Jonathan Ashworth – 2020 Speech on the Coronavirus

Below is the text of the speech made by Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in the House of Commons on 22 April 2020.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for making the arrangements for us to be able to participate in these circumstances. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

My thoughts are with all those who have lost their lives to this horrific virus. I pay tribute to the NHS staff who have lost their lives. I hope that, when this is over, we can find an appropriate way to remember the frontline NHS staff who gave their lives for all of us. May we also remember those social care staff who have also lost their lives? Will the Secretary of State tell us the actual number of social care staff who have sadly died? The First Secretary did not have those figures at his fingertips a few moments ago.​

It looks like we are heading for one the worst death rates in Europe. The Government have been careful to always say that they are following scientific advice. Will the Secretary of State tell us the explanation from the Government’s scientists for why our death rate seems so poor when compared with Germany’s, for example? Will he undertake to publish the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ minutes, which have not been published? Will he also undertake to publish the evidence on why we are following a seven-day rule for isolation? That appears to contradict the World Health Organisation, which suggests a 14-day rule for isolation.

As the virus develops, we see that, while it attacks the respiratory system, it also attacks cells throughout the body with ACE2 receptors, leading to cardiovascular and renal failure. In the same way that the Secretary of State can convene SAGE and other committees, will he convene the clinical societies so that we can share understanding of the disease among clinicians regarding how best to treat the disease as research emerges?

I am sure that the Secretary of State is struck, as I am, by the high proportion of deaths among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. We see that in the United States, too. He has launched an inquiry. Will he update the House on that and tell us when it will report?

I am sure the Secretary of State is as horrified as I am by the deaths in care homes and nursing homes. This was always a high-risk sector, which is why we have long called for a social care strategy. Will he undertake to do four things? Will he ensure that all deaths are recorded on a daily basis?

The CQC suggested today that the death rate in care homes is double what was reported by the ONS yesterday. Can he ensure that testing for staff is delivered in care homes at local NHS sites or by mobile units? It is clearly ludicrous to expect care workers to travel for miles and miles to drive-through testing centres. Can he ensure that PPE supply systems for the NHS are expanded to the social care sector as well? The Secretary of State said in the past that the NHS will get whatever it takes. Will the social care sector now get funding to cover the huge costs that it is facing, which are associated with increased staffing levels and PPE? I join him in praising the leadership of the NHS for what it has done.

The Secretary of State gave us the critical care figures. How many general and acute beds are currently empty in the NHS? If there are significant numbers of empty beds, could they be used for social care residents, or to start a return to elective surgery? We know that the lockdown is having an impact on people’s wider health. Cancer patients are going without treatment, and we know that elective waiting lists will rise. Can he tell us the latest estimates how high he thinks those lists will rise? There are also bound to be mental health problems associated with the lockdown.

Many people are understandably angry that front-line staff do not seem to be getting PPE on time, and we do not seem to have taken part in some of the European procurement projects. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that was because we missed an email. The Secretary of State said that we are now part of that project, but that prompts the question of why we were not part of it at the beginning. The senior civil servant at the Foreign Office said it was a political decision. ​Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what went on? Will he publish the background briefing so that we can see exactly what happened?

Finally, I agree that testing and contact tracing are vital to coming out of a lockdown. The Secretary of State talked about wanting to upscale contact tracing, but that is very labour-intensive. Can we use the 750,000 volunteers who have signed up to do some of that contact tracing? The app that he mentioned is welcome. When will it be available? Is he proposing that it will be mandatory, or will it be voluntary? If it is voluntary, how will we ensure that it is taken up by the population? Will he comment on reports today that the PCR test, which has been used for some NHS staff, returned false results and that those staff had to be tested again? How many people have been affected by that? What is now in place to ensure that that does not happen again? If the Secretary of State cannot answer all those points today, I hope that he will write to me with the details at a later point.