Tuesday 19 October 2021 / 4:31 PM Health / Jonathan Ashworth

Jonathan Ashworth speech in the House of Commons on the Motion to renew the Coronavirus Act

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Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, speaking in the House of Commons on the Motion to renew the Coronavirus Act, said:

We do not oppose the renewal of the Act.

But I do have huge sympathy with the Hon. Members who have raised concerns about the way in which the Act is scrutinised and who have asked questions about whether there are alternative means for this legislation to be on the statute book.

We will not oppose this Act because it pays statutory sick pay from day one, not day four, which used to be the case before this Act came into force. I am not convinced that if this Act fell today, the Chancellor would continue to pay statutory sick pay from day one and bring forward an alternative Bill. So we will not oppose this Act.

But I do urge Minister to find a better way for this Act to be scrutinised. In March 2020 a deathly silence fell across our streets in anticipation of a deadly disease spreading with ferocity. We knew that this House had to act.

The Act was put in place on a cross party basis following discussions between the Prime Minister, the then leader of the opposition, the then health secretary and myself.

We proceeded on a cross party basis because we understood the gravity of the crisis we were facing. There were parts of this Act that we asked for – like statutory sick pay from day one. There are also parts of this Act that we didn’t ask for, but in the circumstances we were prepared to go along with. We asked for regular renewals of this Act and we asked for parts of this Act to be expired when not needed. But I would encourage the Government to find a way for this Act to be properly scrutinised.

But there has been considerable concern about the application of certain sections of this Act. I welcome therefore that some of the more concerning and draconian elements of the Bill will be removed.

Schedule 21, which gives the power to detain potentially infectious persons, has been used for a number of prosecutions, every one of which was found to be unlawful by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Six months ago and again one year ago we called for these powers to be removed from the Act. One year ago, the Joint committee on Human Rights said that these powers “ought to be repealed”. It is right that they have now been removed from the Act.

But there are also clauses set to be removed that we would question. We are disappointed for example that the powers to enable local authority meetings to meet remotely have been removed from the Act. Would it not be better to allow local authorities to decide themselves if they would like to continue online meetings?

We are minded to support this Act because in voting it down, we would lose important legislation that continues to play a part in our fight against the virus.

This includes powers around emergency registration of healthcare workers, which is important to ensure that we can get retired healthcare workers back into the healthcare system, the powers that introduce sick pay from day 1 and those that make it possible for remote participation in court proceedings to take place.

These remain necessary and so it is right that this Act is renewed.

This is not the legislation that put us into lockdown or indeed imposed the local lockdowns that ministers forced onto cities like mine in Leicester or towns and communities like Bolton, Burnley of Calderdale.

Of course we would prefer legislation in its own right to enshrine in sick pay for all.

The failure to provide the sick with adequate recompense for loss of earnings while they isolate themselves surely contributed to the government’s handling of this crisis being, in the words of the impressive joint select committee reports last week, “one of the worst public health failures in British history”

What a damning indictment of this government.

Which brings me to my next point.

This public health crisis is not over, Covid has not gone away. We can learn to live with the virus but that is not the same as pretending it no longer exists.

Yesterday we recorded 49,156 infections. There are now 7097 in hospital, 791 in ICU. Everyday on average 100 of our fellow citizens are dying from this deadly disease.

With hardly any protective measures and delayed vaccination, the return to school last month has seen record numbers of children become infected – for the last three weeks we’ve seen an average of 10,000 new 5-14 year olds test positive for Covid every single day. Thousands are missing school as a consequence.

The ongoing pandemic is making existing inequalities worse and worse. We need to go further. I never want to see a lockdown either locally in my home city of Leicester, or nationally, again. So there are measures Ministers must consider.

We need to properly fund public health. We know this virus thrives on health inequalities. The Health Secretary has highlighted discrepancies in life expectancy in Blackpool while presiding over public health cuts of £43 per person per year across Blackpool – some of the largest anywhere.

We need to see a substantial investment in ventilation support for businesses, public spaces and schools – better ventilation has time and again been proven to reduce transmission of Covid.

Not only will this help reduce Covid cases, but better ventilation can bring other health benefits, for example higher ventilation rates in offices are associated with lower general levels of sickness.

We know vaccination is waning. Parts of the programme are stalling. The wall of defence is crumbling.

We need to encourage those retired clinicians who helped with the initial vaccination programme to help again and encourage retired clinicians who didn’t help last time to consider playing a part.

That’s why the clauses in this bill on emergency registration of health care workers need to remain but we need to fix the booster jab programme.

On Friday it was reported that one month into the booster programme, only half of eligible over-80s have received a booster jab.

Of the 2.2 million who had a second jab more than six months ago, fewer than 1.2 million have had the booster.

Charities have called the third dose for immunosuppressed  ‘a chaotic failure’ – surveys by Blood Cancer UK and Kidney Care UK found that for both groups of patients, between 55% and 60% had yet to be invited to get a third dose, according to reports on Friday.

So why are the third jab and booster campaigns so sluggish?

Will he look urgently at more pop up clinics that proved so successful in the first phase, and will he mobilise community pharmacy to do more vaccination?

On children’s vaccination, our case rates are still concentrated in the young. Up to 13 October, approximately 13 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds had been offered a first dose in England. Why aren’t retired clinicians who were used in the community vaccination now being used to help with vaccinating children?

Why can children not book into vaccination clinics from today, for the parts of the country, like Leicester, which is already on half term this week?

Finally, what is the minister doing to ramp up second doses in parts of the country like Leicester, London boroughs like Brent, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets and areas that were locked down last year like Pendle, Blackburn and Leicester where second dose rates are well below the average?

Will ministers now guarantee mandated paid time off to get a vaccine and mandated sick pay if someone need to take a day or two off if you get side effects?

In conclusion, we will support this Government in renewing this Act. We are concerned about infection rates. We have made so much progress but the benefits of vaccination are waning. The wall of defence beginning to crumble. Those embers are burning bright again.

So we need a plan to increase vaccination rates. This remains a lethal deadly disease especially for the frail, those with underlying health conditions and the unvaccinated.

We need to strengthen the vaccination programme, pay proper sick pay, ensure fresh, clear, air in buildings, properly fund public health.

The select committee reported last week that the Government’s handling of the pandemic was “one of the worst public health failures in British history”

This is no time for complacency. We urge ministers to act.