Thursday 17 June 2021
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
Covid: Vitamin D
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in Westminster Hall to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be a suspension between each debate. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate.
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the value of vitamin D as a defence against covid-19 infection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. As so often happens, this is one of the debates that I applied for ages ago, and then they all come. I have a debate next Tuesday as well, which has been around for some time, but it is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall. I love Westminster Hall. I love this place and I love speaking in the Chamber. I love the ritual, the tradition, the history, and how things are done. It is great to be a part of it and I feel very privileged. I know other Members feel that as well.
I am pleased to see all my friends here. I have many friends in this place—at least, I hope I have. It is always good to see the Scottish National party and the Labour party’s shadow spokespersons in their place. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and I often debate here together. It is wonderful to see you in your place as well, Mrs Murray. I look forward to a constructive and good time.
I am pleased, as always, to see the Minister in her place. I say that every day, but that is not to say that I mean it any less. I genuinely look forward to her response and to what we can do. Other Members who I had hoped would be here have various other things to do, perhaps something to do with the by-election in Chesham and Amersham or whatever. People who perhaps had hoped to be here, unfortunately, are not, and we have to accept that and move ahead.
On this debate on vitamin D, other right hon. and hon. Members have a greater knowledge than I do, and perhaps if they had been available today their contributions would have greatly enhanced the debate and the conversation.
Vitamin D could well play a role in the immune response to respiratory viruses and could potentially mitigate the inflammatory response. I want to put that on the record at the beginning. I also want to declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for respiratory health, which I have a particular interest in. I have chaired it for some time and we did an inquiry last year. Hugh McKinney does the admin and helps me greatly in the job that I do and the role that I play in the inquiry, and in the launch of its results and conclusions. I look forward to the year ahead.
I also want to place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate. I also thank those who have met with me and written to me in recent months on this subject, all motivated by deep concern about the shocking toll that covid-19 has had on so many families, my own included. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that I lost my mother-in-law in October last year to covid-19. It came very quickly. I think very few families have not been touched by covid-19 and have not lost family members as a result. It has been in every corner of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The covid-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through societies around the world. As we gradually move towards life in a post-pandemic society, many questions will be asked as we consider the impacts of the disease on our communities and economies. Last night, I personally voted with the Government on the two motions that came before the House, because I believe—we have this saying, as I am sure you do, Mrs Murray—it is better to be safe than sorry. I think it is better for us to be more cautious and take the extra four weeks, and then I hope we can relax some of the regulations on 19 July and move out from there.
Some of the questions that will be asked will be difficult. What made the world so vulnerable, and why were so many people ill-prepared? I say people, but it was probably Governments that were ill-prepared. Predictability is one factor that was missing from this pandemic, and I understand that only too well. With previous outbreaks of swine and avian influenzas, there were key links to the ecologies of poultry and pig farming in certain nations, but nobody predicted the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2013 or indeed the Zika virus outbreak in South America in 2015.
I believe it can be said that covid-19 was the major global pandemic that the world expected to happen at some stage, and yet no country was prepared, ready or equipped to fight it as perhaps they could have been. I am ever mindful of the fact that this time last year—indeed, as far back as March last year—it was hard to know what was the right thing to do because of the uncertainty over how covid-19 would react and the number of people who were being diagnosed with, and dying from, the disease. It is always very difficult to find a strategy right away, but I think perhaps we should have been a wee bit more prepared to respond in a good way.
Many lessons have been learned, and I know that we are all learning. I am a great believer in the saying, “I learn something new every day.” Anyone who is of an inquisitive nature, as of course I am, wants to learn things so they can use them in the life they lead, as I do here as an MP, or when I deal with constituents back home in the office. Covid-19 first emerged from Wuhan in 2019, but it is important that we now focus on what needs to change in order to mitigate future harms, especially with respect to the most vulnerable, who have paid the biggest price in this pandemic.
I am greatly encouraged by the vaccine roll-out and the number of people who have taken advantage of it. It has been an absolute success story for our Government and for our Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). Every region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has benefited from the vaccine roll-out, and in Northern Ireland we are taking vast steps towards the inoculation of almost all the adult population with both doses. I had my last one in May, and my wife has had hers. My sons are 32, 30 and 28, and they and their wives have had theirs, so we are moving down into the younger category.
Robin Swann, the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Minister, is doing an absolutely superb job. The Secretary of State for Health often refers to the meetings that he has once, twice or three times a week with Robin Swann, and to their very close working relationship. I think we, as a nation, owe a debt to our Secretary of State for Health and to the Health Minister in Northern Ireland. There has also been co-operation with Scotland and Wales. We are better today because we have co-operated. I do not say that in a political way, but it really does show how the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can work better together to deliver for everyone equally, wherever they may be.
Compared with February 2020, where we stand today with the treatment of covid-19 has completely changed thanks to fast-developing treatments resulting from the incredible work of scientific researchers who successfully uncovered the viral sequence of SARS-CoV-2 during the early stages of the outbreak in January 2020. Every one of us is overawed by our scientists’ ability to find a vaccine. They worked hard at that, and our Government committed to buying the vaccine even before we knew it was going to be successful. That was visionary of the Government, and I am greatly impressed by their commitment. While the rest of Europe dallied and were not sure what to do, our Minister and our Government here were getting the vaccine and preparing for it.
Fewer people who go into hospital with the virus today are guaranteed to end up in an intensive care unit or on ventilation. The largest vaccination distribution programme in medical and scientific history has been developed in just one year. What a feat that has been for our scientists, the health service and the Government and Ministers here and across all the regions. That was no mean feat, when we consider that it took four years to develop the mumps vaccine. At that time, four years was considered a speedy process. That happened in my lifetime, and that was how long it took to make it happen. This vaccine was developed in six months—wow! Is that not an incredible feat of medical science? The scientists were able to do that, and our Government and Ministers worked alongside them, close together in partnership, to make it happen.
I pay tribute to all the scientists who began working on the vaccine as far back as February 2020, before the virus became a global pandemic, and to the clinical trial volunteers, who risked their own health—they were not sure—to take something that was only experimental for the benefit of others. I also pay tribute to our Government officials, who negotiated around the usual years-long red tape and bureaucratic processes involved with vaccine development to fast-track this life-saving vaccine without compromising public safety. I admire the people who became the guinea pigs—perhaps that is the way to put it—for the vaccine. They enabled us to receive it in the knowledge that it was safe. They have all shaped science in just over one year. That is an incredible result, for which we should give thanks.
We are gradually moving towards the post-pandemic world, but we know we are not completely in the clear yet, and it will take a while to get there. While the vaccine works its wonders around the world, we still rely on treatments for covid-19 that help to reduce the need for hospital admission and make the stay in hospital sooner and shorter for those who need to be admitted.
I believe in what the Minister, the vaccines Minister and the Prime Minister have said: we are not all safe until everyone has had the vaccine. The Government’s duty is to our own people and our country, but they also have the duty to ensure vaccines are spread across the world. The Prime Minister said that yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, and the Government have committed to billions of vaccines. The G7 gave us an opportunity to reinforce that. I have no doubt that many other countries across the world, including the United States and other countries in Europe and the western world are committed to doing that.
The use of remdesivir and corticosteroids— dexamethasone and hydrocortisone—has become part of the standard treatment across the world and continues to improve patient recovery, but, as I have said, we need to mitigate future harms. One of the ways to do that could be through the use of vitamin D—as the title of this debate suggests—against the virus, and I want to raise awareness of that. Many of the people I have spoken to are clear that vitamin D could have a role. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has been clear in his commitment to the plusses of vitamin D, and I think that is good.
At the start of this pandemic, a good friend of mine who has a nutritional degree warned staff in the office to start taking vitamin D, and I conveyed that to my own staff in my office. “Build yourselves up,” he told us, “to give your body the chance to fight at its fittest,” and he has been proven to be absolutely right. Vitamin D has several very important functions, the most vital of which is facilitating a normal and healthy immune system and resistance to certain diseases. Vitamin D was found by one particular study to be effective in regulating the mood and decreasing levels of anxiety and depression. We have had a very difficult year. The Minister responded to a debate yesterday, which I participated in as well, about the mental health of children and young people. She spoke very well in summing up. I think every one of us realises that high levels of anxiety and depression are prevalent among not just adults but children. Can vitamin D help with that? There is some evidence that it can, which is something that we should pursue.
The study found that people suffering from depression noted an improvement in their symptoms by taking vitamin D supplements, so it is easy to understand why it is often called the sunshine drug. It is not because the sun shines, but because it perhaps lifts the mood. Many of us feel that wee bit better every day when the sun shines. It gives our spirits a lift. By the looks of yourself, Mrs Murray, you have been getting a bit of sun down in your neck of the woods, and you will feel better for it.
As with any vitamin, however, it works most effectively when there is a deficiency. We get the most out of a vitamin if our body is deprived of it, and we will see the changes fairly early if we really need it, so if our body responds positively to vitamin D it is clearly of benefit. I was once told, “If your cup is full of tea and more tea is poured in, that isn’t useful as the tea will of course pour over the edges.” It is all about balance, and vitamin D gives that to those who need it, and gives them a lift.
