Mr Speaker, these past six months, we have all been involved in a race between the vaccine and the virus. Our vaccination programme has been delivered at incredible pace: we have delivered 71 million doses into 41 million arms; and over 93% of people aged 40 and over have now received at least one dose. Because of this pace, we are able to open up vaccinations to those aged 23 and 24 tomorrow.
It is this protection that has allowed us to take the first three steps of our road map, meaning that right now we have one of the most open economies and societies in Europe. We have been able to remove the most burdensome of the restrictions and restore so many of the freedoms that we hold dear. At every stage, we have looked at the data, set against the four tests that the Prime Minister set out to this House in February. The fourth of those tests is that our assessment of the risk is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.
The delta variant now accounts for over 90% of cases across the country. We know that the delta variant spreads more easily and there is evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the previously dominant alpha variant. Case numbers are rising, up 64% on last week in England, but the whole purpose of vaccination is to break the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths. That link is clearly weaker than it once was. However, over the past week, we have seen hospitalisations start to rise; up by 50%. Thankfully, the number of deaths has not risen and remains very low.
Sadly, before the vaccine, we saw that a rise in hospitalisations inevitably led to a rise in deaths a couple of weeks later. The vaccine in changing that, but it is simply too early to know how effectively the link to deaths has been broken. We do know that, after a single dose of the vaccine, the effectiveness is lower against the delta variant, at around 33% reduction in symptomatic disease. However, the good news, confirmed with new data published today, is that two doses of the vaccine are just as effective against hospital admission with the delta variant compared with the alpha variant. In fact, once you have had two doses, the vaccines may be even slightly more effective against hospitalisation if you have caught the new delta variant. This gives me confidence that, while the protection comes more from the second dose, and so takes longer to reach, the protection we will get after that second jab is highly effective—and, if anything, slightly better—against the delta variant. So, for the purpose of the restrictions, while it will take us a little longer to build the full protection we need through the vaccine, all the science is telling us that we will get there. Of course, all this says that it is so important that everyone gets both doses when the call comes. Even today, I have had messages from people who have had their jab, and I am so grateful to each and every person for making our country safer. At every stage of the road map, we have taken the time to check it is safe to take the next step. Our task is to make sure the vaccine can get ahead in the race between the vaccine and the virus.
I know that so many people have been working so hard, making sacrifices, being cautious and careful, and doing their bit to help this country down the road map. I know that people have been planning and arranging important moments and that businesses have been gearing up to reopen. So it is with a heavy heart, and faced with this reality, that we have made the difficult decision not to move ahead with step 4 next week. Instead, we will pause for up to four weeks until 19 July, with a review of the data after two weeks. During this crucial time, we will be drawing on everything we know works when fighting this virus and will use the extra time to deliver the extra protection we need.
Despite the incredible uptake we have seen in this country, there are still people we need to protect: 1.3 million people who are over 50 and 4.5 million over-40s have had a first jab but not yet a second. The pause will save thousands of lives by allowing us to get the majority of these second jabs done before restrictions are eased further. We are today reducing the time from first to second jab for all people aged 40 and over from 12 weeks to eight weeks to accelerate the programme. If, like me, you are in your 40s and you have a second jab booked 12 weeks after your first, the NHS will be in touch to bring it forward, or you can rebook on the national booking service. Our aim is that around two thirds of all adults will have had both doses by 19 July. I can tell the House that we have been able to deliver the vaccine programme faster than planned, so we can bring forward the moment when we will have offered every adult a first dose of the vaccine to 19 July, too. In this race between the vaccine and the virus, we are giving the vaccine all the support we can.
We have always said that we will ease restrictions as soon as we are able safely to do so. Even though we cannot take step 4 on Monday, I am pleased that we are able carefully to ease restrictions in some areas. We are removing the 30-person gathering limit for weddings, receptions and commemorative events—subject, of course, to social distancing guidelines. I am very grateful for the work of the weddings taskforce on this relaxation. We will be running another phase of our pilots for large events at higher capacities, including some at full capacity, like the Wimbledon finals. We are easing rules in care homes, including removing the requirement for residents to isolate for 14 days after visits out, and we are allowing out-of-school settings to organise residential visits in bubbles of up to 30 children, in line with the current position for schools. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) for his work in this area.
Even though we have not been able to take the full step as we wanted, I know that these cautious changes will mean a lot to many people and move us a little bit closer to normal life. As we do this, we will keep giving people the support they need. We are extending our asymptomatic testing offer until the end of July. We have put in place one of the most extensive financial support packages in the world, and we will continue to deliver enhanced support for the worst-affected areas.
We have seen how this approach can work—for example, in Bolton. Cases in Bolton have fallen by almost a third over the past three weeks. Even as hospitalisations have risen across the north-west, in Bolton, they have fallen by more than half. Last week, we introduced enhanced support in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, and I can now tell the House that we are extending these extra measures—surge testing, cautious guidance and extra resources for vaccination—to Birmingham, Blackpool, Cheshire, including Warrington, and the Liverpool city region. We know from experience that this approach can work, but we need everyone to play their part, so I urge everyone in these areas to get tested and to come forward for the support that is on offer. When you get the call, get the jab and help keep us on the road to recovery.
Finally, none of this would be possible without our vaccine programme. Without the vaccine, faced with these rising cases and hospitalisations, the clinical recommendation would have been to go back towards lockdown. The Vaccines Taskforce is critical to the work to deliver supplies, the work on booster jabs and ensuring we are protected for the future. Dame Kate Bingham did a formidable job in melding the best possible team, and I would like to congratulate her and everyone else who was recognised in Her Majesty’s birthday honours this weekend. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that Sir Richard Sykes, one of Britain’s most acknowledged biochemists and industry leaders, has agreed to take up the position of chair of the VTF. Sir Richard brings to bear experience from leadership positions in both the public and the private sectors, and I am delighted to have him on board to lead the team in the next stage of this mission.
