Helen Whately – 2020 Speech on the Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Below is the text of the speech made by Helen Whateley, the Minister for Care, in the House of Commons on 24 June 2020.

I beg to move amendment (a), to leave out from “medicine” to the end and add:

“and recognises the unprecedented action the Government has taken in its tireless efforts against Coronavirus to protect the NHS and save lives.”

The coronavirus pandemic is the most serious public health emergency that our nation has faced for a generation and our NHS and social care system has been well and truly on the frontline. Today, I would like to outline the work we have done to protect our NHS and social care from the threat of this invisible killer, as well as our work to safely ramp up services now that this virus is in retreat.

On protecting the NHS and social care, we have worked hard to boost the resilience of our health and care system, so it would not be overwhelmed, as we have sadly seen elsewhere across the world. A major part of this mission was our Nightingale hospitals. This was one of the most ambitious projects this country has ever seen in peacetime, building hospitals in just a matter of weeks in exhibition centres and conference venues. That hard work from so many meant that, even at the peak of the pandemic, there was more critical care capacity than there was when coronavirus first hit our shores, so our NHS was able to give outstanding critical care to everyone who needed it.

Our social care system has also been at the heart of the pandemic, and we have worked hard to give it the support it needs. In March, we announced £1.6 billion of funding for local government and £1.3 billion of funding via the NHS. In April, we announced a further £1.6 billion, as well as our comprehensive adult social care action plan. In May, we announced a £600 million infection control fund for care providers in England, which includes funding so that social care staff can be on full pay if they have to isolate due to covid. That work is bearing fruit, thanks to the dedication, expertise and compassion of care workers throughout the country.

Fifty-eight per cent. of care homes have had no reported cases of coronavirus. Every life lost in our care homes fills me with sorrow, whether it is from coronavirus or not. However, we are seeing a sustained reduction in the number of coronavirus deaths. This week’s Office for National Statistics figures for England and Wales show that the number of deaths in care homes has fallen once again—down from 536 to 360 in the last week.

This has been hard, but through this crisis we have strengthened our health and care system, and we are looking to see what lessons we can take forward as we look ahead to the winter.

Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)

Will the Minister let me know what steps the Government are taking to protect black, Asian and minority ethnic health and care staff?

Helen Whately

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She makes a really important point. One of the things that I have put much thought into over recent weeks is making sure that our staff of black and ​Asian minority ethnicities have the protection that they need. Both for the NHS and for the social care system, we have supported the development of risk assessment frameworks to identify the risks, with recommendations on what steps can be taken. I am working with the system to make sure that those are put into practice.

Coming back to the lessons that we are taking forward, one of the things that has been a great success has been the adoption of new technologies such as, for instance, online GP consultations. Some 99% of GP practices now have video consultation capability, while hospitals have been doing virtual out-patient appointments and care homes have been using tablets—the digital kind of tablet!—to keep people in touch with their families. We are also seeing new ways of working to help those on the frontline to make quicker decisions and cut red tape. We will keep driving these important reforms so that we can give everyone a better experience of health and social care.

As the Prime Minister set out yesterday in the House, we have succeeded in slowing the spread of the virus. On 11 May, 1,073 people were admitted to hospital in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with coronavirus, and by 20 June this had fallen by 74% to 283. This has reduced the pressure on the NHS so it has been able to carefully ramp up important services. Hon. Members have raised questions about two specific services in the motion, and I will address them both.

First, coronavirus has had a real impact on many people’s mental health, so there is a lot of concern about mental health services remaining open and available. Our NHS mental health services have remained open for business throughout the pandemic, using digital tools to connect people and provide ongoing support. This has proved especially effective for young people. Throughout the pandemic, we have provided £9.2 million of additional funding for mental health charities. We understand that we may see an increased demand for mental health services in the months ahead, and we are preparing for this, together with the NHS, Public Health England and other partners.

Secondly, hon. Members have raised questions about cancer services—another area where we are working hard to maintain care. For example, we have been operating surgical hubs where providers work together across local cancer services to maintain access to surgery. Although some cancer diagnostics and treatments have been rescheduled to protect vulnerable patients from having to attend hospitals, urgent and essential cancer treatments have continued. The latest data suggests that referrals are back to over 60% of the pre-pandemic levels, partly due to the NHS Help Us Help You campaign. This campaign has an important message that I am keen to repeat today. Anyone who is worried about chest pains, fears that they might be having a heart attack or a stroke, feels a lump and is worried about cancer, or is a parent concerned about their child should please come forward and seek help, as they always would. The NHS will always be there for us if we need it, just as it has been there for all of us throughout this crisis.

Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

On that note, will the Minister also encourage people suffering from vascular disease to seek appropriate treatment as quickly as possible?

Helen Whately

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), says to me that the hon. Lady is a very powerful campaigner on this subject. For that and for other conditions, people must absolutely come forward and get the help that they need. The NHS is there for that reason.

