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Covid-19 Update

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will like to make a statement on coronavirus.

The virus remains a powerful adversary, but we are marshalling the forces of science and human ingenuity. Those forces are growing stronger, and I have no doubt that in time, we will prevail. The latest figures show that the number of cases continues to rise, so we must all play our part to get it under control. As I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, our strategy is to suppress the virus, supporting education, the economy and the NHS, until a vaccine can be deployed. That is our plan, and with the resolve that we must all show, we can see that that plan is working.

Before turning to progress on testing and on vaccines, I want to update the House on our response to the new variant strain of coronavirus that has been identified in Denmark. This shows how vigilant we must be. We have been monitoring the spread of coronavirus in European mink farms for some time, especially in the major countries for mink farming such as Denmark, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands. Spain had already announced the destruction of its farmed mink population in April. On Thursday evening last, I was alerted to a significant development in Denmark of new evidence that the virus had spread back from mink to humans in a variant form that did not fully respond to covid-19 antibodies.

Although the chance of this variant becoming widespread is low, the consequences, should that happen, would be grave. So working with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Transport Secretary and all the devolved Administrations, we removed the travel corridor for travel from Denmark in the early hours of Friday morning. On Saturday and over the weekend, following further clinical analysis, we introduced a full ban on all international travel from Denmark. British nationals or residents who are returning from Denmark, whether directly or indirectly, can still travel here, but they must fully self-isolate, along with all other members of their household, until two weeks after they were in Denmark. These are serious steps, and I understand the consequences for people, but I think that the whole House will understand why we had to act so quickly and decisively. Be in no doubt, we will do what needs to be done to protect this country.

We do not resile from our duty to protect, and to suppress the virus, we must harness new technology to keep people safe and, in time, to liberate. Our ability to suppress the virus begins with testing for it, and the House will know that we have been driving forward testing capacity based on new technologies and old. Yesterday, our polymerase chain reaction—PCR—testing capacity stood at 517,957, which is the largest testing capacity in Europe. Over 10 million people in the UK have now been tested at least once through NHS Test and Trace, and our NHS covid-19 contact tracing app is now approaching 20 million downloads, yet this historic expansion is just one part of our critical national infrastructure for testing. Just as we drive testing capacity on the existing technology, so, too, have we invested in the development of the new. I have been criticised for this obsession with new testing capacity, but we have not wavered from the task, and we are now seeing the fruits of this effort.

Last week, we expanded the pilot in Stoke-on-Trent to Liverpool, where we have deployed enough of the cutting-edge lateral flow tests to offer tests to the whole city. These tests can deliver a result on someone’s infectiousness in under 15 minutes, so that they can get almost immediate reassurance about their condition and so that we can find and isolate the positives and reassure the negatives. To make this happen, NHS Test and Trace has been working side by side with the logistical heft of our armed services and Liverpool City Council, and I want to thank Mayor Joe Anderson and his whole team for their work.

Next, these tests allow us from today to begin rolling out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, which will help to keep people safe when they go into hospital and help to keep my wonderful colleagues in the NHS safe, too. The next step is to roll out this mass testing capability more widely, and I can tell the House that last night I wrote to 67 directors of public health who have expressed an interest in making 10,000 tests available immediately and making available lateral flow tests for use by local officials according to local needs at a rate of 10% of their population per week. That same capacity—10% of the population per week—will also be made available to the devolved Administrations. By combining the local knowledge of public health leaders with our extensive national infrastructure, we can tackle this virus in our communities and help our efforts to bring the R down. Testing provides confidence, and it is that confidence that will help to get Britain back on her feet once more.

While we expand testing to find the virus, the best way to liberate and to get life closer to normal is a vaccine, and I can report to the House the news of the first phase 3 trial results of any vaccine anywhere in the world. After tests on 43,000 volunteers, of whom half got the vaccine and half got a placebo, interim results suggest that it is proving 90% effective at protecting people against the virus. This is promising news. We in the UK are among the first to identify the promise shown by the vaccine, and we have secured an order of 40 million doses. That puts us towards the front of the international pack, and we have placed orders for 300 million further doses from five other vaccine candidates that have yet to report their phase 3 results, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

I want to make it clear to the House that we do not have a vaccine yet, but we are one step closer. There are many steps still to take. The full safety data are not yet available, and our strong and independent regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will not approve a vaccine until it is clinically safe. Until it is rolled out, we will not know how long its effect lasts, or its impact not just on keeping people safe but on reducing transmission. The deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said yesterday that this was like the first goal scored in a penalty shoot-out:

“You have not won the cup yet, but it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

And beat this virus we must, we can and we will. Yesterday’s announcement marks an important step in the battle against covid-19, but, as the Prime Minister said, we must not slacken our resolve. There are no guarantees, so it is critical that people continue to abide by the rules and that we all work together to get the R number below 1.

If this or any other vaccine is approved, we will be ready for begin a large-scale vaccination programme, first for priority groups, as recommended by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, then rolling it out more widely. Our plans for deployment of a covid vaccine are built on tried and tested plans for a flu vaccine, which we of course deploy every autumn. We do not yet know whether or when a vaccine is approved, but I have tasked the NHS with being ready from any date from 1 December. The logistics are complex, the uncertainties are real and the scale of the job is vast, but I know that the NHS, brilliantly assisted by the armed services, will be up to the task.

I can tell the House that last night we wrote to GPs, setting out £150 million of immediate support and setting out what we need of them, working alongside hospitals and pharmacies, in preparing for deployment. The deployment of the vaccine will involve working long days and weekends, and that comes on top of all that the NHS has already done for us this year. I want to thank my NHS colleagues in advance for the work that this will entail. I know that they will rise to the challenge of being ready, when the science comes good, to inject hope into millions of arms this winter.

The course of human history is marked by advances where our collective ingenuity helps us to vanquish the most deadly threats. Coronavirus is a disease that strikes at what it is to be human, at the social bonds that unite us. We must come together as one to defeat this latest threat to humanity. There are many hard days ahead, many hurdles to overcome, but our plan is working. I am more sure than ever that we will prevail together.

As always, I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. May I just take this opportunity to congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris? I am sure the whole House looks forward to close international co-operation to defeat this virus.

I welcome the announcement, in the past 24 hours, of routine testing for frontline NHS staff. The Secretary of State will know that that is something that the Chair of the Health Committee and I have been pushing for, for some months. It is welcome that we are now in a position to extend that testing. It is important not just to protect our NHS staff—I join him in thanking them—but for infection control in healthcare settings, too.

On the roll-out of the lateral flow test that the right hon. Gentleman announced today, I understand he is giving discretion to directors of public health. Does he agree that relatives of care home residents should be given priority access to those tests, so they can go into the care home, see their loved ones and even, maybe, hold their hand or hug them?

Testing is only one part of the jigsaw, of course. To avoid this lockdown becoming a let-down, we need to put contact tracing in the hands of public health teams from day one, so will the Health Secretary update the House on how he is fixing contact tracing? He may have seen Dido Harding at the relevant Select Committee just now. She confirmed that when it comes to isolation, people find it “very difficult” and that the “need to keep earning and feed your family is fundamental”. Will he therefore now accept that a better package of financial support is needed to ensure that isolation is adhered to?

On the vaccine, this is a moment of great hope in a bleak dismal year that has shattered so many families. We are optimistic, although cautious—quite rightly. We need to see the full results and, the demographic details of the trials and to understand the implications for severe cases. There will be clinical judgments by the relevant committee on the priority lists, which we all understand, but can the right hon. Gentleman outline the latest clinical thinking on the vaccination of children? Will the disproportionate impact of the virus on minority ethnic communities be taken into account by the relevant clinicians when drawing up the final priority list? What is the Government’s current working assumption of the proportion of the population that needs to be vaccinated to establish herd immunity and bring R below one? Over what timeframe does he envisage that happening and how many doses does he think we will need? As we vaccinate the most vulnerable, there will be fewer people at risk, and deaths and infections will come down. However, the virus is now endemic, so is it the Government’s current working assumption that social distancing and mask wearing will need to continue until that herd immunity is reached?

Fundamentally, for this to work, we need a plan for the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine. May I gently suggest to the Secretary of State that the roll-out of test and trace and the early procurement of personal protective equipment was not as smooth as it might otherwise have been?  None of us constituency MPs wants to see booking systems overloaded and our constituents told to travel hundreds of miles for a jab, like we saw earlier this year with testing, so what is the plan? Will he publish a strategy? Can he tell us how much will be invested in the covid vaccination programme? We need secure supply chains. Are the Government working internationally to ensure there are enough raw materials, enzymes and bioreactors to guarantee the mass manufacturing that is needed?

On distribution, the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 70°C. Cold chain transport and storage is needed. A year ago, the Secretary of State used to boast that he was the country’s biggest purchaser of fridges. Is he procuring the appropriate storage equipment now? Will liquid nitrogen and freezers be provided to health centres, doctors’ practices and care homes? Will cold chain distribution be in place in all parts of the country?

Last year, the World Health Organisation described vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. May I again reiterate my offer to work with him on a cross-party basis to build public confidence in the vaccine, promote take-up and dispel anti-vax myths? I rather suspect all Members working across the House to promote take-up would prove more cost-effective than paying £670,000 of taxpayers’ money to fancy PR consultants.

This is an important moment. We see a glimmer of light in the distance at the end of this long, dark tunnel. Our constituents are hopeful. We look forward to rapid progress in the distribution of the vaccine, so that we can all get back to normal.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his questions and for the approach that he is rightly taking. Like him, I am delighted that we are able to roll-out routine testing to NHS staff. That starts today. I am grateful to him for his support and I am grateful for the support and the urging of the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt).

On contact tracing, we continue to work on the constant improvement needed, but, as the hon. Member said, the expansion of testing in a radical way because of the new technology that we have invested in and spent months working on, means that we will now be able to find more of the primary cases and more of the people who have the disease and then will be able to get them and their contacts to isolate. The single most important challenge is finding the people who have the virus in the first place.

The hon. Member mentioned children. The vaccine will not be used for children. It has not been tested on children. The reason is that the likelihood of children having significant detriment if they catch covid-19 is very, very low. This is an adult vaccine for the adult population.

The hon. Member asked about the JCVI prioritisation. It is really important that we prioritise according to clinical risk. The JCVI has looked into all the risk factors, including ethnicity. It has concluded that age and whether a person works in health and social care are the two prime risk factors, which far outweigh any other, and so they are the primary risk factors that cascade into the draft interim prioritisation that it published on 25 September, which of course will be updated as it gets the final data that comes through from the clinical trials.

The hon. Member asked about the proportion of the population that needs to be vaccinated. The honest truth is that we do not know what proportion of the population the vaccination needs to reach in order for it to stop the epidemic. The reason we do not know that is that a clinical trial can check for the impact of the vaccine on protecting the individual—43,000 individuals, half of whom have had the vaccine. What cannot be checked is the impact on the transmission of the disease by those people, because a significant proportion of the population have to have had the vaccination to understand that. That is the difference between a so-called disease-modifying vaccine, which tests how much it affects the disease that an individual suffers if they get covid-19, and an epidemic-modifying vaccine, which is about the impact on the spread and transmission of the disease. We cannot know that until after the vaccine has been rolled out, so we will monitor that very closely.

The hon. Gentleman asked about manufacture, which is important, and for this vaccine that is a matter for Pfizer. It is a difficult process. Distribution is also a huge challenge, and that is being led by the NHS. Because the vaccine must be stored at minus 70° until the final hours, the cold-chain requirements are significant and add to the logistical complications. However, we have known about that cold-chain requirement for many months, and it has been part of our planning for some time. We have a good degree of confidence that that will be in place.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about international collaboration. I am delighted that the UK has been a leader in efforts for international collaboration to find a vaccine. It has put in more money than any other nation, co-ordinating and bringing together scientists and vaccine specialists, and using our aid budget to ensure that people around the world get the vaccine in countries that, in some cases, could not afford to vaccinate their own population. We are a big part of the international work, and I very much look forward to working with colleagues in the United States, and everywhere else around the world, to ensure that we have a global vaccination programme as soon as a safe and effective set of vaccines can be made available.

I warmly congratulate the Health Secretary on securing access to the new vaccine. Choosing which vaccine to back must be a bit like playing roulette, and to secure 40 million doses of the first vaccine to prove efficacious is an enormous achievement for the country. He deserves great credit for that. I also thank him for bringing forward the introduction of weekly testing of NHS staff to the end of next week. That will reassure our very hardworking frontline staff that they are not infecting their patients, which is one of their primary worries.

The biggest issue we now face is the fact that only around one fifth of those who we ask to isolate comply with that, and we do not even know all the people who we would like to isolate. What does the Secretary of State think of Sir John Bell’s suggestion to the Health and Social Care Committee this morning that, instead of asking people to isolate, we should give them 48-hour lateral flow tests, and ask them to isolate only if they are positive?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is generous with his words. I also direct his warm words of gratitude to the vaccine taskforce, which has done so much work to ensure that we procure and secure the supplies of these vaccines, should they prove safe as well as efficacious. On Sir John Bell’s comments, that option of testing people regularly—not if they are a primary case and have the virus, but if they are a contact—would not be open to us had we not secured the huge capacity for lateral flow testing that we now have in this country. I very much look to clinicians for advice. Sir John Bell is a highly respected clinician and expert in this area, and I am sure that everybody will want to look closely at that issue.

With three and a half weeks left of the current lockdown in England, what does the Secretary of State plan to change so that covid-19 does not get out of control again when restrictions are eased? He mentions the pilot project of population testing in Liverpool, using newly developed lateral flow tests, but there are not yet published sensitivity or specificity data for those tests. What is the risk of false negative or false positive results? Has the UK National Screening Committee been involved to help assess the risks, benefits, and costs of such mass population testing?

I welcome the progress made on the Pfizer vaccine, but it will take time before it is widely available, and, as the Secretary of State said earlier, we do not yet know if it will reduce transmission, so it does not remove the need to control viral spread using current measures. While I also welcome the expansion of PCR testing, I am sure he recognises that what matters is not just the number of tests available but that testing is part of a test, trace, isolate and support system for it to be effective. Five months on, Serco is still struggling to reach even 60% of contacts, so will he copy the more successful approach of the devolved nations and fund local public health teams to lead contact tracing in their areas?

An effective test and trace system can identify those carrying the virus rather than isolating everyone in a lockdown, but it is isolation that actually breaks the chains of infection. Is the Secretary of State therefore concerned that so few people are isolating when they should? How can that be improved? People will not stay off work if that means they cannot feed their family, so how will he make access to the Government’s isolation payment easier?

Of course, we are working to ensure that, by us all working together and making sacrifices, we can come out of this lockdown and into the tiered approach we had in place beforehand. That is the goal, and the more that people follow the rules during the lockdown, the more effective it will be. We obviously monitor the data closely on that.

The hon. Lady asked about lateral flow tests and their sensitivity and specificity, which is an incredibly important question. The assessment of the tests we are using in Liverpool and now rolling out elsewhere was made at Porton Down. We then tested 5,000 lateral flow tests alongside 5,000 polymerase chain reaction tests of the same people in the field, and we have a high degree of confidence that they can find people who are infectious. In fact, the lateral flow tests have a lower false positivity issue than the PCR tests, so they are very effective for the right uses, including mass population testing.

The hon. Lady asked about isolation. Of course, isolation is important. I would mention that we have test and trace systems in place across the UK and it turns out that there are differences in how a successful contact is measured. In England, we are much stricter in requiring contact to be a confirmed contact with somebody rather than just sending them a message, which does count as contact in some of the devolved and local systems. It is really important that we measure the same thing, rather than trying to make divisions where divisions do not exist.

Finally, it is vital that people isolate when they test positive or when they are asked to by NHS Test and Trace. I gently say again that the 20% figure is not particularly robust, because it implies that 80% of people are not doing anything to isolate. That is not what the survey found. Nevertheless, we should all urge and require people to follow the rules. When someone tests positive, they must isolate, and contacts must isolate. That is part of our social duty.

It is indeed a relief to have some hope introduced into our discussions about covid. I am glad that the Secretary of State has announced that use of the rapid result lateral flow tests will be expanded to new geographical areas. As the roll-out continues, will he consider offering tests to specific groups and perhaps in particular close relatives of care home residents who are desperate to make regular visits?

Yes, of course. I have seen some heart-rending stories and I have met people who are affected by their inability to see their relatives in care homes. The lateral flow tests that we are sending to directors of public health can be used for cases that they think are important locally, so they can use them for this purpose if they so choose. But we are also looking at a broader solution to this problem, which is a conundrum we have discussed many times in the House: we need to keep people in care homes safe but at the same time, of course, we want to allow as much visiting as can be safe, which directly impacts on the health of many residents.

It would be very helpful to know how long the roll-out of the vaccinations will take once the Secretary of State gets the go-ahead. He has outlined a major Government project that does not stop with the first vaccinations, and with the mutations rife in Denmark and elsewhere, it could affect children in future, so as part of his major project planning, how will he make sure that we can logistically get this out through the entire population if that does, sadly, become necessary?

That is a very good question from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—I would expect nothing less. The critical answer to how long this takes is that it depends on the speed of manufacture in the first instance. My goal, and the goal I have set the NHS, is to be able to roll this out as quickly as it can be manufactured. That manufacturing schedule is uncertain because this is really hard stuff to make. We have got the Major Projects Authority in the Government involved in many of the projects that we have built up in the Department over the past nine months, because I respect its views and its ability to kick the tyres. The roll-out of the vaccine is a huge endeavour, but it builds on the annual roll-out of the flu vaccine—it is just bigger and needs to be done faster.

The past few months have been a rollercoaster ride for families, businesses and public services as they have tried to make plans for the future. The Secretary of State has rightly spoken of the need for caution about the role of the vaccine, but I think what my constituents would like to hear from him, if he is able to say, is when they can safely start to consider family events and holidays and when businesses will be able to get back to something like business as usual.

I understand the yearning for certainty. All I can say to my hon. Friend, in honesty, is that I want us to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and yesterday’s news is a big step forward, but it is not the only step. There are more steps that are needed. The scientists are now offering views on that sort of timetable, but the Government’s view is that we must make this happen as quickly as possible and be ready to roll out as fast as any safe vaccine can be manufactured, but we will not put safety at risk. That is a lodestar of the programme and therefore we have to await the clinical safety sign-off before we can take this to the next stage.

We know that those in the most deprived areas are around twice as likely to die from covid-19 as those in the least deprived areas. We also know that the most deprived people in society are less likely to take up the vaccine and health services, so will the Secretary of State tell me what plans he has made to ensure a high take-up of any covid-19 vaccine among the most deprived and if he will consider setting an inequalities target for this?