This race between the vaccines and the virus is not over yet. These difficult restrictions challenge our lives in so many ways, but they play a vital role in holding the virus back and protecting people while we get these jabs done. So let us all play our part to keep us safe from this dreadful disease. I commend this statement to the House.
Before I call Jonathan Ashworth, who has five minutes, I remind the public that this statement is being interpreted by the British sign language interpreter.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I congratulate Sir Richard Sykes on his new role and I thank Dame Kate Bingham.
Tonight’s announcement was both predictable and, sadly, predicted. Many of our constituents and local businesses will be deeply disappointed. Our constituents did what was asked of them. They queued up for vaccination. We praised them in this House. The Secretary of State shed tears on the news and boasted, “Cry freedom,” on the pages of The Spectator. Yet we are now in the grip of a delta wave that is spreading with speed, and our constituents face further restrictions.
The Prime Minister’s complacency allowed this variant to reach our shores. On 25 March, there were warnings of a new variant in India. It is reported that Ministers first learned that the delta variant was in the UK on 1 April. The Government red-listed Pakistan and Bangladesh on 9 April, but did not red-list India until 23 April, by which point 20,000 people had arrived from India. Our borders were as secure as a sieve, and all because the Prime Minister wanted a photo call with Prime Minister Modi. It is astonishing that these Ministers promised to take control of our borders and conspicuously failed to control our borders at the very moment it mattered most.
Not only did the Prime Minister open the back door to this variant; he failed to take measures to suppress it when he could. It has been growing in prevalence among school-age children, yet mandatory mask wearing has been abandoned in secondary schools, and the Secretary of State has never explained why, despite being repeatedly asked. We know that isolation is key to breaking transmission, yet, 16 months on, people are still not paid adequate financial recompense to isolate themselves. When asked at the Select Committee last week, he claimed that people would game the system. The only ones who gamed the system are the mates of Ministers, Tory donors, spivs and speculators who made a fortune supplying duff PPE.
The Secretary of State seeks support for extending restrictions by pointing to plans to go further on vaccination. We will support extending restrictions in the Lobby, but even after extending the doses that he has outlined, there will still be large proportions of the population left unprotected, having had one dose or none—exposed to a variant that, if left unchecked, could accelerate and double every week, putting us on track for tens of thousands of infections per day by the end of this period. That will mean more hospitalisations, more long covid, more disruption to schools and more opportunities for variants to emerge. Will the Prime Minister lift restrictions in those circumstances, as he appeared to promise tonight, or will infection rates and hospitalisations have to fall before he does so?
Vaccination will get us through this in the end, so what is the Secretary of State’s plan to bring down infections and to extend vaccination rates in hotspot areas? We have learned that in Leicester surge vaccination has been abandoned. In parts of the north-west—in Chorley, Mr Speaker, in Tameside, in Salford and in Wigan—the dose numbers have gone down. Has vaccination surging been abandoned in those hotspot areas?
Finally, we are likely to see more infections in the coming days, and we are likely to see more contacts of infected cases in the coming days. Will the Secretary of State finally give those people isolation support so that they can isolate and quarantine themselves from the rest of society?
The chief medical officer said tonight that we would be lifting restrictions if it were not for the delta variant. The Prime Minister should have moved at lightning speed to prevent the delta variant reaching our shores. Instead he dithered, and tonight he is responsible for this delay.
I think that in that response, we saw a lifting of the veil on the Opposition’s position. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he has supported the Government’s position for a very large part of the crisis. We will be grateful for their support in the Lobbies, and quite rightly, because the Labour party has clearly accepted the logic of the position.
However, the logic of the questions the right hon. Gentleman just raised moved towards a position of never escaping from restrictions. I want us to escape from restrictions, and the vaccine is the way for us to escape from restrictions. The truth is—it is not the easy thing to say, but it is the right thing to say—that in this country and around the world, covid-19 will be with us and we will have to learn to live with it in the same way that we have learned to live with other deadly diseases like flu. The vaccine will help us get to a state in this country in which we can manage it and live our normal lives. The logic that the right hon. Gentleman set out is one in which we never escape.
It was a logic based on flawed thinking about how things work in practice, because the right hon. Gentleman’s other argument was that this is all due to the Government not taking decisions on India, based on information that we did not have at the time. His argument is that he has now seen in the published data that there was a problem in India—too right! And as soon as we saw the data, we acted on it. The whole case that he set up was that on 2 April we should have acted, but on 2 April neither the original B1617 Indian variant strain, nor the B1617.2 delta strain, had yet been designated a variant under investigation or a variant of concern.
Captain Hindsight over there is arguing, “Never escape from restrictions, and base your logic and evidence on things that haven’t been recorded yet.” That is no way to run a pandemic. Instead, we will put the interests of the British public first. We will take a cautious and irreversible approach. We will take difficult decisions if they are necessary, but we will get this country back on the road to recovery.
I call the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.
May I start by saying that I totally agree with your expression of disappointment, Mr Speaker, that in a parliamentary democracy Parliament heard about this news after the media, and much as I respect my right hon. Friend it should be the Prime Minister who is here this evening?
