The latest polling does not look good for the government
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Evening StandardPublic approval of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has sunk to its lowest level yet, a new poll reveals. Just three out of 10 people think ministers have handled the Covid-19 crisis well, while 63 per cent of Britons believe the Government has handled it badly, according to a poll by YouGov.
Matt Hancock says Scotland has more tests per head than anywhere in the UK
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs there are more coronavirus tests in Scotland per head of population than in the rest of the UK.
Responding to SNP health spokeswoman Philippa Whitford, Mr Hancock said: “There are more tests in Scotland through the drive-through centres, through the local testing sites, through the mobile testing centres, than there are in the rest of the UK per head of population.
“So we over-indexed the number of tests through those routes that we put into Scotland.
“And indeed, in the Scottish NHS there is spare capacity which needs to be used, and I’m working very closely with the Scottish Government to ensure the spare capacity there in the Scottish NHS is used given the enormous demand for tests right across this country.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg has faced calls to apologise for suggesting people should stop their “endless carping” about a lack of Covid-19 tests.
Shadow health minister Alex Norris MP said in a statement: “For weeks, people across the country have been struggling to get coronavirus tests. But rather than fixing problems, the Government has instead resorted to a blizzard of blame shifting and excuses.
“Now, out-of-touch ministers have got a new message to those who can’t get tests: ‘stop complaining and praise us’.
“Jacob Rees-Mogg should immediately apologise. Whining about the public not being grateful enough won’t sort anything – only his Government can fix the testing shambles they are presiding over.”
North Eastern MPs have called on the new restrictions to be regularly reviewed.
Tory Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) said: “As a North East Tory MP I am grateful to (Matt Hancock) for engaging so effectively with our local authorities in the North East as we try and tackle this really worrying rise in cases, but I am concerned that residents across my constituency are facing these difficult, restrictive measures yet without seeing many Covid cases rise in our local communities.”
Responding to Ms Davison’s question on how the figures will be reviewed in the North East, Matt Hancock said: “We take action at as local level as possible but unfortunately we do have to take action in this case.”
Labour’s Kevan Jones (North Durham) said: “Is it not time to just admit the national system has failed and the effort now has got to go on to directors of public health and, given their finance locally, to put in place effective test and trace which local people can have confidence in?”
Mr Hancock replied: “The Test and Trace system works in combination of the national and the local and if you took away the national then you wouldn’t have the record testing capacity, but if you took away the local then you wouldn’t have the local knowledge and the boots on the ground who can solve problems and find people who need to self-isolate.
“It is the combination of the two that works.”
Matt Hancock told MPs that “military planners” are involved in setting up testing centres in areas with high infection rates.
Labour’s Rachael Maskell said: “What discussions has the Health Secretary had with his colleague in Defence about strategic planning?
“Because it seems that his department are incapable of planning for this virus.”
Mr Hancock replied: “We of course do have to ensure that the provision of the testing centres is where the virus is most virulent and so, actually, we do have military planners involved in that process and it is a very important process to get right.”
The biggest academy chain in London has joined calls to delay GCSE and A-level exams to give children a chance to catch up on work missed during the pandemic.
Sir Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, said it is “inherently unfair” that some students will be more affected by school closures and lost learning, and delaying the 2021 exams would be “useful”.
It comes as growing numbers of teachers called for clarity on next summer’s exam arrangements and warned the continued uncertainty is impacting students’ well-being.
Downing Street has said the coronavirus testing system is facing “challenges” after the latest official figures showed a sharp fall in the levels of “in person” test results being returned within 24 hours.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “We accept there are challenges and we accept that we are seeing significant demand for tests at the moment.
“We are obviously working to address those challenges. We will continue to work to enhance testing capacity in the coming weeks.”
The spokesman played down suggestions that a nationwide 10pm curfew could be imminent as cases continue to rise.
“We will keep the restrictions under review. We don’t want to bring in these kind of measures which is why we have introduced the rule of six and are urging people to abide by it,” the spokesman said.
Conservative Chris Green (Bolton West) said positive Covid-19 cases are “rocketing up” in Bolton and warned this is having a “devastating impact on people’s physical and mental health”, as well as people’s livelihood’s and businesses.
He told the Commons: “Many people are heading out of the borough to get their beauty treatments, go to the pubs and restaurants.
“At the same time the testing system is failing to deliver so people are increasingly going to accident and emergency in Bolton and Wigan in the hope of getting a Covid test.”
Matt Hancock said almost 7,000 tests have been added to the area in the last week, adding: “People should not go to A&E to access a test, I’ve seen that was being reported yesterday and my team have been working with the hospital – who are doing a very good job in difficult circumstances.
“They are seeing the number of hospital admissions with coronavirus starting to rise.”
Mr Hancock also said: “The situation in Bolton is very difficult, with over 200 cases per 100,000 population, the highest in the country by a long, long way and we’ve got a lot of work to do to get the situation under control in Bolton.”
Senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper raised the case of a constituent, who works in the NHS, who was unable to get a test for her husband.
The Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP added: “She’s since developed symptoms herself. Neither of them has been tested, neither of them is therefore in the tracing system so there’s no follow-up to prevent other people getting the virus as well.
“This isn’t just chaotic, it is dangerous.
“The Government knew there would be a huge increase in demand for testing when the schools went back and when he was encouraging people to go back to work, yet since mid-July testing capacity has only gone up by 10% and the number of cases has gone up by 400%.”
Responding, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are increasing that capacity and I said it’s at record levels.
“When it comes to her constituents firstly those who work in the NHS are eligible to get tests through the NHS pillar one system but all those who have symptoms of coronavirus and think they may have symptoms of coronavirus, it’s very important that they self-isolate.”
