Skip to main content

Covid-19 Update

Volume 696: debated on Monday 7 June 2021

Before I call the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I would like to point out that the British sign language interpretation of the statement will be available to watch on Parliament TV.

I would like to update the House on our work to beat this pandemic and to make sure that the world is prepared for the pandemics of the future.

Tomorrow, we mark six months since the world began vaccinating against covid-19 at Coventry Hospital. In that time, we have vaccinated over 40 million people here in the UK, and 2 billion doses have been delivered across the globe. As of today, 76% of UK adults have been vaccinated at least once, and 52% of adults have had two jabs. The pace of the vaccine roll-out has been extraordinary. This Saturday alone, the team delivered over 675,000 jabs, and I am delighted to be able to tell the House that, from this week, we will start offering vaccinations to people under 30, bringing us ever closer to the goal of offering a vaccine to all adults in the UK by the end of next month.

From tomorrow morning, we will open up vaccination to people aged 25 to 29. Over the remainder of this week, the NHS will send texts to people in those age groups, and, of course, GPs will be inviting people on their list to come forward. I am sure we have all been cheered by the images we have seen of so many eligible young people coming forward and lining up to get the jab, showing that the enthusiasm for the jab is not just the preserve of older generations. The people of this country know what it takes to keep themselves and the people around them safe. The latest estimates indicate that the vaccination programme has averted over 39,000 hospitalisations and over 13,000 deaths. So the vaccination brings us hope, and I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking people for their perseverance and patience as they have waited for their turn.

For all that great progress, there is no room for complacency. The delta variant, first identified in India, has made the race between the virus and the vaccination effort tighter. Although the size of the delta variant’s growth advantage is unclear, the recent best scientific estimate is of an advantage of at least 40% over the previously dominant alpha variant—the so-called Kent variant. The delta variant now makes up the vast majority of all new infections in this country.

Over the past week, we have seen case rates rise, particularly in the north-west of England, but we know also that our surge testing system can help hold this growth. In Bolton, case rates over the past fortnight have been falling. We have expanded the approach taken in Bolton to other areas, and we will roll it out to other areas as necessary. I encourage everybody in those areas to get the tests on offer, no matter where they live. Regular tests can help to keep us all safe, and we know that the test, trace and isolate system has a vital role to play in keeping this all under control.

Of course, the most important tool we have is that vaccination programme. We know that the vaccine is breaking the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths—a link that was rock-solid back in the autumn. Despite the rise in cases, hospitalisations have been broadly flat. The majority of people in hospital with covid appear not to have had a vaccine at all. I want to update the House on some new information that we have on this. As of 3 June, our data show that of the 12,383 cases of the delta variant, 464 people went on to present at emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital. Of those 126 people, 83 were unvaccinated, 28 had received one dose and just three had received both doses of vaccine. We should all be reassured by that, because it shows that those vaccinated groups, who previously made up the vast majority of hospitalisations, are now in the minority. So the jabs are working, and we have to keep coming forward to get them. That includes, vitally, that second jab, which we know gives better protection against the delta variant.

The confidence in our jabs comes from the fact that they are working and the knowledge that they are the best way out of the pandemic. No one wants our freedoms to be restricted a single day longer than is necessary. I know the impact that these restrictions have on the things we love, on our businesses and on our mental health. It is still too early to make decisions on step 4. The road map has always been guided by the data and, as before, we need four weeks between steps to see the latest data and a further week, to give notice of our decision. So we will assess the data and announce the outcome a week today, on 14 June.

I know that these restrictions have not been easy. With our vaccine programme moving at such pace, I am confident that one day soon freedom will return. To do this, we must stay vigilant, especially at this time when schoolchildren are returning to classrooms after the half-term break and when we are seeing the highest rises in positive cases among secondary school-aged children. With schools returning today, it is vital that every secondary school-aged child takes a test twice a week to protect them, to help keep schools open and to stop transmission. That is crucial to stop the spread and to protect the education of their peers. While the evidence shows that the impact of covid on children is usually minimal, we also know that there is higher transmissibility among children, so the message to all parents of secondary school-aged children is: please get your child tested twice a week to help keep the pandemic under control and to help on the road to recovery.

The House will also be aware that our independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, has conducted a review of the clinical trial data for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. Having already concluded that the vaccine is safe and effective for people over the age of 16, it has also now concluded that the jab is safe and effective for children aged between 12 and 15 years old, with the benefits of vaccination clearly outweighing any risks. I can confirm to the House that I have asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the committee that advises us on immunisations, to come forward with clinical advice on vaccinating 12 to 17-year-olds, and we will listen to that clinical advice, just as we have done throughout the pandemic.

People in this country know that vaccines are the way out, but this pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere. This week, the Prime Minister will host G7 leaders in Cornwall, where he will work to persuade our allies to join the UK in our historic commitment to vaccinate the whole world against covid-19 by the end of 2022. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has already proved to be a vital tool in this effort, with more than half a billion doses now released for supply around the world and, crucially, delivered at cost. In my view, this approach—providing vaccines at cost—is the best way to vaccinate the world. Developing a vaccine and allowing countries to manufacture it at cost is the greatest gift that this nation could have given the world during the pandemic.

In Oxford, ahead of this week’s G7 leaders summit, I met G7 Health Ministers and guests from some of the world’s largest democracies. Our new clinical trials charter, agreed in Oxford, will help end unnecessary duplication of clinical trials and ensure greater collaboration across borders, resulting in faster access to approve treatments and vaccines. We reached agreement with industry leaders to cut to just 100 days the time that it takes to develop and deploy new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. As a result of what we have agreed in Oxford, there will be people who will live who otherwise might have died, and I can think of no greater outcome than that.

In summary, beating this pandemic is not only an international imperative, but a domestic duty that falls on each one of us. We must keep up the basics, such as hands, face, space and fresh air, get regular tests and, of course, when we get the call, get both jabs, because that is the way that we can stop the spread and get out of this and restore the freedoms that we hold dear safely and together. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I am also grateful that he has confirmed that the Government’s approach continues to be driven by the data, not by dates. We face some uncertainty, as we often have done throughout the past 15 months, but we do know that the delta variant is now the dominant variant in the UK. We know that 73% of delta cases are in unvaccinated people. We know that one dose offers less protection against this particular variant, and we know that, although hospitalisations are low, an increase in hospitalisations will put significant pressures on the NHS as it tries to deal with the care backlog. We also know, of course, that long covid is significant and debilitating for many people.

I am an optimist and I strongly believe that, ultimately, vaccination is our way through this. Can the Secretary of State go further on vaccination? Is he able to do more to drive up vaccination rates in those areas that have seen the delta variant take off and where uptake remains low, such as Blackburn or my own city of Leicester? Can he narrow the timeframe between the first and second dose, given that we know that one dose is not as protective as we would like? We have seen that Wales will be vaccinating everyone over 18 from next week. Can he tell us when England will follow?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State talked about the outbreaks among schoolchildren and young people. We know that children can transmit the virus and that children can be at particular risk of long covid. In that context, may I ask again why mask wearing is no longer mandatory in secondary schools? I am pleased that he has asked the JCVI to look at vaccination for children; it is something that I have I pressed him on a number of times at the Dispatch Box. Can he give us a timeframe on when he expects the JCVI to report on that front?

The Secretary of State talks about the G7. The pandemic has certainly shown that in an interconnected world where climate change and biodiversity loss drive zoonotic spillovers, working internationally to prevent future outbreaks is in our interests. None of us is safe until all of us are safe. That is not a slogan; it is the fact of the situation that we are in. That means working internationally. For a start, it means not cutting international aid, but it also means working globally on our vaccination efforts. He will have seen today that Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and other ex-world leaders have put forward a G7 burden sharing plan that would vaccinate the world. Will the Government support it?

Finally, I welcome what the Secretary of State said about research. Research and science are our way through this pandemic, and our way through to curing so many other diseases and ailments. However, he will know that while we are in this pandemic—while GPs and frontline staff are stretched—patients are unaware that a whole load of GP-held patient data is about to be transferred to NHS Digital.

Now, I am not opposed to NHS data being used for public good research, but some of the most sensitive personal data shared with GPs by patients in confidence several years ago—potentially when in a state of vulnerability, such as termination of pregnancy, matters of domestic or sexual abuse and issues of substance misuse or alcohol abuse—is set to be shared with NHS Digital and potentially to be used by commercial interests, and yet hardly anyone knows about it. There are worries about safeguards and patient confidentiality. Given the secrecy, the haste and the difficulties in opting out, will the Secretary of State now consider abandoning this plan, pausing it for now and launching a transparent consultation process with patients and clinicians on how confidential data can best be shared for research purposes?

First, the right hon. Gentleman raised the question of ensuring that we reduce transmission among children. It is true that the increase in case rates has predominantly been among children, especially secondary school-aged children. The testing regime among secondary school-aged children has been enthusiastically taken up by schools across the country. It is very important, as we return from half-term, that that is reinstated in full—that every child is being tested twice a week. It made a big difference in helping to keep schools open. If somebody tested positive at home before they went in, it meant that the whole bubble did not have to go home. It also prevented transmission up to older people, who might be more badly affected. Testing in schools is incredibly important to ensure that we can keep as much education as possible between now and the summer.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the JCVI advice on children’s vaccination that will be available in a matter of weeks. I know that the JCVI is working hard on it now. I will of course come to the House, Mr Speaker, to explain the proposed approach as soon as we have that formal advice.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the use of patient data. I am glad that he said how important he thought research based on data is within the NHS, because it is life-saving. It has been used incredibly powerfully during the pandemic. In fact, one of the reasons why the UK is the place where we discovered some of the life-saving treatments for covid, such as dexamethasone, is the powerful use of data. Just that discovery of dexamethasone, which happened through the use of NHS data, has saved over 1 million lives around the world.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of data, which he said belonged to GPs, being passed to NHS Digital. The truth is that data about his, my or anybody else’s medical condition does not belong to any GP; it belongs, rightly, to the citizen—the patient. That is the approach that we should take. I absolutely agree that it is important to do these things right and properly, but I am also very glad that the vast majority of people are strongly on side for the use of their data to improve lives and save lives. That is the approach that we are going to take in building a modern data platform for the NHS, so that we can ensure that we use this modern asset to improve individuals’ care and to improve research and therefore all our care, while of course preserving the highest standards of safety and privacy, which will be enhanced by a more modern use of data. I am glad that he is on side for the use of data in the NHS, but you have to be on side when that is actually put into practice. It is not just warm words; it is about making it happen.

It is incredibly encouraging that just three out of 12,000 cases of the delta variant were double-jabbed, but is the debate inside Government now about a potential short, temporary extension of the restrictions to allow more people to get both jabs or a more permanent slowing down of the easing of restrictions? That is a massive difference to all our constituents in terms of what may happen following the announcement next week.

Secondly, could the Secretary of State look at one particular group who have been very hard hit over the last year: the parents of disabled children? He will know about my constituent Laura Wilde, who took her nine-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to Lanzarote for physio that she was unable to get in England and is looking for flexibility in the quarantine rules when she comes back. Can we show more flexibility in exceptional cases such as that?

On the latter point, I am very happy to look at how the case of my right hon. Friend’s constituent Laura Wilde can fit with the exemptions that already apply for travel for medical purposes, along with the testing regime, to ensure that that is done in a safe way. I am happy to talk to colleagues at the Home Office about allowing that to happen.

On my right hon. Friend’s first point, it is reassuring that there is such a clear breakage of the previously inexorable link from cases through to hospitalisations. That is very good news, and it is why we have this race to get everybody vaccinated as soon as possible. If I can address those people in their late 20s who will be able to book a jab from tomorrow and others who might feel that, in their age group, they are unlikely to die of covid, the honest truth is that the best way for us to get our freedoms back and get back to normal is for everybody to come forward and get the jab. It really matters that we all come forward and do this, because that is the safest way out.

On my right hon. Friend’s specific question about our thinking on the 21 June step 4, not before date, the honest answer, which I will give to any question about this, is that it is too early to say. I tried to give a studiously neutral answer on the TV yesterday, which some people interpreted as gung-ho and others interpreted as overly restrictive. That is the nature of uncertainty, I am afraid. It is too early to say. We are looking at all the data, and the road map sets out the approach that we will take, which is that there is step 4 and then there are four distinct pieces of work, which are reports on what should happen after step 4 on social distancing, international travel, certification and the rest. We will assiduously follow the road map process that has been set out with the five-week gap—four weeks to accumulate the data, then taking a decision with a week to go. The Prime Minister will ultimately make those decisions and announce them in a week’s time.

I note that the Secretary of State is still considering ending all social distancing measures on 21 June, but does he not think that that would be dangerous in the face of rising cases of the significantly more infectious delta variant? Would it not be better to adhere to the Government’s mantra of being guided by data and not dates?

While it is welcome that half of adults are fully vaccinated, and Scotland has already started vaccinating those over 18, the Secretary of State must be aware that one dose of the current vaccines only provides 33% protection. Does he accept that that means we cannot rely on single dose vaccination to control this variant without social distancing measures? I and many other MPs repeatedly called for hotel quarantine to be applied to all arrivals in the UK to prevent exactly the situation we now face. He repeatedly claimed that home quarantine was working, but does he not accept that the importation and now dominance of the delta variant shows that is not true? With the current rise in cases of the delta variant threatening the progress made during almost five months of lockdown, does he regret the decision to delay adding India to the red list?

In light of the disruption caused by the shambles of changing Portugal’s classification this week, does the Secretary of State recognise that it has done neither holidaymakers nor the travel industry any favours? Will he now get rid of the traffic light system and tighten border quarantine policy so that we can avoid importing more vaccine-resistant variants and safely open up our domestic economy and society?

The Secretary of State talked today about the UK vaccinating the world, so can he say how many doses the UK has donated to COVAX? Does that mean the Government will support the sharing of intellectual property and technology and the trade-related intellectual property rights—or TRIPS—waiver so as to increase global vaccine production?

There is quite a lot that needs sorting in that. The first thing I would say is that the hon. Lady complains that I acted on Portugal when we saw the data, yet she complains that I did not act on India before we had the data. She cannot have it both ways. She asked me to follow data not dates, but then asked me to prejudge the data by making a decision about 21 June right now. I am a bit confused about that one, too, because I notice that the Scottish Government have themselves been reopening. That is a perfectly reasonable decision for the Scottish Government, but it is a bit rich then for the SNP spokesman to come to this House and have a go at us for deciding to look at the data over the next week, rather than prejudging that decision. It is quite hard to listen and not respond to explain what is actually going on.

The third point I will make is on international vaccination. Absolutely this country has stepped up to the plate. Of the 2 billion doses delivered around the world, half a billion have been the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford, with UK taxpayers’ money. It is, as I put it in my statement, a gift to the world. Of course we do not rule out donating excess doses as and when we have them, but only when we have excess doses, and I am sure the hon. Lady will accept that position is agreed not only by the UK Government, but by the devolved Administrations, because we all want to make sure that the people whom we serve get the chance to be vaccinated as soon as possible. That is our approach.

Finally, when it comes to intellectual property, we support intellectual property rights in this country. We could not get drugs to market in the way we manage to without support for intellectual property, because it is often necessary to put billions of pounds into research in order to get the returns over the medium term. What we did, more than a year ago, was agree with Oxford and AstraZeneca that there would be no charge for the intellectual property rights on this vaccine right around the world, and I am delighted that others are starting to take the same approach. Last month, Pfizer announced that in low and lower middle-income countries, it will not charge intellectual property, but we have been on this for more than a year now, so it is a bit rich to hear a lecture from north of the border.

May I ask the Secretary of State about his Department’s role in the latest international travel restrictions? First, what happened to the green watch list, giving more time to prepare for a switch to amber? Did he receive scientific advice that Portugal should be moved to amber, and, if so, will he publish that advice? Has the World Health Organisation recognised the Nepal delta mutation as a variant? Can he confirm that there were just 12 cases of this mutant in Portugal and three times as many in the UK? Ultimately, can he give me a milestone for when we can unlock international travel—perhaps the double-jabbing of over-50s and the clinically extremely vulnerable? Without that milestone, it is difficult to see how we can ever give this industry and workforce hope for their future.

My hon. Friend rightly asks these important questions about the decisions we had to take on Portugal. The truth is that we acted, yes, on the scientific advice: the advice of the joint biosecurity centre, based on the best information we had about this new variant—so-called delta AW, because it is a variant on the delta variant itself. We took that advice.

Restoring international travel in the medium term is an incredibly important goal that we need to work to. It is going to be challenging and hard because of the risk of new variants, and variants popping up in places such as Portugal that otherwise have a relatively low case rate. But the biggest challenge and the reason this is so difficult is that a variant that undermines the vaccine effort would undermine the return to domestic freedom, and that must be protected at all costs.

Thankfully, the delta variant itself, after two doses, gets effectively the same coverage as the old alpha variant or indeed the original variant, so the fact that that is now dominant in the UK does not put our strategy at risk. It makes it more of a challenge of getting from here to there, but that is a challenge for the decision this week and how we handle things in the short term; it does not put the strategy at risk. A variant that undermined the vaccine fundamentally would put us in a much more difficult place as a country, and that is why we are being as cautious as we are.

As the Secretary of State has pointed out himself, data has been key in the pandemic. I agree with him, having previously worked briefly for NHS Digital, that data saves lives. I also agree with him that patient data belongs to the patient, and one of the things I learned during my time working in data is that public trust is key. So why will the Secretary of State not pause this data collection programme, which patients must opt out of by 23 June, to mount a full public information and communication campaign and be explicit about how people’s sensitive data might be used and by whom?

We are explicit about that. I appreciate what the hon. Lady said about the importance of data and data saving lives, and I agree with her about the importance of trust and bringing people with you. In fact, a large majority of those in the NHS are now actively enthusiastic about using data better. I very much hope we can keep it that way, not least because everybody has now seen the importance of using data to manage a crisis. One of the reasons for the vaccine success—why it has been rolled out so effectively—is that the data architecture that underpins the vaccine roll-out is extremely effective, and I pay tribute to the people who built it.

In Harrow, because of the delta variant, we have surge testing in our schools: 13,000 young people have been tested at school and 12,000 relatives at home. This weekend, 3,280 vaccinations took place because we had two new pop-up vaccination centres for 18-year-olds and over. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the entire team who have made this massive project, so diligently followed, to enable people to be safe in Harrow, but will he also consider having further pop-up clinics for 18-year-olds so that we can get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible?

I pay tribute to the team at Harrow, and especially for the testing expansion. My hon. Friend said that there were 13,000 pupils and 12,000 of their relatives, and that includes me, because one of my children goes to school in the Harrow area. We got our PCR tests at home, we sat around the kitchen table and we all did them together, and I am glad to say they were all negative. This showed me—I felt like a mystery shopper —how effective this surge testing can be in making sure that we tackle these problems. We have seen that surge testing can work. We saw it in south London, where it worked. We have seen it in Bolton, where the case rate has come down. It has been used in Hounslow. It has been used in other specific areas, and I am glad it is now under way in Harrow to try to keep this under control.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, as always. He has been clear in the approach that has been taken to the Indian variant, which is currently posing difficulties. I am anxious to understand the level of co-operation and data-sharing with the devolved Assemblies. In particular, I am aware that we are dealing with possible cases in Kilkeel in County Down in Northern Ireland, where 1,000 homes have been visited and 900 tests carried out by a specialised mobile unit. It is clear that the Indian variant problem must have a UK solution presented.

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We talk about this when the Northern Ireland Health Minister and the Scottish and Welsh Health Secretaries join me on a weekly call. We are acutely aware of the importance of tackling the delta variant, as it is now called, and it is something we work on very closely together across the UK.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that what he said on “The Andrew Marr Show” was not a change of policy—a sudden retreat from the road map—and that no final decisions have been taken on what happens on 21 June? Can we still hope, in particular, that events involving big gatherings—weddings and all those kinds of things—can start up again, because they are so important both for our economy and jobs and for our quality of life?

Absolutely. As I said then, it is too early to make this decision. We have to look at the data and we will announce the decision next week. When answering a logical question of, “Are you open to delay?”, if you have not made a decision on whether to delay or not, by dint of logic, you are open to delay. That is, I think, a perfectly reasonable and logical answer to a question. It is an absolute classic: a politician answers a straight question with a straight answer and it causes all sorts of complications.

We have seen in the past year unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms, for reasons that we in this place predominantly entirely understand—the pressure on our national health service and the escalating hospitalisations and death rates. Given the statistics that the Secretary of State has just published and the tremendous success of the vaccination programme in preventing hospitalisations of people doubly vaccinated, what additional freedoms are won for those people, and should we now be considering whether people who have been doubly vaccinated should be able to get additional freedoms as it appears that they will not be the cause of large numbers of hospitalisations in the future?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously a mentor of his former leader, Tony Blair, who made this case at the weekend. We are looking into this question for certain occasions. It will be necessary for international travel. However, in this country we have moved together—everyone is treated equally—in the same way that the virus treats us equally. I note that Israel, which did bring this proposal in, has now removed it.

The Secretary of State’s announcement that we are opening up appointments for 25-year-olds will be warmly welcomed by many in the NHS in my area, so I thank him for that. On any possible delay to stage 4 of the road map on the 21st of this month, I totally get the logic that he is talking about; he is absolutely right to reserve judgment until one week before, as was always to be the case when the road map was published. However, may I gently press him to tell the House what we would be delaying for? Would it be a world without covid and therefore without any possibility of a variant of concern in the future, which I do not think is his belief? Can he see, though, why, for many, that would be to write covid a blank cheque and just continually delay?

That is an excellent question astutely put. The purpose of the road map, and the purpose of following the data within the road map and therefore having not-before dates, is that we are in a race between the vaccine programme and the virus, and with the delta variant the virus got extra legs. Our goal, sadly, is not a covid-free world, because that is impossible; the goal is to live with covid much as we live with some other unpleasant diseases, including, of course, flu. That does mean that there will be vaccinations long into the future; it means that, especially in winter, in hospitals for instance, we will have to be very careful to prevent infection from spreading; and it means that we will have to live with this virus and manage our way through it, but with the supreme power of science and the vaccine at our hand. That will be so powerful, and it is already proving, including through the data that I announced to the House just now, to be an incredibly powerful ally in getting us through this. However, at the moment, only 76% of people have had the jab and only 52% of people have had both jabs, and unlike with the previous variant, the second jab appears to be even more important this time around.

The Government’s former chief scientific adviser and the chair of Independent SAGE, Sir David King, warned today that current covid figures are

“evidence of another wave appearing”,

while the Office for National Statistics estimates a 76% increase in cases in England in the week ending 29 May. Given that the delta variant is more transmissible, has a higher risk of hospitalisation and has more vaccine escape the Kent variant, can the Secretary of State explain why he is not ruling out now any further lifting of restrictions on 21 June, so that we can get more adults double vaccinated first? Given that he acknowledges greater transmissibility among secondary pupils, will he look again at reversing the decision to end mask wearing in classrooms and at funding schools to enable them to increase ventilation? He says that he wants to keep schools open, and so do I, so why not take all the necessary steps to ensure that we can, and follow the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Indie SAGE and many experts?

But why? Why on earth would you say, “I’m going to rule out doing something in two weeks’ time,” when we know that the extra data that we will get over the next week will help to make a more refined and more careful decision? I do not understand this argument that has been put by the SNP and the Green party that we should just make a decision now, when we will know more in a week’s time, so that is what we are going to do.

Now then, I see that our NHS has published its very own woke alphabet, which includes terms such as “white fragility” for the letter W. Not only is this a load of nonsense, but it is very divisive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of our brilliant NHS staff are more interested in keeping the nation healthy than in learning the ABC of wokery?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. He puts it well. This so-called glossary appeared on the NHS website. I have raised it with the NHS and it has been taken down.

On 15 May last year, the Secretary of State said at a press conference:

“Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

Instead, we have seen over 40,000 families lose elderly and vulnerable loved ones in care. His unwillingness to accept what care workers, doctors and relatives were telling him led to shortages of personal protective equipment and a revolving door from covid wards to care homes. Will he guarantee that care homes will be properly protected in subsequent surges, and will he accept his own failings and apologise to the families who tragically lost loved ones in care?

I am, of course, part of a family who have also lost a loved one who lived in a care home, so of course I take this very seriously. We followed the clinical advice when the world knew far less about this virus, and it was a challenge. The clinical advice and data since have shown that, in fact, community transmission was the major source of the incursion of the virus into care homes. I am delighted that, through the enormous efforts to increase testing, including the 100,000 testing target, we were then able to introduce the very significant staff testing that we have today, which is the main reason that there has been a fall in the second peak and much lower incidence in care homes. It is vital that we learn the lessons—it is vital that we learn the right lessons—and I am glad to say that, over the summer, we were able to put in stronger protections based on the updated clinical advice.

The case rate in north Lincolnshire is 19 per 100,000 and we have seen incredibly low levels of hospitalisation since the middle of May. That is due, I am sure, to the vaccination effort and all those people who have had their jab. People in Scunthorpe have done everything they have been asked to do, so does my right hon. Friend agree that unless we meet an incredibly high bar of evidence, we will proceed with the opening on 21 June?

We will look at that evidence and make that judgment. Of course I want to proceed, but we must proceed safely and not see this go backwards. When the Prime Minister set out the roadmap, he said he wanted it to be “cautious and irreversible.” So far, we have succeeded in making it irreversible, and I hope we can keep it that way.

This Government are keener to protect borders with regards to immigration than they are regarding public health. The right hon. Gentleman says he is considering the data, but had hotel quarantine been in place for all travellers, we would not have this delta variant spike. Will he reconsider what the Scottish National party is asking for, which is quarantine for all travellers, as well as protection for the travel industry with the right support? That will get the UK economy up and running in a more sustainable manner.

We have brought in this incredibly strong travel regime, including the need for all travellers to be tested, and calls and home visits to those quarantining at home. That is based on risk, and we have taken the approach of being tough at the borders so as to protect the success of the vaccine roll-out here at home.

My right hon. Friend should take great credit, as should his team, for the progress of the vaccination programme, and I congratulate him on it. Is it true that the Joint Biosecurity Centre said that Malta could be put on the green list?

It is true that a number of balanced cases are put before Ministers, and we always look at the pros and cons of each one. Ultimately, those decisions are for Ministers.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In his statement, the Secretary of State mentioned the rising cases of the delta variant across north-west England, and the impact of the vaccination programme on reducing hospitalisations. That is positive news, but the consequence of increasing covid rates, even without hospitalisations, is not totally positive. May I ask him about long covid—something that is close to my heart, having had it for 12 months? Beyond the actions he has already taken, what more will he do to help those who, inevitably, will develop long-term consequences and symptoms of covid from the latest wave of the delta variant?

This incredibly important subject is close to my heart too, and perhaps we can work with the hon. Gentleman, with his personal experience of long covid over such a period, to ensure that we drive that agenda as hard as possible. The NHS has stepped forward and we have put more money into research, but this is an unknown condition as a result of a novel virus. It is a complicated condition and there are many different types of long covid. I would be keen to ensure that the hon. Gentleman engages with the NHS work on this.

I represent a very international constituency where people travel for business, family and personal reasons, and not just for two weeks in summer in the sun. I am concerned that the cost of PCR tests is prohibitive, and the lack of certainty beyond three weeks under the traffic light system has a material effect on business and wellbeing. Will my right hon. Friend’s Department consider further whether lateral flow tests can be substituted for PCR tests to at least alleviate that concern and cost?

Part of the purpose of the international testing regime is to get genetic sequences to spot variants, which we cannot do from a lateral flow test. That is the literal answer to my hon. Friend’s question. More broadly, the approach we are taking instead is to try to drive down the costs of PCR tests. Bringing a private market for PCR tests for travel has led to a significant reduction in cost, and that is another good example of harnessing private markets to improve people’s lives. The companies involved are strongly incentivised to deliver tests for a lower price. That is the approach we have taken for the reason I set out, and that is the decision we have made.

The Royal College of General Practitioners, the Doctors’ Association UK and the British Medical Association have all expressed concern about the adequacy of communication with patients about the proposals for data sharing. From the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the Opposition Front Bencher—the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), he obviously disagrees with that, but in the interests of making data-based decisions, can he tell the House what his Department is doing to assess the level of patient awareness about what will happen if they do not opt out by 23 June?

We are doing work in this area and talking to all the relevant bodies. Aside from some who have not yet understood the full importance of high-quality usage of data in the health system, actually, the vast majority of people, including the BMA, the Royal College of GPs and others, can see the benefit of getting this right. So we are working with them. The goal, though, is really clear—to use data better in the NHS because data saves lives.

The Secretary of State laid out a number of decisions that will be announced next Monday, and the most significant of those will be on social distancing. If that remains, whatever else changes, we will not have gone anywhere close to back to normal. However, can I press him a bit on vaccine efficacy? The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), said that the first dose was only 30% effective. I believe that that is correct for transmission, but as for what is actually important, which is reducing serious disease and hospitalisation, the first dose is significantly more effective than that. Will the Secretary of State set out to the House his and the Department’s current understanding about the efficacy of the vaccine on the first dose and the second dose against serious disease and hospitalisation?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the figure for transmissibility reduction from the first dose. The figures for the reduction in serious disease and death are, as he says, higher than that, but since I do not have the precise figures in my head, what I propose to do is set them out tomorrow at the Dispatch Box at Health questions.

