I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
When I last spoke in this Chamber in a general covid debate, on 12 January, we faced a very grave situation. There was a very real risk of our hospitals being overwhelmed, the number of people tragically dying from covid-19 each day was in four figures, and our vaccine roll-out was just getting off the ground. As I stand here today, we have made huge progress, and while there is no room for complacency, thankfully we now face a very different picture.
That we find ourselves in this changed position is largely down to three factors. The first is our amazing NHS and social care workforce. The pressure they have experienced has been phenomenal. Their response to that pressure has been humbling to all of us: the teamwork, the resilience, the dedication. It has been truly inspiring. They have our admiration and our thanks, and we must always reiterate that, but they must also continue to have our unwavering support in the months ahead as we build back better after this pandemic.
The second factor is, of course, our national lockdown. On 12 January, the average number of cases per day was 44,302; more than 30,000 people were in hospital with covid-19; and, on average, more than 1,000 people were dying of the disease each day. Today, we see an average of just over 11,000 cases each day; just under 20,000 people in hospitals with covid; and a heartening and welcome decline in the number of deaths.
One of the great differences between the start of this nightmare and where we are now is on personal protective equipment for health and care staff, which was a big issue at the start. There were a lot of stories over the weekend about the procurement of PPE. I know from my time as a Minister in the Department that sometimes government is not elegant, but surely what we did was to make sure that we did not run out of PPE. We should congratulate many of the officials in the Department on making sure that that did not happen, as history records it did not. For my constituents who are concerned about the process that went on, will the Minister reassure me that everything was above where it should be?
My hon. Friend was a distinguished Minister in the Department for some time and rightly highlights the situation that we faced at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. It is testament to the phenomenal efforts to procure PPE of the officials in my Department, in the Paymaster General’s Department and others that we did not run out of PPE in this country. Indeed, credit for that should also go to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who ensured that throughout he put the provision of PPE and people first, even when, as we have seen, that may have led to challenges and to process not being entirely adhered to in respect of the timings for the publication of contract details. He and I have the greatest respect not only for the recent judgment, which we will consider carefully, but for the importance of transparency. I believe that my right hon. Friend did the right thing: he did everything he could to ensure that his No. 1 priority was to get that PPE procured and to the frontline to protect those who were protecting all of us and helping to save lives.
As on so many occasions over the past year, in recent weeks the British people have once again made huge sacrifices to comply with the necessary restrictions. It has been incredibly hard for individuals and businesses up and down the country, but in the figures that I have set out, we can see the impact that those sacrifices have made in helping to suppress the spread of this virus.
Despite the progress, over the past week an average of 449 people still lost their lives each day—449 families and friends who have lost loved ones. It is still far, far too many. It reminds us that, even now, as we map a brighter course forward, we must never lose sight of the threat posed by this virus.
When I asked the Prime Minister a question about his road map a short while ago, he said that he supported a public awareness campaigns for people who cannot wear face coverings but are subject to abuse because people are not aware of their exemption. Does the Minister support such a campaign and will he make the same commitment as the Prime Minister, so that people do not face abuse, and so that people are educated and know that there are reasons why people cannot wear face coverings?
The hon. Gentleman makes a typically measured and sensible point. He is absolutely right: those who are exempt from wearing face coverings for medical reasons should be able to go about their lives without fear of abuse or verbal or other attacks on them for not doing so. I heard what the Prime Minister said and I echo those words. The Paymaster General and I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has just suggested in respect of what we can do as a Government to raise awareness of the fact that there are people who, for entirely legitimate reasons, are not wearing face coverings.
Finally, I turn to the third factor that has changed the situation for the better. That, of course, is our vaccine roll-out, which throughout has been key to the future. As of today, we have provided a first dose to over 17.5 million people. That is almost one in three adults in the United Kingdom. Vaccine take-up has surpassed our expectations. In England, for example, we have now given a first dose to 93% of the over-80s, to 96% of those aged between 70 and 79, and to 94% of eligible care home residents. Those are phenomenal achievements—the result of a huge team effort. In that context, I pay tribute to our NHS, to pharmacists, to the armed forces and, of course, to the army of volunteers who have done their bit to help make this process run as smoothly as it has.
Those are vital achievements because we know that vaccines save lives. The cohorts we are currently working to vaccinate by mid-April represent some 99% of covid deaths, but we will not rest until we can offer that protection to everyone. We urge, and I would urge, everyone who has been offered the vaccine to take up that offer, as I will certainly be doing when I become eligible to receive it. It is safe and it is saving lives.
With an average of 358,341 doses being given each and every day in the UK and more vaccines coming on stream in the spring, I believe that we can confidently begin to look to the future. That is why a few moments ago, at this Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister set out his road map for how we will carefully but irreversibly unlock our country. As he set out, it is based on four tests: first, that the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully; secondly, that evidence shows that vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths; thirdly, that infection rates do not pose a risk of a surge in hospitalisations that would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and fourthly, that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of the virus that cause concern.
Our road map out of lockdown will be taken, as my right hon. Friend set out, in four steps, each step reflecting the reality on the ground, not just our understandable expectations and desires. At every stage, our decisions will be led by data, not dates, with at least five weeks between steps; we will review the data every four weeks and give one week’s notice of any changes. The dates that my right hon. Friend set out today are not target dates; they are, importantly, “no earlier than” dates. We will continue to undertake statutory reviews, including the one taking place today. Yet in doing so, we are ever mindful of those expectations and desires.
I am confused. If we are having this driven by data, why are we worrying about timetables and dates? The Minister mentioned “no earlier than” dates, but why? This is data-driven, not date-driven. There seems to be mixed messaging here.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—indeed, my friend—for that point. The reason we are doing this is that we have been clear throughout, and the Prime Minister has been clear throughout, that this should be the last lockdown we experience and that, once we relax these restrictions, they should be irreversibly relaxed. That is why we are doing it in a staged way, one step at a time, and we will continue to monitor the data, which I hope and believe will continue to go in the right direction. But it is because we do not wish to see anything happen that could cause us to pause or reverse that we are taking it step by step.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. What we have sought to do here is to set out a road map that is measured and cautious but provides, as much as we can, that degree of certainty to allow people to plan for the future. We do not want to set out expectations that are unlikely to be met, and therefore this plan is based on those “at the earliest” dates. If I may, I will make a bit of progress, and then, if we have time—I am conscious of the time—he may wish to return to that point.
We know how tough lockdown has been on people—on individuals, on families and on businesses—and naturally we are beginning—
If I may just finish this point, then I will of course turn to my right hon. Friend. We are beginning with the things that people want to change most, the most important things being to see children return to classrooms, and to be able to begin to see our friends and family again.
Does my hon. Friend see, as he is hearing from our hon. Friends here in the Chamber, that setting out the very earliest dates assumes there is no harm caused by the continued lockdown but, in reality, if we remain locked down when we do not need to, every single day, that is causing harm to people?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Often in this Chamber we look at the impact in terms of hospitalisations, infection rates and deaths from covid, but—absolutely rightly—we also look at the impacts more broadly, and she highlights that it is not just deaths or illnesses directly attributable to covid that have an impact on people’s lives, health and wellbeing. However, I come back to the point that the programme and the dates we have set out are reasonable, pragmatic and supported by what we believe reflects the roll-out of the vaccine to the different groups, and they give the public a degree of predictability that has not been there before. I share what I surmise is her view: I would not wish these restrictions to stay in place a day longer than absolutely necessary—I hope I do not misattribute a view to her there. What the Prime Minister set out earlier today achieves that, and does it in a very measured and sensible way that reduces significantly any risk of our seeing things slide backwards.
I am conscious of time. As the Prime Minister has set out before the House, all schools and colleges will return to face-to-face education on 8 March—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who highlights a point that, along with others, will be concerning parents and pupils. As we set out the plan for unlocking and reopening our schools, which my right hon Friend the Education Secretary will add more detail to, we will look at how we can create an environment that is not only safe but that allows children and young people to learn, socialise and enjoy the benefits of not just education but being back in school. I know that my right hon. Friend will have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s point.
As I have just alluded to, we know how important being in school is for children—not only for their education but, as I said, for their social development and mental health. That is why it is a crucial first step, and getting children back into classrooms has unquestionably been the Government’s chief priority.
Within that first step, we also want to begin to meet that other great desire—for families to see those they love. From 8 March, every care home resident will be able to nominate a named visitor, who will be able to visit. From 29 March, up to six people, or two households, will be able to meet outdoors. At that point, outdoor sports will also be permitted, as long as they are in groups of up to six.
In respect of households meeting outdoors, I—I dare say along with many others in this House—look forward to that very much. Aside from a family funeral, 2019 was the last time I saw my parents in person, and I suspect that that goes for many people in this Chamber and, indeed, up and down the country. So we do understand just how important this issue is, and I believe that these first steps recognise that vital desire for human contact and for seeing friends and family. Our ambition is to maintain a healthy lifestyle, while also reflecting our continuing need to save lives, but until 29 March, our message continues to be, “Stay at home and stay local.”
As the Prime Minister set out, the road map sets out a broader package of measures for step two, which will be no earlier than 12 April. The rule of six, or two households, will continue to apply outdoors. Non-essential retail and personal care will be permitted to reopen, and domestic overnight stays in England will be allowed for individual households and bubbles in self-contained accommodation. The majority of outdoor settings will reopen, and hospitality, such as pubs and restaurants, will be allowed to resume table service to customers outdoors. At this point, we will also take a decision on whether we can extend the number of visitors to residents in care homes and set out a plan for the next phase of visits.
Step three, no earlier than 17 May, will take us closer to that normal life we yearn for, with the majority of legal restrictions on meeting others outdoors removed, although gatherings will be capped at 30 people. Six people or two households will be able to meet indoors, and indoor hospitality, entertainment and sports will be allowed. Finally, step four, no earlier than 21 June, will see us take key steps to larger scale events.
The Prime Minister set out in more detail the reviews that would underpin the steps and the support being put in place at this time and the support being continued for those who are affected. Conscious of time, I will not recount everything that my right hon. Friend said at this Dispatch Box just a short hour or two ago.
As we look to brighter days ahead, there are still difficult days immediately in front of us. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be setting out how we will continue to support businesses and individuals through this difficult time and how we can build back better in his Budget statement on 3 March. We will do all we can to ensure that British people remain safe: working to keep uptake of the vaccine high, continuing to ramp up testing, including normalising workplace testing as people return to their workplace in increasing numbers, and ensuring that we take proportionate steps at our borders to protect against new variants from abroad and, indeed, to protect the progress we have made as a country.
It is right, even as we move forward, that we tread carefully through the weeks ahead. I understand and can entirely appreciate the points made by hon. and right hon. Friends from their understandable desire to move faster where we can. The Prime Minister understands that, too. I know him well, and no one more than he will want to see restrictions in place a single day longer than is necessary, but we have learned that this virus can move in unpredictable ways.
We owe it to the NHS and social care staff on the frontline, to everyone involved in our incredible vaccine roll-out and, of course, to everyone in this country who has made such tremendous sacrifices over the past year to hold on to and build on the progress we have made. I believe we can do it by once more working together as a country, unified by a shared determination to see this disease beaten and to see our country return to normal. It has been a long and challenging path we have taken together, but as I stand here today, I do so with confidence in this road map—that route back to the future we all wish to see.
Before I call the shadow Minister, I remind hon. and right hon. Members that there will be a three-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. When that is in effect, there will be a countdown clock visible on the screens of Members participating virtually and on the screens in the Chamber. For those participating physically, the usual clock in the Chamber will operate.
As we know, we are now a year into this pandemic. It has been a year unlike any we have experienced before, and it certainly was not the one we would have hoped for. The virus has turned the world as we know it upside down. We have seen the very best of many: our frontline health and social care workers who have selflessly looked after us, our key workers who have kept our vital services running and our country going, and our communities who have come together to support one another, especially those in need. But it has also been the very worst of times for many: families kept apart for months, individuals and businesses left with no support and, of course, the grim milestone of more than 120,000 deaths from coronavirus, which was reached this weekend. We know that each life lost is a tragedy that leaves behind devastated family and friends, and that death toll does need explaining. I will return to that issue later, but I would like to start on a more positive note.
As the Minister referred to in his opening remarks, more than 17.5 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the covid-19 vaccine. I echo his congratulations to everyone who has been involved in that roll-out. From the scientists to the NHS to the volunteers, it has been nothing short of brilliant, and it is something for us all to celebrate. While we are on the subject, we should also extend our congratulations to Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government for becoming the first country in the UK to get through the first four priority groups.
I am sure that all of us have breathed a sigh of relief or even shed a tear when a parent or vulnerable family member or friend has received their first vaccine dose. Yesterday’s news that all adults in the UK will have been offered their first dose by the end of July is very positive indeed, but can more be done? When Simon Stevens says that the NHS could deliver double the number of vaccines it currently is, we will all be asking, why is that not happening? With research showing that some minority groups are well behind the general population in terms of take-up, another question that I am sure Members will want to raise about the roll-out is: what can the Government do to vaccinate more people in hard-to-reach communities?
I am sure that many Members will have been moved by the story of Jo Whiley and her sister, Frances. She has talked about the anxiety shared by many families across the country. We know that people with learning disabilities are much more likely to die from coronavirus than the general population, with the death rate in England up to six times higher during the first wave of the pandemic, but currently only people with severe learning disabilities have been prioritised for the vaccine. I am sure the Minister is aware that over the weekend, at least one clinical commissioning group announced that it will be offering the vaccine to all patients on the learning disability register as part of priority group 6. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on whether there are any plans to consider that issue again.
I have one last question regarding the vaccine. We have asked a number of times for the Government to publish figures on how many health and social care staff have been vaccinated. The Secretary of State said last week that a third of social care staff had still not been vaccinated, so I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will be able to update us on those figures and on what more we can do to improve take-up in that group. It is vital that we look after the people who look after us in social care and the NHS. Our NHS rightly deserves huge congratulations on its impressive and speedy vaccine roll-out, but despite its incredible efforts, it will still take many months before the vaccine offers us widespread protection. With the emergence of new variants, increasing pressures on our health service and continuing high rates of transmission, it is vital that Ministers do everything possible to ensure that frontline health and care workers, who are more exposed to the virus, are fully protected.
Healthcare staff deaths are now estimated to be approaching 1,000. That is tragic. We know that our frontline workers face higher risk. During the surge in cases last month, the British Medical Association reported that more than 46,000 hospital staff were off sick with covid-19 or self-isolating. A survey conducted by the Nursing Times during the last two weeks of January found that 94% of nurses who work shifts reported that they were short-staffed due to similar absences. We support calls from the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing to urgently review PPE guidance and increase stockpiles of high-grade PPE such as FFP3 masks for all frontline NHS employees. I hope the Minister can update us on what plans the Government have to ensure that health and social care staff are fully protected.
Finally, we need a plan for staff to address what comes next. Just as the nation needs a recovery plan, the NHS workforce needs one too. We must not forget that we entered this crisis with a record 100,000 vacancies in the NHS. What I hear from staff, who have now been working flat out for a year, is that they desperately need a break, and they need a tangible demonstration that their efforts are truly valued. The NHS rightly has a special place in the hearts of the people of this country, but without the staff, the NHS ceases to exist. That is why we need to recognise that we cannot keep dipping into that well of good will, and that at some point, NHS workers need cherishing as much as the institution itself.
I cannot mention PPE without briefly addressing last week’s High Court ruling that the Government had acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of covid-related contracts. Why has the Secretary of State not come to Parliament to explain himself? Is breaking the law such a common occurrence in Government nowadays that it does not warrant an explanation from those responsible? The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by a toxic mix of misspending and cronyism. We all understand that the Department was and is dealing with many pressing issues, but transparency is important, and accountability matters. Of course, we need to remember why there was such a rush to get PPE in the first place—it was because the Government had ignored the warnings and allowed stockpiles to run down. The pandemic has been used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, but it really should not need saying that transparency goes hand in hand with good government.
Another area where we need greater transparency is the Government’s general response to the pandemic to date. With the highest number of deaths in Europe, those in power now need to answer why that has been the case, because such a grim death toll was not inevitable. If it is the right time to undergo an expensive and disruptive reorganisation of the NHS, it is also the right time to have the inquiry into covid that the Prime Minister promised more than six months ago. The families of the deceased deserve answers, and we all need to know that lessons have been learned and that the same mistakes will not be made again. If we look at what has happened so far, we can see that there has been a tragic failure to learn the right lessons. That is why what we have heard from the Prime Minister today matters, because we are not out of the woods yet. Infection rates, though they are reducing, remain high; there are more people in hospital now than there were at the start of the second lockdown; and there are still more than 1,000 people being admitted to hospital every single day. So, what we do next, when we do it and how we do it remains critical.
The Opposition have been clear all along about the importance of following the science. We know where not following the science takes us: it leads to the worst death rate and the deepest recession in Europe. It leads to the farce of the Prime Minister refusing to cancel Christmas plans, only to U-turn three days later, and it leads to the shambles of children returning to school for one day, only to find it closed the next. We know that the virus thrives on delay and dither. As we approach a year of life under restrictions, any ambiguity over when, where, why and how the restrictions will be eased in the coming weeks and months is just as big a threat as the virus itself.
Before I conclude, I just want to say a bit about test and trace. We did not hear anything new from the Prime Minister on that today, but it nevertheless remains a vital part of the pandemic response. We need to remind ourselves that the number of new cases is still above 10,000 each day, and that every day thousands more people are required to self-isolate. For this lockdown truly to be the last, we need to continue to cut transmission chains and the spread of the virus, so this continuing blind spot when it comes to supporting people to self-isolate is as baffling as it is wrong.
When we first came out of lockdown, the scientific advice repeatedly stated that the easing of restrictions would work only if there was a fully functioning test and trace system in place. That was true last year and it is still true today. We still do not have all test results back within 24 hours, as the Prime Minister promised would happen last June, but perhaps most important are the continued low compliance rates with self-isolation. The Government have known for many months that the lack of financial support to those self-isolating has resulted in extremely low adherence rates. Surveys between March and August last year found that only 11% of people in the UK notified as having been in recent close contact with a confirmed case did not leave their home. That figure has improved a little recently, but it is still well below where it needs to be.
Around a quarter of employers will only pay statutory sick pay for such an absence. The Secretary of State has previously said that he could not survive on statutory sick pay, so we should not be surprised when others cannot do so either. We also know that seven in 10 applicants are not receiving self-isolation payments from councils, with one in four councils rejecting 90% of applications. They are rejecting them not because there is no need but because the rules have been so tightly drawn that seven out of eight people do not qualify for a payment under Government rules. When Dido Harding herself says that people are not self-isolating because they find it very difficult, a huge question needs to be answered about why the Government have still not acted to rectify this.
Last month, the Government announced more cash for councils for self-isolation payments, but that was to last until the end of March, and actually the amount handed out was the equivalent to one day’s-worth of people testing positive. That is clearly not enough, and what about after March? We need confirmation of how much support will continue to enable people to self-isolate after that date. Following reports in The Independent late last week that some people working for the NHS through private contractors, such as cleaners, porters and kitchen staff, were being denied full sick pay for covid-related absences because of the removal of supply relief, we need a commitment that this will be investigated urgently and that the direction of travel will be reversed so that everyone in the NHS is properly supported. The Government should be setting an example here, not leading a race to the bottom. On wider financial support, where is the road map for businesses that will still be operating under restrictions for many months to come? We know that the Budget is next week, but they need clarity and support now.
