I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your courtesy in slightly drawing out your introduction to allow me to take my mask off as I came to the Dispatch Box.
It is less than a year since the coronavirus was first mentioned in a debate in this House, on 22 January 2020. The House has debated this issue, which has affected all aspects of our national life, on many occasions since then. I would say at the outset that, throughout, it is important that we remember that all Members of this House share a common goal. They may have differences of opinion and there may be different perspectives on how best to achieve that goal, but it is important that we are clear that every Member of this House is clear in their determination to see this virus beaten and to see our country recover economically and in every other sense. I pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members and to the strength and sincerity of their views on this important topic. Since that first debate, novel SARS-CoV-2, which of course we all now know too well as covid-19, has caused untold disruption to all our lives and our way of life in this country. It is right, at this point, that we remember all those who, sadly, have lost their lives to the disease.
In this first general debate on covid-19 of 2021, it is worth reflecting that despite our painful familiarity with the challenges we face, the situation today is markedly different from many occasions in the past. For a start, and perhaps most importantly, we now see the way out. We have not one but two safe and effective vaccines being injected into people’s arms up and down the country as we speak.
Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, just let me take my mask off.
I thank my hon. Friend for his introductory remarks. The vaccine is being rolled out across the country, and in Broxbourne, but a number of my constituents are waiting to be informed by post, as I understand will be the case across the country. There are difficulties with the post at the moment, through nobody’s fault but the virus’s, so could he keep an eye on the postal service to ensure that, if post is not the best way, another way can be found to let people know that their number is coming up in the draw for the vaccine?
It is always a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend, who is also my friend, in this House, and he raises an extremely important point. I can give him the reassurance that I, other Ministers and particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is leading the vaccine deployment effort, will continue to look at ensuring that every means appropriate is utilised to ensure that people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country get notified when their turn is up, so that they have every opportunity to get that life-saving injection.
Does the Minister agree with the suggestion that, given that youth unemployment is shooting up, this might be the time for Royal Mail to take on some extra staff to cover those who are off sick? It is crucial that people know when their appointments are so that they do not miss that golden opportunity to get the jab.
I had the pleasure of working with the hon. Lady in a past life before either of us were Members of this House, and she makes a typically sensible suggestion, which I am sure Royal Mail will have heard. I hope that it will reflect carefully on what she has said.
The real problem is that people will not know whether they have been called, because the post has not arrived. In my constituency, several instances have come to my notice of people not getting post for over a week. If they are called forward in that week, they are stymied, aren’t they?
I reassure my hon. and gallant Friend that, while there may on occasions be challenges with the post, we are persistent in our determination, and the NHS is persistent in its determination, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get this jab. Where someone does not respond, or does not turn up for an appointment, we will keep trying, because it is really important that everyone has the opportunity to have that injection, which could save their life.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; I know he will want to make progress. One group is further away from receiving a vaccine: undergraduates who would otherwise be returning to college today. A significant proportion of their education has been disrupted already. Is there any hope that the Minister can offer to the nation’s undergraduates?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I seem to be taking multiple interventions today from people I have known in a past life in different ways and forms, which is always a pleasure. He will be aware that the prioritisation and roll-out of vaccines in that context are guided by the clinical advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which, as he will appreciate, at the current time, and rightly, is clearly focused on what will do the most to save lives. We have seen—I will turn to this in my speech shortly—that age is the single biggest determinant of risk of death, so it is right that we are prioritising those most at risk as we roll out the vaccine. When I come to them later, he will hear about the very ambitious and deliverable plans, which he heard about from the vaccines Minister yesterday, to ramp up the roll-out across our country.
In 1940, when our small boats set sail for Dunkirk, nobody stopped to check through health and safety paperwork or institutional red tape. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please confirm that the Government will cut through unnecessary bureaucracy as we embark on the vaccine roll-out, and that we will throw the kitchen sink at this with the help of our armed forces?
I am incredibly grateful to my—if I recollect correctly—hon. and gallant Friend, who has served in the past with distinction. He is absolutely right to highlight the amazing work of our armed forces, which was highlighted in the Chamber earlier this afternoon. He is also right to highlight the spirit of getting things done. He will have seen that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been very clear that, while making no compromises on safety for patients and for those receiving the vaccine, he is working very hard to make sure that any bureaucratic barriers that do not support patient safety are removed to ensure the speedy and effective roll-out of the vaccine. So I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point.
We have vaccinated more people than the rest of Europe put together—well over 2 million individuals, including more than a quarter of the over-80s in this country. I think that is a record to be proud of, but there is no room for complacency. We continue to work hard to get more injections in more people’s arms.
In that context, I pay tribute not just to the Secretary of State and to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, but to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce, who have done so much to make sure that this country was at the forefront of being able to purchase and deploy vaccines to help save lives. Yet, just as we accelerate the deployment of the vaccine further and faster, we must also recognise that the new variant of the coronavirus does present us with a renewed challenge.
Our strategy has always been, and continues to be, to suppress the virus to protect the NHS and save lives until a vaccine can make us safe, but with a new variant that is more than twice as transmissible, we must be clear that that task becomes considerably harder. The figures from the Office for National Statistics are stark: more than one in 50 of the UK population has the virus and an even higher proportion than that in places such as London. So, just as the virus has evolved, so must our response. We find ourselves once again in a difficult and challenging national lockdown, taking steps that I do not think anyone could have imagined in January last year—steps that, understandably, are truly testing the patience and forbearance of every person in this country but that are essential to relieve the pressure on our NHS, allow for the vaccine to be effectively deployed and, ultimately, set us free from the need for these restrictions.
Before I turn to those steps in a little more detail and the deployment of our vaccines, I am sure the whole House will, as always, join me in paying tribute to the heroic responses we continue to see from people in every walk of life. The return of the clap for carers initiative last Thursday, under the new guise of clap for heroes, is a reflection of the shift in our collective understanding of just what heroism and service look like and a tribute to everyone who is helping us push through this difficult time.
I know that my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), will join me in paying tribute to and thanking everyone who works in our NHS in this country and all those who support not just the NHS but social care, in care homes, social care settings and domiciliary care—people in a range of roles up and down our country who, day in, day out, selflessly care for those who need it. In a past life, I was a local councillor, and I had the privilege of being the cabinet member for adult social care, health and public health for the council on which I served. I saw at first hand the amazing work that our social care workforce do, and it is right that we recognise that at every opportunity in this Chamber.
It is also important to highlight the great British scientists who are at the forefront of humanity’s fight against this virus, developing not only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine but life-saving treatments for those who become infected with covid, first in the form of dexamethasone and now tocilizumab and sarilumab—I have considerable sympathy with the Prime Minister in his attempts to pronounce those—both of which have been found to reduce the risk of death for critically ill patients by almost a quarter and cut time spent in intensive care by as much as 10 days. Those life-saving drugs are now available through the NHS, and it is an example of the huge debt of gratitude we owe people from all walks of life—not just those on the health and social care frontline, but people who are working under very different but no less considerable pressures for our country. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who is the Minister for prevention, public health and primary care, will no doubt reflect on that when she winds up the debate.
In terms of the context, I must first turn to the pressures in our acute hospital settings. Across the UK, there are more than 32,000 patients in our hospitals with covid. That is over a third of the NHS’s available beds of all types. On 31 December last year, the total reported admission to hospital and diagnosis of covid in English hospitals was 2,536—on one day. That increased by 46% in the week that followed, so on 9 January, we were seeing 3,718 people admitted. The pressures on our acute hospitals and those who work in them are intense. Patients are therefore currently being treated in Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Exeter, Bristol and Harrogate to cope with these numbers, and NHS England has confirmed that the Nightingale in London is also open for patients.
Last Monday, all four UK chief medical officers recommended that we move the country to covid-19 alert level 5, meaning that in their expert view, there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed. In this place, we have often talked about the most frightening of possibilities, but frankly, we have never been this close to seeing it happen, although we are all doing everything we can to ensure that the NHS continues to be able to cope during this time. Quite rightly, we have thanked our NHS staff, and people in this country have expressed gratitude and clapped them, but I think it is fair to say—echoing some of the intensive care doctors and nurses I have seen in the media recently—that the best way we can all say thank you to our NHS is to follow the rules and stay home in line with those rules, to ease the pressure on them.
That is why the choice that this House took last Wednesday to vote overwhelmingly for new regulations, placing England into a national lockdown alongside the action taken in each of the devolved nations, was the right choice. The key message is and must be as it was in the spring, as I have just enunciated: you must stay home. We have always said, and I have always been clear, that it is right that schools should be the last thing to close, and we deeply regret that we have had to close them, but as we begin to move out of lockdown, when we can safely do so—and, as the Prime Minister has promised, through the gradual loosening of restrictions when we can—schools will be the first thing to reopen.
Our regulations provide for these new restrictions until 31 March 2021. I hope that they may not be needed for as long as that, but that time allows us to take steady, controlled and evidence-led decisions, including moving places down through tiers on a local basis—again, when it is safe to do so. As you would expect, Mr Deputy Speaker, we will of course keep these restrictions under continuous review, with a statutory requirement to look at them every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are deemed no longer necessary to limit transmission of the virus.
On that point, to me, the right strategy to stop the NHS being overwhelmed seems to be to have a flexible tier system, whereby we work out whether local hospitals in each region are about to be overwhelmed; and, if they are, we go into lockdown. Does my hon. Friend understand what I am saying? Is there going to be this flexible approach, rather than this mass lockdown nationally?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. With the new variant identified before Christmas, we are seeing hospital admission rates and demand for hospital services rising across our country. That is why it was absolutely right that we instituted the measures that we did, which have seen what it is effectively called a national lockdown at this time. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health have been clear that they hope, and would expect, that as we get the infection under control and ease the pressure on the NHS, when it is safe to do so we will be able to look to returning to that tiering system. Exactly as my right hon. Friend says, one of the five key factors in whether an area went up or down among the tiers was local hospital capacity—and I emphasise the “local” in that context—but, sadly, we are not in that place as we stand here and debate this matter today.
If my hon. Friend will show a little forbearance as I make a little progress, I will come to vaccinations and the vulnerable in a moment. I will seek to address his point then; if I do not, I am sure that he will prompt me.
I think every Member of this House fully appreciates and understands the huge burden that these restrictions now place on people today and every day: on pupils, on parents, on businesses, on individuals and on families. The Secretary of State for Education has set out our plan to support people in education settings, including with the provision of new equipment for remote learning. For businesses such as those in retail, hospitality and leisure that have been forced to close their doors once again, we are providing an additional £4.6 billion of support. There will be not a single Member in this House who has not received correspondence and pleas from their constituents who run businesses, be it in hospitality or the self-employed—a whole range of people. Members on both sides of the House will be working flat out to seek to assist them. I do appreciate the pressures that they are under. Of course, that support comes on top of our unprecedented £280 billion plan for jobs, including the extension of the furlough scheme until April.
Let me turn to vaccines. We know that in the long run the best way to help everyone in this country is to suppress the virus and to vaccinate people against it. The NHS is committed to offering, by 15 February, a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups, who currently account for more than four out of every five—roughly 88%—covid fatalities. The groups include older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff, and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. In working towards that target, there are already more than 1,000 vaccination centres throughout the country, including more than 200 hospital sites, which will increase to 270, and some 775 GP-led sites. Of course, pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country. As vaccine supply increases, community pharmacies will continue to play an essential role.
Before my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) prompts me, let me turn briefly to the question he asked. The Prime Minister and ministerial colleagues will take into consideration a number of factors when looking at the right time—the safe time, based on the scientific and clinical advice—to ease the current restrictions and to move to a tiered system. One factor that I know will weigh with them and play a part in that decision will be the extent to which vaccination has significantly reduced the risk of death in those groups most likely to be affected by the virus. It would, though, be premature—indeed, it would go well beyond my pay grade—for me to set out the detail of what precise considerations the Prime Minister will be looking at as we reach that point, hopefully in a few months’ time.
This week has seen the announcement of the opening of seven mass vaccination hubs in places such as sports stadiums and exhibition centres, and yesterday we launched our full vaccine deployment plan, which includes measures that we will take, together with local authorities, to maximise take-up among harder-to-reach communities, and our new national booking service, which will make it easier to book and access appointments. In that context, I should pay tribute to one of the great strengths of this country, which is the willingness of the people of this country to step up, pull together and volunteer to assist in times of great need for this country. We are seeing that happening now. In that context, I also pay tribute to The Sun’s “Jabs Army” campaign, through which The Sun is doing its bit to encourage people to sign up and to volunteer—I believe it has got more than 30,000 people to sign up. All this is a reflection of the innate strength of community in this country: when something needs to be done, the people of this country step up and do their bit.
Another part of the plan is our new vaccinations dashboard, which gives daily updates on our progress in the biggest vaccination effort in British history.
The Minister has not touched on the covid deniers out there. No doubt we are all getting emails from them, and they are obviously on social media as well. It is important that we get across the message about the safety of the vaccine and the importance of everybody getting a vaccine. It is not just about someone’s personal freedom and what they do; it is about what they can give to somebody else as well.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I say to those who may doubt or speculate about this disease: it is real and it has, sadly, taken more than 80,000 of our fellow citizens from us. Watch the news coverage that we all see every night of our amazing frontline NHS staff explaining just what they have seen, what they have had to do on their shift, how they have fought valiantly to save people’s lives, often successfully but on occasions sadly not, and what that has meant for them. I reflect on an incredibly dignified elderly gentlemen whom I saw on the news before Christmas—I think his name was Mr Lewis from the Rhondda—who, in the space of a week, had lost his wife and two other members of his family to this cruel disease. I say to those who say that it is not serious and that it is not as dangerous as some people say: watch those news clips and listen to those people who have been bereaved, and to all those people who have been in hospital and thankfully have recovered but have been through hell and back with this disease. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We all have a part to play in following the rules and beating this disease. I, for one, as soon as I am eligible to have my vaccination—I fear that the grey hair may not get me higher up the list and that I am too young, along with my shadow, and we may have a while to wait—will certainly take up that offer.
The Minister is being so generous in giving way. Long covid will take another form: there will be mental health consequences. May I make one suggestion? We have the two eminent professors flanking the Prime Minister, Professors Whitty and Vallance. At some stage, could we have someone of equal eminence from the mental health field to talk about how we are going to do the mental health piece of the recovery?
My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. He, of course, has been a huge champion in this House for the cause of mental health. I know that, as we speak, the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), is involved in discussions and meetings about exactly that. There is already support in place, but she is very clear that we need to recognise, in the context of long covid and the impact of this disease, including its indirect impacts, that the future mental health of our nation is hugely important, so my hon. Friend is right to highlight it.
At this Dispatch Box, we have often had occasion to exchange grim statistics: cases, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths. Of course, behind every one of those numbers is a person—a person with hopes, fears, dreams, families and friends—but I know that the whole House will join me in looking forward to exchanges about perhaps more positive statistics in the weeks to come, of more vaccines given, more people safe and more lives saved.
Before too long I hope we will find ourselves in a situation where we can look at the curve of a graph going up and up not with fear and trepidation about what it means but with tremendous hope, as we look at a graph of vaccines delivered. That prospect is within our grasp, and although we are not yet out of the woods and must not blow it now but must stick to the rules for a little longer until we can be safe, I believe that that prospect should cheer us through the difficult weeks ahead.
I pay tribute to the volunteers in Clitheroe whom I saw on Friday helping GPs to roll out the vaccine there.
Some housekeeping notes. To those MPs who are contributing virtually: we will be able to see the clock on the screens in the Chamber, at the bottom of the right-hand side; you should be able to see the clock as well, and please try to finish before three minutes is up. It is a lot cleaner if you do that. To those contributing in the Chamber, the timer will be on the usual monitors in the Chamber, and there is a three-minute limit on all Back-Bench contributions.
I know that the Minister and hon. Members on both sides of the House understand the seriousness of the situation that we now face. Yesterday, the chief medical officer warned that the next few weeks will be the worst of the pandemic, and the chief executive of NHS England said that the virus is spreading out of control in many parts of the country. As the Minister said, there are more than 32,000 covid patients now in hospital, up from 18,000 at the peak of the first wave. In my own hospitals in Leicester a quarter of patients have covid-19. Elsewhere this is 40% or even 50%, and we are preparing for those levels to hit us too.
On top of that, 46,000 hospital staff are currently off work sick with the virus, and the consequences of that are stark. Staff-to-patient ratios in acute and intensive care are stretched to the limit of acceptable levels, if not beyond. All but the most urgent operations are being cancelled in many parts of the country, including for cancer care. Ambulances are queuing for hours outside hospitals to get seriously ill patients into beds and some hospitals are even running dangerously low on oxygen supply.
