Statement - Coronavirus update from the Health Secretary

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on covid-19. The spread of coronavirus is rapidly accelerating across the world and in the UK. The actions that we took yesterday are not actions that any UK Government would ever want to take, but they were absolutely necessary. The goal is clear: to slow the rate of transmission in order to protect the NHS and save lives. Our instruction is simple: stay at home.

People should only leave their home for one of four reasons: first, to shop for basic necessities, such as food, as infrequently as possible; secondly, to exercise once a day, for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of the same household; thirdly, for any medical need, or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person; and fourthly, to travel to and from work, but only where it cannot be done from home, and employers should be taking every possible step to ensure that staff can work remotely. Those four reasons are exceptions to the rule. Further guidance is available on the gov.uk website.

I want to be clear that where people absolutely cannot work from home, they can still go to work. Indeed, it is important that they do so in order to keep the country running. Key workers, for example in the NHS and social care, pharmacists and those in the medicines supply chain, should go to work, unless they are self-isolating because they or someone else in their household has symptoms. We will be publishing guidance later today to explain the steps that employers must take to ensure that employees are safe, including making sure that there is a 2-metre gap between workers wherever possible.

In addition, all non-essential shops and community centres are closed as of today, and gatherings of more than two people in public must stop. These measures are not advice; they are rules. They will be enforced, including by the police, with fines for non-compliance starting at £30 but up to unlimited fines.

I want to update the House on the shielding that was introduced yesterday. We are writing to up to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK to advise them that they will need to shield themselves from the virus in the coming months. We will provide targeted support for all those who need it so that they have the food supplies and medical care they need to make it through. Guided by the experts, we will look at the evidence and continually review the effects of the measures.

We are engaged in a great national effort to beat the virus. Everybody now has it in their power to save lives and protect the NHS. Home is now the frontline. In this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease. Everyone has a part to play. I commend this statement to the House.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)

I thank the Secretary of State, as always, for advance sight of his statement. As he knows, yesterday we called on the Government to move to implement the enforcement of social distancing measures, so the Prime Minister was quite right last night to call for people to stay at home.

May I put to the Secretary of State a few quick questions? The virus thrives on inequalities. It is the most vulnerable, without financial security, who are especially at risk. I therefore urge him to consider abolishing prescription charges for the duration of the outbreak, especially for those with conditions such as asthma. We are very mindful of the mental health implications of asking people to stay at home, and we are also deeply concerned about the potential for domestic violence to increase. What support is available on those two fronts?

We also need clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and cannot go out. The Opposition would call for just key workers to be able to go to work. We have seen Sports Direct, for example, insisting that its workers turn up today. We are hearing stories about warehouses insisting that agency workers turn up and about construction sites not putting in place social distancing measures. That is putting workers at risk, and it is putting the lives of us all at risk. We need clear enforcement; if we are telling people that they will be fined for leaving their house, why are we not fining employers for insisting that their employees turn up to work when they should be staying at home? My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be putting more points to the Government about income protection in the debate later today.

Let me quickly turn to personal protective equipment. I understand the efforts the Government have made, but there are still NHS staff saying that they have no access to adequate PPE. We still have hospital chief executives expressing concern that they do not have access to FFP3 masks, that they are not getting the visors and sanitisers they need on time and that, when they do get masks, they are different from the previous masks, so staff have to be retrained. I urge the Government to move heaven and earth to get the PPE our staff need to the frontline. We also need PPE in social care. We are beginning to see outbreaks of covid-19 in social care homes. What support is in place for the residents of care homes, and when will we get the PPE that we need into the social care sector?

Enforced social distancing is welcome—we called for it—but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing. That is how countries such as South Korea have managed to suppress the virus. We are still testing only around 5,000 people a day. We do not have enough community testing. We are still not testing enough NHS staff. As the World Health Organisation has instructed the world, test, test, test.