In conclusion, what the Prime Minister announced today has to be the last time the word “lockdown” passes his lips. There must be no more false dawns and no more boom and bust. With this road map, relaxations should now be clear and notified to the affected parties in advance, but also approved by this place in advance. There should be no more muddle between guidance and laws; no more regulations published minutes before they become law; no more businesses having to throw away thousands of pounds-worth of stock because decisions are reversed at a moment’s notice; no more of the stop-go cycle; and no more hopeless optimism followed by a hasty retreat. This time really has to be the last time. The vaccine has given us hope. It has given us a route out of this. With a year’s experience of the virus and with multiple vaccines on the way, there can be no excuse for failure this time. The Prime Minister has said that he wants the road map to be a one-way ticket. I hope he is right. We all want him to be right, but if he gets it wrong, he should expect nothing less than a one-way ticket to the jobcentre.
I very much welcome my good friend the Minister’s remarks. The Prime Minister was quite right to say in his statement that there is no credible road map to zero-covid Britain, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who speaks for the Opposition, was right to say that this time has to be the last time—that is to say, this must be the last lockdown—so we need to explore with the public what that means.
In 2014-15, we lost 28,000 people to seasonal flu. Every year, we accept 78,000 deaths from the effects of smoking, but we do not seriously contemplate banning smoking despite the awful toll it takes. If there is no credible road map to zero covid, we need to explore with the public how many deaths every year they are prepared to accept from the virus and, potentially, others too. I do not know the answer to that, but perhaps the figures of 28,000 and 78,000 begin to give us some clue as to the parameters within which we can have that terrible, awful conversation. I do not envy my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in their position as decision makers in this process.
We should never waste a crisis. May I commend Ministers for trying to reboot public health at pace and very effectively? We need to prepare for the next crisis now, because this virus almost certainly will not be the last one. We need to start working up a workforce that will do vaccination in the future as the virus changes and evolves, perhaps capitalising on those NHS returnees who have done the courses mandated and done the paperwork but have yet to be called up. We need to maintain them on the books, as it were, because we will probably need them in the future.
I welcome the lifting of the lockdown. My only question is one of pace. Immunity is like a muscle or a brain cell: it improves with work, and if we do not use it we lose it. Circulation of virus in the vaccinated population will enhance immunity, and I worry that if we are too cautious in lifting lockdown once the great bulk of the population at risk is vaccinated, we will be more vulnerable than we need to be as we re-enter the high-risk winter season. The data on cases and deaths published today on gov.uk is unexpectedly good, and we should celebrate that, but will my hon. Friend review the dates cited today if the data support that?
Finally, I very much welcome the extra money my hon. Friend has provided for research into vaccines in February. It is most welcome. We may find that therapeutics—treating people who are seriously ill with the virus—turns out to be just as important in fighting the virus as immunisation.
As we move into the second year of covid, and despite still being in lockdown, there are key positives to be celebrated. The vaccine roll-out is progressing quickly, and staff in all four national health services should be congratulated, along with the Army, who have provided logistical expertise, and the thousands of volunteers who have helped to ensure the safety and organisation of vaccination centres. Vaccine uptake has been way above expectations and, with the hope that vaccination will prevent viral transmission as well as protecting the recipient, everyone who rolls up their sleeve is contributing to the fight against the pandemic. However, concerns remain about lower vaccine uptake among certain groups, including some who are particularly vulnerable to covid, such as BAME communities. Anyone offered the vaccine should take up their appointment. If they have questions, there is information on the NHS websites, or they can ask their local GP practice.
Until now, any increase in covid cases has led to an inevitable rise in hospitalisation and deaths just a few weeks later, but as more vulnerable groups are vaccinated, that is starting to change. We are already seeing the benefit to those who were vaccinated first in Scotland. An analysis of over 1 million vaccine recipients by Public Health Scotland has today revealed a reduction in hospitalisation of between 85% and 94% for the two vaccines. Owing to its integrated structure, Scotland’s NHS was able to get permission from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to deliver the Pfizer vaccine to all elderly care homes from 13 December. That has led to a 62% drop in deaths among residents throughout January. That dramatic fall will, we hope, be replicated in data across the rest of the UK in just the coming weeks.
As the Prime Minister has highlighted, one possible threat to the success of the vaccination programme would be the importation of a more vaccine-resistant variant, such as that which has arisen in South Africa and has already been shown to be resistant to antibodies from those who have recovered from covid. This threat makes it inexplicable that when the UK Government have finally decided to set up monitored border quarantine, it is on such a limited basis—so much for following the science! There should be mandatory quarantine for arrivals from all countries, as there is nothing to prevent someone from travelling from South Africa or Brazil via a third country. The South African variant is already present in at least 35 other countries and new variants could be evolving as we speak. The Government’s suggestion that people will be able to travel abroad for summer holidays seems to be courting danger, as many countries will not be vaccinated and therefore pose an increased risk that holidaymakers would bring back new variants; surely this is a sacrifice we could all accept if it allowed children to be in school and our domestic economy to open up. This measure must, however, be combined with support for the aviation, aerospace and international tourism sectors.
On the Prime Minister’s road map out of lockdown, I welcomed the suggestion that decisions that would be based on data rather than dates, but he then proceeded to announce a whole list of dates. Although it is good to see cases falling so dramatically across the UK, from almost 60,000 a day to just over 11,000 a day, case levels are still more than double what they were when SAGE called for a lockdown on 21 September. The number of covid patients in hospital is 10 times what it was last September and only just dropped below the peak of the first wave last week.
While Scotland has maintained lower case levels throughout the second and third waves, progress in all four nations is slowing, and this is thought to be due to the greater infectiousness of the B117 Kent variant. Thankfully, this variant appears to be just as sensitive to the immune response induced by current vaccines, but every time the virus spreads and replicates itself, there is an opportunity for mutation and the risk of a problematic domestic variant emerging, including one that might be resistant to our current vaccines. The UK has already faced three waves of covid and three lockdowns, and it is important that current restrictions remain until case levels have been driven low enough to give the vaccine programme a chance to succeed and health services time to recover. It is not a matter of setting the economy against public health; it is through stopping community spread that we would be able to get our domestic economy and society back up and running.
Once covid levels have been brought down, it is critical to have an effective system to test, trace and isolate those who could be carrying the virus, in order to keep control of the outbreak. Unfortunately, one in eight cases are still not being reached by NHS Test and Trace, and surveys suggest that as few as one in three people are isolating when required. The commonest reason is that they cannot afford to lose their income, yet more than half of those applying for the Government’s support payment are being turned down, which makes it very unlikely that they would then isolate. The Government need to widen the eligibility criteria and review the level of payment, which is less than the minimum wage. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that those who could be carrying the virus isolate so we avoid onward spread. All these measures carry a cost, but when we see the flourishing domestic economies of the countries that acted quickly and stringently last year, we can see the cost of not taking action, both in lives and in economic damage.
We craved a measure of urgency and what we got was caution. We have been told that the plan is to be driven by data. What data? From the very start, we were informed that the main effort—the aim—was to deliver the saving of lives by protecting the NHS, so the key data must be a level of hospital admissions with which the NHS can cope efficiently and effectively. But since then, we have seen mission creep to a level of daily infections, and the number of 1,000 a day has been touted. Given the level of testing and the ambition for even greater testing, were covid-19 to disappear tonight off the face of the earth, we would still have more positive test results tomorrow, as a consequence of even the most conservative estimate of false positives, that would prevent us from lifting the restrictions on that day.
The Minister has mentioned the unpredictability of the disease. We just heard a dissertation on that from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). In the ordinary course of events, a virus that is successful becomes more benign. The new variants—the ones that succeed—do not send their sufferers to bed. They keep them up and about, spreading it, but a lockdown reverses the terms of trade. The successful variant is the one that can get through the social distancing, is more potent and will get its sufferer into hospital, where there are much greater opportunities for spread. Anyone who is concerned about new variants should join us who are conscious of the need for urgency with respect to the huge economic and social costs of this lockdown, and join us because of the scientific urgency of getting the lockdown lifted as well.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) just said. I applaud the Government and everybody who has been involved in this incredible vaccine roll-out programme. It really is world leading and is going to make a huge difference in tackling the coronavirus. However, I urge colleagues in Government to think very broadly about this pandemic.
I want to give three examples from my constituency caseload. First, businesses have been supported, as have jobs, but the reality is that businesses cannot survive for much longer. I am thinking of the mental health of business owners, their personal savings, their families, the people that they have had to get rid of because they cannot keep them on furlough any longer—this cannot continue. There are huge costs not only in terms of the financial implications, but of their balance sheets—the constant roll-over of bank interest rates and so on, which has long-term implications for their prospects as a business.
Secondly, schoolchildren have already fallen so far behind. I had a constituency roundtable with headteachers, who were saying to me that it is always the same children. The ones who have great parents at home, getting them to keep working in spite of it all, will manage. It is those who do not have either the devices at home or the parental input who are really going to suffer and struggle, and not just this year or this month, but for years to come. It is existentially threatening to their lives.
The third point I want to make is about dementia sufferers. Someone very close to me has dementia and it has really destroyed their life. When it comes to people with dementia, we try to give them social input. We try to give them something to look forward to and try to keep them stimulated, and we are just not doing that. We are talking about one person to hold their hand—that is just not good enough. We have to think outside the box and look at what more we can do to help people to catch up right across all our country, all our nation.
I want to finish with an absolute plea to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make sure this place comes back, because I am hearing from hon. Friends and hon. colleagues across the Chamber about the vital need to keep scrutinising the Government, particularly as we come out of lockdown. We cannot be date-driven; we have to be data-driven. We need to keep talking about the harm that is being caused by the lockdown so that we get the balance right between saving people’s lives from covid and saving their lives from other things that are not covid but are related to covid.
It is a pleasure to follow the passionate contribution of the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom).
I am conscious that the debate this evening has been opened by a Health Minister and, I understand, will be concluded by the Paymaster General, and the case I want to raise is connected to the support offered by the Government for businesses, particularly the furlough scheme. I have been wanting to raise this case for some weeks now.
Staff mainly at two venues in Glasgow, Blue Dog and Ad Lib, have not had any furlough payments since October last year because there is an issue between the business and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that has so far been unresolved. Across these two venues and others there are up to 200 people who have had no income at all—nothing—since October.
I have been in correspondence with the permanent secretary and chief executive at HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions to try to get the staff some state support, because at the minute the staff’s real-time information—their live tax information—shows them as though they were still being paid as normal when HMRC and the DWP know that that is not the case, and that means they are not eligible to receive universal credit.
So may I plead with the Minister or the Paymaster General to please look at this case and get it resolved, as 200 low-paid bar workers in Glasgow really need it resolved? On the question of who is at fault, whether the business owners or HMRC, there will be plenty to say in future; all I want to get across to Government tonight is that these staff members really need an intervention in their case.
It has got so bad that the staff of Blue Dog and Ad Lib in Glasgow have had to start crowdfunding from fellow bar workers in order to at least have some money to pay bills that keep on coming, and I want to end my remarks by repeating something that one of the staff put on his Facebook page this weekend. John Taay Russell had this to say:
“I…don’t even know what to do anymore. I’m fighting tooth and nail…mentally I am defeated…I find myself in a carousel of depression and self loathing,”
“Bills keep coming, Rent needs paid”.
So I am pleading with Ministers: please look at this case in detail; please get these individuals the financial support they are entitled to and so desperately, desperately need.
The fact that the Prime Minister was able to make his statement today is principally down to the extraordinary achievement of having multiple vaccines being rolled out right across the country to the whole adult population by the summer. It is a scientific landmark, but also an historic achievement by the NHS, by pharmacists, by volunteers and not least by Ministers and their officials and the vaccine taskforce. We are immensely grateful to them.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to be, as he put it,
“driven by the data rather than by dates”,
so I was a little surprised that dates featured very prominently in his statement today. These dates were described as “not before dates”: not before, for example, 29 March will it be possible to play outdoor sports; shops and hairdressers and gyms will be open not before 12 April; restaurants and hotels will not be open before the date of 17 May; and full wedding ceremonies will not be allowed before the date of 21 June. I understand that everyone in the industries affected craves certainty, but it may just be that pubs, restaurant owners, hairdressers and the travel industry would be perfectly willing to accept an earlier ability to trade if the data allowed it.
The evidence that the Science and Technology Committee took from leading scientists just last week, the same scientists who are advising the Government, was that the data are all pointing in the right direction. Professor Woolhouse of Edinburgh said that
“if you are driven by the data and not by dates, right now you should be looking at earlier unlocking because the data are so good.”
Just this lunchtime, Professor Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease and epidemiology at University College London, said that if we are driven by the data, then we need to be prepared, if things are better than expected, that we may be able to release faster than we expect. I therefore say to the Minister that I hope the Government, in adopting this plan, will not be inadvertently a prisoner of the plan.
During the weeks ahead, vast amounts of data will be available to the Government and to their advisers. Following the data is the right policy, and I hope that that is exactly what they will do.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you will agree that the success of the vaccine roll-out has been a beacon of hope at the darkest of times. However, as of 11 February of this year, when 88% of white people aged over 70 had received the first dose, just 57% of black people had been jabbed, despite being twice as likely to get covid-19. People from south Asian communities are also more at risk, yet vaccine coverage for them was 15% lower than for white people. Shockingly, ethnicity has so far been the biggest factor in determining the likelihood of someone receiving a vaccine if they have been offered one.
As shocking as that has been, it should not come as a surprise to anyone in the House. In a speech to the Chamber last November, I pointed out that of those taking part in vaccine trials just 0.5% were from BAME backgrounds, especially black African and Caribbean backgrounds, with 4% from Asian communities. I warned of the danger that that trend could be replicated in a vaccine roll-out and urged rapid action to improve confidence in the vaccine. Unfortunately, my worst fears have been realised. I have been volunteering at a vaccination centre in Camden in my constituency. Of the hundreds of people coming in for a jab, I could count the number of people from BAME communities on one hand, despite the fact that 35% of Camden’s population is BAME.
Last year, I urged the Government to lead a co-ordinated, comprehensive effort to tackle anti-vaccine misinformation and build confidence, involving BAME health workers, leaders, community organisations and charities, and using communication channels that BAME people are more likely to use and trust. Sadly, that has not happened on the scale that is necessary. It has been largely left to local communities to do that engagement.
As the Prime Minister set out today, one of the conditions for easing lockdown is the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme. I am personally very worried about the potential consequences of relaxing lockdown on the basis of positive top-line figures on vaccination that mask very low take-up in some groups of the community. If restrictions are relaxed before there is widespread vaccine coverage, there is a serious danger that the virus could rip through BAME communities where the likelihood of infection and death from covid is already much higher.
I have a few questions for the Minister. Are the Government taking into account the ethnic breakdown of vaccination data in determining whether lockdown will be lifted? Why, when we have been warning about it for months, was the UK’s vaccine take-up plan published only this month? Why are MPs being contacted only now about how they can help to tackle misinformation? What specific additional support will be available for councils to run programmes to tackle misinformation among BAME communities? Which BAME community leaders—
I was more content with today’s statement than I feared I might be. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, the return of schools is a hallelujah moment for me and for many parents; the Government have done the right thing there. Primary for me in the Prime Minister’s statement was the line:
“There is no credible route to a zero-covid Britain or indeed a zero-covid world.”
This is what I do not get. We hear people say all the time, “It must be the last covid-19 lockdown. We don’t want to go back.” Well, of course we do not want to go back. Nobody wants to do that, but what am I missing here? In its analysis of covid deaths, the plan, on page 14, talks about 88% of cohorts 1 to 4. Then it mentions a further 11%, which means that 99% of deaths are in cohorts 1 to 9, so how could we go back? We have heard today about the efficacy of the vaccines, which is awesome. Compared with the flu vaccine, it is incredibly good. We have heard about the impact on transmissibility, which seems to be good as well. When the Paymaster General sums up, can she please explain what I am missing here?
On the 99% figure, how can I justify to my constituents what it says on page 39 of today’s road map, which is that there will be no legal limits on social contact, but that will happen no earlier than 21 June? We will have vaccinated cohorts 1 to 9, the 99%, by the middle of April, so by the end of April that will have taken effect and they will be protected. Look, I am open to the argument. I think I am a reasonable fellow, but surely the onus is on the Government to justify their restrictions—those in law anyway—after the end of April.
Finally, I agree with Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, when he said that covid will be with us for ever. The truth, therefore, is that so will infections and so will hospitalisations, and that, sadly, it will take people before their time—it may take me. We have to accept that the human condition includes mortality. That is really hard. When I was Public Health Minister, I found it hard that 22,000 people lost their lives to influenza. It was really hard when my own father passed away from pancreatic cancer three days after the last general election, but it was true. Let us be driven by the data, absolutely, let us be cautious, yes, and let us produce a release that is irreversible, but let us produce one that is irreversible because we are being honest with the British public, not because we are chasing a world without covid, which, as the Prime Minister rightly said, can never be.
I wish to raise two very pressing issues in the debate this evening. Both are very close to my heart and affect many of my constituents. For months, stories have been coming out of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of wholly unacceptable working conditions in the buildings in Swansea East. I have had so many concerns raised with me by my constituents, and each and every one of them ends with, “Please don’t mention my name.” When I ask them why, they just describe a fear. They say they do not want to be singled out—they do not want to be that person who has caused any trouble. For those who are employees of the DVLA and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, a ballot paper on industrial action will have landed on their desks today. There is an obvious worry that the 2,000 or so DVLA workers who are already working from home might not think that this dispute concerns them, but indeed it does, because standing by their colleagues who have put themselves at risk by physically going on to Government premises is the very reason why this is so important.
It is also unacceptable that the Secretary of State for Transport and the chief executive of the DVLA have refused substantially to change their position and have blocked more staff from working from home. It is incumbent on them now to face up to their responsibilities and to look after their workers.
On another crucial matter, we have been told on a number of occasions that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is responsible for deciding the prioritisation of the groups receiving the vaccine. I have been generally supportive of that approach, but there seems to be a gaping hole in the groups being vaccinated. My constituent, Rev. John Gillibrand, has contacted me as he is very, very worried about his son, Adam Gillibrand. Adam has a learning disability and lives in a care home. This care home is able to provide him with the extra support that he needs. Adam has challenging behaviour, and the associated strain that it would put on the NHS if he were to be taken ill is significant. As has been recently highlighted in the media —John was on “Newsnight” only last week—people with a learning disability are up to six times more likely to die from coronavirus. Those under the age of 34 are 30 times more likely to die than their peers. That is an extraordinary disparity that needs to be immediately addressed and remedied. What is so disappointing is that, earlier, the Prime Minister blundered through a non-answer on this issue, but real action needs to be taken. I have today written to the Secretary of State for Health asking him to look at this issue as a matter of urgency for Adam Gillibrand and for all others with a learning disability.
There are two or three points that I want to make very quickly tonight, after first thanking the extraordinary national health service team and the public health team in Birmingham, of Justin Varney, David Rosser and Paul Jennings, who meet with Birmingham MPs each week. The clarity of the information that they give and the quality of their leadership in our city are absolutely extraordinary.