The Secretary of State seems to be the master of mixed messages. Today, he tells us that the vaccination programme is going well, cases are down and hospital admissions have fallen, yet at the weekend, he was telling us that he is still open to removing the date for freedom day—21 June—and keeping restrictions in place. A few weeks ago, he was telling people that they could go to Portugal, yet, despite Portugal having lower infection rates than we do and only 1.5% of people being tested positive on return from Portugal, he has now put it on the amber list, costing the airline industry millions of pounds and putting holidaymakers to great expense. Does he understand the frustration that businesses and individuals have at the way in which, acting on his advice, they take precautions, spend money and take actions that they think are right, yet find that, when he changes his message, they are placed at a disadvantage?

Of course I understand those frustrations—of course I do—and that is why we would all like to be out of this pandemic, but John Maynard Keynes’ famous dictum comes to mind, which is: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” A pandemic is a hard thing to manage and communicating uncertainty in the public sphere is difficult. When answering questions about uncertainty, I think the fairest thing that any of us at the Government Dispatch Box can do is answer fully and frankly to the best of our knowledge and understanding, and that does include things where there is evidence on one side and evidence on the other. We had a question from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that described only the negative side of what we are seeing in the data, but on the positive side we are seeing the impact of vaccinations that the right hon. Gentleman just mentioned. There are two sides to the story, and that is why some of the judgments are difficult. That is why we will wait until we have the most data possible, with a week to spare, so that people can implement the decisions we make regarding 21 June.

I reassure my right hon. Friend that, since last we spoke in this Chamber, I have received my first jab. As the age limit lowers, the more youthful of us in this House benefit—although the years have not been kind. His announcement that the limit is to go down still further, to 25, is excellent news. I thank everyone in the vaccination centres in Hazel Grove, Woodley and Offerton and other places in my constituency for their tremendous work. Will my right hon. Friend go further with his surge of vaccinations? That is how we will end this pandemic. Will he commit to reducing the time between first and second jabs and do all he can to secure greater supply? Give us the jabs and we will finish the job.

A propos my previous answer, there is again a balance here. Obviously, we want to go as fast as possible, but, on the other hand, the strength of overall protection people get grows, on the latest clinical advice, up to an eight-week gap. So a longer gap gives them better overall long-term protection. That is why we have reduced the gap from the 12 weeks we had at the start, because we wanted to get as many first jabs done with the early doses we had, to eight weeks; but the clinical recommendation is not to go below eight weeks, because people would end up with weaker overall protection from both jabs. That is the reason for our approach, but ultimately we want to go as fast as we clinically safely can with the programme. For that, we need all the good folk of Hazel Grove who are doing so much to make this happen and to deliver jabs in arms, and I thank them all.

A number of my constituents were out in Portugal and were taken completely by surprise by the Government’s about-turn on their advice and rules on travel to Portugal. It has cost some of them many hundreds of pounds. It is important that we remember that hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on the travel industry, and many people in my constituency work in that industry or rely on it. The Government must start to be clear about what they are going to do about travel overseas. Given the high number of people in this country who have been vaccinated, subject to the countries they are going to having high rates of vaccination and low rates of covid, there is no reason why they should not be able to travel.

I cannot say any more than I have already said. We take a cautious approach to travel because of the risk of new variants, which could undermine the whole thing. We have a traffic-light system because some countries are safer to travel to than others.

Children and young people have missed out on so much over the past 15 months or so—both educational opportunities and opportunities for important social development. Today, my right hon. Friend received a letter from a number of Jewish youth groups that run residential summer camps. They are desperately worried that, if the rule of 30 remains after 21 June, what they do simply will not be viable. I am sure that the same is true of many other youth groups. Can he give some reassurance that those safe, regulated, largely outdoor activities will be able to go ahead for groups of much more than 30?

Yes, of course, as part of step 3, those activities were reopened for school-based groups. I absolutely take the point that my hon. Friend is making. That is of course part of step 4. He has made his point clearly.

In April last year, Government guidance in relation to hospital discharges clearly stated:

“Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”

One month and many deaths later, the Secretary of State very clearly said on national television that

“right from the start we have tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

Since then, the guidance seems to have disappeared from Government websites, and this weekend he has denied making those claims, yet again today he expects us to trust this Government’s judgment in deciding how we should continue to live our lives. Why on earth should we?

I am terribly sorry: all the policy and all the guidance was, of course, set out in public around care homes. It was a very challenging policy, not least because—as the hon. Lady implied in what she quoted—the tests were not available to be able to do this, and the clinical advice was that asymptomatic transmission was highly unlikely. That was the basis on which these decisions were taken. The challenge in care homes was equally a challenge in Scotland and a challenge in Wales— a challenge all over Europe, in fact. The decision making in this area is a matter of record. A huge number of people were trying their very best to solve the problem as best they possibly could, based on the very best science and clinical advice.

The Secretary of State will recall telling us that the first lockdown was needed to give time to build capacity in the NHS. Can he therefore tell us how many more hospital beds are available in the NHS now than in March last year?

That is a good question, but the main capacity that we built was the Nightingales, a very successful project. The Nightingale project was one of the finest examples of rapid action in the NHS that has been seen. Thank goodness we had the Nightingale hospitals, because the people treated in them got treatment that was otherwise likely not to have been available. It meant that we could keep that promise all the way through—that nobody was denied treatment for covid. People got the treatment they needed because we managed to build that capacity so quickly.