Matt Hancock said the intention is to increase the number of testing kits at each school.
Conservative Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) said a school principal had suggested increasing the number of kits from 10 to 30 to better ensure children remain in the classroom.
He asked: “Can (Mr Hancock) confirm to the House whether his department is planning on increasing the number of testing kits which are distributed to educational settings?”
The Health Secretary replied: “Yes, we’re looking at exactly that.”
Tory MP Sir Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) said: “Can I ask my right honourable friend to set out the specific criteria that must be met for the Rule of Six to be lifted?”
Matt Hancock replied: “The judgment on how we lift the Rule of Six will be based on a whole series of measures, not least, of course, the case rates across the country but also looking at the impact of those cases in terms of hospitalisations.
“Sadly we’re seeing hospitalisations starting to rise now and we, therefore, have brought in measures to try to slow the spread of the virus.
“But we also look, of course, at the test positivity and the surveys of how many cases there are around the country not just the total number because, of course, if you put more testing in then you get more positives.
“So we look at all of these indicators and of course take the clinical advice and then make a judgment.”
Responding to Tory MP Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire), the Health Secretary insisted tests are available, adding: “What I can assure him is that we’re working as hard as we possibly can to fix the problem. Tests are available even though it’s a challenge to get hold of them.”
Conservative former minister Dame Cheryl Gillan asked whether it would be sensible to prioritise testing for teachers so that schools can be kept open.
She said: “A head teacher has written to me saying, ‘we now have teachers and teachers’ children with Covid symptoms which means they’re off in isolation and they’re being told that there are no tests available for 21 days’”
Dame Cheryl added: “Would it not be sensible to prioritise testing for teachers if it’s a priority to keep schools open?”
Matt Hancock responded: “We’ve sent tests to all schools to make sure that they have tests available, but I also recognise the challenges of course in getting hold of tests.
“I do not accept at all that there’s a delay of 21 days and nobody should accept that, that is not government policy.”
A Covid-19 vaccine will only be put in place “across the board” when it is safe to do so, Matt Hancock confirmed.
DUP health spokesman Jim Shannon said: “The news of the progress of a vaccine is a very positive step. Will (Mr Hancock) again confirm that no vaccine will be available on the NHS that has not been rigorously and completely tested and with that assurance, will (Mr Hancock) outline that he considers children in education as a priority for the vaccine?”
Mr Hancock responded: “Of course, we will only allow a vaccine to be put in place across the board when it is safe and the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) are one of the most respected and high quality regulators in the entire world.
“It’s they who will make the decision on whether it’s safe to license and of course the question of who should be vaccinated and in what order is again a clinical decision on which we’ll take advice from the joint committee on vaccinations and immunisation.”
MPs have called for school pupils and teachers to have rapid access to testing to avoid mass absences.
Labour’s Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) said: “The heroic efforts of teachers to enable the full reopening of schools are being undermined by the chaos of the testing system.
“When will school children, teachers and school staff have reliable, rapid access to testing and results so that Covid cases can be swiftly identified and isolated and disruption to education minimised?”
Mr Hancock replied: “The message to her constituent and indeed others is that there are thousands of tests available in her part of London and it is incredibly important that those with symptoms come forward, but that those who do not have symptoms do not.”
Matt Hancock announced that there are more coronavirus tests in Scotland per head of population in comparison to the rest of the UK.
Responding to the SNP’s health spokesperson Dr Philippa Whitford, Mr Hancock said: There are more tests in Scotland through the drive through centres, through the local testing sites, through the mobile testing centres than there are in the rest of the UK per head of population.
“So we over-indexed the number of tests through those routes that we put into Scotland.
“And, indeed, in the Scottish NHS there is spare capacity which needs to be used, and I’m working very closely with the Scottish Government to ensure the spare capacity there in the Scottish NHS is used given the enormous demand for tests right across this country.”
Tory chairman of the Health Select Committee Jeremy Hunt said 111 callers must have the training to be able to spot the signs of sepsis quickly.
He said: “I welcome these changes but can I ask him specifically about sepsis because our A&Es have made huge progress in testing people who needed to be tested quickly for sepsis when they arrive at A&Es.
“If this is now going to be done on the phone, if that is the first point of contact, it is absolutely vital that 111 call handlers are properly trained and their algorithms adjusted to make sure we ask the right questions on sepsis. So could he undertake to do that?”
Matt Hancock replied: “I entirely agree with him on his comments about 111 first – it is absolutely critical that both the online and the phone systems act to ensure that sepsis is recognised wherever that is feasibly possible to make sure that people get the best and the safest route to care.”
The Health Secretary said it was right to prioritise care home residents.
Matt Hancock added: “We choose to prioritise care home staff and care home residents.
“Over 100,000-a-day of the 260,000 capacity are sent to cares homes.
“We could solve other problems by not doing that but we prioritise those who live in care homes because that’s the right thing to do.”
Jon Ashworth said the Government “has failed” to deliver effective testing and tracing.
He added: “When testing breaks down case-finding breaks down, isolation breaks down and we lose control of this virus.
“The British people made great sacrifices, they missed family celebrations, they couldn’t say their final goodbyes to loved ones at funerals but the British people honoured their side of the bargain.
“In return, the Government was supposed to deliver effective testing and tracing. The Government failed and we have vast swathes of the country under restrictions.
“Where do we go next? The Prime Minister yesterday said a second lockdown would be disastrous.
“Obviously we all want to avoid a second lockdown but the British public deserve some clarity. Is he completely ruling out a second short national lockdown in all circumstances?”
A member of the public waits at a quiet coronavirus testing centre in Southend, Essex: