House of Commons
Tuesday 12 January 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Health and Social Care
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out
I am proud that the NHS began vaccinating patients against covid-19 on 8 December, at the start of the biggest immunisation programme in British history. I am delighted to tell the House that more than 2.3 million people in the UK have now received the first dose of their covid-19 vaccine. Over the coming weeks and months, the rate of vaccination will increase as more doses become available and the vaccination programme continues to expand.
Thousands of elderly and vulnerable people across Kirklees have already been vaccinated, but some of my constituents are rightly worried that they may have to travel to large vaccination centres in other parts of the country to get their jabs. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that all my constituents will be able to get their jabs locally? When will the new vaccination centre at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s stadium be opening?
Everybody will be able to get a jab locally. We are committed to ensuring that across England a local vaccination centre will be available within 10 miles of where everyone lives. For the vast majority of people—over 95%—this will be a fixed, permanent site. For some of the most rural parts—more rural than my hon. Friend’s constituency—there will be mobile units. If people get called to a mass vaccination centre and they feel it is too far for them to travel, they will be able to get a vaccine locally through one of the local GP services. I am delighted that the centre at the John Smith’s stadium in Huddersfield is going to be opening in the next couple of weeks.
I very much welcome the great work by my Government colleagues to secure the vaccine supplies for all parts of the United Kingdom and the amazing work of NHS staff to ensure that the vaccines are being delivered into people’s arms as quickly as possible. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many vaccines have been delivered by the UK Government for use in Scotland?
We distribute the vaccine supplies that are available according to population, so it is based on the Barnett formula. In Scotland, of course, the Scottish NHS is delivering. A fair population share of vaccine is available to the Scottish NHS—that is available right now, so the stocks are there—and then it is for the NHS in Scotland to do the vital work of making sure that each and every one of those jabs gets into somebody’s arm and helps to protect lives.
The vaccination programme in York is making encouraging progress, with the first doses of the Oxford vaccine having arrived last week and Askham Bar and Haxby centres delivering injections in line with the priority list, which is fantastic news. However, can the Secretary of State reassure me that every care is being taken to ensure that smaller GP practices in rural areas are in no way disadvantaged in scheduling their patients for vaccination relative to the larger urban practices?
Yes, of course. Small or large, rural or urban, we need GPs to be vaccinating right across the country, and that is what is happening. We are organising it through what are called primary care networks, which are groups of GPs that cover between 30,000 and 50,000 patients. The reason we are doing that is so that each of a group of GP practices can contribute some staff to the vaccination team so that they can carry on with the other vital work that they are doing. The networks are of course larger in more sparsely populated parts of the country such as North Yorkshire, but nevertheless we have put in place the commitment to everybody having a vaccination centre within 10 miles of where they live, to make sure that we reach all parts.
There is welcome news that St James’ Hospital in my constituency is to become a vaccination centre, and constituents are eager to see it up and running. Will the Secretary of State confirm when the hard-working staff and volunteers on the ground will receive the doses and equipment that they need to open the centre?
I am really delighted to highlight that news and I am also glad that, as the hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated, this is a national effort that we can all play our part in. The cross-party support that we and the NHS have received for the vaccination effort is incredibly welcome, and I know that the NHS team on the ground will really appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support. The kit will be delivered on time—over 98% of vaccines have been delivered on time. Of course, in a very large logistical exercise there is always the occasional hiccup, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman and make sure that the Minister for covid vaccine deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), gets back to him with the precise details of when the kit will arrive at his local hospital.
It is fantastic news that 2.3 million people across the whole of the UK have already received the first dose of this vaccine. Businesses and venues across Milton Keynes are queuing up to offer their support for the vaccination programme, including the wonderful ECG Training, where I went for a covid test last week—I passed by the way, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the plan is for accepting these kind offers of help and support with the vaccination programme?
I am really delighted that ECG Training is involved in hosting some of the testing centres. We have had amazing offers of support in the form of places that are now being used as testing centres and as some of the 1,000-plus vaccination centres across the country. We have been working since the summer with some sites to ensure that they were ready to be vaccination centres. We are always open to further offers of support, but I would say that we have been working on this for some time. It is also important that, for infection control reasons, testing centres and vaccine sites that are put in the same place are kept separate, not least because we want to make sure that when an octogenarian goes for a vaccine, they are kept safe in the process of getting that vaccine. The thing to do is raise this specific offer of support with the Minister responsible for vaccine deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his help in getting the vaccine into our Ironstone Centre, Scunthorpe Hospital, and, I am really pleased to say, some of our care homes, too. Can he tell us how the new Oxford vaccine will speed up access to the jab for those still waiting and what that means for towns and villages in my area, such as Hibaldstow, Scawby, Kirton in Lindsey, and Messingham? Will they see more local vaccination centres?
It is so important to get the vaccine to care homes. Over a quarter of care home residents have now received their first dose of the vaccine, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is much easier to get to care homes. We will be doing that by taking the vaccine to the care home rather than opening new centres, but I want people in Hibaldstow, Scawby, Kirton in Lindsey, Messingham and throughout the Scunthorpe constituency to know that they will be within 10 miles of a vaccination centre, because we know how important it is that everybody can access this vaccine.
May I also thank the five GP vaccination centres serving my constituency in Brigg, Goole, Owston Ferry, Scunthorpe and Barton? They are doing a cracking job at getting this vaccine out. As we move from phase 1 into phase 2, the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that we can start looking at particular occupations. May I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind shop workers who have had to work throughout this pandemic, including at the beginning, without any protection, and who deal with hundreds of people every day? Can we make sure that they are prioritised, as we move from phase 1 into phase 2?
Yes, I want to thank shop workers in essential shops who have to be there for all of us, even in these difficult times when the virus is widely spread. We will be looking very carefully at those professions that will need to be prioritised in phase 2 of the prioritisation programme. We will look at teachers, police and others, but we will also look at shop workers and will make those decisions based on the data.
I commend my right hon. Friend for what he is doing in terms of the vaccine roll-out. Across West Yorkshire, we have four large-scale vaccination centres planned, but that means that we have one in the Bradford district. May I put in a plea to have a large-scale vaccination centre in Keighley? Can we also consider as vaccination centres smaller-scale offerings that are coming forward from places such as Ilkley Rugby Club?
I will absolutely look at those two suggestions. I also remind my hon. Friend, all of his constituents and all those across the Bradford district that, yes, there are the large-scale vaccination centres, but there is also the primary care-based delivery, which is happening right across the country.
It has been reported that Pinnacle, the IT system being used to organise the vaccinations, is already struggling to cope with heavy usage. My local GP vaccination hub, which I visited on Friday, reported that it was being slow, and there have also been worrying reports about very elderly people having to queue for a long time outdoors while staff try to get the IT system working. Will the Secretary of State please confirm what action the Department is taking to ensure that the systems work more efficiently, and will be able to cope as the number of vaccination sites grows?
Clearly, the IT underpinnings of this project are critical. The Pinnacle system is working well, but we are constantly monitoring it to make sure that it supports the roll-out of the vaccine.
Our sense of encouragement at the roll-out of the vaccine is tempered by our deep alarm at the situation we are in. Over 80,000 people have died. On current trends, we are likely to see more deaths in this wave than we saw in the first. Millions still have to go to work and the virus is now more infectious. Those still going to work of course include NHS staff, and the British Medical Association says that 46,000 of them are off sick with covid. Can the Secretary of State go further and faster, and ensure that frontline NHS staff receive the vaccination in the next two weeks? Will he provide daily updates on the numbers of NHS staff who have been vaccinated?
We do now provide daily statistics on the roll-out of the vaccine, and we will provide more data as the system matures and the roll-out advances. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the challenges that the NHS is facing today. Although the roll-out of the vaccine is proceeding well and we are on track to hit the targets that we have set, we must also stress to everybody the importance of following the rules that are in place to control this virus and reduce the pressures on the NHS, which are very considerable at this moment.
We all understand that, until vaccination is rolled out more generally, we will continue to see hospitalisations. The NHS is currently in a crisis: beds are filling up; intensive care unit surge capacity is being maxed out; ambulances are backed up outside hospitals; and there are warnings about oxygen supplies. Hospitals were not built for these demands on oxygen, so can the Secretary of State assure us that there are contingencies in place, and can he guarantee that no hospital will run out of oxygen in the coming weeks?
There are very significant pressures on the NHS. On the specific question about oxygen supplies, the limitation is not the supply of oxygen itself; it is the ability to get the oxygen through the physical oxygen supply systems in hospitals. That essentially becomes a constraint on an individual hospital’s ability to take more covid patients, because the supply of oxygen is obviously central to the treatment of people with covid in hospital. As we have a national health service, if a hospital cannot put more pressure on its oxygen system, we take people to a different hospital. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no constraint that we are anywhere near on the national availability of oxygen—oxygenated beds. As he knows and as we have seen reported, sometimes patients have to be moved to a different location—as local as possible, but occasionally across the country—to ensure that they get the treatment that they need.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State revealed that only a quarter of care home residents in England had been vaccinated against covid, despite being the No. 1 priority group. Can he explain why they were not the first cohort to receive the Pfizer vaccine in December, as was the case in Scotland?
That is not quite right. I am glad to report that care home residents have been receiving the Pfizer jab. That is harder—logistically more difficult. Looking at the total roll-out of the programme, I am delighted that, as the hon. Lady says, over a quarter of people who are residents in care homes are now able to get the jab, and that number is rising sharply.
We return to Dr Whitford. [Interruption.] Dr Whitford’s second question has disappeared, so we will move on.
Covid-19: Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
First, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and his family for his treatment. We look forward to seeing him back in this place in due course.
The NHS has been clear since the beginning of the pandemic that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment must be a priority. Latest data showed urgent cancer referrals continuing to increase, with nearly 88% of all patients seeing a specialist within two weeks of referral and nearly 96% of patients receiving treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. However, I must caveat that by saying that the context for this data was before the recent rise in coronavirus cases. The NHS is open. It is hugely important that any person worried about any symptom comes forward and knows that care is there.
I would like to associate myself with the comments regarding the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and I wish him a speedy recovery.
I also want to thank the hard-working colleagues in the NHS who are doing everything they can to ensure that cancer care and treatment can continue. However, unfortunately, due to the unprecedented demand on ICU capacity caused by the pandemic, an increasing number of urgent priority 2 cancer surgeries have been cancelled. Can the Minister assure me that everything is being done to work with the Treasury to increase capacity available to the NHS by continuing to commission the independent sector to ensure that urgent care and treatment can continue so that cancer does not become the forgotten “c” in this crisis?
I can unreservedly say yes to that. The NHS is under huge pressure and there have been some instances where, for totally understandable and unavoidable reasons such as staff ICU capacity or the safety of patients themselves, treatment has been rescheduled. Any such decisions are always made as a last resort. However, we have changed the way we operate, making sure that we have covid-secure cancer hubs, consolidated surgery and centralised triage to prioritise those patients whose need is most urgent. We have utilised the independent sector, and will continue to do so, to increase capacity. These measures, and, as the hon. Member said, the tremendous efforts of our NHS cancer workforce and their teams, are helping to ensure that those who need treatment can continue without delay.
Throughout the pandemic we have been calling for a cancer recovery plan, so we were glad to see one published in December, but disappointed that it ran only for a couple of months. Events have clearly overtaken us since that publication, and the unprecedented demand on our NHS risks further delays to treatment and to people entering the system for treatment. These plans must now go much, much further. Will the Minister make a commitment today to work with the sector and interested parliamentarians to develop the recovery plan into one that properly addresses the backlog and builds improved treatment pathways for the future?