I happen to support these measures and the caution the Government are showing, but may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that one of the reasons for the disappointment many people feel is the use of words like “irreversible”? Tonight, Sir Patrick Vallance said that we will be living with covid for the rest of our lives. If there is a vaccine-busting variant that threatens another 100,000 lives, these measures will not be irreversible, and we have a duty to be completely honest with people about the bumpiness of the road ahead. So may I urge the Health Secretary to be as cautious with the language we use as he rightly is with NHS bed capacity?
The goal is that the steps in the road map are irreversible; that is the goal, and I am sure it is a goal that my right hon. Friend agrees with. We have demonstrated repeatedly during this crisis our willingness to take difficult decisions if they are necessary and if they are needed by the data, but it is also important to try to take steps when we can have a good degree of confidence that we will then be able to deliver that irreversible route, as opposed to moving faster than that, which might lead to a reversal. I hope that that explanation is one with which my right hon. Friend and indeed the House can concur in terms of what we mean when we say that we seek an irreversible approach to the road map.
While hospitalisations and ICU admissions are, thankfully, not increasing as fast as covid cases, they are both rising significantly, so this delay was inevitable. According to Public Health England, the delta variant appears to be about 50% more infectious and reduces the protection against infection from one vaccine dose to just 33%. As a single dose is therefore less effective, by what date does the Secretary of State expect all adults to be fully vaccinated with both doses and would that not be a more appropriate time for the removal of all restrictions, rather than setting another arbitrary date when younger adults will not be fully protected?
So how did we end up here? Having ignored the Scottish Government policy of all arrivals undergoing hotel quarantine, the Secretary of State then delayed adding India to the UK’s red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh. He previously claimed it was because of greater positivity rates among travellers from Bangladesh and Pakistan but that is not borne out by the published data. Between 25 March and 7 April the test positivity of arrivals from India was 5.1%, lower than Pakistan at 6.2% but significantly higher than Bangladesh at 3.7%. Was the delay not just because the Prime Minister was still clinging to his plan for a trade visit to India? The whole point of border quarantine is to protect the UK from variants that might be more infectious or show resistance to vaccine-induced immunity, so having allowed the delta variant to enter and become the dominant strain in the UK, does the Secretary of State not recognise that the Government’s border strategy has failed?
I thought that the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on the Opposition Front Bench was Captain Hindsight, but, seriously, this argument is completely divorced from reality. The data that the hon. Lady has just recommended to the House is data about what happened between 25 March and 7 April, and she complains about a decision the Government took on 2 April because we did not know of the data up to 7 April; so she brings to this House information from after a decision was taken and asks why it was not taken into account for that decision, and the answer is because it had not happened yet.
Virtually everybody in the most vulnerable category, which made up 95% of hospitalisations and deaths, is protected by both jabs, the vaccines work against all variants thus far, and the latest Office for National Statistics data estimate that eight in 10 of us have antibodies. So will my right hon. Friend tell the House precisely how much better these metrics need to be in order for full freedom to be restored?
Our goal is that, by 19 July, two thirds of adults—around two thirds—will be double vaccinated. The data published today shows that the protection from transmission of this disease from a single jab is quite a lot lower for the delta variant, but the protection from hospitalisation from both jabs is that bit higher. That means that we do have to take a bit more time to get the protection from the double dose, whereas previously the single dose got a very significant proportion of the protection, but it does mean that once we get there, we have confidence in the effectiveness of the jab at keeping this virus at bay.
Professor Chris Whitty’s slide earlier this evening was very clear: we were on track to ease all restrictions next week until the delta variant hit our shores and took off in the UK. Apart from the late decision to red list India, could the Secretary of State explain why it was that, on 19 April, he told this House that the delta variant was a variant of concern and there would be surge testing, yet it was not officially designated a variant of concern until 6 May? This is important because that is what unlocked the surge testing. Why was there a delay of 17 days, and what impact does he think this delay has had on the spread and therefore on today’s announcement?
I took action to tackle this variant before it was designated even as a variant under investigation, because I was worried about what was happening in India, so in a way the hon. Lady makes my point for me. On the delta variant, we acted before it was recommended as a variant of concern by the scientific process. In fact, I have kicked off a review of that process, because I think it is the process and the scientific advice that should advise me that a variant is of concern. But having looked at and seen the data in India, we took action even before it was recommended.
The tremendous effort by the Secretary of State and his colleagues in delivering 71 million doses has clearly made a difference, and it is why we are not going backwards today. I have previously raised the cause of the wedding industry in Arundel and South Downs, so will he accept my thanks for saving summer for this vital sector, but would he kindly support the Culture Secretary to ensure a successful summer of motorsport?
Yes, I work very closely with the Culture Secretary on making sure that these events pilots can go ahead. We are working very closely with F1. I am delighted that we will be able to see the Wimbledon finals go ahead, on a pilot basis, with 100% capacity. It is fantastic to see the crowds at Wembley. We are making progress, and these freedoms have returned. We are not yet able to make the full step 4, but we are making the progress that we can.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We can all understand the difficulties that have been presented for those who are waiting to get married, have put off their weddings and have lost deposits, and who have been holding on and hoping against hope that their special day will come. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the importance of a wedding celebration is equal at least to the importance of a football match or a summit, and that if there is to be a delay, consideration must be given to those getting married in July and August? Will the Secretary of State task a working group of experts to outline the safest way to allow these family events to take place, and then ensure that those decisions will be discussed with and conveyed to the Northern Ireland Health Minister?
Yes. The weddings taskforce has worked very hard on ensuring that there are covid-secure ways of progressing, including opening up weddings, removing the cap on numbers and doing this with social distancing. I hope that that will allow lots of the thousands of weddings planned over the coming weeks to happen in a way that is consistent with social distancing. I am very happy to talk to my opposite number in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, who does an exemplary job. I know that he looks at these things very carefully, and I have no doubt we can have a conversation about that.