Vitamin D deficiency is affecting an increasing number of people, mostly due to lifestyle and increased time spent indoors. My goodness, I am one of those who is not entirely convinced whether working from home is always the best. It is an opinion, and I try not to impress any of my opinions or thoughts upon other people, but I give that as an observation. The routine that we all need of going to work is probably good. If someone sits in a house all day that cannot be good. There is also the use of sunscreens, living in larger cities where sunlight is blocked, and having darker skin, because the higher the level of melanin the less vitamin D can be absorbed. I am very fortunate that I have lived in the countryside or small villages all my life. I have never had to live in the city. I do not mean this offensively to anybody who lives in London, but I have no wish to live in London or any of the big cities. I am very happy to be where I am.
Given our lifestyle over the past year, it would not be surprising to discover that a good number of us lost some level of vitamin D from our system, because if we do those things our vitamin D levels will be down and we will need to enhance them. We spent months living a very abnormal lifestyle as we heeded the message to stay at home and stay indoors, allowed only one session of exercise a day at the peak of the pandemic. Think back to those weeks and months between March and July last year and recall the empty streets, parks and beaches during the day because everyone was staying inside or around their house—our elderly folk in care homes even more so.
Our nature is to want to talk to each other; we are elected representatives because we want to engage with people, and we do so better when we are as close as we are now, or even closer over a cup of coffee, than when we are in a Zoom meeting. Zoom meetings had a role to play. They helped us to connect with people over the past 12 months in a way that I certainly never had before. Technologically I have probably advanced, but certainly not as far as my grandchildren, who are young. My level of capability is not very high. Zoom played its part, but it did not do all that we wanted.
Let us think back to those weeks and months between March and July last year. We all agree that that was not a normal way for us to live for any period of time, let alone for months. Because vitamin D is produced in the skin through exposure to the sun, it adds weight to the case that levels of anxiety and depression rose among people not just because of the impact of the pandemic in other areas of our lives, but simply because we were spending so much time indoors, out of the sunlight, for such a long period of time.
Some people, like myself, were fortunate to live in the countryside, where they were able to go for a walk every night. We were lucky because we had some of the best weather we have had for such a long time between March and July.
Most of us have heard of the condition seasonal affective disorder, better known as SAD, where, during the winter months, reduced sunlight can lower our levels of serum 25(OH)D, causing depression-like symptoms in some people. Various studies have shown that taking vitamin D supplements can improve the symptoms of that disorder.
Some foresight was lacking at the beginning of lockdown in 2020. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea back then to suggest that people got as much sunlight as possible, whether that was sitting by an open window or out in the garden where possible, or took vitamin D supplements if those options were not available.
Although the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence reported that there was insufficient data to recommend the use of vitamin D or calcifediol as a defence against or treatment for covid-19 infection, several recent studies have produced evidence that offer more hopeful results. I want to give some of the evidential base today.
An observational study carried out from March to May 2020 at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona tested 838 patients admitted with covid-19, of which 447 were given 530 micrograms of vitamin D on day one and 266 micrograms on days three, seven, 15 and 30. The other 391 patients were not given that treatment on admission. Of the 447 patients treated with vitamin D when they were admitted to hospital, just 20 needed assistance from ICU, compared with 82 of the non-treated 391 patients. The findings go further, and report that just 21 out of 447 patients treated with vitamin D died from covid-19, compared with 62 of the 391 non-treated patients. I suggest that we have an evidential base, from the trials and tests that were done at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, that proves the benefit of vitamin D. When patients with covid-19 infections were treated with vitamin D on admission, it significantly reduced the need for ICU admission and more of them survived.
Other research has shown that those who experienced acute respiratory failure with covid-19 had high rates of vitamin D deficiency. I am particularly interested in the subject. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on respiratory health, I take a deep interest in these issues. Although these are small, randomised studies, they provide a credible level of data and evidence showing that the lack of vitamin D is a factor in rates of ICU admission and mortalities. We need to look further for evidence that vitamin D deficiency plays a role in the mortality rate from covid-19 infection and consider sensitively why this virus has been so devastating for our black and minority ethnic communities here in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A peer-reviewed article published in 2018 in BMC Pediatrics reported that vitamin D deficiency was on the rise almost exclusively among black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. A clear section of the community need help and support, and awareness needs to be raised on the need to take vitamin D.
The University of Birmingham supported the study, also reporting that the national diet and nutrition survey concluded that nearly half the UK’s population were vitamin D-deficient, with BAME groups in Britain and throughout northern Europe observed to be most at risk due to the fact that darker skins produce far less vitamin D. Also—I say this most respectfully—the observance of cultural traditions that require the wearing of clothing from head to foot results in a lack of skin exposure to sunlight on a daily basis.
In Northern Ireland, and maybe in Scotland as well—the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will speak shortly—we do not get much of the sun, and when it does come, we tend to take advantage of it to the point where we burn. The point I am making is that those with ginger hair might find that they are unable to accept the sun. We have the first grandchild I am aware of in our family who has ginger hair. I am not sure if any family member has been ginger-haired before, but we have one now, so we will have to protect Max more from the sunshine than the rest of us. It is always good to be ready.
I made the previous point out of sensitivity. If we are to recognise this health matter, it must be taken into account. The most important source of vitamin D is sunlight, because so little is contained in food. I am not sure whether this is something that can be done—I am sure we will understand that from the Minister’s response—but it might be something to consider. The lack of vitamin D has a severe impact on children’s growth, so will she acknowledge the findings of the national diet and nutritional survey, perhaps in conjunction with the Department for Education, and ensure that our children and adolescents receive vitamin D supplements every day?
One thing I remember from school—I remember many things, although it is quite a long time ago—is that we had a bottle of milk every morning when we were at school. That goes back to the ’60s in my case. I remember it because it was important for us at that time to have the supplementation and the goodness that came in milk. Times have changed a wee bit, so we might now get the goodness, nourishment and benefit that comes out of vitamin D.
Where vitamin D is concerned, our supplementation policies and implementation strategies need to be updated urgently, especially now that rates of covid-19 infection have begun to increase with the delta variant. In yesterday evening’s debate, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), said that
“we must learn to live with this disease”.—[Official Report, 16 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 388.]
That is my opinion as well. I get the flu jab every September or October, because I am a diabetic, which is one of the chronic diseases. I will probably get the covid-19 booster jab at the same time as that next year. We have got to learn to live with such things. Over the next four weeks or so, with the delay to the relaxation moving to 19 July, we will see how well that works.
Vitamin D supplementation must be adopted through an evidence-based strategy, and we have sound evidence-based findings from the University College London Institute of Health Informatics. The information confirmed that the death rate from covid-19 was about two to three times higher for BAME groups in England than for the general population. We have a really big job to do to look after that section of the community. We must raise awareness, perhaps with a strategy, and sometimes we need to involve community leaders, whether those be leaders of churches or community groups. There are many good people out there who want to help. I believe that if we can get them all together, we can do something.
With those tragic figures to which the University of London referred, we can see the sense in vitamin D being an effective way to mitigate future harm to our BAME communities from covid-19 infection. Can we prevent further loss of life on such a scale by prescribing for those who have been most vulnerable to the virus a simple but effective programme of vitamin D supplementation? That might sound simplistic, but there is an evidential base for the benefit that could be gained.
If that is something that can be done at small cost, with great benefits—as I believe them to be—it should be done. Will the Minister who is present today look—as I know she has—at the evidential base and the research? Will her Department be prepared to look at raising awareness among those in the community, and the BAME community in particular, across the whole of the United Kingdom, where responsibility lies, and perhaps to commit to new funding or investment, or talking in partnership with those who are involved in further research into unlocking the benefits of vitamin D as a defence against covid-19 infection?
I will conclude by saying that I believe this research is necessary—indeed, absolutely crucial—if we are to determine whether vitamin D can play an effective role in the prevention and even the treatment of covid-19 infection on a broader scale. I say that because the Government have proven, working alongside all the regional Administrations across our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that if we work together, we can, first, be stronger together and, secondly, be effective together. As I say, when it comes to looking at the treatment of covid-19 infection on a broader scale, we need to do that. We should also be very aware of the issue of vitamin D deficiency in the community, and the consequences for those who are vulnerable.
I believe that my job, and the job of all of us as elected representatives, is to represent our people well. I believe that every MP does that job well and we have a responsibility to do it well. One of the things that I have always been willing to do, all my life, is to help people, and I am very fortunate that I have had some 35 or 36 years to do that. Although we are able to pull off some great things sometimes and have some wonderful success stories, there are some times that may not be as easy. However, I believe that here we have an example of what we can do to do things better, and it is something that we can do better together.
As always, Mrs Murray, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
I congratulate, very warmly and sincerely, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing today’s debate. As I have done in many of the debates about coronavirus, I pay tribute to the countless NHS doctors, nurses and staff for all their hard work throughout the pandemic. I also pay tribute to our Armed Forces, who have stepped up so magnificently during the vaccination programme, and in doing so I will also mention the many volunteers at vaccine centres. The huge success of the vaccination programme would not be possible without their dedication and hard work.
In Scotland, 64.6% of the entire population have had their first dose and 45.2% have had both doses. Indeed, in the past seven days alone 5.8% of Scotland has received a dose and we are currently administering an average of 45,000 new vaccinations per day. That is a tremendous feat by all involved and I am so thankful to everyone who has stepped up, booked their vaccination appointments, rolled up their sleeves and had their jab. If I may, I pay tribute to Ravia, who vaccinated me in Glasgow mosque just a few weeks ago.