The cancer services recovery plan was worked on by clinicians and stakeholders, including the charities, to make sure that we had a robust plan for addressing the challenges that have come about throughout the pandemic. The levels remain high for referral and treatment, despite other pressures on the NHS. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I regularly meet Cally Palmer and Professor Peter Johnson, who lead for the NHS in this area. We have made it absolutely clear, since the beginning of the pandemic, that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment is a priority, as is its restoration. We are doing what we can to ensure that swift treatment is there for everybody. I regularly meet all-party parliamentary groups—indeed, I am meeting one on Thursday of this week—so I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that front.
We are going back to Scotland for the second question from Dr Whitford, to be answered by the Secretary of State.
As the Secretary of State highlighted earlier, primary care networks will play a major role in rolling out the vaccine in England, but we have heard previously from MPs that not all areas are covered by such networks. How does he plan to avoid a postcode lottery and ensure equitable access, with outreach into vulnerable ethnic or deprived communities?
Some 99% of GP surgeries are members of primary care networks. The very small minority that are not are being dealt with to ensure that we have fair access to vaccines, and they will of course be covered by invitations to the large vaccination sites as well.
I agree strongly with the hon. Lady that it is vital that we reach into and support those communities who may be more distant and harder to reach both geographically and, in some cases, culturally. The NHS is very well placed to do that and is one of the most trusted public services in encouraging those from all backgrounds to take the jab. Pharmacists, too, will play a vital role in the outreach programme.
Covid-19: Community Testing
Community asymptomatic testing is an important tool in the fight against covid-19. We have delivered more than 5 million lateral flow tests to the 117 local authorities that have already gone live with testing their communities, and we are rapidly expanding the programme to all remaining local authorities in England, as well as working with devolved Administrations on their plans.
Ninety-four-year-old Tom Drury-Smith from Todwick was the first to receive the vaccine in Rother Valley at the Anston medical centre, thanks to the amazing work of the Rotherham CCG and the primary care network. Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to both community testing and vaccine uptake is to ensure that people do not have to travel far to access centres, especially those who are older and do not have access to cars? Can she assure me and others that vaccine centres and community testing centres will be sited as appropriately as possible, including in Rother valley areas such as Swallownest and Maltby?
It is great to hear about the work of the Rotherham CCG and my hon. Friend’s primary care network, which are clearly on the front foot in this vital work of vaccinating people who are at high risk in his community. As he may have heard from the Secretary of State earlier, we are making sure that everybody is able to access community testing as they need it and has a vaccination centre within reach.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the opening of community testing centres around Swadlincote in recent weeks, paving the way for greater testing capability and coverage right across Derbyshire? Will she also confirm that the rapid lateral flow tests being used are accurate and reliable and are an important tool in tackling asymptomatic transmission of the covid virus?
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the opening of community testing centres in Swadlincote. Asymptomatic testing enables us to pick up cases in high prevalence areas that otherwise would go undetected, which means that we can break chains of transmission. There has been extensive clinical evaluation from Public Health England and Oxford University, which shows that lateral flow tests are appropriate for that use. They identify over two thirds of all people who have covid-19 but often do not have symptoms and, importantly, they catch the vast majority with a high viral load.
What can be done to provide schoolteachers in Lincoln and across the country with readily available rapid lateral flow antigen tests, to enable them to carry on teaching, schools to stay open and maybe exams to be taken?
I can assure my hon. Friend that most secondary schools and colleges have already set up testing sites and have begun weekly testing, using lateral flow devices for staff currently in school. Staff could also participate in daily contact testing on site, and primary schools will shortly be receiving test kits for weekly staff testing and also for daily contact testing.
We can have all the testing in the world, but it will not be effective if people do not self-isolate after a positive result. We have repeatedly said that compliance with self-isolation rules is not good enough; with only one in eight people qualifying for the self-isolation payment, that is not surprising. Can the Minister ensure that everyone is properly supported to self-isolate from now on and explain why those who test positive after a lateral flow test cannot apply for a payment and do not even enter the national test and trace system?
We absolutely recognise not only the importance of self-isolation, which is critical in breaking the chains of transmission, but that it is not always easy for people to do. We recognise, for instance, the cost of self-isolation, and that is why we introduced a payment of £500 for those who are on low incomes and unable to work from home while isolating. We will continue to make sure that people have the support they need to self-isolate.
Covid-19: Innova Lateral Flow Tests
The Innova lateral flow tests for covid-19 identify a substantial proportion of those who are shedding viral load due to their covid-19. We of course identify, analyse and publish the evidential basis for the use of these tests, as with the other tests that are used in the national testing programme.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I thank him also for his helpful response to my questions in the Select Committee last week. In that spirit, he will know that I have been pursuing the use of lateral flow tests since early November, when concerns were first raised. Unfortunately, some of those concerns continue to persist—not least when they were underscored by a communication from his Department as recently as 11 December, which stated:
“We are not currently planning mass asymptomatic testing; swab testing people with no symptoms is not an accurate way of screening the general population, as there is a…risk of giving false reassurance. Widespread asymptomatic testing could undermine the value of testing, as there is a risk of giving misleading results.”
Given those ongoing concerns, I would be most grateful if the Secretary of State committed to a meeting to consider those concerns in a bit more detail—
Order. I think the Secretary of State can take an answer off that.
Lateral flow tests are incredibly important to be able to find people who otherwise we would not be able to find. One in three people has this disease without knowing it, and finding those positive cases helps us to break the chains of transmission.
Covid-19 Contact Tracing: Effectiveness
I am pleased to report that the strong recent performance of the contact tracing service has been maintained, even with the significant growth in cases. The latest weekly data show that the service made contact with almost 700,000 people: 85% of positive cases were reached and provided details of their close contacts, and 92% of those close contacts—that is almost half a million people—were then reached and told to self-isolate.
I was asking the director of public health in Sheffield the other day about the figures for contact tracing. He says that in the NHS Test and Trace system—not the Public Health England one, but the NHS one—the current figures are 59%, and the 40% not contacted are passed on down to the local level, the city council’s contact tracing service, which is then contacting 75% of the people the national system could not contact. Why, then, do the Government not give more resources and more responsibility to the local council and the director of public health? In that way, we could contact more people at far less cost than the national system.
The hon. Member has described, in fact, what is a really important partnership working between the national NHS Test and Trace system and local partners such as local authorities, as indeed is happening in his own area of Sheffield, where it is that combined working that enables us to contact the maximum number of people and therefore to get more people to self-isolate and break these chains of transmission.
Terminally Ill People: End of Life Options
Care at the end of life is a crucial part of our health and care system, and we are committed to improving the quality of care for those at the end of life. Current practice is informed by a range of evidence, including guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. The Government are open to gathering data on the experiences of terminally ill people in order to inform the debate.
May I also express my gratitude to the NHS in all its many forms in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield for their hard work over Christmas and new year, including giving me a new knee?
I thank the Secretary of State for managing to take an interest in this important subject when he is so stretched on so many other fronts. Nearly 10% of suicides are by people who are terminally ill, and the all-party group that I have the privilege of co-chairing will hear from a mother this afternoon whose terminally ill son took his own life by throwing himself under an HGV on the north circular.
To add to knowledge, information and understanding, will the Secretary of State and his Department make a point of working with coroners and the Office for National Statistics from across the country, so that we can understand the true extent of these tragedies?
I am very happy to look at the suggestion that my right hon. Friend makes on this very sensitive subject. We want to see the highest possible standards of patient safety and, of course, to reduce the number of suicides, and it is important in pursuing that to have as much information and evidence as possible.
Feilding Palmer Hospital
Across the United Kingdom we have more than 2,700 vaccination sites up and running, with seven vaccination centres opening this week and more to come next week and the week after. Regarding the question about Feilding Palmer hospital that my hon. Friend has raised, I can confirm that this site is now being actively considered as a vaccination hub.
I thank the Minister and his team for the help that they gave me and my team in cajoling, pushing and encouraging the clinical commissioning group to reopen the Feilding Palmer hospital in Lutterworth as a vaccination centre; that is excellent news for the people of Lutterworth and the surrounding villages.
Will the Minister also confirm that the remaining parts of south Leicestershire, from Broughton Astley to Braunstone, from Thorpe Astley to Arnesby, will also be able to access vaccination centres locally?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend not just for his characteristic support and encouragement, but for his championing of his constituents. I can confirm, as the Secretary of State has said, that all his constituents will be no more than 10 miles away from a vaccination centre, and I am pleased that the Sturdee Road health and wellbeing centre, which is a little over 10 miles away from Lutterworth, is administering vaccines now.
Covid-19: Scientific Evidence Base for Government Response
The Government’s response to the pandemic has been informed by a considerable range of expert scientific and medical advice, and we have seen an increasing understanding of coronavirus globally. The UK has produced new scientific evidence throughout the pandemic. When we take decisions, they are based on and guided by the best possible science, but of course policy decisions are for Ministers.
Regarding the stats and science on the island, our vaccine hub at the Riverside centre is expected to be ready on 15 July. We may not receive sign-off and vaccines for that centre until 25 July or later. Given rising infections on the island, our demographic profile and our isolation, I am concerned we are not high enough on the vaccine supply list, despite the great work being done by the Isle of Wight-Hampshire team. I have written to the Secretary of State and the vaccine Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), about this. What can be done to improve the situation, and what reassurance can the Secretary of State give me about the focus on the Isle of Wight?
We will absolutely have vaccines being delivered on the Isle of Wight before 15 July—indeed, we will have them there before 15 February. We are committed to offering a vaccine to all those in the four highest priority cohorts, which includes all over-70s, and there are a lot of over-70s on the Isle of Wight. Furthermore, we will make sure that there are vaccination centres within 10 miles of where everyone lives. Vaccinations are happening on the Isle of Wight right now. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the Island, and we will make sure that that delivery continues apace.
Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out and Relaxation of Restrictions
The vaccines are without a doubt the biggest breakthrough since the pandemic began—a huge step forward in our fight against coronavirus—and, testament to the Secretary of State’s laser-like focus on vaccines, we are here today with 2.4 million doses administered and rising. However, the full impact of covid-19 vaccinations on infection rates will not be clear until a larger number of people have been vaccinated.
I am very pleased to welcome the announcement of a vaccination site at Adams Park in Wycombe, with further sites to be announced shortly. My hon. Friend has told us that when the top four JCVI groups have been vaccinated, that will account for 88% of potential fatalities, so can he not very soon give people a sure and not-too-distant hope that their freedoms will be returned as the vaccination programme rolls forward?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s continued support, not least in making sure that he examines the data very carefully, which I know he is passionate about. He is absolutely right that 88% of mortality effectively comes from the top four most vulnerable cohorts in the JCVI’s list of nine, and 99% comes from those top nine most vulnerable cohorts.
On that point in time—that point of inflection between community spread and vaccination—I will quote the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, who said, “Ask me in a few weeks’ or a few months’ time if it does obviously impact on spread.” The scientists are hopeful, as are we, and as is the Prime Minister—not least because he wants to see the back of these non-pharmaceutical interventions in the economy.
Covid-19: NHS Bed Capacity
Covid, and particularly the new strain of covid, has had a significant impact on NHS bed capacity. As of 10 January, 30,758 beds across the NHS were occupied by covid patients. In just the past day, that has risen to around 32,000, which is over a third of all available beds. The latest bed occupancy data shows that just shy of 80,000 of the NHS’s roughly 90,000 total general and acute beds were occupied.
It is great that the NHS, as I have heard locally, is working hard to stop intensive care beds from running out after a decade of no expansion, now that a major incident has been declared in London. However, can the Minister guarantee that this will not just be a bureaucratic exercise? Will we take a population-based approach, listen to clinicians in apportioning capacity and allow hospitals in high-need mixed ethnicity areas, such as Ealing Hospital, which is currently on a black alert, their fair share, rather than the powerful players—the central London teaching hospitals—always getting all the extra allocation?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that beds and increased capacity, where we put them in place, are allocated on the basis of where they are needed. She is right to highlight the pressure that her local hospital trust, London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, is under. The team there, as across the NHS, are doing an amazing job, but the critical care bed occupancy rate in her trust was 98.7% on the latest figures I have. That is extremely significant pressure, but I can give her the reassurance that we look to ensure that all areas receive the resources they need.
