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Covid-19: Government Response

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to covid-19.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his question and for the opportunity to answer questions from across the House in addition to my oral statement later this morning. Before I do so, I want to underline our commitment to keeping the House informed.

Yesterday’s announcement on the procurement of new antiviral treatments was made to Parliament via a written ministerial statement. The purpose of the Secretary of State’s press conference was to appeal directly to the public to come forward for their vaccines, including the 4.7 million people over the age of 18 in England who have not accepted the vaccine. We need those who are eligible to do so to take up the offer of a booster jab as we pursue plan A to its full extent.

I thank the Minister for that answer.

Yesterday the Secretary of State said that the pressures on the NHS were sustainable, but we are seeing ambulances backed up outside hospitals, patients waiting hour upon hour in A&E, cancer operations cancelled, and NHS staff exhausted. Has there ever been, in the history of the NHS, a more complacent attitude on the part of a Secretary of State as we head into winter? Yesterday the Secretary of State refused to trigger plan B. Can the Minister tell us what is the criterion for triggering it?

Newspapers report today that a plan C—no household mixing—is being considered: a lockdown by the back door. When the Business Secretary ruled out a lockdown yesterday, was that just another example of his making things up as he goes along in interviews? The Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), said on the radio today that that plan was not

“something that is being actively considered.”

Members should note the qualifying adverb “actively”. We do not want a return to the dark days of lockdown; nor do we want to see regional lockdowns, or local lockdowns like those that we saw in Leicester, Bolton and Burnley. Can the Minister rule out such lockdowns?

Is the truth not that we are in this situation because the vaccination programme is now stalling? Ministers cannot blame the public when 2 million people have not even been invited for a booster jab, and on current trends we will not complete the booster programme until March 2022. There are currently just 165,000 jabs a day; will the Minister make a commitment to 500,000 a day, and ensure that the programme is completed by Christmas?

The Minister will know that the highest concentration of infections is among children, but only 17% of children have been vaccinated. This is a stuttering roll-out of the children’s vaccination programme—and does it not expose the folly of cutting the number of school nurses and health visitors who support these immunisation programmes in our communities?

Only 36% of over-65s have been vaccinated against flu. We hear stories of cancelled flu jabs at GPs’ surgeries, and of pharmacists saying that they do not have enough supplies. Why are supplies apparently running so low? With infections, meanwhile, running so high, Ministers need to stop vacillating and get vaccinating.

The wall of defence is crumbling. We know that we have to get ahead of this virus, because otherwise it gets ahead of us. How will the Minister fix this stalling vaccination programme?

Let me first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his co-operation throughout the pandemic. However, I am a bit disappointed with his tone today. What we are seeing is the Government carrying out the plans that have been laid before Parliament—the autumn and winter plans involving plan A and plan B—and as the Secretary of State rightly said yesterday, plan A is still what we are working to.

Our vaccines have created a wall of defence. It is incredible how many people have taken up the offer, not just for the first jab but for the second, and are now coming forward for their boosters. In fact, at the start of the week 5.4 million people were eligible for their booster jabs, and 4 million people had taken up that opportunity: 4 million arms had been jabbed.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about 12 to 15-year-olds. We are now able to offer more choice to parents wanting to take their children to vaccination centres. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important for the choice of where children get their jabs to be as wide as possible to ensure that everyone has that opportunity. It is also important to ensure that the 4.7 million people who have not yet taken up the offer of the first jab are encouraged to come forward, because, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the vaccines are our wall of defence.

The flu vaccine programme, too, is extremely important, and people are now being called forward for the flu jab that is helping to protect us throughout the winter months. My message is this: if you receive a call for a flu jab, do not wait to receive a call for your booster jab, and vice versa. Get whichever jab you are invited for first, and that will help to protect you, your family and the people around you.

Last week, the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee published a report saying that the vaccine roll-out was one of the biggest and most impressive achievements in British public administration in our lifetime, and I want to pay tribute to the Government and to the vaccines Minister for what has been achieved. But in truth, at its peak in the spring, we were jabbing 400,000 people a day; now it is fewer than 200,000 people a day. If we look at our higher hospitalisations, cases and death rates compared with countries such as France and Germany, we can see that the heart of it is not actually things like mask wearing and covid passports; it is their higher vaccine immunity. So I want to ask the Minister two questions.