The vaccination programme offers a light at the end of the tunnel. With more people being vaccinated every day, I think that we are nearing the end of an incredibly difficult period and I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford about how challenging it has been.
Various reports have outlined the importance of vitamin D in the immune response to respiratory viruses and suggested that potentially it can mitigate the inflammatory response. We know that vitamin D is important for our wider health, and that it helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. Those nutrients are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Across the UK, most people should receive sufficient vitamin D from sunlight between March and September. However, it is very common for people not to produce enough vitamin D between October and March. In addition, due to the various necessary lockdowns it is inevitable that many people have spent more time inside over the past year. As a result, they may be in need of additional vitamin D supplements.
In order for us to be as healthy as possible, which will help us all to fight covid, it is vital that everyone receives enough vitamin D. So, during the pandemic the Scottish Government offered everyone on the shielding list a free four-month supply of vitamin D from December 2020. Around 71,500 people opted to receive a supply, which was sent to their home from the week commencing 23 November.
However, the Scottish Government’s recognition of the importance of vitamin D to everyone’s health and wellbeing has not been confined to the pandemic. Indeed, the Scottish National party Government have recognised the significance of vitamin D for years. For example, since 2017 the Scottish Government have made vitamin D supplements available as part of the Healthy Start vitamins provided free of cost to all pregnant women. In addition, breastfeeding women and children under 12 months in Scotland can get free vitamin D supplements containing the recommended daily amount. The current advice in Scotland is clear that everyone should consider taking a daily supplement of vitamin D, particularly during the winter months.
The hon. Member for Strangford touched on the fact that perhaps we do not get the good weather. It is always a bit terrifying in Scotland when the good weather appears and people adopt what we call the “taps aff” approach. There is a balance to be sought between keeping a certain amount of clothing on in the good weather and the taps aff approach. As someone whose daughter has ginger hair, I would certainly acknowledge the difficulties that those with ginger hair might have.
It is specifically recommended that groups at high risk of vitamin D deficiency take daily supplements all year round. That includes pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and children under five, and people who have low or no exposure to the sun. The hon. Member for Strangford was right to touch on this. Particularly people from minority ethnic groups with darker skin require more sun exposure to make vitamin D.
The Scottish Government have recognised that vitamin D is hugely important to our health and wellbeing as a whole, which will in turn help us fight covid-19. It is vital that we take all necessary steps to combat the virus, from continuing to wear masks and taking the vaccine—once offered, obviously—to, if possible, increasing our vitamin D intake. It is also important for our health all year round. The significance of taking vitamin D supplements should not be confined to battling covid-19, but should be seen as part of a holistic view of our health and wellbeing. I think many of us underestimate the importance of vitamin D, particularly during the winter months, which might have an impact on our health. For that reason I support the Government’s policies to provide free vitamin D supplements to pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children under 12.
The pandemic has made many of us reassess our own health and wellbeing, with many of us increasingly thankful that we ourselves and our loved ones are healthy. Vitamin D can play an important role in keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy, particularly in battling coronavirus and other respiratory diseases. It has been my pleasure to be able to take part in this afternoon’s debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray, for the second time today. Aren’t you lucky to hear from me twice! I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate, and on the characteristically thoughtful argument that he set out. As he said, he and I do a lot of debates together, and as so often, I found myself agreeing with lots of what he said. However, the congratulations were not universal in my household as it is my wedding anniversary, and Emma was hoping I would be home sooner. So I congratulate him, but she reserves her congratulations, I am afraid.
I also want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his chairship of the all-party group for respiratory health. It is a really important issue, certainly for communities like mine, and for communities up and down the country it is right that we champion that in Parliament as best we can. He raised two points that stuck with me. The first was on pandemic preparation. As he said, we cannot predict the future—we wish that we could; it would be a lot easier—but the one thing we do know is that the best preparation for anything, certainly when it comes to significant global events that affect us so enormously, is good health, and vitamin D is an important part of that. Secondly, he spoke about therapeutics—when people end up in hospital, how can we best improve their outcomes? I will explore some of those points briefly myself.
It is a crucial task to evaluate all aspects of this awful pandemic to see what we can do best to tackle it. Some 128,000 of our countrymen and women have lost their lives, resulting in an awful lot of broken hearts, and we would do anything to stop there being any more. That is why debates such as this are so important. We should be cheered that the vaccination roll-out continues to be successful—80% of adults have had their first dose—but no vaccine ever provides 100% protection, so any other possible methods to protect or treat covid-19 should be considered.
It is striking that yesterday, exactly a year since low-dose steroid treatment was found to successfully combat the virus in some cases, another life-saving treatment was discovered, in the form of artificial antibodies—a treatment expected to save six lives for every 100 patients treated. The prospect of vitamin D as a preventive measure and a treatment should be duly considered, particularly as it is cheap and widely available.
The hon. Member for Strangford touched on the evidence base in his contribution. Last December, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued guidelines that said
“there was little evidence for using vitamin D supplements to prevent or treat COVID-19.”
In terms of prevention, NICE found that
“low vitamin D status was associated with more severe outcomes from COVID-19.”
For instance, in an audit of covid-19 patients in hospital in Newcastle, only one in five intensive care unit patients had vitamin D levels that would be considered adequate for overall health, contrasted with two in five non-ITU patients.
However, there is much still to understand about whether that is a genuinely causal relationship or a correlating one. In its assessment, the British Medical Journal said it may at least be partially due to correlations between vitamin D levels and other risk factors, such as age, genetics and obesity. Clearly, the evidence base is still developing. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the latest information that she knows and how we might develop that evidence base going forward. For example, the Barcelona study that was mentioned was new to me, so I will certainly look that up.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) made strong points about the fact that, outside covid-19, vitamin D levels are an important area for us to focus on in this country. Vitamin D is important to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. We know that in this country the right levels of vitamin D are not being routinely met; I wonder if I might fall into that category. Some studies suggest that one in five Brits have vitamin D levels lower than in concentrations necessary for general health, but due to our climate—we all know this; we have enjoyed our one week of summer and it seems like it might be coming to an end—that rises to two in five in winter. In fact, we are one of the most vitamin D deficient countries in Europe. We should recognise that when considering general good health.
As colleagues have said, the deficiency is notably unequal and staggeringly high among certain communities. For instance, in the UK over 50% of those from an Asian background are severely vitamin D deficient, leaving them particularly vulnerable to musculoskeletal disorders. Since 2016, Public Health England has recommended that everyone over five takes a 10 mcg vitamin supplement in the winter months, but that does not seem to be gripping quite yet, either in its practice or its adherence, as the rise in Victorian diseases such as rickets confirms.
We should come together across the UK to do much more to boost vitamin D levels. I would be interested to hear the Government’s latest thinking on the idea of vitamin D fortification in the UK, a solution that would provide a boost to public health.
To conclude, much more research needs to be done on assessing the value of vitamin D as a defence against covid-19. We need every tool we can get, so that is the right thing to do. However, we know that the value of vitamin D more widely is significant and there is more we can do to ensure that that is a feature of our population’s health. That is something we could all come together to do.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, I think for the first time. I offer my warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. I am sure if he had not secured it, he would have contributed to another debate in here this afternoon. I intended to say this yesterday, but I did not get the chance: I would like to send my warm and best wishes to the hon. Gentleman’s mother. He will know why I am saying that. It is a delight to be here today to respond to him.
I will try to respond directly to all the points that were made today, if not specifically then more broadly, but I am always here if hon. Members want to ask me for more specific details. We consistently review the data and the latest information as it emerges on covid-19. Our objectives are to ensure that people are not made adversely ill by covid-19 and that as many people as possible stay out of hospital, off ventilators and improve as quickly as possible.
That includes the progress we have seen in treatments for those suffering with the virus, including longer-term preventive measures, such as our strategy to reduce obesity, which we know is one of the few modifiable factors of covid-19, and the implementation of the vaccination programme.
Some 78.9% of adults in the UK have now received the first dose of the covid-19 vaccine, and 56.6% have received the second dose. Everyone who has spoken, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), and the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), has congratulated volunteers and those who have run and operated the vaccine programme across the UK, and I add my congratulations. It has been phenomenal, and we have much to be thankful for. I am sure that everyone will join me in acknowledging the dedication of volunteers who have answered the clarion call and turned up. I think the hon. Member for Glasgow East said—it may have been yesterday—that they have donned the vest and got out there, and they are still doing those jobs. That is just amazing.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been reports that vitamin D may reduce the risk of coronavirus. I have to sound a note of caution here because, when looking at the data and the evidence, we cannot cherry-pick the odd report here and there. I am not accusing anyone of doing that, but we have to take a more robust view of the data and look at it in the round.
I will pick up on the points that the hon. Member for Strangford made about BAME communities. To date, the UK Biobank’s most robust data on covid, vitamin D and ethnicity has not found a link between vitamin D concentration and ethnicity that could reduce covid-19 infections. There was no link, sadly. It would really be encouraging for us if the data showed that vitamin D prevented people from catching covid—that would be quite amazing—and we are certainly working on and searching for that data, but we do not have it yet.