Dealing with this awful virus, especially the new, more virulent strain, was always going to be extremely difficult, but I do not believe that the severity of the situation we are now in was inevitable. Over the past nine months, the Government have continually changed their message to the public, and have repeatedly been too slow to act, even though we know that the virus ruthlessly exploits ambiguity and delay. At the heart of the problem is the failure of the Prime Minister and some members of the Conservative party to understand that protecting people’s health and the economy is not a zero-sum game, because we cannot get the economy going again if we do not stay on top of the virus.
The individual freedoms that we all hold dear—our ability to learn, work, do business, travel the world and see those we love most—depend on the actions of others. No man or woman is an island. That has always been the case, but covid-19 has thrown our interdependency into sharper relief than ever before. Until the Prime Minister grasps that fact he will continue to make the same mistakes, and many in our country will pay a bitter price.
While most attention focuses understandably on the extreme pressures facing the NHS, the case I want to make is that we cannot protect the NHS if we fail to protect social care. Alongside the need for swift and decisive action, that is one of the most important lessons that should have been learned from the first wave, but once again there are warning signs of pressures building in social care which, I fear, have been downplayed or even ignored. The number of covid outbreaks in care homes has tripled in the past month. Care homes are reporting staff shortages of up to 40%. The latest weekly death rates in care homes are out today: 824 deaths for the week ending 8 January. Those numbers have doubled since November, and are the highest since May.
Ministers must heed those warnings and they must act, not just because after 20,000 deaths from covid-19 so far in care homes we must do everything possible to protect residents, or because care workers and unpaid family carers are physically and emotionally shattered after 11 months at the frontline and deserve more help and support, but because if we cannot keep people safe in their own homes or in care homes, or move them back home from hospital when medically they are able to leave, the whole system will buckle under the strain.
After all the problems earlier this year, with covid-19 patients being discharged to care homes that could not cope, the Government should finally have gripped the issue and delivered a proper plan. Yesterday, we learned that only 118 care homes have been designated as safe to accept covid patients from hospital, although the Government promised in November that there would be at least 500. Understandably, many care homes do not want to take covid patients from hospital, especially as insurers will not cover the associated risks. While the Government have provided indemnity against such claims to the NHS, they have still not done so for social care, despite repeatedly being asked to do so.
This is just one example of the way in which social care social care is still not being prioritised, treated or funded equally with the NHS. Frontline care workers are still chronically undervalued and underpaid. Almost three quarters do not even earn the real living wage, despite doing some of the most important work in society, looking after the people we love most. Millions more unpaid family carers are being stretched to breaking point, trying to look after the people they love. Even before the pandemic almost half of unpaid carers had not had a single break for five whole years, and since the virus millions more families have taken on an even bigger role, but with precious little help and support in return. So I urge the Government to consider what immediate extra support can be provided for social care—for care workers and family carers—over the coming months, when the pressures will be the greatest we have ever seen.
I know that across the country, as the Minister said, the vaccine provides real hope for care workers, care users and families that the nightmare they face can and will end, but we are in a race against time. The Government must leave no stone unturned in their plans to deliver the vaccine to all elderly care home residents and staff by the end of this month, and we will support them in their efforts to do so. However, we really do need to see daily vaccination rates for this group published so we know whether the Government are on course to complete this commitment in just under three weeks’ time.
People need to know when they can start visiting their relatives in care homes once the vaccine has been delivered, because this is currently totally unclear and causing real upset and concern for families across the country—people who have not seen their relatives for months and months on end. Ministers should also set out a more detailed timetable for vaccinating hundreds of thousands of other care workers by mid-February. This needs to include those working with disabled adults as well as older people, those working in home care as well as care homes, workers in supported living and personal assistants employed by direct payments. I think we are going to have to go way beyond the Government’s current plans if we are going to vaccinate family carers aged under 65 as part of priority group 6, as the JCVI now recommends.
The vaccine is the light at the end of a very dark tunnel, and as we begin to emerge, we must resolve to build a better Britain, not go back to business as usual. Nowhere is this more true than for social care. In July 2019, the Prime Minister promised on the steps of Downing Street that he had a plan to fix the crisis in social care. A year later, he again claimed his Government “won’t wait” to fix the problem, yet six months on his plan is still nowhere to be seen, and instead delayed until sometime later this year. In October, the Health Minister in the House of Lords said:
“There simply is not the…political capacity to take on a major generational reform…in the midst of this massive epidemic.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 October 2020; Vol. 807, c. 226.]
That is not good enough, and I would argue that this is precisely the time we need a long-term plan of far-reaching reform to give people hope that a better future is possible after the horrors of covid-19.
We need a social care system that works for older people and working-age adults with physical and learning disabilities, who make up a third of the users and a half of the budget of social care but are still too often ignored. We need a system that fundamentally shifts the focus of support towards prevention and early intervention to help people stay living independently and well in their own homes for as long as possible; a system where social care is fully joined up with but not run by the NHS, so people do not have to battle their way round all the different services, telling their story time and again; and a system that is properly funded after a decade of cuts, so care workers get the pay and training they deserve, families get decent support and there is help from the wider community too.
Yesterday, 88-year-old Moira Edwards, the first person to be vaccinated in one of the new NHS mass vaccine centres, spoke for many of us when she said that she could not wait to give her family a hug. I know that that is exactly how I feel. This pandemic has proved once again just how important our families are, but it has also exposed the fundamental flaws in the system of social care on which millions of families depend. The reality of modern family life is that more of us will need care, and need to care, as we all live for longer. So if we want to provide dignity and security for older and disabled people, and if we want to help families balance their work and caring responsibilities, and offer more than 1.5 million low-paid care workers hope for a better future, transforming social care must be a national mission. Labour Members stand ready to play our part in one of the biggest challenges facing our country, but it depends on Government action, which they must take—and now.
Order. Just to remind everybody in the Chamber that we now have a new one-way system, so Members enter via the door in front of me, and exit via the side doors or behind me—do not enter behind the Speaker’s Chair. I call Sir Peter Bottomley. There is a three-minute limit.
I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for her response to the Minister’s introduction to this important debate. I take as the theme words from the annex to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice, which said that we had to
“maximise benefit and reduce harm”.
Before I make some suggestions that are intended to be helpful to the Government and to the JCVI, I wish to read out a few words that have arrived just now from one of my mature constituents:
“My husband and I were advised on Saturday evening…that the vaccination was available to us on Sunday”—
“We attended the…Health Centre at that time.
We are writing to say how pleased we were to be offered the jab so quickly and by the way we were looked after at the centre…The staff were very efficient and helpful and made the whole event as stress free as possible.
All credit to all concerned especially those at the Barn Surgery.”
That has been typical for many of the 2 million or so who have already been vaccinated or had their first jab, and we hope it will be true for many, many more.
Let me discuss the problems. I was disappointed to hear that dental staff were not originally allowed to get the vaccination, as they were not directly employed by the NHS, even though they were NHS service providers. I hope that situation has been changed. I feel strongly about another small group, those with motor neurone disease, because of friends of mine who have had the condition. In Northern Ireland, people with that condition were immediately regarded as extremely vulnerable, although that was not necessarily so in England. Perhaps the Minister will say, either in this debate or at some other stage, whether or not that is so.
There are those whose absence from work makes a big difference to the service for the rest of us, and I would argue that reasonably healthy people in their 70s, such as me, can delay our vaccination so that younger people who are not critically vulnerable but whose work is critical to those who are vulnerable, such as the police and education staff—teachers and their support staff—can be vaccinated early. That will mean that they do not have to stay off work when there is some sort of threat around. I hope that the JCVI will find some way of bringing vaccinations for them forward as fast as possible.
There are other issues that I can go back over when an inquiry is held, but now is not the time to go into them in detail. However, I commend the wise family doctors and wise hospital doctors who from January a year ago were telling me things that would have made a significant beneficial difference had the Government picked them up earlier—or the NHS had picked them up earlier, because this is not all about the Government.
I want to talk about the excluded—those who do not have regular jobs, those who were properly paid income as directors. They have been excluded for too long—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I wish to pay tribute to all NHS and social care staff across the UK for the incredible role they have played in this crisis and to all the key workers who have helped to maintain food or energy supplies, and kept our public services operating. I echo the Minister in saying that the best way for all of us to express our gratitude is to stick to the rules and stay at home.
With the novel coronavirus emerging just a year ago, all Governments have had to find their way. There are many aspects of the UK Government’s covid response that can be criticised, especially being too slow to lock down in March, September and yet again in December, or outsourcing testing and contact tracing to companies with no previous experience, such as Deloitte and Serco, instead of using NHS and public health expertise. I am sure that many of the issues will be well-aired in this debate, so I will focus on where we are now and on what options should be considered for the next steps.
The first thing is to recognise that it is a false dichotomy to set public health against the economy, lives against livelihoods. People will simply not engage with the economy if they do not feel safe. The countries that have suffered the least economic harm are those with previous experience of SARS. Last February, they quickly acted on their learning from the epidemic of 2002. They initially closed their borders and have since maintained tight border control with testing and strict quarantine of all arrivals. They drove down early outbreaks and then worked to eliminate community spread. Those countries, such as Taiwan, New Zealand and Singapore, all now have domestic economies that are fully open and societies that are engaged in the pleasures of sporting events, dining out or simply having a few friends round, or, as the shadow Minister said, being able to give a loved one a hug.
So what is the strategy? First, let us avoid importing any more dangerous covid variants by tightly controlling the external borders of the UK, and, through co-operation with the devolved nations and the Republic of Ireland, try to make the whole common travel area covid-secure. I welcome the plan to require pre-travel tests for those coming to the UK, but they should be PCR tests, not lateral flow devices that miss more than half of those carrying the virus. We could learn from Pacific countries that enforce strict quarantine for incoming travellers, either in hotels or through digital monitoring at home. Such a strict approach would avoid importing the South African strain or other more concerning mutations that we do not even know about yet. If it contributed to getting the domestic economy fully open, the Government would then be able to focus their financial support on the industries involved in international travel, such as aviation and aerospace.
To avoid creating more mutations within the UK, it is critical to drive down the current rate of infection. It is simply a numbers game. More spread means more viral replication and leads to more mutations. All of this increases the risk of developing an even more problematic variant. The big advance, of course, compared with last March is that vaccines are now available and all four health services across the UK are working as fast as possible to deliver them to those at highest risk of covid. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, but, with just over 3% of the population vaccinated and hospitals in London at risk of being overwhelmed within weeks, it is simply not possible to vaccinate our way out of this current surge, so this lockdown is absolutely necessary.
The Minister mentioned those who undermine the rules by not taking covid seriously. A comparison of the first SARS epidemic and covid-19 highlights the fact that infectiousness is a greater danger than virulence. SARS had 10 times the mortality rate of covid, but only infected about 8,000 people and killed fewer than 800 worldwide. In contrast, despite appearing to be a much milder condition, covid-19 has infected more than 90 million people and already killed almost 2 million. As the new variant is estimated to be 70% more infectious than the original virus, uncontrollable spread is the real threat.
Therefore, rather than already discussing arbitrary end dates for this lockdown, it needs to be maintained long enough to fully suppress the current outbreak. We all know that lockdown is really difficult, but with approximately 55,000 new cases every day that will take time, and if it is relaxed too quickly, cases will simply rebound as they did in the autumn. Thereafter, the aim is that the test, trace and isolate system should detect and deal with sporadic cases and shut down minor outbreaks so that they do not get out of control. Instead of planning to spend eye-watering sums on lateral flow tests with poor sensitivity and a danger of giving people false reassurance, it would make more sense to fund an expansion of NHS labs to increase capacity and provide quicker turnaround times for PCR tests. It has been good to see an improvement in contact tracing with the greater involvement of local public health teams, as has been the case in the devolved nations since the start. However, the most important aspect of test, trace and isolate is the isolation of those carrying the virus. Only isolation stops the onward spread of the virus. No amount of testing or tracing will control the epidemic unless we get people isolating when required. The £500 isolation payment is welcome, but it is less than the minimum wage. It is important to clarify what happens to those whose applications are refused, and also to assess the need for practical support, such as the delivery of shopping or medicines. It is well worth providing such support if it helps stop the onward spread of the virus.
The fourth part of the strategy should be to make indoor settings—such as hospitality, offices and schools—safer by improving ventilation and air purification systems. A Government taskforce could assess the various new technologies available. Removing VAT or providing grants would help hard-hit sectors such as hospitality to reduce the risk of being repeatedly shut down in the future.
Finally, it is important to get the communication strategy right. Public health messaging should be clear, simple and honest, instead of undermining trust by constantly over-promising. Whether it is claims of world-beating apps and systems, or just repeatedly saying that the crisis will be over by a certain date, it is not helpful to have a trail of broken promises. I know from more than 30 years of having to speak and break bad news to cancer patients that honesty is always the best policy. Treat the public like grown-ups and share information openly, whether good or bad.
There was no handbook on covid at the start of the pandemic a year ago, but there are lessons we should have learned by now from research and experience, from our own mistakes or the successes of others. The Government need to make this lockdown count and ensure a systematic approach to covid in 2021.
When a friend of mine in Switzerland called this morning to say that the covid debate in the UK had become extremely polarised, it made me think about the need for rationality and proportionality in reporting. I was therefore appalled when I switched on the BBC and saw:
“Covid: 2020 saw most excess deaths since World War Two”.
In fact, further down the report it says that, when the age and size of the population is taken into account, 2020 saw the worst death rate since the mid-2000s. We do not need sensationalist reporting like that, particularly from national broadcasters, because there are real questions to be asked about mortality.
There is no clear way to measure covid mortality. We measure excess death rates, those who died within 28 days of a positive test and those who have covid on their death certificate, but that does not tell us what we really need to know: who actually died of covid as the primary infection, who died with covid—died of something else but was diagnosed as being positively exposed—and who died as a result of covid, either because of the lack of access to healthcare during the lockdown or because of the diminution of healthcare capacity because of high infection rates. That is why I reiterate my plea for a cross-party, cross-House commission to look at how we can actually get better data, which we will need for the future.
I turn to the success of the Government’s vaccination programme. The seven-day average of doses administered per million population show the UK at 2,500, Denmark second top in Europe at 1,500, well ahead of Germany on 571 and France on only 340. This is a great success for the Government. The success in the availability of the vaccine is the success of the strength of the Union. The UK Government took action to invest £120 million between 2016 and 2021 on new vaccines. The United Kingdom Government, on behalf of the whole country, secured access to 367 million doses from seven vaccine developers, with four different vaccine types.
The people of Scotland are asking as a response to covid, “Will I get my vaccine soon?” and “Will I get my business support?” What about the Scottish Government? The Deputy First Minister says that a second referendum is a “critical response to covid”. What a damning indictment: nationalist fanaticism over independence taking greater importance than the needs of the Scottish people. We can deal with public health emergencies much better as a United Kingdom. It is not the Government of England who are cutting the number of vaccine targets in half for the rest of January. We can not only do better within the United Kingdom, but help to lead the global response to this and future pandemics better together.
The Government’s complete failure to get the virus under control means that once again we are in a lockdown, but it is clear already that this lockdown is inadequate to drive the new strain of the virus right down to safe levels. Data shows that mobility during this lockdown is twice the levels of the March lockdown. The Government’s response to an inadequate lockdown has not been to address the real reasons so many are having to travel. Instead, it has been to launch a cynical PR campaign, blaming the public for a lack of compliance.
It is not the first time that the Government have sought to blame the public to cover up their own failings, which have led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The real reason there is so much movement compared to the March lockdown is that people are having to go to work. Workplaces that clearly are not essential in the true meaning of the word are still open. Workers who want to work from home are having to go to their workplaces. Others simply cannot afford to stay at home. We need a proper lockdown to get this virus under control. That means the Government must provide the financial support needed for businesses and people to get through this crisis.
The Chancellor’s vacuous statement in the House yesterday showed that the Government are callously ignoring the financial hardship that so many find themselves in. A proper lockdown means that all non-essential workplaces should be closed and those workers who cannot work from home should be given full furlough. It means urgent help for the millions of self-employed people who have never had any support, and for the many others facing ruin and so are still having to work. It means sick pay at real living wage levels. The vaccines offer real hope, but it will be many, many months until they are sufficiently rolled out.
This lockdown should also be the starting point for a zero covid strategy—a maximum suppression strategy that has seen life return to normal in New Zealand and in much of east Asia. But this failing lockdown is a sign that the Government are just going to continue with their failing strategy. Thousands more will die as a result over the coming months. The economic damage will continue and future lockdowns may be needed. It will be the Government, not the public, who will be to blame.
We are back in lockdown again and 2021 is looking a lot like 2020. The difference, and the reason I supported it last week, is that we finally have the ultimate release from lockdown in the form of the vaccine.
