Jeremy Hunt – 2020 Speech on the Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff

Below is the text of the speech made by Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative MP for North West Surrey, in the House of Commons on 24 June 2020.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). It is the first time I have heard him speak from the Front Bench and it was a very thoughtful contribution. I hope we hear more from him.

I thank the shadow Health Secretary for having this debate and, indeed, for mentioning my article in The Daily Telegraph. If I ever was on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list, that mention will be sure to get me taken off it—[Laughter.]

I particularly want to congratulate the Minister of State on leading this debate for the Government. As a veteran of many Opposition day health debates, I can say that she elicited a much calmer response from the Opposition than I ever did, and she deserves many congratulations for that.

We need to start this important debate by recognising that, as a country, we are in a transformed position because of recent changes to our response to the pandemic. We are now contacting around three quarters of the people we identify as testing positive for coronavirus and 90% of their contacts are being asked to isolate. That is the basis of South Korean test and trace, and it is incredibly important that we are in that position. I am sad in this respect that the Health Secretary is not here himself, because that would not have been possible if he had not taken the courageous decision to set the target of 100,000 tests a day at the start of April. Indeed, yesterday’s announcement about the gradual easing of our national hibernation would itself not have been possible if that had not been in place, and we need to recognise that.

The challenge we now have is that we do not know where about two thirds of new infections are happening, so we cannot feed them into the test and trace process. That is a challenge, because SAGE’s advice is that we ask about 80% of potential coronavirus contacts to isolate, and we are still some way off that. In fact, we are contacting about 700 people a day to get their contacts and there are about 2,500 daily new infections. If we do the maths, assuming that each person with coronavirus has about nine contacts, which is the current figure, that is up to a quarter of million people since the process started whom we would have liked to have asked to isolate but we have not been able to do so.

How do we meet that challenge? Well, the answer is to do something that the Government have already shown they are very good at, which is a dramatic ​expansion of testing capacity. The city of Beijing has about a third of the population of the United Kingdom, but its daily testing capacity is nearly double ours at around 400,000 a day, and many of those tests come back within 24 hours. We look forward to the triumphant announcement next week that we are meeting the Prime Minister’s target for all non-postal tests to come back within 24 hours by the end of this month, because speed matters.

If we expand our testing capacity dramatically, we can use it, for example, to deal with localised outbreaks, such as the one we have had in Ynys Môn, where my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) is doing such a fantastic job in supporting her affected constituents. We can use it at airports instead of the quarantine policy, by testing people on arrival. We can use it for high-risk groups such as taxi drivers, who are particularly at risk. Most of all, we can use it for our frontline health and care staff. If we had Beijing levels of testing in this country, we would, in addition to the testing we are currently doing, be able to test every NHS frontline worker once a week. If we got it up another 200,000, we would be able to test every frontline care worker once a week as well.

Why does that matter? It matters because, according to the evidence submitted to SAGE on 20 April, up to 25% of the coronavirus patients in our hospitals caught coronavirus in the hospital. When we add on the people who catch their infection in care homes, what we end up with is that about a third of new infections are likely to be in healthcare settings—so-called nosocomial infections, which is one of the many new words we have learned over the course of this crisis.

Jonathan Ashworth

The right hon. Gentleman is making a superb speech, and I agree with every word. I was struck by the Minister’s response to me when she made the point that the Government’s position is based on the advice of the chief medical officer. I would entirely understand if the Government said, “The resources are not quite there yet. We have not quite got capacity there. We need to build up capacity before we can test all the millions of NHS staff.” I think everyone would have thought that a reasonable position, and we would be urging the Government to go further. However, if the advice to the Government from the CMO is not the correct clinical approach, will the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps through his chairmanship of the Health and Social Care Committee, ask the CMO whether they will provide the Committee with that advice, and could that advice be shared across the House?

Jeremy Hunt

That is a reasonable question. I will certainly take that away. In fact, the CMO is coming before the Health and Social Care Committee in a few weeks’ time, and I am sure we will ask that question. My understanding is that the concern in the clinical advice is the question of false positives—people who get told that they have coronavirus when they have not. Those people might be in a very important frontline clinical role and be asked to isolate, and that might take them off very important work. To me the obvious answer is to give them a second, confirmatory test to establish whether they really do have the virus.

Weekly testing matters and is so important not only because, with around a third of new infections happening in healthcare settings, it will save a lot of patients’ lives ​and save the lives of frontline healthcare workers, but because it is the critical thing stopping the NHS getting back to its normal levels of activity.

Last week, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, whom the shadow Secretary of State quoted, talked about the mountainous backlog we face in, for example, orthopaedic surgery. He said that the thing holding the NHS back is the time it is taking to set up what he calls “covid-lite” facilities, where there is a low risk of people having coronavirus. That is why testing is essential.

I do not want to take up any more time than I need to, but I want to make this point. Korea, Taiwan and Germany are all held up as examples of places that have been particularly effective in tackling coronavirus. All of them introduced test and trace, but they all did it when the virus was at an earlier stage with much lower levels of community transmission. If we want test and trace to be effective here, we need to introduce mass testing, starting with health and care staff, and we must not delay.