On 14 January, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), responded to a debate on this matter, in which the hon. Member for Strangford also participated. I welcome the opportunity to debate it further and set out the measures that we are delivering. As my hon. Friend said:
“Several nutrients are involved in the normal functioning of the immune system; however, there is currently insufficient evidence that taking vitamin D will mitigate the effects of covid-19.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 597.]
Last December, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, and Public Health England published rapid guidance in response to the queries that the hon. Member for Strangford and others have raised on vitamin D in relation to covid-19. The data was reviewed by an expert panel and included the best available scientific evidence published to date, including both randomised controlled trials and observational studies. The expert panel supported existing Government advice and the recommendation for everyone to take 10 mcg of vitamin D supplement throughout the autumn and winter to protect their bone and muscle health. However, the panel concluded that there is currently not enough evidence available to support taking vitamin D to prevent or treat covid-19.
There are still significant gaps in the current evidence, as was the case in January. To date, studies have not reached the high level of data quality required to revise the guidance. The current evidence base is mixed and dominated by low-quality studies, with substantial concerns around bias and confounding evidence. There are lots of studies out there, but some of them do not have the quality and the robustness of data and evidence that are required.
Currently, studies are unable to demonstrate a causal relationship between vitamin D and covid-19 for anyone. That is because many of the risk factors for severe covid-19 outcomes are the same as the risk factors for low vitamin D status. Owing to the lack of reliable evidence, the NICE guidance recommends that more research be conducted on the subject. Government guidance continues to stress the use of high-quality randomised control trials in future studies.
At present, more than 90 trials that are looking at the efficacy of vitamin D as an intervention for covid-19 across all stages of the disease are either under way or due to publish, either in the UK or internationally. Given that 90 trials are currently under way, possibly—hopefully—the evidence and data that we require will come our way soon. I would be really disappointed if those 90 trials do not give us the evidence we want. Let us hope that they do.
Some of the trials are of the high quality that we require to produce the data, and will answer key questions. NICE, PHE and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition are monitoring new evidence from trials as it becomes available.
The long-standing Government advice is that, every year, between October and early March, everyone is advised to take a supplement containing 10 mcg—400 international units—of vitamin D a day. Vitamin D helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body and to protect bone and muscle health. In April and autumn 2020, PHE reiterated the advice and also ran a public awareness campaign throughout December 2020. That had a specific focus on BAME communities, where vitamin D supplementation is important.
Vitamin D is made in the skin when exposed to sunlight during the spring and summer months and the PHE advice to continue taking vitamin D supplements is therefore particularly important for those who were shielding, care home residents and prisoners, as well as those who choose to cover most of their skin when outdoors, as these groups are likely to have reduced sunlight exposure. Importantly, individuals with dark skin are more at risk of not having enough vitamin D and are advised to take the 10 mcg of vitamin D supplements all year round.
We have actively supported the uptake of the PHE recommendations. Over winter 2020-21, the Government provided a free four-month supply of daily vitamin D supplements to adults on the clinically extremely vulnerable list who had opted to receive the supplements, all residents in residential and nursing care homes in England, and the prison population, where Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service made supplements available across England and Wales.
The Government prioritised groups that were asked to stay indoors more than usual over spring and summer 2020 due to national restrictions. The supplements were provided to help support their general health and, in particular, bone and muscle health.
Recipients of the Healthy Start scheme are also offered supplements containing vitamin D by the Government. Guidance on vitamin D can be found online, and we encourage individuals to buy 10 mcg vitamin D supplements from retailers such as supermarkets, chemists and health food shops.
As research continues on the impact of vitamin D on covid-19, we will continue to monitor evidence as it is published. We have committed to keeping this under review and, as I have said, we are committed to keeping the 90 trials that are under way under review, some of which are high quality, producing robust information.
I do not believe all the trials start at the same time or aim to finish at the same time and there are 90 different trials, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a concise answer to that question. I reassure him that we are in the same place. If the trials proved that vitamin D had an effect on covid-19, we would be the first to shout about the results. As soon as they report, we will be delighted to receive the information.
Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and NICE will update further advice and the Government welcome any further studies into this emerging area. It may not just be 90 trials, as we may see even more.
We have been clear that our decisions are based on robust evidence. That position remains. I am sure hon. Members understand the importance of that and the reason why that has to be. We know that vaccines are the way out of this pandemic. Vaccines are the best way to protect people from covid-19 and they have saved many thousands of lives.
Looking to the future, we know that excess weight is one of the few modifiable factors for covid-19. It is a sad fact that obesity has played a large role in the impact on and outcomes for people who contract covid-19. Therefore, supporting people to achieve a healthier weight is crucial to keeping people fit and well as we move forward.
We launched “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives” in July 2020 and, as part of delivering the measures set out in our strategy, we confirmed in December 2020 our intention to legislate to stop the promotion of high fat, salt and sugar products by volume and prominent location, both online and in store, in England from April 2022. In the Queen’s Speech on 11 May, we confirmed our intention to introduce advertising restrictions for products high in fat, sugar and salt on TV before 9 pm and online. Currently, the House is debating legislation to introduce mandatory calorie labelling for large out-of-home food businesses such as restaurants, cafés and takeaways.
I hope that Members here today and Members from across the House will support the measures in their passage through Parliament, because we believe that they will be a key part of the tackling obesity campaign, which is so important in relation to covid-19. Helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is one of the most important things that we can do to improve the nation’s health, and we are committed to meeting the challenge. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been clear that
“we…must have a care for the health of our population and we will be happier and fitter and more resistant to diseases like Covid if we can tackle obesity.”
I will finish by saying that I think the objectives of everybody in the debate today are the same. I hope, along with other hon. Members, that we receive the robust data that we need; and if we do not, we continue with what we are doing, rolling out vaccines and dealing with the challenge of achieving a healthier nation via tackling obesity.
I want to thank all those who took part in the debate. First, I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for his contribution. Many things that the Scottish Parliament does on health issues interest me. He knows this, because I have said it to a health spokesperson for his party. I always listen intently to everyone, but in particular to the Scottish Members about how Scotland has done things, because it has done many things that I believe we could replicate across the whole United Kingdom.
One of the great things about these debates is that we can learn from one another and then, hopefully, take some of the good things from elsewhere and bring them in where we are, in the same way as we have done in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Glasgow East referred to what the Scottish Parliament is doing on vitamin D and to taking it all year round. It is perhaps a step ahead of us, so I thank him for describing that.
I am very pleased, as always, to have the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) here. My apologies to his wife; she can have him for the rest of the day—is that the way to put it? He has responsibilities here and has done well; I thank him for that. I also thank him for making, as always, an in-depth contribution, which lets us know where the Opposition, in the form of the Labour party, are and what they are doing.
We can probably all agree—I think the Minister is absolutely right, by the way—that we are here to support each other and the Minister. She outlined a very robust strategy for health—
Now, that was a quick answer! How many people get an answer to a question they asked 15 minutes ago? That is brilliant. That reinforces my comments about the strategy that the Minister referred to—the restrictions on adverts before 9 pm, the obesity and covid-19 death connection, and all the things the Minister referred to. Hopefully, some of the 90 trials—I never realised that there were that many trials going on—will produce high-quality data, which is what the Government needs to act upon.
I am hopeful, and I thank everyone for their participation. In particular, I thank the Minister for her excellent response and for reassuring me, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow East and those who were not able to come today but are watching the debate and would have wished to participate. Today, we have hope for the strategy. If the high-quality data is there, this can be a reality. I genuinely believe in my heart that this can benefit people, but we need the data to prove it. Our job, and the Minister’s job, is to receive that data and work on it. We have had that commitment. If the data is correct, we will have that.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, as always. We do not always say that to the Chair, but thank you for chairing the debate well, as you always do. I also thank the staff, who work away in the background behind the screens. If we did not have them, this would not work at all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the value of vitamin D as a defence against covid-19 infection.
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate.
I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is: email@example.com.
Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of Royal Mail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. In some ways, I wish this debate about the performance of Royal Mail was not necessary, and I want to be crystal clear at the outset that I do not think that the problems I will describe are the fault of Royal Mail’s workers. I live in the Didcot area and I have experienced some of these problems, although not nearly as badly as some of my constituents have. I have also seen how hard Royal Mail staff have all been working in my area and right across the constituency. Indeed, when my constituents complain to me, they often say the same thing. They do not blame Royal Mail’s workers, and they have huge admiration for them. However, I have had more complaints about Royal Mail than about any other company or organisation in my time as an MP, so I thought it was important to have this debate.
My constituents have been complaining since 10 August 2020; that was when I got my first complaint. My most recent complaint was on Monday just gone. During that time, my constituents complained about all sorts of post not arriving, and I will give some examples in a minute to illustrate the problem. I think it is right that we take that seriously, because what they have experienced has caused great distress. I naively hoped that when I called a meeting with Royal Mail headquarters towards the end of last year, that would resolve it. I had no idea how widespread the problem was and how many areas of the country were affected, albeit that it is not all areas.