London has declared a state of emergency and the stark reality is that at this rate we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks. At least two NHS hospitals in the capital have already postponed urgent cancer surgery and figures show that treatment levels are failing to keep pace with demand. Will the Minister therefore commit to fully opening the London Nightingale hospital, secure the use of London’s private hospitals for cancer treatment, and invest in the number of beds in our NHS for the long term?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the pressure that the NHS and critical care are under in London and, indeed, more broadly. I pay tribute again to all those who are working in the NHS, including my shadow, who I suspect has been on the frontline in recent days—I pay tribute to her, too. The best way we can thank them is by following the advice to stay at home and to follow the rules. In respect of her specific point, yes, we are involving independent sector capacity, Nightingale capacity and increasing NHS capacity—all those, alongside other measures—to ensure our NHS continues to be able to treat those who need this care at this time.
Last night, I finished a shift in a busy east London hospital, sharing difficult news with hopeful families. The resilience of staff on the frontline can never be matched, but across the country morale is on a cliff edge. A decade of cuts to beds, services and staff, combined with pay freezes, has left NHS workers undermined and undervalued. Without our incredible staff, a hospital bed is just that —a bed. So does the Health Minister regret how the Government have made frontline workers feel and can he promise to change that?
I reiterate, as I did earlier, my thanks to the hon. Lady and all her colleagues in the NHS for everything they are doing. I reassure her, as I do and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does at every opportunity, just how valued and supported our NHS is. We have put in place just over 1,000 additional critical care bed capacity at this time—the right thing to do. In addition, in respect of supporting staff, we are investing about £15 million—just one example—for mental health hubs and mental health support for staff. I saw, from the hospital that she works in, or has worked in, in her constituency, a number of staff—it was on the BBC recently—setting out just how flat out they are. The best way we can thank them, alongside what we are doing—I make no apologies for reiterating it, Mr Speaker—is by all following the rules to stay at home to help to ease the pressure on those phenomenally hard-working and valued staff in our NHS hospitals.
Yesterday, we launched our UK vaccines delivery plan, which sets out how we will vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people every day, starting with the most vulnerable and staff in the NHS and social care. I am delighted that across the UK 2.3 million people have already been vaccinated. We are on track to deliver our commitment to offer a first dose to everyone in the most vulnerable groups by 15 February. At the same time, I add my voice to all those who are passing on their very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is undergoing further treatment on the NHS. I personally thank all those in the NHS who are looking after him and all the other patients in their care.
The NHS is overwhelmed, and critical clinical choices are having to be made due to the limitations of estate and staffing. So I ask the Secretary of State if he will do two things: first, bring all independent hospitals under the NHS to provide a response to the national crisis and, in particular, provide cancer care capacity; and secondly, call all former health professionals to return to practice and re-register even if they are beyond the three years out of practice limit, so they can work with an element of supervision and no one is denied the clinical need they have.
Of course, all these things are being looked at. The pressures on the NHS are very significant. I also want to say to people who have a healthcare condition that is not covid-related that they should come forward to the NHS. The promise of the NHS, of always treating people according to their clinical need and not ability to pay, is crucial. It is just as crucial in these pressured times as it is at any other time. If you find a lump or a bump, if you have a problem with your heart, or if there is a condition for which you need to come forward for urgent treatment, then the NHS is open and you must help us to help you. So, yes, we absolutely will do everything we possibly can to address the pressures, including looking at the measures the hon. Lady set out, but also let the message go out that, if you need the NHS for other conditions, please do come forward.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed of the vaccine roll-out and, in particular, his foresight in setting up the Vaccine Taskforce as far back as last April, which has made that possible. Personal thanks from my mum, who is getting her vaccine tomorrow at Epsom racecourse. Understandably, however, the public’s expectations about how quickly they will get their vaccine are now running well ahead of the system’s ability to deliver, causing floods of calls to GPs’ surgeries, which are already very busy. What can we do to set expectations among the public that getting to population-level immunity will be a marathon, not a sprint?
That is right. The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee is wise to say that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. As of the early hours of this morning, we have vaccinated 39.9% of over-80-year-olds in England. We will reach all over-80-year-olds and ensure that they have the offer a vaccine in the coming weeks, and we will reach all of the top four priority groups by 15 February. We are on track and I am confident that we will deliver that. The other message that my right hon. Friend will perhaps help all of us to pass on to all his constituents, including his mum, is that the NHS will get in contact with them and offer them an appointment. That is the best and fairest way in which we can get the roll-out happening.
The Secretary of State will know that we cannot protect the NHS unless we also protect social care, yet there are worrying signs that the Government risk losing control of the virus there too. Infection rates in care homes have tripled in a month; homes are reporting staff absence of up to 40%; and the latest weekly care home deaths are the highest since May. So can the Secretary of State set out what immediate extra support he can provide so that the sector can cope, and will he commit to publishing daily vaccination rates for care home residents and staff, so that we know whether the Government are on track to completing all those vaccinations in less than three weeks’ time?
We have made that commitment and it is incredibly important that vaccinations are offered to everybody in care homes. The NHS is working hard to deliver on that with its colleagues in social care. Across the board, colleagues are working hard to deliver this life-saving vaccine. Of course, we are always open to further support for social care and it is something that we are working on right now to ensure that we can get the right support for testing, in particular to support the workforce, who are absolutely central to making this happen.
I am delighted that there is going to be a mass vaccination centre. I can give that assurance—we are working as hard as we possibly can to ensure that all the equipment is there. Everybody thinks about the vaccine—that is very important—but it is also about all the other things that are needed, such as the specialist syringes. The vaccine is so valuable that inside the syringe is a plunger that goes into the needle to squeeze the extra bit of liquid that would otherwise be left in the needle into someone’s arm to make sure that every last drop of vaccine is used. A whole series of other equipment is needed alongside the actual liquid of the vaccine. I will ensure that my hon. Friend the vaccine deployment Minister makes sure that the Stoke-on-Trent mass vaccination centre is up and running and ready for 25 January.
The importance of tackling health inequalities and levelling up parts of the country that have so much opportunity, such as Stockton, but need further support to unleash that opportunity is an incredibly important part of this agenda. On the hon. Gentleman’s precise question, we have discussed that issue before. As he knows, we have the largest hospital building programme in the modern history of this country. I look forward to continuing to discuss with him the extra infrastructure needed in Stockton.
Extra funding is available through the NHS Test and Trace budget for state schools for the testing programme. We are working with independent schools to make sure that they can reopen as soon as safely possible to reopen schools across the country.
I answered a similar question from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). This is an incredibly important point, and we are working hard with councils, pharmacists, GPs and those who are trusted in the community to get out the message of the importance of vaccination to all communities across the country. This subject will be increasingly important, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), the Minister for the vaccine roll-out, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and with colleagues all across this House to get out the message of positivity around the vaccine.
The good news is that, over the last month, the proportion of people who are enthusiastic about taking the vaccine has risen significantly, and the proportion of people who are hesitant has fallen; I think people can see the enthusiasm that others have for taking the vaccine. However, we have to make sure that that message of hope reaches all parts of and all communities in the UK.
I hope that by working through the Burnley and Lancashire councils, and by working with the national testing programme, we can get asymptomatic testing available for those who have to go to work. Key workers need to go to work, even through this most difficult of times. I will make sure that the testing Minister picks up with my hon. Friend straight after this, and that we work together to make sure that everybody across Burnley who has to go to work has access, if they want it, to a testing regime, to help ensure that they can be safe in work.
I am really pleased that over the past few years in the English health service that I am responsible for, we have increased the pay of nursing staff. I am also pleased that when the new Northern Ireland Administration were set up about a year ago, one of the first things they did was to resolve the challenges in terms of nurses’ pay. This is a very important subject. It is one that is devolved, but I look forward to working with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, who is doing a brilliant job in supporting the Province through these very difficult times.
Among the over-80s we have not put in place a more specific prioritisation, because we need to ensure that the programme can get to all the over-80s as fast and efficiently as possible. Access is incredibly important, hence the commitment to ensure that there is a vaccination centre within 10 miles. I think that that is true across the whole of Morley and Outwood, and 96% of the population of England is now is now within 10 miles of a vaccination centre, including, I think, the whole of my hon. Friend’s constituency. This has to be done fast but it also has to be done fairly, and she is quite right to raise that point.
I want to add my congratulations to Christina McAnea. It is another sign of progress in this country to see the first female leader of Unison, and I look forward to talking to her very soon and to working with her, as she represents a significant number of people who work for the NHS and are valued members of the NHS and social care teams. The importance not only of valuing our NHS and social care workforce but of demonstrating that value is vital, and improving all the elements and conditions under which people work is important. Of course pay is one part of that, and the hon. Lady will know that the NHS was exempt from the pay freeze set out by the Chancellor, but it is also about ensuring that everybody’s contribution is valued and that everybody is encouraged to give their very best contribution. In a pandemic situation like this, when the pressures on the NHS and social care are very great, that is more important than ever, and it is important that we value all of our team all the time and that everybody plays a part in improving the health of the nation and improving and saving lives. I want to say a huge thank you to everybody who works in the NHS and in social care, and I want to work with them on improving working conditions and making sure that everybody feels that they can give their very best so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question.
We have had a poor day of getting through questions. They have taken far too long and a lot of people have missed out. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next I am suspending the House for three minutes.
I have a short statement to make about Select Committees. On Tuesday 24 March, the House passed an order allowing for virtual participation in Select Committee meetings and giving Chairs associated powers to make reports. I was given a power under the order to extend it if necessary. I can notify the House today that I am now further extending the order until Friday 30 April.
Xinjiang: Forced Labour
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Xinjiang and the Government’s response.
The evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims is now far-reaching. It paints a truly harrowing picture. Violations include the extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities in political re-education camps; extensive and invasive surveillance targeting minorities; systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture, education and, indeed, on the practice of Islam; and the widespread use of forced labour. The nature and conditions of detention violate basic standards of human rights. At their worst, they amount to torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, alongside widespread reports of the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women.
These claims are supported now by a large, diverse and growing body of evidence that includes first-hand reports from diplomats who visit Xinjiang and the first-hand testimony from victims who have fled the region. There is satellite imagery showing the scale of the internment camps, the presence of factories inside them and the destruction of mosques. There are also extensive and credible third-party reports from non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, with the United Nations and other international experts also expressing their very serious concerns.
In reality, the Chinese authorities’ own publicly available documents also bear out a similar picture. They show statistical data on birth control and on security spending and recruitment in Xinjiang. They contain extensive references to coercive social measures dressed up as poverty alleviation programmes. There are leaks of classified and internal documents that have shown the guidance on how to run internment camps and lists showing how and why people have been detained.
Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation —all on an industrial scale. It is truly horrific—barbarism we had hoped was lost to another era is being practised today, as we speak, in one of the leading members of the international community.
We have a moral duty to respond. The UK has already played a leading role within the international community in the effort to shine a light on the appalling treatment of the Uyghurs and to increase diplomatic pressure on China to stop and to remedy its actions. I have made my concerns over Xinjiang clear directly to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. We have led international joint statements on Xinjiang in the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee and the UN Human Rights Council. In the Third Committee, we brought the latest statement forward together with Germany in October last year and it was supported by 39 countries.
China’s response is to deny, as a matter of fact, that any such human rights violations take place at all. They say it is lies. If there were any genuine dispute about the evidence, there would be a reasonably straightforward way to clear up any factual misunderstandings. Of course China should be given the opportunity to rebut the various reports and claims, but the Chinese Government refuse point blank to allow the access to Xinjiang required to verify the truth of the matter.