First, on the decision that people cannot have their booster jab until six months after their second job, how hard and fast should that rule be? Does it really matter, when it is only nine weeks until the Christmas holidays, if someone has their booster jab after only five months? Should we not look at having some flexibility on that decision, so that we can get more people in for their booster jabs more quickly? Secondly, at the risk of making the Minister blush, does she not need to be a Cabinet Minister? Is it not one of the issues that the previous vaccines Minister sat at the Cabinet table and that she does not? This is such an important thing for our national defence against the virus and our utter determination to avoid another lockdown. Do we not need a vaccines Minister sitting around the Cabinet table as we did before?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his questions. I would like to reassure him that I have regular meetings with the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister takes the vaccine roll-out extremely seriously, as does the Secretary of State. Regarding the timescale for the eligibility for boosters, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has provided advice that there should be a minimum of six months after the second jab, but I would like to reassure the House that the immunity does not fall off a cliff edge. It has waned slightly but not sufficiently, so there is still time for people to come forward. Obviously, we are encouraging them to come forward as soon as they are eligible, but they still have a huge amount of immunity over and above those who have yet to get their first jab.

With infection levels worryingly at previous lockdown levels, with the Government being accused of having taken their foot off the brake by the British Medical Association, and with NHS leaders calling for the reintroduction of restrictions, the Secretary of State’s stance of not implementing plan B at this point does not look credible. It looks like a repeat of the previous mistakes of acting too late. If the Government will not now follow Scotland’s lead and bring in measures such as mask wearing to reduce infection, how much worse must things get before they implement a plan B?

Our vaccines programme has really created a wall of defence. We are in plan A, and there is still more that can be done as part of plan A. That is why I am calling on the 4.7 million people who have yet to come forward for their first jab and on others to have their booster jab as soon as they are eligible, as well as encouraging 12 to 15-year-olds to get their jab as soon as they have the opportunity.

May I associate myself strongly with the Speaker’s statement earlier? It really should not be difficult for Ministers to come to this House to make statements, rather than doing so at press conferences. I really do think that the Speaker’s words should be taken on board by those on the Treasury Bench. It is worth saying that the number of patients in hospital with covid is lower now than it was a month ago. That is worth saying because it puts things into some context. My question is this, though, following on from the Chairman of the Health Committee. At the press conference yesterday, the Secretary of State seemed to imply that there was some reluctance among the public to come forward for booster doses. The headline in all the papers this morning was that if people do not come forward for their booster dose, we will have restrictions back. I can see no evidence that the public are not coming forward for their booster dose when asked, so can the Minister set out clearly whether there is a problem with people coming forward when asked? If the slowness of the roll-out is actually to do with the way in which either the NHS or Ministers are administering it, leading to a problem later in the autumn, that would be on Ministers and not on the public.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the number of hospitalisations is now lower than it was a few months ago. People do not need to wait to be contacted by their GP, community pharmacy or the NHS to come forward for their booster jab, so long as they are six months plus one week past their second jab. We are encouraging everybody to come forward, even if they have not formally been invited, by dialling 119 or going online.

I have been fortunate in the past few weeks to go to both France and Italy. Both countries have vaccination rates very similar to the UK’s—in fact Italy has a slightly higher rate now—but the difference is that a person cannot go on public transport or into a supermarket without wearing a face mask, and they cannot go into a bar, restaurant or leisure centre without showing a health passport. Infection rates in those countries are now around a tenth of the infection rate in this country. Does the Minister accept those public health measures have brought down those countries’ infection rates well below our level, or does she think there are other reasons why infection rates are so much higher in our country than in Italy and France?

We laid before the House our autumn and winter plan, which outlines the non-pharmaceutical interventions on which people can make their own decisions, because we believe people can make informed choices. As people see the levels rising, they will look at the guidance again and perhaps make the decision to wear a face covering in more venues.

Will the Minister ensure that an obsession with non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask wearing, does not obscure the central message that the way out of this is through the continuation of the UK’s excellent vaccination programme? Will she ensure that the wind is not taken out of the sails of that vaccination programme as we enter a perilous part of this cycle in the winter months? And will she ensure that the evidence that monoclonal antibodies and antivirals given to test-positive vulnerable people before hospitalisation reduces their mortality is rolled out into recommendations so that such people can receive interventions that stand every chance of reducing their mortality and ensuring their recovery, thus reducing the burden on the national health service?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point that our vaccination programme is the best wall of defence we can have. That is why, once again, I have made the call for everybody to have their first jab, if they have not had it, and their booster jab when they are eligible, and for 12 to 15-year-olds to have their jab when they can. As he rightly says, and he has much knowledge of this subject, monoclonal antibodies and antivirals will make big inroads into protecting the most vulnerable and the immunosuppressed. We welcome the antivirals that were announced yesterday, and over the coming months we hope they will be recognised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

If the vaccination programme is, as the Minister rightly says, our best defence against covid, why are the Government so complacent about improving vaccination rates? In Nottingham, despite the hard work of partners, less than half of under-30s have had both doses of the covid vaccine. What is she doing right now to ensure that places with lower take-ups succeed in getting more people vaccinated?