The three quick points I want to add to this debate are these. First, it is now crucial that Ministers make available detailed ward-level data about vaccinations. As some people know, we have been fighting for this data in Birmingham for some time, and I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for working with me. The Secretary of State promised us the data back in about January. It was then made available to public health directors through the dashboards that they can see, but it was marked as restricted, which means they cannot share it. We have been able to get it into the public domain by putting it on the agenda in some preparatory work for the covid-o committee that we have to set up, but it is really not good enough that we have to go this roundabout way to get crucial data published.
The reason this is so serious is that the data in Birmingham reveals a story of two cities, if not two nations: rich and poor. In the richest wards in Birmingham, we have vaccination rates that are over 90%; in the poorest wards, we have vaccination rates that are under 60%. We have a dramatically different vaccination uptake in the richest wards compared with the poorest wards. Underlining, underpinning and exacerbating this problem is the fact that our testing uptake has a similar pattern. In fact, the amount of testing in the richer wards is 60% greater than the testing in the poorer wards. Anecdotally, we have people who cannot afford to find out they have covid but happen to live in wards where the vaccination uptake is lowest. Cases are now concentrated in the poorest places, and the risk is that these poor places will languish in a kind of long covid for many more months than richer places. That opens the risk of a pandemic of disease now triggering a pandemic of poverty.
I call on Ministers today to please make sure that this data is more widely available, and for heaven’s sake start using our community pharmacies to start rolling out the vaccination programme in our poorest places. On big hubs and GPs, we do not have access to those kinds of services in the same way that the richer wards do. Viruses that evade a vaccine are viruses that continue to evolve, and no one is safe until everybody is safe. We need a different approach to vaccination roll-out, and we need it now.
Widely reported studies modelling the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on suicide rates have predicted dramatic increases, ranging up to 145%, with particular emphasis given to the effect of the pandemic on children and young people. Numerous surveys have highlighted that their mental health has been disproportionately affected relative to that of older adults, with a corresponding increase in suicidal thoughts and self-harm. All of us will have to struggle with our own mental health to some degree or other during this time, but there are various known risk factors that can impact on mental health, such as depression, feelings of unattachment, loneliness, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, unemployment and other financial insecurity.
When, almost a year ago, we entered lockdown across the globe, there was some degree of optimism that this would be a quick process and before too long we would return to normal. The lockdown went on a lot longer than people thought it would, but the weather slowly improved and there was a reasonable sense of optimism that kept people going. The November lockdown was announced as being short, with Christmas and the hope of meeting up with loved ones as a promised reward at the end, if possible.
The current lockdown, however, has been very different. The post-Christmas dark days that hit many people every year have just seemed too much to bear for some. Dark days and cold weather have limited the opportunity for outdoor exercise for many. The absence of support from family has gone on too long. Children are missing school friends, and parents are missing support, often struggling to work while home-schooling their children.
Let me be absolutely clear: I have no doubt whatever that this lockdown, like others before it, was needed, but so many people have paid a very high price. Mental health across the generations has been severely impacted. All too often, people are struggling to see a way forward. The Prime Minister has today set out the way forward, and I hugely welcome it, but will he assure the House that although we will all be happy to see a relaxation of the lockdowns where possible, he will be guided by the science and do all he can to ensure that this truly is the last lockdown?
As the Prime Minister unveils his road map for the end of lockdown measures, we have reached a critical juncture in our long fight with covid-19. What the public need most now is a cast-iron guarantee that no one will be left behind as the lockdown is eased, but as British businesses read in the papers that they will not be able to reopen for many months, they still have little idea of what financial support will be available to them after April. Many simply cannot wait until the Budget is delivered in March; they need clarity and certainty now. Last year countless jobs were needlessly lost because of the Chancellor’s unnecessary delay in extending the furlough scheme. He must not make the same mistake again. That is why I urge him to heed the Labour party’s call for an immediate extension to furlough, the business rates holiday and the reduction in VAT. It is also high time that the nearly 3 million British taxpayers excluded from accessing financial support get the help they need.
I implore the Education Secretary to engage constructively with the education sector over plans to reopen schools. One of the many great privileges of serving as a Member in this House is getting to meet educators and support staff working in colleges, schools and nurseries across my constituency. Their professionalism and commitment to the wellbeing of their students is beyond doubt, and they know better than any of us how important it is to have children back in their classrooms. But instead of working alongside the teaching profession, Ministers too often dismiss the legitimate concerns of the teaching unions and attack educators for undermining the welfare of the very pupils they have dedicated their professional lives to—and they do so while failing to ensure that every student has access to broadband and an appropriate digital device at home.
Time is fast running out for the Government to put in place a credible plan for school reopening. The Education Secretary must sit down with the teaching unions and ensure that the appropriate measures are in place to ensure a safe return to classrooms, including by ensuring that all school staff are vaccinated and that school buildings have effective filtration and ventilation programmes in place.
The Government should do everything in their power to speed up the roll-out of the vaccine. The announcement that every adult will get the jab by August is undoubtedly welcome, and I am sure that I will be joined by Members from across the House in applauding the hard work and determination of the NHS staff and volunteers who have made the vaccine roll-out such a success so far, but last week the chief executive officer of the NHS said that we could double the rate of vaccinations if only we had sufficient supply. We need to make that happen. We also need to ensure that vaccination is easily accessible to everyone by having vaccination centres in every local community and in places of worship, and by making use of mobile vaccinations and community pharmacists.
The Government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic has left the UK facing one of the highest death tolls and the deepest recession of any advanced economy. We desperately need the Prime Minister to learn from his many mistakes and to ensure that our nation is not plunged into a fourth national lockdown.
Rhondda Cynon Taf, the local authority within which my constituency of Cynon Valley is located, has the third highest covid death rate in the UK. This stark fact fills me with sadness. I am sad when I think about all the lives in my community that have been lost to this deadly virus. Behind the statistics are people who lived in, worked in and contributed to our valley in so many ways. Their deaths were needless and avoidable, and that makes me angry.
I am angry at the ever-widening inequality that is the root cause of the high death toll. The south Wales valleys have suffered decades of neglect and hardship as a result of the neoliberal agenda ruthlessly pursued by consecutive UK Governments. The demise of the coal industry in the 1980s was followed by a period of high unemployment, poverty, health problems and inequality. We have never been able or enabled to recover from this position.
I am angry that the past 11 years of Tory Government, with their careless attitude and austerity policies, have exacerbated poverty and inequality in my local authority, which has been stripped of £90 million during this period. My local authority is the fourth most deprived in Wales, with a quarter of people living in poverty and even higher rates of child poverty. The covid pandemic has exacerbated the hardship and suffering of people in my constituency.
I am angry that this Tory Government pay lip service to clapping for key workers, many of whom are on the minimum wage, have to use food banks to manage and are on zero-hours contracts. Our local economy is dominated by low-skilled, low-waged, insecure employment.
I am angry that the health and safety of DVLA workers in Swansea was put at risk during this pandemic. How could the Government let that happen? I support the PCS ballot and urge workers to vote yes.
We must now look at how we run our society and invest in the areas that have been hardest hit. I am optimistic neither that this Government will get it right, nor that they understand the problems that my constituents face. We need a benefits system that gives people security and dignity, not one that includes one of the worst sickness benefit rates in Europe. We need investment in infrastructure projects such as those that can provide green energy and broadband initiatives—projects that provide well-paid jobs and give young people a future in their home communities. The Welsh Government need funding to enable them to carry out such initiatives. We should not have to wait on the vagaries of a Tory Government to decide how and when Wales gets its fair share of funding, through either the Barnett formula or the shared prosperity fund.
We need an end to tax evasion and avoidance by the rich, a windfall tax on covid profits, and community wealth projects with fair work and pay, which put money back in the pockets of our community rather than its being hidden away in offshore bank accounts. We need policies that ease the burden of debt that so many will face. I am determined to challenge the gross inequalities that exist so that we do not end up with the poorest paying the greatest price every time. My experience in my community tells me that there is an appetite for doing things differently, and that fills me with hope.
I wish to start by saying some words of praise for Ministers and, indeed, everyone involved in the vaccination programme. It has been an extraordinary achievement and put us fully on the path back to recovery as a nation. But that is why I am, frankly, disappointed by what I have heard today. The path set out this afternoon is too tentative and does not adequately take into account the impact of this pandemic on our society as a whole. We needed to do more, quicker. We needed to identify those things that are the lowest risk and allow them to start again now. We needed to give those people, particularly among the younger generation, whose mental health is under intense strain or whose business prospects and job prospects seem hopeless the most rapid safe path back to normality.
For example, there is virtually no evidence that the virus transmits easily outdoors, so why do we need to wait a month before a group of four or six people can go for a walk in the park? Why do we need to wait a month before a small group of people can start to play outdoor sports again? What difference does it really make if someone drives 50 miles for a walk with a relative, as long as it is outdoors?
I have argued all along that the strategy to reopen should be based on a hard-nosed assessment of risk. We know that the virus transmits most seriously in a small number of settings—in hospitals, care homes, schools, workplaces and indoors in the home in particular—but it does not transmit easily in the park, on the beach, on a tennis court or in the hills, so why are we not unlocking the great outdoors now to ease the pressures on people and give them more space in their lives so that they can start to rebuild their mental strength, which has been through such difficult times? Where is the risk in letting pubs open their gardens again for Easter, or zoos open their outdoor areas to visitors, and start to rebuild their finances; or in a promise today to reopen air corridors to low-risk countries later in the spring, rather than a tentative review? A trading nation cannot close its borders indefinitely. However good the furlough scheme may be, the longer we wait to reopen, the fewer businesses and jobs will be there when that day comes.
This Government, the Prime Minister, his team and the Health Secretary have done an extraordinary job in getting us to where we are in vaccinations, but this country and this Government must not blow that now with an approach that takes caution beyond common sense. Lord Hague was right in saying at the weekend that when the top nine groups have had their jabs, we should be unlocking almost everything, but where we know the risks are low, we should be unlocking now.
I welcome the fact that after a long, hard winter, there are now grounds for cautious optimism. However, there is more to do to make sure that a return to some sort of normality is sustainable and that as many jobs and businesses as possible are supported through to that new normality.
On the first point—sustainability—I repeat my party’s call for the UK Government to take stronger measures at the border. The overwhelming evidence is that as we manage to get domestic transmission under control, it becomes much more important, not less, to stop receiving the virus, including new strains from abroad. While the introduction of supervised quarantine for red list country arrivals was better than nothing, it is fair to say that almost everyone and their dog knows that such a restricted, piecemeal approach does not go far enough and does not make sense for a host of reasons. We also know that almost three in four people across the whole of the UK prefer the comprehensive Scottish Government rules for hotel quarantine to the weaker Westminster approach taken to arrivals in England. I ask the UK Government to listen to the Scottish Government, to public opinion and to the scientific evidence.
On the second issue—protecting jobs and businesses—I join my colleagues in stating that it is imperative that the various economic and social security support schemes are extended again, and the gaps in support comprehensively highlighted by the all-party parliamentary group and campaigners must be filled now by the Chancellor in his Budget.
I will finish by raising with the Paymaster General the specific issues faced by one type of business—kennels and catteries, and other animal care businesses. Many such businesses are struggling to survive, including local operators I have been speaking to in Cumbernauld, who normally have a customer base of over 1,000, but who now have, and will have in the months ahead, next to no business. It is the same for businesses across the UK. Intrinsically linked to the tourism and hospitality industries, they are not being supported as if they were part of that sector—for example, there is no reduction in VAT. Fixing that so that these businesses get the same support as other tourism businesses would be a small move for the Treasury, but a massive help to the businesses.
I hope a Treasury Minister will be willing to speak to me and to business owners about this. It may seem a niche issue now, but it will not some time down the line, when we open up again and can finally take holidays at home and abroad, but find that there is nowhere to put all our newly purchased cats and dogs.
I begin by paying tribute to the NHS here in Buckinghamshire. Under quite extraordinary pressure, staff have continually risen to the challenge, and we should all be very proud of them.
We asked the Government for a road to recovery starting on 8 March, and I am pleased that they have now set it out, but the pace of change announced today will be a hammer blow for aviation, for pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, and for the arts establishment. Once again, it seems to be modelling, not data, which is driving the Government’s decisions, even though, time and again, modelling used for serious covid decisions has been taken apart retrospectively. One of the four models used by the Government to illustrate the need for the second national lockdown predicted 1,000 deaths on 1 November, the day after it was presented to the public, when the actual number of deaths that day was just over 200. It has been reported that the road map is based on the new Imperial College modelling of the vaccine roll-out. Of course, as I know as a software engineer, what you put into a model determines what you get out of it. Well, the modellers have assumed that the uptake of vaccines for all groups will be 85%, when actually it has been 90%. They assume that there will be a drop in the uptake of the second dose of the vaccine to 75%, without any evidence. They assume that the vaccine’s efficacy in protecting against the risk of infection is 48% after one dose and 60% after two doses for both vaccines that we have available, but data from Public Health England shows that one dose reduces the risk of catching infection by more than 70%, rising to 85% after the second dose. These models really must be improved. I have said time and again that we need to drive up the standard of modelling. We need to introduce competitive expert advice with red team challenge, because experts are only human and we have been asking the impossible of them in the context of the challenges that they face.
I have said time and again that we need a new public health Act to learn from this crisis and make sure that the harms and the benefits of Government policy are properly assessed and that Parliament regularly has amendable motions before it. Thank goodness that in this document the Government have begun to acknowledge the socioeconomic cost of restrictions. The Government make it very clear that violent crime and drug addiction have gone up and that wellbeing has come down, with more anxiety and depression. They have been clear that the hardest hit have been the young, females, ethnic minorities and the lower-paid. That is why we need a new public health Act to ensure that our Parliament is properly informed so that never again do we impose these measures without knowing whether they will do more harm than good.
I would like to cover three areas: inequality, covid-secure workplaces, and, briefly, cancer services, which I raised with the Prime Minister during his statement this afternoon.
I was rather concerned, following the Prime Minister’s statement, that the Government may not have learned the lessons from their previous mistakes, in that there is a direct and undeniable correlation between covid-19 and inequality. The many heat maps that have been published over the past year showing covid infections, hospitalisations and fatalities have illustrated the close correlation between covid prevalence and areas of deprivation and high inequality. Indeed, in recent days a worrying trend has emerged of a high covid infection rate in some of the communities that I represent in the Easington constituency. While infection rates across County Durham continue to fall, there are higher rates in Peterlee East and Horden compared with other areas.
One reason is that in many cases the poorest have no option but to continue to work, even in conditions that are not covid secure. Those in insecure employment or on zero-hours contracts—agency workers, for example—do not have the finances or security that they need to self-isolate. The poorest are facing greater poverty if the Government do not listen to the likes of my own trade union, Unite, which is calling for them to retain the £20 uplift in universal credit and for the uplift to be extended to the legacy benefits—a call supported by many organisations, including the charity, Macmillan Cancer Support. Remarkably, there are many instances of workplaces that staff believe are still not covid secure. PCS union members at the DVLA headquarters in Swansea are balloting for strike action today after senior managers and ministers, some of whom appeared before the Transport Committee, which I serve on, have consistently refused to listen to their concerns. This is despite the fact that there have been over 550 covid cases in recent months and we have seen the tragic death from covid of one staff member.
We need to change our approach to cancer services and the need for a dedicated cancer budget. The cancer backlog after the first wave could be 50,000 patients, and we could emerge from the pandemic with a backlog of 100,000. We all want a safe and orderly return to normal, but one of the biggest obstacles throughout this pandemic has been the Government’s inability to follow the science and their turning a deaf ear to criticism.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) said, our local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf is one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. In Tonyrefail West, where I was born and went to school, and where I still live, the death rate from this horrible virus is one of the highest in the UK. My community has been torn apart; sadly, everyone knows someone who has died or lost a loved one to this virus. Cruelly, we have not been able to grieve or come together to remember those we have lost as a community, but we will.
I know that my community is not alone in that, and I know that it is not happening because people in Tonyrefail, Pontypridd and RCT are less likely to follow the rules. Like everywhere else, the vast majority of people are making huge sacrifices to follow the rules to keep themselves, their loved ones and their community safe, but we have an ageing population and, sadly, people are more likely to be living with ill health than in other parts of the country. People are less likely to own a car and, more importantly, people across RCT are more likely to be key workers in jobs that they are unable to do from home. Many of those jobs are low paid, and many people are on zero-hours contracts and face major financial hardships if they have to miss work.
What we are seeing in communities such as mine is the legacy of over a decade of austerity and long-term Tory disinterest. At Prime Minister’s Question Time recently, the Prime Minister referred to the fantastic aviation industry in south Wales, but without sector-specific support, which I and colleagues across the House have been calling for for nearly a year now, that industry and those businesses are simply unable to survive. In my constituency, we are losing excellent expertise—hundreds of jobs at GE Aviation in Nantgarw and at British Airways in Llantrisant.
The Government have still not confirmed whether they will go through with their plan to cut universal credit by £20 a week either. That is yet another example of this Government being completely out of touch with the basic needs of millions of families across the UK and turning a blind eye to opportunities to help, just as they have with the more than 3 million people who have been excluded from any UK Government support altogether.
For new parents, too, this Government need to act. I can fully imagine how difficult it must have been to raise a newborn in these circumstances. Some new mothers have been excluded from furlough payments and have struggled to get childcare, forcing them to quit their job or to take unpaid leave in order to cope.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is no doubt that the vaccine roll-out across the country has been phenomenal, not least here in Wales; we became the first nation in the UK to vaccinate the top four priority groups. I thank each and every person—NHS staff, volunteers and service personnel—who worked round the clock to make that happen. Communities such as mine have been hit hard by this deadly virus, and they need the Chancellor to do whatever it takes to help them get through this. They need him to act.
It was great to hear the Prime Minister say today that the Government’s policy will continue to be based on data, not dates. It would have been wrong to give in to those who wanted a premature lifting of restrictions on the basis of the calendar rather than the available scientific data, but it would also be wrong to continue unnecessarily with restrictions if the data said that it was safe to lift them. If data is right in one direction, it has to be right in the other. I hope that there will be sufficient flexibility in the mechanism that the Government have set out today to respond more quickly should the data continue to improve.
The strategy has always been clear. It has not been to drive covid deaths down to zero, because that would be ridiculous and out of step with everything we know about medical science and historical experience; it has been to stop the medical services becoming overwhelmed. As we see greater levels of immunisation, with a reduced risk of that happening, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General that that is the No. 1 basis on which we should make decisions.
Our vaccine results continue to be terrific. It is one of the best cases we can make for the Union of the United Kingdom that we have been able to buy and distribute vaccine across the whole country in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. There must be a lot of egg on a lot of Euro faces tonight, given the information we have about the AstraZeneca vaccine. It would perhaps be a source of some amusement even in this House, were it not so serious, that the idle chatter and uninformed comments from senior European politicians will undoubtedly have cost lives. We should be trying to get a vaccine dividend for the British people, given the success of our vaccine programme, to get back as quickly as we can to normal.