We have repeatedly called for China to allow independent experts and UN officials, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, proper access to Xinjiang, just as we in this country allow access to our prisons, our police custody suites and other parts of the justice system to independent bodies who hold us to account for the commitments to respect human rights that we have made.
China cannot simply refuse all access to those trusted third-party bodies that could verify the facts and, at the same time, maintain a position of credible denial. While that access is not forthcoming, the UK will continue to support further research to understand the scale and the nature of the human rights violations in Xinjiang. But we must do more, and we will.
Xinjiang’s position in the international supply chain network means that there is a real risk of businesses and public bodies around the world, whether inadvertently or otherwise, sourcing from suppliers that are complicit in the use of forced labour, allowing those responsible for violations to profit—or, indeed, making a profit themselves—by supplying the authorities in Xinjiang. Here in the UK, we must take action to ensure that UK businesses are not part of supply chains that lead to the gates of the internment camps in Xinjiang, and to ensure that the products of the human rights violations that take place in those camps do not end up on the shelves of supermarkets that we shop in here at home week in, week out.
We have already engaged with businesses with links to Xinjiang; we have encouraged them to conduct appropriate due diligence. More widely, we have made a commitment to tackling forced labour crystal clear. With the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the United Kingdom was the first country to require companies by law to report on how they are tackling forced labour in their supply chains. Today, I can announce a range of new measures to send a clear message that those violations of human rights are unacceptable and, at the same time, to safeguard UK businesses and public bodies from any involvement or links with them.
I have been working closely with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Trade and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Our aim, put simply, is that no company profits from forced labour in Xinjiang, and that no UK business is involved in their supply chains. Let me set out the four new steps that we are now taking.
First, today the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Department for International Trade have issued new, robust and detailed guidance to UK businesses on the specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang, and underlining the challenges of conducting effective due diligence there. A Minister-led campaign of business engagement will reinforce the need for UK businesses to take concerted action to address that particular and specific risk.
Secondly, we are strengthening the operation of the Modern Slavery Act. The Home Office will introduce fines for businesses that do not comply with their transparency obligations, and the Home Secretary will introduce the necessary legislation setting out the level of those fines as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Thirdly, we announced last September that the transparency requirements that apply to UK businesses under the Modern Slavery Act will be extended to the public sector. The FCDO will now work with the Cabinet Office to provide guidance and support to UK Government bodies to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations in any of their supply chains. Let me say that we in the United Kingdom—I think rightly—take pride that the overwhelming majority of British businesses that do business do so with great integrity and professionalism right around the world. That is their hallmark and part of our USP as a global Britain. Precisely because of that, any company profiting from forced labour will be barred from Government procurement in this country.
Fourthly, the Government will conduct an urgent review of export controls as they apply, specifically geographically, to the situation in Xinjiang, to make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent the export of any goods that could contribute directly or indirectly to human rights violations in that region. The package that has been put together will help to ensure that no British organisations—Government or private sector, deliberately or inadvertently—will profit from or contribute to human rights violations against the Uyghurs or other minorities. I am of course sure that the whole House would accept that the overwhelming majority of British businesses would not dream of doing so. Today’s measures will ensure that businesses are fully aware of those risks, will help them to protect themselves, and will shine a light on and penalise any reckless businesses that do not take those obligations seriously.
As ever, we act in co-ordination with our like-minded partners around the world, and I welcome the fact that later today Foreign Minister Champagne will set out Canada’s approach on these issues. I know that Australia, the United States, France, Germany and New Zealand are also considering the approaches they take. We will continue to work with all of our international partners, but the House should know that in the comprehensive scope of the package I am setting out today the UK is again setting an example and leading the way.
We want a positive and constructive relationship with China, and we will work tirelessly towards that end, but we will not sacrifice our values or our security. We will continue to speak up for what is right and we will back up our words with actions, faithful to our values, determined, as a truly global Britain, to be an even stronger force for good in the world. I commend this statement to the House.
The persecution of the Uyghurs has been of great concern to hon. Members in all parts of this House. We have read the reports and heard the testimony, and it is past time to act. There must be a unified message from this whole House: we will not turn away and we will not permit this to go unchallenged. So may I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement but say to him that the Government had trailed in the media long-awaited sanctions on officials responsible for appalling human rights abuses in Xinjiang? We have waited months, and he briefed the papers that he was planning to announce this today. What has happened to this announcement, and who in government has overruled him this time? The strength of his words is, once again, not matched by the strength of his actions, and I am sorry to say that that will be noticed loud and clear in Beijing.
I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that the Modern Slavery Act is not working. The independent review was right to say that it has become a “tick-box exercise”, and we need a robust response to ensure that companies are not just transparent but accountable. But there is little in today’s statement that is new, and I am left slightly lost for words as to why he has chosen to come here today. Back in September the Government said they would extend the Modern Slavery Act to the public sector. He mentioned France, which has already gone further than the UK, with its duty of diligence law, which includes liability for harm. The European Union intends to bring in legislation next year on due diligence, which will be mandatory. Even under the new arrangements, will a company profiting from a supply chain involving forced labour have broken any laws in this country? What law would a company actually be breaking if it profited from what the Foreign Secretary called the “barbaric” forced labour in Xinjiang? If the UK really does intend to set an example and lead the way, he will have to do more than tinker around the edges. One of the best things he could do for those British businesses he rightly praised is to make the playing field level for the many British companies that do the right thing.
We warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s proposed review of export controls. If the Government are successfully able to determine whether any goods exported from the UK are contributing to violations of international law in Xinjiang, that will be a breakthrough, not just in taking robust action against China’s human rights abuses, but as a model that can be used in other countries around the world where British exports risk being misused. So we will pay close attention. He will also know that the House of Lords recently came together to pass two cross-party amendments that put human rights considerations at the centre of our trade policy. I was astonished not to hear any reference to them today. Do the Government intend to get behind those efforts to ensure that our trade policy defends, not undermines, human rights? I can tell him that I will be writing to MPs when the Trade Bill returns to this place to urge them to vote with their consciences. I hope the Government will not find themselves stranded on the wrong side of history.
We cannot allow this moment to pass us by. The Foreign Secretary was right to say that this is truly horrific, and the House is united in condemnation of what is happening in Xinjiang. Members of all parties want Britain to act as a moral force in the world. Despite today’s disappointing statement, I believe he is sincere when he says that he wants the same, but now he has to make good on his promise to back up words with real action.
May I at least thank the hon. Member for what she said about the approach that we are taking on export controls? She is wrong on a number of fronts, though; we certainly did not brief the papers. We have said that we would keep Magnitsky sanctions under review, and we continue to do so. Only one other country has applied Magnitsky sanctions in relation to China and specifically Xinjiang, and that is the US. We are taking targeted sanctions both through the fines that we will be legislating for under the MSA and through the stronger export controls, so what she said in that regard is not accurate. All four measures that we announced today are new. I was a little surprised to hear her refer to the EU regarding the new investment deal that it has done with China, and the suggestion that it has adopted stronger measures, which is simply not factually correct.
The hon. Member referred to the amendments to the Trade Bill, which I would like to address. The noble Lord Alton’s amendment has attracted a lot of interest. I think that it is well meaning, but it would actually be rather ineffective and counterproductive. Let me briefly explain why. It would frankly be absurd for any Government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide, which is the most egregious international crime, before halting free trade agreement negotiations. Any responsible Government would have acted well before then. At the same time, every campaigner against free trade would seek to use that legal provision to delay or halt FTA negotiations by tying the Government up in litigation that may last months—if not years—with no plausible genocide concluded at the end.
Finally, although I think it is right that the courts determine whether the very specific and, frankly, technical legal definition of genocide is met in any given situation, it would be quite wrong for a Government or for hon. Members of this House to subcontract to the courts our responsibility for deciding when a country’s human rights record is sufficiently bad that we will not engage in trade negotiations. Parliament’s responsibility is to determine when sanctions take place and with whom we negotiate.
The measures that we have announced today will ensure that both business and the Government can cater for the very real risk that supply chains—either coming to the UK or going into the internment camps of Xinjiang—are not affected, and that UK businesses are not affected. The hon. Member should unequivocally support these measures.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Her Majesty’s Government have taken some important actions of late. Indeed, supporting the Australian Strategic Policy Institute inquiry into Xinjiang was a very worthwhile action by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am glad that some of the recommendations that my right. hon Friend has spoken about were in the report published by the China Research Group only a few weeks ago. There are, however, other areas into which he could go.
I am particularly conscious not just of the shaping of the economic environment that we are seeing coming out Xinjiang and the nature of slave goods getting into the UK manufacturing chain, but also of the distortion of academic ideas and academic freedoms that we are seeing here in the UK; there is a centre in Jesus College, Cambridge that is refusing to talk about these abuses of Uyghur Muslims for fear of causing offence. Is this the first time that Jesus himself has taken 30 pieces of silver? This is a deeply disappointing moment for all of us who believe in academic freedom in the UK, and it is another example of why the UK and the Foreign Office need to be clear in demonstrating that dirty goods are one thing, but dirty money is also unacceptable.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in the Foreign Affairs Committee, and in the parliamentary grouping to which he referred, including the report that that group published. I thank him for his support for these important measures. They are very targeted—this is often the case with international organised crime or war crimes—to ensure that we follow the money and prevent the ability to profit from, or to financially support, the kinds of actions on which we all want to clamp down.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of academic freedoms. We are taking further measures in that regard, and further legislative measures will be taken when the relevant legislative vehicles are brought forth. He is absolutely right to raise this issue. He talked about Jesus College, Cambridge; I did my LLM there. There is a very real risk of academic coercion in places where we need to protect the heartbeat and the life and soul of freedom of expression and debate, and there is also a risk to research that takes place, in advance of it becoming intellectual property. In all those areas, in both non-legislative and legislative measures, we are actively looking at that.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement, and indeed, I thank him for the statement; these are measures that we and colleagues across the House have called for over a number of months, so I am glad to see some progress today. While I would like to see more, as usual, I do not doubt that the reaction to this from Beijing has been and will be ferocious. It is important for me to put on record our support for the objectives that the Foreign Secretary has set out. I do not believe in pretending difference exists where it does not, and I believe in working together where we agree.
In that spirit, I have a couple of constructive suggestions. I note with interest the Foreign Secretary’s reassurance that the Government did not brief the press—well, somebody did. There was an expectation of a more concrete announcement today on Magnitsky sanctions than we have had. I reiterate my view, which I know he shares, that Magnitsky sanctions allow a very targeted response against individuals who are directing the sorts of activities that we do not want to see. I warmly echo the comments of the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on Confucius institutes. These organisations are directly much closer within the control of the UK Government, and they merit a lot more scrutiny than they have been getting.
The Foreign Secretary says that scrutiny of the supply chain will go up to “the gates” of labour camps. I applaud that and warmly welcome it, but getting the due diligence right will be a challenge, because there is a lot of opacity within the supply chains here. I have not seen the detail of the package yet, but I look forward to an assurance from him that it will indeed go right up to the gates of the camps. The Home Secretary has yet to lodge the legislation setting out what the fines for malfeasance will be. I would welcome a reassurance from the Foreign Secretary that those fines will be sufficient to focus corporate minds, and not just another sunk cost. I think we agree on that, but reassurance would be useful.
I have discussed previously with the Minister for Asia how warmly we welcome the extension of the procurement rules to Government Departments. On the exclusion of companies from Government procurement contracts, could the Foreign Secretary reassure us that that will extend to groups of companies? Many of the companies involved in dubious activities will be trading subsidiaries, so I would welcome an assurance that this measure will apply to groups of companies and that there will be a more robust approach to this than a strictly legal one.
Perhaps it is just a point of drafting in the statement, but can the Foreign Secretary assure us that the audit of export regime controls to Xinjiang will extend to goods that might end up in Xinjiang, not just those going directly to it? Again, the opacity of the supply chains—
Order. The hon. Member has two minutes, and he is now almost on three. Is he about to finish?