Before I ask the Secretary of State my question, I should just say—as a former Government Chief Whip, it does not give me any great pleasure to do so—that I wholly associate myself with your remarks earlier, Mr Speaker. This statement should have been made to this House by the Prime Minister before it was made to the media. I hope that we do not see a recurrence of it and I wish you well in your meeting with him.
The Secretary of State has set out that it is not the Government’s policy to get to zero covid—indeed, that is not possible. Can he say whether it is the Government’s policy to maintain a low prevalence of this virus? If it is not, can he confirm the Prime Minister’s sentiments today that 19 July is a terminus date, and can he rule out bringing back restrictions in the autumn and winter when we see an inevitable rise in what is a respiratory virus?
Well, it is not inevitable—I do not think it is inevitable. It may happen, but it is not inevitable because we also have the planned booster programme to strengthen further the vaccination response. But it is absolutely clear, based on all the clinical advice that I have seen, that a goal of eradication of this virus is impossible. Indeed, there is one part of this country that tried it for a bit in the summer and found it to be impossible. Therefore, we must learn to live with this virus and we must learn how we can live our normal lives with this virus, so I reflect the Prime Minister’s words, which, of course, I concur with entirely, on 19 July. Our goal is to make sure that we get as much vaccination done between now and then—especially those second doses—to make sure that we can open up safely, even if there is a rise in cases, by protecting people from hospitalisation and especially from dying of this awful disease.
This is a hammer blow to hospitality businesses, many of which are trading currently at a loss, and to the night-time economy, which has been preparing to reopen and now faces more uncertainty. Many of the financial support packages that the Secretary of State referred to—the furlough, the rent moratorium, the VAT and business rates support—are due either to end or to be reduced, and businesses are still racking up debts for which they need a solution. If businesses are going to stay closed, support has to continue for as long as the restrictions last, so what are the Government going to do to give extra support to businesses, many of which are in real danger of collapse?
Yes, of course I understand the impact of this decision on the businesses that are affected—both those that were hoping to open but will stay required to be closed by law, like nightclubs, and those that can open but will find it harder to trade than they would otherwise. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has put in one of the most extensive sets of financial support in the world. Of course, the more affected a business is, the more it is able to draw down on that support—on things like furlough. Furlough continues until September, but there needs to be a step towards the restoration of normal economic life. Nevertheless, we are determined to support businesses, hence the degree of support that has been put in place—that was put in place at the Budget—not just to cover the period of the road map based on the “not before” dates, but to run further than that, in case there needed to be a delay of one of those “not before” dates, because the whole principle was that we take these steps based on data, not dates.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that many of those who are going to hospital now with covid are staying in hospital for a far shorter period than was the case earlier in the pandemic? Will he break down those figures for us? Will he also publish figures showing the breakdown between those who present in hospital for other reasons but subsequently test positive and those presenting with covid?
Yes, I am very happy to seek to publish all those data. The latter data, I think, are published already. On the former data, the best estimate I have is that the average length of stay for somebody in hospital owing to covid has fallen from 10 days to eight days, so it has fallen to a degree, but not a huge degree. That is partly because of treatments, but it is also partly because some of the people in hospital have had at least one dose of the vaccine, which is highly likely to have reduced the severity of the disease. In the 10 most affected hospital trusts, on average, the number of people going to hospital who have had both doses is under 20%. A further approximately 20% of people have had one dose. The remainder—the majority—are people who have not been vaccinated at all.
May I first associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, about the Government’s behaviour and their complete contempt for this House—for both sides of the Chamber?
On current rates, I understand that we are looking at something like 40,000 cases by the first week of July, according to the Secretary of State’s own Department’s data. That is on trend. What does that say about the Prime Minister’s decision not to put India on the red list when it clearly had twice the infection rate of Pakistan and Bangladesh? Was that not simply a very expensive photo opportunity that is going to cost Warwick and Leamington businesses and those across the country dear?
No, because any businessman or woman in Warwick or, indeed, Leamington will understand that it is literally impossible to take decisions on data that has not yet occurred. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) had it right when she pointed out that we did not know this data at the time.
As my right hon. Friend will be well aware, people in Keighley and Ilkley have never come out of some form of restrictions; in fact, in July last year, we went into some of the toughest local restrictions. Going forward, will he rule out using a regional approach, so that communities such as mine can come back out of this pandemic and recover as normal?
We have in the last month or so surged in testing and changed recommended advice, but we have not taken a regional approach to the legal restrictions. Frankly, I think that has been a better way of doing things. I know that that is what the people of Keighley would prefer, and they are very wise folk.
May I congratulate Tony Lloyd on his knighthood? I call Sir Tony Lloyd.
Thank you for your remarks, Mr Speaker, both at the beginning of this session and to me personally. I am grateful.
It is axiomatic that the higher the rate of infection, the higher the rate of transmission. In this battle between the virus and the vaccine, the virus wins, with those high rates. The only antidote to that is, as we saw in Bolton, surge vaccination. Bolton now has the second highest rate of the Greater Manchester boroughs; we have been overtaken, alas, by Salford. That is why people across Greater Manchester do not understand why we do not have surge vaccination. Yes, it would be good for Greater Manchester, but it would be good for the whole country. Can the Secretary of State explain?