We are of course concerned about that and will put in enormous efforts to try to ensure that the take-up of the vaccine is as equal as possible. The starting principle is that we will roll out the vaccine according to clinical need across the whole UK, across all four nations, working of course through the devolved NHSs, which will be critical to actually delivering the vaccine in the devolved nations. But the procurement of this vaccine is a UK programme—we have been working very closely together—and in terms of the roll-out among deprived communities and harder-to-reach communities, we have a particular emphasis on trying to make sure that we get as equal a roll-out as possible. The starting point must be clinical need.

Not a day goes by when I do not hear from or try to help constituents to see a loved one in a care home, and in so many cases we know that people have not been able to see their loved ones for months and months. Given that I am the MP for one of the “oldest” constituencies in the country, North Norfolk, will my right hon. Friend give me his absolute reassurance that we will have enough vaccinations to support not only the vulnerable in my care homes, but those amazing workers who have done so much over the pandemic?

Precisely for the reasons my hon. Friend sets out, the top priority for this vaccine, according to the clinical analysis, is the residents of care homes, along with the staff who work to look after them so well. They are in the very first category because they are the most vulnerable to this disease and because a care home’s nature as a generally communal environment means that they are particularly susceptible. As he represents the oldest constituency in the country, I am sure that that sort of prioritisation will mean that should this come off and if the other hurdles are passed, a lot of vaccine will be heading to North Norfolk.

Of course the news about the Pfizer vaccine is extremely encouraging, and we are all hoping that it is proved safe and effective, and approved by regulators. Let us suppose that that is the case. Given that it is being manufactured in Belgium and that, as the Secretary of State has noted, it has to be kept at minus 70° at all times until shortly before administration, what arrangements is he putting in place to ensure that there is absolutely no delay of the supplies at the borders following the end of the Brexit transition period? Any significant delay could at worst result in precious supplies being damaged and rendered useless, which could delay roll-out.

Of course we have looked at this risk, and I have confidence in our plans to be able to deliver the vaccine whatever the outcomes of the negotiations over our future relationship with Europe.

My right hon. Friend’s strategy is, as he keeps reporting to the House, to “suppress the virus” until a vaccine can be deployed, but this is still beset by so many uncertainties. Who would have thought that mink in Denmark could throw a spanner into this situation? Is the tracing capability and the ability to get people to isolate not absolutely crucial? Who should we hold accountable for whether that is operationally effective as we come out of lockdown? I say that because this is the only time we have got to make this work, otherwise we will be in another lockdown.

Of course it is important that we continue to build and strengthen the contact tracing system, as we are doing. My hon. Friend mentions the uncertainties, and the issue of the virus that has spread back from mink to humans is one example of that. Of course managing a pandemic is beset by uncertainty. We still have uncertainty, for instance, over whether even the Pfizer vaccine will pass the safety hurdles that we very much hope it will in the coming weeks, but managing through that uncertainty is a critical part of getting this right.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Is it not good to see the nation regain at least a smile in relation to the potential for a vaccine? That has to be good news for us all. Will he outline how he intends to ensure that, unlike with the flu vaccine, where there is a shortage in the nation and in my constituency, each region will receive the necessary amount of this vaccine and that rather than using estimations, the health service will allocate on the basis of priority need and not postcode?

Yes, absolutely; this is a UK programme and I have been working closely with my Northern Ireland counterpart, Robin Swann, who is doing a brilliant job in Northern Ireland, to make sure that we make this roll-out as effective as possible across the whole United Kingdom.

Mr Deputy Speaker, happy birthday.

I know that my right hon. Friend is as concerned as I am about the impact of lockdown, particularly the first lockdown, on new families with new babies—particularly as seen in the excellent Parent-Infant Foundation report “Babies in Lockdown” and the awful news from Ofsted that some babies were one harmed more than would expect during that period, potentially as a result of poor mental health and so on. Can my right hon. Friend tell us what exactly he is doing to ensure that, during the current lockdown, new families are being provided with the level of support, from partners and statutory services, that they need to help them through?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and we all know how close it is to her heart. In the first lockdown, many NHS services were suspended, partly because of the uncertainty that we have just been talking about. We know far more about the virus and how to manage it the second time round, and our goal is that all NHS services stay open. That has not proved possible in the areas of the country where there is the highest prevalence, but all maternity services and services around perinatal health ought to stay open everywhere. We have had to delay some non-cancer, non-urgent treatment, but crucially, the best thing to do for this agenda that she champions is to try to keep the virus under control and try to suppress the virus as much as possible.

A happy birthday from me too, Mr Deputy Speaker.

As well as age and underlying conditions, the JCVI notes that early signals have been identified of other potential risk factors, including deprivation and ethnicity, but there have been enormous amounts of research and evidence showing that black, Asian and minority groups are at risk of this virus. Given their occupations, and given the overcrowded households that they disproportionately represent, why have they not been included in the composition and order of priority of groups for vaccination?

Before I forget, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should say happy birthday to you as well.

The hon. Lady asks a very important question. The JCVI has looked at that issue and in the earlier iteration of its draft advice it considered the disproportionate impact that the virus has had on BAME communities. Its conclusion, having looked at it in some detail, is that the overwhelming indicator of mortality from coronavirus is age; and therefore it has based its recommendations on age and, of course, the occupational groups that directly support the most vulnerable—hence it has come up with the classification that it has. I respect the JCVI’s independence and its analysis.

Happy birthday to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In the past fortnight, 75 people in my constituency, workers at a food processing factory, have tested positive, and that follows a similar outbreak at Cranswick Country Foods, where 144 out of 333 tested positive just 10 days ago. Lawrence Young at the University of Warwick has shown through research that the virus remains very viable on cold surfaces. My question to the Secretary of State is simply this: how often should the Health and Safety Executive be undertaking physical checks in such premises, and when should Members of Parliament be notified by local authorities that such an outbreak has happened?

It is up to the local authority, in the first instance, to notify a Member of Parliament, although often, if an issue is very significant, we in the Department will also work with the local Member of Parliament. The Health and Safety Executive takes a risk-based approach, so it is not possible to give a definitive answer about how often it should visit; it depends on the level of the risk.

Before I call Jacob Young, I would just like to say thanks for all the birthday wishes. I absolve anybody else from saying happy birthday to me. I am coming to terms with the fact that The Times added a year to my age. It is bad enough being the age I am, I do assure you, but none the less.

