a vital part of the pandemic response. We need to remind ourselves that the number of new cases is still above 10,000 each day, and that every day thousands more people are required to self-isolate. For this lockdown truly to be the last, we need to continue to cut transmission chains and the spread of the virus, so this continuing blind spot when it comes to supporting people to self-isolate is as baffling as it is wrong.
When we first came out of lockdown, the scientific advice repeatedly stated that the easing of restrictions would work only if there was a fully functioning test and trace system in place. That was true last year and it is still true today. We still do not have all test results back within 24 hours, as the Prime Minister promised would happen last June, but perhaps most important are the continued low compliance rates with self-isolation. The Government have known for many months that the lack of financial support to those self-isolating has resulted in extremely low adherence rates. Surveys between March and August last year found that only 11% of people in the UK notified as having been in recent close contact with a confirmed case did not leave their home. That figure has improved a little recently, but it is still well below where it needs to be.
Around a quarter of employers will only pay statutory sick pay for such an absence. The Secretary of State has previously said that he could not survive on statutory sick pay, so we should not be surprised when others cannot do so either. We also know that seven in 10 applicants are not receiving self-isolation payments from councils, with one in four councils rejecting 90% of applications. They are rejecting them not because there is no need but because the rules have been so tightly drawn that seven out of eight people do not qualify for a payment under Government rules. When Dido Harding herself says that people are not self-isolating because they find it very difficult, a huge question needs to be answered about why the Government have still not acted to rectify this.
Last month, the Government announced more cash for councils for self-isolation payments, but that was to last until the end of March, and actually the amount handed out was the equivalent to one day’s-worth of people testing positive. That is clearly not enough, and what about after March? We need confirmation of how much support will continue to enable people to self-isolate after that date. Following reports in The Independent late last week that some people working for the NHS through private contractors, such as cleaners, porters and kitchen staff, were being denied full sick pay for covid-related absences because of the removal of supply relief, we need a commitment that this will be investigated urgently and that the direction of travel will be reversed so that everyone in the NHS is properly supported. The Government should be setting an example here, not leading a race to the bottom. On wider financial support, where is the road map for businesses that will still be operating under restrictions for many months to come? We know that the Budget is next week, but they need clarity and support now.
In conclusion, what the Prime Minister announced today has to be the last time the word “lockdown” passes his lips. There must be no more false dawns and no more boom and bust. With this road map, relaxations should now be clear and notified to the affected parties in advance, but also approved by this place in advance. There should be no more muddle between guidance and laws; no more regulations published minutes before they become law; no more businesses having to throw away thousands of pounds-worth of stock because decisions are reversed at a moment’s notice; no more of the stop-go cycle; and no more hopeless optimism followed by a hasty retreat. This time really has to be the last time. The vaccine has given us hope. It has given us a route out of this. With a year’s experience of the virus and with multiple vaccines on the way, there can be no excuse for failure this time. The Prime Minister has said that he wants the road map to be a one-way ticket. I hope he is right. We all want him to be right, but if he gets it wrong, he should expect nothing less than a one-way ticket to the jobcentre.