To give a sense of what has been happening, the complaints in my constituency have been concentrated in the Didcot area, the Wantage and Grove area and some of the villages surrounding Wantage, and there have been bits in Cholsey and Wallingford, too. The very first complaint that I got on 10 August was from a man called Sean, who lives in Didcot. He wrote to me because he has a two-year-old son who is deaf. Sean relies on the post because he regularly needs moulds that hold his two-year-old son’s hearing aids. His family also have a series of hospital appointments that they need to attend, and he has found himself in the situation both of missing hospital appointments because the letters did not arrive on time, and of turning up at the hospital for appointments that were not happening, because he did not get the cancellation letters on time. We can understand how distressing that is, and it is having a knock-on effect on services such as the NHS.
My constituent Ann and her husband, who live in Wantage, did not get their 65th wedding anniversary cards. As I have said in the House before, anyone who gets to 65 years of marriage ought to be getting their anniversary cards on time. Much more sadly, my constituent Matthew’s wife died last year and he did not receive the condolence cards or the death certificates on time.
I have constituents who have not had their insurance renewals, meaning they have ended up having to pay more for their insurance. One did not get his bank card, so he could not pay for anything when he was out and about, and had to go online each time he made a payment. Constituents have complained that they have not received mail for one, two or three weeks, and they sometimes go to the sorting office and are handed that mail. One recent complainant has still not had her Christmas post.
It is common for constituents to downplay such situations and say, “I suppose it’s only trivial, you know. I haven’t had my Christmas cards but it is only trivial.” I do not think it is trivial at all. We all appreciate the importance of medical appointments arriving by post, but things such as magazine subscriptions really matter as well. They bring joy to people, and cards are also hugely important to mark occasions. A whole range of constituents have not had birthday cards arrive, often for significant birthdays.
This is clearly not happening in all areas of the country. Royal Mail’s recently published official figures say that on their first class delivery target, which is 93%, they actually hit 74.7%. In the figures I have looked at, that is the lowest level for a considerable time. Covid is part of that, but I do not think it is only covid. I have given Royal Mail a right of reply, so I will come to what it feels the problems are later. Royal Mail’s national complaint figures also show a huge spike in complaints.
I do not think covid is the only reason for that. When we look at the data, Royal Mail has not hit that first-class delivery figure in six of the last 10 years. It has not hit its delivery completion target in nine of the last 10 years. It is even the same with special delivery. We have all been to the post office and had that talk from the person behind the counter, who says, “Well, if you really want it to get there on time and if you really want to make sure that it gets there, you should go special delivery, although it is lot more expensive.” However, Royal Mail has not hit that target in the past 10 years, although admittedly that is a much higher target to hit and it hits the target a high proportion of the time.
The experience of the past year is particularly frustrating as the Royal Mail has just recorded record profits. I was not eating cornflakes that I could choke on at the time, but I was surprised to open the newspaper and see the headline, “Royal Mail profits treble.” The price of a first-class stamp has gone up a third in the last five years, including a rise of 12% this year. The fall in service is difficult to reconcile with the increase in Royal Mail’s profits.
I do not work for Royal Mail, so I cannot say exactly what the problem is, but I think part of it is to do with its prioritising parcels. When I met Royal Mail representatives last year, they said to me, “We have gone from being a letter service that delivers parcels, to a parcel service that delivers letters.” They said that if I had been able to visit the sorting office, I would have seen things like washing machines and big screen TVs being delivered.
That is a business decision for them, but it is frustrating for constituents, who have reported to me that they have not had any mail for two or three weeks, but they have seen Royal Mail staff and vans delivering parcels and much bigger items. A number of them have spoken to their local postmen and women, and been told confidentially, off the record, that they have been told to prioritise parcels over other mail.
We have to work out what the problem is, and ensure that Royal Mail deals with it and that we do not just write it off as being something to do with covid. I contacted Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union to ask for their opinions. Royal Mail says that the issue is a combination of covid-related absences, the social distancing requirements—meaning that it cannot have as many people in its buildings—and the increase in the number of parcels. That increase has been of 32%, in part because everyone is at home and sending each other stuff, although that might in part be the Royal Mail business decision to develop that aspect of its work, no doubt contributing to its profitability in the past year. That cuts both ways.
I wanted to have this debate because my constituents often feel fobbed off when they complain to Royal Mail directly. They do not get something that answers the question. One constituent told me that one response it got amounted to, “We’re trying but it’s not our fault.” I wanted the debate so that I can ensure that Ministers are aware of what is going on and of my constituents’ experience. In my constituency alone, I would like Royal Mail to review the operation and perhaps invest some of its profits in it. Do we need more staff? Do we need bigger service centres? If parcels are taking up too much space, so they have to get them out, do they need bigger delivery centres? We certainly need to work out what is going wrong.
We could have a simpler process for compensating constituents, perhaps an automatic one—Royal Mail knows when it is delivering something very late, because it has to report on that figure. It should therefore know when those people ought to be compensated automatically. It is important that Ofcom does not allow that to be written off as, “Well, it’s covid, don’t worry about it.” I understand why it has given a dispensation to Royal Mail this year to say that covid has imposed a particular burden, so it will not be held to that 93%” but some of my constituents would say that it had problems before covid. It is not good enough to write it off as covid.
In the end, Royal Mail has a near monopoly on that type of post. Our constituents cannot go anywhere else—they can with parcels, but not with the things involved in the problems they have been experiencing. Again, I do not hold Royal Mail’s workers responsible, but Royal Mail HQ—under pressure from the Government and Ofcom—needs to provide the service that our constituents are paying an increasing amount for all the time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to postal workers up and down the country for all that they have done throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Postal workers have been on the frontline. They have faced additional risks, and I know that the rate of coronavirus infection among postal workers has been significant. They have continued to provide vital delivery services and, more than that, have been a vital source of human contact for many people who have been self-isolating while living alone. Sometimes, they are the only person able to flag concerns about the health and wellbeing of residents. We all owe our postal workers a huge debt of gratitude.
It is worth noting how utterly inappropriate it was that, while Royal Mail’s frontline staff were continuing to deliver for the public, the then chief executive was spending the lockdown in Switzerland. I know that Royal Mail has undergone a change of leadership in recent months, and that is certainly very welcome.
My constituents understand the severe difficulties presented by the pandemic for all our public services, and Royal Mail is no exception. They understood the suspension of the universal service obligation in order to enable Saturday deliveries to be paused. They even understood when deliveries in some areas took place every other day, rather than daily. There is a great deal of good will and support for our postal workers. However, the problems experienced in parts of my constituency have at times dropped well below even a basic level of reliability. That is the issue that I will focus on, as well as the significant problems I have encountered with the monitoring and regulation of Royal Mail.
My focus is on the severe problems in the SE22 area of my constituency. Although there have also been periods of significant problems in SE19 and SE27, my understanding is that those have been primarily due to sickness absence linked to the pandemic and were relatively quickly resolved. The problems in SE22 run much deeper.
In 2017, Royal Mail announced its intention to close the SE22 delivery office, which serves East Dulwich, part of Dulwich Village and part of Peckham Rye, and merge it with the SE15 delivery office in Peckham. The local community protested against the plan, concerned that the SE15 office was difficult to access and very remote from some parts of SE22, and that it would be difficult for postal workers to complete their rounds because of the long distances and hilly nature of the routes between SE15 and parts of SE22. Royal Mail pressed ahead with the merger anyway just before the Christmas period in 2018, leading to a disastrous level of service at that time and chaos for many months afterwards. All the warning signs were there that Royal Mail’s arrangements for deliveries to SE22 lacked the resilience to cope with challenging circumstances.
At the start of the pandemic, delivery services in SE22 became completely unreliable, with residents on many different streets across the postcode area reporting that they were not receiving mail on a regular basis, sometimes for weeks at a time. That was a completely different scenario to pausing Saturday deliveries or even delivering only on alternate days, which residents would have understood completely.
The consequences for my constituents went way beyond inconvenience, though there was certainly plenty of inconvenience. The problems caused deep distress: older people living in isolation did not receive birthday cards and gifts; legal documents went missing; hospital appointments were missed; hospital appointments that had been cancelled due to the pandemic were still attended because the cancellation had not been received; death certificates went missing. One constituent had to attend court because she had not received a speeding fine in time to be able to pay it.
I have raised these issues with Royal Mail on behalf of every constituent who has been in touch with me. I have met Royal Mail on many occasions to seek answers and I visited the SE15 delivery office. It has been enormously frustrating that, although Royal Mail has responded to each individual query, it has never accepted the extent of problems with the service in SE22 or the impact on my constituents.
I have taken the matter to Ofcom, who also seemed powerless to intervene, largely due to the suspension of the universal service obligation. I hope the Minister will understand that there is a huge difference between pausing Saturday deliveries or delivering every other day and not providing any deliveries at all for weeks at a time. The accountability framework for a regulated service really should be able to account for that.
I have pieced together some of the problems and the action that Royal Mail could have been compelled to take if there had been more regulatory intervention. The first is not to have closed the SE22 delivery office in the first place, or to have been obliged to re-provide it in a more convenient location for SE22. There is currently no requirement for public consultation on the closure of delivery offices, and the requirement for the geographical coverage of delivery offices is too wide to protect an area such as SE22 from disastrous commercial decisions, and too wide, really, to be workable for an urban area such as London.
Once the severe problems became apparent last year, Royal Mail could have been required to explore temporary premises to alleviate the problems in the SE15 office, which were in part due to social distancing requirements, but it was not obliged to do so. It is also clear that over-reliance on vehicle sharing was a large part of the problem in SE22. Parts of SE22 are just too far away from the current delivery office to enable postal workers to set off by foot and complete their round within their shift.