Forgive me, Mr Speaker. I had a couple of points; that was my final one, and I look forward to the answers.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, we will make sure that the audit trail includes direct and indirect elements of the supply chain. I thank him for his full-throated and undiluted support for these measures. On Magnitsky, we will keep that in reserve. The advantage of the measures we are taking is that they will target in a forensic way either those profiting from forced labour or those who would financially support it, whether deliberately or otherwise.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on academic freedom, which I raised in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). On the due diligence of the audit trail for businesses, there will be a ministerially led series of engagement with business to both advise and warn them of the risk to their supply chains of doing business or touching on business links with Xinjiang.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the level of fines; I will of course leave that to the Home Secretary, but they will need to be struck at a level at which they can deter those who willingly flout the transparency requirements.
Finally, on Government procurement, the measures we have announced will apply in England. I hope that the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations, with whom we will collaborate very closely, will be able to follow suit. The hon. Gentleman will understand that we will of course want to respect their competencies, but that is something on which we could usefully work together.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The effects of the things he has announced today have been called for by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and by the Centre for Social Justice in respect of modern-day slavery, so I welcome them. It is vital to crack down on businesses and their supply chains. However, in this week of the holocaust memorial, surely Magnitsky sanctions should have been on the list. I happen to believe that my right hon. Friend wants that to be the case, so I wonder who in Government is blocking it. Perhaps he can whisper it to me in the Chamber; I promise him that I will not tell anybody else outside. The reality is that we need those sanctions now, because the evidence is clear.
Genocide really is a vital issue for us, and my right hon. Friend now needs to sit down with myself and others to discuss bringing forward a better amendment to make sure that we can start the process. In this week of the holocaust memorial, we need to act; after all, when they last did not act, just look what happened.
I thank my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to the work that the IPA and the CSJ have done and to his leadership on this subject. I also thank him for again full-throatedly welcoming the measures we have taken. They are quite technical and forensic but, as I said, they target those who either profit from or help to finance the gruesome trade in the internment camps.
My right hon. Friend will have heard me make the point already that on Magnitsky sanctions we keep it under review—it is evidence-led and we work with our allies. He will know that in relation to Xinjiang so far only the US has brought in Magnitsky sanctions, but that is something we have certainly not ruled out. The measures we have taken today are actually more targeted and forensic in addressing the finance going into or profiting from and coming out of the labour camps.
I am happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about the issue of genocide. He will know that my father fled the holocaust; I could not take it more seriously. I hope he will also have listened to what I said to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy); he will be all too aware of the risks of subcontracting issues to the courts, which are rightly the responsibility and the prerogative of this House, and also the fact that, frankly, we should be taking action well below the level of a genocide in terms of the Executive decisions that we make.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I believe that he cares about these issues, as we all do, and I was pleased to hear him say that more must be done. He also mentioned:
“Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation—all on an industrial scale.”
Horrific and barbaric, yes, but there is another word and it is genocide.
Given China’s blocking of routes to pursue genocide amendments through international courts, does not the UK have a responsibility, in line with its obligations under the genocide convention, to find alternative routes to make the legal determination? Will the Foreign Secretary clarify the Government’s position, which previously was that the determination of genocide is a matter for judges, not politicians? He seemed to contradict that a little today. I echo what has already been said about coming up with an amendment that can get cross-party support: this House clearly wants to discuss this issue and do something about it; we must act and not stand by.
I thank the hon. Lady for—I think—her support for the measures we have announced today. She is right to point to the need for a court to determine the very specific and, frankly, very exacting definition of genocide. When I was a war crimes lawyer, at the time—it is probably still true today—that determination had been made only in relation to Bosnia, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and Rwanda. It is very exacting and a lot of international lawyers have criticised it for that reason. There is a big difference between saying that it is for the courts to determine that specific requirement under international law and saying that it is for the courts to decide when and how this House and this Government engage in free trade negotiations. Frankly, the bar would be well below the level of genocide, and it is unthinkable that this Government would engage in free trade negotiations with any country that came close to that kind of level of human rights abuse.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement today and the four new measures that focus on business requirements and supply chains to Xinjiang, which is something that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has been looking at. None the less, I found the rest of the statement quite chilling. My right hon. Friend talks about the high level of the crime—the vilest of all crimes—being committed. In particular, he mentioned birth control and forced sterilisation, which are markers of genocide. I am confused why he cannot call this crime what it is and ensure that Britain is not complicit in genocide. He has talked about judges, but we know that the UN is a busted flush when it comes to investigating genocide and when it comes to China. Even though the amendment, which is in the other House but will return here, is not perfect because it asks judges to get involved, the Foreign Secretary has an opportunity to sit with colleagues and come up with a better amendment that focuses on judges, not on trade, on investigating genocide and on bringing that decision back to the House. There is no excuse, Mr Speaker, to allow these atrocities to continue.
I thank my hon. Friend. I know that she takes a close interest in these matters. I pay tribute to the work of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. In relation to the genocide definition, it is not just evidence that persecution is taking place to destroy a group, but evidence that it is taking place with the intention to destroy a group as such. It has very rarely been found in international forums, because that definition is so high. She is right to acknowledge that the amendment is, in her words, “ not perfect”. In some respects, it could be counterproductive. The No. 1 thing to advance this debate in a sensible and targeted way and in a way that would attract international support would be to secure the UN human rights commissioner, or another authoritative third body, to be able to go in and review and verify authoritatively what is going on in Xinjiang. I raised that with the United Nations Secretary-General yesterday.
I thank the Secretary of State for his clear determination to address the human rights abuses in China. Despite having had much less media attention lately, Tibetan Buddhists have faced persecution similar to that of the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese Government. More than half a million labourers were detained in camps in the first seven months of 2020 alone. It is suspected that the labour of Uyghurs and of Tibetan detainees is also in the supply chains of businesses that are household names in the United Kingdom. Will he outline what he is doing to address the issue of forced labour from other areas under Chinese Communist party control?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is also a friend, for consistently raising these issues in a very targeted way. We are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Tibet, including restrictions on freedom of religion, freedom of religious belief, and freedom of assembly, and also about the reports of forced labour. The evidence is not quite as well documented as it is in relation to Xinjiang, but we will, of course, keep those measures under review. Indeed, the transparency requirements under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 will apply across the board, not just in relation to Xinjiang.
I am not sure that I was listening to the same statement as the shadow Foreign Secretary. I thought that, as a statement about our values, it was extremely clear. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is plainly morally unacceptable for British firms to profit from forced labour? We should also bear it in mind that there are now 1 million people extra-judicially interned in Xinjiang. Will he also confirm the implications of what he said about torture? Torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction, so perhaps he could tell us what the implications are for Chinese officials now engaged in that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the measures we are taking. He is right about them. I share his concern in relation to Xinjiang and also, specifically, torture. Torture is an international crime, and anyone who engages in it, directs it or even takes an order in relation to it will be guilty under international law. The real challenge with China, as we know, is how to get remedy—redress—for these actions. The measures that we have announced today will prevent any profiting from forced labour, or indeed torture, and also prevent any UK businesses from financially, whether inadvertently or otherwise, supporting it.
If we want more significant accountability, the answer is to get an authoritative third-party body that is to review such matters—as, with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), we have managed to secure in relation to World Health Organisation access to China this week. We have to keep pressing, with our international partners. That is why the group of international partners that is assembled is very important. It must be as broad as possible in order to secure access for the UN Human Rights Commissioner.
Of course I warmly welcome these measures, but they simply are not sufficient for the moment at hand. We need only listen to the Secretary of State’s own comments and read them against the genocide convention to see that there is a clear example of genocide being practised in Xinjiang now. Killing people, causing bodily or mental harm, preventing births, forcibly transferring children—these are all the markers of genocide. Of course we need to come to a view both in this House and in the courts, but the difficulty about doing so through the courts is that China has a veto. How are we going to make sure that we name this as it properly is and that the people who are accountable for it actually come to justice? I have lauded the Secretary of State many times for introducing the Magnitsky measures, but there is no point in having them and just constantly reviewing them if we never blasted well use them.
We have used the Magnitsky sanctions. We recently announced another tranche of measures in addition to the first, and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we are working on proposals to extend the model to corruption, so we have been extremely assiduous in this area. I understand his point about how we actually hold people individually to account for these crimes. Whether it is genocide or gross human rights violations, the label is less important than the accountability for what are, no doubt, egregious crimes, but he has not suggested anything to me that would precipitate that. We are taking the targeted measures that will cut the funding, inadvertently or otherwise, going into the internment camps, and prevent those in the internment camps who are running them from profiting from it. If we want any wider initiative, we will need a far wider range of international support and we will need to get authoritative third parties to have some kind of access. That is why I referred to the work of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, as difficult and challenging as it is, and why I raised it with António Guterres yesterday.
My right hon. Friend has made a very well measured and balanced statement. Of course we seek a constructive relationship with China, but it has to be within the rules-based system. As he has so eloquently made clear, global Britain is values-driven or it is nothing. May I add to those who have urged him to keep on the table continuously the Magnitsky provisions, which he, I and others worked so hard to get through the House, to ensure that those provisions are consistently kept under review? On the subject of Jesus College, of which I am also an alumnus, may I make it clear that there are two China centres? My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) was referring to the one run by Peter Nolan.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his knowledge and for his commitment on this issue. He is absolutely right in what he said. I thank him for his support. He is right to say that we need a balanced approach. China is here to stay as an asymmetrical economic influence. There are positives in the relationship as well as the negatives. In particular, it has taken steps on climate change, which is very important. It is the biggest net emitter but also the biggest investor in renewables. We want to try to have a constructive relationship. What I have set out today, what this Government believe in and what this Prime Minister believes in is that we will not duck when the issue of our security is at stake and we will not duck when our values are at stake. Of course we will not take the Magnitsky sanctions lever off the table, and of course it is evidence-driven in relation to the particular individuals; that has to be collated very carefully. Only one country so far has instituted sanctions, but I can assure him that it is not off the table.
The persecution, genocide and horrific human rights abuses faced by Uyghur Muslims at the hands of the Chinese Government is an issue that I and many others across the House have been raising for a considerable period, so of course it is welcome that the Government are finally taking some action. However, this action still does not go far enough, as pointed out by a number of hon. Members. Even those Uyghur who have managed to flee China as refugees are still being forcibly returned. So will the UK go further, and call for a full independent UN investigation and push regional countries to grant protection to Uyghur refugees?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He, palpably and sincerely, is committed as I am to doing what we can to have accountability and to deterring the appalling violations of human rights. We have set out the measures on the finance and profiting from it that I think will be important in the way I have described.
In relation to an independent investigation, of course the challenge, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has said, is getting access to the relevant parts of Xinjiang. That is why I believe, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support this, that one of the things we ought to be doing is gathering as wide as possible a group of like-minded countries to press for the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner to be able to have access. That would have the dual benefit, first, of substantiating the widespread reports of the violations of human rights I have described and, secondly, give China its opportunity to rebut and to reject those claims based on the evidence that it and only it has and can control.
I welcome this statement and the exceptional strength of the terms in which it was made by my right hon. Friend. As somebody who represents thousands of British Muslims, I can tell him that this is an issue of the most acute concern right here in Wycombe. I listened to how he answered the Labour Front Bencher and also our hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). The Government will need to be extremely careful to make sure that they demonstrate to British Muslims that we are in fact taking leadership in this matter by any international standard, and I would ask him to make sure that he does at all times maintain our leadership.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. There will be widespread concern among Muslim communities right across the country about this issue. I can reassure him that we have led in the UN General Assembly Third Committee, we have led in the United Nations Human Rights Council and we have led the way very much with the package of measures that I have announced today. We will continue to work with our international partners—including Muslim and Arab countries and those of the region, as well as with the traditional and predictable Five Eyes and European partners—to try to expand the caucus of like-minded states that will stand up to be counted on these issues. I believe that we are the ones setting an example and that we are the ones, in his words, leading the way.
