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Covid-19 Update

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2021

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and the road map to freedom.

Freedom is in our sights once again, thanks to the protective wall of this country’s vaccination programme and the huge advances we have made in getting this virus under control. Yesterday, I stood at this Dispatch Box and set out the details of what step 4 in our road map will mean for this nation. After the arduous 18 months that we have all endured, it was so wonderful to describe a world where we no longer have to count the number of people that we are meeting; where theatres and stadiums are bustling with people once again; and where care home residents are able to see their loved ones without restrictions.

Of course I understand that some people are cautious about the idea of easing restrictions, but we must balance the risks—the risks of a virus that has diminished, but is not defeated, against the risks of keeping these restrictions, and the health, social and economic hardship that we know they bring. This pandemic is far from over, and we will continue to proceed with caution. But we are increasingly confident that our plan is working, and that we can soon begin a new chapter, based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense rather than the blunt instrument of rules and regulations.

Today, I should like to provide an update on another area where we will be able to ease restrictions: the rules on self-isolation. Self-isolation has played a critical role in helping us to get this virus under control, by denying the virus the human contact that it needs to spread. And I am so grateful to the many, many people right across the UK who have selflessly done their duty, making sacrifices so they can help keep the virus at bay. Even though we have done everything in our power to support the people who have had to self-isolate—and yesterday we announced that we will be extending financial support until September—I am fully aware of how difficult it has been. But we can take hope from the fact that science has shown us a solution, just as it has done so many times in our fight against this virus. That solution is our vaccine, which we know offers huge protection.

The latest data from Public Health England shows that our vaccination programme has saved over 27,000 lives and has prevented over 7 million people from getting covid-19, and it shows that both doses of covid-19 vaccine can reduce symptomatic infection by almost 80%. That protective wall—because that is what it is —means that the odds have shifted in our favour, and we can look afresh at many of the measures that we have had to put in place. That is especially important when almost two thirds of adults—64%—have had both doses of a vaccine, and so have the maximum protection that the vaccine can offer. As a result, we will soon be able to take a risk-based approach that recognises the huge benefits that vaccines provide both to the people who get the jab and to their loved ones.

From 16 August, when even more people will have the protection of both doses and when modelling suggests the risk from the virus will be even lower, anyone who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer have to self-isolate if they have been fully vaccinated. If someone gets their second dose just before or just after 16 August they will need to wait two weeks, after which their second jab will have taken effect, to get these new freedoms. Those two weeks will allow the vaccine time to build up the maximum possible protection.

As we make this change, we will draw on the huge capacity we have built for testing and sequencing and will advise close contacts who are fully vaccinated to take a PCR test as soon as possible, so that they can have certainty about their condition. Of course, anyone who tests positive will have to self-isolate, whether they have had the jab or not. This new approach means we can manage the virus in a way that is proportionate to the pandemic, while maintaining the freedoms that are so important to us all.

As hon. Members will be aware, we are not currently offering vaccines to most people under the age of 18. We have thought carefully about how we can ensure that young people get the life experiences that are so important to their development, while at the same time keeping them safe from this deadly virus. In line with the approach for adults, anyone under the age of 18 who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer need to self-isolate. Instead, they will be given advice about whether to get tested, dependent on their age, and will need to self-isolate only if they test positive. These measures will also come into force on 16 August, ahead of the autumn school term.

I know that hon. Members will have questions about the changes and about step 4 of our road map and the impact on schools and colleges; my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will update the House immediately after my statement. We are looking at the self-isolation rules for international travel, to remove the need for fully vaccinated arrivals to isolate when they return from an amber list country. The Transport Secretary will provide an update to the House later this week.

Step by step, jab by jab, we are replacing the temporary protection of the restrictions with the long-term protection of a vaccine, so that we can restore the freedoms that we cherish and the experiences that mean so much to us all. Let us all play our part to protect ourselves and to protect others as we enter these crucial few weeks, so that in this battle between the vaccine and the virus, the vaccine will prevail. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This morning, he warned that he expected infections to hit 100,000 a day. Will he confirm that he is saying that will be the peak? By his expectation, when will we hit it? Infections at 100,000 a day will translate to around 5,000 people a day developing long-term chronic illness—long covid. What will the long covid waiting list look like by the end of the summer?

The Secretary of State justifies allowing infections to climb by pointing to the weakened link between hospitalisation and deaths, and saying that we are building a protective wall. But the wall is only half built. We know from outbreaks in Israel and research that the delta variant can be transmitted through fully vaccinated people, even if they do not get sick.

Indeed, data in the last 24 hours or so from Israel’s Ministry of Health points to the Pfizer vaccine being just 64% effective at stopping symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the delta variant. Sadly, being double jabbed means a person is still a risk to others, yet the Secretary of State is releasing controls on transmission at a time when infections are rising. Hospitalisations will rise, too, given what we know he is doing.

Can the Secretary of State tell us the percentage of intensive care beds, and general and acute beds, that need to be occupied before, in his view, wider NHS care is compromised? We have heard him in the last week or so tell us that he wants to unlock because he rightly wants to focus on the monumental NHS backlog, but the rising hospital admissions that are baked into the plan, into the path he has chosen, will mean operations cancelled, treatments delayed and waiting times increased. Will he now be clear with patients, who are waiting longer and at risk of permanent disability, that the increase in hospital admissions will mean they have to wait longer? What is his assessment of the waiting list, and what will it hit by the end of the summer?

I understand the rationale for the Secretary of State’s announcement today, but I have to tell him again that the biggest barrier to an effective isolation policy has been not the inconvenience but the lack of financial incentive to stay at home. If we are to live with this virus, the days of people soldiering on when unwell are over. Sick pay is vital to infection control. Will he please now fix it?

Getting back to normal, which we all want to do, depends on people feeling safe. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that those who are immunocompromised, or for whom the vaccination is less effective, will have their freedoms curtailed by ditching masks on public transport? Blood Cancer UK warned yesterday that people with blood cancer will feel like their freedoms have been taken away when mask wearing lifts. What is his message to those with blood cancer? It is not good enough simply to say that people should travel or go to the shops at less busy times.

Of course, the Secretary of State understands the importance of masks. I have now read his Harvard pandemic paper, to which he likes to refer. He praises the use of masks in this paper, but he also warns:

“Changing course in policy making…is an essential feature of good policy making. Yet, politicians find it hard”—

because of—

“the tendency for decisions to become psychologically and emotionally anchored.”

Well, I agree with him, and I hope he still agrees with himself. Let us have a U-turn on mask wearing. Yes, let us have freedom, but not a high-risk free for all. Keep masks for now, fix sick pay and let us unlock in a safe and sustainable way.

Let me turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, he asked about infections. As I said yesterday from this Dispatch Box, we expect infections to continue to rise for the time being, for the reasons I set out yesterday. By 19 July, when we enter step 4, the advice we have received and the modelling suggests infections could be as high as 50,000 a day, double what they are now. Beyond that, as he says, we believe infections will continue to rise. As the modelling goes out further, it is less certain, but infections could go as high as 100,000 a day. I have been very up front about that.

What I have also been very clear about is that the reason we can make the decisions that we have made, as set out yesterday and today, with the decision just announced on self-isolation rules for those who are double vaccinated if they come into contact with someone who is infected, is because of the vaccine. The vaccine has been our wall of defence. Jab by jab, brick by brick, we have been building a defence against this virus.

Although no one can say at this point that the link between cases and hospitalisations has been definitively broken—there is not enough evidence for that—there is enough evidence to show us that the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has been severely weakened.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how many hospitalisations there have been or there may be. What I can tell him will help to demonstrate how this link has been severely weakened. In the last 24 hours, there have been approximately 27,000 reported new infections, and the total number of people in hospital in England with covid-19 is just under 2,000. The last time we had infections at that level, we were certainly above 20,000. That is a demonstration of how much the link has been weakened. In making sure that it stays that way, we of course want to see more and more people getting vaccinated. We have announced a booster programme that will start in September, to make sure that the immunity that comes from the vaccine remains.

The right hon. Gentleman also rightly talked about non-covid health problems, which a number of hon. Members have raised. I would like him to try to understand that one reason why so many people who wanted to go to the NHS with non-covid health problems such as cancer, heart disease and mental health problems but were prevented from doing so, is the restrictions that we had in place. The restrictions caused many of those problems—for example, the right hon. Gentleman should think about the mental health problems that have been caused by the restrictions. If we want to start dealing with non-covid health problems, we must start easing and moving away from the restrictions because of the protection that the vaccine has provided us. As the shadow Health Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman should be just as concerned about non-covid health problems, as I am, as he is about covid health problems.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the immuno-suppressed. Again, he and other colleagues are absolutely right to raise this issue. The vaccines are there to protect everyone, including many people who are immuno-suppressed but who can take vaccines. For those people who cannot take vaccines, the fact that the rest of us do helps to protect them. We would them to take the same precautions that they would usually take in winter—for example, trying to protecting themselves against colds, flus and other viruses. I also encourage people to ensure that they are in contact with their GP to see what other measures or precautions they might be able to take.

Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about masks. He referred to a paper that I authored before I took this position, but he should understand that it is a strange question for him to ask. There is a role for masks in dealing with a pandemic, particularly when we have no wall of defence against it. When we have a vaccine, when that vaccine works and when we have the best vaccine roll-out programme in the world, we need to start moving away from restrictions, including on masks.

One of those other illnesses, apart from covid, that has been very badly affected by the pandemic is cancer. My right hon. Friend will know that, last year, 40,000 fewer people started cancer treatment, which will sadly lead to a number of preventable deaths. Will he be looking at the workforce required to deal with the cancer backlog? Will he also look at the capital requirements of many hospitals, including in my area? The Royal Surrey County Hospital is trying to build a cancer institute, but many hon. Members will have similar stories. May I make him a bold and generous offer to come in front of the Select Committee in September to talk about those plans? He can come for a couple of hours, but we do up to seven hours, should he so wish.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of cancer, and of course it is a huge priority for the Government. I mentioned earlier how, sadly, because of the rules that we have had in place for well over a year, there are many people who would have come forward to the NHS with cancer or suspected cancer, and they have not been seen. That has really built up a terrible problem, and it is an absolute priority for me to tackle with the workforce and with capital. Of course, I look forward to coming and sitting in front of my right hon. Friend’s Select Committee. I am not sure about the seven hours—I hope he will be a bit more lenient with me than that—but I do look forward to it.

Given that the UK Government have repeatedly got things wrong on covid—the timing of lockdowns, which allowed the Kent variant to spread; the lack of border controls, which allowed the delta variant into the UK; the delay in red-listing India; and now the surge in cases of the delta variant while millions of people are still to be fully vaccinated and more than 1 million are already living with long covid—many people will be concerned that they are actively trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of a vaccine victory. What confidence can the public have that the latest round of measures abandoning all restrictions is not another reckless gamble in the face of increasing transmission?

In a poll by New Scientist, a majority of disease experts said that some form of mask-wearing would be required until 2022. Others thought that 2023 or later was the correct time to lift mask requirements—more than agreed with the Government’s position of ending the requirements this year. For the sake of clarity and honesty, can the Secretary of State confirm that the UK Government have stopped listening to the science on their covid policy? Tragically, we have 150,000 people dead already, and the Prime Minister has said that we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from covid, so perhaps the Secretary of State can enlighten us as to how many more deaths the UK Government think acceptable.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the announcement on masks that we made yesterday, about moving away from rules and regulations to guidance and personal responsibility. He asks how we can make such a decision; the answer is the vaccine. The vaccine is working. We have more people vaccinated than any other large country in the world, thanks to the work of the NHS, the volunteers and everyone else involved—including, of course, in Scotland. That has weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, these decisions have been informed by the science. The science is working.

The Secretary of State said in his statement that he was

“grateful to the many, many people right across the UK who have selflessly done their duty”.

We all are.

Last week, a friend of an NHS intensive care doctor emailed me in despair. The doctor contracted covid-19 on Christmas eve while doing her duty in hospital and has been unable to work since, as covid then developed into long covid. Now HR has issued her with papers to file for statutory sick pay at the jobcentre and she stands to lose her salary entirely. Surely that is completely unacceptable and an insult to NHS workers’ sacrifices during the pandemic. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is fair? I hope not. If not, will he look into this case and similar cases urgently, so that the frontline staff—the heroes of this pandemic—receive the proper financial support that they need while they recover?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. First, I give my personal thanks to the doctor in her constituency to whom she refers and to the many other doctors and clinicians for everything that they have done for the country and continue to do throughout this pandemic. I am not aware of the details of the case that she refers to, but if the hon. Lady writes to me I will certainly respond to her and look at it carefully.

We all recognise that the tremendous success of the vaccine programme has changed everything—my right hon. Friend has made that point eloquently again this afternoon—but it is also clear from recent daily figures that take-up appears to be falling. Can he explain why that is happening? What is he doing to make sure that as many people get vaccinated fully as fast as possible?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that our take-up, compared with that of any other large country, is the best in the world. That said, of course we would like to see even better take-up. At the moment, four fifths of adults have had at least one jab, and three fifths have had two jabs. We are seeing many vaccine centres moving to walk-in; I visited the one at St Thomas’ Hospital just last week. That has certainly encouraged more people. As I announced yesterday, we are also shortening the gap between the first and second dose to eight weeks for all under-40s, which I think will help as well. We continue to push take-up, but every time the matter is raised in Parliament it is a good thing: it is an opportunity for us all, as parliamentarians, to ask our constituents to come forward, take the vaccine and help to build that wall of defence.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and for all that he and the staff of the NHS have done on behalf of us all. I recognise that there must be a risk-free approach in place, as he has said, and I welcome that, but what steps will his Department be taking to meet the psychological needs of young people with cancer to ensure that they can access timely, high-quality support regardless of the covid statistics and variants, which have seen their treatment delayed, causing them additional mental health strain?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is no risk-free way forward. For the whole world, this pandemic is unprecedented, and leaders across the world are having to balance risks and take the approach that they think is right. He is also right to raise the challenges created by the pandemic and our response to it that are not directly linked to covid itself, such as the increase in mental health issues we have seen across the nation, including in Northern Ireland. We have provided much more funding for mental health, but we need a long-term, sustainable plan to deal with mental health challenges, which have, sadly, increased.

I very much welcome the statement and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. It emerges that the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India—particularly batches 4120Z001, 4120Z002 and 4120Z003—may not be recognised by the European Medicines Agency, despite being recognised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. This has implications for the digital covid certificate that will enable many constituents to travel to Europe this summer. Can the Secretary of State clarify the negotiations with Europe on this, and say whether regulatory bodies in other jurisdictions, notably the Food and Drug Administration, are taking a similar line to that of the EMA?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that the AstraZeneca-type vaccine being used in India is, I think, referred to as Covishield. We have not used Covishield in the UK, and we are in intensive discussions with our European friends to ensure that they have the facts to hand and that they can respond accordingly.

Today’s Health Foundation covid report adds to evidence from Professor Sir Michael Marmot on the UK’s high and unequal covid death toll. It shows not only that the UK has suffered high levels of mortality with the second highest level of excess deaths for working-age people in Europe, but that people of colour and disabled people were five and six times respectively more likely to die than their white counterparts and their non-disabled counterparts. On top of that, those in poverty were nearly four times more likely to die from covid than those in more affluent groups.

Following my question to the Health Secretary yesterday, when I asked whether the Government were committed to levelling up, I am now asking when they will implement the recommendation from Sir Michael Marmot and the Health Foundation to address these inequalities and build back fairer.

I am looking closely at those recommendations. I want to look at the expert advice of everyone out there who is providing good, sensible advice about how we can come together to tackle this pandemic. The hon. Lady is right to point out that the pandemic has, sadly, been disproportionate in certain communities and in its impact, including, sadly, on disabled people and people from ethnic minorities. That is true not just in the UK; it is true across the world, and we need to work out a plan to deal with that, and also, if there is ever a future pandemic, to ensure that we have learned the lessons.

Clearly, our protection against further waves of the virus depends on the uptake of vaccines. Will my right hon. Friend look at how the daily infection, hospital admission and death statistics can be broken down by age group and by vaccination status, so that everybody can see the benefits of vaccination for themselves and for others?

The vaccines are our wall of protection. That is what is allowing us to make the decisions that we have made to restore our freedoms and continue down that road, and I think providing more information and detail on the take-up, especially by age group and locality, can be helpful.

The flu season that we have just been through was the mildest on record, thanks in no small part to the fact that we have all been wearing masks to protect against coronavirus. Public Health England has warned that we could see a flu surge in winter, as we have not had much recent exposure to and therefore immunity from other respiratory viruses. What is the Secretary of State doing to prepare for this? Does he agree that we should keep the wearing of masks compulsory on public transport to keep covid cases down and prepare for the flu season?

The right policy on masks is the one we set out yesterday, but the hon. Lady is right to raise the concerns about flu this coming winter, for the reasons she mentioned. She asked what we are doing about it; one of the things we are doing—this is by no means everything—is this: we recently announced that we plan to have a covid vaccine booster programme in September, starting with the more vulnerable cohorts, and our plan, based on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is simultaneously to offer the flu vaccine, which will mean that the take-up of the flu vaccine should be at record highs.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. An increasing number of constituents contact me about access to GP appointments, with many still struggling to see their GP face to face. We know how that will impact on early diagnosis and the treatment of other illnesses. What steps is the Department taking to encourage and support GPs to see patient patients face to face, which will help to address many of the other challenges?

As my hon. Friend says, it is essential that we get GP access back to normal. We can all understand why, during this pandemic, GPs have had to do other jobs such as help us to get the vaccines out, and have not been available in the normal way because of social distancing rules and for other reasons, but I think we are gradually starting to see things going back towards normal. The changes announced yesterday will help with that. As the vaccine programme—which will continue for a while, as we have set out—settles down and we get more people dedicated to it, we can release GPs from some of those duties. All that put together will help.

The Secretary of State has already acknowledged the importance of dealing with the mental health problems we have seen arise in this pandemic, and it is now urgent that the issue is addressed, so when will the Government publish a clear statement on where Public Health England’s vital public mental health and suicide prevention work will sit in the new arrangements for our national public health system?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. One of the worst outcomes of all the restrictions we have necessarily had to have during the pandemic is the significant rise in depression and many other public health problems. We need to start to make tackling that much more of a priority now that we can move past what I hope is the worst of this pandemic. I want to come forward as quickly as I can with a new plan on mental health, to set out what more we can do not only to clear the backlog of cases, as it were—we need to put more effort and resources into that—but to look at what more we can do through investment in both skills and capital.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Many constituents are asking me about the role that booster vaccines will have in ensuring that we do not have to go back into lockdown. Does he agree that providing additional booster jabs to the most vulnerable and all those over 50 will strengthen the protection and gains delivered by our current vaccine programme?

Yes, I do agree. The vaccine programme is our wall of protection, and every jab builds that wall higher. As immunity wears off, we need to make sure that people get a booster with a third jab. As we have announced, the boosting programme will begin with the most vulnerable cohorts in September.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence in allowing me to acknowledge the passing from covid last night of Father Stan Swamy, a humanitarian Jesuit priest who had been held in custody in India since October last year. I hope the House will join me in expressing our condolences to all who knew him.

