House of Commons
Thursday 21 January 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Great Britain-Northern Ireland Pet Travel
The Northern Ireland protocol under the European Union withdrawal agreement applies the EU pet travel regulations for pet movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Great Britain has currently been listed by the EU in part 2 of the regulations, which requires some documentation. However, Great Britain and Ireland have a similarly very high health status, and we are discussing possible bilateral provisions with Ireland. In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is taking a pragmatic approach in this initial period.
I assume that the Secretary of State is aware of the challenges this causes for ordinary pet owners, but specifically can he advise what mitigations were anticipated and are being put in place for those who require assistance dogs to travel between Britain and Northern Ireland?
The primary purpose of the pet travel regulations is to control the spread of rabies, and both Ireland and Great Britain have very similar and very high health status on rabies, having not had it in dogs previously. We therefore think that there should be easement on the provision; we have argued with the Commission that we should be listed in part 1, but we are continuing to make those bilateral negotiations with Ireland a priority.
Buckskin Flood Alleviation Scheme
I understand that the Buckskin flood alleviation scheme became operational on 24 December, Christmas eve, reducing flood risk to 170 homes. Final minor works are now scheduled to be completed by the end of January 2021, and the scheme has been delivered within budget despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
That is welcome news, because just a few years ago Buckskin was devastated by floods. My thoughts are with those who were flooded out last night in Greater Manchester, north Wales and Merseyside. No one can stop flooding completely, particularly groundwater flooding, so in addition to this very welcome flood scheme, what assurance can my hon. Friend give that homes affected by floods will still be able to get property insurance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting that issue. The joint Government and industry Flood Re scheme was designed to help householders at high flood risk to access affordable insurance. Flood Re is available from more than 85 insurance brands now; more than 300,000 properties have benefited since its launch. Before Flood Re just 9% of households who had made flood claims could get quotes from two or more insurers, but in June 2020, 96% of households with prior flood claims could receive quotes from five or more, so I hope my right hon. Friend agrees that that is a hugely improved situation.
Many parts of the country are currently facing severe flood warnings, and our thoughts are with those who have been flooded overnight. We need a proactive rather than a reactive approach to this crisis, so will the Minister today commit to holding an emergency flood summit that brings together agencies and regional leaders to make sure that we have a co-ordinated response to support local communities?
We held a flood summit covering the south Yorkshire area shortly before Christmas later last year. I have also said that we want to hold a series of roundtable meetings around the country covering individual water catchments.
Distant Fleet Fishing
Last Thursday, the UK Government published the determination of fishing opportunities for British fishing boats covering the period to 31 March this year. Licences have been issued for 2,750 tonnes of cod in the waters around Svalbard, which result from arrangements between the UK and Norway. The UK’s first annual bilateral negotiations with Norway will also be relevant to distant waters fishing, in particular with regard to Arctic cod.
Three weeks have passed since the transition ended and still the Hull trawler Kirkella is laid up in its home port unable to sail. The short licence the Secretary of State just mentioned to fish off Svalbard is for a fraction of the previous quota, which means it cannot operate viably, and still fishers’ jobs are at risk. We cannot lose Hull’s last link with its distant fleet fishing heritage, so I again ask: how much longer will they have to wait for a sensible and viable annual fishing quota for both the Norwegian zone and Svalbard?
It is not unusual for the annual fishing negotiations to go into January. This year, there has obviously been the very special circumstance that the withdrawal agreement came late, but in 2014 access was suspended while negotiations with Norway continued through January. We would anticipate that these negotiations would conclude within the next couple of weeks, and then access for Arctic cod, should that be agreed, could be resumed.
Food Imports and Exports
We have engaged extensively with industry to support trader readiness for new requirements for exporting to the EU. For those importing to the UK, we established a phased approach to border controls for the first period of 2021. We have supported exporters as they familiarise themselves with new processes around export health certificates and customs declarations, and we have liaised closely with EU states, such as France, that are also getting used to new processes at the border. Finally, we have worked closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure the rapid deployment of the covid-19 testing measures required by France.
Further to that, may I ask the Secretary of State what measures the Government are taking to prevent more border disruption and costly delays for food and drink exporters when the volumes of trade start to pick up again in the coming weeks? What assessment has he made of the impact on jobs if there are delays and disruption at the border?
The sector that has had greatest difficulty in these first few weeks has been the fishing sector, principally because it is a very time-critical, perishable product, but there are also some smaller businesses selling smaller consignments in mixed, grouped loads. Overall, the system is working well. We are issuing around 150 export health certificates per day. The volume of lorries through the short straits is back up to around 6,000 to 7,000 per day—still some way short of normal levels, but nevertheless it continues to grow.
Dina Foods, which produces delicacies in Acton for supermarkets here and all over the EU, rejoiced at the Christmas eve miracle of no tariffs and no quotas, but it is drowning in paperwork for forward freight and it is experiencing crippling additional transportation costs and pallet requirements, and border delays for customs clearance. Goods loaded for Spain on the 8th still have not made it. Buyers are losing patience. The same is happening for those importing from everywhere; what took two weeks now takes three months. Will Ministers fix the rules of origin to stop battering British business?
Colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are looking at the specific issue around rules of origin, which does affect some sectors, but overall, flow at the border through the short straits has been good. More than 6,000 lorries per day are travelling. DFDS, which leads on fisheries distribution, now says that it is getting lorries to Boulogne within 24 hours. Goods are starting to flow, but unavoidably, as we leave both the customs union and the single market, there is of course some additional paperwork.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he has put into getting the deal to work. We welcome the deal, but there are still lots of problems with people getting things through the border, and delays are reducing the value of fish especially. What compensation can be given to people, and what more can the Secretary of State do to get goods flowing through the borders—both at our end and, in particular, through French ports when there are problems at their customs?
Yesterday, we announced that we would offer one-to-one support for individual enterprises in the fishing sector that are struggling to get used to the new paperwork; that could be from HMRC or the Animal and Plant Health Agency. In addition, we work very closely with customs officials and Border Force officials in France to help improve the understanding at that level. We also announced a £23 million fund yesterday to help those fishing businesses that have struggled in these initial weeks.
I fear the Secretary of State is living in a parallel universe. He must have seen the headlines: “Pig Heads Are Rotting In Rotterdam As Brexit Delays Hit The British Meat Industry”. Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association understands that these problems are not teething problems; they are structural. He warns that the meat industry’s trade with the EU is in jeopardy. Is he right about that? What is the Secretary of State going to do about it—just suggest that farmers do something else?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. Actually, goods are flowing, particularly lamb, which is our principal meat export. Dairy goods are also flowing. Yes, there are occasionally delays at the border, as border officials in France and the Netherlands get used to the new processes, but we are intervening in all such instances to help the businesses concerned.
Europe’s biggest fish market in Peterhead is empty. An industry has collapsed because this Government’s ideological blinkers meant they made a mess of the negotiations and Ministers think it is a teething problem or a paperwork problem or it is not their fault. Will Ministers tell us how they intend to sort this out? Will the Government go back to the EU to seek a grace period and new negotiations on market access, as many in the sector are asking for, even if that means accepting some regulatory alignment?
Scottish Fishing Communities: EU Trade
The trade and co-operation agreement establishes tariff-free trade on fisheries exports to the EU and also establishes a five-and-a-half-year multiannual agreement on access and sharing arrangements for quota. Under the agreement, there are year-on-year transfers of fishing opportunities from EU fleets to the UK fleet. Overall, the EU relinquished 25% of the quota it had previously been allowed to catch in UK waters. There are gains, both in the North sea and in the west of Scotland.
Scotland’s high-quality seafood producers are warning that they are going out of business. They cannot have their products sitting in lorry parks in Kent waiting for customs clearance. Those products have to reach market fresh. What are the Government doing to change procedures and technology to ensure an entire industry is not destroyed? Will there be ongoing compensation offered to businesses until this is sorted, or was that offer a one-off? If the Minister could offer a slightly fuller response this time, that would be appreciated.
As I explained earlier, we have announced a £23 million fund to help exporters who struggled with the paperwork in the initial weeks. We have also been working daily with the fishing sector to tackle and iron out any particular issues it has encountered. Twice a week we hold long stakeholder calls with all businesses concerned. I have had personal conversations with organisations such as DFDS, which leads on distribution. We have given them all the support we can to help them iron out the teething issues they have been having.