My third and final point is on testing. Testing for the virus and tracing how it spreads is critical to containing it as we ramp up services and ease the national lockdown. This is especially important for our NHS and social care system so that we can protect our colleagues and the people they look after. We have already built an immense national infrastructure for testing. Back in March, we had the capacity across all our testing channels to conduct fewer than 2,000 tests a day, whereas yesterday we saw more than 237,000 tests carried out. As we have built capacity, we have prioritised those in need. We started with the patients who needed a test, then expanded to NHS and social care workers and their families, then to other critical key workers, before we expanded to the wider community.

Today NHS England and NHS Improvement have written to NHS trusts and foundation trusts to outline further steps that must be taken in the NHS, including continuing to prioritise testing for all NHS staff with symptoms; extra testing of non-symptomatic staff when there is an incident, outbreak or high prevalence; and regular surveillance testing of staff which, on the advice of our chief medical officer, will be fortnightly or more frequently, depending on local or national epidemiology.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

On the testing figures that we get every day, after we take out studies that are being done through testing, along with double testing and those tests that are sent out through the post, are we not down to just about a third of the numbers that the Government claim are taking place? How can we have any confidence in what the Government say about what they are going to be doing about testing going forwards?

Helen Whately

The hon. Gentleman has talked about taking out large numbers of testing; as the Minister for Care, I have seen a huge demand from the social care sector for testing through those channels, so I would not take out other forms of testing. For example, testing through tests sent to people’s homes very much counts and should be considered as part of our testing programme.

We have put a rigorous focus on testing in care homes, too. We met our target of offering tests to all staff and all residents of care homes for over-65s and those with dementia in England by 6 June. We then announced that we were able to extend the testing programme to all adult care homes. Since the launch of whole care home testing, we have provided over a million test kits to more than 9,000 care homes, and we are now able to send out more than 50,000 test kits a day. We are also running a prevalence study to get a detailed picture of coronavirus infection in care homes. Phase 2 of that study has just gone live, meaning that 10,000 residents and staff across 100 care homes will have repeat swab and antibody tests.

Tim Farron

The Minister is being generous in taking interventions. Does she agree that to keep care homes safe from the coronavirus, the testing needs to happen ​regularly, not just once or even twice, and it needs to include people displaying no symptoms whatsoever? Does she also agree that, particularly for those NHS sites that are deemed to be clean and that are attempting to be covid-free, which are often the places where surgery will take place, the regular testing of staff even on a weekly basis, whether or not they display symptoms, is essential, not only, for example, to bringing back the mental health and maternity services that are currently lost to Westmorland General Hospital, but to making sure that the whole of our health service can operate as normal?

Helen Whately

I absolutely recognise the importance of repeat testing, both in the NHS and in social care. Our policies, and the testing programmes that we have in place and are launching and taking forward, are based on the clinical advice as to what the right programme to have in place is. I have set out the programme for the NHS, which is based on the advice of the chief medical officer, and we have sought advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on what the repeat testing programme should be for the social care sector.

Jonathan Ashworth

I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for giving way. We are trying to engage with the Government on what we think is a constructive proposal, and not to do the usual political knockabout. I did a bit of that yesterday at Health questions, as she knows, but today I am trying to adopt a different tone—

Helen Whately

Trying.

Jonathan Ashworth

Trying, yes. Just so that we can understand this, is the Minister saying that the Government’s position on weekly testing of all NHS staff, whether symptomatic or not, is that that is not an appropriate clinical intervention—as distinct from saying, “We simply do not have the testing capacity at this stage, but it is something we would like to do in future”?

Helen Whately

I am sure the hon. Gentleman was listening when I outlined the policy for the national health service. That is based on the chief medical officer’s advice. I think that is pretty clear. The Opposition’s position is not entirely clear, given that the hon. Gentleman started out saying “Weekly testing when necessary”, but said in his speech that it was weekly testing, whatever. On the other hand, we have been clear and the hon. Gentleman can look at the letter from NHS England and NHS Improvement to NHS trusts for further information.

I should move to the conclusion of my remarks—[Interruption.] Hold on, I thought we were not having any more political knockabout. We have established a national testing programme on a scale and at a pace that has never been seen before in this country. We will keep expanding that so that we can use high-quality testing to give confidence and certainty to anyone who needs it.

As I have set out today, there has been incredible action across our NHS and social care as we respond to this invisible killer. Thanks to the efforts of so many, crucial services have not been overwhelmed and all coronavirus patients who were admitted to hospital were able to receive urgent care. Because we have made such progress on slowing the spread of the virus, we ​have been able to ramp up other important services as part of our plan to get Britain back on her feet. However, we cannot be complacent and we must be ready for any increase in the rate of coronavirus infection and also for the winter, when, as hon. Members know, there is a greater risk of seasonal flu. As we keep ramping up services, we will ensure that we have the surge capacity to act quickly if necessary.

I want to finish by thanking the incredible NHS and social care staff who have been on the frontline of the pandemic. There has been a collective effort from so many, including healthcare professionals who have volunteered to return, and medical students, allied health- care profession students and nursing students who have stepped up at this important time for our country. The whole House and the whole nation are grateful to them for their heroic work.