On today’s statement, there is a fundamental weakness in the Secretary of State’s comments. The covid virus did not get the memo and has not read his statement. Vaccines are really important, but if he wants to build a ring of defence around the continued spread of the virus, he will find that surveillance is absolutely key. Last week, I was promised evidence from Porton Down supporting the continued use of Innova lateral flow devices across the country, but that information has not been passed to me. I also asked for the MHRA’s letter recommending the extension of the exceptional usage authorisation, but, again, that has not been forthcoming. When can I expect to receive this important information?

First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s expression of condolences? On his substantive question, I am not fully aware of the information he has requested, but I have noted it and will look into it and write to him.

I welcome the statement from the Secretary of State and welcome him to his place. Does he agree that the UK’s portfolio of 517 million vaccine doses is evidence of the world-leading effort of this Conservative Government in securing our route out of this pandemic, allowing the restrictions to be lifted?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend on that. It is fair to say that our effort on vaccines, as a country, has been world-leading. It is certainly the best in Europe in terms of the number of people who have received the vaccine—ours is the largest of any of the large countries. That is down to the efforts of so many people, especially the scientists, the vaccine taskforce and all the NHS workers—the doctors, nurses and volunteers. It is a group effort, and when we look back at this pandemic it will be one of the things we will know has saved so many lives.

Some experts are warning that easing covid restrictions too quickly could contribute to the emergence of new, more dangerous variants, which may well be resistant to the vaccine. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of any contingency planning by his Department or the UK Government as to how they will cope in the event of such an alarming eventuality?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the risk that absolutely exists—this pandemic is not over—of new variants. We have seen the impact of variants already, and no one knows what is going to happen. Of course, reasonable experts will have different views on this.

As for the measures we are taking, I will point to a couple. We are keeping border controls in place. Yes, we are making some proportionate and balanced changes, but border controls are staying in place. We are keeping the test, track and isolate policy in place; again, some sensible changes are being made, but through that policy and the huge amount of testing that will still be done, with our genome sequencing programme being the best and largest in the world, we will be able to detect any changes in the virus sooner than perhaps other countries. Lastly, the team in my Department and in Public Health England, and the chief medical officer, are very much aware of this issue of new variants. It is not only an issue for us; it is an issue around the world, and we will continue to work with our international partners.

The UK’s world-leading covid-19 vaccination programme has been phenomenal, but, unfortunately there are some immunosuppressed and immunocompromised people, such as those with blood cancer, for whom the vaccine is not nearly as effective. May I have a commitment from my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary that those who fall into that category will be properly informed and advised by the NHS as to how to protect themselves better?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is absolutely right to raise this issue. As we develop our plans, we are absolutely thinking about all those more vulnerable cohorts and the impact that there may be on them. That is why when we set out the details of step 4 regarding those who are immunosuppressed there will be new guidance, and GPs will be able to use it in working with those patients.

It is clear from comments made by the chief medical officer, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State over the past 24 hours that, in their view, it is better to have a third wave of covid now than it is in the winter when the NHS is struggling. Will the Secretary of State please confirm explicitly whether that is the policy aim of the Government and, if so, will he confirm the estimate of his officials of how many excess deaths and additional cases of long covid that that third wave will result in?

No one wants another wave of covid cases. As the hon. Lady will have heard, what is different this time, as we sadly see cases rise, is the vaccine. The link between case numbers and hospitalisations has been severely weakened, as I have set out to the House in quite some detail, and that is what matters.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s appointment as Health Secretary and his sensible statement today further easing restrictions. Following on from what other colleagues have said, will he confirm to Southend residents that the booster vaccine will be available this winter and that enough centres will remain open to administer it efficiently?

I am very happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that the booster programme will start in September. We still have to get the final advice from the JCVI on exactly how it will work, but it will be administered throughout the United Kingdom and that, of course, includes to his constituents in Southend.

Parents in my constituency have been in touch regarding ventilation in their children’s schools. What advice will health officials give to the Department for Education about putting ventilation in schools and paying for extra measures, which might mean that children can stay in school longer without the fear of covid transmission and that staff will be protected as well?