I would love to surge vaccinate the whole country. Supply is the rate-limiting factor; it has been from the start. To surge the whole country would be to go as fast as we can, which is what we are doing already. Yes, we can surge in relatively small areas. In the areas that need extra support, which now constitute about 10% of England, we are increasing testing where we have the spare capacity, especially of the lateral flow kits; we are putting in place the guidance to be more cautious; and we are putting in place the extra support we can give to get the vaccines out, especially to groups who are harder to reach. But we need to bring the whole country forward with the vaccination programme. That is why we are going as fast as we can, and I am delighted that we are able to bring forward the date by which we will have been able to offer all adults a dose from the end of July to 19 July as part of what we are able to announce today.
My right hon. Friend has taken the wedding industry up to the top of the hill and told them they can open up without restrictions, but marched them down again and said, “Only if you can socially distance.” Many wedding venues do not have huge rooms, so that is going to be very difficult. I am very concerned that the wedding industry, and the couples who want to get married are going to be incredibly disappointed by the announcement today. Is there no way that the Secretary of State can overrule that and allow them—with care, obviously—to go ahead with no restrictions so long as they are sensible, but without the fear of social distancing?
I of course understand why many in the wedding industry and many who are planning to get married in the next month would prefer to be able to do so without any of these rules at all. I do not want these rules either, but, unfortunately, we have a virus that is growing again. We have to take the extra time to allow the vaccines to come through, so the social distancing rules are staying in place right across the board. Carving them out for one very specific activity is something that we looked at, but that we found a very, very difficult decision to take for all sorts of reasons, legal and practical, and in terms of fairness to everybody right across the board in different circumstances.
I wish to return to the question of surge vaccinations. Case rates in Salford are higher than they have been since mid-January. They are five times higher than the national average and they are doubling around every seven days. We need to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible, but this week we only have 3,500 doses of Pfizer, and that is falling to 2,200 doses next week. Despite promises from the Secretary of State of enhanced support and some talk of surge vaccinations in hotspots such as Salford, that lack of doses of the Pfizer vaccine is the major barrier to getting everyone in Salford jabbed. Will the Secretary of State remove that barrier? Will he make sure that we get the supply of Pfizer and the flexibility to vaccinate all our over-18-year-olds?
I am afraid that my reply is the same as it was to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Sir Tony Lloyd), which is that supply is the rate-limiting factor.
The hon. Lady shakes her head, but it is a matter of fact that supply has been the rate-limiting factor throughout. We will do everything we can to support vaccination using the doses that we have. As she well knows, the UK, thankfully, is right at the front of the global race to get vaccinated, and that is because we bought early in very large bulk. Of course, we have worked to make that supply as big as possible as fast as possible. We go as fast as we can, but we cannot go faster than we can.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and for what you have said tonight as well.
Has my right hon. Friend not recognised that just a few weeks—or “a little longer” in the Prime Minister’s parlance—make the difference between survival or closure for some businesses? Will he recognise therefore that forcing businesses to remain closed for a further period without financial support being extended for the same period is unjust, unconscionable and unsupportable? Will he take that back to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, please?
I happily will, but I urge my hon. Friend to see the financial support that is in place and continues to be in place, most of it through to September. It was extended over that period in case we had to make an extension to the road map, and while I fully understand the impact on business—of course I do—I also can see the impact on saving lives. The advice is that this change will save thousands of lives because the protection of the vaccine, especially against dying of covid, is very, very strong, but the vaccine coverage is not yet comprehensive, especially with those second doses, so we need to get that done.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. There are now huge differences in the vaccination rate between Britain’s poorest wards and Britain’s richest wards. In Heartlands ward in my constituency, we have sky-high infection rates but rock bottom vaccination rates, yet, as the Secretary of State knows, the ward is the home to Heartlands Hospital. Down the road, GPs told me this afternoon that there is no Pfizer left in their fridges. There is no certainty about when it is going to arrive, and they do not know how much they will get when it does come. We know that when we open mobile units there is a five-hour queue. We know that pharmacies are successful, but in Birmingham tonight, there are, at best, vaccines for just 10% of the population of 18 to 29-year-olds. Over the next 34 days, how many Pfizer doses will arrive in Britain’s second city? We cannot unlock until we unblock this pipeline.
Before making an intervention like that, the right hon. Gentleman should first thank the teams who have supplied so much vaccination to this country, acknowledge that we have gone faster than almost anywhere in the world and work with us—work with the West Midlands Mayor and work across Birmingham—to make sure that we get the testing done as well and that we get vaccination done wherever possible. The fact that the fridges ran out of Pfizer demonstrates that we are getting through this as fast as we can, but supply is the rate-limiting factor on vaccination—it always has been—and on that the team have done a pretty amazing job, and I support them to go as fast as they possibly can over the weeks to come. That is what we will get done.
Across our country, alarming numbers of people not only forecast that this extension would happen, but increasingly believe that they are never going to see true freedom again—freedom from these restrictions, which the Secretary of State has promised us. What more can he say about the conditions under which we will get to step 4, to reassure those people that this Government will actually set them free and indeed in due course set them free from all the paraphernalia of the management of this pandemic?
I want to get rid of all the restrictions that have been put in place to manage this pandemic, and we will get there. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the link we have explicitly made is to the rate of vaccination and getting the vaccines done over these four weeks to come. Of course it is my duty to recommend to the Prime Minister the actions I think are necessary to keep people safe—as a Health Secretary, that is my duty—but I am also a parliamentarian who represents constituents who want these restrictions removed as soon as safely possible. That is our goal, and this is a difficult balance. I think we have got the balance right, unfortunately, today—I say “unfortunately” because I wish it was easier. It is not, but we are able to make some progress and I very much hope we can make the full degree of progress that my hon. Friend wants to see in the not-too-distant future.