Coronavirus meant that van sharing was no longer safe, but there was no requirement for Royal Mail to address that—as it did much later to good effect, by acquiring additional vehicles—apparently leaving large parts of SE22 unreachable for weeks at a time. It is also clear that staff sickness was a significant problem, as it was across many frontline services, but, again, there appeared to be no requirement on Royal Mail to take on additional staff to cover, despite the fact that it was responsible for a regulated service.
Finally, I want to flag immense problems with monitoring and accountability. Royal Mail has refused to provide me with performance data for the SE22 delivery office, despite problems over many months, which means that it is impossible to compare the experiences of my constituents against Royal Mail’s actual performance. The information provided by Royal Mail has often been far too broad to be properly transparent or useful. Royal Mail only publishes performance data at the level of south-east London, which is a huge area and entirely masks the variation in performance within individual postcode districts.
Royal Mail has been through a challenging time in recent years, due to competition from private delivery companies, but its fortunes have significantly improved during the pandemic and it recently reported record profits. As things stand, it will not be compelled to spend any of its profits on investing to deliver effective, reliable services for my constituents in SE22.
Royal Mail provides a regulated service, which is absolutely vital for residents and businesses across the country, and it is important that it is effectively regulated. I ask the Minister to look again at the regulatory framework for Royal Mail, in order to introduce a requirement for meaningful public consultation on proposals to close or move delivery offices, to tighten the rules on the geographical coverage of delivery offices in urban areas, and to introduce new performance data requirements to enable Royal Mail to be held to account in a meaningful way at the level of individual postcode districts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to contribute to this debate, which the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) was so effective in securing.
It is also a pleasure to follow my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). Like her, I have carried out a number of visits to staff in the delivery and sorting offices in my constituency, and I have enormous respect and gratitude for the work that is being done to keep things going, particularly during covid, by staff, managers and everyone else at Royal Mail.
However, there are a number of concerns that I, too, have received correspondence about. In total, 130 constituents have written to me to report issues, particularly around the second and third waves of covid in the winter of 2020-21, and especially in the N4 and N8 postcode areas. As we have heard this afternoon, there have been a number of discrepancies that cannot be fully accounted for by the pandemic alone. For example, we have seen that the letter and parcel delivery that was supporting people who were shielding often fell short of what we would have expected. The delivery of invitation letters to the first few cohorts of people eligible for the vaccine was also reliant on the postal service and it sometimes failed. That highlights why the deterioration in services experienced in our constituencies is so frustrating, painful and potentially dangerous for residents.
My constituents have reported severe consequences resulting from the deterioration in Royal Mail services, such as fees for late payment of utility bills, when they had not received the original letter bills; being fined for non-payment of penalty charge notices, when they had not yet received the original letter informing them of the PCN being issued; and late receipt of personal identity, medical and legal documents having an impact on their ability to submit in-time applications—for example, for self-assessed tax registration or to gain access to medical treatment sooner. There have also been issues with passport renewal services, legal appeals and delayed receipt of consumer goods and gifts, which was particularly upsetting around Christmas time, when we were separated from family members. There has also been anxiety about financial security because newly issued credit and debit cards went missing in the post. I hope that this situation can be rectified.
I would also be grateful if, in summing up, the Minister could assist my constituents and me with a particular issue. The delivery office opposite Hornsey railway station was closed during the coalition years. There has been an ongoing campaign, led by myself and our local ward councillors, to have it reopened. The original building is no longer available, but there must be a suitable building available somewhere locally. I know that there are a number of empty shops on the high street in Hornsey, which could be perfectly appropriate for a delivery office. It is much more efficient, from an energy point of view, to have people popping into a delivery office than endless parcel vans coming to people’s doors.
Now that Royal Mail’s finances have improved—indeed, it is enjoying record-breaking profits; I believe they have trebled—I also want to press the Minister for increased numbers of apprentices and staff to be taken on and paid competitive rates, so that we can make good on what has been a pretty dismal record in the last 15 months. I would also like to see increased training and support for staff, and of course, on weekends, an increase in the number of people delivering mail. We still have a youth unemployment problem in Hornsey and Wood Green, so I want young people to have job opportunities in the Royal Mail, which is a good employer normally. I hope that management will grab that issue with both hands.
I conclude simply by reminding the Minister of the specific request from my constituency, given that it has been particularly badly affected by the situation I described. We would like to see the return of a delivery office in the N8 area so that the Royal Mail can make good on its commitments and obligations. I would also be pleased to hear what further action can be taken by MPs and our staff when things go wrong, because I am concerned that our regulatory framework seems a mismatch for what is quite a desperate situation for many of our constituents?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for securing this important debate. He certainly got his points across to the Minister, and I certainly hope that the Minister will respond to them in full. Indeed, the points raised by all three speakers have been clear and substantive, and they have outlined the concerns that they and their constituents most definitely have in relation to the performance of Royal Mail.
I had a discussion last night with a colleague in and around the Royal Mail. It is not often that, as nationalists, we talk about British institutions that are perhaps more favourable in our eyes. Of course, in that regard, the Royal Mail is something that the public loves and has loved for many decades, if not centuries, in its previous guises. I think we actually compared it to Concorde, in terms of its being the only two British institutions that we were perhaps in favour of. That is probably the only time the Royal Mail has been compared to Concorde, but the wider point is that it is an institution that, across the UK, we all hold in extremely high regard. However, the Government betrayed that high regard in 2013 when they sought to privatise the Royal Mail—a disgraceful decision that has not, to the best of my knowledge, been mentioned in the debate so far today, which I think is remiss. In many ways, that could be the root of some of the problems for us as Members of Parliament and for the public in terms of influencing the direction of the Royal Mail’s priorities.
As we can see and as we have heard, the Royal Mail’s performance in meeting its targets for first-class deliveries, and second-class deliveries as well if I recall correctly, has not been up to scratch. The pandemic has obviously played a role, but Royal Mail was not meeting its targets in the years prior to that; it was close, but it did not meet them. We have heard the consequences of that for individual constituents from the three previous speakers. Indeed, I have been contacted by constituents as well, as I am sure all Members have, in relation to absolutely essential items that were not delivered.
Although we have seen Royal Mail struggle, we have the converse situation with its profits, which are at a record high—I believe it made a £762 million pre-tax profit, which is absolutely remarkable. The hon. Member for Wantage was absolutely right to highlight that in terms of what Royal Mail’s priority is at this time. If it is parcels, it should be clear, open and transparent about that, and the public could determine whether that is a suitable priority for the organisation. At the risk of repeating myself, it would be more beneficial if this place had more of a say in that. Of course, it does not, because of decisions taken in previous years, but we are where we are.
The issues that have been highlighted are pertinent, and it would be remiss of me as a local Member in Aberdeen not to mention the closure of post office counters. I am of course very cognisant of the fact that the Royal Mail and the Post Office are separate, although the Government do have some control in relation to the Post Office. However, I should reflect on the fact that post office counters in Aberdeen are being closed, in Torry and in Kincorth in my constituency. That is deeply, deeply frustrating and will leave those communities behind, to the detriment of the people who live in them, just as the performance of Royal Mail will be to the detriment of the constituents from across the UK we have heard about.
I will bring my remarks to a close because I am conscious that much of what can be said has already been said, but I want to finish on an important point that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) made at the outset of her remarks. We must pay tribute to the staff for the work they have done over the course of the pandemic. I cannot imagine how difficult it has been for them to manage the workload, taking into account social distancing, their own pressures and the outbreaks that have undoubtedly happened in Royal Mail facilities, as they have everywhere else. I place on the record my thanks and tribute to them. I wish them well going forward.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing this important debate. This will be the first time that I have spoken as shadow Minister for postal affairs, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for all her work on this critical service.
Every Member who has spoken has emphasised the importance of Royal Mail to communities and businesses across the UK, as seen most recently and indeed currently, during the pandemic. In the face of covid-19, our local posties stepped up as key workers, keeping us connected, enabling small businesses to continue trading, and playing a vital public health role. Royal Mail delivered and collected tens of millions of covid-19 tests, distributed 1.5 billion items of personal protective equipment to our frontline workers, and delivered more than 300 million vaccination letters. I thank Royal Mail staff for their commitment during the pandemic, and reassure them that, as this debate has shown, it has not gone unrecognised. I pay special tribute to the posties whose smile and cheery hello, despite their higher rate of covid as a consequence of their frontline work, was for many the only real human contact during the darkest days of lockdown.
Royal Mail traces its history back to 1516, when Henry VII introduced a master of the posts. Under state control, Royal Mail successfully established itself as a leading and innovative pioneer in postal services, achieving many global firsts, such as the first uniform postage rate in 1839, and the creation of the world’s first stamp in 1840—my understanding is that that is why the UK is the only country that does not have its name on the stamp, but just the Queen’s head. There was also the introduction of first and second-class letter services in 1968, and the launch of the UK’s first digital stamp in 2004. Today, Royal Mail connects more than 30 million addresses across the UK, employing more than 160,000 staff.
In 2014, however, the Tory-led coalition chose to privatise the postal service. That mistake is estimated to have lost the taxpayer £1 billion, according to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Labour fought against that, arguing that privatisation would prioritise profit over services. Unfortunately, that has become a reality, which is why Labour remains committed to supporting the public ownership of Royal Mail.
