Labour has declared that the Budget must be focused on providing the NHS with the resources it needs to combat the pandemic over the next year and pressed the government to confirm a pay rise for “our NHS heroes”.
Responding to an update on the Covid-19 response from Matt Hancock in parliament today, Jonathan Ashworth challenged the Conservatives over resourcing for the health service ahead of the Budget on Wednesday.
Following the statement to MPs this afternoon, the Labour frontbencher told the minister: “Tomorrow’s Budget can’t be about the Chancellor’s Instagram account – it has to be about the NHS and social care accounts.
“So, can he guarantee that tomorrow we’ll get an increase in the public health allocations to help public health teams plan their local response over the next year? Will our NHS heroes get the pay rise they deserve?
“And with 224,000 patients waiting over 12 months for treatment, will our NHS get the resources it needs to deliver the patient care that patients and our constituents deserve?”
Treasury sources have suggested that Rishi Sunak will not make any decisions on salaries for health workers in the Budget on Wednesday and that he will wait until the NHS Pay Review Body’s report is published in May this year.
Ashworth also challenged Hancock over the identification of the concerning Brazilian variant of the virus in the UK, criticising the slow action taken by the government to put in place quarantining requirements.
“Throughout history, epidemic after epidemic has exploited international travel. Surely, it is obvious that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner,” the Shadow Health Secretary argued this afternoon.
Several cases of the Brazilian variant have been identified in the country. Public Health England is currently trying to locate one individual who tested positive for the strain but did not provide their name or address.
Ashworth told Hancock that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner and asked how someone could have “vanished” without the correct contact details being taken under the contract tracing procedures.
He asked the minister to tell parliament what mechanisms were being put in place to ensure that this did not happen again, highlighting that £22bn of public money has been allocated to the test and trace system in England.
Labour’s health spokesperson also reminded MPs that SAGE member John Edmunds said in January that for every one case of the South African variant identified there were probably another 30 unidentified cases in the wider community.
The Health Secretary said the government had increased testing and sequencing in South Gloucestershire, where the cases have been identified, and added that “we have no information to suggest that the variant has spread further”.
Ashworth also stressed to MPs this afternoon that while national trends show that hospitalisations and deaths are decreasing across the country, the infection rate remains “stubbornly high” in a number of areas.
The UK average is currently 100 cases per 100,000 people. But Ashworth said numbers had gone up in some areas, such as Watford and Worthing, and others including Leicester and Ashfield remained well above the average.
The Shadow Health Secretary asked the minister to confirm what steps would be taken to ensure these areas are not “left behind” as national Covid restrictions are eased. “Or will they remain in localised lockdowns?”, he asked.
He also warned MPs that while vaccination is proceeding well overall, there are disparities in take-up across areas. He called for funding to be given to faith groups, community groups and local public health teams to run tailored programmes.
The Health Secretary used his statement to parliament this afternoon to tell MPs that this week marks 12 weeks since the first vaccine was administered in the UK, and that over 20 million people in the country have now received a jab.
Hancock highlighted recent data showing that the vaccines cut the risk of serious illness by 80% in people aged over 80 and told MPs: “People can have confidence that they will get protection whichever jab they are offered.”
On the supply of the vaccine, he argued that “although the day-to-day figures of supply are lumpy, we have some bumper weeks ahead later this month” and added that the government is now beginning “in earnest” the roll-out of second doses.
He told parliament this afternoon that the government is on track to reach its target to offer a Covid vaccine to all people in the one-to-nine priority groups by April 15th and to all over the age of 18 by the end of July.