Last week, I spoke to care providers in Redcar and Cleveland who said that, when it comes to testing in care homes, two groups of people are still missed out: first, agency workers, who go to and from care home to care home, currently fall outside the weekly testing programme; and secondly, family members of those who live in care homes. If we can roll out testing for those people, they could be treated as care workers and enabled to visit their loved ones again. Will the Secretary of State urgently address these two gaps in our testing programme, to help lift some hardship from the most vulnerable in our society?

The answer is yes, and I will add a third: visitors to care homes. I would like the testing regime to work for those people, to make visiting easier. When it comes to agency workers, we want to stop altogether people working in more than one care home, because that risks transmission. When it comes to carers who are unpaid but who go in regularly, we want to find a way for them to be added to the regular testing regime.

There was nothing in the Secretary of State’s statement about VAT on personal protective equipment, so will he update the House on what discussions he has had with the Treasury about scrapping the mask tax?

That is a matter for the Treasury, as the hon. Lady indicates. The truth is that we have made PPE freely available to health and social care and other public services until the end of this financial year.

The weekend press carried briefing of a Government intention to distribute vitamin D to care homes and other vulnerable groups. If that is true, I congratulate the Secretary of State on this decisive, low-cost, zero-risk, potentially highly effective action. If it is true, will he tell us the dosages proposed, how quickly it will happen and whether the target groups include ethnic minorities? Is his Department reviewing and considering the Spanish trials, with a view to the use of calcifediol in a clinical context?

This is something that we are working hard on in the Department. I am not yet in a position to answer all those questions, except to say that I have looked at the results of the Spanish trial that my right hon. Friend mentions, not least because he sent me those results with some enthusiasm. We are looking at this very closely.

Before I ask my question, I pay tribute to the brave staff of the Royal Free Hospital in my constituency, who featured in “Hospital” last night on BBC 2, for all their hard work during the pandemic. I understand that, when the vaccine is approved, the Government will distribute it according to who needs it most. However, before that point, will there be Government restrictions on meetings between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not? When does the Secretary of State think the vaccination will be available for the whole of the UK?

The hon. Lady tempts me, but I will resist the temptation. We do not know when this vaccine will be ready, because I will not allow it to be rolled out before it is clinically safe—and anyway, the independent regulator would not license it before it is clinically safe. She asked how we will treat people who have been vaccinated and those who have not been. The problem is that only when we can assess and monitor the epidemic-modifying effects of any vaccine—not only how much it protects an individual but how much it stops transmission—can we make further judgments about the non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing rules, that we have in place. We will keep that under review and monitor it extremely carefully.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has done to secure access to supplies of what we hope will be approved vaccines very soon. He has done a fantastic job on that, as he has on the expansion of testing and the 15-minute tests. However, may I take him back to the issue of testing in the aviation sector? Prior to the pandemic, we had the biggest and most important aviation sector in Europe. Since the pandemic, that sector has collapsed, yet last week Lord Bethell told the House of Lords that the chief medical officer believes that the aviation sector is a low priority for testing. It may be a low priority in his eyes, but it is economically vital to us. I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that those 15-minute tests are made available to the aviation sector at the earliest opportunity.

The expansion of testing capacity obviously opens up the number of different uses to which it can be put. We are working closely with the aviation industry—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is leading those discussions, but I am heavily involved in them—and I hope we can make some progress soon.

A constituent’s father is in a care home. He is non-verbal and relies on touch to communicate. She says:

“I have not been able to hug my dad for over eight months. I have not been able to hold his hand. I have not been able to…take his youngest grandchild to meet him.”

Eight months into this crisis, will the Secretary of State urgently set out the scope of his pilot keyworker-status scheme, accelerate its implementation and tell us when a combination of regular rapid testing and personal protective equipment will allow my constituent to safely hold her dad’s hand again and put an end to this slow torture?

The hon. Lady puts the point very movingly. The Minister for Care is leading on this issue with great compassion and I hope that we can make some progress soon.

The news of a vaccine is very welcome, but it comes just as Wales is leaving its firebreak and England has entered its own lockdown. This kind of diversion has caused confusion and some anxiety, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vaccine will be available in all parts of the Union? Does he agree that it is the action that the UK Government have taken on things such as the pre-purchase of doses that has given us this access?

There is absolutely no doubt that we have worked together as a United Kingdom to put ourselves in a strong position when it comes to access to the Pfizer vaccine, and we have worked together to ensure that, should it come off, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be available across all parts of this United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the work that I anticipate the NHS in Wales will be doing to deliver the shots into arms across Wales, but it is a UK-wide programme and is yet another example of why the UK is so strong when it works together.

The Secretary of State is aware that priests have been unable to administer the sacrament to those dying in care homes and rabbis have been unable to secure a minyan in order to say the Kaddish. How will his Government now try to ensure they recognise that a person’s spiritual needs are critical for their mental health and that this is just as important for people’s physical health?

Of course we recognise exactly that, and the hon. Gentleman puts it well. Ministers are working with faith leaders on how we can come to an arrangement, as soon as possible, to allow both communal prayer, which was discussed in the House as we brought in the regulations relating to the lockdown, and all other aspects of nurturing worship.

Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby currently has twice as many covid patients in intensive care units as we had at the height of the previous lockdown. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the very good news regarding vaccines, it is essential that people in England adhere to the lockdown rules so that we can get the reproduction rate down and reopen our businesses as quickly as possible?

Yes, my hon. Friend is it absolutely right, and that is the reason for the caution we in Government are showing. There is understandable excitement at the news of the vaccine, but we are cautious, because the single most important thing is that, until we have a vaccine—and we do not have a vaccine yet—people have to follow the rules in order to keep people safe. That is true across Grimsby and the whole country. I know that the team at the hospital in Grimsby are working incredibly hard in difficult circumstances, and it is tougher in Grimsby this second time than it was the first time around. I pay tribute to and thank them. The best thing we can all do to support them is to follow the rules, do our best and play our part to reduce the transmission of this disease.

For the vaccine to be effective, widespread take-up is required. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said a strategy to counter the utterly ridiculous and extremely dangerous anti-vaxxer misinformation was to hope people will not listen to those types of arguments. Can the Health Secretary assure the House that his Department is working on a more detailed strategy than the Prime Minister to counter this misinformation?