This Government have followed up their sell-out of Scotland’s fishing communities with this £23 million insult. The industry is losing more than four times that every day. It is losing customers with it. And this was the one industry, we were told, that would benefit from Brexit. Why will the Government not act now, act quickly, eat some humble pie and re-establish barrier-free rapid access to the European market for this industry, so it can finally supply its customers again?
With the support we have given industry to iron out some of the issues it has been having, the flow of goods is now continuing. DFDS in particular has been very successful at transporting salmon to the European Union. This week, it resumed groupage systems to take smaller consignments. We know there are between 30 to 50 lorries of fish making their way to Boulogne each and every day.
The Government made a manifesto commitment to maintain the current annual budget to farmers. In England, we will be offering both transitional and productivity support from this year. Now we have left the EU, Wales, too, can shape its own agricultural policies.
I thank the Minister for her answer. This week is Farmers’ Union Wales Farmhouse Breakfast Week. This morning my family tucked into a hearty breakfast of local produce from the butchers at Anglesey Fine Foods in Valley. Farmers in my constituency, such as Gerald Thomas and Brian Bown, grow and rear some of the finest foods in the UK. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government to ensure they receive the same levels of support as English farmers now that they have left the EU? Does she also agree with me that Welsh farm sausage is the finest addition to any good breakfast?
Well, a Welsh sausage is hard to beat, and I congratulate the Farmers’ Union of Wales on its excellent farmhouse breakfast campaign and my hon. Friend on sourcing and enjoying local produce with her family this morning. DEFRA works closely with the Welsh Government, and we have a shared commitment to promoting Welsh food.
Food Producers: Content Restrictions
Colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care carried out a consultation on the proposal to restrict the promotion of foods high in fat, salt and sugar in stores. The Government’s response to the consultation and the impact assessment were published on 28 December 2020. This concluded that the benefits for the nation’s health and the reduction in cost on the NHS outweighed the costs.
The inclusion of breakfast cereals in the proposals for restricting the promotion of these products is causing real concern to cereal growers in my constituency, such as Morris of Hoggeston, and the wider breakfast cereal industry. particularly as there is no allowance for the naturally occurring sugars and fats from the dried fruits and nuts often put with cereals such as granola, porridge and muesli. Will my right hon. Friend advise what assessment has been made of the impact on UK farmers of these proposals and work with colleagues, particularly in the Department of Health and Social Care, to see more common sense applied to breakfast cereals?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Cereals, such as those are grown in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are an important source of healthy food. Breakfast cereals will be captured by DHSC’s policy only if they are classified as high in salt, fat or sugar, and the nutrient profiling model used by Public Health England accounts for the nutritional benefits of cereals, fruits and nuts. I suggest that he raises his concerns with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but I would also be willing to engage in that discussion, given the particular concerns that he raised.
We committed in our manifesto to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to deliver that. We announced a £640 million nature for climate fund, a lot of which will contribute towards the tree planting, together with our green recovery challenge fund, and the skills required to plant these trees and look after them will all be part and parcel of this. We will be publishing our tree strategy with all the details later in the spring.
As communities along the River Severn catchment are facing flooding once again, I thank the Minister for all she has done to fund a hardening of flood defences along the River Severn. Will she say how tree planting is also effective at reducing the amount of floodwater that goes through the catchment and reducing the speed?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that question, and of course our sympathies go to anyone who has been flooded overnight. With the Environment Agency, we have a very big project on to oversee all that. We are absolutely committed to better protecting the country from flooding, and I thank her for her comments about what is happening in the Severn valley. Natural flood management, including tree planting, cannot solve the issues of conventional flooding, but it is part and parcel of the whole plan—the holistic plan—for dealing with flooding on a much wider and more comprehensive scale. Proposals to do that include flood-risk management options, which will include tree planting, improve water quality and enhance the environment. It will be an integrated approach and I very much look forward to hearing more about the plans for the Severn valley, which I know she is hugely behind.
Air Pollution: Brownfield Redevelopment
The Secretary of State regularly meets Cabinet colleagues to discuss a range of issues, including air quality and planning issues. Air quality is a key consideration of local authority planning decisions, and there are strong protections in place to safeguard people from unacceptable risks from air pollution where development is proposed, and this is detailed in national planning policy.
People living in my constituency feel choked by the fumes from the remediation of Southall gasworks, a project forced through against the wishes of local residents and local representatives by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Will the Minister confirm that they will meet me and local residents to explain why they think this is acceptable and why the Government will not empower either the Environment Agency or Public Health England to act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The redevelopment of the former gasworks site at Southall is a matter for the local authority and the Mayor of London, as I am sure he is well aware. Local authorities are required to review and assess local air quality and decide what monitoring is necessary in line with statutory duties. This Government are tackling air quality and taking it extremely seriously with their £3.8 billion project. If the hon. Gentleman wants to contact me with any details about this issue, I am happy to speak to him but I am not able to get involved in any way in particular planning issues.
Food Security and Poverty: Lockdown
The Government have put in place a winter package to support the economically vulnerable. This includes a £170 million covid-19 winter support grant for local authorities to support households with food and other costs, and £16 million of funding for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to support charities with food redistribution to the vulnerable.
Over the last five years, millions of families have experienced food insecurity, causing a 74% increase in food bank usage, yet the Government are refusing once again to extend free school meals over the February half-term, saying that councils have to cover the cost. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that every single child entitled to free school meals, including those with parents with no recourse to public funds restrictions, will receive the meals they need over the half-term?
While we have not extended the free school meals during the half-term period, we have announced a range of other interventions, including the holiday activities scheme that was announced late last year and also the grants that I have just announced that local authorities can use to help those in need.
The Government are committed to the animal welfare agenda. Currently, we are working on proposals to ban live exports for slaughter or fattening, banning primates as pets and introducing compulsory microchipping for cats. We will increase sentences for animal cruelty, enhance the welfare standards of farmed animals and bring forward proposals relating to animal sentience.
I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am grateful for all she is doing, but both the demand for puppies in the UK and their price have skyrocketed over lockdown. I declare an interest: I bought two of the same breed several months apart and saw a doubling in the price. I have been speaking to reputable breeders, and they are choosing not to breed their dogs because of concerns about welfare. What are the Government doing to ensure puppy welfare, clamp down on puppy farms and stop puppy profiteering?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, which I know he has campaigned on before. Regulations in England require anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs to be licensed. Last year, we banned commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and also launched our national Petfished campaign to educate the public on how to source pets responsibly.
DEFRA takes the trade in puppy smuggling seriously. We operate a rigorous checking regime, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency works collaboratively to share intelligence, disrupt illegal imports and seize animals where that is necessary. The end of the transition period has created new opportunities for cracking down on puppy smuggling, and we are considering a range of options to help with this.
Every year thousands of puppies are still illegally smuggled across eastern Europe to be mis-sold to British dog lovers. Many suffer significant health problems and behavioural challenges and some do not survive. The Dogs Trust wants the Government to raise the minimum age for puppies to enter the UK to six months and to significantly increase penalties for smugglers. The Minister talked about the opportunities of the end of the transition period, so when are we going to get on with it?
The Government are actively considering a range of opportunities to crack down on this abhorrent trade, as the hon. Gentleman says. We are listening to the views of a large number of stakeholders, including the Dogs Trust and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which have made useful comments in this space. I look forward to working with him and Members from across this House to take these proposals forward.
Over the past 48 hours, Storm Christoph has led to very high rainfall, leading to hundreds of flood warnings, particularly in areas around the north-west and Yorkshire, including in Chorley—your constituency, Mr Speaker. Four severe flood warnings have been issued, two in the Didsbury area of Manchester, and two in the Maghull area of Liverpool. Overnight, those in 200 hundred homes in Maghull and more than 2,000 homes in Didsbury were advised to evacuate. Water levels in the Didsbury flood basin have started to recede, but water will continue to work through the river systems in the north-west and Yorkshire in the coming days. More unsettled weather is expected next week, so we continue to prepare for further impacts.
The Secretary of State may not be aware that last night’s rainfall has caused another landslip on a former coal tip in Rhondda Cynon Taf. The long-term management of these tips is a UK Government responsibility. We all need to do what we can to protect our local environment, and coal tips are a major part of our heritage here in the Welsh valleys. Will he therefore commit to working with his colleagues in the Cabinet to publish a strategy outlining the Government’s long-term plan for managing these coal tips?