I warmly welcome the vaccine delivery plan published yesterday. It seems that we are off to a good start, with 2.3 million people having been vaccinated. That is great. There is no doubt that we will see problems. Supply, to quote the vaccines Minister, is going to be “lumpy”. That is creating difficulties. We have begun well in my constituency, but it is hugely frustrating to see the postponing today of a raft of appointments for this week because of problems of supply. We cannot duck the fact that that has hurt public confidence, and I ask the Minister responding today to set out for the House exactly, because I keep being asked this, where the supply falls down at an early stage. Is it the manufacturing? Is it the settling process? What exactly is it? I am told that the deliveries for next week look much better. We have a lot of AstraZeneca vaccine coming into the county, so I hope the Minister can help us to correct this problem, to get those appointments made and carried out as soon as possible.
It remains my belief that these horrible restrictions on our lives cannot be in place a day longer than required —and, to be clear, they are currently required. Alongside the published vaccine delivery plan and daily figures on how we are getting covid done, we must give the public some hope. As the Secretary of State said last night at the press conference, over 88% of those likely to get seriously unwell, and sadly die, reside within the top four priority vaccine groups. Given that the only metric that really counts, and the reason public support for the lockdown is so high, is the desire to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, logic would dictate that once that threat has gone away, we can start to lift restrictions.
We need clear heads if we are going to do this. Covid is not a conspiracy and it is not a hoax. We were right to take it seriously last spring, and since, but we are equally right to demand a plan that dismantles the most draconian of laws on our constituents in lockstep with the vaccination programme. When we have vaccinated the highest-risk groups, what will we do? When we have completed phase one by vaccinating all those with above-average risk by late March, what will we then do? Put another way, how does success in vaccine delivery translate into a return to normal? What is the exit strategy? The public have put up with an awful lot. The vast majority of them have done exactly what we asked. They need hope, they need to see a path out of this, and then we can attempt to make sure that 2021 really is not the new 2020.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), I want to focus my remarks on what happens when we have vaccinated the most vulnerable.
Before I do so, I want to make a case for one particular industry and profession that has been very hard hit by lockdown: the private hire and taxi industry. At the weekend I spoke at a virtual meeting to Mr Imran and Mr Jamil of the Peterborough Private Hire Association. They told me that many taxi drivers in the city have seen their incomes drop dramatically as a result of lockdown to just a fraction of what they were before the pandemic. People are rightly staying at home, but self-employed taxi drivers cannot stop working, because they have to take patients to hospitals and key workers to work. They are not classed as key workers, even though they have to work. There is no school run, there is no night-time economy, and people are not going to work in big numbers. I have written to Peterborough City Council asking if it will use the additional revenue grant to support them during this third lockdown.
This third lockdown can only really be justified by a need to pause things to buy time in order to carry out the vaccination programme, so that there is an end—a proper end—to this crisis and things can open up again. I hear the arguments that vaccinating the elderly and the most vulnerable will not necessarily end this crisis. No one is doubting the scale of the challenges that our NHS faces, particularly in our hospitals, but we must be able to discuss what life looks like with a vaccinated population, and if and when we can get to the point where covid-19 can be treated in the same way as flu.
The Government have confirmed that over 88% of covid fatalities are from the top four groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation —the very people we need to have been vaccinated by the middle of February—so it is at this point that we need to begin to try to lift these restrictions and, as I say, talk about what life may look like after we have a vaccinated population. As the Minister said, some people have been through hell and back, but we have to look at what life looks like post vaccination. The end is near; we are nearly there. So let us start talking. Let us not prolong lockdown any longer than is necessary. Let us open up the economy so that we can begin to raise taxes to pay for our NHS and the vital public services that we have relied on.
We stand on the precipice of what many experts warn will be the darkest days in the long war on covid-19. There are now 62% more patients in hospital with covid than at the peak of the first wave. In London, the Mayor has been forced to declare a major incident, with hospitals cancelling potentially life-saving cancer surgeries, and in Liverpool city region, one in 100 people tested positive for this terrible virus last week.
Like other Members, I want to thank the nurses, doctors, carers and other healthcare professionals who have put their lives on the line every single day of this pandemic. With this country in the midst of its greatest crisis since the second world war, they have exemplified the very best of humanity: heroically brave and selflessly committed to the wellbeing of others. So too should we thank the supermarket workers, teachers and cleaners who have kept our country going while so many of us have stayed at home. This crisis has shown us that the real national heroes are not the bankers or the CEOs but, too often, the lowest paid and least recognised in our society, and it is time we fixed that.
For the moment, the best way in which we can do that is to thank key workers by following public health guidance. We all have a responsibility to stay at home, maintain social distancing and protect the NHS. When doctors and nurses working on the frontline beg us to play our part, we must listen. We must also recognise that people can only stay at home if they can afford to do so, and it is incumbent on all of us who have the great privilege of serving in this House to ensure that everyone has the financial support they so desperately need. That is why, in March last year, my party called on the Government to put in place a comprehensive package of support for workers who have been impacted by the pandemic.
The extension of the furlough scheme in the autumn was undoubtedly a welcome development. However, while many of our eastern and European partners have put in place far-reaching programmes aimed at combating unemployment, this Government have instead given us months of uncertainty, chaotic U-turns and broken promises. Too many people are being asked to choose between curbing the spread of covid and putting food on the table. Nearly a year after the pandemic first struck, there are still almost 3 million British taxpayers who are yet to receive a penny of financial support. Instead, they have been told to join the millions of households claiming universal credit—a pitiful amount that Ministers admit they could not live on.
The Government are even threatening to cut the £20 uplift in universal credit in two months’ time. I will not be alone in having been inundated by constituents telling me that they do not know how they and their families will survive if their payments are reduced any further. It is an utterly shameful proposal. I urge Ministers to ensure that there is no detriment to welfare payments at a time of such great economic hardship. I would also like to express my support for the Leader of the Opposition’s call for a flexible furlough scheme that allows parents to meet their childcare responsibility and alleviates the considerable pressure on our schools.
It is a pleasure to speak again today about covid-related matters. To be frank, the supply of the vaccine in South Derbyshire has been slow, but now the area is gearing up. Those in the northern part of the constituency are being invited to the Derby Arena—the velodrome—which I am extremely pleased is up and running, and from the end of this week, we will have a stand-alone centre in Swadlincote. That is an area of 50,000 people, and only those in the top four tranches will be invited as soon as possible. It has taken a lot of kicking and screaming to get to this point, and when we do a national review of how things have happened, we will also need to do a local review. However, we are getting there now.
I would also like to talk about where we need to be going on the mental health side of things, particularly for the people who feel that they have been forgotten about financially. We have sent the Chancellor a couple of new ideas about the directors’ income support scheme and other matters, such as the money coming back from supermarkets. It is not just a financial matter. I am concerned about the mental health of some of the constituents I am receiving emails from, and I will be negotiating again an uplift in mental health services for the people of South Derbyshire who need them in these extraordinary times.
I will not go on for long because there are lots of speakers, and some people have missed out in these debates. I will wrap up now by saying a huge thank you to our shopworkers, frontline services, NHS, ambulance people and everyone who keeps the show on the road. It has been a massive community effort. In South Derbyshire, we have rapid lateral flow tests and we will have the sites for the vaccines. That will make a huge difference to everyone’s feeling about finding a way out. I end with my grateful thanks for everything that everyone is doing.
I do not think it is controversial to say that we are not in a place where any of us would choose to be right now. It is not a time for taunts about U-turns or to respond with personal or flippant remarks; our constituents need grown-ups in the room.
The Secretary of State requests that the House get behind his decision, but if he is to achieve that his approach must change. There needs to be less personal attack and greater clarity. We all need to listen more carefully to voices whose opinions differ from ours, from the frontline to the experts and all Members of this place.
I am as determined as the next right hon. or hon. Member to see the back of the pandemic. With more than 7,000 excess deaths since March 2020 in England alone, not one of us should want to prolong this tragic loss of life. But without a realistic and determined strategy, we risk continued failure to contain the threat. If all Members are to truly get behind any such strategy, it must be forged with as broad a consensus as possible—cross-party and respectfully with the devolved Governments. I firmly believe that that is the only way we can move towards an end to this crisis and the elimination of community transmission.
Such planning should encompass all relevant areas of Government, ensuring that disbursement of financial support always results in equitable consequentials. There must be some movement from the Government to address the devastation inflicted on the 3 million who have been excluded from support; repeatedly telling them how generous the Government have been to everyone else only serves to pour more salt on their wounds and lacks any semblance of humanity. The compelling case for the retention of the extension to legacy benefits, the £20 universal credit uplift, is a move supported by 60% of people across the UK. Indeed, there is a well-trodden shopping list of issues that some in this House would argue a case for, and I believe that they do so for the most honourable of reasons.
The most pressing of matters, of course, is our direct response to the threat of the virus to life. We know that we cannot firefight our way out of this current position, if that is how we got to this place. Vaccines are welcome, but the science has yet to bear out their impact on the transmission of coronavirus. As the virus remains prevalent and circulating in the community, the risk of further mutation remains.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said that this has been “the toughest year” that any staff member “can remember”, and that NHS England is back in the “eye of the storm” that it faced earlier last year. The handclapping on the doorstep and the warm words of appreciation ring hollow without recognition and proper reward. The resilience of cancer services has again been severely tested, and Parliament must consider, monitor and scrutinise the short-termism of the cancer recovery plan. We need a plan for the future, and it needs to be one with consensus.
I greatly appreciate the chance to contribute my local experience, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In my constituency, two more people died yesterday, thousands have caught the disease and it is getting worse, even in the remotest depths of rural Somerset. We face a vicious enemy that attacks without warning and has the power to exploit even the smallest human error. Let down our mask or hug the grandchildren, and we could—I am sorry to say it—die. No one likes lockdown, but obeying the rules is vital, and so is setting a positive public image.
It is a great pity that Somerset County Council is still planning to run public surveys about local government reform, while the daily death toll across the county continues to rise. The Government gave Somerset an extra £32 million to tackle covid; £10 million—I repeat, £10 million—went straight into the council’s reserves. It even had the barefaced cheek to shift almost £0.5 million into a savings fund for its own carparks. What a cheap trick! Words fail me at the lack of decency and care for people’s real interests and needs.
We all know that Ministers have long-term plans to reform local government, but it is no time for the county council in Somerset to be cooking the books to make themselves look like financial wizards. As for the county council wasting time on surveys, which it is now planning to do right through January and February, how dare it treat us with contempt? It will be pestering people who are frightened by a disease that is still spreading fast.
The county has put the districts in an impossible position. They would much prefer to leave this alone until such time as the pandemic is over, but the county council insists on wasting public money and running consultations, and the districts are seriously expected to carry on as though nothing has happened. The Government need to take the lead to completely freeze this whole local government reform programme.
So far, worldwide, almost 2 million human beings have been killed by covid. In this country, the death toll tonight is more than 82,000—the population of my constituency. One day, our descendants may ask, “What did you do in the pandemic?” I really do not believe that any self-respecting Minister will want to admit responsibility by saying, “I pushed ahead with local government reform.” It is irrelevant. It is an unnecessary sideshow while so many of our residents are desperately trying to protect their own lives and those of their loved ones.
We hope and pray for a swift roll-out of the new vaccines. Some teething problems are inevitable, and in Somerset there are elements that have been delayed, so I have a positive and constructive suggestion for the Minister. Why not report vaccines in the same way as infections: area by area, week by week, day by day? We would like to know exactly how many jabs have been given across our county and who is getting them. If the Minister could do that, it would make all our lives easier.
This crisis has created unbearable pressure on our nurses, doctors and hospital leaders, and I want to thank them for all they do. Many NHS staff are effectively the walking wounded. They have been operational without a break, exhausted, stressed and traumatised, for so long. Today, I want assurances that when decisions are made about how and when to end this lockdown, Ministers will be guided only by science, resources and the trajectory of the virus.
When staff are so stretched, local decision making about resources is paramount. Last week, we learned that the Nightingale in Newham is to be open for patients as well as for vaccination, but there is suspicion in my patch that some decisions are not based on clinical need, because there have never been enough staff to run the Nightingale at a reasonable capacity. We are struggling to staff the facilities that we have got. Where are all these additional medics coming from? We need sensible local decisions. For heaven’s sake, we have the highest infection rate in London.
I know that we have absolutely no choice but to lock down hard to save lives, but that has to be matched with fair support for all. I am thinking especially about the hospitality, events and cultural sector, which is struggling. The wedding industry is huge in Newham. It has had to push back the time when it can take bookings again, and it is struggling. So is the supply chain and its employees, and wedding dress shops, caterers and jewellers too.
We pray that the vaccine programme works, and that it works rapidly, but vulnerable sectors in our economy will need support for months. Yesterday, however, the Chancellor offered no additional support—nothing new to protect struggling sectors of the economy, nothing for struggling families, and still absolutely nothing for those excluded from support time and again. Why did he bother to turn up?
Why are we seeing children living in poverty still with no IT devices or broadband, and why are they now being cheated out of food that the public purse paid for? Surely, every single Member has seen the paltry rations we are told 30 quid pays for. Seriously, where are they shopping? We knew for months that this moment was coming again. This ain’t our first lockdown—we knew what the implications would be. There are absolutely no excuses for constantly doing too little, too late.
Until recently, Bridgend had the highest infection rate in the entire country. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to say to everyone there, and to everyone considering visiting one of the popular tourist areas of Bridgend and Porthcawl, to please stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
I have just a few short points to make and will be as quick as I can. On immunisations, the speed at which the vaccinations have been made available is truly remarkable. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is testimony to the excellent science and research and development that we have in this country. Equally remarkable is our progress so far against the immunisation schedule—an ambitious schedule: we have already vaccinated 2.3 million people, I think, with 2.6 million doses. That is encouraging; it is a welcome achievement. It underlines the difference between how we are all feeling now with how we were feeling in March. There is light at the end of the tunnel and an end in sight.
My constituents are anxious to better understand that end and how the vaccine roll-out will translate into the return of their freedoms, the opening up of their businesses and the return of their children to schools and colleges. It is reasonable that now we have a vaccine and an achievable immunisation schedule, which will hopefully lead to us preventing just under 90% of deaths by 15 February, we should be able to provide those answers. I ask for that information to be made available and that the road map to normalcy is made clearer as soon as possible.
My constituents also contact me about the rules and restrictions in place. To them I say: this is an unprecedented crisis. Tens of thousands of Britons have lost their lives and clearly the Government are right to take action to control the spread of this deadly virus, but those actions have been and are being informed by data and modelling that have not been published. That is a real shame because it means the data and modelling have not been subjected to review by academic peers, experts or—most importantly—the public themselves.
Finally, many constituents have contacted me to express disappointment at how different parts of the UK have dealt with the pandemic and how that has led to confusion. I always urge them to follow local rules, but I sincerely hope that we face our next challenge as global Britain and one United Kingdom.
In the midst of this most critical situation, I start by paying huge tribute to NHS and care staff from Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, those organising the vaccines and all keyworkers out there in Newport East on the frontline, in the most stressful and challenging of circumstances.
In Wales, 3,997 people to date have tragically lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their families and friends for their loss and pain. It has never been more important to heed the calls to stay at home and keep each other safe. I have some points to raise with Ministers in the limited time I have.
As a Welsh Member, I pay tribute to Welsh Government Ministers and their strong leadership. So often, the pattern has been that the Welsh Government have made the difficult decisions first, only to see others follow later, but I remind Ministers that the Treasury is the Treasury for the whole UK, not just England.
In autumn, when Wales went into a firebreak first, the Tory Government would not extend the job retention scheme, yet when England went into its second lockdown the Treasury U-turned and ensured that support was in place. The Welsh Government took the difficult but justified decision to move Wales to level 4 in December because of the new strain—there was some opposition from the Government Benches to that—but it was not until England locked down last week that additional funding was mentioned. Then it emerged that the money announced for Wales was not new money at all, but money already announced last year. We have seen that pattern repeated throughout the pandemic. We should not forget that we ended 2020 in the UK with one of the worst death tolls in Europe and the deepest recession of any major economy. That was not inevitable; it was a consequence of the Prime Minister’s repeated delay in choices.
I urge Ministers to do more to help the 3 million people in the UK who have been excluded from UK Government support schemes. Many will soon be a year without support, including constituents of mine such as the woman whose employer chose not to take part in the furlough scheme, the newly self-employed beautician and the company director of the small business who is paid via dividends. There was some speculation last week that there may be some movement on this, but our constituents need help as soon as possible, including new starters, those who have been on parental leave and others.
We must see more action for those who rely on the social security system. We are in the worst recession for 300 years, and family incomes are under huge strain. Why are the Government looking to cut universal credit by £1,000 for 6 million families? In Newport East, 8,812 families will take a hit if the cut goes ahead in April. Ministers must rule that out now, end the five-week wait, provide a £20 uplift to legacy benefits and change advances for loans. Action is needed quickly.
Finally, this is a critical time for the steel industry. It would be really helpful if Ministers could update us on talks with Tata about short-term support in this crisis, on Tata’s changes and on the long-term strategy for our steel industry.