The NHS will face staffing issues, as we have to deal with not only the new vaccines but the second doses of vaccine at the same time, and I would like to hear from the Minister how we will deal with that. It is right for us to share vaccine with the developing world. It is not a case of altruism. In a world that is interconnected and interdependent, the longer the pandemic goes on, the more variants we will see, and therefore it is in our mutual self-interest to deal with it.
Finally, it is time to get Parliament back. The mechanisms we have had are better than no Parliament, and Mr Speaker and his staff deserve credit for that, but if it is good enough to get the schools as institutions back, it is good enough to get Parliament back. Three-minute monologues that are uninterruptible are not the same as the robust debate that we need.
Proving the point that show is always better than tell, my hon. Friend is exactly right. We have to not just hold the Government to account on the issues of the day but have genuine debate in Parliament about the whole range of issues that will become live once we start to get complete control over the covid pandemic.
It is time that we set out a programme for immunisation in Parliament for Members, Members’ staff, our security staff, the catering staff and even the Lobby. On that subject, I am more than happy to volunteer my services, if for no other reason than I have always believed it is fine to mix business with pleasure.
People with learning disabilities have been marginalised in health and care for decades. We know from the learning disability mortality review that people with learning disabilities have a life expectancy 20 years lower than the general public. Now we know that, during the pandemic, people with learning disabilities have been even more at risk. After adjusting for age, people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from covid than their peers. Despite that, the Government have not given people with learning disabilities the protection and support they need in the pandemic. It took months for people with Down’s syndrome to be added to the clinically extremely vulnerable list, and Ministers still do not fully accept that people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to covid than their peers.
Only those people with a severe or profound learning disability indicated on their GP record are currently eligible for a vaccine in cohort 6. A Public Health England report on deaths from covid in people with learning disabilities details the fact that GP records are not sufficient to reach all people with learning disabilities who are at risk. It said:
“The great majority of people recognised as having learning disabilities in schools are not recognised as such by health services in adulthood. Those missed… are known to have poor physical health, including higher rates of obesity and diabetes, putting them at increased risk of death from COVID-19.”
This means that people may be being denied the vaccine they need because of a postcode lottery in medical record keeping. The learning disability mortality review programme report on covid deaths told us that deaths were not limited to people with severe or profound learning disabilities. Can the Minister tell us that the Government will update the vaccines delivery plan to make clear that all people with learning disabilities should get the vaccine as part of cohort 6?
It is also deeply worrying to hear that people with learning disabilities may have been denied life-saving medical treatment for no reason other than they have a learning disability. The Care Quality Commission found that inappropriate “do not resuscitate” orders may have led to potentially avoidable deaths during the first wave of the pandemic. That was rightly condemned, with both the CQC and NHS England making clear that “do not resuscitate” orders based solely on someone’s learning disability should not be used, but there are reports that this practice has resumed. It is clear that the CQC does not have the powers it needs to address this, so will the Government agree to suspend all “do not resuscitate” orders applied to people with learning disabilities during the pandemic until a full review can be carried out? Access to healthcare and treatment is a human rights issue and an equality issue. It is past time that we took action to ensure that people with learning disabilities get the same access to the healthcare and treatment they need as their peers do.
I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement today setting out a clear path as to how we end this national/international nightmare, but for some industries it will not end when it does for others, and I want to focus on the travel industry.
Nearly two pence in every pound spent in this country is spent in the travel industry, which employs almost a quarter of a million people. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister say today that we will help everybody for the duration of the pandemic, but for the travel industry the pandemic will last beyond 21 June.
The review taking place into international travel is important, but we must recognise that we may not have control over where people can go. Countries may keep their borders shut, as is happening in the USA at the moment and, of course, in the EU. Whether we need a covid vaccination certificate to go to these countries will very much be up to them.
The industry therefore needs support to carry on. At the moment, its biggest concern is that if it reopens when all the non-essential shops reopen, that is well and good, but it will not have anything to sell. Let me give the example of just three travel agents from my constituency. One has gone from a £4 million turnover to zero, one has gone from a £2.3 million turnover, with £310,000 gross profit, to a £7,000 loss, and the other has gone from between £1 million and £1.2 million turnover, with a 15% profit, down to a £4,000 loss. Yes, staff have been furloughed, but there are still the fixed costs. What is often also overlooked is that the actual business owners are not earning a single penny but still have their costs going forward. We should remember that this sector employs more people than the automotive sector, but businesses are struggling to get coronavirus business interruption loan scheme loans because they have no revenue coming in to meet the banks’ criteria.
We really have to ensure that we support businesses in this sector and carry on with business grant support, business rate relief and the furlough scheme, because it could be three to four months after June before they are actually in a position to earn a living and sell products. Travel is a massive industry in this country, and it employs tens or hundreds of thousands of people, and we need to extend the support a little further. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will take these comments back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as we prepare for the upcoming Budget.
Finally, I have mentioned the hospitality industry before, but I hope that we are not going to suddenly cut the legs off pubs that may have the ability to serve outside but that would not be financially viable doing so. We must ensure that the support packages in all these areas remain until businesses are financially viable and can stand on their own two feet.
I am grateful to speak in today’s debate. I extend my thanks to healthcare staff and volunteers up and down our country for their invaluable help with the roll-out of the vaccine. I say that especially to everyone at Downham healthcare centre in my constituency, where I saw the roll-out in action, and it was managed superbly.
In this debate, I will raise concerns about the position of the NHS. The NHS is in crisis. Intensive care units are still overflowing with seriously ill patients who have coronavirus. Doctors are having to make crucial decisions, and many patients with other illnesses are not able to have their appointments.
Prior to the pandemic, I spoke in the Chamber—physically, not virtually—about the nursing shortage. Before covid hit, the shortage of nurses was 100,000, and it was getting worse due to the lack of Government funding for student nurses and the uncertainty for nurses coming from the EU to live and work in the UK. We still have an enormous lack of nurses in hospitals, and there is also a lack of care staff to work in care homes.
Existing staff are overworked and underpaid, and the pandemic has exposed the decline in our health services after a decade of Tory cuts. Furthermore, areas of NHS hospital services are being privatised and given to private contractors, when the work can be done just as well by NHS staff when the money is reinvested into the NHS.
The National Audit Office has shown that the total accumulated debt of NHS providers was almost £11 billion in March 2019. While the Chancellor announced a 10-year plan for NHS support in January 2019, not all healthcare professionals have found this adequate. There are no plans to cover the cost of workforce training and expansion and, crucially, the cost of public health work.
It is purely the efforts of all those staff in the NHS—the doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, cooks and administrators —that have kept and keep our NHS going, but they need more. We need a health service that is thriving and not struggling to survive. We need a long-term recovery plan that closes the financial holes, and we must prioritise mental health services, which are known as the poor relative to the NHS. Mental health services and CAMHS are needed more than ever as the country begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, and I truly hope that the Health Secretary and his Ministers are listening to what needs to change and will act on it.
Colleagues have been right to highlight the medical advances, which have been extraordinary, both on the vaccination front and in terms of treatment in hospitals. At the end of phase 1, we are told to anticipate that 99% of potential deaths will be averted. That is a great positive achievement that this country has made, and it may even bring the threat of covid down to the level of flu.
The very slow unwinding of lockdown will have ongoing costs, whether that is to education, health, employment or, indeed, civil liberties. Every day lost is a cost to people’s health, wealth and liberty. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent on digital immunity documentation, but the Government have dismissed concerns about freedom passes, whether those are national identity cards or perhaps digital footprints.
The Prime Minister has now announced in his statement the potential role of covid status certification in helping venues open safely. We have yet to find out the details of what that will mean, but does it mean that the Government’s covid exit strategy of mass testing and vaccinations is ultimately dependent in a significant way on a national database? If so, will my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General set out the details of what this database will entail and how it will be used? How will it be monitored and how will what data is included on it, and its breadth, be challenged? Will the test and trace data go from Health at one end to the police at the other? Can the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Transport and all these facets of Government be involved in some way or another in this database that is connected in one way or another with the covid status certification? Will that in turn link with, as has been highlighted, helping venues to open safely? Will that in turn therefore mean that the Government can prioritise access to certain activities and certain facilities, and therefore can the Government determine whether people can go to the pub, go to a concert, use public transport or go to work or education?
Coronavirus has had a profound impact on all our lives. The UK has had the worst death toll in Europe, and there have been more than 120,000 covid-19 related deaths. In Wirral, more than 850 people have lost their lives, leaving thousands of people grieving.
Today, the Prime Minister announced his plan for the easing of lockdown measures in England, and of course we all want life to return to normal as soon as it is safe, but the number of those with covid is still high, and so are infection rates. There is much the Government must learn from their failings. They were too slow to lock down at the start of the pandemic. They failed and continue to fail to make sure that people on low incomes get the financial support they need to isolate, and they also failed to quickly put in place an effective test and trace system.
In a debate last March, the Opposition spelled out the fact that almost 2 million workers on low incomes and 5 million self-employed workers did not qualify for statutory sick pay and that the level of payment was too low. We called on Ministers to address that as a matter of urgency. Now, as then, those who need to isolate must be able to do so without fear of how they will pay the bills. The Government ignored our call, and it took them until September to introduce the £500 Test and Trace support payment, yet the Resolution Foundation has said that seven in eight workers will not qualify for it. Ministers have had nearly a year to get this right. Why are they still getting it wrong?
The Government have failed, too, on test and trace. I wrote to the Minister on numerous occasions calling for local authority public health departments to be given the data they needed. The Government dragged their heels all the way and prioritised giving money to private companies to implement a centralised system. Ministers have been obsessed with outsourcing and spent almost £2 billion of public money on giving crony contracts to their Conservative friends and donors.
The dedication and commitment of NHS and care workers throughout the pandemic have been heroic, yet the Government have chosen this time of immense stress for all of them to publish a White Paper on proposals for major changes in the way health and social care are delivered in England. NHS England ran a consultation over Christmas and new year when health and care workers were either working round the clock or taking a few days’ break. It is wholly unacceptable for the Secretary of State to go ahead with such huge changes while we are in the middle of the biggest public health crisis our NHS has ever faced and while staff are exhausted. So I call on him to pause the whole process until all covid restrictions have been lifted and to carry out a full consultation with the public, setting out clearly what those proposals mean for patients and staff. To do anything less would be an insult to NHS workers, care staff and every single person who believes in and relies on our national health service.
As we welcome the end of lockdown, dare we hope to see the banishment of its companion communication strategy, a strategy ruthlessly executed in pursuit of maximum compliance? It has been brutally effective, but so brutal that we now have children too frightened to go outdoors lest they kill their parents, adolescents isolated at home suffering from anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm, parents battling with depression, desperation and suicidal thoughts and many old people fading away from loneliness: as I say, a brutally, brutally effective strategy, but one that has created a deep well of anxiety. That anxiety will be visible at the school gate, in the classroom, in our workplace, in our homes, on our streets and in our police stations. Then it will end up in the NHS for months and years to come.
Many people will say that the victory justifies the cost: the cost in the jobs lost, the businesses ruined, the education forgone and the cost to the nation’s long-term mental health and wellbeing. But I have to ask one question, which one day I will need answered. Before we unleashed this deliberate terror on our airwaves, did anyone in the room ask, “Is what we are doing ethical?” Did the Secretary of State ask, “Is this ethical?” Did the chief medical officer ask, “Is this ethical?” Did anyone—did a voice at SAGE—ask, “Is this ethical?” Did they ask, “Is it ethical to create a level of fear that will push many people to the very edge of what they can bear, or over that edge?” Did they ask, “Is it ethical for us to embark on a strategy that will leave many of our fellow citizens debilitated with fear, anxiety and worse for years to come, or perhaps a lifetime?”
Suffering in one’s head matters. Knowingly creating that suffering strikes at the heart of the state’s own morality and our morality. So I ask the Secretary of State, the chief medical officer and the members of SAGE to look directly at the damaged and the anguished—not over them, not through them, but directly at them—because it is time those people were seen, it is time their health mattered and it is time that they counted.
During previous debates of this nature, it has not always been possible to draw positives from what has been a difficult, dark year for all of us, but the roll-out of the vaccination programme is providing, in my constituents’ words, a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel. On behalf of my constituents, I want to say a huge thank you to all the staff helping to deliver vaccinations at our GP practices and mass vaccination centres, as well as all the staff at the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board and the volunteers working behind the scenes to ensure that this enormous task is undertaken effectively. The Welsh Government also deserve credit for their effective management of the vaccine roll-out. Wales was the first nation to offer the top four priority groups a covid jab, and one in four people in Wales have now received their first dose. Well done, Wales!
While it is right to celebrate the positives, it is also vital that we remember all those who continue to struggle during the lockdown. I want to talk about a few of the issues that have been highlighted in the debate. Young people have had their school and college lives upended by the crisis, and there is still huge uncertainty over the complicated picture around vocational and technical qualifications. It is more complicated in Wales, with some awarding bodies responsible to the Department for Education—that includes BTECs—and some to the Welsh Government. Students and their colleges need clarity on issues such as struggling to get work experience, being assessed and getting their grades awarded. The Welsh Government are doing all they can with colleges such as Coleg Gwent, but UK Education Ministers need to get our national awarding bodies to tell colleges as soon as possible what to do this year.
Mental health is an ongoing concern for people of all generations, and I hope that one positive to emerge from this period will be a renewed focus on the impact of isolation and loneliness in policy making at all levels. There are lots of good groups in my constituency doing good work. I particularly want to thank Newport County AFC, who I met last week, for the work it is doing through its support network for supporters struggling with mental health problems when fans have not been able to meet up at games. The club is a prime example of how sport can act as a force for good in the community, and I encourage other English Football League clubs to learn from its successful model.
I would also like to speak about the plight of asylum seekers in my constituency. Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration processing times are very long, there are lengthy waits for biometric residency permits, and despite a promise to prioritise those who work in the NHS, that does not seem to be happening. There is real hardship out there in that community. There are people with nothing.
I have spoken in previous debates about universal credit. The Chancellor’s decision to scrap the £20 a week uplift from April, amounting to a cut of £1,000 a year, is indefensible, as is the fact that the uplift has never applied to the 2 million on legacy benefits. That needs to be sorted as soon as possible. We also need long overdue action for workers who have been excluded from UK Government support schemes during the pandemic. There is a Labour-led debate on this tomorrow and I hope that Conservative Members will listen and do the right thing.
I welcome the Government’s decision to prioritise the reopening of schools on 8 March, and that should mean that every child is back in school. According to a study by Co-SPACE and the University of Oxford, there has been overwhelming harm to children from lockdown restrictions and school closures, particularly to their mental health. Child abuse reports to the NSPCC have risen by 79%, and anxiety and depression have increased substantially, as have self-harm, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide, according to the Royal College of Paediatrics, Ofsted and Reachwell. Even when the country was being bombed during world war two, schools remained open. We have no historical precedent for the damaging effect that school closures have had on our children’s education and future.
Since parents have had to shoulder much of the responsibility for teaching during the pandemic, please will the Government commit to consulting representatives of parents’ and children’s groups, as well as teachers and unions, to develop detailed plans for our children to catch up on a lost year of education? Only parents know the full extent of the damage that this lockdown has inflicted on our children, and parents’ voices and parental choice need to be prioritised. We need to be prepared to consider radical options, including summer learning camps and even giving parents the choice to allow their child to repeat the whole academic year.
I urge all MPs to meet parents’ groups—including, for example, UsforThem—to hear about the damaging effects of lockdown and why it is essential for children to return to school. In that parent group, one parent in particular has shared her story with MPs, telling of the emotional and psychological effects the lockdown has had on all her children. She begged MPs to consider the long-term mental health consequences of the lockdown. One of her children developed Tourette’s syndrome in the first lockdown, and this weekend that same child tried to take their own life. They did not want to live in a world under lockdown any more, and at the A&E, the attending physician said that they were seeing an increase in children presenting with mental health disorders during this lockdown. She asked me to share her story today because it is important that parents speak out on behalf of their children and the effects that this lockdown has had.
Depending on the level of trauma, particularly for primary schoolchildren during the pandemic, some children will lose their speech and language ability altogether. We saw this during the first lockdown. Children from every background will be manifesting signs of extreme stress and anxiety upon their return to school, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, anger, aggression and self-harm. I urge that schools in England be given additional funds, ring-fenced, for mental health support for children and for increased levels of teaching staff to help to provide mental and emotional support for children.
Finally, every school I have spoken to during the pandemic has begged the Government and media to stop their negative reporting of the pandemic—
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey)—or “Beeconsfield”, if we were to pronounce it in the way of Benjamin Disraeli. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) for yet another very well-spoken contribution to the debate. He may not know it because he avoids such things, but he is a social media hit, particularly with younger people, which proves to me that he is not an extremist, but is in fact a humanitarian who has spoken a great deal of sense throughout this pandemic, at times when sense has been in short supply, particularly in this House.
We have a superb vaccination programme but we cannot rest on our laurels. We must up the pace still further. Supply is the issue, not the capacity to get the jab into people’s arms. I was somewhat perturbed by an off-the-record briefing from somebody in the Department of Health and Social Care this afternoon that “we cannot vaccinate our way out of this”. If that is the view of somebody in the Department, I would ask, “What on earth is the point of the vaccination programme?” but I hope that they have been sufficiently corrected by the Ministers in that Department.
The Prime Minister quite rightly, earlier on and through various media briefings over the weekend—or leaks, as they have come to be known—said that we will be driven in our progress out of lockdown by data and not dates, yet it is somewhat ironic to find that in this generally well-crafted document, dates are there in abundance and that we instead have four tests. The four tests amount to sitting an exam while knowing some of the marking criteria but certainly not knowing what the grade thresholds are in order to judge success at that exam.
For example, test one is:
“The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.”
What does that mean? What date does that require people in different demographics to be vaccinated by, and so on? Test two is:
“Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.”
What are the figures placed on hospitalisations and deaths to justify the further easing of lockdown measures? Test three is:
“Infection rates do not…surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.”
What are those measurable pressures?
So yes, I agree entirely with the thrust of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but in order to be able to judge whether we are moving at the right speed so that we can follow the data and not the dates, we need to know what it is being judged against.
As I begin, I give my thanks to everybody who has been part of the new vaccination centre at the City Hall in Hull. I went to visit it the other day and it is a tremendous success. I want to put on record my thanks to everybody for the part that they have played in making it such a huge, transformative event and place—I confess that I was quite emotional when I went to visit.
I add my voice to the call for the reprioritisation of people and adults with learning difficulties to be looked at in terms of the vaccine. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) what a difficult time they have been facing in the pandemic.
Unfortunately today, we had bad news in Hull: the proportion of young unemployed people is now around 25%. This deeply concerns me because, when the Government talk about building back, I do not want to build back; I do not want to build back to the inequality and the system that we had previously. I want to build forward to something better.
I would like for a moment to talk about something positive that has come out of coronavirus: the revolutionary change in the way that we work. So many people in their jobs up and down the country have shown that it is productive and possible to work from home. Of course this is not for everybody, and not everybody would want to do this by choice, but I do think it provides an opportunity for areas like Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle to make accessible jobs that, because of geography, were not previously available for people living in our area. I hope the Government seize on this, because, as the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), said in his speech the other day, people should not have to leave home to find a good job, and the changes to the way we work just might be a bit of hope that comes out of this pandemic.