As others have said repeatedly, this is genocide—very clearly genocide—and the parallels with the 1930s are equally clear. The Foreign Secretary knows that at least as well as anyone else. The boldness of the Chinese Government is demonstrated by the fact that they repeatedly claim that forced sterilisation is a victory for feminism. As twisted propaganda goes, that is about as bad as it gets. Could I ask him a specific question: in his discussions with the Home Secretary and others across Government, could they look at the possibility of prioritising asylum applications from Uyghur Muslims and offering appropriate support to those applicants? When they arrive in Britain, as some undoubtedly will—hopefully they will—they will be vulnerable and they will be traumatised, and they are also very likely to have no English at all.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the appalling human rights violations. He asked whether we could prioritise one category of asylum claimants over another. I think that would be problematic. The asylum system is blind to region or political considerations; it is based on the suffering and persecution that the individual can present. I think that is the right approach, but of course I take on board the points that he made about ensuring that those who have suffered such awful crimes when they arrive in this country get the support that they need.
It is clear that in western China more than half a million minority workers are being coerced into seasonal cotton picking. That, of course, is in addition to a large-scale network of detention camps, where more than 1 million are reportedly being forced to work in textile factories. All of this is denied by the Chinese Government. I very much welcome today’s announcement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mechanisms will be key to combatting forced labour and modern slavery?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. The mechanisms will be an important tool; they are very targeted and forensic. What is also important is that we work with our international partners, because of course we are one country. If we want to deal with supply chains and prevent the kind of abuse, or the profiting from abuse, that we are all, I think, in this House rightly concerned about, we need to get the widest caucus of support in order that those measures are effective as possible.
The Secretary of State will know that the World Uyghur Congress has called for the Uyghur diaspora, such as it is, to be provided with financial, medical, psychological and legal support. I echo the calls made by the hon. Members for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) about discussing this with the Home Office. Even if we cannot give priority, at the very least there ought to be a presumption against the deportation to China of anyone from the Uyghur community who is seeking refuge and asylum.
Of course, anyone who has a claim to asylum could not be deported. Those are the rules, so people may apply. If we want to strengthen and go further, I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support in working with the Scottish Government and the devolved Administrations more generally to ensure that in lockstep the UK can send out a single, coherent, crystal-clear message. That would be a good example of global Britain, on which we should all be able to work together.
Whether it be abuses against the Uyghur in Xinjiang or against people in Hong Kong, Tibet or elsewhere, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to build a global alliance to ensure that we act together against a China that is going against international norms? What is this country doing in that respect?
I point to the work that we did in the Human Rights Council and on the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly where we collated more than 30 countries to support our statement on human rights in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Of course, many countries are nervous in their dealings with China because of its asymmetric economic clout. Therefore we need to proceed carefully and sensitively to ensure that we carry with us as many people, and as many countries, in order to have the maximum effect in deterring the actions that China takes and to maximise our chances of protecting human rights.
I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said. I think he has been strong, though he could be a bit stronger on sanctions. Right across the piece this is a repressive regime that hates democracy and does not care for human rights. Can he comment on what I thought was a veiled threat from the Chinese ambassador, who recently left our shores, when he said that the UK must make up its mind on whether it is a rival or a partner?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. We will not take diktats from any Government on the way we proceed. We recognise, as I said, the scope for positive relations with China; the example I gave was climate change. However, I was also clear that we will absolutely protect every area of our national security and we will stand up for our values. I thought, frankly, that the ambassador’s performance on “The Andrew Marr Show” when he was shown live footage of what is going on in Xinjiang represented all the scrutiny that we need to see and promote. It was a good example of the questions that are left unanswered by the Government in Beijing.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Today we are deeply concerned about the plight of the Uyghurs; on another day it is the plight of the Rohingya and on yet another day the Yazidis. How can we effectively hold those responsible to account so that we can truly say and mean the words “Never again”?
I thank my hon. Friend, and pay tribute to her and congratulate her on her recent appointment as special envoy for freedom of religion or belief; her knowledge and tenacity will stand her in good stead and be a great asset to global Britain.
My hon. Friend is right to raise all the different groups; in relation to the Rohingya, that is an area where we introduced Magnitsky sanctions. The most important thing to do is proceed first of all with targeted measures, as we have done today, to try to address the specific wrongs we wish to right, and to work effectively and assiduously with all our international partners. In many of these cases shifting the dial and making the relevant Government listen requires concerted international action, and that is what we are committed to.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The measures announced today are welcome, but they do not sufficiently address the genocide against the Uyghur people and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang. I noted with deep dismay his remarks about the amendment to the Trade Bill regarding China, which many other Members will wish to support. Will the Foreign Secretary at least acknowledge that efforts to allow UK judges to provide expert input and make preliminary determinations on genocide is, in the absence of any other viable legal option, the only legal route to hold the Chinese Government to account and the only viable opportunity in a legal forum to call their actions by their proper name: “genocide”?
I thank the hon. Lady and respect the passion and commitment with which she speaks. Of course I do not think the amendment she refers to would hold China to account for the awful human rights violations that she and I rightly deplore.
What we have sought to do today—and we will continue to do so—is take the targeted measures that will have an effect and an impact on the conduct that we want to stop by preventing people from profiting from it or financially supporting it. I think that is the right approach. Of course, we keep other measures in reserve, such as Magnitsky sanctions, but I do not think that the proposal that the hon. Lady has referred to would advance the cause of accountability in any meaningful sense at all.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today. Does he agree that it is essential for the relevant international bodies to be granted unfettered access to Xinjiang to assess human rights abuses occurring?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The most important thing that could shift the dial on accountability—and, frankly, have a deterrent effect—would be an authoritative third party being able to go and review, and test the denials of the Chinese Government against the widespread reports that we have seen. I personally think the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is well placed to do that—authoritative, independent, no bias, no partisanship, no political interference. China has rejected that. We need to keep the pressure up for that individual or someone else of a similar level of impartiality, influence and authority.
What is happening in Xinjiang is the tragic reality of state-sanctioned Islamophobia. Leaders within the Muslim community in Luton North have expressed to me their horror at seeing this Government stand idly by while these human rights abuses are carried out, including reports of the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women, which is expressly forbidden under article II(d) of the UN convention on genocide.
I have asked before and I ask again: will the UK Government now use, not just talk about, sanctions to address these gross human rights abuses imposed on the Uyghur people?
The hon. Lady may have missed what I said: through the transparency requirements, the fines, the export controls and the four measures I announced today, we are increasing the strength of the targeted measures we are taking. Of course, as other Members have asked, we hold the Magnitsky sanctions in reserve.
The appalling and abhorrent persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has rightly received sustained condemnation not only from all parts of this House but from around the world. Let us not mince words and let us call it what it is: genocide.
As we head towards Holocaust Memorial Day, for which this year’s theme is to be the light in the darkness, let us, the UK, be that light in the darkness and take a firm stance against these crimes. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend outline what practical steps he is taking to co-ordinate international responses, providing hard-hitting sanctions against the Chinese Government and all those guilty of these heinous crimes?
Order. Before I call the Foreign Secretary, I should say that it is really important that questions be short. I have had to cut down the speaking list because we have another statement, then a well-subscribed debate. Foreign Secretary.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). I think that we have shown precisely the international leadership that he has cited. The reality is that we gained, I think, 35-plus countries in support of our statement in the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee, but a lot of countries around the world either do not wish to take the measures that he described or are understandably nervous, given their proximity to China or their economic size, about the reprisals that China would take. We need to proceed carefully and sensitively with our international partners—on that point, he is absolutely right.
Although I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement on forced Uyghur labour, like a number of hon. Members I feel that it failed to address suspected genocide against Uyghur Muslims. A recent tweet by the Chinese Communist party branded the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women as emancipation. The UN convention on genocide clearly forbids such measures, so what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to support the appointment of a UN special rapporteur to investigate forced labour and ethnic persecution in Xinjiang?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really interesting matter, and I know that he has raised it before. The challenge is that we know that China would block efforts to appoint a special rapporteur or envoy. He would agree that we do not want to give that, if you like, PR coup or failed initiative to our detractors.
The one thing we can and should do, as I have said several times to the House, is focus on getting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights some kind of access to Xinjiang. That will keep it on the agenda—I do not think that anyone can accuse the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of being anything other than objective and impartial. That is something that other countries ought to be able to rally to, and that is where we have focused our efforts.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and I welcome the measures that he has outlined. Would he agree that if China is to be considered a leading member of the international community it must abide by basic international rules and norms?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is right as a matter of human rights, but he is also right as a matter of trust. One of the issues on this and in relation to the joint declaration in the context of Hong Kong, as we have said, is that these are obligations freely assumed. These are basic obligations that come with being a responsible and, as he says, leading member of the international community. Ultimately, if China cannot live up to those responsibilities and obligations, that raises a much broader issue of trust and confidence.
The poet Perhat Tursun, one of the foremost living writers in the Uyghur language, is one of around 1 million who have been disappeared by the Chinese state into the so-called re-education camps. Turson has been missing since his detention in January 2018. In one of his poems, he writes presciently:
“When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure
Do you know that I am with you”.
The Foreign Secretary must go further than today’s announcements. Uyghurs are not being persecuted for what they pick, but for who they are. As with the Tibetans, does he support their right to the self-determination that they seek?
We certainly want to see the human rights, freedoms and basic liberties of the people of Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang respected. We are taking a series of measures, and are in the vanguard internationally with the measures that we have taken. It is important to try to keep clusters of like-minded partners with us to have the maximum effect precisely to provide redress and accountability for the violations of human rights that the hon. Gentleman and I rightly deplore.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcome the strong stance that we are taking against the atrocious human rights violations we are seeing evidence of. I have had a number of constituents ask how we in the UK can play our part in tackling those violations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on businesses to ensure that nothing they are doing is contributing to making the situation in Xinjiang worse?
I absolutely agree with the spirit, but also the practical advice and warning that my hon. Friend is giving. What we are trying to do is set out clear guidance for businesses, to which she refers, to make sure they are warned of the risks, because of course conducting due diligence on supply chains emanating from Xinjiang is quite tricky. We want to work with them, which is why Ministers will be engaging with businesses. Ultimately, they need to comply with their transparency obligations, so that everyone can see the due diligence they have conducted. If they do that, they have nothing to fear. If they do not, we will fine them.
The Government are to be congratulated for the international leadership they have applied in this matter. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary think that the bribes, inducements and threats under the belt and road initiative are muting international condemnation from countries in Africa, the middle east and continental Europe that would otherwise be expected to join the UK wholeheartedly in condemning the depredations of President Xi and his people?
My right hon. Friend will know—I pay tribute to his time at the Foreign Office, where he was an exceptional Minister—the challenges we face. He asks about belt and road. The truth is that China is a massive investor all over the world. We can see, with the EU investment agreement right the way through to what the Chinese Government are doing in Africa, that there is a huge amount of money at stake.
China has asymmetric economic size and clout, and of course countries are bearing that in mind and taking that into account. What we have to do is ensure there is a compelling, plausible, credible alternative to those investments, and make sure that everyone understands the shared value and stake we have in upholding the rules-based international system, of which human rights are a key component.
Vauxhall residents have contacted me, appalled at the widespread forced labour of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. We must do everything in our power to stop the Chinese Government abusing their own people and to ensure that those responsible are held to account. I welcome the measures outlined by the Foreign Secretary on what additional help we can do to get our own house in order when it comes to doing business with Xinjiang, but the world must be united in its message to China. Can the Secretary of State confirm what further actions we are taking with our allies across the world to take a shared robust response to these appalling abuses?
I share the outrage of the hon. Lady’s constituents and I thank her for her support. We have laid out a suite of measures. I have explained what we are doing in the Human Rights Council, the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee.