I hope that the Health Secretary will understand the frustration that there will be right across the country if the 21 June date ends up being delayed by the Government because their own border policies failed to prevent the Delta variant from spreading, because they were too slow in putting India on the red list and because of gaps in the amber list policies. Given the confusion that there still is about the way in which the Government are taking decisions on individual countries on the border, is it not time that he accepted the recommendation that the Select Committee on Home Affairs made last August that he publish not just the data, but the analysis and advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre? The analysis and advice from SAGE is published, so why is the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s advice being kept secret?

The right hon. Lady and I have had this exchange before. I respect her enormously, but she continues to imply that we should have taken decisions based on data that we did not yet have. That is simply not a reasonable position for the Chair of any Select Committee to take.

The statistical snapshot that my right hon. Friend gave in his statement showed that just over 2% of people hospitalised with the Indian variant had had both jabs. In order to encourage everyone to get vaccinated, will he in future publish on a daily basis how many patients in hospital with covid have previously had one jab, two jabs or no jabs at all? If that information is not held centrally, should it not be?

I am delighted by that question, because the data that I put in my statement was right off the press—it is new data. I am absolutely happy to look at how it is published and on what basis. I hear my right hon. Friend’s call for it to be published daily; we do update most of this data daily on the website. We have not got to that point yet—we have done a first cut of the data up to 3 June, as I read out—but the critical question is how many cases are translating into hospitalisations and then into deaths. I am very glad that we were able to do the first cut today, and I will see what I can do on publication.

The Government are pushing through a data grab that will see GP patient records held on a central database, which will, in turn, be available to private companies. Anyone getting the covid-19 vaccine from 1 July will have their GP record updated and so uploaded to that database on that day, often without their knowledge. There are enough fears adding to vaccine hesitancy and the Government are now adding concerns about data privacy to that, so will the Secretary of State agree to stop this data grab, undertake a full consultation with patients about sharing their personal data and publicise just how they can opt out?

The way the hon. Lady characterises this policy proposal is not accurate. People listening to this debate should be reassured that the privacy and security of their data are absolutely paramount. I look forward to her working with the NHS and with government to reassure people about the use of their data, because, ultimately, by making sure that we can understand what is happening, we can find better treatments, improve individuals’ treatment and save lives. This is all about making sure we use the best of modern technology to save lives and, in the process, improve the privacy and security of data. I hope she will take that message and reassurance and pass it on to her constituents and others with whom she is working, because, ultimately, improving and saving lives is the NHS’s historic mission and this policy proposal is just another small step in that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that we will hit the end of July target of vaccinating all adults in England. Will he give us a bit of a forward look to what he is planning for the autumn in terms of the flu season and any covid booster jabs? Is he expecting all adults over 50 to have a third jab? Does he think that that will be at the same time as a flu jab? Will it be combined? Or will we have to have two separate healthcare visits?

We are working on exactly that question. Of course, there is the question in advance of that of the vaccination of 12 to 18-year-olds, on which we are taking advice from the JCVI. We are conducting trials as to what are the best jabs to give, given which two previous jabs people have had, to give them the strongest protection. The third thing we are doing is working with AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine specifically targeted at the variants—that was part of the G7 work and announcements last week. If we can give a flu jab and a covid booster jab at the same time, that would be great. That is also under clinical evaluation, because, obviously, it would make the logistics so much easier over the autumn. Likewise, I am taking advice on which age groups and which groups it should be for: whether it should just be for the over-50s or for everybody; how to vaccinate; what group to put health and social care workers in; and whether there is a special regime for those who live in care homes, as there was in the first round of vaccination, where care home residents and staff came first. All of those are live questions on which we do not yet have answers, but that is the scope of the decisions we need to make ahead of the autumn for the autumn vaccination programme.

The progress with the vaccination roll-out is really to be welcomed and I give my thanks to all the staff, vaccinators and others who have been responsible for that progress. There are understandable concerns about how we manage and deal with variants, and my questions are centred on that today. What surveillance is taking place on the following measures or what is proposed? These are really important issues: the longevity of immunogenesis and how that is going to be captured; the adaptability of the virus and how that is going to be countered; and the need to modify or develop new vaccines as we progress into a position where the majority of the population are vaccinated.

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating all those involved in the vaccine roll-out, everywhere in the UK. In Scotland, it has been a remarkable effort, with the UK Government working with the Scottish Administration, the NHS across the country, local councils and the armed services—it has been a big team effort, and that has been part of the success of the vaccine roll-out.

The hon. Gentleman asked about three critical areas of the science. Reviews of all three areas are ongoing. They are led by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, whom the hon. Gentleman may have heard of, who is an absolutely brilliant clinician in this space—there are a lot more people involved who are doing excellent scientific work on these questions. That surveillance on immunogenicity, the work on the next-generation variant vaccine and the work on understanding the variants as we spot them is all going on. Public Health England has done a huge amount of work, working with public health colleagues right across the country, and I am grateful to them all.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and for responding to 31 questions in just over one hour.

Before we move on to the next statement, we will suspend for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.