As the daughter of an NHS doctor who worked in some of the most deprived areas of Birmingham for many decades, I take it very personally when I’m accused of voting to undermine our NHS and it’s incredible staff.
I’ve been receiving a number of emails and social media comments about a motion which the Labour Party tabled during an Opposition Day debate last week.
I would like to make it abundantly clear that of course I support regular testing for front-line NHS staff.
But that is not what this vote was about. Rather it is about creating click bait and aggressive political headlines by forcing Conservative MPs to vote against “motherhood and apple pie” motions that have no legal effect.
I should say that in today’s media environment, it is a totally irresponsible tactic as it has led to some of my colleagues, particularly female ones, including in one case a woman with a one month old baby, receiving death threats online and in one particularly grim case, at their offices. So not only is this irresponsible, it is dangerous, it affects not only the MP themselves but also their completely blameless staff who carry out all the hard daily casework helping constituents during the coronavirus response.
I am frankly surprised and disappointed that the Labour Party would feel it necessary to indulge such unpleasant tactics instead of engaging with the arguments and making their case during Parliamentary debates, statements, questions and the other many and varied opportunities legitimately open to them.
Let me explain further. In the Parliamentary calendar there are a certain amount of what are called ‘Opposition Days’ agreed by the Government to allow the opposition parties to discuss a topic of their choice. They are non-binding. These days provide a good opportunity for MPs of all parties to discuss important topical issues. I have spoken in many of these debates when I was a backbencher and have been able to use the opportunity to campaign on many important local and national issues in this way. For example, I’ve spoken about topics close to my heart, including the menopause, equalities, support for female entrepreneurs, social care and the environment, as well of course as local topics such as the Alex, our town centre, crime and leisure facilities.
Often the debate concludes without any vote, however the opposition party has the right to call a vote, which is purely to show support for their own motion. In this case, it would not have made sense to vote with the opposition, for the very good reasons which I will set out below, but what the Government did was table its own amendment, which it is important to note, was also passed by the House (without any vote). The full text of the motion that was passed by all MPs of all parties is below.
“That this House expresses thanks to the heroic work of front-line NHS staff who have saved lives throughout the Covid-19 pandemic; pays tribute to the at least 312 NHS and Social Care staff who have died of coronavirus in the United Kingdom; recognises the impact that coronavirus will have upon the NHS to deliver routine care including mental health without additional Government support; notes that NHS waiting lists are projected to reach 10 million by the end of 2020, that cancer referrals fell 60 per cent during the peak of the coronavirus lockdown and that four out of five children have reported their mental health has got worse during the pandemic; further notes that there is a backlog of NHS care that needs to be tackled and that it is vital to prepare NHS services to deliver safe care alongside care for coronavirus, including preparing for winter and ensuring necessary supplies of PPE and medicine; and recognises the unprecedented action the Government has taken in its tireless efforts against Coronavirus to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Labour’s motion was a specific trap as it called for all NHS staff to be tested weekly for Coronavirus, all staff regardless of role in the NHS or scientific evidence of what is needed.
In the Shadow Health Secretary’s opening remarks he called for “weekly health testing – if necessary” – actually a very sensible and a good aspiration. Except the actual motion did not say this. No “if needed” was in the motion. Instead it called for blanket testing with no qualification and no reasoned way to achieve this. This was rightly voted down.
A second amendment was passed without division – and I stand behind fully.
We have around 1.2 million people working in our NHS and 1.1 million people working in social care. If all of those workers regardless of role were tested firstly the capacity for all other services would be gone – police, fire service, key workers. That’s a very large number and whilst many of them work in jobs where they face patients and risk a great many do not.
Secondly, the cost: with no scientific evidence supporting why you are doing it such a motion is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money.
Labour’s motion sought to commit the Government to testing staff who never see a patient, many of whom are working productively from home, to being tested every week. Regardless. That means taking capacity away from police officers, retail staff, refuse collectors and countless other workers who face risk of exposure. No responsible Government would ever agree to that.
I believe in following the scientific advice of our Chief Medical Officer and testing on that basis. There is clear merit in routine testing for those on the front line and who need it, but exactly that – the who need it and led by the clinical evidence.
I shall leave the shoddy opportunism to our opponents.
I’m proud to say I didn’t vote for a motion whose entire focus was on the ballot box rather than where it should be – on our NHS, those who work in it and all of us who rely on it. There’s no doubt there will be more of these motions in the weeks to come.
I will continue to support the NHS as I always have done since I was first elected, by voting for the biggest increase in funding the NHS has ever seen, by voting for pay rises for NHS staff and by continuing to campaign to return services to the Alex.