I thank the Minister for Health for the way in which he opened the debate, with a sense of respect for people with all sorts of opinions on this matter. We ought to be able to reflect different views as part of a healthy debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who is not here at the moment, for speaking about the importance of the use of data, and ensuring that it is not manipulated or abused.
From the very beginning the Government have had a clear plan for how we leave this awful cycle of lockdowns, and it has always been through vaccinations. That goal is now being delivered. We are at a very early stage of the process and it may be lumpy, but there is that commitment to have 13 million of the most vulnerable people in the country at least offered the vaccination by mid-February. The vast majority of those people will take up that offer. In fact, 85% of people expressed an opinion that they wish to take up the vaccination if it is offered. We can see a clear way out once those first four cohorts have the vaccination by mid-February, with two more weeks in order for the vaccination to take its full effect.
With that success, we should all expect to see a reduction or a lightening of the load in terms of the lockdown. People have carried this burden through all this time, since March last year; they need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the lightening of the lockdown restrictions following the success of the Government’s vaccination programme. Many of my constituents are enthusiastically looking forward to their vaccinations, especially in Horwich, where they are looking forward to the use of Bolton Wanderers’ football ground, the Macron stadium, for this purpose. Hopefully the Minister will be able to comment on whether the ground is going to be used for the inoculation programme. The Royal Bolton Hospital and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust are doing an enormous amount of good work. I pay tribute to everyone working in shops, the council, hospitals or care services for the work that they are doing. But with the first goal of delivering the vaccination, we also need to see the lightening of the lockdown load.
The third goal—to get the hat trick—ought to be consideration of whether we need to renew the Coronavirus Act 2020. By renewing it, we set out for many people a fear that lockdown will be resumed in the autumn. By not renewing it, we are telling people, “You can resume your education. You can start your business again. You can feel confident of getting that health treatment,” and we get that recovery going.
It goes without saying that we must use this opportunity to thank all our public health workers, as well as our journalists and broadcasters. My favourite is Victoria Macdonald from Channel 4, who seems to portray the pain and suffering, and yet the strength and solidarity of our health workers; a huge thank you to all our broadcasters and journalists, who are doing such a good job of keeping us informed.
I regret that the Government did not tackle soon enough a review back in the summer of what went wrong in the first wave, which in my view has led to our being in a third wave. Had we had an effective review in the summer and, for example, introduced testing in schools on 1 September, we might not be in the situation that we are in now.
On the question of long covid, I am on the all-party group, with many Members from across the House. We know that there is not a proper care pathway. I think of a 40-year-old constituent of mine who has not recovered, even though he suffered from covid last April. It is now coming up to 10 months and he still has not seen a specialist because he was never in accident and emergency and within a proper care pathway. We must urgently address that dreadful long-covid syndrome, which is affecting so many people who are recovering from covid.
I put on record my regret that we did not tackle the isolation strategy with enough energy, and with enough understanding of the lives of people who work in insecure roles, who desperately need to be compensated, whether for taxi driving or being a security guard. In all those insecure jobs, they need to be paid to stay at home. I also put on record, as many have in the debate, the 3 million excluded. It is probably more than 3 million. The work of the all-party group is very important, but it is particularly the creative sector that is terribly affected by the covid crisis. It has been going on for several months. People feel that there is no way out and they are feeling absolutely desperate.
In particular, I ask the Minister, first, whether nurseries will stay open. If they do, will nursery nurses be put forward for early vaccinations? Will dentists be higher up the list? They are very at risk because of their work, in terms of the covid germs. No. 3 is optometrists and then, of course, other professionals such as teachers. Also, prisoners, prison officers and prison educators are very much at risk of covid. Will the Minister please take back to the Justice Secretary the question of whether classes in prisons should be going ahead at the moment? I would not want anyone not to be protected from this terrible virus.
There was a time when I did not think that I was going to get on, but I am back, so thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The first vaccine dose has now been supplied to more than 2.2 million people. That is larger than the whole of the rest of Europe put together—a brilliant start to this huge programme to vaccinate a significant proportion of the United Kingdom’s people. I thank our healthcare workers in Gloucestershire, who have been working very hard since Christmas to meet the four priority groups by mid-February. I understand that most care home residents and workers will be vaccinated by the end of this week—a fantastic achievement.
We must make a comprehensive plan this year for our schools. I received a number of detailed questions from my constituents on the curriculum to be adopted. For example, is Ofqual considering the idea of grades being announced earlier this year to provide certainty and time if needed to appeal the grades? Will some form of mini-exam or coursework on the content learned be expected to help in grading accurately? What will be the plan for students who do not take normal exams, for example, those on apprenticeships, or the new T-levels being trialled at Cirencester College? We now have enough information to make those decisions. We should make them and adhere to them. Clarity must be provided for schools, parents and pupils, with all Government communications and websites being clear and not contradictory.
The vaccine programme has the makings of being a great British success, as we build on a strong medical manufacturing base in future. We are now world leaders in the new ribonucleic acid technology, which should enable vaccines to be made for not just covid but a wide range of viruses. From yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee session on the vaccine programme, the immense skill and knowledge of Kate Bingham and her taskforce were well and truly apparent. When they started their work in May they were not sure whether they would be able to develop a vaccine, let alone where it would come from. Yet the vaccine trial has now been successfully launched, with 267 million doses contracted from five companies at a cost of £2.9 billion. It is an amazing achievement.
The strong message of recovery now needs to come from the Government, encouraging everyone to take up the vaccination so that we can enable individuals, schools, hospitals and, above all, businesses to have a well-overdue return to normal life.
I shall say just a few words. As I have listened to the others who have spoken, I have become aware that the fears of my constituency, Strangford, are replicated throughout the UK. We must remember that light dispels the darkness.
I plea for communication, particularly in relation to the teachers who have sometimes been unsure of what has been happening. It would be better if they had an email to tell them in advance what they could then tell parents.
I thank GPs for all that they are doing in relation to the vaccine roll-out. I make a plea again for the pharmacies, because they are well placed and well located and also have the ability to deliver the vaccines, if they get the opportunity.
The postmen and postwomen who have done their duty during their rounds deserve a lot of credit. Their work is necessary and it is essential that we provide them with support.
I thank all the workers who have come out of retirement —the doctors, nurses and careworkers—to carry out admin duties or to muck in and carry out work on the wards, and also those who have been vaccinated. Given the pressure that the NHS is under, it is essential that discussions are held. Perhaps the Minister could give some indication of what discussions have been held with private hospitals to secure beds and assistance throughout the United Kingdom.
On teachers again, last week I made a plea to the Secretary of State directly for teachers to be made a priority case, along with those who continue to work in nurseries and special schools during this strict lockdown. It is important that their role is recognised and that they are prioritised when it comes to the vaccine.
We must ensure that the vulnerable who have additional learning needs receive additional help and support as a matter of urgency. Although it is great to hear of the offer of learning tools, schools must have access to such tools so that they can give them to vulnerable children immediately, not later.
This is not the responsibility of the Minister, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but I stress that the issue is not just covid-19 but the fact that because of the Northern Ireland protocol we are seeing numerous empty shelves and businesses on the brink. People in Northern Ireland are fearful once again that they will not have the bare essentials. The issue is very clear for us. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but the complications we have with the protocol add to the situation when it comes to covid-19.
Cancer waiting lists need to be addressed. The Minister is in her place and I know that she is totally committed, so I make that plea again.
We are quickly approaching a year of dealing with coronavirus. For some this has been a year of isolation, for some a year of fear and for some a long time mourning in these strange times. We are approaching the end of the journey, but we are not there yet. We need to bring people through with messages of truth, hope and positivity, and to do as we did at the start of this journey: pull together. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together.
Aldous Huxley wrote that the 20th century plague was not the black death, but rather the grey life. He could have been describing life under covid-19. When I was elected a year ago, I did not set out to take away freedoms, or to shut down businesses and close schools, but to save lives we have had no choice but to live much of a grey life this last year.
My priority has been to support residents and businesses locally throughout this pandemic, helping tens of thousands who have written to me. But now, my priority is making sure that I help those still in need and that we have a road out of national lockdown, which the vaccine gives us. We already have three vaccination centres in Rutland and Melton, and almost 50,000 people across our primary care networks have been vaccinated.
As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, I thank all those in Rutland and Melton who have borne the costs with such grace and selflessness over the last year—those who have helped each other under the toughest domestic conditions we have seen since the war. In particular, I wish to recognise Tim Weston and his fellow teachers and students at Oakham School, and Rutland Plastics. In the first lockdown, they made so many tens of thousands of visors that I arranged the delivery of masks to hospitals and settings all around the country.
I also wish to recognise Stuart and Holly East, who own the Old White Hart pub in Lyddington and cooked 300 meals a day for NHS staff; Tony Fowler, the local milkman who spent his breaks shopping for isolated residents; Governor Neil Thomas, who rightly received an OBE for his work, and his prison officers and staff at HMP Stocken; and, finally, our wonderful soldiers across Rutland and Melton, who ran pop-up testing sites around the east midlands. But there are so many more I wish to praise, including Clawson Kindness, Sharon Brown and Rutland Sewing. These are all people who have set about helping others without any thought for their own recognition. They are the unsung heroes of Rutland and Melton and the very best of Britain.
I also appreciate the extraordinary sacrifices of our police and our health and care staff, both formal and informal carers, and our council staff. Our healthcare workers have worked tirelessly to save lives, and I am enormously grateful, but we must also remember those who are often forgotten in our shops, our binmen and those in unseen roles. I would also like to recognise our businesses, shops and traders who have forgone profits to keep covid rates down.
Finally, I want to thank the hundreds, if not thousands, of women who have written to me asking for little more than their partners to be with them at pregnancy scans and when they give birth. I am proud to have fought for them, and I want to thank the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Prime Minister for their support on this issue. I am also pleased to have lobbied Ministers to secure the exemption for children under five from the rules on two adults meeting in public during the lockdown, because we had to ensure that the most vulnerable did not suffer most at this time. Now we must focus on returning to normality, giving people back their freedoms as soon as possible and ensuring that our recovery is as fast and equitable as possible. Thank you again to everyone in Rutland and Melton who has worked so hard to defeat the virus.
Covid and its mismanagement are hurting my city of Hull and the East Riding, and without fair and adequate support from Government, I fear for the future of jobs, particularly in the hospitality and entertainment sector. I have already raised the incredible work on marine conservation being done by the Deep, and its incredibly challenging financial situation. All the animals still need caring for, feeding and looking after, but the Deep’s doors remain shut and its income remains at zero.
Hull Trains, an open-access rail operator, has again stopped its direct rail service through to London and faces an uncertain future. It is unfathomable that other cities would see their only direct route to the capital cancelled, yet the Government are content to allow this to happen to Hull. I hope that they have not also forgotten about our other businesses, or about the impact on our cinemas, bowling alleys, Hull Truck Theatre, Hull New Theatre, Hull FC rugby club and Hull City football club. When large businesses such as those suffer, our city suffers—and not just our economy but our morale too. I have submitted many written questions to the Government about this, because it is an issue of fairness. I will not allow the Government to choke off our chances of recovery and cut us off from opportunity.
The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on pubs and breweries has been nothing short of catastrophic. They have been messed about during the pandemic, and they do not know if they are coming or going. At one point the Prime Minister was encouraging people, saying that it was their patriotic duty to go to the pub and that they should eat out to help out. Pubs then spent a fortune making their premises covid-secure, only to be told, “Oh, you’re unsafe. You must close.” The uncertainty throughout the pandemic is having a damaging impact on people’s mental health. The Government must start planning beyond next week and take a serious long-term look at all the problems facing industry. Pubs and breweries need a road map that sets out a path that combines the necessary immediate support with the continuing economic stimulus needed throughout 2021.
Finally, I want to highlight two pubs in my constituency. The Hop and Vine basement bar in Hull has contacted me to ask if it can be allowed to do off-sales again. This made a difference previously, and the bar is at a loss as to why it is not allowed now. My constituent Pete Wilkinson, the tenant landlord of the New Griffin on Anlaby Road, has told me a story of the incompetence of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs when he requested something as simple as the required tax code to get his payroll up and running, and I hope the Minister will put me in touch with the relevant person so we can get this resolved. I have never asked for special treatment for Hull West and Hessle. We just want to be treated fairly so that we can save jobs and businesses and ensure that we come out of the pandemic fighting and ready to bring on the rest of this year.
The Minister ordinarily has a rather pessimistic speech inflicted on her when I rise in the House, but today I want to strike a different tone, because the whole country can now see that we have a moment of opportunity, a moment of hope and a route out of these persistent lockdowns. I can report that in Stockport, my home town and the borough of my constituency, all the over-80s and care home residents will have received at least their first jab by this Friday. I am grateful that Stockport has honoured the commitment that was given to those who received their first jab that they would receive their second one. I know that there is considerable public debate about that, but that was quite helpful in allaying some of their concerns. Good progress is indeed being made with the roll-out of vaccination. I pay particular tribute to those at Stepping Hill Hospital and the many GP practices across my constituency. Indeed, in Greater Manchester, that has recently been augmented by the vaccine centre at the tennis centre. I particularly mention on this one occasion my mum, who has come out of retirement to help with vaccines at that centre.
May I briefly ask the Minister about matters around data, particularly the need to update and clarify explanatory notes on the dashboard for vaccination statistics? It would be helpful to have a breakdown of data on those who have been vaccinated according to the nine priority groups of vulnerable people, with running percentages on progress made. Indeed, we could provide local breakdowns of data, perhaps to inculcate a sense of civic pride if not competition, and the need to make further progress. Most seriously, that could highlight problem areas so that extra focus can be given and extra resource made available.
I echo calls not for a timetable of how we can ease lockdown but, rather, milestones—the course of the virus does not follow a timetable. At least having measurable progress, with milestones reached, would allow people to stick with the impositions of lockdown, allow businesses to plan, and keep the Government’s feet to the fire, showing that their singular focus is on the roll-out of the vaccine. I hope that those words of encouragement will meet with the approval of my hon. Friend the Minister.
There is so much that could be said about the Government’s chronic mishandling of the pandemic; their failure to act swiftly enough and learn from their mistakes; the obsession with failing, centralised, private-sector-led approaches; the cronyism and chumocracy that have wasted so much money and left so many frontline workers exposed to danger—something that I am seeking to highlight through a cross-party court case; their continued failure to fix our test, trace, isolate and support scheme; their derisory rates and conditions for statutory sick pay, which mean that many simply cannot afford to self-isolate; and the cruel exclusion of over 3 million workers from financial support.
Ten years of austerity, alongside the systematic fragmentation of the NHS, have left our country chronically ill-prepared to cope with the crisis. Existing inequalities have been laid bare and exacerbated. We may all be weathering the same storm, but we are in very different boats. For those reasons and more, I support calls for an independent public inquiry. As vice-chair of the all-party group on coronavirus I was pleased to contribute to our own inquiry, and I commend our report on how to achieve a covid-secure UK.
I want to focus, however, on an issue that has had far less coverage: the fact that, even as we struggle to cope with the pandemic, we continue to sow the seeds for the next one. Constant encroachment on the world’s rainforests and other wild habitats has multiplied the risks of pathogens jumping from humans to animals, together with the global trade in wild animals and animal markets. Some may say that mid-pandemic is not the time to take action to prevent the next one. I would argue that the longer we delay, the more certain those future pandemics will be.
The recent report from the intergovernmental platform on biodiversity could not be more stark. It says that if we continue as we are:
“Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19”.
It calls for “a seismic shift” from reaction to prevention, noting that the economic cost of pandemics is 100 times more than reducing risk in the first place. Chillingly, it estimates that another 1.7 million undiscovered viruses exist in mammals and birds, of which up to 827,000 could have the ability to infect people.
Crucially, the same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss drive pandemic risk, including the expansion and intensification of agriculture, and unsustainable trade, production and consumption. There are two areas where the Government must act. First, stronger deforestation provisions are needed in the Environment Bill. The due diligence obligation must apply to all unsustainable forest risk commodities; and the whole UK economy, not just supply chains, must be deforestation free by 2030. Secondly, we must stop the finance sector bankrolling deforestation and biodiversity destruction linked to industrial livestock. The Government say that they have put £3 billion towards biodiversity, raided from the aid budget, but that is nothing compared with the £380 billion that has been spent over five years, bankrolled by Barclays, HSBC and others. The Government must act, and do it now.
As I was waiting in the Library for this debate to start, I happened to notice on the shelves a book about Edmund Burke, and as this debate is about the balance between the freedom of the individual and the authority of the Government, I opened it at random and I found this quote:
“The Mass of Mankind are made to be led by others. Habits & Customs are their support, because it would be impossible that civil Society could subsist long if we were all Philosophers. Subordination, therefore, is necessary for the human mind.”
My question is whether that is actually correct. I believe that conservatism—and I put the emphasis on conservatism as a philosophy; I am not just talking about the Conservative Government—is about freedom and trusting the individual and individual authority.
