Jonathan Ashworth – 2020 Speech on the Covid-19 Response

Below is the text of the speech made by Jonathan Ashworth, the Labour MP for Leicester South, in the House of Commons on 2 June 2020.

There have now been 56,308 excess deaths since the beginning of March, 12,500 of which are not related to covid, but we do have one of the worst excess death rates in the world—why does the Secretary of State think that is? What does he believe is the cause of the non-covid excess death rate?

With respect to the PHE’s findings, which I am pleased to see published today, we have always known that there is a social gradient in health. The poorest and most deprived have inequality in access to healthcare and inequality in health outcomes. What the Secretary of State has confirmed today is that covid thrives on inequalities. Yes, indeed, black lives matter, but it is surely a call to action that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to die from covid and more likely to be admitted to intensive care with covid. He has seen the findings. I note that the Equalities Minister is taking work forward, but what action will be taken to minimise risk for black, Asian and minority ethnic people?

There are other vulnerable groups who are highly at risk. I am sure the Secretary of State will have seen today the Care Quality Commission report which shows a 134% increase in deaths of people with learning disabilities. Surely it is now time to expand testing to those under 65 in receipt of adult social care.

On the easing of restrictions, the Secretary of State said that this was a sensitive moment—well, quite, Mr Speaker. Our constituents have concerns and are looking for reassurance, particularly those in the shielding group. They really should not have had to wake up on Sunday morning to find out that they could now leave the house once a day. They need clarity and details. And why were GPs not informed in advance?

We are still at around 50,000 infections a week, so may I press the Secretary of State a bit further on the easing of restrictions? The biosecurity level remains at 4, but his own Command Paper from 11 May said that changes to lockdown

“must be warranted by the current alert level”.

At the Sunday news conference, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that all the proposed easing of restrictions had been modelled and showed that the R value remained below 1. That is, of course, reassuring, but will he now publish that modelling so that it can be peer-reviewed?

The easing of restrictions was based on tests, so may I ask the Secretary of State a couple of questions? First, on NHS capacity, we know that the NHS has not been overwhelmed, but that has been on the back of cancelled planned surgery, delays to vital treatment, and the postponing of cancer screening. Arguably, it has been the biggest rationing exercise in the history of the NHS. Will he now publish the total number of planned operations that have been cancelled and detail them by procedure? As the lockdown is eased, is it his intention to step down some of that surge capacity so that this backlog of clinical need can start to be tackled?

On managing the virus, one of the tests is on whether we can manage the virus, but, as the Secretary of State has said, that depends on testing and tracing. There is now capacity for more than 200,000 tests, but there is still a lack of clarity about how that figure is arrived at. The UK Statistics Authority has written to him today, saying that his figures are still

“far from complete and comprehensible”,

that the testing statistics still fall well short of standards in the code, and that it is not surprising that testing data is mistrusted. That is quite damning, I have to say to him. Will he start publishing again the actual numbers of people tested? Will he stop counting tests mailed to homes as completed? Will he detail what proportion of the 200,000 tests are diagnostic PCR, what proportion are antibody, and what proportion are surveillance? Can he tell us how many care home staff and residents have been tested? When will he start weekly testing of all NHS staff, as that is crucial for getting on top of infections in hospitals? Will he tell us what percentage of the Deloitte-run testing facilities have been sent to GPs?

On test and trace, which is absolutely vital to safe easing out of the lockdown, the Prime Minister told the House before the recess that it would be “world-beating” and operational by yesterday, but it is not actually fully operational at a local level, is it? Can the Secretary of State confirm that local directors of public health have been told to prepare strategies for tracing with a deadline of the end of June, that they will not actually start receiving local individual data until next week, and that many have still not been told their allocations of the extra £300 million nor what they can spend it on? When will they get those allocations? Despite this, he said yesterday that test and trace is up and running. I am not sure how he can say that it is up and running when local directors of public health are still asking for that information. Will he publish the data and what percentage of infections have been contacted and how many contacts have been followed up? Will that data be published on a daily basis?

This is a crucial week, given the easing of restrictions, and our constituents want reassurance and clarity, but I am afraid that trust has been undermined by the Dominic Cummings scandal. Our constituents want to do the right thing for their loved ones and their neighbours. Can he give them those reassurances today?