One of the disappointments in the Government’s strategy around education is the lack of focus on place. It seems to talk just about a national strategy, and I hope, again, that they will talk to the universities, particularly the civic universities, about the role they can play in job creation.
We have in Hull almost a good luck charm in the guise of the shadow Business Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). Back in 2008, when he was involved in some work in Hull, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Siemens that led to Siemens creating the wind turbine factory in Hull, which has just now doubled in size, giving our city great news. I am hoping that he can be our same token of good luck when he comes to talk to the Zero Carbon Humber project about the work we want to do in job generation.
I just want the Government to clearly understand that we are never asking for handouts. We are merely asking for fairness: help us to help ourselves, and support these avenues of job creation for the city and area we love so much.
I very much welcome today’s road map and the Prime Minister’s presentation and tone. Several things become self-evident. Immortality is not a policy option; that was well put today. Zero-covid is not only unachievable, but in many ways also undesirable given the history of epidemiology and the way in which viruses mutate to become ever less harmful provided they are in moderate and safe circulation.
I also welcome the timetable. Although we were not supposed to have dates, we do have some dates: they are longstop dates, they are backstop dates, they are not-before dates, but we do have some dates, which is helpful guidance for business and the rest of us. I welcome, too, the fact that the statement made it clear that restrictions will be lifted based on the data—provided it is not before the not-before dates. I also welcome the fact that any restrictions that are lifted are now seen to be irreversible. That gives a degree of certainty, albeit later than I would have hoped for, to business and society and those who care about civil liberties.
Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to the Prime Minister and to all involved for agreeing to open our schools again. That will make a huge difference to mothers, particularly single mothers, who are under pressure at home with their children, but also to the children themselves and their future mental health and education.
As for the vaccines, what a wonderful story: we are first in the world not only with vaccines, but also with genomics studies and the medicines around vaccines. We have become the world’s go-to place for vaccinations and everything surrounding them. That is incredibly positive.
I still have concerns about the hospitality sector, as the dates seem rather a long way away given the clear data already delivered in terms of hospitalisations, which are literally plummeting because the vaccines and the vaccine programme are working. I am also concerned about our care homes: yes, one visitor for somebody who is elderly and worried about things and worried about their family is really good, but we should certainly go further.
I have two questions. First, as we can believe in the vaccines—the data is clear, as is the evidence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the real-world data—and if the vaccines are working and deaths and hospitalisations are plummeting, we must be able to accelerate this programme, not simply set it in stone based on dates which appear to some degree to be arbitrary. Secondly, why on earth are we even talking about the R rate anymore? What has the R rate got to do with anything if all the vulnerable groups are protected and serious ill health and death is being avoided?
So I welcome the statement but think we can do more.
I have just been prompted by my husband to tell the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that it is not just mums, but dads who are delighted to have schools reopening—my husband has been home-schooling our daughter for many weeks.
Our children and young people have too often been forgotten about during this pandemic. They have been cast aside and, until today, put low on the priority list, so I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment today to reopen schools on 8 March to those who are not currently allowed to attend. Clearly, children’s education is critically important, but so is their mental health and wellbeing. We cannot underestimate the toll the pandemic has taken on our children and young people. They have had face-to-face learning curtailed, time playing and socialising with friends banned, sporting and other recreational activities banned, and exams on and then off, all the while with ongoing uncertainty about what assessment will entail.
The Prince’s Trust says that more than half of young people are anxious. We know that one in six children aged five to 15 now suffers from a probable mental health condition. One in four has self-harmed over the past year and the pressure on child and adolescent mental health services beds is being described by health officials as being at crisis point. So while the Government’s £1 billion catch-up fund to help tackle the impact of lost teaching time is very welcome, any academic catch-up will be undermined by poor mental health.
Although schools have flexibility in spending the catch-up premium, Government guidance heavily emphasises academic catch-up. Early evidence suggests that while some schools are using a small proportion of the funding on additional wellbeing and mental health support, it is overwhelmingly being used to support academic catch-up. That is why I am calling on the Government today to invest in a ring-fenced resilience fund, as recommended by YoungMinds. This £20 per pupil fund will ensure the value of the academic catch-up fund is fully realised and prevent vulnerable young people from being left behind. The additional funds would allow schools to develop bespoke mental health packages for their pupils, such as counselling, digital support, staff wellbeing, peer support programmes and access to extracurricular activities in a covid-safe way. No two schools are the same. Each face their own challenges and know their children best, so the resilience fund must be flexible to allow schools to provide support that meets their own needs.
Last week, the Children’s Commissioner said in her final speech:
“I want to see the Prime Minister getting passionate about making sure that we don’t define children by what’s happened during this year, but we define ourselves by what we offer to them.”
I urge the Minister today, if the Government are really serious about putting children first, they should offer our children and young people a holistic package of support that is not just focused on their academic needs, but puts their wellbeing at its heart.
A Scotch egg, Madam Deputy Speaker: is it or is it not a main meal? That is the question. It is certainly a question I never thought I would have to answer in my role as a Member of Parliament. Although I commend colleagues who ventured there and the even braver ones who moved into the fraught world of pasty politics—should it or should it not have a side salad?—I am glad we will be leaving people to make their own judgment in future.
Those may seem like trivial points, but they highlight the fundamental point that has been the hardest thing for many people to bear over the last year, which is the loss of our freedom: freedom to come and go as we please, to see our loved ones, to go to work, to run our business, to go on holiday to get married or to drink in the pub—the list goes on. Freedom is something that I think many of us have taken for granted—I know I certainly have—because we have never known life without it. I will never take it for granted again.
I strongly welcome the road map announced by the Prime Minister this afternoon and the path it sets out to restore our freedoms. I welcome the priority given to the reopening of schools. They are the best place for children to be. I also welcome the new test of two households as an alternative to the rule of six, so that a family of five can soon see their grandparents again without ending up on the wrong side of the law. I hope that the review into social distancing will enable us to end it sooner rather than later as the vaccine takes effect.
It is the UK’s vaccine roll-out, powering on at a tremendous speed, that makes the road map possible. I want to thank everyone involved, in particular the team at Gamston community vaccination centre in Rushcliffe, whom I had the privilege to meet over recess. They described to me the scenes of relief, joy and happy tears they had seen as the first cohorts of the over-80s came through the door for their vaccine. “You have given me back the last years of my life,” they were told, “I will be able to see my family again.” They are not only administering vaccines; they are injecting hope back into people’s lives.
Work is also going on here, led by Nottingham University, to develop a new type of vaccine which, if successful, will overcome any issues with the future mutation of the virus protein spike; it starts clinical trials in the next few weeks. This is a day to be optimistic, but we are well aware of the challenges that still face us. I want to thank everyone who is working to overcome them, enabling us to take the path back to freedom.
With all the delays that are built into the various stages of the statement, I think it is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister has not learned from the magnificent work undertaken by Kate Bingham and the vaccine taskforce about how to move safely and at pace.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) rightly drew our attention to the plight of the aviation industry and, quite frankly, got a fairly limp response in reply. Our economy needs that traffic moving again, and a key enabler would be a vaccine certificate—a vaccine passport, if you like. The Government response in the paper shows no sense of urgency. We will not even get an answer until some time in June. It is not just for aviation; a vaccine passport could assist with the safe reopening of hospitality, sporting and leisure venues. Many of these are on the brink, and they need every help in getting back on their feet, while their workers want their jobs back. It also matters for their customers. The Government’s own survey in the document shows that half of adults are reporting boredom, loneliness, anxiety or stress. Unemployment kills; loneliness kills as well.
Why not have a vaccine passport? Huge advances in technology over the past decades mean that it should be a relatively straightforward process. The NHS keeps records of everyone who has had the jab—I have my own card here—and this information could be stored on a plastic card produced in a secure environment or possibly on a mobile phone app, and carried around in a pocket ready to be presented on entry at any commercial venue. Let us be clear that the NHS already issues yellow fever cards as the proof of vaccination that some countries require before people can visit.
Does the right hon. Member not realise the damage having a vaccination certificate would do for anyone under the age of 35, who will not be at the frontline of getting a vaccination and will have to remain behind locked doors, with their freedoms curbed, for not having the vaccine? It is a terrible idea.
I fail to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman that says he would rather the places stayed closed. I think it would be a rather good idea if venues were actually open, and people could then visit. Perhaps we ought also to be speeding up the vaccine. We are already down to the over-50s, and moving it further down should be part of the Government’s ambition.
I have to say that the omens are not encouraging. Last year, we saw that while many venues had spent considerable sums on making their premises covid-safe, that was just ignored and disregarded, and they were closed down just the same in the face of precious little evidence that they had played any significant role in spreading the disease. Sometimes one does wonder whether this is driven by the Victorian hangover in the British Government psyche that distrusts the public actually enjoying themselves, but at stake are businesses and jobs, and our economy and society, because leave this too long and, as I was just saying, there will be no venues to go back to. That would be a human and economic disaster, and it would also change our country.
One of the attractions of visiting, living and working here is our rich cultural life. Music and theatre, pubs and clubs, sporting events, hotels and restaurants make life worth living here, but they also make us stand out in the world. The Government are putting this outstanding ecosystem at risk, so I urge the Prime Minister, and the Paymaster General here, to shift back from risk avoidance to risk management, to ramp up vaccination to the maximum, to bring forward the great reopening—and, incidentally, then to help the rest of the world with vaccines—and to get Britain back to work and play.
I am conscious of the local situation in my city. I woke up today to hear that infection rates in Peterborough were the fourth highest in the country. On social media, I was told that Peterborough is “letting down Cambridgeshire”, that we are a joke and that I should be ashamed to represent the people who are breaking the rules. BBC Radio Cambridgeshire told me in a live interview that the Millfield and Bourges Boulevard area was the most intense covid hotspot in the country. That is just down the road from my house, where I live. It was later revealed that this spike was due to a covid outbreak at Peterborough prison. This is obviously regrettable, but it is not a reflection of local behaviour.
For much of the pandemic, figures in Peterborough were below the national average. The rate is indeed falling in Peterborough, albeit more slowly than in other areas. Peterborough is a working city. Many people do not have the ability to work from home; they work in factories and customer-facing jobs. If they do not work, they do not pay their bills or put food on the table. For many, lockdown is misery. People without well-paid jobs that can be done from behind a computer screen, without big homes, without nice gardens and without happy homes are desperate.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s plan, but I do not apologise for saying that opening up fully cannot come soon enough. I hear stories of young people wallowing in dismay, worried about their mental health; of businesses struggling with no income; of self-employed people like driving instructors with mounting debts; of one of my school friends in the entertainment business being forced to take a short-term factory job; and of families giving—often all they have—to local charities in order to feel part of something.
We have this cautious approach to opening up, but there is nothing cautious about keeping the lockdown restrictions in place for one second longer than necessary. It causes poverty, hopelessness and despair. So back to my social media trolls, who often have FBPE in their Twitter handle: I am proud of Peterborough—please show empathy and understanding, and be less judgmental. Let us open up as soon as we possibly can by responding to the data and doing the right thing.
I begin by paying tribute to my NHS colleagues, every key worker, and every volunteer and vaccinator in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency for their continued and tireless efforts.
Over the weekend, the Secretary of State dismissed the High Court ruling that he had acted unlawfully in his failure to comply with transparency rules by advancing the argument that the ends justify the means. Of course, everyone knows that this is yet more bulldog bluster, attempting to drape a cloak of acceptability over the cronyism at the heart of this Government’s procurement. As everyone across these islands knows, you can’t polish a cowpat.
Earlier today, the Prime Minister made it clear not only that he is willing to defend his Secretary of State’s unlawful conduct, but that he does so by pursuing the same flawed Machiavellian argument—that the ends justify the means. That should concern every Member of this place, because establishing that there has been
“No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest”,
is a ministerial commitment authored by the Prime Minister himself, along with the
“precious principles of public life enshrined”
in his own ministerial code—
“integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest”—
“must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”
If this Government continue their refusal to disclose the names of companies linked to Ministers, hon. Members, peers and officials that were awarded preferential contracts via a high priority lane, and thereby conceal any material, financial or fiduciary relationship between those entities, that will amount to the most profound breach of the ministerial code possible. We can all make honest mistakes, but the wilful concealment of information that serves to confirm honourable behaviour or otherwise is clearly and irrefutably in the public interest. The publication as such should be of little consequence if there is indeed nothing to hide.
Standing by or surrendering our principles can be costly, but that choice only matters if they are of intrinsic meaning and value to the holder. Even the appearance of manipulating the means to serve other ends is morally and ethically hazardous, and an unwillingness to act with integrity and transparency risks a slip from democracy into authoritarianism. This Government have demanded that we back their plans under a pretence of collaboration, but when they dictate every step and close their ears to other voices, then they seek obedience and acquiescence. The Government must not block or otherwise interfere with the lawful scrutiny of Ministers by Parliament. By backing the unlawful conduct of the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister has made it clear how distant his relationship is with his own ministerial code.
We have had some fantastic news today—some really good news. We have had the Scottish study, which shows that the vaccine is preventing serious illness and that people are not being admitted to hospital in the numbers that they were. We have also heard that the uptake of the vaccine is far higher and that the vaccine is far more effective than anybody had anticipated.
We were told by the Prime Minister that we would be driven by the data, not by the dates, but, sadly, we have the dates, and the dates go on for another four months. Businesses cannot cope with it. Let me give a few examples. A friend of mine can walk around a golf course with his wife, but he cannot play golf with her. There is no sense in that. It is outdoors and it is safe. Golf courses and other outside non-contact sports should be opened up earlier. Hospitality firms spent tens of thousands of pounds on things to make themselves covid secure, but they are not allowed to use them. In the worst weather, we will be able to meet outside, rather than inside in a covid-secure way. That needs to be looked at again, because these businesses are suffering and we will lose many of them.
I want to talk primarily about weddings, which are a big thing in my constituency, as I have a number of wedding venues. Nobody can buy their dresses yet. The mother of the bride cannot get her outfit, her shoes or her hat. Why not? Because weddings are not going ahead. Many couples have already given up their weddings perhaps two or even three times in this past year. They are desperate to get married. They want to have a celebration with their family and friends. The wedding venues have had no money for a year, and we are now talking about another four months before a proper wedding can take place. These businesses are desperate to open up, as are the people who sell the wedding dresses, as are the flower providers, as are the caterers, and as are the suppliers of the wine and the beer. We need them to open up. We need them to be allowed to work again, because if we do not let them open soon, we will lose those industries as well as all the hospitality industries that are so desperate to get going. They are all losing money at the moment. Nothing is covering their costs. They need to be able to get back to work, and all the people whom they have furloughed need their jobs back. I hope that the Prime Minister will look again at where he is going.
I start by paying tribute to all those in the NHS across our local communities, including in my constituency, for everything that they have done to support people during the pandemic. My thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones. As many will be aware, black and minority ethnic groups and those from socially disadvantaged communities have been hit the hardest by this pandemic, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis facing the largest number of deaths in the second wave. I know how hard this is, as, in the past week, I have lost a very close relative. Early in January, we lost another beloved member of our family. This is the experience of many in our communities up and down the country, which is why it is absolutely vital that as we move towards easing the lockdown and open up schools, we make sure that families are protected. We must ensure that those who still have not been vaccinated, particularly in intergenerational families living in overcrowded conditions in high-density parts of the country like my constituency, are properly supported as we move towards opening up our society.
In Tower Hamlets, we have seen a very intensive effort by local providers—by the council in partnership with the Royal London Hospital, Queen Mary University of London, our GPs, the clinical commissioning group and others, including the London Muslim Centre and inter-faith communities—who have come together to tackle some of the reticence around people getting their vaccinations, to deal with misinformation and misunderstanding, and to make sure that people get vaccinated.
We are facing a race against time, so I will focus my remarks on what we desperately need the Government to do to support local communities such as those in my constituency. We need the Government to make sure that GP surgeries have more of the AstraZeneca vaccines so that they can contact local residents, who trust them, and get to people who need to be vaccinated and still have not been. We have seen an improvement in the numbers, but the differentials are still huge between black residents and south Asian residents compared with their white counterparts. We need to redouble our efforts, so I call on Ministers to provide extra support to local GP surgeries to make the vaccines available so that as we open up our schools and our economy, people who are still at risk can get the vaccination and be protected.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement earlier, and in particular I welcome his honesty in recognising that we cannot pursue a zero-covid strategy. We have to face up to the fact that this virus will be with us forever and find ways to live with it. Thankfully, the vaccine provides us with exactly that.
Some us wrote to the Prime Minister to ask him to take advantage of the vaccine to relax restrictions as quickly as possible; I chide the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), for describing those of us who did so as pressuring the Prime Minister to
“throw caution to the wind.”
We were expressing genuine concern about the wider impact of Government policy on restrictions on the welfare of our nation, and particularly on lives and livelihoods. The truth of the matter is that the burden of fighting this disease through social restrictions is not being felt fairly. Frankly, a middle-class white-collar professional can work from home. It is a bit inconvenient and they cannot go out for dinner, but it is just tiresome; it does not have an adverse effect on their health.
We should also reflect on those workers who have carried on going to work, for little thanks, yet they have been in harm’s way. I am referring to our postal workers and refuse collectors—all those people involved in delivering the services that every one of our constituents needs and expects. I do not see any of them demanding to be further up the queue to get a vaccine. We all owe them a great deal of thanks.
My biggest concerns are for those people who will lose their jobs. For each and every day that this lockdown continues, more jobs will be lost. That is my concern. There was a time when the Labour party was bothered about workers and jobs, but that is now left to us, and we will continue to fight that fight. My fundamental concern is that with each day that passes, we really must make sure that we lift the restrictions as soon as possible.
The truth of the matter is that no Government should restrict the rights and liberties of their subjects without being able to demonstrate the outcome, and I am afraid that demonstrations of the effectiveness of these lockdowns have been rather poor. There is no evidence that the curfew saved any lives. We know that 2% of transmission has taken place in what are now covid-secure venues. We know that we entered into the November lockdown but came out with higher rates because schools remained open and they were the agents of transmission into people’s households and businesses. The truth is that lockdowns do not work, but we have the key to deal with this virus through the vaccinations. The Government need to be much more ambitious than the route map that has been laid before us today, so that we can take full advantage to secure our freedom again.
I begin as I have previously by praising the work of Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and the Welsh Government on their vaccine delivery, with truly remarkable work done by an incredible team. As some of my Welsh colleagues have said, we are the first in the UK to offer the vaccine to everyone in the top four groups, ahead of target and ahead of schedule.
As chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, and in the spirit of cross-party and cross-UK working, I thank Ministers—my Welsh Government colleague Vaughan Gething, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Vaccines Minister—for the steps they have taken on access to vaccines for those living with HIV. They have made an important set of decisions to ensure that people living with HIV can get their vaccines in the best way for them, and I hope we will see that across the United Kingdom.
The key question my local health board is asking at the moment is the same as the one we have heard echoed across the House today. Can the UK scale up supply even faster? The health board can deliver and get the vaccine to more people, more quickly, but we need supplies. I hope the Minister will respond to that in closing.