We have been working closely with both the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh Government on this challenge, which we all take seriously. I know that discussions have taken place in the past with the national Coal Authority on this matter as well, and we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on it.
We all very much hope to be able to lift the restrictions of lockdown as soon as possible. My hon. Friend will be aware that in the first lockdown, we allowed zoos to open after we allowed parks to open. Zoos are outdoors, but people tend to follow the same routes, so the risk is judged by Public Health England to be higher. However, I have sympathy with the issues zoos face, and we want to get them open as soon as possible.
Each year, 40,000 people die from poor air quality. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill, on which there will be a vote on Tuesday, to put the World Health Organisation air quality standards into law. Can the Secretary of State tell me why his Government plan to vote against that amendment?
We are working on the air quality targets that will form part of our targets under the Environment Bill. We are looking at population exposure, as well as an absolute concentration target, and we are working with experts to assess what that concentration target should be.
I do not think that answer was good enough, and it speaks to a larger concern: the Government seem to be rolling back hard-won environmental gains. It will not just be Britain watching the votes on the Environment Bill; it will also be the Biden-Harris Administration. If Labour’s amendment is voted down, although it would prevent the Government allowing bee-killing chemicals, loosening the chemicals regime, and having a weaker environmental watchdog than we had last year, what message does it send about how much we can trust the Prime Minister when he speaks about “building back better”?
We have not changed our regulations on neonicotinoids, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. In common with 10 other EU countries, we have granted an emergency authorisation, which is an integral part of the precautionary principle. We have done so for a non-flowering crop, and we have also made it clear that flowering crops cannot be grown there for at least three years.
I remember very well that visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is always good to see such ambitious plans come into effect and start to take shape. I would be delighted to visit her constituency again, and to outline some of our plans to ensure better fishing opportunities for our inshore fleet.
Floods have impacts on many communities —not only urban communities and households, but farmland, which can lead to the loss of crops. There is some weighting in the floods formula to protect farmland, and we have a number of schemes to help to remedy flood risks on agricultural land when flooding occurs.
Late last year, we held a flood summit to discuss some of the particular challenges around the River Calder in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There have been a number of important projects around that area, including at Hebden Bridge, where I believe construction is well under way. Further projects are in the pipeline, and we continue to work with the Environment Agency to manage water catchments effectively.
My hon. Friend’s constituency is in a unique area with a unique geography, as he knows, and it does face frequent flooding—it was among the worst-affected when we had the floods last year. We will shortly issue a consultation on changes to the flooding formula, and one thing that we want is for greater weight to be placed on frequently flooded communities.
Of course they should, because in the white fish sector and the quota sector we have secured an uplift in quota that is front-loaded; the uplift is 15% next year. We will also have full regulatory autonomy on technical conservation measures, which gives us the ability to support the shellfish sector far better than we were able to in the European Union.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Covid-19: Support for Vulnerable People
I am delighted that Lichfield, Rochester, Blackburn and Salisbury cathedrals are among the church buildings being used as vaccination centres. As well as providing worship, prayer and community support, parishes have been providing food, medicine delivery, bereavement counselling and much more, serving the needs of everyone in their local communities.
The “Keeping the Faith” report in November showed the remarkable extent to which local councils have turned to churches and other faith groups during the pandemic, especially for help in distributing food, and how positive an experience for councils this has proved to be. Will the Church of England urge Ministers to help these new partnerships with local councils continue beyond the pandemic?
Yes indeed, and I warmly commend the all-party group on faith and society for its research, as well as the Kruger review. I look forward to Colin Bloom’s report, commissioned by the Government, which assesses faith community engagement. I hope it will build on my right hon. Friend’s important and very welcome all-party group research.
Persecution of Christians: Nigeria
I begin by very warmly welcoming the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. She has campaigned both knowledgeably and forensically on these issues for many years.
The Church is deeply concerned about the unravelling of the state security apparatus in Nigeria and the activity of non-state actors, which is politicising and polarising identity in Nigeria.
A recent Open Doors UK event highlighted that Christians are more likely to be tortured and murdered for their faith by Islamic militants in the north of Nigeria than in any other country. Persecution also includes denying Christians food, aid and treatment for covid-19. The UK Government need to place pressure on the Nigerian Government to defend and protect their Christian population. What is the Church of England’s involvement in supporting these persecuted Christians, and what relief work is it doing with Nigerian internally displaced people camps?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who knows Nigeria well, is monitoring the recent violence and the kidnapping of 300 schoolboys. He and I have met the family of Leah Sharibu, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2018, and who is still a prisoner, as she refuses to renounce Jesus. Clergy who have spoken out have been threatened by prominent civil society organisations, and the Church continues to stay closely involved.
Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Covid-19: May Elections
The commission believes that it is an important democratic principle that elections should proceed as scheduled whenever possible. To ensure that can happen in May, the commission is working closely with electoral administrators, political parties and other campaigners to provide the necessary support and guidance, informed by the latest public health advice. The commission’s objective is for voters to be able to participate in the polls, campaigners and parties to be able to put their case to the electorate, and electoral administration staff to be able to run the polling stations and count centres safely and competently.
Looking at the electoral procedures to be followed, though, we can all see areas, such as the collection of nomination signatures, where there is potential for unnecessary face-to-face contact. Surely this is a moment when we can look at doing these things differently, but if we are to make any changes in time for May, that work would need to be done now. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether that work is being done by the commission?
The commission is undertaking work to ensure that the elections can proceed in May in as safe a way as possible, and is working with electoral administrators to achieve that. They will be following public health advice, but at this stage, as the elections are going ahead in May, there is little time to make changes to some of the procedures before those elections.
Has the Electoral Commission looked at the possibility of having all-postal ballots, or, failing that, at least providing households with postal vote application forms and a freepost return service, so that anyone who wants to vote in May’s elections—as everyone should—is able to do so safely and without any financial barriers?
May I take this opportunity to wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday?
The commission has highlighted that there would be significant practical challenges in delivering an all-postal election in May. In particular, collecting personal identifiers from all eligible electors, which is a key part of important security checks, is not practicable in the time available. The commission considers that, where possible, voters should be able to choose how they wish to cast their vote, including having the option to do so in person. It will make available all options to proceed as safely as possible for the elections in May. Whether the elections continue in May is a matter for the UK Government and the Governments of the devolved Administrations.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Lockdown: Church Attendance
The Church is grateful to the Government for not imposing another national closure of religious buildings. It is right that parishes take local decisions on what to offer. There were nearly 36 million viewings of the Church’s Christmas “Comfort and Joy” series. For those who prefer the telephone, the DailyHope worship has received 350,000 free calls.
It is very encouraging to hear that. It is a matter of deep regret that churches were closed during the lockdowns last year. I very much appreciate that they are allowed to conduct services this time. Obviously we hope that we will all be out of restrictions soon, but there is always a danger of further restrictions. We worry a lot about the provision of online teaching in schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that the delivery of online live church services is enormously important, and—we must be frank—that this is not a skill that might come naturally to many vicars? Does he agree that the Church of England should make an absolute priority the provision of online resources, and the training of vicars and church teams to deliver them?
Indeed I do. Over 7,000 people have now attended the Church’s digital training, equipping parishes across the country to stream services on a variety of different platforms. My own rector has now been commended for her YouTube skills by eight-year-olds in her benefice.
Many churches in Rother Valley have adapted during these times by holding online services, such as the many wonderful services at the Wales parish church and St Joseph’s, Dinnington. However, Rother Valley’s churches have lost a great deal of income from the in-person offertory collections and fundraising events, putting church maintenance and repairs at risk, including the much-needed repairs to St Simon and St Jude church in Thurcroft. Does my hon. Friend share my concern regarding the black hole in local churches’ budgets and potential delays to repairs, and will he work with churches to ensure that they have what they need to survive?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I draw his attention to the Parish Giving Scheme, which people can do by direct debit, and to various online giving options. Of course, the commissioners have provided tens of millions of pounds to help churches. I would also say that perhaps people who are not paying for a season ticket might want to pay a little bit more to their local church, given that they have made a saving in that area.
parliamentary Works sponsor body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Restoration and Renewal: Disabled Stakeholders
This is a vital issue. The programme is committed to improving accessibility in its detailed work on the outline business case, which will form the scope for the restoration and renewal project. It is engaging regularly on this issue with the House administrations, with representatives of staff with disabilities, and with independent accessibility and inclusion technical experts.