I want to ask about the Test and Trace app, because this relates to freedom as well. As I understand it, the Government intend to keep the legislation in place on Test and Trace all the way through until next March. At the moment, tens of thousands of people every day are pinged by the app. The app does not tell them when the infection might possibly have taken place. I know of schools where four whole classes were sent home because a single teacher had been pinged over the weekend. I have known of construction businesses where every single person has had to be sent home. If we keep on doing this, particularly in some parts of the country where there are high levels of infection, we are going to have large parts of the economy constantly being closed down. I know that there are some measures in place, but the financial problems are still very difficult, especially for middle-class families. They may have the financial freedom but they still find it very difficult to stay in work and be able to do their work when the rules are all changing. If we really want freedom, we are going to have to turn this blunderbuss into something more precise, are we not?
Of course the purpose of the app is to identify people who have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive and let them know that, and therefore ask them to self-isolate—that is what it is there for. The hon. Gentleman asks me to get more data so that it can be more targeted. He will know from last summer’s debate that the restrictions on the amount of data we can gather through that app are put in place by the companies rather than by us, so we cannot be more targeted. I am very happy to arrange a briefing for him on the details of that. But the goal is to ensure, in time, especially for those who have been vaccinated, that we follow through on the pilots we have done under which people who are contacts—not the “cases” themselves—are able to go into a testing regime, rather than having to isolate. There are pilots under way to check clinically that that works, and I look forward to seeing their results.
Will my right hon. Friend advise us about the demographics of those he believes are likely to be hospitalised? Today, Public Health England said that both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines can cope as well with the India variant as the Kent variant. The Pfizer vaccine is 94% effective against hospital admission after one dose and 96% effective after two, while the AstraZeneca vaccine is 71% effective against hospitalisation with one dose and 92% effective after two. Who would be hospitalised to the extent that the NHS would be swamped? Will he promise us that our country will not be locked down because some individuals who could be immunised choose not to be?
Yes. Thankfully, the take-up rates are very high, so only a very small proportion of people have chosen not to come forward to get the jab when offered. My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that the state’s obligation to get the country out of this situation falls more heavily on ensuring that vaccinations are offered than that they are taken up. Our goal is to ensure that take-up is as high as possible but, given that we are not going for mandatory vaccination across the board, the commitment that we make is to offer, and there is an important distinction between the two, as my right hon. Friend draws out.
On the make-up of those hospitalised, the average age has fallen considerably since the vaccination programme started, which is probably in large part due to the fact that, of course, the older cohorts were vaccinated first. That also, on average, reduces the acuity of those in hospital and therefore helps to break the link between hospitalisations and deaths yet further. I hope that answers my right hon. Friend’s first point.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the evidence that women who contract covid during their pregnancies are twice as likely to experience a stillbirth or a premature birth. He will also know that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation decided in May that it was not worth prioritising such patients for the vaccine because the “low infection rates” made the “absolute risk” to pregnant women “very small”. Given the data that has been presented today and the evidence of the high risk of infection rising throughout the country, will the Secretary of State now rethink that decision and ensure that all pregnant women, at any age, and especially those in their third trimester, are fast-tracked to have both doses of the vaccine, so that we can protect not just them but their unborn children from harm?
This is an issue I have discussed with my clinical advisers, because it is very sensitive. I am sure that the hon. Lady would join me in urging all pregnant women to come forward and discuss vaccination with their clinician, because that is important, and she set out some of the reasons why. Of course, we have opened up, from tomorrow, vaccination to all those aged 23 and over, so vaccination will soon be available to every adult, which means that questions of prioritisation will be for the past—other than the question of the vaccination of children, which is separate in many ways and an important question that we will address in the coming weeks.
To anybody who is pregnant, I say: as soon as you are eligible for a vaccine, please discuss it with your doctor, because for the vast majority of people who are pregnant the right thing to do is to get the jab as soon as possible and get both jabs as soon as is practicable. I think that is something on which the hon. Lady and I would agree.
Last week, the Secretary of State told me:
“Our goal…is not a covid-free world…the goal is to live with covid”.—[Official Report, 7 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 678.]
Well, you could have fooled me, and many of our constituents. There is dismay out there tonight. The reopening of the wedding industry is not a meaningful reopening and I think it is cruel the way some are being misled. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend have been very clear today that 19 July is not a new “not before” date but an end to all this, so will the Secretary of State tell the country his assessment of risk and personal responsibility and whether he feels that as a country we remotely have that right at this time?
In a pandemic, the balance between risk and personal responsibility is different, because someone can affect somebody else in a life-threatening manner even without knowing it. If we go to the philosophy of this, the first duty—in fact, the legitimate duty—of the state for any liberal is to prevent harm by individuals to others. Unfortunately, in a pandemic that is what people do if they have the disease, especially asymptomatically—they could be harming others without even knowing it.
Once we have the offer of a vaccine to everybody, and once we have protected and mitigated the large part of that risk, we do need to move back to a world based on personal responsibility. That is right, and that is where we intend to go. I think that we have made steps already in that direction in steps 1, 2 and 3. This country is freer than almost any other in Europe in terms of our economy and of our society. That is partly because of the very rapid vaccination effort here, but I hope that my hon. Friend can take from that the direction we intend to go.
We are in this position because of the delta variant, the spread of which the Government could have slowed by putting India on the red list earlier instead of waiting while the Prime Minister faffed around over his trade trip. By late March, Canada was warning of high levels of covid cases arriving from India. By early April, similar warnings were coming out of Hong Kong. By 7 April, hundreds of people were arriving here from India with covid, and half of them had new variants. Yet even when the Minister finally announced India was on the red list, he inexplicably waited another four days while many more people with the delta variant returned. So can he tell me why he is still refusing to publish the analysis and advice provided on India by the Joint Biosecurity Centre that the Select Committee has asked for? Please will he publish it now?