People ask me why I have gone along with this so far, and it is for one reason only: we are told that the NHS—because so many beds, wrongly, have been stripped from the NHS over the last 10 years—was in danger of falling down, so that should be the approach of the Government. If we are to restrict people’s freedom, we should only do it because we are worried that the NHS may lose capacity, and people may be arriving in hospital and there is not the capacity to treat them. We should learn the lessons from this pandemic. We should restrict civil liberties for as a short a time as possible and as little as possible, because that is fundamentally what we believe in, although it may be necessary for a short time.
What should be the approach now? It should be a tiered approach. It should always have been a tiered approach. Looking at every region and every hospital, we should ask ourselves whether the NHS was in danger of not having capacity in that local area, and then we should have brought in local lockdowns for that area. As soon as a vaccination programme rolls out, we must move to a tiered approach.
When next winter comes, we have to accept that there is a difference between morbidity and mortality. People do die: 20,000 or 30,000 people a year die, very sadly, from flu. Next winter we cannot close down the entire country. We have to have some regard for freedom and the ability of people to make informed decisions about their own lives.
The real risk of this pandemic is overwhelmingly to people who are over 80. They are the people whom we should be protecting and they are the people whom we should be vaccinating, and we have to allow the rest of society to get on with their own business and to preserve their freedoms.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the behavioural advisory group for SAGE and professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews in my constituency, said at the weekend that contrary to the impression we might get from reports, the reality is that about 90% of the public are complying with the restrictions to date, and indeed one of the success stories has been that public compliance. Where people do not comply, and I am not talking about the very small core of those who are blatantly flouting the rules, it is generally because of practicalities or lack of information—it is about complexity —and I do very much agree with the professor’s analysis.
The public health messaging in all parts of the UK, including in Scotland and in England, has undoubtedly been complex because it has become clear that these varied and complex systems are too often not backed up with the appropriate support. In North East Fife, where so much of the hospitality industry relies on tourists from outside the area, businesses are struggling. A case in point is the Peat Inn, a restaurant in my constituency that, in 2020, was ranked at No. 23 in its list of the top 50 restaurants in Britain by “The Good Food Guide”. It has a Michelin star and, as Members may imagine, it is very much an attraction. As soon as Fife went into level 3, meaning that nobody outside Fife could travel into the kingdom and restaurants were not allowed to serve alcohol, the Peat Inn understandably decided it was no longer profitable for it to remain open. Its head chef, Nick Briggs, told me that he felt hospitality was being “unfairly singled out” and being made to jump through hoops.
Of course, because the Peat Inn generates tourism for North East Fife, the fact that it was forced to close has had an impact on other local businesses. The Tarskavaig B&B, which is about 1 mile down the road from the restaurant, also got in touch with me. Its business is at least 50% Peat Inn customers, so when the Peat Inn shut, all but one of its bookings cancelled. The owners have really struggled for support anyway. As they pay council tax rather than rates, they have been ineligible for the hardship funds and rates relief. They have been excluded from support. In all these general debates, we have talked a lot about those who have been excluded, and I continue to urge the Government to do more. There will be many more small businesses like the Tarskavaig B&B across Scotland and the rest of the UK, and many more restaurants like the Peat Inn.
Many of the small business owners in my constituency are still waiting to access some of the £185 million of funding that was announced by the Scottish Government in early December. My constituency team and I were very pleased to hear the Scottish Government’s confirmation of support yesterday, but it is vital that these schemes get up and running as soon as possible. January is very difficult financially for many at the best of times.
It was disappointing to hear the Chancellor’s statement yesterday. Last March, we accepted that support would be best delivered using existing mechanisms, but now we find ourselves in a third English lockdown relying on the same schemes that have not been sufficiently tweaked, modified or developed to cope with the later stage of the pandemic. It is not right. I say to the Government that now is not the time to step back from support. Now is the time to make sure that businesses are equipped with what they need to survive.
Since 2010 the unfair and regressive economic and social policies implemented by this Government have perpetuated and, indeed, exacerbated the deep-rooted structural inequalities in our society. As a result, the past decade was marked by widening health inequalities, deteriorating health and stagnating and even declining life expectancy. This means that, even without the coronavirus pandemic, we started this new decade as a more inequitable, unequal and imbalanced society, which faced enormous challenges to help alleviate health inequalities, improve life chances and increase life expectancy. What the covid-19 outbreak has done is expose those health and wider societal inequalities and demonstrate quite starkly that the circumstances that a person is born into, that they grow up in and that they live their life in can have tangible consequences for their health. We know that coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on many people who already face disadvantage and discrimination, and, sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the covid-19 outbreak has widened and will continue to widen existing health inequalities.
Similarly, we know that people who live in deprived areas have higher diagnosis, rates and death rates than those living in more affluent areas. Indeed, national and regional evidence shows that patterns of death from covid-19 correspond with patterns of deprivation. Most worryingly, the covid-19 pandemic has had a hugely disproportionate impact on people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. As somebody who represents a constituency where poverty and deprivation are entrenched in some communities and where residents from BAME groups make up a large proportion of the population, I can say that these statistics are extremely concerning.
In Coventry, men in the most deprived areas can expect to live an average of almost 11 years fewer than men from the most affluent areas, with the gap for women being more than eight years. These health inequalities are reinforced by high unemployment, poor quality housing, falling incomes, declining living standards, fuel poverty, air pollution, food bank reliance, and poorer educational opportunities. This means that many young people in my constituency are held back from birth when compared with peers in different areas of the country, all of which is a consequence of this Government’s policy choices over the past 10 years.
We need the Government to commit to properly funding public health, the NHS, local authorities and others, so that we can tackle the deeply entrenched health inequalities that exist in our communities and mitigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. We also need the Government to take additional steps to tackle the root causes of the hugely disproportionate impact that coronavirus has had on our BAME communities. The Government cannot delay any longer. We need urgent action on health inequalities now.
We have done many more tests than many other countries, and I pay tribute to Ministers and the NHS for all the hard work that has gone into achieving that. We are now vaccinating many more people than in other countries. We have got ahead, and that is very good news. As the Government see the main way out for us to relax the controls as being the vaccination of many more people, we wish everyone every speed and success in rolling out those vaccines.
I also think congratulations are in order for finding two more treatments that can make a difference to the death rate and reduce the length of time people suffer with a severe form of the disease, but what about ivermectin, which some doctors in other countries say can also achieve good results and reduce the death rate? It would be useful to know what progress is being made with the UK tests and whether that might ever be a recommended treatment, because the more treatments we can have to cut the death rate the better.
I would also be interested to know what our experts think about why there have been such differential case rates and death rates around the world. Unfortunately, the UK has now joined the group of countries where the death rate is over 0.1% of the total population, which means quite a lot of deaths, as we know to our sorrow and cost. We have joined many other countries in that grouping, but why is it that countries like Sweden and Brazil have not yet got to 0.1% when some have been very critical of the way they have handled the virus, and why do many Asian countries seem to have got through with much less damage? What does the international research tell us about the reasons? Why is it, too, that a country such as Belgium has been blighted by such a high death rate and a pretty high case rate? Of course, testing more means that we identify more cases, but our case rate is still not one of the worst in the world, so clearly some of the actions taken are having a beneficial impact.
I also urge the Government to do rather more for the self-employed and small businesses. They are bearing the brunt of the economic damage of the policies being pursued, and more could be done, particularly for those small businesses and the self-employed who have not received any help at all. Many of them are in business areas in which there have been closures for the best part of a year now, and in which social contact is very important for the business model, meaning their revenues are well down. We are going to need them, and we need a recovery fairly soon. So I wish every success to those doing the vaccinations, and I hope we can then lift some of the restrictions, because we want to have a vibrant small business and small enterprise sector available to power the recovery we so desperately need.
2020 was a difficult year—a year like no other in my lifetime. The first stage of 2021 is proving to be even more challenging, with over 80,000 deaths, infections going through the roof and local hospitals in Cheshire and the Warrington area under tremendous pressure; I pay my thanks and gratitude, like everybody else across the House, to our NHS professionals.
We now have the deepest recession in 300 years and the highest death rate in Europe because of Government incompetence. It is not by chance; it is the consequences of delay after delay, dither and mixed messages, and ignoring the expert advice until the very last minute again and again.
The vaccine is the way out. We have three approved vaccines, and the roll-out is happening in parts of my constituency as I speak. Residents in their 80s and 90s have spoken to me about their experience; they have rolled up their sleeves with a smile on their face and have got vaccinated for Britain. But in some parts of my constituency supply is not getting through; that must be fixed—that is my plea to the Minister.
The vaccination programme needs to be 24 hours and rising to 4 million a week as soon as possible, but the current crisis requires a social contract between the state and the citizens: stay at home, stick to the rules and save lives, and the Government will provide vaccinations and support for people and businesses. But that is where the Government are falling short. Rather than focusing solely on the behaviour of walkers with flasks of coffee, Ministers must get their own house in order—provide reasonable levels of sick pay so people can self-isolate, extend the furlough scheme to working parents now that schools are closed, provide support to the 3 million excluded and look after those who lost their jobs and homes through these difficult times.
Finally, in May—in just a matter of weeks—people should have the opportunity to go to the polls. While these elections are about vital local services, they will provide a verdict, a judgment on the Government’s handling of this crisis. Do the Minister and the Government have the confidence to go to the electorate as planned, or will he delay democracy yet again?
I thank the Prime Minister and the Minister for Vaccine Deployment for the efficacious enthusiasm that hallmarks their sterling work in establishing more than 1,400 inoculation centres and ensuring that the most vulnerable will all be able to receive a vaccine soon. It is this United Kingdom’s Conservative Government’s splendid foresight in securing vaccines months ago, far in advance of certification and roll-out, that has made the UK the leading country for vaccinations in all Europe. I welcome the establishment of the large-scale covid vaccination centre that will shortly open in Wakefield.
I commend the Government’s great ambition to ensure that the lives, livings and liberties of the British people will be swiftly returned. While we are on track to vaccinate all care home residents by the end of January, and everyone over 70 and the clinically extremely vulnerable by mid-February, the challenges we face and the hazards that covid-19 present require us to ever widen our ambition. Furlough and the numerous emergency schemes implemented by the Government both support taxpayers and cost them billions of pounds every month. The nation’s rapid and effective inoculation is the only way these fearsome costs will be tamed and our lamented routine returned. It is therefore imperative that everything is done to ensure that everyone receives the vaccine as early as possible. At this critical stage in the battle against covid, we must set ever more ambitious objectives and incentivise our dynamic private sector to capture them, rather than simply accepting prevailing limitations.
The financial and human cost of the pandemic justifies and demands a warlike effort in retaliation. The Adam Smith Institute recently released a report on how to effectively accelerate the UK’s covid-19 vaccination programme. Providing a 24/7 vaccination service is one such proposal. Other recommendations include commissioning pharmacies to provide vaccine services, allowing walk-in services for spare appointments and doses and simplifying the recruitment process to maximise the number of volunteers in the UK’s jab army. West Yorkshire alone has more than 540 community pharmacies with staff trained in giving vaccinations.
I wholeheartedly agree with our Prime Minister and Health Secretary, who both declared that our best route out of lockdown is through mass inoculation. That being right and true demands that our national strategy be one that strains every sinew and effectively leverages and employs every conceivable mechanism that it can to increase, improve and bolster the United Kingdom’s vaccination campaign.
I make the case this evening for the increased use of lateral flow tests. Some misgivings have already been expressed that they are inaccurate. Perhaps in the early days, and with improper use, they may well have been, but any process administered inappropriately and badly gives poor results. The fact is that the technology has moved on and people are better trained in their use; indeed, in recent months we have seen that they have improved. I urge the wider use of the tests to help inspire confidence and to help us unlock the lockdown. Their use should be encouraged by the hospitality sector, airlines, factories, retail and sport. They provide an immediate, effective and quick result that deems a person good to go, or not, as the case may be. Let us roll this out to help open our country, which is unfortunately locked down.
Secondly, I want to address the problem of our country now living in a state of fear and, in many instances, ignoring fact. Covid has made our country fearful and suspicious. We have a daily diet of bad news. We have a generation now being encouraged to fret and worry. We have a duty to move our country beyond fear and to get it on to a message of hope. My catechism taught me that our chief end in life is to glorify God and to enjoy life in him forever. We are here to enjoy life, not to fear it, or to lock ourselves away from living it to its absolute fullest. Every effort to suppress fear must be made. However, the agenda of some is, unfortunately, about promoting fear and suspicion.
I wish also to call this evening for the unlocking of grassroots amateur football. Young males, in particular, are being locked away from practising positive, healthy wellbeing and interaction. Positive physical activity outside ought not to be stopped among young people who can be well supervised and managed. Tomorrow, a number of MPs will deliver to the Prime Minister a letter calling for the unlocking of youth amateur football, and I will be one of the signatories to that letter. I will leave in the Library this evening a letter from five senior clinicians in Northern Ireland, who wrote to me criticising the modelling on the R number. They show facts about the false hope on closing down personal services, hotels, hospitality and retail—actions that all have a moderate impact on driving down the R number. Keeping our country in lockdown is only suppressing, not stopping, this virus, and it is not the answer to the problem. Sir Van Morrison recently wrote and sang:
“We are not in this together.”
Some are being more harshly locked down than others. This House should fix that.
First, let me thank all the key workers in Meon Valley, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic and continue to do so, especially those now working on the vaccine programme. Progress is really good; one third of my nursing homes should have been vaccinated by the end of the week, and most of the health and social care staff have also had the vaccine. I am confident that everyone over 80 will have been offered a vaccine shortly. The incredible Wickham surgery has done more than 2,600 injections so far, with a third of them for over-80s.
However, one group should be receiving the jab as soon as possible: our teachers. I am incredibly concerned that millions of children are missing out on the education they deserve and need, and I believe it can be delivered properly only in schools, colleges and universities, not online. I know the reason schools are shut: it is not because they are not safe, but because of the transmission of the virus. So it is disappointing to see unions, such as the National Education Union, politicising the pandemic, even though I know that individual headteachers and their staff have often ignored their unions and selflessly thought of their pupils rather than the politics. The situation is not working. Teachers are now in the invidious position of having up to 50% of the children in school because of key worker and vulnerable children rules, while also taking part in remote learning, which is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. There can be few winners from this position.
The mental health and welfare of children is also important. Schools provide an experience not only of education, but of friendship, physical play and lessons for life. The welfare, education and health of children and young people matter above all else, and everything must be done to maintain it. Otherwise, we will be facing an educational disaster long after the pandemic is over. I have talked to brilliant headteachers in Meon Valley throughout the pandemic and they have wanted to keep schools open. Children were catching up fast before Christmas and will again, but that is not the case across the country. In many areas, children are missing from school and missing online lessons too. After the autumn half term, the Department for Education showed that attendance rates in secondary schools were as low as 77% in the midlands, with rates in other areas very similar. Initial research from the Education Policy Institute has found that pupils from disadvantaged areas are losing more days of schooling than those in wealthier areas. Vaccinating teachers now would be a game changer for schools and would allow pupils back full time after the February half term. I urge that teachers be put on the vaccination priority list so that unions have no grounds to prevent schools from opening and teachers feel safe in their classrooms.
I had arranged a speech about schoolchildren’s access to the internet, but as I was sitting here waiting to speak, I decided that I wanted to say to the House, to the Minister and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have become increasingly alarmed at comments from Ministers, and comments in the papers and the rest of the media in the past few days, driving the message that people are not following the rules. This has been in order to make people feel bad about themselves. However, when I look at the places in London that I know have the highest rates of coronavirus, I see a straight line to poverty. I suggest to the Minister that if we actually want to drive down rates further, we have to give more support to people to self-isolate if they are contacted by Test and Trace and told that they have been near somebody who has got coronavirus. If we want to encourage carers and support workers to take up lateral flow tests, we have to give them the support to do it. Who wants to know that they have got the virus if they cannot afford to take the time off work? If the choice is feeding three children by going to work or ignoring those uncomfortable symptoms, I suspect I know the decision that most of us would make.
The boroughs in London that have the highest rates are those with the worst housing, where there is a family in every room, where they share a bathroom with people they do not know. What do we do for those people to ensure that they are in a position to self-isolate? I understand that in New York the way they drove rates down was by providing people who did not have it with the money, the hotel room, the food—they even offered to walk their dogs!—to encourage them to self-isolate.
Rather than the siren calls against people who are doing their best, what we need to do as a Government and as a society is say to people, “Go and get the test. We will help you to have your time off work. We will help you to treat your symptoms, because we want to put an end to the virus.” No help to them means increasing rates for all of us.
Covid has created many additional challenges for our country and I want to touch on but a few. Women, particularly pregnant women and new mothers, are more likely to be in insecure jobs. The result is that women have been even more likely to see a loss of income. The Government have finally released guidance for pregnant women in the workplace. It took nine months of campaigning by groups such as Maternity Action to push the Government to release that guidance. I urge Ministers to look at adapting furlough schemes to allow employers to recover the full cost of the maternity suspension of women who are 28 weeks pregnant and beyond.