As many have pointed out, Royal Mail recorded record profits—the newly appointed CEO takes home £525,000 per year—but consumers and workers have paid the price with rising costs, longer delivery times and job losses. In the last year alone, there have been two above-inflation increases to stamp prices. In January, as the hon. Member for Wantage pointed out, the price of first-class stamps increased by 12% to 85p, while various operational changes, such as online stamp printing, the reduction of opening times and the closure of sorting offices, saw 12,000 jobs lost by 2017. That is in addition to the loss of 2,000 managerial roles as a result of restructuring during the pandemic.
I am also the shadow Minister for digital, and I know all too well the impact of digital exclusion on the UK and how Royal Mail allows many excluded communities to remain connected. Between 2013 and 2017, the closure of 75 delivery offices disproportionately impacted those who rely on them most, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) emphasised. As delivery offices play the important role of ensuring that undelivered mail can be conveniently collected by the recipient, their closure often causes avoidable stress for individuals who are forced to travel further and owners whose businesses require the frequent collection of parcels, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) pointed out. Workers have also been collateral damage in Royal Mail’s mission to maximise profits. In 2018, after months of disputes between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union, a package covering pay, pensions and working conditions was agreed to. Despite union members voting overwhelmingly in favour of the deal, Royal Mail abandoned the agreement in 2019, leading to the biggest vote for national industrial action since the passing of the Trade Union Act 2016. The Communication Workers Union has worked hard to reach a new agreement. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Royal Mail management has a better grasp of effective industrial relations and supports good jobs, as emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green?
Royal Mail is the UK’s sole designated universal service provider. That is an honour and a privilege, and means that it is so important to our communities. It remains the UK’s largest postal operator: 75% of small and medium-sized businesses surveyed by Ofcom in 2020 cited Royal Mail as their main postal services provider. Although letter volumes declined by 25% during the pandemic, the demand for parcel delivery increased by 32% as consumer behaviour changed.
We heard from the hon. Member for Wantage anecdotal evidence of parcels being prioritised by Royal Mail. The UK parcel market is highly competitive. Although Royal Mail continues to hold the largest share, at 35%, other providers, such as Amazon and Hermes, are on the rise. What recent assessment has the Minister made of competition in this market? What impact does cross-subsidy, which is prevalent in Amazon’s retail sector, have? What is the impact on the environment and our climate change commitments of charge-free delivery, which is associated with, for example, Amazon Prime, which encourages parcels to be ordered and delivered individually?
As we have heard, posties have worked tirelessly through the pandemic. We have also heard disturbing details about the service disruption resulting, at least in part, from higher levels of sickness absence. In 2021, Royal Mail missed the 93% target for first-class mail being delivered the next working day by eight percentage points. Members highlighted that, behind that statistic, there are particular areas of very low performance, which has had an unspeakable impact on our constituents’ lives. That was particularly highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood and for Hornsey and Wood Green.
Does the Minister think Royal Mail did all it could to inform people of service disruptions? How can we better hold Royal Mail to account for the impact of that disruption? Royal Mail was not penalised during the past year because of the pandemic, but in 2018-19, Ofcom fined it £50 million for failing to reach first-class delivery targets. As we have heard, it consistently failed to meet targets, particularly in relation to special delivery, in the three years prior to the pandemic.
To improve its performance, Royal Mail has invested approximately £2 billion in modernising operations since 2013. That is to be welcomed but, despite that, Ofcom’s analysis of Royal Mail efficiency in 2020 found that it failed to meet its own productivity targets. Ofcom warned that, unless Royal Mail modernised its network to ensure that it served rural and urban spaces equally,
“the sustainability of the universal service could be at risk in the longer term.”
What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the universal service delivery requirements are fit for purpose in relation to changing markets and consumer needs, and does Ofcom have the appropriate powers to monitor and enforce it, as Members have highlighted?
Before I close, I think it is worth mentioning the Horizon scandal, which was the largest miscarriage of justice in our history, with more than 900 false prosecutions, destroying lives, families and reputations. When the Horizon service was commissioned in 1999, the Post Office and Royal Mail were still operating under the same ownership and management structure. I hope that the Minister will confirm that Royal Mail is also learning the lessons of that scandal.
Finally, the Minister and I have discussed postcodes through parliamentary questions. In privatising Royal Mail, the Government also privatised our postcodes, and on the cheap. Royal Mail charges for access to the postcode address file even though much of the intellectual property comes from the local authorities who assign addresses. The Government’s national data strategy says that we will encourage data sharing, opening up data; yet this remains a significant barrier to communication, location and innovation, so what steps will the Minister take to address that?
Royal Mail is a UK institution of which we have been proud for hundreds of years, but this Government have failed to treat it with respect or care. Despite its importance to communities and the economy, the Government are failing postal service users and communities, putting ideology above competence in their privatisation, and now their monitoring and accountability to maintain the quality of services. Unfortunately, that is a theme with this Government. We have become all too familiar with the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of risk. Labour is committed to supporting a better postal service under public ownership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for securing today’s important debate about the performance of Royal Mail.
I echo all the thanks and admiration of the important role that postal workers have played in serving customers and supporting local communities right across the UK, in normal times and, clearly, during the coronavirus pandemic. Their willingness to maintain deliveries and do their day-to-day work at a time of increased social isolation, when many people could not leave their homes, has been vital. The Government have relied on their continued service to keep people connected across the country, delivering the letters and parcels that are so important to everyday life and supporting the economy in these unprecedented times.
My hon. Friend talked about the importance of post, as did the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), whether it is cards for life events— celebrations, commiserations and condolences—or important issues around tax, insurance and hospital appointments. I hope that his constituents who celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary—please pass on my best wishes to them—got their cards in the end. I suspect, having reached their 65th wedding anniversary, they know how to practise patience and forgiveness, so I am sure that they were in good stead while waiting to get to that point.
I want to talk a bit about the situation of the service, and the context of where we are at the moment, before I answer some of the points that have been raised. Royal Mail has well-established contingency plans to mitigate disruption to postal services. As we have heard, those plans are overseen by Ofcom, which is the independent regulator. It is important to remember that it is an independent regulator, because that independence is key to ensuring that Ofcom keeps Royal Mail on its toes and does its job as an effective regulator.
Royal Mail has reassured the Government that it has been doing everything it can to maintain service levels during this period and that it continues to keep Ofcom informed, but as we have heard, there are issues that still need to be addressed. We will continue to challenge Royal Mail, and I will expect Ofcom to be doing exactly that under the framework, but I will talk a bit more about the regulatory framework in a second, in response to some of the questions that have been raised.
The changes made to Royal Mail’s operations due to disruptions are an operational matter for Royal Mail. Therefore, it is up to Ofcom to monitor those service levels in the first instance. In November 2020, Ofcom published its user needs review of postal services. In that report, Ofcom noted that the majority of users are satisfied with the postal services that they receive from Royal Mail. Among residential users, overall satisfaction has remained over 80% in the past few years. Among SME users, overall satisfaction with the quality of services they receive has increased markedly since 2012. That is the important thing. I understand the ideological debate about privatisation, but studies of postal services around the world considered Royal Mail to be 40% less efficient than other national equivalents at that time. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, we have seen £2 billion invested since then, and an extra £1.8 billion has been promised for further investment.
In 2010, a mere 8% of post was sorted by machine, compared with 85% for leading EU operations. The figure is now 90%. Imagine having a nationalised Royal Mail at this point in time, when it is competing for the funds its needs against schools, hospitals and all the other services that the public sector has to provide. The extra money that has come in for investment is clearly to be welcomed.
The regulatory conditions that require Royal Mail to deliver letters six days a week as part of the universal postal service also provide that Royal Mail is not required to sustain those services without interruption, suspension or restriction in the event of an emergency. Ofcom has acknowledged that, in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, it is indeed an emergency. As such, the regulatory framework allows Royal Mail to modify its obligations. That includes the temporary reduction in the frequency of the delivery of letters, which Royal Mail implemented for six weeks in 2020 without formal authorisation, because it considered it necessary to respond to the challenges faced in maintaining the postal services at the height of the pandemic. Ofcom published a statement on its website in April 2020, and a further statement in January this year, clarifying that the regulatory framework supported Royal Mail’s actions.
Throughout the pandemic, Royal Mail has been transparent with the public about any changes to the services it provides, and the information can be found on the Royal Mail website. We have heard about the dangers of the digital deficit, and clearly there is always more that we can do to ensure the information gets to people, rather than people having to find it. We will always work on that, and it is incumbent on all of us, as elected leaders in our communities, to ensure that we get the information to colleagues across the House, so that we can help amplify those messages to our constituents. These are clearly areas that we can look at.
It should therefore come as no surprise that when Royal Mail published its quality of service results last month, it had not met the universal service obligation targets for the delivery of first and second-class mail. Royal Mail reported that that was due to high levels of covid-related absences and shielding; the introduction of social distancing in its operations, as we have heard; no shared vans; and the increase in parcel volumes, which went up an incredible 32%. As has been said, the change in postal services over the past few years is that parcels are driving profits among Royal Mail’s competitors. Indeed, that is a main contributing factor to the financial performance of Royal Mail in recent months.
