Britain is fighting a “war against an invisible killer” – and everything must be done to stop it, the Health Secretary has said.
Matt Hancock told MPs the Covid-19 pandemic is “the most serious public health emergency that our nation has faced for a generation”, and claimed the Government’s actions have “slowed” the spread of the virus in the UK.
He pledged to give the NHS “whatever it needs” to fight the coronavirus, although he faced a series of questions on testing, school closures and financial support for businesses.
Mr Hancock also confirmed emergency legislation will be introduced to Parliament on Thursday which will give the Government new powers to keep strained public services running, with details of the proposals emerging on Tuesday.
After he reiterated the escalation of the UK’s response to Covid-19 announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Mr Hancock said: “We will fight this virus with everything we’ve got.
“We are in a war against an invisible killer and we’ve got to do everything we can to stop it.”
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Labour backed the new measures and insisted everyone wants to see the “national effort succeed”, adding: “This virus spreads rapidly, it exploits ambivalence, it demands clarity of purpose and it demands government effort like we have never seen before in peacetime.”
Mr Ashworth also said beds and equipment from private sector organisations should be requisitioned.
He went on: “But the biggest challenge to the public health social distancing measures will not be boredom and fatigue, it will be finance and affordability.
It's important this country keeps moving as much as we possibly can within the limits of the advice that we have givenMatt Hancock
“The poorest who struggle to pay the rent, those who struggle about putting food on their table, those who have no savings to dip into will be faced with impossible choices between hardship or health.
“From sick pay and lost earnings protection to Universal Credit changes to rent and mortgage payment deferrals – we need a package of financial support and we look forward to working with him on that front.”
In response to Mr Ashworth’s question on whether non-emergency elective treatments will be suspended, Mr Hancock said: “We will be cancelling or postponing non-time sensitive elective surgery and the NHS will make a statement about this later today.”
He added that the Government “absolutely will” publish the science and the modelling.
Mr Hancock also said people should “still go to work” if they are healthy and not being asked to isolate due to them or a member of their household having symptoms of the virus.
He told MPs: “It’s important this country keeps moving as much as we possibly can within the limits of the advice that we have given.”
Conservative former prime minister Theresa May pressed Mr Hancock over the World Health Organisation advice of “test, test, test”, and questioned who is going to be tested.
Mr Hancock replied: “On the point about the World Health Organisation saying that we should test, test, test, I wholeheartedly agree and we have continued the increase in testing in this country throughout this outbreak.”
Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting), who also works as an A&E doctor, warned: “Today I bring a message from my colleagues who are working so hard on the NHS frontline – they say they don’t have the protective equipment that they need nor do they have the capacity to manage the spread of infection in their own departments.”
Dr Allin-Khan also pressed Mr Hancock on the availability of Covid-19 testing to NHS staff who show symptoms of the virus.
Mr Hancock, in his reply, said: “We want as much staff testing as soon as possible. We’re using the testing capacity we have to save lives and saving lives includes saving lives of the medics.”
Conservative former health minister Steve Brine said “there is support” among headteachers in his Winchester constituency in keeping schools open, but noted there is “great concern” about staff becoming unwell, asking for the Government view on “relaxing the student-staff ratio” and “getting Ofsted off schools’ backs now”.
Mr Hancock said: “The proposals to relax student-staff ratios is in the Bill and we’ll be publishing the content of the Bill tomorrow and the Bill itself on Thursday.”
Conservative former cabinet minister Karen Bradley asked if pubs and restaurants should close for Mother’s Day on Sunday.
She asked: “Can the Government give firm advice now as to whether they should close or not so that they claim on insurance if they’re able to?”
Mr Hancock said: “We’re advising against all unnecessary social contact. I appreciate that this has consequences and I regret having to take these measures, I really do, but we are having to fight this virus.”
Mr Hancock, asked about how quickly people recover from Covid-19, said the illness is thought not to come back “for some time” for those who contract it.