That is another very good question. The Education Secretary will be speaking right after me about some of the changes that we are making and how they will affect schools. When it comes to ventilation, there has been, during the course of this pandemic, more funding to schools to make certain adjustments. Not only will that kind of support continue, but some of the measures that we are announcing today will help schools and schoolchildren.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Earlier today, I spoke with Tracy Bullock, the fantastic chief executive of one of our local NHS trusts in Stoke-on-Trent, who oversees the Royal Stoke University Hospital. Tracy has told me that there has been a significant increase in emergency department attendances, above those usually seen in winter. Can he outline what additional resources can be given to help our NHS get on top of that, because winter is coming?

My hon. Friend will know that the reason we have seen an increase in demand for A&E across the country is that many people have not been able to go to their GP in the usual way. Quite understandably, when their problem gets to a point that, in normal circumstances, it would not have reached, they go to A&E. That is what I meant when I talked earlier about the backlog of cases. Yesterday, I said that there are some 7 million people who, in normal circumstances would have come forward to the NHS either through their GP or in another way, but have not done so because of the rules and restrictions around the pandemic. Easing those restrictions will make a big difference.

More than a quarter of my Vauxhall constituents are aged between 20 and 29 and many of them have not had the chance to come forward for their second vaccine. Obviously, the lockdown restrictions that we are under will ease in two weeks’ time. This morning, the Secretary of State has confirmed that numbers are expected to rise after 19 July. He will be aware that a number of young people—one in eight—are still vaccine-hesitant. We know about the link between cases and hospitalisation and that the link is not broken. Young people are fearful of getting long covid, so can the Minister inform the House what specific resources are being made available through the NHS for those suffering with long covid?

The Government have made more than £90 billion of additional funding available to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. Much of that has gone to the NHS and other parts of the healthcare system, and it is helping in every aspect, including with those sadly suffering with long covid. Younger people are, of course, affected by the virus—no one could pretend otherwise—but the hon. Lady will know that they are less affected and impacted than older people in their communities. That is why older people have been the priority in the vaccination programme. One of the reasons that the date of 19 July was set was to allow every adult to get their first jab. Yesterday I announced the decision to shorten the time period between jabs from 12 weeks to eight weeks, so that some more people, including all the younger people to whom the hon. Lady referred, can get the full protection of a double dose by September.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today? He will know that the normal winter preparedness programme is just about to start. Will he confirm whether he will examine the medical evidence for vaccinating people under the age of 18 as part of this year’s programme? What extra measures might he also put in place regarding social care and discharge, to ensure that the pressure on beds, which normally increases, is taken care of this winter?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of the normal winter pressures. The measures that we had for the pandemic mean that this winter there will be less immunity from flu and other viruses that tend to come around in winter, so we are actively making plans in that regard. There were already plans in the Department when I arrived. I am reviewing those plans and this matter will be a priority.

The Secretary of State stated quite rightly last week that he was looking at the numbers very carefully immediately after being appointed. No doubt he will have looked at Japan and Korea, where the death rates are something like 2% or 5% of the UK’s death rate. Case rates are currently eight or nine per 100,000 in Korea and Japan, yet those countries—certainly Korea—are still mandating the wearing of masks. In the light of that, what does the Secretary of State think we should be doing, because those places are clearly having success?

We all know that the impact of this terrible virus has been very different across the world. The hon. Gentleman has talked about countries in the far east. The impact in South America, India and Europe has been very different. I do not think we can simply draw a conclusion that the reason for that difference is the policy on masks. The primary reason that we were able to announce the step 4 measures yesterday was the vaccine. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the countries he mentioned, particularly Japan, he will see that their vaccination rates are a lot lower than ours. That will partly explain why they may be taking a different approach to tackling the pandemic at this point.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role and warmly welcome his statement about the importance of addressing non-covid health issues. Sadly, for the last 17 months our children have been not seen and not heard. I know from my own children and those of my constituents the devastating impact that lockdowns have had on the wellbeing of our children and young people. Will my right hon. Friend set out what measures he is taking, as we return to normal, to focus on the physical and mental health of our young people, and ensure that the anxiety and physical inactivity of the pandemic is not leaving permanent scars?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Sadly, because of the necessary measures that we have had to take, the impact on children has been immense in the negative ways that she set out. She will know—as I know just from my own research that I did before coming back into Government—that we have seen a huge rise in reports of child abuse. For example, reporting to the NSPCC’s Childline has rocketed during the course of the pandemic. That is a direct result of children not being in school and not having enough people to report that kind of activity to. We need to respond to that. The Education Secretary will have more to say about the measures in a moment, but I hope and know that the measures that we announced yesterday and today will make a dramatic difference to children’s wellbeing.