The Secretary of State’s update is very welcome news for the shielding community, and I hope they will be among the first to receive the vaccine. At my meeting with the deputy chief medical officer last week, she informed me that 15,000 children are still being asked to shield this time around. What does the Secretary of State say to the parents and carers of those children, given that he has just confirmed that they will not receive the vaccine?

Of course, we will continue to work on a clinically led basis with everybody across the country who needs support. The vaccines were not trialled on children, and it would absolutely be a clinical decision as to how to take this matter forward. I am very glad that the hon. Lady has had the opportunity to talk to the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, who leads on shielding policy. It is a very important and very sensitive subject.

The amended graphs used to justify the lockdown now show a 40% reduction in the death rate in the upper quartile as against their first presentation, so the NHS would have coped, wouldn’t it?

Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust now has over 280 covid patients. That is more than 70% higher than in April, and it has fewer staff in place to cope. It cannot use the Harrogate Nightingale, because there are no spare staff to send there. The staff are doing an amazing job, but I am really worried about the pressure they are under. Will the Secretary of State work urgently with Yorkshire hospitals to get them more support and more staff in place over the next couple of weeks, when the pressure is likely to be greatest?

Yes, of course. We are working with hospitals across Yorkshire and across the whole country to try to make sure that we have the most capacity available. It is true that the numbers going into hospitals across Yorkshire continue to be far too high, and there is an awful lot of work we need to do, but the most important thing is that we get this virus under control in order to bring that number of admissions down.

I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend, my constituency neighbour, on ensuring that our country has its share of this very promising RNA vaccine. However, on the subject of the previous question and capacity, is not one of the key reasons for prioritising health and social care staff not just that we prioritise those who are protecting us, but that by ensuring they are first in line for the vaccine, should it come forward and be proved safe, we will help to boost hospital capacity at a crucial time of the year?

Yes, that is a really important point. Part of the challenge of, and the reason for, a second lockdown was NHS capacity. The more we protect those who work in the NHS, the fewer are unavailable to work, precisely as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, and the more capacity we have in our NHS.

As families begin to dare to hope for the possibility of a vaccine, it is vital that we prioritise mental health resilience and confidence in learning among our young people. Outdoor education centres in Cumbria and across the country are uniquely equipped and able to help with just that, yet most of those centres face closure, essentially because the Government advice remains against residential school visits, even though outdoor education centres are just as covid-safe as schools. Would the Secretary of State agree to work with the Department for Education to try to change that advice and to make sure outdoor education centres remain open?

I am very happy to look at that with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary. It is, of course, a Department for Education lead, but I am happy to do my bit.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done on securing the vaccine. May I just bring the discussion back to the here and now, since, as he quite rightly says, there is a long way to go on that? Something that has been slightly overlooked in his statement is his announcement of the provision of 10% of lateral flow tests to local areas, which is very important. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for doing an incredible job in keeping me and other Leeds MPs informed as the crisis has moved forward, but will he tell me whether the lateral flow tests will have an impact on the tiering system? The numbers in Leeds are still exceptionally high, although hopefully they will change during the lockdown. Is there going to be some change in how the tiering system works? If my right hon. Friend does not have the answers now, perhaps he could write to me at a later stage, once he has given the matter some consideration.

I will write to my right hon. Friend on exactly this matter. Of course, the more that we can do to get the infection rates down during lockdown, the easier it will be to get out of lockdown, and places can get out in lower tiers.

Have the bumps from me too, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It is good to hear some good news about the vaccine on the way, and hopefully about vitamin D. Earlier in the pandemic, people with non-covid health issues were told not to suffer in silence. Now we hear that non-elective surgeries are being cancelled; I think all are off at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. What is the advice now? If it is the wrong advice, could this mean the loss of lives?

We want as little impact on the rest of NHS activity as possible. Of course, we are having to take that action in some high-prevalence areas. That decision takes into account local circumstances; it is not a blanket, national decision as it was in March. The most important thing that we can all do to keep our NHS open for non-covid treatment is abide by the rules and have that lockdown in place.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing the vaccine. That is a ray of hope for us all. I look forward to hearing more about the developments in the coming weeks and months. Will he join me in paying tribute to the military, who have worked tirelessly to deploy the mass testing of the vaccine, and update the House on his plans for the military to be used with regard to the vaccine in the coming months?

Absolutely. The armed services of this country have played an amazing role during the pandemic. I have talked about a war against a virus, in which we are all on the same side. The military have done and are doing their bit, and there is a lot more that we will need from them in the future. They are involved in the mass testing and the vaccine roll-out, and I am very grateful for their support.

We have learned today that mass testing of students is to take place in order to enable them to return home for Christmas, which will be widely welcomed. We have a very large number of students in Leeds. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether that testing is going to be handled by the universities themselves or by the excellent public health team in Leeds that is led by Victoria Eaton? How will it dovetail with any roll-out of mass testing to Leeds in due course, so that all the bits of the system fit together?

The right hon. Gentleman asks a characteristically critical question and puts his finger on a vital logistical point. We are planning to help students to get home safely with the assistance of mass testing. In places such as Leeds, mass testing is being made available to the directors of public health. Of course, these things must be dovetailed. The universities will be in the lead on the mass testing of students, but this process, by its nature, will absolutely draw on the public health knowledge and expertise of the local council. Although each of us has become something of a public health expert over the past 11 months, the professional support from the public health team in the council will be critical to this task.

I welcome my right hon Friend's announcement on the roll-out of mass testing for NHS staff and congratulate him on securing so many doses of the vaccine. It is wonderful news that the efficacy of the first of these vaccines seems to be so very high. I have read in newspapers over the past month countless pundits telling me that there would be no vaccine and that the right thing to do would be to let the virus rip and try to protect a few vulnerable people. Does this not show that it is right to listen to the scientists and the real experts rather than pundits who would have put millions of people’s lives at risk?

My hon. Friend feels strongly about this point. That is understandable, because the strategy that we have pursued has been to suppress the virus while we work on the vaccine. We are not there yet, but this progress towards a vaccine demonstrates why we followed the strategy of protecting life even though we know that there are challenging consequences for businesses and other parts of society. We have done so because we have a good degree of confidence that a vaccine will come and will make a significant contribution to solving this problem without the huge risk of its impact on taking people’s lives, especially the most vulnerable, that would be incurred if we did not suppress the virus.