We published the data for the number of imported cases of B1617 and other variants at the time the decision was taken. That data was the data—including up to 7 April—on which we took the decision, which was announced on 19 April, but it does take that time to see the sequencing, because it operationally takes time. Since we have published that data, I have heard endless calls from those on the Opposition Benches, including from the right hon. Lady, that I should have acted on data that we could not see and that had not been gathered, and that is only a way to make a point if you do not care about the truth of what actually happened.
As the evictions ban comes to an end and rate relief ends, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give businesses such as Fitskool in my constituency, which is still operating under restrictions, that this delay to full step 4 really is the last delay?
I understand entirely the point that my right hon. Friend is making in terms of these restrictions and the impact on businesses and, in particular, the link to those in rent arrears. That is something I have been discussing with the Communities Secretary, and I am very happy to meet her to discuss how in the short term we can ensure that businesses, such as the one in her constituency that she mentions, get the support they need.
The Secretary of State refers to Captain Hindsight as cheap political point scoring to deflect from the seriousness of the debate. May I suggest that he refers to the cartoon character—much suited to his own Government—of Danger Mouse? Can the Secretary of State explain why India was included on the travel red list a full two weeks after countries with much lower rates of infection? This decision came almost immediately after the planned visit by the Prime Minister to India was cancelled. In my constituency of Birmingham, Hall Green, many residents believe that the decision to include Pakistan and Bangladesh as red list countries was politically motivated. To restore public confidence, can the Secretary of State indicate when countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh will be removed from the red list and put on the amber list?
The hon. Gentleman refers to political point scoring, and then makes points that he knows are not supported by the facts. As I have said to this House before, when the decision was taken on the 2 April change to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, test positivity of travellers returning from Pakistan was 4.6%—three times the 1.6% positivity of returning travellers from India. Those are the facts—the basis on which the decision was taken. I am not quite sure, but I think the hon. Gentleman asked at the end of his question whether we can now take those countries off the red list and put them on to the amber list. I do not support that approach, because it is important to keep this country safe.
My right hon. Friend will understand my dismay because, as we have discussed between ourselves, economic harm and the sustainability of businesses is a real concern of mine. I worry about the distress that this announcement has caused. Let me take one particular sector of international travel businesses: cruises. The cruise industry has been closed for international sailing for more than 15 months, and there really needs to be clarity if we are going to save the sector, which supports 90,000 jobs and is worth £10 billion a year to the British economy. I ask my right hon. Friend to really make it clear to the chief medical officer that the cruise industry needs its own road map to be able to embark on international travel again.
My hon. Friend makes a strong and important point. I get the impact on business—of course I do—and especially on international cruises. I am glad we were able to work with the cruise industry to get some domestic cruise trips going again, admittedly in a small way, essentially to pilot it. It is more difficult on an international front. I am very happy to work with her and my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary on what more we can do.
Does the Secretary of State feel any shame that the reason we need to delay the easing of restrictions is entirely down to the incompetence of his Government—not only the three-week delay in putting India on the red list, but the utter failure to supress the virus through basic infection control, tracing and effective isolation? This is the fourth time the Government have let the virus spread. That might be great news for Serco, whose profits are up today, but it is a disaster for everyone else.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, to protect people at home, we also have to do much more to vaccinate people in poorer countries, both because it is a moral imperative but also so that we reduce the chance of new variants being imported here? Will he therefore adopt a jab-matching policy so that, for every single dose administered in the UK from now on, we donate another dose to COVAX, as well as scaling up the UK’s vaccine production? The UK’s pledge of 100 million doses includes only 5 million by the end of September, and that is too little, too late.
No, I do not agree with most of that. In particular, I think the hon. Lady and the whole House should welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that we will be ensuring that when we have excess supplies —I stress when we have excess supplies—we will donate 100 million doses around the world. I am not going to do that before we have excess supplies because we want to make sure people are vaccinated here at home.
The hon. Lady shakes her head, but my first duty is to protect people here in this country, while at the same time making sure that people get access around the world, as we have done, for instance, with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab—half a billion jabs have been done around the world. That is my order of priorities; I am very, very clear about it. We will help the rest of the world to get vaccinated, but we also need to look out for and vaccinate the British population. As for the first half of the hon. Lady’s statement, it was completely wrong.
My constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme have done everything we have asked of them during this pandemic. They have stayed at home and protected the NHS, and then they went out and got vaccinated in huge numbers, so any sense that these restrictions are to protect those who chose not to get vaccinated will be seen by them and me as deeply unfair. Will the Secretary of State set out what assessment he or his scientific advisers have made of the extent to which these restrictions are required to protect those who chose not to get protected?
This change is emphatically not for the purpose of protecting those who have chosen not to get vaccinated. It is emphatically to ensure that we have the time to offer the jab—both first jabs to all adults and second jabs for those who have had their first. To go through the data on that, currently, 93% of over-40s have had their first jab, but there are still 4.5 million who have not yet had the second jab. We can get through the majority of those over the next four weeks. Then, of course, we have been able to bring forward the date by which we will have offered a first jab to everybody. This is about the ability of the people who want to come forward to get jabbed to do so, and that is what we will achieve by 19 July to that degree. I hope that we end up with an uptake of almost 100% by the end of this; the uptake figures have been absolutely astonishing, so we will keep offering, we will keep encouraging people to come forward and we will keep trying to make the system and the vaccines as accessible as possible, but the thing that is in the direct control of the Government—subject to supply, of course—is the offering of the jab, and that is the commitment that we have made by 19 July.