I thank the right hon. Member for his answer. Our historic Houses of Parliament are rightly an attraction for visitors from all over the world, but they are also a place of work for thousands of employees, including MPs’ staff. My assistant, Harry, uses a motorised wheelchair, and I have seen at first hand how he is unable to navigate most of the building on his own, facing difficult doors, steps and other obstacles. Despite the best efforts of the House staff to mitigate these issues over the past seven months, he is still not able to move around the building independently. Will the right hon. Member agree to meet me and Harry to discuss the renovation project, and to ensure that additional views are taken into account to make our Parliament a truly modern workplace for everybody?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and Harry’s case. Of course I will be more than happy to meet both of them. The programme has established an accessibility and inclusion panel that meets monthly, with representation from both Houses’ diversity and inclusion teams and from ParliAble, which, as she will know, is the workplace equality network for parliamentary staff with disabilities. The recently established public engagement strategy identifies accessibility topics, and engaging with disabled people is a particular priority. Plans are also being developed to engage more broadly with all staff working in Parliament, including of course those with disabilities. But in the short term, I shall look forward to meeting her and Harry.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Persecution of Christians
The Church speaks up on behalf of all those who are unable to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. The Church of England is part of an international consortium that has just received £5.6 million from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to equip parliamentarians and religious leaders in eight countries in Africa and Asia to counter these challenges.
From Nigeria to Eritrea and Burkina Faso to India, Christians are facing grave persecution because of their faith. The persecution of Christians, particularly where they are a religious minority, is a matter of growing concern among my constituents, and this has been reflected in the casework I am receiving. What steps is the Anglican Communion taking to tackle persecution of Christians across the world? Is the hon. Gentleman able to provide me with information on what guidance and support he is offering to churches in the UK in helping those who have fled persecution?
As part of the new Foreign Office project, the Church and the other consortium members will be equipping parliamentarians and religious leaders with the technical assistance and other expertise they need to propose solutions in their own countries to these terrible human rights abuses.
The Church Commissioners are undertaking a natural capital assessment to provide a baseline for our carbon outputs and to understand our ecosystem services. This will provide a plan to lower carbon outputs and inform our natural capital strategy. Where possible, our tenancies have clauses relating to good husbandry and the non-removal of topsoil, and with longer-term tenancies, soil analyses are carried out at the beginning and the end of leases to ensure that soil health is maintained to a good standard.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The Church Commissioners own an estate of about 105,000 acres. What is the Church doing to help its tenant farmers to achieve sustainable farming, especially in the light of the current pressure that farmers face during coronavirus?
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this important area. Over 60% of our agricultural land is let on secure agricultural tenancies and the remainder on more modern sorts of farm business tenancies. When new tenancies are granted, we encourage sustainable farming practices through our tenancy precedents. We will be reviewing this further in the light of our natural capital assessment results. We want to help our tenants to achieve both sustainable and profitable outcomes.
The Church Commissioners’ ownership of a large amount of land—over 100,000 acres—gives us an opportunity to lead development of conservation agricultural farming techniques, improving soil health, reducing carbon inputs, and developing the evidence base on carbon sequestration. Does my hon. Friend agree that practitioners should approach management of their farming assets in the same way as they do with their other ethical investments?
As a leading global ethical investor, we regularly engage with all the businesses in which we are invested to improve best practice. While farming practices and management decisions are mainly taken by our agricultural tenants, we have some who do practice zero tillage, and we strongly encourage sustainable farming practices when new tenancies are granted.
The recently appointed Archbishop of York has spoken in the past about the importance of caring for green spaces. In his enthronement sermon, he declared that
“we are at risk of separating ourselves from the planet itself, so obsessed have we become with the dangerous suppositions of our own importance and dominion.”
Can my hon. Friend encourage the archbishop to act on his words and impress upon the Church Commissioner landowners the need to have a rethink of their plan for the unjustifiable destruction of unspoilt countryside and farmland at Chidswell in Dewsbury?
I know that my hon. Friend works tirelessly for the people of Dewsbury. I and the staff of the Church Commissioners have met him to discuss this issue. Although the planning application is yet to be determined, it is in line with the strategic objectives of the Kirklees development plan. It will not only bring much-needed new homes to his area, but new employment opportunities and new public open space.
Covid-19: Persecution of Christians
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for being one of three Members today to raise this vitally important issue. The Church is grateful for the Government’s continuing commitment to implement the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations on this issue. In this week of prayer for Christian unity, we need to be especially mindful of persecuted Christians all around the world.
What discussions has the Church of England had with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that covid-19 international assistance aid reaches all in need and is not abused by discrimination against Christians, which has appallingly occurred in some countries?
Last year, officials from the Church had regular meetings with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—both Ministers and staff—where concerns were raised that covid-19 was being politicised and that minority communities were indeed being discriminated against. Bishops regularly raise this issue in the other place as well, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the Church will continue to engage with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as the need arises.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Defence Equipment Plan: NAO Report
The National Audit Office produced an important report examining the Ministry of Defence’s assessment of the affordability of the equipment plan for 2020 to 2030 and the management of equipment expenditure. It is the latest annual update on the financial pressures that the Ministry of Defence faces in developing its military capabilities. The Government will respond to the expected Public Accounts Committee report on the subject after it is published.
In its devastating report, the NAO finds that the equipment plan
“remains unaffordable for the fourth successive year”,
that the budget gap is between £7 billion and £17 billion and that the MOD
“continues to make over-optimistic and inconsistent judgements when forecasting costs.”
What specific parliamentary scrutiny would my hon. Friend encourage to force the Government to address these very serious issues?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his assiduous following of this issue. He asked me about this issue in September last year, after the National Audit Office report on Carrier Strike. We now have the new report, “The Equipment Plan 2020-2030”, published on 12 January, and I am pleased to tell him that the Public Accounts Committee will be taking evidence on that report on 4 February. I would also be happy to draw his interest in this matter to the attention of the Chair of the PAC, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Lockdown: Support for Schools
Diocesan education teams and local churches have focused on supporting the wellbeing of students and staff through the ongoing provision of collective worship, by providing and distributing food for disadvantaged families and, in many cases, by renovating and distributing technology to enable online learning to supplement the Government’s provision.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Church leaders and congregations in Eastbourne and Willingdon at St Michael and All Angels and St John’s Meads have stepped into the digital divide by rallying round and providing laptops and devices for primary school children in their parishes. Will he join me in thanking them for their contribution, which complements the Government’s support in this vital area?
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Monday, preceding the Division on the Labour party’s motion on universal credit, a number of Opposition Members shouted “No”, seemingly to trigger a Division, but the Division resulted in zero No votes. I mistakenly believed that the right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Sir Alan Campbell) called “No” and subsequently voted Aye, meaning that his voice and vote would have been at variance, contrary to a settled principle of this House. It has been pointed out to me that this was not the case, and I would like to apologise to the right hon. Member unreservedly for that allegation. I have written to him to express my apology, and I would like to place it on the record of this House.
I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It is right that he should apologise unreservedly, and he has done so. The matter is now closed.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next item of business to be made.
We are in the midst of one of the toughest periods of this pandemic. Yesterday saw 1,820 deaths, which is the highest toll since the crisis began. As we endure these dark days and the restrictions that we must all follow to save lives, we know that we have a way out, which is our vaccination programme. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, we now have an immense infrastructure in place, which day by day is protecting the most vulnerable and giving hope to us all.
I am glad to report to the House that we have now given more than 5 million doses of the vaccine across the UK to 4.6 million people. We are making good progress towards our goal of offering everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 their first dose by 15 February. That is a huge feat, and one in which we can all take pride. We are vaccinating at a greater daily rate than anywhere in Europe—twice the rate of France, Spain or Germany.