The pandemic is not over, and learning to live with the virus means putting in place measures to reduce risk. Flamefast, based in Woolston Grange in Warrington North, manufactures CO2 monitors that alongside measures such as air filtration and improved ventilation can help dramatically to reduce the risk of indoor transmission of the virus. Why has the Secretary of State ignored calls from the Labour party to put in place measures such as air filtration, improved ventilation and CO2 monitoring to reduce the risk in indoor confined spaces, particularly in hospitals and care homes, for the most vulnerable in our communities, which could help to save lives and to give a vital boost to our manufacturing sectors?

I think it is not right for the hon. Lady to suggest that the Government have ignored the need to combat the virus with better air filtration and better ventilation. A lot of the funding that the Government have provided during the course of the pandemic—for example, extra funding to care home providers—has been there precisely to introduce and help to fund some of these measures.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. I know that he will share the view of many of my constituents in west Berkshire that we must do all we can to avoid another national lockdown. In the event that vaccine efficacy should falter as we head into the winter months because of, say, a new variant, what extra steps is his Department taking to ensure that this winter will not be a repeat of the last?

I can tell my hon. Friend about just one of the measures that we are taking. A huge number of tests are carried out—over half a million a day—and that gives us a certain insight into how the virus is changing, if it is. The genome sequencing resources that we have are the best in the world; we do almost half of the genome sequencing in the world. That is fed directly to our scientists and our world-leading vaccine programme and taken into account as we develop new vaccines. My hon. Friend knows about the booster programme, which will continue into next year—and for who knows how long? Every time we have a booster we will be doing everything we can to take into account changes in the virus.

The Health Secretary has referred to the pressures on our GPs and our hospitals from non-covid patients, and that is of course real. Most health professionals—doctors, nurses and others—have been double-jabbed and regularly use at least the lateral flow test to ensure that they are not infected with covid. However, one of the local hospitals in my constituency, Fairfield General Hospital, tells me that some 30% of doctors were not available recently because they had been pinged as they had, not surprisingly, come into contact with somebody with covid. This happened not because they found they were infected but because they had to go into quarantine for the 10-day period. We risk a build-up of cases when we increase the number of times that our medical professionals are likely to find themselves pinged. Will he see whether there is some way, at least for medical staff, of bringing forward the August date?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people who are pinged, so to speak, for coming into contact with an infected person and who have to self-isolate. The announcement that I have made today will clearly make a huge difference to everyone that is pinged in such a way, including all the fantastic people that work in our health service—the doctors, the nurses and others. As I said, it will come into force from 16 August. We thought carefully about whether we could do that earlier, and it is a fair question, but we decided not to do so, based on the best public health advice, because by 16 August many more people—even more than now—will be double-jabbed, and that extra layer of protection made us more comfortable in sticking with that date.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Primary care has shouldered the brunt of the vaccine deployment, and many GP surgeries in Stoke-on-Trent South are not yet back to full capacity with general appointments. A number of my constituents have raised the difficulties of getting to see their GP. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that primary care services are able to recover fully?

Yes, I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As well as the extra resources we are putting in, the measures that I have announced today about people not needing to self-isolate if they are in contact with an infected person but have been double-vaccinated will help across the board, and that certainly includes our NHS and primary care providers.

I am now suspending the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.