The Secretary of State will know that the hospitality and tourism industry has probably been hit more than any other part of our economy throughout this period. One of the challenges at the moment is that the ongoing restrictions mean that hospitality and tourism businesses need more staff than normal in order to cater for fewer customers than normal. Is he aware that the biggest single issue raised with me by hospitality and tourism industry bosses in the lakes and the dales is a lack of staff? This lack of staff is largely caused by the Government’s new visa rules. Would he agree to get his Immigration Minister friend to sit down with me and, more importantly, hospitality and tourism leaders from Cumbria and other rural areas—and other parts of the country involved in tourism—to discuss an emergency way of getting that vital boost to our hospitality and tourism industry just now?
I am happy to raise that for the hon. Gentleman. I almost thought he was going to say, at the end of that, that he was glad that Britain now controls its own borders.
Young people have made big sacrifices during the pandemic and seen two years of their lives disrupted. Many students and school leavers will be leaving school and university between now and 19 July, so will the Secretary of State confirm that what he said in his statement about removing the 30-person limit on commemorative events will include graduation ceremonies and school-leaving parties in commercial venues? After all, school students in particular have been educated in bubbles with each other for months now, and it would add insult to injury if they were to be denied an opportunity to say farewell to each other.
I will ensure that the precise Cabinet Office guidance reaches my right hon. Friend’s mobile phone as soon as possible. I am now an hour and five minutes into this, and I am afraid I am going to have to get back to him on that one.
I am sure, Mr Speaker, that the Secretary of State for Health heard what you said at the beginning of this statement. May I ask the Secretary of State how we got ourselves into this position? He has been very good at coming to the House and making statements on covid, but on the biggest, most important day, the press were given an embargoed statement at 3 o’clock and the Prime Minister had a big showy press conference at 6, yet he could not be bothered to turn up until 8.30. This is a clear breach of the ministerial code. How did it happen? Who thought it was a good idea, and who actually broke the ministerial code?
All I can say, Mr Speaker, is that I am here now answering questions and I am happy to stay for as long as you need me.
In that case, I call Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
Mr Speaker, this is an unexpected surprise, and I am sure it is for the Secretary of State as well. I am sure that he will be interested in my question. Ultimately, these decisions are a matter of judgment. Can he publish that data on the risk to the health service and the risk to individuals of death, as opposed to those on the social harm and the harm to businesses? Can he therefore tell us why this judgment has been made?
The best thing that I can point my hon. Friend to is the slides that were presented by the chief medical officer today. I will see whether there is anything further that we can publish, but as a general rule, we publish all the data on which these judgments are made. Central to the judgment today is the fact that we are seeing a rise in hospitalisations, especially over the past week, and especially among those who are unvaccinated or have just had a single jab. Those people are not largely those who are unvaccinated out of choice; it is those who are unvaccinated because they have not yet had the opportunity because they are younger.
Until about a week ago, hospitalisations were basically flat. We thought that the link might have been completely broken between cases and hospitalisations or that it might be a lag. Sadly, hospitalisations then started to rise. For deaths, we have not yet seen that rise, which I am very pleased about; hopefully they will never rise, in which case the future will be much easier. It may still be that there is an element of it that is a lag, and we will be looking out for that very carefully over the couple of weeks ahead, but nevertheless our goal is to get those vaccines done in the five weeks between now and 19 July in order to make sure that this country is safe. I will commit to publishing anything further that we can that underpinned the decision, but I can honestly say to my hon. Friend that most of it is already in the public domain.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I completely agree with every single word of your statement earlier, as I guess you knew I would. I want to ask, however, about the provisions for our business from next week. As you know, these things were all timed to change at the same time as the national situation, which has now been changed.
I presume that there will be a knock-on effect on parliamentary business: whether Select Committees will meet in hybrid form or virtually, how we will conduct our parliamentary business in the Chamber and the Division Lobbies, and so on. I know that some of that is your responsibility solely, Mr Speaker, but some of it is the responsibility of the Government and might need changes to the Standing Orders. I wonder whether you have had any notification from the Government that they intend to bring such changes forward or of when we will debate them, when we will ensure we get them right, whether there will be proper debate and whether there will be a business statement to tell us when all that will happen.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Listening to the Secretary of State, I was struck by what he said about the need to get people vaccinated and about the very important difference that that makes to the level of risk. In the House’s decision making about how we conduct our affairs, would it be relevant to look at the proportion of Members who have been single or double-vaccinated? My judgment would be that if the vast majority of us have been vaccinated, this level of social distancing is simply not necessary and the House could get back to what I know you want, Mr Speaker: much more effective holding of the Government to account.
I have a lot of sympathy with getting this Chamber absolutely back to normality. What I would say is that it is not just about Members having double doses; it is also about the staff, to whom we have a duty of care. That is why I said, quite a long time ago, “Let’s see if we can’t get our staff and Members inoculated more quickly than we are doing at the moment.”
On the other point of order, we have an important Opposition day tomorrow. Let us see whether the Government bring forward proposals on Wednesday for the House to decide on its own procedures from Monday up to the summer recess. I expect the Leader of the House to consult other parties in the House before the Government bring forward those proposals; I hope and am sure that those conversations will take place, and take place quickly, in order for the House to know where we are going. Because the date is so close to the summer recess, my suggestion is that it would be easier to take it through to then, for the sake of three days, if this House agrees to what is being proposed.