It is fantastic news that 10,000 rapid lateral flow tests will be going to Dudley this week and that about 30,000 more will subsequently be in use locally. What guidance will be issued to directors of public health on how those rapid tests should be targeted?

Guidance will be given and we are engaging directly with directors of public health. I will ensure that the teams from Stoke and Liverpool, who have been piloting this, will talk to other directors of public health, including those in Dudley. We are not putting stringent rules around the use of these tests, because we want directors of public health to use them in ways that they think will work and are important locally and then to feed back on the effectiveness of their use so that we can keep learning about the roll-out. We are sending the tests out with guidelines and instructions on how to use them, as well as logistics, but also saying to directors of public health, “Use your professional expertise and tell us how you did it, what worked and what did not, and we can all learn from each other.”

My constituent Kellie Shiers is an emergency ambulance care assistant with North West Ambulance Service. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment she went into remission and went back to work. During the pandemic she chose to continue to work on the frontline despite her medical history. Her yearly check-up and mammogram did not happen in April and in early October she was told that not only had her cancer returned but it had now spread into her bones. Kellie has asked to meet the Secretary of State to discuss the situation affecting her and thousands of others, but we have not had a reply to my letter sent three weeks ago. Will the Secretary of State agree to that request?

Yes, of course I will. It is an incredibly important subject. It underlines the fact that by controlling the virus and taking action to suppress it, we allow the other activity that the NHS needs to do, which is very important for the precise reasons that the hon. Lady sets out. I would be very happy to meet her and her constituent, listen directly to her experience and see what we can do to help.

Lockdown 2 has been very divisive across the UK, not least in Bracknell. Are there any circumstances in which my right hon. Friend might consider early easing of restrictions, perhaps in low-infection areas?

We always keep the data under review and we are always looking at what we can do. Our goal is to get out of this lockdown into the tiered system and we are focused on that and on getting the numbers down. Even in Bracknell, where for so long the rate of infection was incredibly low, we have seen an increase in that rate of infection and it is important to get it under control in Bracknell, as it is elsewhere in the country.

Because of the growing number of covid patients being treated in hospital, my local NHS would like to use the Exeter Nightingale hospital for in-patient care, but it does not currently have the staff for it to do so. What exactly is the purpose of the Nightingale hospitals when there are not the doctors and nurses to staff them?

There are of course record numbers of staff in the NHS. There has been an increase of over 13,000 nurses, for instance, in the past year, and we have the returners who have come back into the NHS. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) asked this question and I did not answer it, so I will now answer them both together. The Nightingale hospitals are incredibly important as additional surge capacity, but part of that surge involves the staff in the NHS having themselves each to look after a higher proportion of patients. That surge is not something we want to put in place unless we have to, so having the Nightingales there is important. They can be used—in fact, the Manchester Nightingale currently has patients in it—but it is better for both patients and staff if people can be treated in the existing hospitals, even as we expand the number of staff that are available.

Following the rise in the real living wage, will the Government now do the right thing for care workers, as well as for UK Government workers on outsourced facilities management contracts, all of whom have worked throughout the pandemic to make workplaces safe, and ensure that they are paid the real living wage?

I am absolutely delighted that the national living wage, which we introduced, now means that there has been a sharp rise in the pay of our lowest-paid staff across the UK. I think that is something this whole House can get behind. It is true in social care, as the hon. Gentleman mentions, and in other professions, and I am really proud to have played a part in bringing it about.

My right hon. Friend well understands the importance of families being able to see each other this Christmas at the end of a very difficult year, and he understands the lengths that people will inevitably go to in order to be able to see families and loved ones this Christmas. Without making any predictions about what the situation will be at the end of the year, can he at least confirm today that the intention on the part of this Government is to work with the devolved Administrations so that we have one set of rules covering the whole United Kingdom, and, for the first time during this pandemic, a set of rules that are clear, consistent and fair across the UK?

I really hope that the talks that are under way can arrive at to a set of principles and a set of rules across the UK for Christmas. So many people travel across the UK, including to and from Wales, over the Christmas period, even more so than in the rest of the year, and I hope that we can bring this to fruition.

Last week the Prime Minister said that not enough people are self-isolating when asked to. Does the Secretary of State accept that this might be because those traced by the covid app are not entitled to the same financial support as those who receive a phone call?

We are working on ways to ensure that those who are traced through the app also get support. The challenge is that the app is, by its nature, and by the design principles that our friends and colleagues in the tech industry insisted on, anonymous. Translating an anonymous system on the app into an identified payment is a challenging process that we are working through.

I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts with regard to a vaccine and for his commitment on equal distribution throughout the Union. Nurses and care workers in my constituency are daily on the frontline in the fight against covid, putting themselves and their families at increased risk while trying to save and protect us and the NHS. They too will play a key role in the administering of a vaccine in the very near future. Does the Secretary of State agree that the pay nurses receive falls short of what it ought to be, given the skilled and responsible nature of the role, and that a pay rise is due for UK nurses?

I understand the question that the hon. Lady asks on behalf of her constituents. I pay tribute to my opposite number in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, and because this is a devolved matter, I hope that she will understand if I allow him the discretion to provide an answer to that question, rather than answering on his behalf.

Students and their families across the country will be very pleased with the news that students are to be offered covid tests as early as 30 November to ensure that they can go back for Christmas. Subsequent to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), may I ask whether similar arrangements will be put in place in January, so that students can then return to study in the new year?

I welcome the roll-out of mass testing and the vaccine update. It is very positive news and offers the hope that the country needs of getting back to normality as quickly as possible. Given the unique challenges of infection control in university cities, which my right hon. Friend has touched on already, will the wider roll-out of mass testing be available across university cities such as York for the whole population?

Yes, the roll-out and the 10% of population per week availability of lateral flow tests is available to directors of public health across the country. If that has not already been organised with York, I urge the director of public health in York to come forward and work with the team to make that happen.

The Secretary of State recognised in his statement that the task of delivering 40 million doses will be vast, and he has also said that he has orders for 300 million further doses. How far away are we from those further doses coming on board, and does not that make that a huge task to undertake at a local level? How is local government involved in co-ordinating this roll-out?