The first 5 million doses are only the beginning. We are opening more sites all the time in cathedrals, food courts, stadiums, conference centres, GP surgeries and many, many other places. Today, a cinema in Aylesbury, a mosque in Birmingham and a cricket club in Manchester have all come on board as part of 65 pharmacy-led sites across England that are joining our vaccination programme this week. That ongoing expansion will help us protect even more of the most vulnerable even quicker. From today, we will also publish more localised, granular data, broken down by NHS sustainability and transformation partnership area, as well as by region, so that the public have the best possible information about all this work.
This virus is a lethal threat to us all. As we respond through this huge endeavour, let us all take comfort in the fact that we are giving 200 vaccinations every minute. In the meantime, everyone must follow the rules to protect the NHS and save lives. We can do that safe in the knowledge that the tide will turn and that, with science, we will prevail.
Mr Speaker, thank you very much for granting this urgent question. I also thank the Secretary of State for his update and for all the time and devotion he gives to this matter, and the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is doing an amazing job. Everyone is doing an amazing job across the country to roll out this vaccine, and I absolutely salute them all. They include my Westminster office manager, Iona Cullen-Stephenson, who has been vaccinating.
In my part of rural East Sussex, the vaccine has been slow to reach rural Rother, Battle and Heathfield residents. In the 200 square miles that I represent, only one surgery has been vaccinating. That has got better from this week, and I welcome that. I thank the Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust team. Adam Doyle and his team have been amazing to MPs.
I have three question to the Secretary of State about rural areas. First, can we draw up a new vaccine contract for GPs that guarantees that they will receive only AstraZeneca, and not Pfizer, which they find difficult to store? Many GPs in my area tell me that they will sign the contract if they can get AstraZeneca only, so it would be just like the pharmacy contract.
Secondly, we will soon have the welcome challenge of delivering the vaccine to priority groups 5 to 9. At the same time, we will have to deliver the second dose to the priority 1 to 4 cohort, who are more vulnerable. Can we ensure that the latter priority groups go to the hubs, because those groups will find it easier to travel, and that we use our local GP surgeries to re-dose priority groups 1 to 4?
Thirdly, I know that the Government rely on the manufacturers for supplies, but can we try to give more forward-looking supply levels to our county teams so that they have indicative estimates to enable them to plan better on the ground?
I welcome the statement from the Government. I would ask that colleagues be given an opportunity every week to question members of the Government. We receive updates from our own community teams, and it is surely right that we should be able to put the same questions and ideas to the Front Benchers.
Typically, I have come forward at least once a week, and I am very happy to do that and to respond to questions at any time. I am very glad that the technology is working and I can do that while self-isolating at home, as I am now.
On the substance of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the first thing I would say is that I am absolutely delighted that there are new centres opening in Sussex—in Ticehurst village hall this week—so that the roll-out can reach all parts. I will consider the point that he makes about cohorts 5 to 9, which will need the first dose of the vaccine at the same point as we start the second dose for those who have been vaccinated from the start of January. When we restart with the second doses, it will be important to make sure that they are available as close as possible to the largely elderly population who will need them, and I will take away the point that he raises.
The challenge on the contract is tied in with the first and third of my hon. Friend’s questions. The challenge is essentially that we have a lumpy supply. The manufacturers are working incredibly hard to deliver the supply as fast as possible, and I pay tribute to them and their work. It is challenging, however, and therefore it is not possible to give certainty as far out as many GPs and those who are delivering on the ground would like. The worst thing would be to give false certainty. We do try to give information about what is coming next week, but until the supply smooths out, as I am sure it will over time, going further out than that would give false certainty. The worst thing would be to have GPs across the country booking in large numbers of people and having to reschedule those appointments unnecessarily.
I will take into account the point that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to deliver in rural areas, and the request for some people to be able to do that. At the moment, however, we must use the contract that we have.
Yesterday I visited the vaccination centre at Leicester racecourse, and it was inspirational to see the joy on the faces of those who were vaccinated and the pride of the staff and volunteers doing the vaccination. The figure of 4.6 million is indeed welcome, and it is a reminder that when the NHS is put in charge and tasked with implementing a large-scale project across our communities, it gets on with it and delivers. The Secretary of State has a target to vaccinate care home residents by the end of the week. Will he update us on progress towards that target?
Today we have had the latest Imperial survey, and the findings are alarming. It is especially concerning that infection rates are so high in London, and yet London and the east of England appear to be behind the rest of the country on vaccine roll-out. Will he tell us what action is being taken to speed up vaccination across London and the east of England? The Imperial survey also highlights the disproportionate infection rates among key workers and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Once the nine priority groups are vaccinated, is it the Secretary of State’s expectation that we will then move to prioritise key workers—teachers, police officers, firefighters, transport workers, supermarket staff—who are more exposed to the virus at the moment?
The Secretary of State will know that there are 11,000 community pharmacists. That could mean up to 30,000 pharmacists at the heart of delivering this vaccine. We should be using them not just because of the volumes of doses they can administer, but because they have years of experience of building trust and vaccine acceptability within hard-to-reach groups and minority ethnic communities. I was speaking to pharmacists this week in Dudley who were telling me this. They also, by the way, raised concerns about the wider supply of the consumables needed to administer the vaccine. Can he guarantee that there will be no delay or shortages in the delivery of this wider kit?
The new variants remind us that we have to go further and faster on vaccination and work harder to break transmission chains. Early analysis suggests the South African B1351 variant brings a reinfection risk that means vaccines may need to be redesigned. Has the Secretary of State got a contingency plan in place?
Finally, yesterday’s death numbers were truly horrific. Vaccination has to go hand in hand with measures to suppress this virus. That means further containment measures. Not everybody can work at home comfortably or isolate themselves. The system is still expecting families to go hungry to stop spreading infection. Can I urge the Secretary of State again to fix sick pay and give people proper financial support so that they can isolate and we can drive infection rates down?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the NHS is doing a great job, supported by so many people. In particular, I want to thank the volunteers who have stepped forward—tens of thousands of them—and are now working to deliver the vaccination programme alongside NHS staff and, of course, members of our armed forces. In fact, there are several Members of this House who are, as we speak, supporting vaccination in vaccination centres, and some of them are doing vaccinations themselves. I am very grateful to all the volunteers.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of pharmacies and, absolutely, pharmacies are going to be incredibly important, especially for reaching into those communities that may be otherwise harder to reach. The NHS as a whole is highly respected and trusted in all communities of this country so is well placed to do that, and pharmacy colleagues within the NHS particularly so, because they are often the closest to their communities. As I have set out, we have opened 65 vaccination centres that are pharmacy-led this week, with more to come.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the residents of elderly care homes. I am delighted to say that 63% of residents in elderly care homes have now received the vaccination. That is a really significant increase over the last week. We are on track to deliver on our goal of vaccinating elderly care home residents by the end of this month, and I hope sooner than that.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asks about the question of the need—potential need—for vaccine redesign if there is a new variant that is not effectively dealt with by these vaccines. Obviously, we are vigilant on that and keep it under close review. I am glad to say that the early indications are that the new variant is dealt with by the vaccine just as much as the old variant, but of course we are vigilant on the new variants we are seeing overseas. He mentioned the South Africa variant, and there is also a variant of concern that was first identified in Brazil, and of course we are vigilant on those matters, too.
What I would say in summary is that all of these things just support the need for everybody to follow the rules and stay at home. It is critical that everybody does their bit to try to stop the spread of this virus while we get the numbers under control and bring them down, thus protecting the NHS and getting this death toll down, because it is far too high.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This week the Office for National Statistics said that prevalence rates nearly doubled during the November lockdown, and today’s REACT—real-time assessment of community transmission—study says that infections are still rising. Is not the reality that these new strains are massively more dangerous and harder to control than many realise? If we are going to bring down the horrific death rates that we are now seeing, should we not secure our border, with quarantine hotels, end household mixing outside bubbles, and follow Germany in mandating FFP2—filtering face piece—masks in shops and on public transport, to give better protection to wearers?