We keep working with our international partners, but, as the hon. Lady will have noted, while we are leading the way a lot of countries are nervous of speaking out, partly because of China’s economic clout. We have certainly been having conversations with many countries, including countries with larger Muslim populations than our own, about why they are not more outspoken on this issue.
One of the things that I think would help, given China’s blanket denial, is to get the UN Human Rights Commissioner into Xinjiang, so there can be no doubt, no quibbling and no question that these violations are taking place. Having an authoritative and independent party like the UN Human Rights Commissioner conduct that kind of review would help to raise the kind of coalition of the like-minded that the hon. Lady talks about.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement on dealing with the horrific situation in Xinjiang. With regards to the United Kingdom’s leadership on the matter and the further actions it can take, the UK will be hosting the G7 later this year and will have the presidency of the Security Council next month, in February. Will this issue and the wider topic of freedom of religion or belief be put on the agenda of both conferences and events to show the United Kingdom’s strong leadership and to take firm, decisive action?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work as special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I can assure him, without divulging too much of the agenda in advance, that human rights will be at the forefront of our leadership this year—our presidency of the UN Security Council, our G7 presidency and more generally—because we believe that the UK has a crucial role to play in promoting open societies, including on human rights, but also in defending public goods in areas such as climate change and covid response.
Like others, I have been horrified by the reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including mass detentions, forced sterilisations, efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices, and mass surveillance, disproportionately targeting the Uyghur population. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to support the appointment of a UN special rapporteur for the investigation of forced labour and ethnic persecution in Xinjiang?
We would certainly welcome such a special envoy, but, as I said in answer to a previous question, the reality is that China will block that if we formally propose it. That is why, as I have said repeatedly, what really matters is that an authoritative, independent, non-partisan individual or body can have access to Xinjiang. The UN human rights commissioner would seem to me to be one such individual who could perform that role—there are others—which is why we have raised it with our international partners and I have raised it with the UN Secretary-General.
Last week, the Chinese embassy in Washington proudly proclaimed that employment policies in Xinjiang promoted gender equality for Uyghur women, so now we know that the Chinese Government are an equal opportunities slave labour employer. I strongly welcome these measures, but will my right hon. Friend go further? Will he not just call out this persecution at the UN as genocide and invoke Magnitsky sanctions, as colleagues have suggested, but follow the example of Congress in passing a reciprocal access Bill—I have my Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill on the Order Paper—to prohibit Chinese officials from travelling to the UK if UK and western human rights inspectors are denied access to factories and prisons in Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, to verify the new measures that he has announced today?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the measures that we have taken. I understand that he wants us to go even further. He knows—he is an expert in this area—the challenges in cajoling and carrying an international coalition to advance those goals. He is right to say that scrutiny and accountability are key. That is why we want to see an authoritative third party such as the UN human rights commissioner have access to Xinjiang. I will await with great interest his Bill, and I am sure Members will scrutinise it very carefully when it comes before the House.
I am afraid that this will be the last question, because we had an hour allocated and we will have been an hour and 10 minutes by the time we have finished this one. The last question is from Alistair Carmichael, and I think it is audio only.
Frustrating though it is for many of us, I understand the Foreign Secretary’s reluctance to engage on the question of genocide, but he will know from his own professional background that the Government have a duty to assess the risk factors of genocide against the Uyghurs in China in order to trigger their duty to prevent. All this came from the International Court of Justice judgment in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro. He will also know that that obligation crystallises at the moment that a state learns, or should have learned, of the serious risk of genocide. Can he confirm that his Department is making that assessment of the risk factors of genocide, and will he publish its conclusions?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and insightful comment on genocide. Of course, I was in The Hague when the Bosnia judgment was being considered.
The reality is that, in order to secure authoritative assessment and conclusions in relation to those widespread reports, which we think are tenable, plausible and credible, we need access to the camps. In a sense, throughout this statement, we are redefining the question. However, we come back to the point that we need to try to secure access to Xinjiang, and we will not be able to do that without sufficient and widespread pressure on the Chinese Government. The best vehicle for that is an authoritative, independent body or individual entrusted by the United Nations, of which China is a leading member through the Security Council. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights seems to me the right place and the right individual to support in that regard.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Covid-19 Response: Defence Support
With permission, I will update the House on Defence support in the national covid response. As hon. Members are aware, I committed to updating Parliament on our efforts, and the Ministry of Defence has been submitting weekly updates on the work to assist our outstanding NHS and colleagues from across government as we fight back against this awful virus. We might not be on the frontline of this particular fight, but we are with them in the trenches—and, since late last year, in increasing numbers. In fact, Defence’s contribution to the covid response now represents the most significant domestic resilience operation in peacetime, with more personnel committed on UK resilience tasks today than at any time since the start of the pandemic. That is why it is important to now make a statement to the House detailing the breadth and complexity of those activities.
It is worth considering some statistics on what has been provided thus far. Since last January, Standing Joint Command has received some 485 military assistance to civilian authority requests—MACAs—some 400 of which are related to our domestic covid response. That is more than three times the average annual number. We currently have 56 ongoing tasks in support of 13 other Government Departments, with 4,670 personnel committed and almost 10,000 more held at high readiness, available to rapidly respond to any increase in demand.
As is well known, the UK armed forces have helped build Nightingale hospitals around the country and have distributed vital personal protective equipment, delivering more than 6 million items to hospitals and clocking up enough miles to circumnavigate the world 10 times. Personnel from all three services have backfilled oxygen tanker drivers, Welsh ambulance drivers and NHS hospital staff such as those deployed to Essex trusts this week. They have helped care assistants shoulder the burden in care homes and assisted testing programmes in schools and the wider community.
During Christmas, when the new variant of covid disrupted the border crossings, the military stepped up. While most of us were settling down for our festive dinner and break, the military were working with the Department for Transport to test hauliers crossing the English channel and clear the backlog. Approximately 40,000 tests have been conducted in that operation.
At all times, our people have shown fleet of foot, switching tasks as the occasion has demanded. While relatively small in scale, they have always had a catalytic effect. Our involvement in testing is a case in point. We deployed personnel to the city of Liverpool to support the first whole-town community mass testing pilot. The lessons learned along the way are now being applied in testing across the country, from Medway in Kent to Merthyr Tydfil, Kirklees, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Only recently, I authorised the deployment of 800 personnel in Greater Manchester. Yesterday they began focused community testing.
The country is of course eager to see the roll-out of the largest vaccination programme in British history and the NHS is delivering vaccines to those who need it at unprecedented speed. Defence’s contribution has once again been primarily through planning support provided by defence logisticians applying their expertise in building supply chains at speed in complex environments. As Brigadier Phil Prosser, Commander 101 Logistic Brigade, said in the No. 10 press conference last week, this operation is
“unparalleled in its scale and complexity”.
As that operation has shifted from planning to execution and is now focusing on rapidly scaling up, Defence has been preparing to adapt its support to the NHS. Not only have we sent additional military planners to assist expansion, including in the devolved Administrations, but, following a request from the Department of Health and Social Care, we have established a vaccine quick reaction force of medically trained personnel who are assigned to the seven NHS England regions. They can be deployed at short notice in the event of any disruptions to the established vaccination process and can be scaled up, if required, by any of the national health services across the United Kingdom.
Throughout the pandemic, understanding the requirement has been Defence’s priority, in order to tailor-make the most appropriate support. That is why we have sent 10 military assessment teams to each of the 10 NHS regions and devolved Administrations. They are helping to assess the situation on the ground before formulating and co-ordinating the most effective response. For example, we currently have experts working at the newly reopened NHS London Nightingale, a hospital and mass vaccination facility that will help the capital handle covid-19’s second wave.
Defence’s efforts have often been very visible, such as providing critical support to our overseas territories. Just last weekend, the Royal Air Force delivered more than 5,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to British citizens in Gibraltar. We should not neglect our armed forces that are less visible, because their contribution is no less important.
Our planners are now embedded in local authorities, working alongside the regional liaison officers, providing critical command and control and logistics support. They know how to deal with deadly diseases such as Ebola and how to stay calm under pressure. Those cool heads have been pivotal, not just in co-ordinating efforts, but in assessing how and where defence personnel can deliver the best response.
I have mentioned the personnel we have deployed or that are held at high readiness, but the real number helping the nation to combat the coronavirus is far greater. We have in excess of 5,000 armed forces personnel and civilian staff supporting the covid response from behind the scenes, as part of their routine duties. Today, I want to pay tribute to those men and women. They include the hundreds of personnel in defence headquarters responsible for co-ordinating the covid support force. Among them are 100 staff of the MOD’s winter operations cell, a similar number working on covid planning at Standing Joint Command and 100 more facilitating covid operations as part of their regular jobs in the joint military commands. From the Defence Medical Services, we must not forget that we have more than 1,600 consultants, clinicians, nurses and trainees fully embedded in the NHS all over the United Kingdom and, as ever, they are working alongside their civilian counterparts, some of whom are also military reservists. At our globally renowned Defence Science and Technology Laboratory—DSTL—there are 180 scientists and technicians working across 30 different covid-related projects, supporting the Government’s scientific understanding. Meanwhile, our expert analysts in Defence Intelligence have studied how covid-19 spreads, and our procurement specialists have been busily supporting the acquisition of unprecedented quantities of personal protective equipment.
This has been a truly national and whole-force response, uniting regulars and reservists, soldiers and academics, sailors and civil servants, some of whom the Prime Minister met yesterday when visiting the Ashton Gate mass vaccination centre in Bristol. Yet, even as we respond to the pandemic, we must maintain our day job of guarding the nation from dangers at home and abroad. Despite the virus, troops continue to manage wider winter tasks such as flood protection, counter-terrorism and the EU transition. We have maintained our momentum in operations critical to security, whether striking terrorists in Iraq, deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics, supporting UN peacekeeping in Mali or maintaining our continuous at-sea deterrent. It goes without saying that the safety and welfare of our people is paramount. I can reassure the House that we have rigorous and robust measures in place to protect our personnel and to reduce risk to themselves and their families while carrying out their duties.
Let me assure the House that our armed forces remain resilient and ready to support the NHS and colleagues across all Government Departments. Now as ever, come what may, they stand ready to do their duty—however, wherever and whenever they are needed. I know that some colleagues are keen to see the armed forces take a more leading role, but I should make it clear that our constitution quite rightly ensures that our military responds to civilian requests for assistance. They act in support of the civilian authorities, but are always ready to consider what more they can do to provide that support. Together, we will do our bit to beat this deadly disease and help our nation get back to normality.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement and I welcome this direct update to the House. This is a chance for us all to thank and pay tribute to the 5,000 forces personnel, both regulars and reservists, who are currently providing covid assistance, and to the leadership from Standing Joint Command under Lieutenant General Urch. The Labour leader and I saw at first hand in November the professionalism and commitment that the team at Aldershot bring to this task. The public also welcome the important contribution our armed forces are making to help the country through the continuing covid crisis, from troops on the frontline building Nightingale hospitals, community testing or driving ambulances and tankers, to the planners, analysts and scientists behind the scenes. The military is an essential element of our British national resilience, and people can see this more clearly now than perhaps at any time since the end of national service. I trust that this will reinforce public support for our armed forces and help to redefine a closer relationship between the military and civilian society.
However, I detect a sense of frustration from the Secretary of State in his statement. The Government have been too slow to act at every stage of the pandemic, and too slow to make the fullest use of the armed forces, as I and others on both sides of the House have argued since the summer. During the first lockdown, the covid support force was 20,000 strong, yet fewer than 4,000 were deployed. The winter support force numbers 14,000, yet now, even with what the Secretary of State calls
“the most significant domestic operation in peacetime”,
just 5,000 are being used, with only 56 military aid requests currently in place. How many of the 14,000 troops does the Secretary of State expect to be deployed by the end of the month, as we confront the gravest period of this pandemic to date?
