Coronavirus Bill

Kevin Brennan Excerpts
Matt Hancock Portrait The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Matt Hancock)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century. We are all targets, but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable. To defeat it, we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime. Our goal is to protect life and to protect every part of the NHS. This Bill, jointly agreed with all four UK Governments, gives us the power to fight the virus with everything that we have.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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Like many hon. Members, I have had a huge number of issues raised with me by NHS workers regarding the availability of personal protective equipment to frontline staff and testing. I know the Secretary of State wants to protect NHS staff through the Bill, so will he take the opportunity of Second Reading to update us, perhaps with any information he has from across the UK, about progress on these matters?

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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Yes. If it is okay with you, Mr Speaker, I will answer that intervention and then get on with the point in the Bill. These issues are outwith the Bill, but they are incredibly important and very much part of the topic.

In terms of making sure that NHS staff, social care staff and those who need it clinically get the protective equipment they need—especially but not only the masks— we are undertaking enormous efforts to get that equipment out. The equipment is there; we have it. It is a distribution effort. I was not satisfied with the stories I heard of people running short, so we have brought in the military to help with the logistical effort. I want to hear from every single member of staff in the NHS or in social care who needs that equipment but does not have it, so we have also introduced a hotline and an email address, which is manned. I have had an update on that, and it has had a number of calls, which are all being responded to. In that way, we will find out where the gaps are, so that we can get this distribution out. It is a mammoth effort; we have been working on it for several weeks, but the increase in the use of the protective equipment in the last week has been very sharp, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the House will understand. The logistical effort is very significant.

We are expanding the amount of testing. We are buying tests, both ones made abroad and ones made here in the UK, because testing is absolutely vital to getting out of this situation. I want to get to a point where anybody who wants to get tested can get tested. At the moment, we are having to reserve the tests we have for patients, especially in intensive care, so that they can be properly treated according to whether or not they have coronavirus. Very soon, we are getting the tests out to frontline staff so that they can get back to work, where somebody in their household might have the symptoms and they are household-isolating. I understand absolutely the importance of testing. We are working on it incredibly hard. We were working on it all weekend, and we are making some progress.

--- Later in debate ---
Jonathan Ashworth Portrait Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)
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May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for his kind words and for the way in which he has continued to keep me updated throughout this process, for the arrangements he has made for us to be briefed by officials and the chief medical officer, for keeping me informed of Government decisions, and for his ongoing engagement on the Bill? I hope that Members across the House understand that when we ask the Secretary of State probing questions, we do so constructively—not to undermine him or to create some false dividing line for the sake of political point scoring. This is a frightening time for our constituents and we all have an interest in ensuring that the Government get this right. We want the Government to succeed in defeating this virus.

I will make a few remarks about where we are with responding to the virus before moving on to some specific comments about the Bill. As always, our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to the virus. Again, let me put on record our praise for the extraordinary efforts of our NHS staff and other dedicated public servants. This unprecedented global health crisis tests each and every one of them like never before; we are forever in their debt.

Today this House is being asked to make decisions of a magnitude that I simply would never have dreamt of only a few weeks ago. I know that no Member came into this place to put powers like this on to the statute book—powers that curtail so many basic freedoms that our forebears fought so hard for, and that so many people today take for granted. But I also know that every Member here will want to do all they can to support all means necessary to save lives and protect our communities in the face of this virus.

This is a global health emergency the like of which the world has never seen since the Spanish flu outbreak over 100 years ago. Throughout this outbreak, I have said that the virus spreads rapidly, exploits ambivalence and thrives on inequality. The Government have quite correctly sought to promote social distancing as a means of reducing person-to-person transmission of the virus. For the most part, these measures have been on a purely voluntary basis, but I am afraid that too many people are still not following the advice. This weekend we will all have seen the pictures of bustling markets, packed tube trains, and busy beaches and parks. I am afraid that the public health messages are still not being heard loud and clear. Everyone who can be at home should be at home. Everyone who can work from home must do so. This House must also send a clear message to young people—millennials—that they are not invulnerable to the virus; they are at risk too.

To be frank, we in this House need to adjust our behaviour as well. I love and respect this Chamber, and I think Members will agree that I relish the cut and thrust of robust debate across these Dispatch Boxes. But if other workplaces can use Zoom calls, Skype, conference calling and so on to make decisions, why can’t we? I therefore look forward to the reforms that Mr Speaker is looking into.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan
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It would be remiss of me not to thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for the way in which they are both responding to this crisis—even though they are on opposite sides of the House—in the interests of the whole country. The whole House appreciates the way that both of them have conducted themselves throughout this crisis. On the point that he raises, an acquaintance of mine, who is an NHS nurse, asked:

“Why is the public creating more work for us medical staff and exposing us to the risk of dying?”

I thank him for giving those messages so clearly, but does he think that there is more that can be done to communicate more effectively to the public what social distancing means in practice and how people should behave given the scenes that we have seen this weekend?