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 3 March 2020.

May I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for being a few minutes late? I had a problem with my printer when I was trying to print the Secretary of State’s statement. I thank him for advance sight of the statement, and, indeed, for advance sight of the action plan this morning. Let me also record my thanks for the briefing that the Leader of the Opposition and I received yesterday from departmental officials, the chief medical officer and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I believe that the chief medical officer will brief parliamentarians later today, and I think that that is a very welcome initiative.

The Government’s strategy to contain then delay, research and then mitigate has our endorsement, but may I ask the Secretary of State for some specific clarifications? The first relates to containment and self-isolation. The Prime Minister said today—as, indeed, the Secretary of State has said before—that workers who self-isolate are considered to be on sick leave. Can the Secretary of State confirm that those who need to self-isolate will not need to visit a GP to obtain a sick note, given that the Government’s advice is not to visit a GP? As he will know, 2 million workers on low pay or insecure contracts in the gig economy do not even qualify for statutory sick pay. He will also know that those who are receiving benefits are often asked to physically attend appointments. Can he guarantee that no financial sanction will be imposed if they are asked to self-isolate?​

Does the Secretary of State accept that people should not be forced to make a choice between their health and avoiding financial hardship? We are told that he is considering emergency legislation. Will he introduce legislation to remove the barriers to self-isolation so that all workers can receive the sick pay that they deserve? That is in the interests of public health. If he introduces such legislation, we will help him to get it on to the statute book quickly. He could do it this week or he could do it next week, and we will support him. Let us give all workers the security that they deserve, so that they do not have to put their health ahead of their financial interests or vice versa.

More broadly on the NHS and social care, I want to look at the response of the NHS and the support that it will be given through the containment and mitigation phases. We know that around 80% of critical care beds were occupied last week. We know that the NHS is short of 100,000 staff, and we also know that staff working in the NHS, particularly those on the frontline such as GPs, need to be protected as well. Even if we take at face value the Government’s insistence that they have provided the NHS with the resources to deliver the commitments of the long-term plan—we obviously disagree on this, but that is a debate for another time—we can surely all accept that covid-19 is going to lead to increased demand on trusts and the wider NHS. Every trust that sends a sample for testing has to pay for it to be couriered. Trusts are likely to take on more agency staff. If retired staff are encouraged to return to practice, the wage bill will increase. By the way, on retired staff, can the Secretary of State reassure us that protections and oversight will be in place, particularly around returning staff who, as we understand it, will not need to go through a revalidation process for their licence?

The Government have recognised that, as we move into the mitigation phase, non-urgent care may be delayed. I assume that means that trusts will be looking at cancelling elective surgery, which will result in waiting lists growing. Again, this will impact on trusts’ finances. Will the Government provide an emergency funding increase for the NHS resource budget to support the NHS through this next challenging period? Directors of public health still do not know their public health allocations for the next financial year, which starts next month. This means that directors of public health could be cutting the nurse workloads they are responsible for commissioning at a time when those very nurses will be needed to deal with covid-19 cases. Will the right hon. Gentleman announce the public health allocations as a matter of urgency?

On social care, we know that many who are at risk from the virus are the elderly and those with chronic conditions. Social care is responsible for and has a duty of care to many of the people who are most vulnerable to the outbreak. What advice does the Secretary of State have for social care providers, and will extra resources be announced for social care services? On the emergency powers that he has briefed about, will he sit down with us and other Opposition parties to discuss the contents of that legislation?

On the global efforts to contain the virus, we know that disease knows no borders. We cannot build a wall or an iron curtain around these islands. Why, then, are the Government apparently walking away from the EU early warning and response system, which plays such a ​vital role in pandemic preparations? We have been led to believe that No. 10 has overruled the Secretary of State on this. Also, to contain the virus internationally, countries with weaker health systems need to be supported as well, otherwise, we will not contain the virus. Can the Secretary of State update us on what help he is offering to the World Health Organisation on that front?

This is a serious time. Our constituents will be concerned, and many will be frightened. We will raise our concerns responsibly, but we offer to work constructively with the Government, because the public health interest and the safety of our constituents must always come first.