Question Time audience calls for UK to ‘forget politics’ and address coronavirus

A Question Time audience member called for the UK to "forget our politics" as the world faces the prospect of a coronavirus pandemic.

With cases of the deadly virus quickly spreading across the globe, the World Health Organisation has warned countries to prepare for the worst – but there are fears for Britain's already desperately overstretched NHS.

Panelists on Thursday's episode of the BBC programme, broadcasting live from Middlesbrough, were asked: "Given the current strains on the NHS, is the Government prepared for a coronavirus pandemic?"

Labour Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said "10 years of cuts backs and austerity" had crippled the country's health service, leaving the government with "serious questions" about whether the NHS can cope without "extra emergency funding".

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The MP for Leicester South said Britain is currently short of 40,000 nurses and 15,000 beds.

"The numbers waiting on a trolley, in a corridor in a hospital because they can't get a bed, in the last year of the Labour government that was around 61,000, in the last year of this conservative government… it was 850,000. That's the scale of the deterioration," he said.

"Last week, 80 per cent of critical care beds were occupied, it meant that last week there was about 700 critical care beds free, that's about three or four beds per hospital."

With Tory Undersecretary for Industry Nadhim Zahawi also featuring on the panel and listening on, an audience member said: "I think we are still thinking in terms of a national and local issue when it is really a global threat.

"I believe that we should forget our politics for the moment and consider it globally and deal with…other countries and try to solve and tackle this pressure rather than just thinking [of] it in local terms."

He received a round of applause, as did another audience member who asked: "Where will the staff come from to tackle the extra workload that this pandemic might cause?"

Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips said while the containment "seems to be going well" in the UK, there is "absolutely no slack" in the NHS now.

"We have had 10 years where the funding hasn't been there. We know that 25 per cent of people who go into A&E at the moment will be on a trolley for more than four hours.

"How are we going to cope with that plus the coronavirus, plus, as the lady said there, if then we have staff becoming ill or having to go into self isolation.

"This is a major concern. But I think that you are quite right, this is not a time for politics. This is a time for ensuring the NHS has got exactly what it needs to get through this."

Big Issue founder John Bird compared the outbreak to the spread of Spanish Influenza in 1919, which killed more people than the First World War.

"This is not just a health crisis, it's a social crisis," he said, arguing the Government needs to round up every available health facility and resource it has to tackle the "war".

"We are at war of getting rid of this pandemic. This is exactly what happened in 1919 and it caused the deaths of millions and millions."

He said: "To expect the NHS, irrespective if it had every available bed, to respond to a crisis that could lead to a re-run of 1919 – we need a lot more.

"We need the army, we need all of the private medical facilities in this country, and there are many many, and say to them you are in whether you like it or not.

"The nationalisation of the health service in the truest sense of the word for a particular time in order to deal with this pandemic.

"We cannot deal with this pandemic simply on the basis of the services that are offered by the NHS," he continued. "We have to look beyond it. We do have to nationalise all those facilities in and around health, we just have to dragoon them in, look upon it like it's a war."

Host Fiona Bruce pointed out that the 1919 Influenza outbreak was a far greater threat than the current strain of coronavirus which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Mr Zahawi said the NHS has 8,000 more nurses than it had last year "so there are more staff already in the NHS but we are going to work across the whole of the government".

Ms Bruce cut him off to ask again: "Where are the extra staff going to come from?

"I don't know about these 8,000 extra nurses, I don't know if that is fewer nurses than would have left or actually more nurses, but the situation we are in at the moment, should there be an increase in the number of coronavirus cases, do you accept there will be a need for more staff?"

The undersecretary of state said: "We plan across government at COBRA [the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms] every week…you can't magic up staff over night.

"The health service at the moment is well-equipped [at] dealing with this crisis in a good way but what I'm trying to say to you is if we do get to the best worst case scenario then we have plans in place across Government to make sure we deal with it.

He continued: "We can do lots of things that are available to us to do. Internationally… we have already – again part of the COBRA team – put together £45million to work through the different team to other countries who are not coping as well as we are.

"And of course travel advice has been important, we have been making sure all of our airports and ports have got very clear advice and monitoring… we are working across the board to make sure we are ready if we do get to the best worst case scenario."

Mr Ashworth went on to praise the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty who he believes is "showing exceptional leadership on this issue" – with the Government simply following his advice. 

"So far I don't have a major criticism of the approach of the government, NHS England, of Public Health England, but quite clearly, as has just been exposed, if this does turn into a pandemic the Government have got clearly no idea how they are going to get the staff in the NHS," he said.

"We are already short of 40,000 nurses, we are already short of the beds that we need, we are already short of the resources.

"So far I have been supportive of the government and I pay tribute to the chief medical officer, [and] Simon Stevens, who is the head of NHS England, and the leadership of the NHS, but if this takes a turn for the worse, as we have just heard they have got no idea where they are going to get the staff from to deal with this," he added.       

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