In the meantime, we need the economic support to continue. I am sorry that the Government have managed to find plenty for crony contracts, as we have heard in the last few days, but the Chancellor has failed to deliver for many of the 3 million who are excluded, including many of my constituents. Where restrictions continue for longer—we have heard about the plans in England today, but we heard about the plans for easing lockdown in Wales from the First Minister on Friday—we must support businesses to help to secure jobs as we rebuild. That has to include an extension of the furlough scheme, action on business debt and an extension, for example, of the VAT cut for hospitality, retail and leisure for at least six months. I hope the Chancellor will outline such a measure in the Budget next week.
Mental health in children has been raised many times. An important report by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales released last week is about the impacts on children. I welcome the response of the Welsh Government Minister, Eluned Morgan. The commissioner’s office says that four in 10 of the 17-year-olds who took part in the survey said they felt lonely most of the time, and a third of 17 to 18-year-olds said they felt worried most of the time. We all have to take those issues on board and ensure that support for young people’s mental health is there going forward.
Finally, I want to talk about the global health battle. The Prime Minister commented on the G7 summit, but we have to work with countries around the world to support public health systems, not just with vaccines or diagnostic capacity, crucial though they are, but with nurses, doctors and healthcare systems built to deliver the vaccines and the healthcare response. We saw some terrible things happen during the HIV pandemic around the world, with millions losing their lives. We cannot make the same mistakes with covid or indeed the other global health challenges we face. I hope the Prime Minister will involve leaders from Africa, the African Union and global health bodies at the G7 summit in Cornwall, even if it is virtually.
I welcome the road map announced today, particularly the return to school on 8 March, the clear vision, the refutation of a zero-covid strategy, and the commitment to a steady and irreversible lifting of restrictions. This will bring added certainty and hope to many of my constituents.
Our local roll-out of vaccinations in Runnymede and Weybridge has been fantastic. Vaccination hubs have opened at Chertsey Hall, Egham Hythe and St Peter’s Hospital. Each and every one of our volunteers and staff at these sites are saving lives and getting us all one step closer to the lifting of restrictions. I thank everyone who has worked and continues to work so hard in our vaccination hubs and everyone who helped out or volunteered in the recent surge testing in Egham.
The road map charts a course to lifting the restrictions on the back of the vaccination programme, and it promises that the process will be irreversible, but I hope that the Minister will not think me churlish in asking for another plan—a long-term plan to enable us to live with the virus and support the NHS as it faces the major challenges on the horizon, in particular the coming winter pressures.
It is increasingly clear that covid is a seasonal disease, like other coronaviruses. Winter pressures have plagued the NHS for pretty much every year that I have worked as a doctor, but this autumn and winter will be different. The NHS has reduced hospital capacity as a consequence of social distancing in hospitals, the increased need for infection control measures such as testing and the burden of cleaning and PPE on throughput. Even if the number of patients needing to be hospitalised with covid this winter is radically reduced—and we all hope it will be— the NHS will still face normal winter pressures from diseases such as flu and pneumonia, but with reduced capacity as a result of its covid infection control measures.
I asked my local hospital, St Peter’s, what it needs to increase NHS surge capacity—is it more money, real estate or oxygen? It says that the limiting factor is more trained staff, which I am sure is the case in many of our hospitals. The NHS and our staffing plans were not designed for surge capacity in a pandemic or when recovering from one; why would they be? While the road map focuses on what we need to do to reduce the number of patients who need to be hospitalised, we also need to think of the other side of the equation: how to increase overall NHS hospital capacity—not just surge capacity for covid, but capacity for all care in a post-covid world. While I welcome the announcement of increased nursing applications over the weekend, we need these nurses now. We know that winter pressures are coming later this year. What do we need to do now to prepare us, so that we can live with this virus for the long term, as the road map charts, and prevent any prospect of future restrictions?
It has now been 338 days since Australia closed its borders; 909 Australians have lost their lives since then. It is 335 days since New Zealand closed its borders—a policy which has meant that only 26 people have lost their lives. It is 340 days since Taiwan closed its borders; it has managed to prevent the virus killing more than nine of its citizens. But it was only 380 days after the virus had arrived at our shores that the UK Government brought in just a partial hotel quarantine, and it has come too late to save the almost 121,000 people who have died—people’s loved ones: people’s fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Given that we have one of the highest death rates in the world and one of the worst economic downturns out of all the G7 countries, does the Minister truly believe that the Government have handled the crisis well?
Earlier today I spoke with Ryan, who manages the Queens Head pub in Frodsham in my constituency of Weaver Vale. Ryan, like many people up and down the country, wants to be optimistic about the road map out of this lockdown. He has nothing but praise for our local NHS, GPs and volunteers, who are doing a remarkable job with the vaccine roll-out for groups 1 to 4 in my constituency. He is, however, concerned that today’s announcement lacks the economic reassurance that his business and others like it need. Will the furlough scheme be extended, as well as the business rates holiday and reductions in VAT?
Those constituents who are in low-paid work, many of them key workers—the very people we clapped every Thursday some time ago—cannot afford to self-isolate. The Government need to step in, step up and reform the £500 isolation payment, and how about sickness pay too? The 3 million people who have been excluded from any support since the start of this pandemic must finally be given a lifeline. The only VIP lane of fast-track support that every Government Minister should be focusing on is our citizens—their lives and their livelihoods. It is vital that the Government get the next few months right, to ensure that this lockdown remains our last.
I was delighted with today’s announcement by the Prime Minister. It gives us something to look forward to, if all goes well, on 21 June—and for selfish reasons because two of my daughters can have the sort of weddings that they would have wished for. However—there is always a “however”—I still have constituents who are self-employed, business owners or limited company directors that have not received financial support for close to a year now. I have signed a cross-party letter to the Chancellor urging him to support the 3 million who have been excluded. I hope he takes note of this letter and delivers in the Budget next week.
I despair that I recently received a response from the Department of Health and Social Care to an inquiry I had submitted in May last year, and one from the Department for Education that I raised in September last year. These Departments really must do better in answering letters. Many of my constituents have highlighted the difficulties they are experiencing with Southend-on-Sea Borough Council distributing the Government’s business support packages. I hope the Government will provide the necessary information, guidance and support to local councils to ensure that business grants are distributed quickly and fairly, because at the moment I do not know who is at fault.
I recently held surgeries for the wonderful local churches and charities in my constituency. The most common theme that was brought up with me was the loss of regular income streams. I urge the Government to look into what financial support can be given to these groups.
I was also very pleased to visit Highlands Surgery and Saxon Hall vaccination centres to see how the roll-out of the vaccine is happening in Southend. I was very impressed with how the centres were being run and the professionalism and dedication shown by Dr Alex Shaw and all the volunteers and staff. I was delighted to learn that the programme was going so well. I thank Mr Anthony McKeever and Tricia D’Orsi for organising those visits. I am, however, still receiving calls and emails from constituents confused about where and when they will receive their vaccinations. Many of them do not realise that they do not have to accept a vaccination at a centre miles away but can actually wait for a local appointment, so there really does need to be clearer communication on this very important issue.
In the fullness of time, of course, there will be an inquiry into what has gone on since the pandemic started, but I ask the Department of Health and Social Care to look very closely into how coronavirus deaths have been recorded. I have too many constituents saying that they believe their relatives died with coronavirus but did not die as a result of it, and frankly the deaths from influenza are puzzling.
I am very pleased with the Prime Minister’s announcement about care home residents being able to receive a named visitor, and I applaud everyone involved in this magnificent vaccine programme, which leads the world.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am particularly pleased to do so given just how significant a day it has been. In Scotland, our youngest citizens have been able to return to their nurseries, and in primary schools the vaccine roll-out continues apace thanks to our fantastic NHS. We have also had the brilliant news that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines appear to be doing exactly what we all hoped they would, just as other nations like Israel have already found. This news is without doubt the clearest sign we have had in these past 12 difficult months that better times are finally ahead.
But of course with that hope of what is to come comes a huge responsibility: a responsibility on an individual basis to stick to the rules and strive to protect others as the vaccine roll-out continues, but also a responsibility on this UK Government to keep us safe and to ensure that the financial support that is needed is made available. I cannot be the only one who is entirely bemused, even angry, at the news today that this UK Government are seeking to reintroduce international holidays from 17 May. Not only have they chosen to keep the door ajar and put us all at risk of further international variants by refusing to introduce managed quarantine for all arrivals, but they are now intent on opening that door right back up, at the exact same time as we all read about the Brazilian variant of covid having been found in Ireland. Now, more than ever, we need this UK Government to put public health first, to listen to the scientists and to look at the successes of other nations around the world, particularly those in the far east, but instead they appear to be doubling down and repeating the mistakes of the past—and what a frustrating sight that truly is.
Repeating the mistakes of the past is something that this UK Government have gained a particular speciality in. I have sat and listened to announcement after announcement from the Chancellor over the past 12 months, but I have yet to see him address the plight of the 3 million people in the UK who have received no financial support at all during this pandemic: the newly self-employed, company directors and freelancers, all of whom have been shunned by the Tories. As the Chancellor prepares for the Budget, that wrong needs to be righted.
The Government cannot just stop there. We need to see the furlough scheme extended; the chaos of October simply cannot be repeated. We need to see a pragmatic approach to bounce back and business interruption loans that results in these debt burdens being turned into grants, and we need to see the appalling practice of fire and rehire banished to the Victorian ages, where it belongs.
Perhaps most important of all, we need to see the Government put their money where their mouth is and use this opportunity to invest in a renewable, sustainable future. We have seen the 10-point plan. We have seen the energy White Paper. We now need to see action, not just words. The north-east of Scotland has endured an incredibly tough period as a result of covid and the oil price crash, but we have the opportunity to lead on that renewable future. However, that can happen only with the Government’s support, and I urge them to deliver for Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland.
I would like to highlight the impact of covid-19 on the mental health of farmers and their families. A recent study by the Farm Safety Foundation found that 88% of young farmers now rate mental health as the biggest problem faced by farmers today, up from 82% in 2018—this is a hidden problem. Cheshire agricultural chaplaincy has also seen a worrying marked rise in levels of poor mental health.
Financial concerns, exacerbated by the pandemic, and the stress induced by them have had a significant impact on the mental health of farmers. Food market destabilisation affecting goods such as potatoes, high-end meat and milk due to the collapse of the hospitality sector last year continues to have knock-on effects. There are instances of farming businesses feeling pressurised by banks that are questioning their serviceability and removing overdraft facilities. This has placed severe stress on farmers.
With regard to social separation, lockdowns have exacerbated an already lonesome industry. Those who live and farm alone have been isolated from family and friends, as well as from the wider agricultural community, whose members normally meet regularly and encourage one another throughout the year, including at county shows or market sales.
For many, farming is an isolated existence, but in other farming families there can be up to three generations living on the same site. As with many walks of life, marital pressures have increased exponentially as a result of lockdowns, with the added pressures for many of home schooling. In some farming families, children have been kept at home for almost a year, as there is a real fear of them bringing covid-19 home and spreading it throughout the family. That is especially stressful for farmers, because the nature of their work means that if they or their other staff contract covid, taking sick leave is not an option.
The pandemic has also highlighted existing labour shortages for farmers, particularly in the light of ongoing concerns about the European labour market, aside from Brexit. Some workers come to farms for two or three months in a normal period, providing significant help for farmers, but due to the cost of obtaining a test to travel, the need for quarantining and the uncertainty about being able to return home if lockdown restrictions change, many workers have become wary of travelling to the UK, causing uncertainty for farmers.
These stresses facing the industry will extend long after the virus has gone, so the importance of providing support for farmers and those in the wider agricultural sector, and for those who support them, such as chaplaincies and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, has never been greater.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Having listened to hon. Members, it is clear that issues in my constituency are replicated throughout the wonderful United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I want to highlight the hospitality sector in particular. I have a number of hotels in my constituency, along with many B&Bs, as would be expected in such an exquisitely beautiful constituency. They are all looking with anticipation to the success of the vaccine roll-out and to their businesses opening again. There is a clear understanding that it will take time for things to go back to where they once were; tables will be further apart, meaning fewer customers. The industry looks to reopening with anxiety; businesses have already spent a fortune making their premises covid-secure.
I was contacted by Hospitality Ulster, which has seen a sales drop of 53.8%, equating to a loss in revenue of £72 billion. The hospitality downturn is estimated to be over 10 times worse than the impact of the financial crisis, and across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland some 1 million jobs have been lost.
The UK’s world-leading tourism industry is the sixth largest in the world, but 40% of accommodation and food service activities businesses have no or low confidence that their businesses can survive for the next three months. I will therefore be seeking help for them for the next three to six months, as this is a critical time for the future of the hospitality sector.
I wish to make a comment on behalf of the beauty and close contact industries. They need to get back into black again, and this needs to come with continued rates reduction and help with keeping staff on. They will not be able to see the regular pre-covid number of clients in one day, and the first staff to be let go are the lower-paid staff who are trained only for this job. We need to retain these staff, looking to the time when the vaccines are standard and life hits a semblance of normality and safety hand in hand—the time when covid-19 will be treated similarly to the flu. I believe this time will be upon us soon, but this industry needs help to make it through.
May I also make a point about visiting elderly parents and partners in hospital and homes? There are still families who are unable to spend those last precious weeks with their loved ones and I believe that the Department of Health should address this matter urgently. I concur with what others have said about the mental health of our children, which has been a massive issue for me in my constituency, be it in respect of pre-school, P1 or P6.
The stakes are high, and if ever there was a time to get it right, it must be now. We have asked much of our constituents for the sake of safety, and now we must give much for the sake of their future. We must invest in people and our businesses, and come through this better together, as always.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today outlining a road map to reducing lockdown restrictions, about which many of us spoke during the previous general debate on the pandemic last month. I also wish to reiterate my support for the position expressed by some colleagues today that the lifting of measures should be based on the latest data, rather than on fixed and arbitrary dates. However, giving businesses, families and children some degree of certainty during these most uncertain times is wholly welcome and I ask Opposition Members to join me in urging the Welsh Government to provide further clarity and transparency for our route in Wales out of lockdown.
The UK was the first country in the world to authorise a vaccine against covid-19 and its roll-out is the biggest such programme in NHS history. Despite that, we have been successful in achieving the target of offering everyone in the top four priority groups, as identified by the JCVI, a first vaccine dose by 15 February. That was a hugely ambitious task and I thank all those involved in making it a great British success story. Now the UK Government have set a further target of offering all adults a vaccine by the end of July. Again, that is an ambitious target, one that I am sure we will also achieve, largely due to the tremendous efforts of our fantastic frontline staff and our UK military personnel.
However, we need to see the same level of ambition from the Welsh Government here in Wales, and they need to work with the UK Government. I, for one, am glad that we did not sign up to the EU’s vaccine procurement programme and this shows what can be done when all four nations of the UK work together to combat a common enemy—one United Kingdom standing up for our interests at home and abroad. The UK Government have provided an unprecedented amount of support to the people of Wales during this pandemic—£5.8 billion to the Welsh Government, and that is on top of schemes such as the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and eat out to help out. Only last month, an additional £650 million of such support was announced.
The successful vaccine roll-out and the huge support that the Government have given the people and businesses of Wales highlight what can be done when we stand together. I urge the Welsh Government to look very closely at the road map announced by the Prime Minister today, follow suit and provide some clarity and transparency at the earliest opportunity.
I will use my short time to emphasise the critical importance of accurate information on local surge testing. At 5 o’clock on 1 February, the Health Secretary announced that the South African variant of coronavirus had been discovered in part of my constituency and that all residents of the CR4 postcode would be tested. By 5.15 pm, my inbox was full. The actual area being tested, Pollards Hill, covers a quarter of the postcode, but residents in Mitcham, Lavender, Cricket Green, Longthornton, and even Colliers Wood and part of Tooting, all rightly expected that they too would be tested. They heard terrifying warnings that they must stay at home, using tins at the back of the cupboard, despite no additional national lockdown rules applying.
Uncertainty spread rapidly right across CR4. Schools prevented vulnerable and key worker children from attending; nurseries and childminders closed; key workers stayed at home; Hotpoint refused to visit homes and repair washing machines, and Boots in Sutton refused to do eye tests for CR4 residents. People felt they were under house arrest even though they were not in the area to be tested.
While I sincerely thank each and every Pollards Hill resident who took a test—and I am grateful for the extraordinary operation conducted thanks to local volunteers, the New Horizon Centre, the NHS and Merton Council staff—I cannot stress more strongly to the Minister the importance of clear and accurate communications from the Government.
I also say to the Minister that people will take a test only if they can afford to self-isolate. Some 70% of people who should be self-isolating are not doing so. That is not just a chink in our armour but a gaping hole in our defence. Those on low incomes and in insecure work often cannot do their job from home and, quite simply, they will not get paid unless they go to work. In order to take a test, they need to be confident that they will have the money to feed their family and pay their bills.
The more people spreading the virus, the more cases we have; the more cases we have, the more families who lose a loved one and the longer the lockdown and its consequences continue. A successful track and trace system is vital if the road map outlined today is to be met—and Minister, everybody wants it to succeed.
Three minutes is barely enough time to do justice to the Government’s mishandling of the pandemic, the vaccination programme excepted, but I will do my best.
From the outset, as the old adage goes, the Government failed to plan; the result they faced, failure. Precisely a year ago, the Prime Minister failed to attend not one, not two, but all of the first five Cobra meetings. Then there was the revelation that the previous Conservative Government had undertaken Exercise Cygnus, modelling and predicting the consequences of a pandemic, back in 2016. It was ignored, as were the calls by the scientists to lock down hard and early. Sadly, this Government do not do due diligence; otherwise, they would have followed the leadership and example of Sheffield City Council and its excellent locally delivered test and trace system. Instead, the Government blew £21 billion.
The farce that has been the Government’s handling of PPE underlines that failure to do due diligence. UK companies such as Tecman and Contechs in my constituency—brilliant, agile small and medium-sized enterprises—can supply PPE. They are supplying it to Europe and elsewhere, shipping all they are manufacturing, while the UK Government source from China and Turkey at higher cost. Meanwhile, frontline NHS and care workers are denied FFP3-grade masks. This from a Government who claimed that staff were overusing PPE in the first few months of this crisis, and denied for the first eight months that the public needed to wear masks. Is it any wonder the public do not trust this Government?
Thankfully, the Government took options on vaccines. Credit to them for that, but the success of the roll-out is down to the universal healthcare provided by our fabulous NHS, and the use of our primary care networks and people such as Sukhi, Nick and Ollie driving local delivery. I now hear that, having finally realised that the NHS, and not Deloitte, Serco or others, was critical and central to meeting that challenge, the Government have appointed a private company to run their mega-lab in Leamington. I ask the Minister why.
While there is hope of arresting the health crisis, the Government need to do more to help businesses through the coming months, with more certainty. We do need dates, whether for extending the furlough scheme, for maintaining and simplifying grants, as called for by the Federation of Small Businesses, or for the extension of the business rates holiday or the cut to VAT on hospitality. There must be support for the 3 million self-employed excluded from Government programmes.
It is not enough to claim that there is light appearing. The Government need to provide protections for public health and the economy to secure and make certain our recovery, and they need to prioritise vaccinations for our teachers if they are really serious about schools returning.