Many students in my constituency have written to me in the past couple of weeks. They are feeling isolated and let down by the lack of guidance that their universities have received from the Government. In addition to paying full tuition fees, they are also paying thousands of pounds for accommodation they cannot live in. I am calling on the Government for the rapid implementation of a review of this academic year, including recommendations for financial compensation.
I want to add my voice to the calls to prioritise teachers and school staff for vaccination. If the Government are serious about prioritising education, then the profession must come top of the priority list after the most clinically vulnerable and those on the frontline of healthcare. Protecting teachers and school staff from the effects of the virus must be a key part of the plan to get children back into schools. There would be no education for young people without the staff to deliver that education.
The same applies to the staff working in early years settings. The Government must urgently look at the support for early years providers. These remain open despite the fact that staff do not have access to testing and are not prioritised for vaccination. Widcombe Acorns, an outstanding pre-school in Bath, has raised concerns that settings are not able to make their own decisions as to whether they stay open. I urge the Government to confirm what they will do to support early years providers, both in terms of testing and access to vaccines, and on the flexibility to make their own decisions on closures to protect their workforce.
It was less than two weeks ago that I stood here and described the nightmarish data that was coming out of Milton Keynes University Hospital. The situation was grim then, and it is clear today that we are yet to turn the tide on the latest rise in cases. There are some dark days ahead. This lockdown will be different from the last. The nights are longer, the days are colder, and many people will have gone for months without seeing friends and family.
As ever, I think about the amazing staff at Milton Keynes University Hospital. Day in, day out, they go to work knowing that there is a killer virus in their workplace, worrying about not only their own safety but taking the virus home to their loved ones. Now they face the disgraceful prospect of encountering conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers protesting and shouting abuse as they enter their workplace. Their service to our country is invaluable. We are right to be proud of our NHS and all those who work so hard for us.
There are a very difficult few weeks ahead. Every day brings news that nobody wants to hear—news of more people falling ill, news of more people admitted to hospital and the most tragic news of all: news of people losing their lives. In these dark times, even as our nation grows weary of the restrictions and each day carries news that more families have lost a loved one, there is hope. We heard today from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that more than 2.3 million people across the United Kingdom have received the vaccination.
The speed at which the vaccine is being rolled out is amazing. It is an example of what we do best as a country. The hope offered by these vaccines is thanks to our public sector and our private sector pulling together. It is thanks to the knowledge and dedication of our world-class universities and the dynamism of our pharmaceutical industry. The hope is due to the expertise of our armed forces, the selflessness of our volunteers and the tireless dedication of health workers. We will make it through these dark days. Our victory over this pandemic will be yet another example of the strength and resolve of our nation and what we can achieve when we pull together.
The pandemic has touched the life of every single person in this country to a greater or lesser extent, but for many, the impact has been devastating. We cannot get away from the inequalities that were already apparent in the UK but have been growing over the past 10 months. This Government have not tackled those inequalities head-on in the way that other nations have done.
Before focusing on that, I want to start on a positive note, by acknowledging the speed with which the Government are rolling out the vaccination programme; for once, there is no dithering. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, I also pay tribute to the Government’s speedy rolling out of funding and enabling regulation to allow councils to create safe space for cycling and walking.
I come back to the meat of my speech, on those who have missed out. The Government repeatedly reel off the billions of pounds and the millions of people who are being supported, but again and again they avoid addressing those who miss out and who are being supported in equivalent economies. There has been no decent uplift in sick pay, meaning that those on low pay cannot afford to be off work, so they risk infecting their colleagues. There has been no news about continuing the £20 uplift in universal credit—and by the way, with the £27,000 universal credit cap, west London’s high housing costs mean that families here are left with almost nothing after housing costs are paid.
There is nothing for the many families whose adult members were working but have no recourse to public funds. Year 11 and year 13 children are looking to the future, but they are stressed out because they have been told only now about the summer exams—and even now, the details are not clear—when Wales made its decision in November and the Republic of Ireland last August. Too many children are still waiting for adequate IT access.
We have had no announcement about extending support to those excluded altogether from income schemes—they are still the excluded—and there is no sign of the long-awaited aviation strategy and support for aviation communities. Some 20,000 Hounslow borough residents work—or rather they did—in or around Heathrow, many in low-paid work. They cannot wait until aviation one day picks up to pre-covid levels, if it ever does. We need support and help from the Government now.
Before I finish, I want to address the issue of the anti-vaxxers’ campaign among the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. I hope that the Government’s extended communications strategy and the additional funding work to identify which communities are getting this anti-vax message and which outlets they read and watch, and to get the Government’s messages to those outlets; it is about more than just translations. I hope that the Government are listening.
May I put on the record my thanks to Will Blandamer, Lesley Jones, Jeff Schryer and the whole team in Bury for the roll-out, at high speed, of the vaccine? We are confident that the four priority groups will be vaccinated by February, and that is a great achievement. It is a true community effort, and they have the thanks of all of us in our community. Our excellent Vaccine Deployment Minister confirmed to me in a meeting yesterday that the Pfizer vaccine gives 91% protection after the first dose, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine gives 80% protection after the first dose but 100% protection against severe infection.
In the time that I have, I would like to talk about how we remove the restrictions that are blighting our businesses and impacting our daily lives. The hospitality sector has gone through hell during this pandemic, and we need to take all necessary steps to continue the economic support that is needed and to remove restrictions on that sector at the earliest opportunity.
The financial steps that we need to take include extending the business rates holiday for pubs to the financial year 2021-22, and extending the VAT cut beyond 31 March 2021 and expanding it to cover alcoholic drinks. We must never forget the thousands of pounds that hospitality sector businesses have spent creating covid-secure environments. In my area, there is virtually no evidence of widescale transmission of covid in those settings. With the vaccinations that I talked about being rolled out in February, we must look to reopen those facilities at the earliest opportunity, and certainly before May.
I also ask the Chancellor, as part of his considerations leading up to the Budget, to consider support for small businesses, which have to power our economic recovery. We have provided substantial support—over £260 billion—for our economy, but some businesses do not have the support they need. Small business people in my constituency who have been paid quite legally in dividends and fall under the threshold for the self-employment schemes need help. I urge the Government and the Chancellor to take every opportunity to provide further financial support to protect thousands of jobs, not only in the hospitality sector but in those small businesses that my constituents and many others throughout the country have spent their lives building up. They need our help now.
It is an honour and a privilege to follow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). While I would have wished to give this speech last week during the recall, when we discussed going into lockdown, we are where we are, and I hope to touch on some of those points now.
Although I have not always been a supporter—though not necessarily a sceptic—of the Government measures regarding coronavirus, I was going to back the lockdown last week, mainly because there is no other alternative when we look at the spread of the new variant. In my own borough, figures have more than doubled in a matter of weeks. I also speak to my twin brother, who is a nurse in a covid ward, and hear of the pressures that he has, day in, day out, just keeping people alive. Although it was with a heavy heart, and was certainly not something that I ever wanted to do, I went through that lobby, to ensure that the people of this country and of my borough are safe.
When we look at moving forward from where we are now, the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), in that we need to look at setting benchmarking thresholds for how we come out of this lockdown, whether that is the number of vaccines that have been delivered or certain groups having been vaccinated. We need a route out of lockdown, and a route to reopen our economy and our businesses.
Many businesses have struggled. We have spoken many times in this Chamber about the 3 million excluded. The Government have gone some way in trying to address that, with millions of pounds given to local authorities in the way of discretionary grants. Unfortunately, some councils have had a very wide remit for where they give the grants to, and others have been much more narrow. In my borough, we are now on the third tranche of funding, and still those home-based businesses have been unable to receive the support that they drastically need.
With the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, we are hopeful that changes will be made in the imminent future so that businesses, families and individuals who have struggled for all these months will get the support that they need, and I echo his comments. The Chancellor has my thanks for everything that he has done, but we need to do a bit more—anything we can do to reopen businesses and the economy and, more importantly, to allow care home visits to resume in a meaningful way so that families can finally be reunited, hug, hold hands and kiss their loved ones. That, unfortunately, has been one of the biggest tragedies of this entire pandemic. Anything my hon. Friend on the Front Bench can advise with regard to that would be greatly appreciated.
We now have the bare minimum of a national lockdown that should have happened weeks ago. The evidence was clear. The continuous delay and failure to follow the science and to take a zero-covid approach means that we now have more people with covid-19 in hospitals than at the peak in April 2020. Tragically, recent figures put us at well over 1,000 daily deaths due to coronavirus in the UK. In comparison, South Korea has recorded fewer deaths from coronavirus throughout this entire pandemic. Indeed, in one day the UK has recorded more deaths than the total covid-19 fatalities in all of Taiwan, New Zealand, Thailand and Australia, despite those countries having a combined population of nearly twice that of the UK’s.
This was not inevitable, but a devastating political and ideological choice. My city of Leicester has been under lockdown or enhanced restrictions for longer than any other area in the UK. No household has been allowed to visit another household since March 2020. That means no hugs. There are individuals and businesses in my constituency of Leicester East that have had no financial support since March 2020. They are on their knees. The Government must stop blaming the public and urgently look at the gaps and provide adequate support for everyone in our community, which they have so far repeatedly failed to do. The numbers are not going down in parts of my constituency because factories are open for non-essential garment manufacturing. Close the factories. Give people the means to stay safe.
At every stage of the crisis, there has been dithering and delay. Any common-sense actions by our Government have come far too late. Tragically, that will have cost an unimaginable number of lives over the past year. It is so infuriating to see the Government and, indeed, much of the media blame the public for the spike in cases. It was not the public who introduced a failed and confusing tier system. It was not the public who just weeks ago threatened schools with legal action for taking steps to protect their pupils and staff. It was not the public who promised a five-day Christmas free-for-all.
Unlike with previous lockdowns, this time the Government cannot waste the sacrifices of people in Leicester and across the UK. They must ensure that everyone has the means to isolate. Statutory sick pay must be increased to a living wage level and made available to all workers. Furlough must be fixed, so that no one receives less than the minimum wage. NHS and public service wages must be increased. The notion of cutting universal credit must be abandoned and, instead, it must be increased permanently.
The mortgage holiday, the eviction ban and support for renters must be further extended and strengthened. The 3 million excluded and left behind must be supported and given access to the business grant. The hospitality sector, including the wedding industry, must be properly supported. Undocumented migrants must be given status now. Student rents must be returned, and university tuition fees and debts cancelled.
The disastrous costly reliance on the private sector must be abandoned. The Government should not facilitate profit making from free school meals. It is wrong to profit from childhood hunger.
May I outline five concerns that affect my constituents? First, they are concerned that some people are not getting mail telling them to get their vaccination. In particular, that affects the elderly, who do not like having to use the internet; they want a telephone number. May we please have a telephone number, locally, for all of us, so that we can ring it to get the information about people who have not been called for a vaccination when they should have been?
Secondly, I am concerned that pre-schools and nurseries are still open. I do not quite get the logic of them being open and primary schools being closed. I have not seen really good evidence to support that.
Thirdly, I am concerned—as we all are in Beckenham—about the increasing number of children turning up at school claiming to be from key worker families. That is happening increasingly, and puts teachers at even more risk.
Fourthly, I am concerned about musicians—there are a lot of musicians in Beckenham—who have had a really hard time over the pandemic trying to get income, because they do not necessarily qualify for it. When they do get business and when we are allowed to travel, however, the rules debar them from easily travelling in and out of the country to make their living in Europe.
Fifthly, I am very concerned, as others are, about the future of the hospitality industry. Too many cafés and restaurants in my constituency will fail to reopen. When they were able to open before, I went to have some meals, and I thought that they were doing extremely well at social distancing. I have not seen any evidence that cafés and restaurants were causing an increase in infection. We have to open them as soon as possible. I understand that distancing reduces covid but, actually, we have to think this one through carefully. I gather from people who are the experts—not me—that cafés and restaurants are not great spreaders of this dreadful pandemic, so may we please open as soon as possible?
Those are my five concerns but, frankly, looking at other colleagues around the House, most of them are nodding, because they agree that those concerns affect them, too, in their constituency. I am done, thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this debate. In doing so, I thank again everybody in North East Derbyshire for everything that they are doing. In the most difficult period of our lives, what our constituents have done, are doing and will continue to do is incredible. We will get through this together, and I thank them for everything.
Today, I want to focus on the last mile in front of us and a very vexing part of the public debate around that. It is hard to believe that only a year ago today the World Health Organisation confirmed the existence of a coronavirus in China. That year has felt like 10. The virus has turned our lives upside down repeatedly and yet, ragged, weary and older, we persist.
Even as the light draws nearer, with the vaccinations, we still have much work to do. Even with hundreds of thousands of jabs going in arms on a daily basis, suppression at this last stage remains vital. Yet every day, I am contacted by residents who remain unsure about the strategy that we are pursuing and who rightly challenge and question. They are absolutely right to do so.
Most accept the position once we discuss it.
A small number remain unsure; they want to be supportive of the Government’s actions, but they are buffeted by the continual suggestions—particularly on social media—that the virus is some kind of collective mirage. Given the siren voices on those media, I can see why the alternative view is so alluring. They suggest easy choices, benign realities and soft landings—that we are in a casedemic; that the pandemic was over in the summer. It would be fantastic if that were true, yet it is not.
This tiny, unrepresentative group, basking on past glories or extended CVs, continues to argue against reality. For a time, I thought they were valuable voices of scepticism in the debate; then, that they were just wrong. Now, I am not sure I can accord them that benign intent.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I entirely agree. It seems to me that someone does not need to go to medical school or law school or any other professional establishment to get a qualification these days; they can become a professor just by going on the internet.
I am grateful for that contribution from my hon. Friend. It highlights that just because somebody has a certain number of letters after their name or a title in front of it does not necessarily mean that we should not apply the same element of scepticism to what they say, particularly when they are saying things that are not accurate. This small group of people operate in a grey space, suggesting that because something is not happening right now, it is impossible for it to happen and that it cannot possibly be the case that there may be catastrophic outcomes if we are not careful.
I should be clear: I do not seek to silence these people. They are free and should always be free to make their statements, whether they are correct or otherwise, but I seek to highlight that they are wrong. What they assert, they must justify, and when they cannot—as was the case when I spoke to one of them directly a few months ago about repeated assertions on the inaccuracy of the PCR tests—they should be treated with the disdain that they all treat us with by making these false assertions in the first place.
Our hospitals are full. Our death statistics are high. We can see the virus in our communities. On this last mile, please do not listen to these people. We will get there and hold on. Together, we can do this.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley). Careless talk costs lives. We need to be absolutely clear about the science and be behind it.
On a personal level, I do not care whether the Prime Minister did or did not take a seven-mile bike ride yesterday. What I do care about is the lack of clarity. Clarity ensures that people know what is legitimate and what is not. I say that particularly as a Member of Parliament for the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales. I have no problem with people taking short trips to exercise—I think that is what is intended in the advice. I do have a problem with people packing up their car and making 100-mile or 150-mile journeys to exercise in the Lakes, or indeed anywhere else, at this time.
I want to focus my remarks on the hospitality industry. Tourism and hospitality is the fourth biggest employer in the country and the biggest employer in Cumbria by some distance. Undoubtedly, it has been the worst hit industry in this country during the pandemic. In my constituency, we have seen a sixfold increase in unemployment. At one stage, more than 40% of the entire workforce in my constituency was on furlough, largely because of the reliance on that remarkably important industry.
I make some calls for what the Government should do. I have listened to Cumbria tourism businesses over the last few days. First, the Government were right to defer business rates; I ask them to defer business rates for a further year. They were right to cut VAT; I ask them to extend the VAT cut for a further year. They have been right to extend furlough, but even if we ease restrictions in hospitality and tourism after March, they need to consider the continuation of some form of wage support beyond that period. I say that because we have otherwise healthy businesses that will be at the forefront of leading the fightback in our economy once we begin to move out of this crisis period. If we do not back those businesses now, they will be in no state to be part of the fightback. It is the cash that is going to be the problem. It is great for businesses to have the furlough and therefore have staff wages largely covered, but if a third or a quarter of their overheads are not staff-related, even furlough will not save those businesses from going under in the end.
The cash grants that have been made available to businesses at this time are far lower than those given in the spring. We need equivalent levels of investment in cash flow and grant support for hospitality and tourism businesses to those that we had back in the spring. We also need to stop overlooking the 4,000 people in my constituency who would be counted among the excluded. Many are self-employed or running their own companies, and they are the backbone of any recovery; we need them if we are to get out of this mess after the virus is defeated.