We have looked at the question of personal protective equipment with respect to the new variant, and the clinical advice I have received is that the current guidelines are right and appropriate. On international travel, as my right hon. Friend knows, we brought in significant measures last week to close the travel corridors, and we remain vigilant on what we need to do to guard against new variants coming in from abroad. The new variants do change this question, because it is about ensuring not just that we do not get extra cases coming in from abroad—in which case, if an area of a country has a lower case rate than us, there is no more risk than that of people staying in this country—but that new variants that might not be dealt with as effectively by the vaccine do not arrive and that we stop them coming. That is something on which have recently taken significant action, and of course we keep it under very close review.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. With supplies of the Pfizer vaccine expected to be temporarily lower for a few months, and with delivery of the Oxford-AstraZeneca supplies behind target, there are both public and professional concerns. What level of supplies can the Secretary of State guarantee over the coming weeks and months, so that health services can plan appropriately? Given that the UK has procured vaccines on behalf of the four nations, how much of this reduced supply will come to Scotland, and was knowledge of vaccine supply disruption behind the UK Government’s insistence on removal of supply numbers from the Scottish Government’s vaccine delivery plan?
As I have said many times, the supply of the vaccine is the rate-limiting factor for the roll-out, and we share that supply fairly and equally across the UK. There is a lumpy supply schedule and making this stuff is not easy; it is not just a chemical compound, as I have described many times. Ultimately, this is a UK programme delivered in the devolved nations by the NHS, which is doing brilliantly. A massive teamworking effort is trying to get out as much as possible, as fast as possible, and that teamwork is taking place not only across the four nations of the UK, but with the suppliers to make sure that we get as much supply as we can as quickly as we can.
May I add to the good questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman)? My question was raised, in effect, by Shelagh Fogarty of LBC in The Daily Telegraph today, who wrote about confusion regarding the housebound as well as the homebound. We know that people are going to be vaccinated in mass centres—I had the chance to see one yesterday—and in local hubs and at home, but too often people are sitting at home wondering which it is likely to be. Could the Secretary of State get the partnerships for integrated care—the sustainability and transformation partnerships—to make public how soon they expect to get to most of those who are over 80, especially in semi-rural constituencies?
I can answer my hon. Friend’s question: we will offer vaccination to everybody in the top four categories—the over-70s, the clinically extremely vulnerable and health and social care workers, including the residents in older people’s care homes—by 15 February. I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me and like many of us in this House, gets asked by constituents all the time, “When will the call come for me?” The answer is that we are working through that list and we will reach all those groups with an offer to be vaccinated on or before 15 February.
The exact order within that queue is for a local area to decide, and sometimes people might get invited to two different methods of vaccination, such as at one of the big sites and by their local GP, and for people who are housebound there are roving teams led by the local primary care networks to get out and vaccinate them. So the offer will come, and people should be assured that while, as of today, around two thirds of all over-80s have been vaccinated—which is very, very good progress—that means there is a third still to go, and we will get to everyone and make sure everyone gets that offer to be vaccinated by 15 Feb.
Given the concerning data coming out of Israel regarding the efficacy of the first Pfizer dose, which may be quite a lot lower than first expected, are the Government planning to review their policy of delaying the second Pfizer dose by 12 weeks, and, specifically, will the Secretary of State consider giving healthcare workers, who are being exposed to the highest viral loads, an early second dose so that they get maximum protection, because that is as important as personal protective equipment?
I am glad to say that I can reassure the hon. Lady that, having looked into the data that underpins the article in The Guardian that I think she is referring to, it supports the data on which we have been basing our decision to move to a 12-week dosing schedule—12 weeks from the first to the second dose. The Government chief scientific adviser was asked about this by the media yesterday and explained clearly why we were able to make that decision, because around 89% efficacy comes from between days 14 and 21 after the first dose. Of course we are looking at this data, and we are in fact measuring the efficacy here at home by matching the data between those who have been vaccinated and those who test positive. We are monitoring that and will publish that data as soon as it is clinically valid. This is an important question, but I am glad to be able to reassure the hon. Lady that the headlines that she read in The Guardian are not quite right.
The NHS teams across North East Lincolnshire are working hard caring for patients with covid, and are now doing a fantastic job administering the much-welcomed vaccines. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them, and does he have plans to introduce a personal vaccination record for travel and other purposes?
I am delighted that in the Humber, Coast and Vale NHS area 142,000 people have now been vaccinated, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and NHS colleagues and colleagues across the House for that huge effort. I congratulate the local NHS in North East Lincolnshire on the work they are doing in getting these vaccines out. I was also able to talk to some North Lincolnshire colleagues in the NHS who are doing a fantastic job, because they have managed to get to all their care homes, which is absolutely terrific. Lincolnshire is doing a great job with the vaccine roll-out.
On my hon. Friend’s specific question about travel and the link to vaccination, it is too early to have a firm view, because we have to see the impact of vaccination on the transmission of the disease. Obviously, when someone is vaccinated, that event goes into their health record, which is held by the NHS; it is recorded so they can demonstrate that they have been vaccinated if needs be. However, for the time being, we are being very cautious on travel because of the risk of new variants, especially if there are new variants where the efficacy of the vaccine is lower.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his regular updates. Will he outline what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that hospitals throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can avail themselves of the highly skilled workforce and the logistical expertise of the armed forces? For those who seem perplexed, will he outline the rationale for making use of this tremendous weapon in the arsenal in the fight against covid in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in saving lives? Will he also join me in thanking the Northern Ireland Executive for taking this step to save lives, regardless of any perceived political point that others may shamefully make?
The armed forces have been incredible in their support for the efforts that we have all had to go to nationally to tackle covid. That is also true with the vaccination programme—especially the logistical expertise that the hon. Gentleman refers to. This UK-wide vaccination effort has been supported enormously by the armed forces. I am very grateful to them for the work that they have done, really going the extra mile to help save lives.
I am very worried about domiciliary carers who might be employed privately or via an agency and how they will access the vaccine. It is very probable that their employment status is not known, yet they could be going into several homes per day, helping vulnerable people. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that these brilliant carers will not be forgotten?
Yes, absolutely; that is incredibly important, and we are working to ensure that as many as possible are identified. Category 6 in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation categorisation specifically identifies as part of the early vaccination effort those carers who may not be paid carers in a care home but nevertheless care for vulnerable people, because of the incredibly important work that they do.
I am sure that every MP has families in their local community who have been shielding for almost a year now because they have family members who are clinically extremely vulnerable and, indeed, housebound. The Secretary of State said that everybody who is housebound should get a vaccination by 15 February, but as yet no one seems to have seen any of that start. Will he confirm when the Oxford vaccine will be given to those roving teams that he mentioned, and how many people in this country are housebound and are being identified as such to ensure that they do not miss out on the vaccine?
Absolutely, that work is under way. In the hon. Lady’s constituency specifically, I am delighted that Michael Franklin chemist is starting its vaccination this week. It, along with the local primary care team, will be able to reach people who may not be able to travel. It is an incredibly important part of the vaccination roll-out to make sure that we take the vaccine to those who are housebound. Michael Franklin chemist will be using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which of course is much easier to transport.
So far, there are three vaccination centres up and running in High Peak. I pay tribute to all those who are working so hard to roll out the vaccine locally. However, currently the rate of the roll-out is being limited, not by the number of vaccination sites or trained vaccinators, but by the supply of doses coming from AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he and his ministerial colleagues are taking to work with those pharmaceutical companies to help them ensure that the supply of vaccine continues to flow to High Peak as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the rate-limiting step is the amount of supply. We are working closely with the two companies, which are doing a terrific job. We talk to them all the time, in trying to ensure that any blockages are removed. They are going as fast as they can in producing the vaccine, whether that is the Oxford vaccine, produced here in this country, or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, produced in Belgium and supplied to us. Everybody is working as fast as we can, and I am delighted that the NHS is champing at the bit for more supply in order to deliver it.
Across Derbyshire there have been more 70,000 vaccinations—70,332, according to the latest data I have, as of 17 January. Derbyshire has vaccinated 65% of its over-80s, which is almost exactly the national average of 67%. Derbyshire is doing a great job; I congratulate those in the NHS in Derbyshire, and thank them for their efforts and their work. There is still a lot further to go, but almost two thirds of Derbyshire’s over-80s have been vaccinated. We have to keep at it and keep working hard to make sure that all the vulnerable are protected, and then move on to the rest of us.
After questioning the Prime Minister last week, I am delighted that the first community pharmacies are now taking part in the vaccine roll-out, but just a few hundred of approximately 11,000 community pharmacies just does not seem enough—it is a tiny proportion, leaving vast potential untapped. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that all General Pharmaceutical Council-registered technicians will be allowed to administer vaccines, so that they are available where they are most needed, on every high street, in every community such as mine in east Hull? Witham pharmacy is ready and willing to start vaccinating now—let us get on with it.