Tomorrow marks 11 months since the Prime Minister first set out restrictions on our daily life here in Britain, so I welcome the road map he set out today, particularly for the hope it will give people that life will be able to return to normal and the ambition we have for June and July that there will be no restrictions on social contact. He has set out a sensible and pragmatic approach. I also welcome in particular the priority given to schools.
The past year has been extraordinarily difficult, but it has also seen the best of my communities in East Surrey. I would like to pay tribute to some of their work. First, the Tandridge Voluntary Action group, which I met recently, set up a befriending contact system for people, with over 100 friendships across the constituency. Those friendships have been lifelines for people who otherwise would have experienced severe loneliness throughout the pandemic, and I know from talking to the volunteers that it has brought much happiness to both sides of the friendships.
I would also like to point out some people who have gone above and beyond in my constituency. Geoff Ledden has been running a community group to provide skincare for nurses packages to our local hospital, East Surrey Hospital, which means that, at the end of a long day at work, nurses have been able to use some welcome skincare products to deal with the daily trauma to the skin of using PPE. That is just one example; there are so many across East Surrey.
I also pay tribute to the brilliant work of the national vaccination programme, from the scientists in Oxford to Kate Bingham—with her brilliant venture capital experience, and unpaid for her role, she has secured us one of the best vaccine packages across the board—the health care officials, the officials in DHSC and the Ministers involved as well as all the volunteers on the ground. We have used our local community centres with great aplomb in East Surrey, from the Westway centre to the Centenary Hall in Smallfield, and we have had an army of volunteers supporting health care professionals to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine. Surrey Heartlands CCG has administered 250,000 vaccine doses so far, with 95% of over-70s given at least one jab to date. That is a tremendous record, which I am so proud of.
NHS staff—many of whom I seem to be related to, but I also have many in my constituency because of East Surrey Hospital—have had a tremendous, relentless year of hard work. I hope that in the months ahead, as we try to look forward to dealing with the NHS backlog, we also support the need for them to have some rest and recuperation.
It is all very well to bask in the success of the vaccination programme, but being in charge also means taking responsibility for things that go wrong and the response so far to the ruling of Justice Chamberlain does not suggest that the Government are ready to seize all their responsibilities. He pointed out:
“The secretary of state spent vast quantities of public money…The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on, and how the…contracts were awarded.”
Why ever not?
I will focus on three areas. I look forward to hearing more about catch-up. I welcome plans for children to return to school but wonder if a rotation and phased approach might have been safer, given what happened last time. I am pleased Sir Kevan Collins has said that all ideas are on the table and I welcome his comments about sport, music and drama. I hope that catch-up will not simply mean cramming and further stress. I hope there will be space for the needs of groups such as those with speech and language difficulties, who have lost out on so much. Perhaps some thought might still be given to whether it is possible to cancel this academic year and allow catch-up without extra pressures.
As the economy reopens, the Chancellor must provide support for businesses that remain closed and address the pressures that small businesses and the hospitality sector face over rents and will face over cash flow. I hope somebody will speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and urge her to reconsider the minimum income floor. It was suspended because it was an impediment to claiming universal credit. Reimposing it when people have no idea how much of their work might return means simply depriving people of money they need. Too many of the self-employed have already had a raw deal. Do not make things worse.
Finally, I want to mention the dental profession. We need a focus on preventive treatment and allowing time for dentists to use their skills in picking up issues such as early signs of cancer, promoting children’s dental health—our pre-pandemic record on that was pretty grim—and taking action to preserve dental laboratories. A crude focus on units of dental activity will not achieve this, and the Government must work with the profession. Ministers sometimes say they want to build back better. That means accepting responsibility for things that have gone wrong and need putting right, as well as claiming credit for success.
When I last spoke in a covid debate, the vaccine was approved, but we had not seen the 17 million doses that have gone into people’s arms. My inbox across the past few weeks has been filled with wonderful stories of people finally getting that jolt of hope into their arm. I pay tribute to all those across Derbyshire who have been involved in one of the very best roll-outs in the country, and I think the very best in the midlands.
One of the things I wanted to address this evening is teachers and the vaccine. There have been calls for teachers to be pushed ahead of those groups that we have already identified, and I have to caution that I think it would be a very bad idea. That is not in any way to denigrate the brilliant teachers who have worked in incredibly difficult conditions through the past few months, and who work day in, day out to make our communities better. The decisions about who should receive the vaccine and why were made on a clinical basis. There is a very clear rationale, and I think any political tinkering in that process could be incredibly costly and questionable.
For those who have been living the lives of home schooling and working from home or with the toil and fear that people have been living through for the past few months, today’s announcement from the Prime Minister, on which we are still reflecting, offers a tremendous pathway for all of us. There are certain sectors, which I have highlighted before, that have struggled particularly over the past few months. I would mention hospitality, and the hair and beauty industries have particularly struggled. I have been struck by how many have come to my constituency surgeries to highlight the difficulties they have faced and the wounding of their pride they have felt through the difficulties over the past few months. I spoke to a pilot on Friday who invested has his life savings and his family’s savings, and he is desperately worried about the aerospace industry. I would highlight someone who broke down in tears in my surgery, who just wants a little bit of help, and today’s announcement offers a pathway out.
I will end by reflecting on the challenges that young people have faced over the past few months, be it with mental health or the incredible lost opportunities they have had, such as not being able to go and play football with their mates or whatever it may be. I think it is imperative that this Government make sure that young people have the best possible opportunities to catch up, because we cannot afford a lost generation, and we must do all we can to give back to those people who have suffered the most.
I want to start by thanking the incredible workers in the NHS who have delivered our brilliant vaccine roll-out, which has enabled us to start lifting some of the lockdown measures. While I welcome the road map laid out by the Prime Minister earlier, I add my voice to the many others today who have said that this lockdown must be the last. Sadly, however, we have been here before. The plans announced today that all pupils will return to English schools on 8 March shows that, once again, the Prime Minister has buckled under pressure from people within his own party and failed to listen to the science and learn the lessons of his previous mistakes. While it is welcome news that covid infection and hospitalisation rates are falling, the inconvenient fact remains that cases are three times higher now than when the schools reopened last September, and we still have regional variations. Just last month, the Prime Minister called schools, “vectors of transmission”. Full reopening of schools will now bring nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England—close to one fifth of the population—and that is not a cautious easing of lockdown restrictions no matter how the Prime Minister tries to spin it.
Today, nine major education organisations, including trade unions representing staff working every day in schools and colleges across the country, called the Government’s commitment to bring all children back to school at once “counterproductive and reckless”. They called for a phased approach, as is being taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Paymaster General please explain why England has taken a completely different approach from the other three nations? Will she agree to publish the scientific evidence that underpins this decision?
Neil, a primary school teacher in my constituency and chair of the schools network, said, “We want our schools fully open as soon as possible. However, we think that it might have been more sensible to begin with a staggered start from 8 March rather than straight full reopening. This would give an opportunity to the Government and SAGE to monitor on a weekly basis as we open for more year groups. The vaccination of school staff before the full reopening would be very helpful not only in helping staff to stay safe, but also in reducing community transmission.” This is a direct comment from teachers working on the frontline in Liverpool Riverside. As we have heard, Government scientists themselves have warned that a big bang return of all pupils to school at once could lead to the infection rate rising above 1. That risks the virus spreading exponentially and running out of control yet again. Instead of repeating their previous mistakes, will the Government follow the advice of scientists and teachers and take the same approach as the devolved nations and commit to a phased return to schools?
We are all aware of the desperate situation facing pupils and students who have now faced nearly a year of disruption to their education, drastically deepening inequalities—
It is always good to remind ourselves that hindsight makes people sound wiser than they actually are, following that speech.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today. For many, though, it will be a painful and drawn-out process and too long before we can sit down together with friends and family. I share the views that were expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), and for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) about the need to be able to look our constituents in the eye and to be able to reopen in a safe and orderly manner. We must also understand that the costs that will come in the coming weeks and months are likely to be very severe.
I want to talk about the hospitality sector. By the end of this process, when it is able to open up, it will have had more than 200 days out of action. The sector is a pillar of the UK economy. If we are to have an economic recovery and if we are able to build back better, then it will be on the back of the hospitality sector. We must do all we can to support its regrowth, its rebirth, and its reopening when the time comes. With that in mind, I hope that the Government will look carefully at extending the VAT extension to the end of this year and the business rates extension to next year. This is not simply a case of asking for more. It is about giving those businesses the breathing space to be able to recover. It is about giving them certainty to be able to create the business and the opportunity for new generations to go out and find employment to benefit our local economies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) wisely and accurately spoke for the younger generation, who have often been overlooked throughout this pandemic. People under the age of 45 have suffered dramatically over the course of this crisis. They have been asked to do the most. They have been unfairly portrayed by the media as snowflakes, as woke or whatever it is, but I have seen young people across this country stand up and volunteer and do everything that has been asked of them. We must return the favour to them now. We must create a landscape of opportunity, so that someone entering a job for the first time is given the support that they need, whether that be lower income tax, or an opportunity through the kickstart scheme. We must help university students who have seen their courses curtailed through virtual systems that do not work and do not give them the experience that they so richly deserve. We can provide that opportunity for them, so that they can have the opportunity they expect in this country, in this economy, and for the benefit that goes with all that.
I would like to finish with the fact that we are asking teachers on 8 March to return to their places of work and to teach children. We could serve as a very good example by doing the same. I am one of the handful of MPs who has not used the virtual system in any way. I have not used a proxy vote and I have not used the virtual system. If I may serve as an example of that, we need rigorous debate in this place. We need to hold the Government to account on all manner of things. It will do us justice if we can actually decide to have proper debate.
A year ago, covid-19 was a distant threat. Today, it has claimed more than 100,000 lives and damaged tens of thousands more in this country. In its wake, it has left us with the worst death rate in Europe and an ailing economy.
We all, I am sure, welcome the terrific progress that has been made in vaccinating millions of people. It is that vaccination programme that will protect us all in the future. It will help to protect our NHS from being overwhelmed in the way that we heard from the Minister it almost was at the turn of the year. We need to protect and support our magnificent NHS staff, who have risked their own health on the frontline—many of them are foreign nationals with no guarantee that they will be able to stay—and those who look after mental health, which we know has come under immense pressure across the country.
I regret that I have to disagree with the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). The picture that Scottish National party Members paint in this place of their Government’s glorious success in leading the fight against covid-19 in Scotland and rolling out the vaccine north of the border is not, I am afraid, reflected in the daily calls I receive from constituents, as many others do, who watched the success down south and compared it with the delays we were encountering in Scotland. The people of Scotland, in my constituency and in many others, deserve much more respect for what they have endured and achieved in this past year. They deserve those of us who serve them to put all our attention, our sole focus, on recovering from the health and economic impact of this pandemic.
Tomorrow we are due to hear the latest unemployment figures and learn just how many jobs have been lost, and how many families are now paying the economic cost of the pandemic. The vaccine is crucial in fighting the health war, but we need a bold innovative plan next week from the Chancellor to rebuild and repair our economy to help the countless small businesses—retailers, florists, cafés, bars, taxi drivers—many of which are in my constituency of Edinburgh West. We need furlough extended and finally an acknowledgement of the thousands —no, millions—of people who have had no financial support at all in this crisis. No more patchwork reactions from the Chancellor, but a clear comprehensive plan for small businesses. The tourist industry, events, and our aviation sector, which is facing the biggest threat in its history, all need support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) called for a resilience fund for our children and young people who have so often been forgotten. They need the best support we can offer. That must not end with the reopening of the schools; that is a step, not a solution.
We all want to see an end to lockdown and covid itself, to feel secure in our daily lives and be able to share them again with our families and friends. We have made progress, but we have so much more to do—
Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister will come as a relief to so many. The outlining of a clear route out of lockdown was highly anticipated in my constituency and understandably so. The past months have been incredibly tough for people across the country, with businesses forced to remain closed, children unable to go to school and exhausted parents doing their best to home school while having to work from home. It has been a long and difficult road so far, yet never has there been so much hope. The roll-out of the vaccine, something we could not even imagine just six months ago, is progressing so rapidly that the UK is leading the world in the number of vaccinations, well ahead of our European neighbours.
On 23 January last year, the first known covid case landed in the UK. Tomorrow we will be 13 months on from that date, yet we have announced that 17.7 million people have received their first vaccine dose. We can often get lost in the frustration of being locked down and easily forget the remarkable achievements that we have made, that science has made, that the NHS has made, that Britain has made. Now that we hold three vaccines in our armour belt, we have the ammunition needed to defeat covid, and soon we will have more.
In Teesside, we will be producing the Novavax vaccine at Fujifilm in Billingham, proving that Teesside will be leading the world in innovation and technology once again. However, what we are missing in Teesside is our own mass vaccination centre. The 660,000 people who live in the Tees valley do not have a mass vaccine centre. For my constituents in Redcar and Cleveland, our nearest centre is 40 driving miles away in Sunderland. We have plenty of available sites. I have written to the vaccines Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), to endorse the Riverside stadium in Middlesbrough or Redcar racecourse in my constituency, which have both previously been testing sites for the Department of Health so will be familiar to the Government. Although I congratulate the Government on what can only be described as an incredible achievement so far, I urge Ministers to create more mass vaccine centres, including one in Teesside, to accelerate the roll-out even further so that we can all be protected much sooner.
It is very welcome news indeed that schools will be allowed to go back to near normal in just under two weeks’ time, and even more welcome news that care home residents will once again be able to see their loved ones. Covid has led to a deterioration of many care home residents due to the lack of human contact, so I am pleased that we are making this allowance. By the end of March, life will slowly start to feel as though we are getting back to normal, with the reintroduction of the rule of six. Between then and the middle of June, we will gradually start to get our freedoms back. I urge the Prime Minister to stick to his pledge of a one-way road to freedom. This road map gives us hope; let’s stick with it.
My constituency has the highest proportion of its workforce on furlough of any constituency in the entire United Kingdom. There has been a sixfold increase in unemployment, and it is obvious why. It is because hospitality and tourism is comfortably our biggest employer. We have the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales and vast swathes of Cumbria so beautiful that they could not find a national park to put them in. For the people working in those sectors, the reality is that many businesses have gone to the wall already. Many, many more have survived, and they have done so because of the support that they have received. That was a wise decision that the Government took 10 months or so ago as we entered the first lockdown.
I encourage the Government not to throw away that investment now by penny-pinching towards the end of this pandemic crisis. The simple reality is that, yes, furlough is of vast importance for so many businesses to be able to keep their heads above water, but perhaps a quarter to a third or even more of their outgoings is nothing to do with staff; it is other overheads that they simply have no income or savings left to fund. Those are the businesses that are going to the wall by the week now in Cumbria and other tourist hotspots around the country.
I urge the Government to do four things: first, to extend the business rates holiday; secondly, to extend the VAT cut; thirdly, to extend furlough and to say they are going to do it right now, not delaying it until the Budget next week, because that confidence is what businesses lack, and that is what is pushing so many of them to the wall; and fourthly and finally, a specific grant package to deal with the simple fact that without any income or any savings now many businesses, though they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, might not make it to the end of the tunnel.
I must also make a further plea. After 11 months, what is preventing the Chancellor of the Exchequer from investing something to support the 4,000 people in my constituency—and perhaps 3 million people around the country—who have been excluded from any kind of support whatever, and who now face destitution as they seek to pay the rent or the mortgage and to feed their kids? I am talking about those people who are self-employed, but have been so for less than two years, those who are directors of small limited companies, taxi drivers, hairdressers, personal trainers and the like. Why will the Government not support the excluded? It is not too late for them to do so.
Let me make a final, very local point. As we pay tribute to all those people doing everything they can to serve our communities at times like this, I think about people working in social care and public health as well as the wider NHS, people working in schools, and people dealing with those who face housing need or who are looked after by our local authorities. Today Cumbria’s local government has announced a plunge into a top-down restructuring; what a witless waste of everybody’s time.
I want to use the very short period of time available to me this evening to talk about one particular industry, based on a conversation I had with a local businessperson just this afternoon, and that is the wholesale sector.
For communities such as those in Orkney and Shetland, the wholesale sector provides a range of business services that goes well beyond the support of local retail businesses. Its operation, done from small family businesses, is vital to the efficient operation of our health service, our care homes and our schools. The Scottish Wholesale Association tells us that the pre-covid level of its businesses was some £2.9 billion, with 6,000 employees. In the last year, they have already lost 10% of their workforce. In the first lockdown, food service members of the SWA lost 80% of their business on average. For some, it was as high as 95%. After the ending of that lockdown and the easing of restrictions, they restocked and started up their businesses again, only for many of them to find that the tier system then slowly strangled their operation. Currently, food service wholesalers are operating at 30% of their pre-covid levels.
To give credit where it is due, the Scottish Government introduced the Scottish wholesale food and drink resilience fund—a lifeline for the 40 or so businesses that were able to take advantage of it—but even then, they did not reach every business that needed the help. It was supposed to be a six-month package, but it has been overtaken by events. It has become a three-month package because, with no or very few sales in January and February, the support from that fund has effectively become those businesses’ sales; it has not been the reserve that it was supposed to be for fixed costs. The SWA is now looking for an immediate top-up of the fund in the region of £50 million, and that is needed now, not in the next financial year.
I have spoken about the wholesale sector, but I could have spoken about many others. I could have talked about the hospitality and visitor economy; the same thing would have been true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, we are coming to a point where the continuation of lifelines such as the furlough scheme and business support grants will be crucial. If we do not keep these lifelines going, frankly, we have to wonder why they were put in place at all.
In anticipation of the Prime Minister’s statement earlier, and realising that I could not last another two months without a haircut, I took matters into my own hands last night—granted, after a gin and tonic.
The Prime Minister was cautious but optimistic today. He struck the right balance in what he said and in the length of time he set out. Many people, including myself, would like to go a bit quicker, but it is right that we take a measured approach. As I have said many times in recent weeks, it is great that the vaccine programme is rolling out and that we have light at the end of the tunnel, but how long is that tunnel? Now we know. In 49 days’ time, we will start to be able to see our loved ones—our family and our friends. Everyone in this Chamber and out there has gone far too long without that, especially those of us in the north, where we have had restrictions on us since July.
I want to put on record my thanks to all those across Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich who have helped to get people through the vaccination programme. For every 200 people who have been injected, one life has been saved, and if we can save one life, that makes everything worth while.
I also thank everyone who has been vaccinated. It has been a step into the unknown and there has been the big question, “Is this the right thing?” They have made the right choice to get vaccinated and make sure that it is safe not only for them, but for everyone else.
In the small amount of time I have left, I want to touch on a few issues that are particularly important to me. I raised one of these in a recent business question in regard to children’s mental health. We have had schools closed now for half a term already. The fact that children can go back to school in a couple of weeks from today and start seeing their friends and addressing some of their missed schooling and education, will do wonders for their mental health. I echo the comments of Members on both sides of the Chamber that we need to do more. While the catch-up premium is a magnificent policy that is being brought forward, we need to think about what we can do to tackle our children’s mental health so that they not only learn but are healthy in doing so.
The last topic that I want to address is domestic abuse. We have seen cases rise drastically throughout lockdown, and I fear that when lockdown is lifted, we will see a further increase in those seeking help from those services. If I can put one final plea to the Minister, it is to make sure that there is funding available for those services post-lockdown.