Yes, it will be a huge task. The NHS is leading on it, and of course the NHS reaches all parts of this country. As for the flow of the future doses that we have secured, the only one that is in immediate prospect is AstraZeneca. It would be wonderful to hear the same sort of results soon for AstraZeneca that we heard from Pfizer yesterday. After that, it is next summer before the next vaccine candidate comes on stream, so the focus of the roll-out plan at the moment is on delivering the Pfizer and AstraZeneca projects if they pass the safety test.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to prioritise those working in the health sector for the roll-out of the vaccine, but will he also consider the important role that those working in the teaching profession and in childcare play? Their being in work enables children to be in school or in care and therefore allows their parents to be economically active.

Of course I understand the importance of that, which is why we protected education and kept schools open as much as possible through this second peak. I pay tribute to schools, which have, in very large part, stayed open. Some children have had to go home, and we are looking into how we can use testing to reduce the need for children in bubbles to have to isolate if an index case has tested positive in a school.

My right hon. Friend probably saw the BBC news last night featuring the Royal Derby Hospital where staff were saying that the numbers that were in hospital now were higher than in the peak earlier this year and that they were exhausted but would keep going. Is there any opportunity for the Nightingale staff, who are perhaps on stand-by, to come in and assist so that some of these hard-pressed doctors and nurses could have slightly more time off so that they would not be quite so exhausted?

I thank staff at the Royal Derby for the work that they are doing. These are difficult circumstances. One of the reasons why we brought in measures that I know are difficult was to protect the NHS from the increase in the number of cases, which in Derby, as my hon. Friend says, is now higher than in the first peak. Unfortunately, the solution that she proposes is in fact the other way around: the NHS Nightingales provide extra space and extra capacity, but we need to stretch the existing workforce to use them—to staff them—if they are needed. That is another reason to take the measures that we have taken in order to protect the NHS.

Penblwydd hapus, Mr Deputy Speaker.

A number of concerns have been raised today about staffing in the NHS, so may I press the Secretary of State to commit to ensuring that cancer professionals are not redeployed away from cancer treatment and care, so that they can beat the backlog rather than building it even further?

Yes, that is absolutely our goal—to keep all cancer treatment going during this second phase. So far, that has been successful everywhere; even where hospitals have had to postpone non-urgent activity, they have not postponed cancer treatment. This is incredibly important to me personally, and I strongly support the recommendation that the hon. Lady sets out.

I join my right hon. Friend in praising the work of the vaccine taskforce in securing so much of this first encouraging vaccine and the work it has done to have a good portfolio.

Let me turn to the joint inquiry of the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, which met this morning. We considered test and trace, but it seems to me that the third part—the isolation part—is key. This 20% figure has been bandied about, but Baroness Harding was able to give us a preliminary figure of 54% for the people who manage to observe staying at home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need more data about this? We need to understand how many people are staying at home—I realise it is not completely binary—but also how that varies between people who have positive tests and people who have been asked to isolate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to look at Sir John Bell’s suggestion that people who are merely contacts could be released from quarantine earlier through rapid testing?

I am happy to look at all those constructive suggestions. Maybe I can also take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the vaccine taskforce and to Kate Bingham personally for the leadership that they have shown in being able to procure the 340 million doses that they have achieved—I know that the whole country is grateful for the 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in particular—and the work that they have done.

What update can the Secretary of State give the House on the new strain of coronavirus identified in mink in Denmark? Aside from the travel restrictions now in place from Denmark, what steps are being taken to stop any new outbreak?

The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point. We acted very fast, including working with the Scottish Government and the other devolved Governments, to take the action that we did at the end of last week. We are concerned about this outbreak. I am concerned about the fact that this virus has become virulent across the mink population, and I think that there is an international case, on public health grounds, for addressing the question of mink farming, which we banned in the UK two decades ago. It was due to come to an end in Europe in 2023 anyway. People will have their own views on animal welfare grounds—I certainly have mine—but clearly, on global public health grounds, there is a case for doing everything we can to stop the retransmission of this virus into an animal population and then back again, which can lead to the sorts of mutations that we have seen. We will do everything we can to keep people safe.

If you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should also put on record my thanks to and admiration for the Government of Denmark, who have also responded to this very quickly. Our actions should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of the Danish Government, who have acted very fast; it is a painful economic decision that they have taken very swiftly to cull their mink population. We are merely acting to keep this country safe.

I really welcome today’s news that we are now much closer to the roll-out of vaccines, but, as of today, the Royal Stoke University Hospital in my constituency has more than double the number of covid patients than during the first peak, and that is combined with record high levels of covid-related staff absence. That is of concern to me, fellow MPs in Stoke-on-Trent and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the heroic efforts of our NHS staff in Stoke-on-Trent and help us to deal with the situation until such time as it is improved by the roll-out of vaccines?

Yes. I know Stoke-on-Trent’s hospital and I think that the people who work there do a brilliant job. They are a great team that works so closely and well for the people of Stoke-on-Trent and, indeed, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Stoke has got an outbreak under control a couple of times. In fact, it had a second peak in the summer, which it got under control, so this is really the third peak in Stoke. Stoke-on-Trent City Council worked closely with us on the early roll-out of mass testing in a pilot even before Liverpool. I thank everybody at the Royal Stoke for all their hard work and I urge everyone in Stoke and across the country to respect social distancing and follow the rules, because that is the best way to support our NHS.

I represent a vast and extremely remote constituency in which there are groups of elderly people who are potentially vulnerable to covid-19. When the Secretary of State talks to the Scottish Government, will he make sure that such people are reached out to with the vaccine? It would be too bad if one part of Scotland were to lose out against another as it was rolled out.

Yes. Our principle is to roll out the vaccine across the whole of the UK according to clinical need, and that is what we should do.

Teesside Dementia Link Services is an amazing charity run by some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. It delivers support to families and individuals dealing with dementia. It has told me of some of the pain suffered by many in our care homes who are unable to see loved ones. I welcome the recent guidance and I ask my right hon. Friend to continue to do everything he can to ensure that we safely and meaningfully reunite families.

I am a fan of new technology—I am not going to deny that—because it can help to improve people’s lives, and this is one example. New technology, such as testing technology and quite intricate biochemistry, will help to enable people to see their loved ones in care homes. I cannot think of a better example of how new technology can really help to improve people’s lives. I cannot wait to see that happen.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and for answering the questions of 55 Members of Parliament. We will move on to the ten-minute rule motion, and then we will suspend for three minutes.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).