In light of all those factors, it acknowledges that at times its quality of service has not always been how it might have wished, especially in areas with higher levels of local covid infections. Despite that, clearly, postmen and women worked exceptionally hard to ensure that the delivery of covid-19 test kits were prioritised. Royal Mail implemented Sunday deliveries and collections, resulting in next-day delivery for covid-19 test kits exceeding 98%. In addition, it prioritised the delivery of NHS vaccination letters and election mailing, doing its best to ensure that service delays did not have an impact on those important communications.
Let me take some time to say something about the particular concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage about the delivery service in his constituency. I must admit that, in the lead-up to the debate, I spoke to my two-man focus group in Great Coxwell—my former parents-in-law—and they said they were sometimes a few days behind during covid. In general, it has been okay, and is now back to pre-covid levels. That goes to show that, even within a constituency, there are patches where things are seemingly okay and clearly patches where there are still significant issues, as my hon. Friend eloquently highlighted, and we need to tackle them. We cannot look at one area in isolation, so he is right to drill down into those areas.
I have been informed by Royal Mail that the service in the Wantage area was disrupted due to sickness absence levels in some parts of the operation remaining higher than normal. That was exacerbated by necessary changes to the business operations and difficulty with additional recruitment. There are 10 postcode areas in Wantage and 10 delivery offices to service them. In the Wantage area itself, sick absences peaked at 15%. I am pleased to report that, as of last week, that absence rate has gone down significantly and is at levels that Royal Mail expects at this particular time of year.
To provide a snapshot of disrupted service levels and how far more Royal Mail has come to improve them, let me cover three areas quickly. Per day, the Wantage delivery office covers 29 delivery rounds. In December, on average, seven delivery rounds could not be completed per day; in April, that was at most one delivery round per day. The Didcot delivery office, which my hon. Friend mentioned, per day covers 38 delivery rounds. In December, on average, 10 delivery rounds could not be fully completed per day; in April, that was at most three delivery rounds. The Wallingford delivery office has 39 delivery rounds. In April, there was a high level of sick absence, and that clearly had an impact on mail deliveries and deliveries were rotational, happening every other day. As of May, however, mail deliveries have been taking place six days a week to all addresses served by all three of those delivery offices.
In addition, Royal Mail continues to use agency support, as well as to hire vehicles to alleviate any pressure on staff, so that it can maintain the best possible service. At the Wantage, Didcot and Wallingford delivery offices, 14 permanent roles have been created and, to date, six of those new recruits are in post. Clearly, however, when I asked those questions, Royal Mail also assured me that if for any reason an address does not receive a mail delivery one day, it will be a priority for the next working day.
Royal Mail is open to engaging with the public and, indeed, with all MPs about delivery services in their respective constituencies and across the UK. I enjoy going to my local delivery offices whenever I can in Sutton. I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage is going on a site visit tomorrow in Didcot, so I hope that he finds that productive in following up this conversation and this discussion, because it is important that we scratch beneath the surface. Yes, we get the assurances, but it is only by going to see people with those further questions that I hope he will get the answers that he needs and that he will be able to put his constituents’ views—as I know he will, admirably —to the managers in that delivery office.
The postmen and women who serve Wantage and across the UK have continued to dedicate themselves to providing a key public service. Royal Mail more broadly, has done its utmost to deliver on its universal service obligation, while observing health and safety advice. Royal Mail has been transparent about changes to its service, as I said, but it acknowledges some disruptions to delivery, mainly but not solely—as we heard—due to the extenuating circumstances generated by the pandemic. However, we have also seen changes in consumer behaviour, including the rise in online shopping. Royal Mail’s financial report, published last month, highlighted that parcels represented 72% of its UK revenue in the previous financial year, increasing from 63% in the financial year 2019-20. That has largely been driven by changes in behaviour through the pandemic. Increases in e-commerce have further added to the demand for parcel delivery services: a study by Royal Mail found a 7% increase in company start-ups in March to July 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. Of 315,000 new companies, nearly 16,000 were e-commerce.
The pandemic is an emergency situation that has required Royal Mail to be flexible, make the necessary adjustments and respond effectively to demand. Royal Mail has clearly done its best to maintain service levels during a situation outside its control, but that is why the regulatory framework provides that flexibility to manage emergency situations, and why Ofcom indicated its support for the measures Royal Mail has taken to respond. Ofcom also noted that Royal Mail did not meet its quality of service standards in 2020, but that performance has improved considerably in recent months as covid impacts have started to recede. Ofcom considers that timings for a return to pre-covid performance standards are likely to align with further guidance on social distancing; indeed, I spoke to its chief executive about that just yesterday. Ofcom has reassured me that it continues to scrutinise performance closely, and that Royal Mail is actively implementing a recovery plan that includes operational changes and the use of additional frontline staff.
When looking at the future regulation framework, Ofcom clearly needs to ensure that postal regulation keeps pace with changes in the market and remains relevant, a point raised by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). We last reviewed the regulatory framework for post in 2017, and agreed at the time that it should remain in place until 2022. Ofcom is now carrying out the review of the future regulatory framework for post, which it aims to complete in 2022. As part of that review, Ofcom will consider whether extra consumer protections may be required, and is seeking views on the future regulation of the parcels market: a call for inputs closed in May 2021. Ofcom will publish a full consultation on the future regulation of postal services later this year.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about postcode data, which is something we have spoken about in the past. It is a really interesting point that we need to work on, because in the era of open data, we have to make sure that that open data is available, without one company seeking to profit from intellectual property that has been developed over a period of time. I am looking forward to continuing that discussion with her.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised issues about the N8 area, as she has done before. I know that people at Royal Mail—I was going to say “avidly read Hansard”, but that is a little bit much. [Laughter.] It is essential lockdown reading. However, I know that they look at the coverage and debates in this House, so they will have heard about the campaign that the hon. Lady has been running to make sure that her constituents in the N8 area and the surrounding area are well served. I believe the last time we spoke about the SE22 area was in November 2020, when I participated in a debate led by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. It was interesting to hear the update about what is happening in that area with her constituents, and I know that the hon. Lady will continue to lobby and campaign on behalf of those constituents to make sure they get the service they deserve.
We know that the Royal Mail needs to continue to modernise as people are moving towards parcels, but we cannot forget those essential letters and that essential correspondence. Yes, fewer people are relying on them, but those who are relying on them are in many cases the most vulnerable in society and the most dependent on that social contact and social value, as well as the essential services that are still provided by post. Clearly, delays in postal service deliveries can be frustrating, and they can have serious consequences. We have heard some examples from those who are reliant on the post for important information, including for start-ups and small businesses, who are trying to build their businesses and develop a reliable, remote offer to their customers.
Following the debate we had here last week, I do not doubt the issues in the highlands and other remote areas about the cost of delivery for parcels. The service for letters must also remain, through the universal service obligation.
The past year and a half has presented exceptional challenges and has led to the disruption of services, but the postal system has continued to operate, and Royal Mail is able to resume service levels now that absence levels are closer to normal and the business has adjusted to operational changes. On behalf of the Government, I thank once again all the Royal Mail postal workers and Royal Mail itself for the dedication and commitment shown while providing continued service throughout the pandemic.
I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in the debate this afternoon. It has been a good debate. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) spoke for all of us when she said that we owe our postal workers a huge debt of gratitude for the work they have done during this period. She was quite right to say there is a difference between pausing deliveries on Saturdays and not delivering anything for weeks at a time, which has been the experience in Wantage and Didcot. I support her request for postcode-level data on deliveries.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) detailed very well the impact of delays and the sorts of things that have been delayed, from shielding letters to vaccination letters. It was a very good idea that Royal Mail should create more apprenticeship positions and support young people, thereby also improving the service.
I am grateful to the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). He and I do not agree on the number of British institutions that are worthy of high regard—I am sure that is no surprise. We also do not agree on the privatisation, because there are some public services that I could complain about today, but where I do agree with him is, if Royal Mail’s priorities have changed to parcels, it is important that it is honest about that. That is what my constituents feel they can see, but it is not something that Royal Mail has admitted.
I am also grateful to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). She was exactly right about the important role that Royal Mail has played in the pandemic in delivering PPE and so on, and also—a point I do not think the rest of us made—that postal workers were often the only human contact for people who were shielding. She reminded me that people had hugely appreciated that, because it was often the only conversation they had with anybody during that period.
I am very grateful to the Minister for engaging with the issue seriously and for understanding the distress that it is causing and for providing the data that he did. He is right to say that Royal Mail did some Sunday services—it shocked constituents to get post on a Sunday—so it was trying. The Minister provided important delivery round data as well.
One of his most important points was that fewer people are relying on the service, but for those that do, it is incredibly important. That is the same debate as for the use of cheques or the use of cash, or people who do not have smartphones. We forget sometimes—we think there is this relentless progress of technology, but it can leave people very vulnerable. People not receiving the things they should have been has been very difficult for them.
The Minister is quite right to say that tomorrow I am visiting one of the service centres, so I will be able to get under the skin of the issue. Royal Mail has told me that it has hired more staff and bought more vehicles, so the test will be whether it gets better this year. If it does not, I will be back on the Minister’s case and on Royal Mail’s case, because it is important that constituents get the service they are paying for.
Thank you very much, Ms McDonagh, for chairing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the performance of Royal Mail.