I think we have reached a stage in the life of these debates when it is difficult to think of anything original to say. Nevertheless, the residents of Southend West want their voices to be heard through their Member of Parliament. I am pleased to say that the vaccination of most of the vulnerable people in Southend is well under way, but will the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), assure me that Southend will be receiving enough vaccines to complete the inoculation of people who are most at risk as soon as possible? After all, we do have the greatest number of centenarians in the country. Will she also update us on the progress with authorising recently retired nurses and doctors to administer vaccinations?
The partnership approach between the police, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and public health is working extremely well, and has minimised the spread of the virus. However, without clear rules about what people can and cannot do, the police are having to use their own judgment on grey areas, which leads to a breakdown in community confidence. It is also essential that the service on the c2c line is frequent enough that key workers are able to socially distance.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have not been eligible for any Government support throughout the pandemic. I urge the Government to announce support for directors of limited companies who have been left with no income for almost a year. Business rates also need to be cut and made fairer to ensure that independent businesses are still around at the end of the pandemic. One of my constituents who was employed in human resources has been made redundant and does not qualify for universal credit or other benefits, so has had no income for over seven months. That cannot be right. With no signs of when pubs and restaurants will be able to reopen, we must make sure that hospitality businesses are given targeted support.
With the return to remote learning for most school pupils, it is vital that the most vulnerable students are supported. I have been contacted by a number of constituents expressing their concerns about the safety of nursery schools and other early year providers as coronavirus cases continue to rise. The summer exams have been cancelled, and schools, parents and students must have clarity about when and how grades will be assessed and awarded. We must also ensure that university students are not forgotten. Some students who are eligible for free school meals are now being provided with food parcels. Well, if the pictures of them that I have seen today are accurate, I ask myself: who was the fool who authorised this? It is essential that we keep our churches open.
I end with these thoughts: we all need things to look forward to and we have had that with the vaccinations; I now challenge the Government to come up with something else that we can all look forward to.
I refer to the declarations that I have made in relation to the Covid Recovery Group.
This country needs hope. It needs hope that is sure, certain and not far away, and it needs it first and foremost because of the scale of the disease in our hospitals, including here in Buckinghamshire, where the number of patients in hospital has now exceeded the first wave.
I pay tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who raised the issue of the allegation of false PCR test results. That people are saying such things is a real problem that is stoking conspiracy theories now. One only needs to listen to hospital doctors to know that they do not need PCR tests today to know that there is a serious respiratory disease epidemic. People have pneumonia needing oxygen. They have characteristic X-rays, characteristic blood test results and characteristic symptoms. Real doctors and real patients know that this is a real epidemic, and no one should say otherwise.
We need hope because too many people are going without medical care because coronavirus rates are too high. Wrongly, they are not presenting themselves because they fear putting a burden on the NHS. I would say to them: please do present. We need hope because too many businesses are suffering. I do not know what a lockdown enthusiast says to someone who says, as someone said to me, that they have lost their livelihood—their life’s work—towards the end of their working life, and that their household of six people know nine people who have committed suicide. What do you say to such a person? We need to move beyond anecdotes to real data. That is why I and my colleagues have been calling for proper cost-benefit analysis throughout this pandemic. We cannot afford to focus on any one aspect of this crisis.
To bring hope, the Government need to stop fear. I think that the fearful are already terrified. We need other methods to reach those who have not been complying —yes, enforcement, but good-quality enforcement, and that requires good law. The goal must be to get to a point where there are no more restrictions—where we have returned to a free life.
That is why this vaccination programme is so important. I am delighted that the Government have established centres in Wycombe, as has been announced today. We all need to support that vaccination programme. We all need to comply with the rules, whether we like them or not, in order to look after one another. The Government have told us that 88% of the fatalities from coronavirus can be dealt with by reaching the top four JCVI groups. That is what the Government must now focus on, and, having delivered it, it is imperative that they set out a clear plan—to bring hope by setting us free.
For 11 months now, we have been gripped in the jaws of the covid-19 health pandemic. It has brought hardship on businesses and livelihoods, upended our very freedoms and liberties, and unfortunately, for too many families, brought heartbreak and sorrow at the loss of a loved one.
The area I want to focus on is the impact that covid-19, and with it, the necessary measures for lockdown that the Government have introduced to suppress the virus, has had on education—specifically, the toll it has taken on university students. Many in this House will have experienced the excitement, anticipation and nerves of those first few days at university, meeting new people, settling into student digs, attending the first lecture—and yes, out of the gaze of mum and dad, enjoying a drink or two more than perhaps one should. But for thousands of students this year and last, that experience has been denied them; they are experiencing a university education and lifestyle through a screen back at the family home as the covid-19 virus continues to swirl around us.
University staff and lecturers have gone above and beyond to support students and ensure that they can still receive the education they signed up for. However, this is not comparable to the experience students should be getting. It is not offering students access to the resources and facilities that cohorts before them could utilise. We therefore have to ask: is this year really worth over £9,000 for the educational experience students are getting? Meanwhile, is it right that when we have asked students to do the right thing and stay at home away from university, they are still being charged for rent at their university halls of residence?
This next generation are going to be the pioneers in industries and endeavours that none of us can even imagine right now. In the post-covid-19 world, we are going to need new talent to drive our green industrial revolution, to chart our course around the world as global Britain, to end up educating and training the generation that comes after them—and yes, to be the scientists of the future who will discover new vaccines for diseases and viruses that we do not know of yet.
So far these students have had a raw deal through no fault of their own, and we should do something now to help them out. We can start by reducing their university fees for the covid-19 period and not asking them to pay rent on university accommodation that they are being asked not to stay in. Those might seem like small gestures, but they matter. We need to be doing all we can to support our young people through this challenging time. They face an uncertain jobs market and an economy battered by recent events, so let us reduce some of the burden now. University staff are playing their part, with the provision of education; now, as a Government, we can do our bit and relieve the financial pressures that our students are facing.
It is a great pleasure to follow my friend and Sussex colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). Like her, I wish to speak for one group whose plight has been systematically under-represented in this House from the start of the covid pandemic.
A constituent, Bella, who is a student at the University of Bristol, wrote to me eloquently:
“I’m the first person to go to university in my family. I have spent my whole life looking forward to it and worked incredibly hard to earn my place. Online learning is not the same as the teaching that took place before. Student life has been halted. There are no societies, limited access to libraries, minimal mental health support and—further still—we are now not even able to return to our accommodation at the beginning of the second term. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. Yet, we must pay the same in fees.”
This Government have a proud tradition of broadening access to and driving opportunity through higher education. We are on the side of the strivers and for the individual, whose aspirations we should always support against the vested interests and the status quo.
For students such as my constituent Bella, and many hundreds of thousands like her, I would like to see the Government do three things. First, they should support undergraduates to be able to go back to college now and stay back, with a structured return, underpinned by the triple security of a rigorous and robust testing regime, compliance with social distancing and the new restrictions on international arrivals.
Secondly, I would like the Government to extend the summer term by the same number of weeks that are forgone now, in order to provide additional teaching, exam or even simply social time, procured via an agreement with the leadership of Universities UK in return for Government support for universities to retain their full tuition fees for the current year.
Finally, although it is very much subordinate to getting universities open again, I would like the Government to look once more at the possibility of a financial support package for students, who as consumers are currently getting a very poor deal.
I am keen that this period of national restrictions is as brief as possible, particularly so that young people can return to their education. In the main, the guidance is being followed and I thank my North Devon constituents, who have consistently followed it and ensured that our cases continue to remain below the national average. However, I want to ensure that the guidance at this critical time really does tackle the spread of the new variant.
I very much hope that the Minister may be able to detail where transmission is currently taking place, because although many residents who live near beauty spots are concerned about visitors, my understanding remains that the risk of transmission outside remains low. Our focus in respect of any tightening of restrictions should be on where transmission is currently most prevalent.
While we are at level 5 of the covid alert system, we all need to do everything we can to reduce pressure on the NHS, not only by following the guidance to reduce covid transmission, but by reducing other activities that could put further pressures on our treasured health service. As soon as this alert level 5 passes—and it will—we must be ready to roll back the restrictions as rapidly as possible. The damage done through lockdown goes far beyond those who contract covid directly.
I wish to take this opportunity to highlight the work of the National Bereavement Partnership, which was set up from my constituency in the first lockdown and now offers national freephone support, seven days a week, from 7 am to 10 pm. To date, the partnership has provided more than 3,000 hours of helpline services. Yesterday, its founder, the remarkable Michaela Willis, highlighted to me the living losses that the partnership deals with each day. Covid-19 does not come alone. Bereavement does not come alone. Ambiguous losses that affect everyday functioning are compounding deaths and/or bring their own grief journey—everything from loss of income, loss of jobs, loss of way of life, loss of hopes and dreams and loss of life as people know it, to homelessness and financial deprivation.
I wish to take this chance to say thank you to Michaela and her team. I very much hope that they will be able to offer many others help through the dark hours that the steadily rising death toll no doubt creates, and that we can all look to a brighter, less restrictive future thanks to the excellent vaccination programme that we have begun to roll out.
Warrington South is a case study in how quickly the new strain of coronavirus can spread. At the end of November, we were one of a handful of local areas that came out of the national lockdown in a lower tier than the one in which we went in. The town delivered a massive effort to bring infections down during the second wave, emerging at about 150 cases per 100,000 of the population. The situation today looks very different.
At the beginning of October, I stood in the House and discussed the challenges that Warrington Hospital was facing. It looked as if a second wave was emerging. I talked about the tremendous efforts of doctors and nurses who were fighting to save lives in the ICU. Today, at the beginning of January, covid cases are at 780 per 100,000 of the population—up 50% on the figure a week ago. In some areas of the borough, levels exceed 1,450 cases per 100,000 of the population.
For Warrington, this is our third wave, and the most testing of times. Today, sadly, Warrington Hospital has exceeded the number of inpatients from the peaks in both April and October. Twenty-five people are in ICU, exceeding the surge capacity, and placing extreme strains on our local NHS. That snapshot shows how serious the new strain is and why we all need to play our part in defeating the virus and supporting our local hospital.
This week, Warrington launched its community testing hubs to identify asymptomatic cases, particularly for key workers and those who cannot work from home. I pay particular tribute to the team that pulled that together so quickly at Grappenhall cricket club and the Halliwell Jones stadium under the director of public health, Thara Raj. Yesterday, I saw for myself the efficient service, with people getting results in around 30 minutes.
Alongside that effort, work is being done by GPs, community carers and volunteers to establish a vaccination programme in rapid time. Figures that I have received today from the clinical commissioning group show that about 5,000 residents across Warrington have been vaccinated. Importantly, 80% of patient-facing NHS staff have received their first dose—that is just short of 4,000 people. In total, 9,000 people in Warrington have been vaccinated. My ask of the Minister is to ensure that vaccination supplies continue, because we would like a 24-hour drive-through, with queues, so that we can get life back to normal as soon as we can.
Finally, may I make one more request? The efforts of my colleagues over the past few months to encourage supermarkets to return business rates has begun to pay off. I urge Ministers to think carefully about how they use that funding, particularly to support small businesses that have not received anything so far, freelancers and directors of small limited companies. This is an incredibly challenging time. Now we must all play our part.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s important debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter).
Covid-19 has affected each and every part of our lives. We were all affected by the national restrictions in November, and now we are all living under the latest lockdown. There are a few of points that I would like to touch on, including, first, enforcement, particularly in the light of the lockdown announced by the Prime Minister last week. Given the new strain of the virus, the lockdown is necessary—that is why I voted for it—but all of us here in Westminster should not underestimate how weary the public are. We have all had nearly a year of disruption; a year of uncertainty for small businesses; a year of our young people not being able to socialise; and a year of being unable to give our closest friends and family a simple hug. Across Keighley and Ilkley, people tell me that they are sometimes confused by the rules, particularly the fact that they change so often, sometimes at short notice.
People across the country, even in lockdown, live busy lives. The truth is that, although we would love them to do so, they are not sitting watching Parliamentlive.tv at home or checking the gov.uk website every day; they are getting on with their lives. So, in my view, in enforcing the lockdown restrictions, the police should use the four Es: engage, explain, encourage, then enforce as the last resort.
Secondly, I want to talk about support for businesses and people. The Chancellor and the whole Treasury team have done an amazing job. There are, however, small but major issues for businesses accessing support, particularly business support grants and discretionary grants that are being provided by the Government but distributed by local councils. Dozens of my local businesses have contacted me to say that they are still yet to receive payments of grants from the local authority, Bradford Council. Our councils have a duty to make sure that this money is distributed as quickly as possible, and I urge them to do that. Where that is not happening, will the Government look at providing support directly to businesses themselves?
Finally, I want to touch on education. I would like to see our key workers, teachers and those providing support in our nurseries fall within the next category for the vaccine roll-out. I know that Ministers are looking at that, and I urge them to consider those people for the next batch. We are nearly there; we are nearly at the end of the tunnel and we have made a fantastic start so far with the vaccine roll-out.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore). First, I would like to talk about vaccines. I welcome what we set out yesterday in the vaccine delivery panel, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and the vaccines Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), on all that they have done on that. I particularly welcome the dashboard. As a data geek, I have been refreshing it today during this debate and I have worked out that 165,844 more doses were added to it today. That is a rate of over 1 million a week, which is great, but it is not enough, as we know.
I have also had the opportunity to see how the vaccine roll-out is going in my constituency. On Friday, I went to the Loomer Road surgery in Chesterton and saw the incredibly slick operation there. They were injecting Pfizer that day; this week, they are out doing AstraZeneca in the care homes. The overall response on the vaccine programme has been excellent throughout Staffordshire, but we clearly have the capacity to deliver more vaccines than we are currently getting. That is the point I would like to make to the Minister: we need more supply. We need to up the manufacturing capabilities as soon as we can. I am looking forward to speaking to both AstraZeneca and the vaccines Minister tomorrow at the Science and Technology Committee, when I will be asking exactly that: how can we get the supply up more quickly?
In the Minister’s opening speech, he highlighted the great British scientists who have contributed to our fight against covid and the work of the Vaccine Taskforce. As a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I have been privileged to interview and take evidence from all these people throughout the pandemic. On Friday, we published our first report on the use of scientific advice by the Government; it was rather overshadowed by the disgraceful scenes in Washington. I would like to thank the Committee and the Clerks for that and to highlight the fact that the Government have always been serious about taking and following advice. There was an initial lack of transparency around SAGE, which has been rectified, and this needs to be continued for other areas. We need the same for other measures. We need more transparency about the other effects of the things we are taking, and data fragmentation must improve. Perhaps we could look at what Israel has been able to achieve on that in the last few weeks.
Finally, I would like to talk a bit about the human cost of the pandemic. Newcastle-under-Lyme borough has now sadly passed 250 deaths, and I have heard repeatedly from the Royal Stoke University Hospital about how much pressure it is under. The piece that has left the biggest mark on me in recent weeks was published on UnHerd by an anonymous junior doctor on 6 January. It brought home the awfulness of people’s suffering. I shall quote from it briefly:
“The most distressing part of their struggle is the air hunger. You can spot these patients easily, as they grasp the masks to their faces with both hands and gasp visibly for air.”
Anybody who doubts the seriousness of what we are going through or who doubts how hard our hospitals are having to work to manage the pandemic should read that piece. I thank the anonymous junior doctor for writing it, and I thank them for all that they and their colleagues are doing for all of us.
Covid has hammered the towns and villages of North West Durham, in terms of deaths—so many people have gone too soon—and of life-changing issues such as permanent lung scarring. Additionally, the measures necessary to control the virus have had a huge impact locally—on local businesses, which are really suffering, on local job losses and on the broader local economy. That has particularly been the case in our hospitality sector, our local gyms and our personal care sector. It is estimated that across the country these restrictions are costing the UK about £1 billion a day.
As the Minister knows, vaccines are our way out, and one in every 250 or so people vaccinated is a life saved; that means that for around 250,000 vaccines a day going out, we are saving 1,000 lives a day. The Public Accounts Committee yesterday questioned the chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, and she made it clear that we were several months ahead of other countries in our roll-out plans.
I hugely praise the efforts of my local NHS in North West Durham. I recently visited Shotley Bridge Hospital and Weardale Community Hospital and have regular calls with our CCG and NHS trust. All the staff are at the moment working on an enormous task and achieving at putting the north-east at the forefront of the vaccine programme. We seem to be getting communities really onside, and people are getting vaccinated. I encourage everybody who is eligible to take that up as quickly as possible.
I quickly want to ask the Minister one thing. It is great news about the dashboard—I have been on it myself today—but when will we see the regional and local breakdowns, because that will help give people even more confidence that the vaccines are coming to them?
Finally, we are all desperate for an end to lockdown and for a return to normality so that our businesses can thrive once more, and I urge the Minister to ensure that the restrictions are lifted at the earliest safe opportunity for our constituents.
I would like to make three brief points.