At heart, I agree with the instincts of the hon. Gentleman. The challenge is that we need to do this at scale. As supply is the rate-limiting factor, it is very important that any vaccination site can get enough people through to be able to use the vaccine in time—we do not want to leave stocks in the fridge. Pharmacists are experienced at vaccinating and pharmacy technicians can vaccinate, and they are a very important part of the programme. With pharmacies, we have started with the bigger sites that are able to achieve a higher throughput. It is because supply is the rate-limiting factor that we need to make sure that all supply is used up quickly from the point at which it is distributed. That is why we have taken that approach. I am thrilled that so many pharmacies are now coming on stream; there is lots more to do.
I volunteered in one of the brilliant vaccination hubs in Ashfield and there is one thing that we are not short of: people turning up every single day to get the vaccine. We need more capacity, to win the war quicker and save more lives, so will my right hon. Friend please tell me what he is doing to ensure that the people of Ashfield and Eastwood get their vaccination as soon as possible?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is volunteering in a vaccination centre; that is terrific. This is a big national effort, and he is playing his part. Some 49,000 vaccinations had been done in Nottinghamshire as of 17 January. Clearly we still have to do more, but we are making very significant progress. As I said, the rate-limiting factor is the amount of supply that we get into the country, rather than, for instance, the enthusiasm of GPs in the NHS or, indeed, the number of volunteers who have stepped forward such as my hon. Friend.
A constituent of mine, Mr Clive Tombs, recently reached out to me regarding the crisis facing the London ambulance service. He told me that no one he knows in the service has had a vaccine, despite their being on the frontline of exposure to the virus. At the same time, we have seen pictures of ambulances lined up for hours waiting to get into A&E departments. Clive suggested that, with some co-ordination from the Department, arrangements could be made for ambulance staff to receive vaccines from hospitals while they are waiting in the queue—if there is a surplus and to prevent wastage. Has the Secretary of State considered that possibility? Does he agree that that is a humble suggestion from Clive when, in fact, frontline ambulance staff should be prioritised for the vaccine?
Frontline ambulance staff absolutely are and should be prioritised for the vaccine. They are in category 2, and we have to make sure that that happens. I will take away Clive’s idea, work on it and get back to the hon. Lady to see what progress we can make.
I welcome the opening of vaccination centres across the country, including one imminently at the Kassam stadium in Oxford, but at a meeting that I attended last night of community leaders in Oxfordshire, no one had an idea of when the vaccine centre at Harwell would become operational. Could the Secretary of State oblige?
[Inaudible.] the date when it will open. There is a huge amount of investment going into Harwell to make sure that we have cutting-edge vaccination manufacturing facilities for the future. The project is being led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so I will write to my hon. Friend with all the details.
I have serious concerns that, after people have had their first and, indeed, second vaccines, they will have a false sense of security about their level of immunity; we know that the efficacy even after two vaccines is not 100%. Will the Secretary of State ensure that it is communicated clearly that people will still need to follow the public health guidance of hands, face and space of at least 2 metres, even after two vaccines and until it is safe to do otherwise?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point: someone who has been vaccinated can still catch coronavirus for several weeks. It is really important that people know that. When people are vaccinated, they are told the time that it takes and the limit of the effectiveness, especially in that early period, and they are told very clearly that they still have to follow the rules. That is an important part, especially until we can measure the effectiveness of the vaccination programme on transmission. Only yesterday, I reviewed the communications that go to people when they have been vaccinated, and they are very clear and robust, but it is important that everybody, post-vaccination, continues to follow those rules, both to bring the number of cases down because of the impact on transmission and to protect themselves. The vaccine is the way out, but it does not work immediately, and people still need to be cautious.
From policemen to teachers and shop workers to bus drivers, our key workers have been on the frontline in this pandemic, and we owe them so much. Once the most vulnerable in society have been vaccinated, will my right hon. Friend look to prioritise those who put themselves in harm’s way to help others?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically astute point. The priority, of course, has to be those who are clinically most vulnerable, and after that we will make a decision. I have called for a national debate on who should go next. We will look at the data on transmission and who transmits most, and we will also consider key workers, who are often on the frontline, whether that is teachers, bus drivers or others. That is something that we are actively considering, and I will take his suggestion on board.
The success of any vaccine roll-out relies on reaching every person who needs it. Research presented to SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—worryingly found that just 28% of black, Asian and minority ethnic people intended to be vaccinated compared with 85% of white British people. That is a huge disparity. I asked this question on 11 January but got only a holding answer, so I will ask it again: what is the Secretary of State doing to work with the most vaccine-hesitant and vulnerable groups?
It is an incredibly important question. We are doing a huge amount of work on it. It is being led by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi)—the vaccines roll-out Minister—who I think is sitting on the Front Bench. The need to reach all communities is paramount and that is ongoing now.
One of the sadnesses of the past year has been the way in which families have been unable to see relatives in care homes, often in the last few months of their lives. I commend the Secretary of State for his focus on vaccinating care home residents. All those families want visits to start again. What message can he give them about how quickly he can unlock care home visits again for those families? Will he also assure care homes that the Government still regard the lateral flow tests, which many want to use to vet potential visitors, as viable, reliable and able to be depended on to allow visits?
Yes. That last point is very important and we published extensive analysis that supports that view. On the broader point, we are going to look at the effectiveness in the real world of the vaccine as it is being rolled out and make sure that we look at who has been vaccinated and who is then testing positive in future to see the real-world effectiveness of the vaccine roll-out. Once we can see that effectiveness in the real world, we will then be able to consider all the different restrictions that are in place. Visiting care homes is obviously one of the restrictions that we had to bring in, but I entirely understand its consequences and the impact that it has on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The UK has acquired the rights to vaccinate more than the entire population multiple times over, as have many other developed nations. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps the UK Government are taking to make sure that surplus doses of the vaccine are shared with less developed countries around the world, and will he encourage other countries to do likewise?
We have put more money into the international effort to ensure that everybody around the world can be vaccinated than any other country. That is not just more as a proportion of our GDP; it is more cash that has gone into these international efforts across the UK. We can do that because of the strength of our international commitment as a country, so I am very pleased that we have been able to do that. Turning that money into vaccinations is important and a huge amount of work is being done by COVAX to make that happen. The UK can be proud of the work that we have done to support access for the most vulnerable, both in terms of the cash that we have put in and because it is UK research, backed by the UK Government, that has led to the Oxford vaccine, which is one of the two most appropriate for use in the developing world.
There has been some great vaccine stuff happening in North West Durham, with 98% of the care homes done and the housebound having been started from last week. I thank the people working in the Crook and Tanfield View vaccine centres locally. I have heard that the pharmacy down in Bishop Auckland that is helping some of my constituents has just got the vaccine. However, I have a big rural area, with some people more than 10 miles from a vaccine centre, so will the Secretary of State let us know when those small hubs are going to be started and when the smaller community pharmacies in my constituency will get the vaccine to help to ensure that everybody across the country gets it as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is quite right to praise the teams across the north-east who have been doing an unbelievable job. The vaccination of 98% of residents in his area is something we should all celebrate. Making sure that everybody is within 10 miles of a vaccination centre is important. In the very rural areas that may include being 10 miles from a mobile site, because we will send in mobile sites to the most rural areas. Crucially, by 15 February everybody will have the offer of a vaccine. Sometimes they may get two offers. One might be to travel, for instance to go to Newcastle where there is a vaccination centre, but if they get that invitation they can still wait to have the more local offer of a jab from their primary care network. There are different ways to make it happen, but he is absolutely right on the importance of getting the vaccine available for all.
Without increasing the 2 million doses a week to 5 million, we are going to be administering the vaccine to the adult population until the end of the year. That causes great anxiety. People are confused and unclear about if and when they will get a dose, particularly informal carers who worry that they are not on anyone’s list. Will the Secretary of State consider requiring doctors and the NHS to text or write to all patients to outline where they are on the list, so that people have a better reasonable expectation of when they will be vaccinated? That would enable them to ensure their prioritisation is correct, and, actually, stop them phoning up surgeries and blocking up phone lines to ask questions about when they are going to get their vaccine.
