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, in the House of Commons on 9 March 2020.

Our thoughts are naturally with the loved ones who have sadly died of covid-19. Let me also record, again, our thanks and gratitude to our hard-working NHS and Public Health England staff.

May I press the Secretary of State a little further? He will know that we have called repeatedly for an emergency funding package for our NHS, he will know that the NHS is short of 100,000 staff, and he will know that critical care beds were at 81% capacity during the week for which the latest figures are available. The Chancellor has said that the NHS will receive whatever it needs. Does the Secretary of State agree that in this Wednesday’s Budget we need to see significantly more resources for the NHS, not just rhetoric?

Scaling up and freeing up capacity in the NHS is now urgent. What is being done to scale up intensive care beds in the NHS, what is being done to expand access to the oxygen and ventilation machines that will be needed, and what is the current capacity of extra corporeal membrane oxygenation beds? We welcome the distribution of personal protective equipment to NHS staff, but does the Secretary of State agree that GPs and social care staff also need access to that equipment?

Those in receipt of social care are some of the most vulnerable, and could be affected extremely badly by this virus. Indeed, many who work in social care are low paid, and if they have to go on sick leave there are huge implications for the delivery of social care. What advice has been given to social care providers and, indeed, local authorities to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected, and what plans are in place to protect staff and increase the number in the social care sector?

Public health directors are expected to play a leading role in local preparations. They need to make decisions about deploying staff—Public Health England, for example, has asked for staff to be seconded—yet they still do not know their public health allocations for the next financial year, which will start in three weeks’ time. We are begging the Secretary of State: please tell local directors of public health what their Budget is for this coming April.

We are still officially in the containment stage. At some point, we presume, we will need to move into the delay stage, when we understand that social distancing measures will be necessary. Many of our constituents are now asking—and I think it would benefit the House if the Secretary of State could explain to them—why we are not yet considering more home working, whether we should be asking those over 65 to isolate themselves, whether we should be cancelling larger events, and whether those returning from northern Italy, for instance, should be quarantined. I think it would help our constituents if the Secretary of State ran through the medical advice, although I understand why he has made the decisions that he has made.

Can the Secretary of State also confirm that once we move into the phase in which measures of this magnitude are proposed, he will come to the House, explain why that has happened, and allow Members to question him? ​He has hinted, or suggested, that we will need emergency legislation for the mitigation stage. As a responsible Opposition, we would like to sit down with him in order to understand the content of that legislation, because we want to work on a cross-party basis; but let me leave him in no doubt that we also want statutory sick pay for all from day one. Asking people to wait five weeks for universal credit is not a serious solution.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on food supplies and the conversations that he has had with supermarkets? Can he reassure us that our constituents do not need to be panic-buying, as we saw people doing on social media in some parts of the country over the weekend? Finally, does he agree that whatever happens, we must find a way for Parliament to continue to hold Ministers to account so that we can ask questions on behalf of our constituents? However, we continue to offer to work constructively with the Government, because the public health interest and the safety of our constituents must always come first.