First, vaccination is undoubtedly a significant and great success story, and I thank all involved nationally and on the Island. On the Island we have vaccinated well over 10,000—probably about 12,000—people so far, so it is under way. Four sites are vaccinating at the moment: Carisbrooke, the Bay practice, Westridge, and doctors and nurses working out of the West Wight sports and community centre in Freshwater, as well as the hospital. I do however have a slight concern, on which I would be grateful to get a direct answer from the Minister—I have written to the Secretary of State and to the vaccine Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). The vaccine hub at the Riverside centre in Newport is expected to be ready on 15 January; earlier today in a question I accidentally said 15 July; clearly, I meant 15 January, so it will be ready in about three days. We may not, however, receive the vaccines for it and the sign-off for at least 10 days, and potentially more, afterwards. We are therefore potentially missing out on vaccinating about 500 people per day, and over 10 days that is 5,000 people who could have had a first jab. With our rise in infection on the Island, our demographic profile, and our isolation and dependency on ferries and potentially helicopters, I am concerned that we are not high enough on the vaccine supply list—not for the four primary care networks, but for our vaccine centre. As I say, I have written to the Secretary of State about this, but it would be great to get an answer.
Secondly, may we have a medium-term outline of what lies ahead? Businesses need clarity; people, especially in the hospitality sector on the Island and the festival sector need to be able to plan and to know if they can reopen in April or May or later in the summer.
We know that, sadly, 50% of deaths are among the over-80s, and 88%, nearly 90%, of deaths are in the top four at-risk categories. If those good folks are all vaccinated on time, taking into account the three-week period afterwards that it takes for the vaccine to become live, by early March we should be clear of nearly 90% of deaths. That then raises the question of whether we will be coming out of lockdown at that point, or will the Government then say it is not about mortality but about prevalence of covid? We need clarity and a decision on this as soon as possible.
Finally, and related to that, the Isle of Wight is Britain’s festival island, and the Government need to think about support for festivals because they are planning already; their decisions are being made in the next few weeks and help for that sector would be gratefully received.
We have had another well-subscribed debate, and Members’ contributions have been short as a result but no less effective for it. On the Opposition Benches, we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who expressed concern that the current lockdown rules are inadequate and that the Government’s response is to blame the public for non-compliance. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about the heroes who have kept this country going, and I join him in paying tribute to them. He said that they are the “very best of humanity” but are often among the lowest paid.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) gave a typically passionate speech. She described NHS staff as exhausted, stressed and traumatised, and she asked the right question: if the Nightingales are reopening, how can they be staffed when NHS staff are already at breaking point? She was outraged, as many of us are, at the paltry offering that our nation’s children have been told is enough to feed them for a week. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) paid tribute to the work of the Welsh Assembly and made the fair point that, when it has made decisions to lock down, financial support from Westminster has not always followed automatically.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) expressed regret that the Government did not formally review their actions after the first wave, because if they had, mistakes might not have been repeated. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) was, as always, a powerful advocate for her city, and she spoke about how businesses and individuals have suffered during the last year. My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) drew attention to the widening health inequalities in the past decade that have now been exacerbated by the pandemic. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) spoke about the patchiness of vaccine supply in his constituency. As his neighbour, I recognise those concerns, as many Members do, and we hope to see great progress on that in the coming weeks.
Finally, in a powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) reminded us that the link between covid cases and poverty is a stark one. She made a strong case for why more support is needed to enable people to self-isolate. In fact, just about every single Opposition Member raised that in one way or another. We have been making this case since the start of the pandemic, so why has it not happened?
We are in the darkest hour yet, but we still see the same failings again and again that have led us to this place. More people have been infected this year already than in the whole of October, when, let us not forget, things got so bad that we had to have another lockdown. Worse still, more people have died this month already than died in July, August and September put together. Every death is a tragedy. Every death leaves behind a grieving family, and while not every death is avoidable, not every one was inevitable.
The Government follow the same pattern every time, waiting until the last possible moment—until a decision becomes unavoidable. It is an ongoing cycle of bluster and denial, losing valuable time through delaying the inevitable and then running to catch up but never quite getting there. We can trace that pattern right back to even before the start of the pandemic, when warnings about preparations were ignored and the Prime Minister missed five Cobra meetings when our initial response to this threat was drawn up.
The Government have repeatedly been too slow to act. They were too slow to lock down the first time, and the second and the third. Ignoring the scientific advice from SAGE on a circuit breaker lockdown for six weeks was unforgivable. The Government certainly were not following the science then, nor were they when they said they would not change the Christmas relaxation rules because it was too late to do so, only to then do it three days later. They then told teachers, parents and children that it was safe to return to school one day, only to close them the next.
The Government ignored the World Health Organisation’s advice to test, test, test and stopped contact tracing altogether in March. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) set out, the Government’s failings in social care are many, the most serious of which was allowing patients to be discharged into care homes without testing them for covid. We also had people being sent hundreds of miles just to get a covid test, all the while people were still coming into the UK without any checks at all. That still is not going to be corrected until the end of this week. The promise of all test results being returned within 24 hours has never materialised. Even now, the vast majority of tests take far longer than that to return.
They also delayed the roll-out of routine testing for care home staff but failed to anticipate the increase in testing capacity that would be needed when people returned to schools and workplaces, and they missed thousands of new cases because the spreadsheet was full. They set up a covid hotline that missed thousands of calls because of a failure to anticipate demand, again. On contact tracing, they developed the famous app and then could not get it to work. It was scrapped. They started again and finally delivered it four months’ late. Then, when it arrived, a notification to self-isolate from it did not count for claiming the self-isolation payment.
Worst of all, they handed massive sums of money to private companies with no record of contact tracing to deal with test and trace, repeatedly ignoring the evidence that locally led teams consistently delivered better results. The consequences of that were that thousands of people every day were not contacted quickly enough or were not contacted at all, meaning they continued to unwittingly spread the virus. They also did not require those private testing companies to report their results back to local public health bodies, meaning that opportunities for early action on local outbreaks were missed.
On PPE, where do we start? Stockpiles were allowed to run down. The Government allowed desperately needed PPE to be exported abroad, while our own health and social care staff were having to scrabble around or rely on homemade items. They signed £10 billion-worth of contracts on covid procurement without following the usual rules, including handing multimillion pound contracts to companies with no record of PPE production, some of whom supplied PPE that did not meet the required standards or, worse still, did not provide anything at all.
As we have said, they failed and are still failing to support people to self-isolate, bringing in a scheme of support that only one in eight people qualified for, with the unsurprising consequence that many people cannot afford to self-isolate. This is one of the first things we brought up at the start of the pandemic almost a year ago and it is unbelievable that it has still not been resolved.
Finally, the Government introduced a tier system that did not work and then another tier system that experts told them from the start would not work, so they had to introduce yet another tier system that did not work before finally creating extra tiers to the tier system that also did not work. They have over-promised and under-delivered every step of the way. There is a tragic failure to learn from mistakes. That must not be allowed to happen with the roll-out of the vaccine. It is, after all, our only way out of the situation.
It is, of course, a source of great national pride that we were the first country to approve a vaccine for distribution and that our own scientists were integral to the development of the second vaccine that was approved. So it would be a huge failing if we then did not become the first country to mass vaccinate our population. For the families forced to part, for the businesses facing bankruptcy and for the NHS staff exhausted by the relentless pressure that the virus has created, we all want the quickest possible route out of this.
The vaccines Minister said yesterday that the limiting factor to the vaccine roll-out at the moment is the volume of vaccines available, but has provided little detail on future supply. Where has it gone? AstraZeneca promised 30 million doses by September. That went down to 4 million by the end of year and clearly much less has actually been delivered on the ground. All the best laid plans will not matter if the supply is not there, so I hope the Minister can set out a detailed schedule of how many doses have been received to date, how many are expected each week and what the weekly projections are for delivery moving forward. Once we have got that sorted, let us go for 24-hour delivery. I can assure the House that there is an appetite for that.
On the vaccination of NHS staff, the latest estimate is that there are now some 46,000 staff off ill with covid, so it is vital that all NHS staff receive their first dose as soon as possible. Will the Minister commit today not just to delivering them as soon as possible, but to ensuring that they all get their vaccines within the next two weeks? We very much welcome the vaccines data that will be published each day from Thursday, but will she also commit to publishing the daily total of health and social care staff vaccinated so we can see progress there, too. We absolutely need the NHS to be protected. In that regard, one way to relieve pressure is to ensure that discharges into the social care sector are managed. Can the Minister update us on when the 500 covid-secure care homes will finally be on stream?
I just want to say a few words on the current lockdown. As we have heard, there has been much debate, both in here and in the media, about whether the current measures in place are sufficient. Once again, we hear at second hand from media briefings that Ministers are considering introducing new measures. Can the Minister update us in here, today, on whether any further measures will be introduced? Advice in December called for the Government to reconsider the 1 metre-plus rule, and we hear that SAGE has urged the Prime Minister to go further and increase 2 metres to 3 metres. We cannot be too late on that as well, so can the Government set out today what their position is on the social distancing rules and whether they need to change?
We know that the Government have also been advised to reinforce the importance of face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as workplaces and outdoor spaces. There was a two-month delay in advice on face coverings moving from just being guidance to becoming law. We cannot wait another two months for a change again if that is needed.
We all know why we need to look at extra measures, but to reinforce just how important that is, I want to conclude with a message that I received this morning from a constituent, who is an ICU nurse. She told me:
“I work full time plus extra, as we’re so, so busy. It’s horrendous. I am exhausted. I am still awake after a night shift, as I can’t switch off. I had four patients last night, I should only have had two. Then on my days off, I’m having to home-school as my husband, who is a store manager, is having to go to work and do click and collect. He says there are huge queues. It’s an absolute joke. This is not a proper lockdown.”
We need to listen to her. Our own eyes should tell us that this lockdown is not as strict as the first one, yet we have a more transmissible variant of the virus in circulation. Let us not delay again making the difficult but necessary decisions. Let us not put more pressure on an NHS already at breaking point. Let us not make those same mistakes again.
I start by echoing the remarks of the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and by reflecting on my gratitude. As I have sat and listened to the speeches today, what I have heard is the gratitude of the whole House to all those who work on the frontline with such determination. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, there are people throughout the health and social care system going above and beyond every single day, and for that we are truly, truly grateful. Wherever they work, we have rightly congratulated them—whether it is those working on rolling out the vaccines, which includes the mother of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), or those who have come forward to volunteer to add to our effort.
I also thank those diverse and important elements of our healthcare system that very often do not get our thanks, but are the glue that sticks all the different parts of the system together. I am talking about the community health teams, who are tired. They have been working hard on the frontline, going into people’s homes, working in primary care, ensuring that, when people are discharged, they are looked after and cared for. Then there are the practice nurses, who are valiantly vaccinating every single day, and our allied health professionals—the physios, the speech and language therapists and the health visitors. Healthcare is still standing up while this pandemic rages, and those individuals are having to work with this virus in order to keep our services going. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said that people should still please go to their health provider if they have something that they are worried about, and they will still help.
My hon. Friend is making exactly the right point in thanking our dedicated health care professionals who, both in the length and the breadth of their contribution, have been very significant. I went to the Pulborough Medical Group late last week to see one of the first vaccine roll-outs in my constituency, and I saw how complex it is, how dedicated the staff are and how fundamental teamwork is to dealing with every aspect of what is quite a complex vaccination process. There are other GP surgeries in my constituency that I would also love to see avail themselves of the vaccine, but would the Minister join me in thanking them and the many others across the United Kingdom?
I would be happy to join in my hon. Friend’s remarks. For me, when I visited one of the surgeries in Woolpit in my constituency, it was also the gratitude of those older members of our society who were being vaccinated. As one nursing member of staff said to me, “It’s just the gratitude of people”. They have heard more thank-yous in 10 months than they have across their careers before.
I think people are seeing this as a light at the end of the tunnel, as many speakers have said, but I also think we must be careful. While we are rolling out the vaccine, the way we can thank those right across the health service is to stick to the rules and to make sure that transmission between people is as minimal as possible and that we stay home. That is the way we can help them, because even when people have been vaccinated, there is a period of some three weeks before it starts to ensure that that individual is protected. There was a tweet by the Archbishop of Canterbury today who said that we wear a mask and keep our distance to protect our neighbour. We do all these things to protect others, making sure that through the course of this pandemic we follow the instructions. I do not feel they are confusing—stay at home, go out for one piece of exercise a day. It is pretty clear, and that is how we can help our health service, which is finding things tough at the moment.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Could I ask the Minister to take away the fact that so many elderly people are really concerned about when they are going to get their vaccination? I have had three people in their 90s who have not been contacted, and this is about the lack of contact and the lack of information. The only way, or the best way, to deal with people of that age is not via the internet, but to have a local telephone number that people—the family perhaps, or the person themselves—can telephone. Can I ask the Minister to take that point away and try to set up something like that, because it would be so helpful and be good for morale among the elderly?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I would say a couple of things. Of course I will take that away and mention it to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). I would also reiterate the Minister for Health’s comment to my hon. Friend during his opening speech that if at first we do not succeed, we will try, try and try again. It is really important that people feel secure, and that it is not just one hit. If someone has missed their appointment—there may be valid reasons why people cannot get there—we will keep trying over and over again to ensure that as many people can receive the vaccination in as swift a time as possible, because ultimately that is how we will be safe.
Many people mentioned how brilliant pharmacists and their teams have been. We are starting to roll out the vaccine to community pharmacists through the pharmacy network over the course of this week, and building up next week. Many people also mentioned supply. This is a process of driving more and more capacity into the system to make sure that as we build a system—from the mass vaccination sites, in one of which the mum of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove is working, cascading down through our communities and into more rural sites—those in care homes can get vaccinated without having to leave their care home. This is about making sure we are using GPs and pharmacists across our network, and mobilising the armed forces, who, as we heard in this place earlier today, have been absolutely at the forefront of making sure we get kit such as PPE to the right place, and have been out there helping with testing and helping with the vaccine roll-out. This has been a national effort and a team effort.
Could the Minister comment on the supply of something fundamental: oxygen? I wrote to the Secretary of State on Saturday about supplies of oxygen to Epsom and St Helier trust, which had a specific problem, but it is not solely Epsom and St Helier—in London, a number of intensive care units are under great pressure and are worried about running out of oxygen.
I refer the hon. Lady to the in-depth answer on exactly that point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave during Health and Social Care questions this morning, when he said that there is no national shortage of oxygen in the system. He explicitly outlined the challenges and what is being done to mitigate them.
Pharmacists are being brought online, as are many other parts of our system, including all the staff working hard behind the scenes to keep vital services going and to keep people safe. I reiterate that all front-facing health and social care staff in category 2 can access vaccines, including all dentists and their teams; I think nurses and optometrists were the other professions mentioned during the course of the debate.
We are entering a critical period in our fight against this virus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) said, there are challenging days ahead—we are not there yet. We are dealing with a new, more transmissible variant of this virus that risks overwhelming our NHS, so we had to put in place these tough but vital rules to slow the spread of the virus. I know how hard these rules have been, not only for those we are asking to follow them but for most of us—it goes to our very core. We did not come into politics to stop people doing things.
I feel safe in saying that that is the ultimate wish of everybody who is involved in fighting this virus. As the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) said, most of us want a hug. We have been here long enough. The rules mean missing out on moments with loved ones and businesses having to shutter their doors once again. I am sure we have all had conversations with those businesses. Members from across the House spoke of the Chancellor’s unprecedented support, which he outlined again in this place yesterday. He will have been listening to my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (James Daly) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) and others who made that strong case for hospitality and the self-employed.
However, we have to keep going. Our response is improving every day. We are expanding our test capacity. We have distributed massive amounts of PPE—6.7 billion items—to the system, 70% of which was made in this country, so I do not recognise the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston’s dire PPE forecast. It has turned, and we now have everybody on the frontline protected as they need to be. We are making the most of scientific advances, such as the two new treatments that passed rigorous clinical trials last week. I will not attempt the names like my hon. Friend the Minister for Health did; they appear to be tongue-twisters. As we fight this virus, we will support those impacted by the measures through our furlough scheme and support for the self-employed.
As well as support in the short term, we now have a way out in the long term thanks to the vaccines that we are rolling out: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which we were the first country in the world to clinically authorise; the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, developed right here in the UK; and the Moderna vaccine, authorised on Friday, which we can soon add to our growing arsenal of vaccines. We now have a plan to get them far and wide, and I recommend to anybody who has not read the vaccine delivery strategy outlined yesterday that they do so. To date, we have vaccinated more than 2.4 million of the most vulnerable people, and 412,000 have had their second vaccine. That is amazing. From north, south, east and west, we have heard people praise this, and we are going from strength to strength. The work set out in the vaccine strategy will help us to return to normal life.
Today’s debate has been engaging, and I thank everybody who has taken part. We have a difficult few weeks ahead as we enter this final stage of our response. We are called upon to sacrifice some of the things that we love to get this virus under control, but as we do so we can take comfort from the fact that help is on the way. The incredible advances will see us through. We will get through this together.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19.