On vaccinations, it is very welcome that from this week the armed forces are finally being used to help deliver the nation’s No. 1 priority, the national vaccination programme. The Secretary of State has said that 250 teams of medical personnel are on stand-by, and yet only one in 10 is set to be posted this week to the seven NHS regions in England. When will they all be deployed and working to get vaccines into people’s arms? We in Labour are proud that Britain was the first country in the world to get the vaccine, and we want Britain to be the first to complete the vaccinations. We want the Government to succeed. Does the Secretary of State accept that military medical teams can do much more to help?
On testing, we also welcome the work being done across the UK to reinforce community testing, from Kirklees to Kent and in the devolved Administrations. Fifteen hundred personnel had also been provided to support schools with covid testing. Now that schools have moved to online teaching, what changes are being made to those plans? When infection rates come down, testing will again be vital to control the virus. Yet the £22 billion NHS track and trace service is still failing to do the necessary job. There is no military aid agreement in place for Test and Trace, so may I suggest that the Secretary of State offers military help to get the outfit sorted out?
Finally, I turn to service personnel themselves. MOD figures confirm that the average number of tests for defence personnel since April has been just 1,900 a week. With 5,000 troops now deployed on covid tasks in the UK and more on essential operations or training overseas, what system is in place to ensure that those personnel are tested regularly, and what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that they are also properly vaccinated?
The challenge of covid to this country is unprecedented. Yesterday, the chief medical officer said that we are
“facing the most dangerous situation anyone can remember”,
so, if the Secretary of State seeks to expand the role of the military in defeating this virus, he should know that he will have our full support.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. First, on the issue of military willingness to engage, he knows we are of course incredibly keen and eager to offer whatever assistance we can. I will address his questions on the range of those subjects one by one.
One of the reasons why we invest in people as planners in the heart of Departments and local government is to ensure that we shape that ask as it develops and to ensure that we are dealing in the art of the possible, as well as with realistic deployment requests. Sometimes we get initial requests for thousands of people, but once we scale it down and work through what is required, it ends up being a couple of hundred.
That has been partly because some of the Departments or local authorities are not used to MACA. Funnily enough, Departments used to using MACAs, as indeed local government or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government would be—local authorities that have had significant flooding in their time—will be used to that relationship, but for others this is a new experience.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the scale between the designated force and the force actually used. He is right to say that 20,000 were earmarked for the covid response at the beginning and that 4,000 to 5,000 were deployed. That was at any one time. As he knows, our forces work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we rotate many of those personnel through. Right now, 5,000 might be deployed at any one time, but people will be earmarked to become much more ready—in a higher state of readiness.
To be at 24-hour readiness, or ready within a few hours, places a huge demand on anyone—in effect, to be sitting in your house or barracks waiting to be deployed—so we rotate the forces through the different readiness stages. One stage might be to be ready to move in 24 hours, one might be with three days’ notice or one might be with one week’s notice. Those different readiness stages mean that they can either get on and do their day job, or basically just stand and wait. Therefore, of a force of about 14,000 who are currently earmarked, yes, we have 5,000 today, but I suspect that by the time we have got through this phase—if all demands remain the same—somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000 of those 14,000 personnel will have been used at some stage on the covid response. The 5,000 who are on today will come off, get a period of rest and build-up time with their families, and then come back again. The force has a fixed amount in terms of where we draw the different readinesses, but the deployments are drawn through that process. Of course, all armed forces personnel are able—“available” would probably the wrong word—to help the Government in their resilience and defence; that is obviously the purpose of their job.
We have over 100 people in the planning process for the vaccination roll-out across the whole United Kingdom: in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. We also currently have 21 quick reaction vaccination teams, who are usually staffed by a doctor, some combat medics and nurses. Their job, in a team of six, is to deploy as required. We are holding 229 teams in reserve, should we wish to deploy all 250. The limiting factors at the moment will be the delivery schedule and timetable of the vaccines themselves; of course I could deploy 100,000 soldiers tomorrow, ready to vaccinate, but if the stock is not there, we would be better off deploying them in other ways.
The Government are very keen, and the Prime Minister is determined, to ensure that we match the pace of stock delivery with the pace of delivery into people’s arms—the jabbing. We are very clear that we can do more to assist. The Prime Minister knows that and has indicated that we will be called on as the NHS requires, but we should not forget that the NHS is also recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers, former clinicians and former nurses who are able to do the vaccinations; it is not a purely military response.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question on testing and tracing, we have had a one-star within the organisation of test and trace from very early on. We originally earmarked 1,500 personnel for schools testing. We have reduced that down to about 800, who stand by to help not only where needed in the schools that are currently taking key workers’ children, but also with talking to people, through webinars and other remote methods, about how to administer lateral flow tests. We stand ready to do more if required. We have scaled the number of personnel down slightly simply because of the school closures, but we stand ready to increase that number if required.
Let me turn to the personnel themselves. When they deploy on a MACA task, such as the 800 personnel deployed to Manchester, they will be tested before they go and throughout the process. They will abide by whatever the current NHS guidelines are: if they feel ill, they should get a test; and if we feel that they are going in front of people who are vulnerable, we will also take steps to test them. If people test positive, they are very quickly isolated. I can get the latest figures for the House, if that helps. The lateral flow tests have opened up a huge amount of much more easily accessible testing to do that.
I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s support of our Defence. I assure him that both the Prime Minister and I are determined to lean into this problem, and to maximise our efforts wherever we can. Wherever we see an opportunity, instead of waiting for an argument about who does what, we offer to do it. That is why only recently the House will have seen us fly out those vaccines to Gibraltar. We put them on a plane, get them out there and get it done. We can have all the arguments we want after the fact; let us get on with it. We are all—I know this includes the loyal Opposition—united in working to help deliver this. Defence is doing its bit, but we should not forget that it is doing its bit alongside the amazing people of the NHS, who are on the frontline in their tens of thousands, day in, day out.
Order. We have one hour put aside for this statement, which I can extend slightly, but not by too much, so I ask colleagues to ask brief, succinct questions and to provide fairly brief answers.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that I have not always been uncritical of the test and trace process, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Yesterday, a member of my team had occasion to take a covid-19 test at the Birchington-on-Sea village centre in North Thanet. That centre was staffed by soldiers of the Gurkha regiment. Those attending report that their conduct was exemplary, they were courteous, patient and efficient, and the test results were recorded in short order. Will my right hon. Friend convey my thanks on behalf of my constituents to Brigadier Phil Prosser for all the work that these and thousands of men and women in the armed forces like them are doing in the war against the pandemic?
My right hon. Friend is very kind to say what he said about the efforts in Kent. We have 360 personnel supporting Kent County Council with lateral flow testing, and he will have seen that considerable number in the problems over Christmas. I will pass on his thanks to Brigadier Prosser, but of course, Brigadier Prosser is the lead on the vaccine. We have a number of other senior military personnel leading in different areas, including test and trace and building NHS capacity; Brigadier Lizzie Faithfull-Davies is the lady in charge of the military response on that. What is amazing is that these military personnel joined to be soldiers and to be Navy, and they do what they are doing today with the same professionalism and enthusiasm as they would do their day job. That is a tribute to the training and the quality of personnel, including, of course, the Gurkha regiment to which my right hon. Friend refers.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It was only right that he took the time to outline all those within the defence community, whether on the frontline or not, who are working so hard and so professionally to get us through the pandemic. On behalf of my party, I thank each and every one of them for the work that they have done. Because of their professionalism and the way in which they have carried out their job, the Secretary of State comes to the House with a good story to tell today.
I want to press the Secretary of State on two issues, starting with vaccinations. Could he adumbrate exactly where those in defence who are working on covid stand in the queue for receiving vaccinations? Can he give us an idea of how many have been vaccinated so far?
My second question is much broader, and it concerns the issue of resilience, which the Secretary of State knows I am keen on. If we are to do resilience properly, it cannot just be the preserve of the Ministry of Defence; I know he understands that. Can he tell us how the pandemic and the lessons from it as far as resilience is concerned will be reflected in the integrated review? If he can go one further and tell us when that might be published, I will even buy him a dram when we are next allowed to.
I think I should go for the easy one: the current target date for the IR is the first two weeks of February, so we will go for a half on that. None of our defence personnel has received a vaccination; they are not in priority groups one to four. However, we are, as we speak, working out which key cohorts should be vaccinated in order to preserve and underline the nation’s defence. Obviously, they will get priority, but I expect it to be a small group at first, because protecting priority groups one to four is important.
In terms of resilience, one of the lessons is on reserves. The Scottish Government are empowered to create an NHS reserve if they wish to. That will be one of the lessons that we will draw in England and Wales. We use military reserves, but other Departments may start considering that as well, for those people who want to contribute to the reserve and the resilience of the nation. I am sure that the Scottish Government, under the devolved powers, are entitled to look at that, and I would definitely recommend it.
For the hon. Gentleman’s peace of mind, there are currently three personnel working in airlift—CASEVAC—in the Scottish Ambulance Service, 32 planners in the region to support community testing and vaccination deployment and 25 planners in the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland helping work through those problems. Of course, we stand ready for more. If more is requested through the Scottish Government, we stand ready to provide that assistance, to make sure that the whole of the British Isles and the United Kingdom get through this issue.
First, let me join the Secretary of State in thanking all the military personnel involved, in every way, for all they have done in this national effort. They are always ready to step up to the mark. Will he also acknowledge the huge contribution being made by St John Ambulance, which is training up to 30,000 volunteers, to the highest standard, to be vaccinators? Will he ensure that military planners and those on the ground work hand in hand with St John Ambulance, the Red Cross and the Royal Voluntary Service to maximise the contribution they can make?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Volunteers need managing, and although St John Ambulance is a disciplined uniform service, the huge amount of people being recruited to volunteer will need managing. That is certainly one of the areas where we think the military can assist the NHS, in terms of how we manage lots of volunteers to deliver at a productive and efficient rate things such as the vaccine. That is where we will find the military working hand in hand with others. It is another example of this not being just about the frontline or the front trench; often the skill we can bring is in looking after 200,000 or 50,000 volunteers and making sure they are used correctly, in the right part of the system. St John Ambulance will be able to deliver a very efficient group of volunteers, because that is its business and we look forward to working with it.
May I, too, express my sincere thanks to our United Kingdom armed forces for all that they have done? My vast and faraway constituency presents special challenges: the remoteness of where people live; an ageing population, which is statistically rather different from that of the rest of the UK; and the distance people might have to travel from far corners of my constituency to Inverness or Wick to be vaccinated. I hope that the quick reaction teams he refers to will be involved in helping my constituents to be vaccinated. Will he remind the Scottish Government that they are there to help and that, working together, we can give my constituents the security they need?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I know his part of the world very well, having represented Aberdeenshire, in North East Scotland, in the Scottish Parliament with him 21 years ago. He reminded me of that the other day—I had hair then! This is why at the beginning of this we deployed helicopters up to Kinloss to make sure we look after the highlands and islands, and we stand by ready to do that. Notwithstanding the fact that we have planners in the Scottish Government to help, we have not received a MACA request for the use of some of these quick reaction vaccine teams, but they are there for the taking if they are asked for; I am happy to support and sign off any such request. Obviously, some of the vaccine is coming from abroad and we need to distribute it to the fingertips of the UK.
Order. I wish to remind Members that we are halfway through the allocated time and we have got through only five people. May I therefore press colleagues to ask short, concise questions?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department is working with the Department for Education to ensure that schools that must remain open, especially those in Rother Valley, have the support, guidance and materials they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students over the coming weeks?
Yes. Although we had originally earmarked 1,500, we have scaled that down to 750 personnel ready to assist schools. Currently, we have deployed 84 to assist 52 schools and colleges, and they stand by all over Wales and England if that help is needed. If the Welsh Government request that support, we will be able to both provide support physically and help online to make sure that the staff can deliver the lateral flow testing.