Jonathan Ashworth – 2020 Speech on the Covid-19 Response

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 18 May 2020.

On symptoms, the right hon. Gentleman will know that many healthcare specialists were making these warnings eight weeks ago, so can he explain why there has been a time lag in updating the case definition?

I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about social care, but he will be aware that more than 12,500 people have sadly died in care homes because of covid-19. Last week, he said that he had put a protective ring around care homes from February, but yesterday a care home provider wrote in The Sunday Times:

“Elderly people weren’t a priority”

They also wrote:

“The government was asleep at the wheel.”

Is the reality not that there was no early lockdown of care homes when needed, and there was no testing of people transferred from hospital to care homes until ​mid-April, seeding the virus? Personal protective equipment was requisitioned from care home staff and given to the NHS because of wider shortages. There was guidance suggesting that infection was unlikely, and that guidance was still in place when there was community transmission.

We still do not have full testing of all residents and care home staff 12 weeks later. No wonder Age UK has said that this is “too little, too late”. I note that the right hon. Gentleman said that testing will be expanded. Can he bring forward the date by which all care home residents and staff will be routinely tested? The document last week says that it will be by 6 June. Why can the date not be sooner?

Has this crisis not shown that our care sector is staffed by exceptional, dedicated people, and that migrant care workers are not low skilled but immensely able? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Home Office should acknowledge that, and praise such potential workers, not penalise them?

I welcome the wider roll-out of testing. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the antibody test. Could he update the House on that front? It has also been reported today that 20% of hospital patients got covid while in for another illness. Two weeks ago, he suggested to me in the House that he planned to roll out screening of all healthcare workers, whether symptomatic or not. Can he update us on that front?

On tracing, I have long argued that the safe way to transition out of the lockdown is by having a test, trace and isolation strategy in place, but it depends on a quick turnaround of test results. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us the current median time for test results to be received by someone when carried out by the Deloitte and other private sector testing facilities, and how soon do directors of public health and GPs receive those results?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I believe he should be making better use of local public health services. None the less, he is pressing ahead with the national call centre delivered by Serco. Can he tell us by what date that tracing service will be operational? Will it be operational by 1 June?

The right hon. Gentleman did not talk about isolation as one of his key elements of the test-trace strategy. Many poorer people will not be able to self-isolate. Will he look at providing facilities for such people, such as empty hotel rooms so they can quarantine? Will those in insecure work be guaranteed sick pay if they are asked to isolate for seven or 14 days?

On the R number, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that every easing of restriction, such as asking children to return to school, is accompanied by a Government statement on the expected impact on the R number and the underlying prevalence of infection? If R rises to be greater than one in a region or local area, how will the Government respond?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, this is Mental Health Awareness Week. We are very fearful of a growing burden of mental health issues, especially in children, as a result of the lockdown. What extra investment is he putting into mental health services, particularly children’s health services? NHS staff, who are threatened not only by exposure to the virus, but the trauma, emotional ​distress and burnout associated with working on the frontline, need support as well. They need PPE, they need fair pay, they need mental health support. Those care workers who are caring for us need us to care for them and we should thank them again in Mental Health Awareness Week.