Leaked emails today suggest that, on Sunday, the Government were asking to borrow research institutions’ testing kits—we have called for that, and we do not disagree with it—but the emails also said that the Prime Minister had said:

“there are no machines available to buy”.

Many of our constituents, and indeed NHS staff, will be asking why we did not procure machines and kits sooner.

On intensive care capacity, there are reports today that the ExCeL centre will be turned into a field hospital of 500 beds and that staffing ratios for intensive care are being relaxed. We understand that, given the staffing demands we face, but if we are setting up more field hospitals, will the Secretary of State tell us what oversight there will be? That change also means that more of our specialist staff will be stretched further—we understand why—but what guidance will be in place? Will the Secretary of State update the House on how many intensive care beds are now open, and how many more will be opened; how many ventilators we have, and how many more will be purchased; how many beds with oxygen we have; and what the current extracorporeal membrane oxygenation capacity is?

Will the Secretary of State quickly update the House on an issue that has emerged overnight about access to abortion care, as a result of some of the implications of the Coronavirus Bill? Will he assure the House that women who want access to abortion care will continue to be able to get it?

Our constituents are worried; our constituents are fearful. I hope the Secretary of State understands that when we put these questions to him, we are doing so because we want the national effort to defeat this virus to succeed.

Matt Hancock

I will go through the answers to the questions the hon. Gentleman reasonably asked. He asked about the most vulnerable. A programme of work is under way to ensure that those who need support because they are staying at home—especially those who are victims of domestic violence—get that support. It is incredibly important and difficult work, but we are doing what we can in that space. He also asked about prescription charges. Only around a fifth of people pay prescription charges, so those who are the least able to pay already get free prescriptions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Sports Direct. Sports shops are not essential retail, and therefore they will be closed. I have seen a bit of the noise that has been going on around today about Sports Direct in particular. I want to be absolutely clear that sports kit is not essential over the next three weeks, so we will be closing Sports Direct, along with other non-essential retail. He also asked about fines for corporates as well as individuals—absolutely, those fines are available if that is necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about protective equipment, and he is quite right to do so, because as we discussed yesterday, having protective equipment for staff on the frontline—especially those in the NHS and social care, but also in other frontline services—is very important. We are moving heaven and earth, and the military involvement is ramping up the delivery of that equipment. He asked specifically about social care. I am glad to say that the current plan is to get protective equipment to all social care settings by the end of this week, and then we will have to keep going. We have put in place a hotline. If someone needs PPE and they are not getting it, they should call the hotline so that we know where the difficulties are in getting PPE to the frontline, and we can respond to those calls and get it to them. I feel that very strongly.

The hon. Gentleman asked about testing. As we have discussed many times, we are ramping up testing as fast as we can, including buying millions of tests. My team are currently buying these tests, which we will make available as quickly as possible. He asked about there being no machines ready to buy. I do not recognise that at all. I have not seen any leak, and I would not want to comment on a leaked email—certainly not one that I have not seen. It is true that we are bringing testing machines together to provide a more efficient testing system, and I am grateful to the universities that have put these testing machines into the system. This is a national effort, and they are playing their part. We are also buying machines where we can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about staff ratios, which have been publicised this morning. It is true that we are having to change the standard staff ratios for delivery of certain types of procedure, including ventilation. The reason is that we cannot easily train somebody to intubate a patient and put them on a ventilator. We are training those who we can train to the standards necessary, but this is an incredibly difficult task, and it is therefore safer to have the doctors who are trained to do it and experienced in doing it doing it to more people, with more support staff than in normal circumstances. That is absolutely necessary to respond to the quantity of need, because this is a very specialist part of the NHS and of medicine that suddenly has much bigger demand than could ever have been envisaged outside a pandemic scenario.

I pay tribute to the staff who will be working much more intensively and who are putting their vital skills at the service of the nation in order to save lives. I am grateful to all those who have worked with the royal colleges to ensure that we get these ratios right and stretch the capabilities we have as far as we safely can in the circumstances. Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned abortion. We have no proposals to change any abortion rules as part of the covid-19 response.