This is a good moment to highlight the great national and local effort to implement an extraordinary vaccination programme that I saw in action at the Rosebank Health surgery in Gloucester on Saturday. It is right that we highlight the great leadership and great staff from the NHS and GP networks who delivered this. I want to highlight the volunteers—the hairdresser, the beautician, the police civilian, the retired doctor, the optician and some Rotarians—who were involved that day. However, this evening, I also want to highlight the message from some of my BAME constituents from different communities —Gujarati Indian, Jamaican and west African—who have been vaccinated. All of them have highlighted to others in their communities the importance of being vaccinated, the fact that it was simple, quick, well organised and painless, and, above all, that it will make our city and country safer from future infections if everyone is vaccinated.
Today’s announcement had the great confirmation that almost all education will go back on 8 March. It is hard to tell whether the parents or the children are more excited about this, but thereafter, progress is slow. There are another three weeks, for example, before two people, even from the same household, can exercise outdoors with a golf club. Let me share this message from one mother about the importance of outdoor exercise. She wrote about her son who had come close to taking his life, about how important golf was for him. She said that it gave an area of light, hope and pleasure to help him out of a pit of despair. All over the country, there will be people fighting similar demons for whom some outdoor sport represents a lifeline, promoting good physical health while magically mending hearts and souls, which will also impact on their family—their partners, parents and children. I hope that the Government will hear that message and consider carefully whether restrictions on outdoor sport—as important for people who have left school as for those who are still at school—can be lifted earlier.
I supported the third lockdown because I knew how close our hospital was to being overwhelmed, but it is also right to recognise now what has changed. We have the same number with the virus in our hospital as in an average year from flu, so I hope that the Prime Minister, driven by the data, will consider carefully the possibility of unlocking earlier if the data shows that.
The most telling aspect of today’s debate is the focus on specifics rather than on principle, on trends in data and details of subsidy rather than the eager pursuit of freedom, on continuing comfort with the state making choices for us rather than a clamour by us for the freedom to be responsible for ourselves. As Oxford University ranks the stringency of the UK’s response the fourth most restrictive in the world after Cuba, Eritrea and Ireland, this absence is telling. One year ago, few of us would have suggested that the state could ban people from leaving their home, from leaving the country, from getting married, or from touching a loved one in their final moment, or that it could stop a child receiving education or keep an elderly person living alone from the comfort of a neighbourly chat over a cup of tea. Do we fully appreciate the scale of what we have done?
This has been a year of ambiguous choices, when each of us in Parliament has had to wrestle with our conscience to render judgments with many unknowns, yet each of us, rightly or wrongly, has allowed essential freedoms to lapse and thus been party to the creation of a new illiberal precedent that may imperil the meaning of liberty for decades to come.
We should each reflect on our judgments to determine how we can repair our common heritage of freedom. The House should reflect on whether it has provided effective legislative scrutiny and whether casting Members away gave too much allowance for Executive decree. We should reflect on whether the experiment of remote technology has substituted a pretence for the substance of scrutiny, parading a Potemkin Parliament as the real thing.
Ministers should reflect on whether speed of response became an excuse, rather than a genuine requirement for presumptive Executive action and whether the drift towards lawmaking without the sharing of adequate data and without questioning or accountability with Parliament became a lazy path routinely chosen for convenience, rather than need.
The Opposition should consider why their response to the greatest power grab by the state has been to demand more state, more restriction and more control. They made a series of cynical, tactical moves designed to wrongfoot Government mid-crisis, at best setting out a vision of even greater repression and control while heightening public fears and worry.
I and my colleagues on the Government Back Benches should reflect on whether a more vigorous defence of our liberties was called for, and if so, why we did not heed that call. For our citizens, we should ask to what purpose we removed those liberties a year ago and for what purpose we are withholding those liberties yet further today.
The decision has not been so much one of medical necessity, but rather of a presumed political necessity. We should reflect candidly and fearlessly on whether the accumulated costs in diminished livelihoods, debts, school closures, misdiagnoses, loneliness and lives lost as a result of these measures have been worth the reduction in covid deaths and the avoidance of an annual rate of death for our population that was commonplace and went unremarked barely two decades ago. Whatever the conclusions of our reflections, we must now resolve together to lead the recovery of these liberties with every moment and every strength we have.
Hopefully we can all now see the end of the pandemic ahead with the successful vaccine roll-out and today’s road map out of lockdown. I am delighted that schools will welcome back the remainder of their pupils in just two weeks’ time.
Cases here in North Devon are among the lowest in the country, and that is thanks to the people of North Devon diligently following the rules, combined with our beautiful wide open spaces, which we are desperate to be allowed to enjoy more often. We also look forward to welcoming tourists to visit us again later this spring. While locally we might have been ready to enjoy sporting endeavours outside earlier than under today’s road map, we understand that the national unlock will make welcoming back visitors that much easier.
I very much hope that today’s cautious unlocking will enable businesses to plan. As the self-appointed one-woman tourist board for North Devon, I also hope that people are rushing to book their summer holidays with us. Croyde, Woolacombe, South Molton and Barnstaple are all taking bookings now that the opening dates are at least pencilled in.
This Government have given unprecedented support to businesses to enable them to survive the pandemic. However, a number of business in North Devon will be reliant on the additional support we hope the Chancellor will announce next week. The hospitality sector, which is vital to North Devon’s economy, will have lost several weeks of their key trading period, which starts each Easter, having already lost so much of last year. Local hospitality supply businesses Savona and Philip Dennis are hanging on by their fingertips, with their main customers remaining mostly closed for so many more weeks. Key tourist destinations, such as Exmoor zoo, and the most popular attraction in North Devon, the Lynton and Lynmouth cliff railway, will lose their vital Easter period, but are well worth a visit the second they reopen their doors. Our lovely theatres, the Landmark in Ilfracombe and Queen’s in Barnstaple, still have many more weeks before pulling their curtains up.
The North Devon family-run coach businesses Taw and Torridge Coaches and Streets Coachways have not received adequate support through the pandemic, but I am sure they are also now taking bookings if Members fancy a coach trip to see us this summer. Country Cousins, the English language school in my constituency, does not see a secure future despite today’s announcement. They will all be looking to next week’s Budget to ensure they are all still there to welcome back visitors to North Devon when their turns to open up come.
I see much to welcome in today’s announcement. There is, at last, a pathway of hope and a pathway that, although it might not be as quick as some of us might like, does give us a vision of how we can get back to normality in the not-too-distant future. I welcome that because, let us be honest, as MPs we have been contacted by thousands of constituents, many of whose mental health has been shattered by this lockdown and by the last year. We need to reflect on that and on the different ways in which our children’s education has been severely disrupted.
One plea on a specific point is that when we think about the catch-up strategy, particular attention is paid to those with special educational needs—not only those who have been eligible to come into school and who have an education, health and care plan, but those who have dyslexia or dyspraxia and have been severely negatively impacted by the closure of schools. No one child’s experience has been the same: some have done okay through home learning, but some have struggled immensely and some of those children have had dyslexia and some have had dyspraxia. They are not necessarily conventional learners, although they often do quite well in exams, because they can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Part of the catch-up strategy needs to be a real focus on those with special educational needs and how we can help them.
The vaccination programme in Ipswich has been a great success. Suffolk has vaccinated more people than almost any county in the country. I will always remember my visits to every single vaccination centre operating in Ipswich, of which there are five. I remember two in particular. The first was Gainsborough sports centre, where I saw hundreds of my constituents lining up with hope in their eyes—hope that they were going to get their lives back and see their loved ones again. Then there was Ivry Street medical centre, this Friday, where the practice manager proudly told me that, going into the new year, his practice alone had vaccinated more people than the entirety of France. That probably explains why President Macron was so unnerved and made those completely unevidenced comments about our fantastic vaccine.
Like every Member in this House, I have been deeply challenged by the last year, and deeply challenged by the decisions we make and their implications, and I do not take that lightly for a moment. We now have in front of us a road map to when we can see our loved ones again and build up our businesses. Ipswich will be at the heart of that, because I strongly believe that some of the best characteristics have been shown in the town that I have the honour of representing, and I think we can make a success of the recovery.
Thank you for bringing me in, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).
I suspect that for most parents listening to the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier, the news that all children will be back in school from 8 March is very welcome—not because we have had too much of the little cherubs appearing midway through Zoom calls, but because the best place for children to be is in school with their friends, socialising and learning. Having listened to my son’s virtual lessons over the past few weeks, I suspect that most teachers will also be delighted to have children back in one place, focused on the lesson and not distracted by whatever else is going on in their bedrooms.
I pay particular tribute to the hugely professional teachers who have adapted to a blended Teams and Zoom world through ever-changing circumstances. The ongoing uncertainty has created significant anxiety for young people, with particular pressure for those due to take exams this year and next. The focus on catch-up and support funding for mental health is now critical, and I request that the Secretary of State for Education allows flexibility in the way that schools deliver those programmes.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the efforts of mums and dads across Warrington who have been home-schooling while also working and doing all the other things that are necessary for life to continue.
I welcome the news that the Chancellor will address support for businesses in the Budget next week. I make one specific request: extend the business rates holiday for eligible small businesses.
Finally, the incredible vaccination programme both here in Warrington and throughout the UK has meant that we can have some certainty around a route out of lockdown. Having visited four of the five vaccination centres in Warrington over the last few weeks—
It is a pleasure to close this debate for the Opposition.
There have been very good contributions on both sides of the House; I cannot cover them all, but want to highlight a few. First, on this side of the House, my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) made excellent points about the inequalities in our country that covid has highlighted, and I will cover that in my contribution, as I will isolation pay, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood).
Excellent points were made about exams and education by my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). There was welcome cross-party consensus about the need to extend and improve business and tourism and travel support from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), and the hon. Members for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).
Colleagues on the other side of the House also made important points about the NHS: the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), as well as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), latterly regarding children with special educational needs.
It is a feature of today that the Prime Minister has rather stared down the caution to the wind group on his own Back Benches, and there were contributions from some of those colleagues—the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the hon. Members for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller)—again with some sort of agreement, but generally pointing at the fact that they do not agree, and frankly they have been wrong the rest of the way so what is one more to complete the set? Finally, the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) made the excellent point that a new, improved and exceptionally promising vaccine is being developed at the University of Nottingham, showing once again that things are just that little bit better in Nottingham.
On the day on which the Prime Minister has outlined the future road map, there is rightly a sense of optimism, but in that context we cannot forget the terrible toll this last year has had on our country. Across the UK, over 120,000 people have lost their lives to covid-19; that is a tragically high number of lost loved ones, and the impact is felt everywhere across every community. That is an awful lot of empty places at the table and lots of grief that will last a lifetime.
The roll-out of the vaccine is a beacon of hope and a source of national pride. It shows once again the strength of our national health service. I thank everyone involved in that programme—we are very lucky to have them—and it stands in contrast, I am afraid, to the failures of the test and trace system, which has had to be propped up in recent months by the interventions of local authorities. These two events together show us that a decade of selling off public services is not what we needed in the past 10 years and is certainly not what we are going to need in the next 10 years.
However, even following a long statement and a four-hour debate there remain a few points to resolve. The Opposition have a number of constructive ideas that we think would strengthen the nation’s efforts, and I hope the Paymaster General will be able to address them in her closing remarks.
Sick pay and isolation support need to be fixed. Without that, the Government’s plans to roll out millions of lateral flow tests as we reopen will be useless. The news that only three in 10 people who have a positive diagnosis self-isolate should scare us all; imagine how much more quickly and effectively we could manage this virus if that figure was 100%, or even somewhere in the middle. Again, the lack of news today from the Prime Minister on this was a glaring miss and a significant hole in the fence. I hope that there might be more news from the Paymaster General.
However, that lack of support has been the reality for all those 3 million people who have been excluded from the Government’s financial support all year. It is worrying, surprising and quite hard to understand that the Chancellor has still to heed their calls and make the simple creative amendments necessary to plug the gaps in these schemes and relieve their anxiety. I understand that as these schemes needed to be created at pace there may have been gaps, but I cannot understand, a year on, why we have not acted to close them. Again, the message was wait for the Budget, but they have been told, “Demand, demand, demand” for a long time. They have real-life costs to meet and are stretched to their limits, so I hope that there will be good news for them shortly.
I hope the Minister can clarify something for indoor hospitality. We are told that that will be opening up, but not before 17 May. That will be a month after business rates resume and two weeks after furlough. Will there be news for them about how that gap will be bridged?
Of course, the big and welcome news is the reopening of schools. That is a collective priority across this place. We now must use the time available to do this as safely as possible. It is a shame that the Government resisted our calls to vaccinate teachers; however, in the absence of that, will the right hon. Lady at least commit to working with the sector to deliver a credible plan for getting all the pupils back into school, with mass testing, better ventilation, Nightingale classrooms where possible, and reviewing financial support for covid adaptations? Our schools have done an incredible job throughout this pandemic. They have never actually shut—they are open as we speak—and they have had to do that by being very creative, but we should not ask them to be creative alone; in order to get things back to normal we have to help them. Those are immediate steps that, if taken, would lead to a significant improvement in our country’s attempt to beat this virus, and I hope the right hon. Lady will take them in the spirit intended.
Multiple references were made to the alarming news that the Health Secretary broke the law earlier in the pandemic. The Prime Minister seemed to have no concern about this, which in itself is quite worrying. I will not rehash that point, but I will ask the Paymaster General, as a minimum, in the interests of decent government and in line with British values, to commit to publishing the details of the VIP lane schemes and how they are used. The Prime Minister has total confidence that everything is appropriate, so I think it might be time to share that information so that we might all have some of that confidence.
As we seek to safely navigate these next few months, we have to learn the lessons not only of the past 12 months but of the previous decade. Covid has thrived on the deep inequalities and injustices in our country. Building back is not what we need; we need to be genuinely different. The pandemic has shown that profound inequality is not just bad for those on the sharp end of it, but bad for everybody. It has shown too that some communities in our country have thrived while others have struggled to get by. People who live in one of the poorest communities are twice as likely to die, and people from minority ethnic groups have an increased risk of 50%. We could also say that about their access to decent housing and about whether they have to leave their community to access better employment chances. These inequalities exist across our lives, and that is the legacy of 11 years of choices made by this Government. These groups have paid the real price for the 2008 economic crash, which they did not cause. As we face the future and choose what comes next, we must not repeat those mistakes, so I hope to hear from the Minister today that there will be a break from the past decade and that that will be replicated in the upcoming Budget.
I would like to thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for West Dorset (Chris Loder), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for North West Durham (Mr Holden), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who wanted to contribute but who were not called due to lack of time. I also want to echo the many voices in the Chamber this afternoon who have praised our fantastic NHS and social care workforce, our key workers and carers and all the volunteers who are providing assistance through the pandemic. They are seeing us through the greatest health crisis in a generation. I also want to thank every member of the British public; they have made huge sacrifices in the past year in the battle against covid-19.
I want to start by addressing the comments many Members have made about people with learning disabilities and their carers. Often, when we think of care homes, we tend to think of older people. When we say “social care”, we do not think about people of working age. When we say “carers”, we do not think about the army of informal carers out there, and when we think of residential care, we do not think of mental health settings or of people with learning disabilities or behavioural disabilities. The hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) all raised the issue of people with learning disabilities. I want to pay tribute to campaigners, including Jo Whiley and her sister Frances, and Ciara Lawrence from Mencap, who have done a huge amount to raise the needs of people with learning disabilities and who also help the Cabinet Office in our communications with those people.
Hon. Members have raised several issues and I am going to ask the Department for Health and Social Care to respond directly to those wider issues raised about group six, but I would say that statements had been made and policy is very clear around the blanket use of DNRs. That is totally unacceptable, and the Care Quality Commission’s review is going to report in March—next month—so we will not have long to wait for its work. All of us can help in this, and certainly if I as a constituency MP encounter somebody who I feel should have a vaccine, I encourage them to go and talk to their GP. It is our job to stand up for those people. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) pointed to the plight of people with a learning disability who have to be outside a school setting. I have huge sympathy with this. This summer, at the age of 47, I was diagnosed with very severe dyslexia, and I know that distance learning and working from home can really exacerbate the difficulties.
I want to turn to the raft of issues that have been raised around data and dates, and whether we are going to unlock too late to build up resistance going into the winter. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and also my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whom I should like to thank for the work he is doing on the vaccine roll-out. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) also raised these issues. I point them to the SPI-M SAGE modelling, which looked at the options of unlocking earlier and concluded that we might end up in a situation where we would be peaking in excess deaths in excess of what we experienced in April last year. This plays into comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) about the backdrop of this against the vaccination programme and whether it makes sense to unlock so late while the vaccination programme has gone on. That modelling did build in the vaccination programme, including the speed of roll-out and the likely take-up. A pack was placed in the House of Commons Library at 3.30 this afternoon with all this information in, and I encourage colleagues to go to look at it.
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for the work she is doing on volunteering on the vaccination programme, and I pass my sympathies on to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for her recent loss. They both raised the very important issue of the under-vaccinated in the BAME community, which is of huge concern and is being taken into account. Directors of public health are monitoring the take-up by ethnic group, and the UK covid-19 vaccine uptake plan and the vaccination equalities committee, which is bringing together directors of public health, local authorities, faith and community groups, are completely focused on this. The only way through it is to ensure that take-up in those community groups improves.
Many Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), raised the issue of ongoing support for business. I encourage colleagues to lobby the Chancellor heavily, and we will not have long to wait to hear about that additional support. I wish particularly to focus on the plight of businesses in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who are stuck between a rock and a hard place, in the form of the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I undertake to ensure that those issues are addressed.
I wish to comment on two issues raised by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). I completely agree with the comments he made about the validation of the NHS and the system we have—our universal healthcare system, not linked to employment—and how fantastic that has been. However, I think the past 12 months have also been a validation of the excellence in the private sector, and in the third and social sectors, from manufacturers and inventors, to services and support, and of course the social care sector, 70% of which is in the independent sector. Our citizens would be much be better off if we in this place focused on getting good outcomes for taxpayers’ money and not on outdated dogma. I also add that attempts this afternoon to paint the Health Secretary as some sort of criminal mastermind are likely to fail.
Finally, I wish to touch on comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), which were echoed in comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester, for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). This is really about how we live with this virus, and how we recover and return to normality after such trauma and distortion for our way of life. First, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne that the chief medical officer and his colleagues do focus on ethics a great deal; they are decent, compassionate people who are also directly affected by this virus. People are anxious about the virus and the disease. They are anxious about enforcement, and this is layered on to the huge responsibilities that they feel—responsibilities towards those they care for and those they employ. I know that that results in great stress and strain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) also focused on the plight that young people, in particular, are facing. This is not lost on me or on my hon. Friend the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, and we have been working across government on mental health support, which we will bring forward shortly.
In concluding, I will say that we will get through this. I know that we will because I have seen what the public have done over the last 12 months. They have been stoic and heroic. We must focus on the future with as much determination, grit, compassion and care as we have over the last 12 months. The road map is a plan, but, as my hon. Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), for Redcar (Jacob Young) and for Ipswich pointed out, it is also hope. This debate has served as a reminder to us all of what is required for us to fulfil that hope and to repay the trust that the public put in us when they sent us here.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19.