All those who are over 70 or clinically extremely vulnerable will have that offer before 15 February. What that means in practice is that if you receive a letter when measures are put in place recommending that you shield—that letter comes from either me or the Communities Secretary—then you are on the list to be vaccinated before 15 February. After that, we will continue through the JCVI cohorts, which of course includes, in cohort six, those who are vulnerable but not in the clinically extremely vulnerable group. We will get there, and we will invite people according to their clinical need. My recommendation to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is that they should wait for the NHS to get in contact with them. We have a programme to make sure that everybody is reached.
I join my right hon. Friend in praising the vaccinators, pharmacists, armed forces, NHS staff, support staff and volunteers right across the country, including in my constituency, for the considerable contribution they have already made to the national vaccine roll-out effort. To continue that acceleration, what action is he taking to ensure that all elderly residents in the first priority groups are aware that if they have not already, they can get their jab administered locally in the next few weeks through contact from their own GP practice?
We have been in contact with all those who have been invited to come forward so far. For those who have not been yet invited to come forward and are in the top four groups, we will be in contact before 15 February. May I just add that my hon. Friend himself has been volunteering in his local vaccination centre, doing his part on the frontline? I think we should all thank him for that.
I am very pleased that my mother, my aunt and my uncle are all having their vaccinations today, so it seems that the roll-out to the over-70s is going well in Bedfordshire at least. May I ask about young carers? We know that the 10 to 19-year-old group is at particular risk of transmitting covid, if not at risk of suffering badly from it. Many of them will be looking after people who are in the clinically vulnerable group, but at the moment it seems that they will not be prioritised for vaccination, just the people who have more professional caring responsibilities. Will the Secretary of State add young carers to his list of people who, for the sake of the people they care for, will be vaccinated early?
I will absolutely look into that. I join the hon. Lady in praising the roll-out in Bedfordshire, which is going well. It is wonderful to hear the personal stories of so many people whose vulnerable family members have been vaccinated. The vaccination programme is touching us all; we just have to get it done as quickly as possible to make people as safe as possible as fast as we possibly can.
Coronavirus deaths are 10% higher in areas with only slightly higher air pollution. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind in respect of his priorities for the rolling out of the vaccine? More importantly, will he ensure that the World Health Organisation air-quality limits are introduced to the Environment Bill next week, so that they have immediate effect and are legally binding? That will save thousands of lives from coronavirus and prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution next year, given that as many people die from pollution every year as died from coronavirus last year.
The hon. Gentleman is an irrepressible campaigner on tackling air pollution. There is a link between air pollution and a person’s risk of dying from covid, and I have been talking about that to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
A large number of people in Sittingbourne and Sheppey who are over the age of 80 have not yet received their covid vaccinations—not because of a lack of will but because of a lack of vaccine. Let me give an example: on the Isle of Sheppey, which has a population of 40,000, local GPs need to vaccinate more than 1,000 people each week to reach the Government’s target of vaccinating every person in the first four priority groups by February. Last week, the Sheppey primary care network was promised 400 doses, but eventually received only 300. This week, it has been promised 1,200 doses, but local GPs worry that this quantity will be cut, too. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is constrained by the number of doses delivered by the suppliers, but what can he do to ensure that both my local primary care networks in Sittingbourne and Sheppey receive the quantity that they need to meet the Government’s target?
My hon. Friend asks an astute question which, in a way, demonstrates the challenge we have. There is a demand for more early information about when vaccine will arrive but, because of the lumpy supply, if we give too much prior notice, we sometimes have to make adjustments like the one my hon. Friend described. The good news is that we are on track to deliver the quadrupling of the amount of vaccine to the Isle of Sheppey that he describes. Like him, I very much hope that the full 1,200 doses will come.
We are sending more doses to the areas that have made the least progress so far, to make sure that by 15 February we get that offer to everybody equally, irrespective of where they live, across England for the English NHS and, indeed, we are working with the devolved Administrations to make sure that that offer is delivered fairly right across the UK. There is prioritisation of the areas that have made least progress so far, and I am working with NHS colleagues to make sure that that is done as fairly and effectively as possible.
I thank the Secretary of State for the support being given to the people of Northern Ireland. I know he will join me in thanking our frontline healthcare workers who are delivering the vaccine in our communities.
The Secretary of State will know that the key to maximising the uptake of a vaccine is the assurance of its efficacy, but also that if people take part, it will enable life to return to normal—it will enable schools and business to reopen and family life, particularly for elderly relatives either at home or in care homes, to be restored. The public need that hope, yet while we hear much positivity, we also hear of long-term restrictions of many aspects of what was, and should again be, normal life. Can the Health Secretary give an assurance that he will provide leadership on the public messaging and its tone, and set out a route map for the return of the liberty and freedoms that we once enjoyed, and want to enjoy again?
Absolutely. We all want to enjoy those liberties again, and we want to do so safely. Balancing those two things is at the core of the conundrums of policy, and has been throughout this pandemic. The critical thing is to make sure we get this vaccine rolled out as fast as possible. That is at the centre of the route out, throughout these islands and, indeed, across the world. I understand the yearning for a clearer map out, but until we know the impact of the vaccine on transmission, it is hard to put timescales on that.
We have to watch the data. Of course I want to see the number of cases come down, but the reason why that matters so much is that we want to see the number of hospitalisations come down. We want fewer people to die each day from this dreadful disease. The numbers published yesterday—more than 1,800 people died—were truly terrible, and we need to make sure we protect life.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Anthony McKeever and his team on ensuring that people in Southend are vaccinated? Will he reassure me that Southend will receive its fair share of vaccines, that the four most vulnerable groups will all be vaccinated by the middle of February, and that people in their 80s and 90s will not be asked to travel long distances to a hub in Wickford?
Yes, that is our goal. All those things are what we are aiming for. I am really grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. Eighty thousand people have now been vaccinated in his area of Mid and South Essex. We have made a whole load of progress, but there is much more to do to make sure the vaccine is fairly there for everyone.
The flooding over the past few days has already displaced thousands from their homes, and threatens many more over the coming days. For those who are elderly or vulnerable, wondering how they are going to receive the coronavirus vaccine is an added worry that they do not need, especially if they have to move to other regions to stay with family or into temporary accommodation, which the Secretary of State knows can sometimes be for months. Can he tell us whether the Government have a plan for vaccinating people displaced due to flooding?
The vaccination roll-out programme is a huge national success—well done! I thank everyone involved nationally and locally. However, my inbox is overflowing with messages from elderly residents desperately worried that, despite being over 80, 90 and even 100, they have still heard nothing from their GP. Given that other parts of the UK are currently vaccinating those who are significantly younger, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give to my North Devon constituents?
The reassurance I can give to my hon. Friend and, more importantly, everybody living in North Devon, is that we will get there. We set the goal of 15 February for everybody in the four most vulnerable groups—the over-70s and others—to be vaccinated. They will have an offer of the vaccination arrive so that they can be vaccinated before 15 February. The reason we set that date is to make sure that everybody across the country gets it in a fair time. That is why we are putting more vaccine into the areas that have not made as much progress yet. However, across Devon, just under 100,000 people had been vaccinated by the 17th—a few days ago. By now, I am sure that more than 100,000 people have been vaccinated in Devon. That shows that the roll-out is happening, and we are absolutely determined to reach all parts.
May I join my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), in thanking those working in primary care to roll out the vaccine in County Durham? They tell me that if they get the vaccine, they can get it out to those who need it. Last week, though, the primary care trust vaccine hub in Chester-le-Street had to be put on standby because there was no vaccine arrival. Today the Secretary of State has again announced new vaccine sites, and suggested that over-70s are going to get the vaccine. In my constituency, people over 80 are still waiting. Can I plead with the Secretary of State to stop the hype and spin, to just be honest with people and with primary care if there is a problem with supply, and to ensure that primary care has enough notice to be able to organise this process, because it is causing a huge deal of pressure on an already overworked system?
I am delighted to say that primary care—the GP surgeries across the country—are rising to the challenge brilliantly, especially in County Durham, which is doing an absolutely magnificent job. It is far ahead of the national averages in terms of the roll-out and is doing brilliantly. Of course there are challenges; as the supply comes in, we are getting it to the frontline as fast as we can, and that does mean some rapid turnaround times. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to cheer up and back his local team. Yes, it is difficult, but I know that we will get there.