MPs have voted down a Labour motion, by a majority of 103, that would have required the government to publish its internal review of the handling of the pandemic in a bid to protect the lifting of health restrictions in June.
264 MPs voted for the motion today, tabled during the final day of debate on the Queen’s Speech as a ‘humble address’, compared to 367 against. The government whipped its backbenchers to block the demand.
Introducing the motion for Labour during the debate this afternoon, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Matt Hancock: “Our amendment today calls for the publication of the government’s lessons learned review.
“Not so we can try and undermine the government or find some hole to use across the despatch box, but so we can learn the lessons in our efforts to contain variants and ensure that we are better prepared for the future.”
The motion would have specifically required the Department of Health and Social Care to lay an internal review of its operations during the pandemic, mentioned by Boris Johnson’s spokesperson last week, before parliament.
Following the announcement that a public inquiry would begin in 2022, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson confirmed that at least one review has been completed but said “what you are referring to is an informal, not public-facing work”.
A humble address is a message to the Queen used to, among other things, call for Secretaries of State to publish papers. Although Erskine May does not say it is binding on government, the consensus from previous debates is that they are.
The unusual approach, frequently exercised until about the middle of the 19th century, was used by Keir Starmer during the Brexit period. It effectively transforms usually non-binding motions from the opposition into a binding resolution.
The debate today came amid renewed questions over why ministers did not place India on the red list of countries sooner. Arrivals from these countries must quarantine in a hotel and non-UK national visitors are banned completely.
The government added India to the red list on April 23rd, six days before the ‘Indian variant’ was put under investigation, but a closely related variant was placed under investigation on April 1st, weeks before travel was restricted.
Reports emerged on Tuesday that 110 direct flights from India with around 8,500 travellers have landed in the UK since it was placed on the red list. The latest NHS data suggests 7% of those tested after arriving from India test positive.
Hancock said today that 2,967 cases of the Indian variant have been identified in the UK, up 28% from Monday. He said the government has responded with the “biggest surge in local resources of this pandemic so far” of vaccines and testing.
Making wider criticisms of the Queen’s Speech, Ashworth told the minister: “This should have been a gracious address that unveiled a new NHS plan to bring down the elective waiting lists now close to five million, and outline proposals to tackle the backlog of 436,000 people waiting over 12 months for treatment. Many of them waiting in pain and anxiety or facing permanent disability.”
He pointed out that Hancock had campaigned on a platform in the 2019 election promising a long-term plan with rapid action on cardiovascular disease, and described the lack of a plan for social care as a “gaping hole” in the Queen’s Speech.
“Two years ago the PM stood on the steps of Downing Street and said he had the plan to fix social care. He said ‘we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve’,” Ashworth told parliament today.
“Not a plan that was to be developed. Or a work in progress. No this plan was already done. ‘Oven-ready’, you might say. But, two years on, where is it? Has the Health Secretary seen it? What do we need to do to see it? Pay for some cushions for the Downing Street flat?
“They promised us cross-party talks. In fact, they now brief cross-party talks have taken place. When? Did they forget to send me the Zoom link?”
Ashworth highlighted the omission of a plan to tackle rising NHS treatment waiting lists in the Queen’s Speech, telling the minister that 81,762 people have been left waiting for over 12 months for orthopaedic surgery alone.
He said the NHS is “still operating at much less capacity than is needed to treat everyone in need of care”, and that during the crisis bed numbers fell by 9% in the first quarter of last year and are still 6% below the previous year.
Hancock told MPs that 380,000 people have been waiting more than a year for treatment, up from 1,600 before the pandemic, and added that “the real waiting list is far larger” because many people have just not come forward for help.
Ashworth also argued for action on mental health, highlighting that 235,000 fewer people have been referred for psychological therapies, eating disorder referrals for children have doubled and almost 11% fewer beds are occupied.
Closing the debate for Labour this evening, deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Last October, the Prime Minister rightly summoned the spirit of our greatest post-war government and promised to echo Attlee’s plan for a post-war new Jerusalem.
“But I’m afraid he’s no Clement Attlee. This was the moment for our new economic and social settlement, to tackle insecurity at work, to meet the climate crisis head-on, to rebuild our public services, to support our businesses and share wealth and power fairly among our citizens and communities.
“The British people deserve a Queen’s Speech that met those challenges of the moment but has fallen short on every count.”
Below is the full text of the motion tabled by Labour.
Sir Alan Campbell
At end add “but respectfully regret that the government has provided insufficient information for its proposals properly to be scrutinised; and therefore beg leave that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before parliament: the DHSC internal review of their operation during the pandemic as referenced by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman on 12 May.”