The hon. Lady raises the issue of the differential uptake in different age groups. This is why the Government and the NHS have been keen to reach out to different age groups through different mechanisms, such as using shopping centres, football stadiums and pop-up sites. That will be continuing as we move forward in the coming weeks and months.

When we are increasingly concerned about mental health, the mask the Minister was wearing only moments ago denies us the fellowship and reassurance of her friendly facial expression, but the material of which it is composed has gaps that are 5,000 times bigger than the virus, does it not?

Like my right hon. Friend, I look forward to the time when we do not need to wear face coverings, because I love to see everybody’s smiling faces. However, we need to make sure that we all get jabbed, so that we can get to that stage.

Just yesterday, the Italian Prime Minister pointed at this country as an example of what not to do. We are now such an embarrassment that we are encouraging people elsewhere to follow the rules. Meanwhile, Government sources are this morning briefing that the approach the Government are taking is tantamount to herd immunity. We all know how we feel about Government sources, so can the Minister be clear: is herd immunity the plan? If it is not, what is?

I am disappointed in the hon. Lady’s approach, because we have led the way not only in vaccines, sourcing them very early on, but in antivirals. It is fantastic news that we were first with vaccines and that, through the Prime Minister’s setting up the antivirals taskforce, we now have the opportunity of some antiviral tablets as well, which will make a huge, huge difference. We are continuing to lead the world.

Mr Speaker was right to blow a gasket this morning about the Government yet again announcing major policy in a press conference and not coming to this House. The excellent Minister at the Dispatch Box has been sent in on a sticky wicket without a bat. Would it be possible for her to tell us what bright spark in Downing Street thought it right that this House should be held in contempt so that they can get their communications strategy right? If she cannot tell me that now, perhaps she can tell me when she comes back later.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that the Secretary of State laid the written ministerial statement in the House yesterday outlining the antiviral announcement that was made in Downing Street last night.

The Minister said a few minutes ago that the level of protection from vaccination is still very high in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) pointed out that we have similar vaccination levels to those of France and Italy, but she did not answer him on what the difference was on infection rates. Does she believe that the reason they have so much lower levels of infection, hospitalisation and death in France and Italy than in this country is the range of measures that he outlined, or does she believe there is some other reason for that? If not, will she say why the Government have not introduced similar measures, including mask wearing, ventilation in buildings and the kind of green passes my hon. Friend mentioned?

There is a chance I might sound like a broken record, but our vaccines really are our wall of defence and our first line of defence. We must continue to make sure that everybody comes forward for their first dose, second dose and booster dose, and this includes 12 to 15-year-olds.

I thank the Minister for her work on this and I welcome the advanced treatments. When I speak to people in Scunthorpe, I find that they are really concerned about any potential increase in restrictions. They are right to be worried about that, but we also understand that this is an incredibly challenging situation for the Government to balance. Will she once again reassure people in Scunthorpe and our surrounding villages that should the Government conclude that further restrictions are necessary, this House will have a proper opportunity to debate, discuss and vote on those measures?

I reassure my hon. Friend that we are following plan A and we still have more to do in plan A to put in place all the measures to protect our communities—people in constituencies throughout the UK—and to continue to build that wall of defence and to have our freedoms.

If the Government believe that the NHS is not under pressure, I urge the Minister to speak to NHS and care workers in Newcastle, for whom the pressure is becoming unbearable.

There are measures that we can all take to protect the NHS, yet it is clear to me from travelling on Newcastle’s metro and buses that many people are not wearing masks. Constituents have written to me to express their concern, so will the Minister reiterate the Secretary of State’s urging that we all wear masks? Will she explain why she will not make the wearing of masks mandatory? Will she commit that her Conservative MP colleagues will start doing so?

Plan A outlines the guidance that is in place and that is the guidance that people should be following. It is up to individuals to work out what works for them and what is best for them. Plan B incorporates the mandatory wearing of masks, but we are on plan A.

The news of the new antiviral treatments that we heard about yesterday is very welcome, as is, of course, the fastest vaccine roll-out programme in the world.

We voted to break our manifesto commitment in order to give the NHS billions of pounds more of our constituents’ money, primarily to deal with the covid backlog, yet there is a depressingly familiar drumbeat on moving towards plan B and plan B+, and plan C is in the papers today—as mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—without mention of a penny of that new money.

May I ask the Minister about jabbing our young people? The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation came up with one piece of advice and the chief medical officer was asked to come with another one, until we got the answer that we wanted from him; does the Minister think that has something to do with why parents are confused? What more can she and her office do to convince the parents of teenagers that vaccination is in the interests of the young person? That will hopefully then drive up vaccination rates as vaccines go online according to the schedule in schools.

I reassure my hon. Friend that there is a lot of communication through schools and directly to parents and children to ensure that they understand the importance of 12 to 15-year-olds receiving their jabs, which will protect not only them but their loved ones.

As we approach the second year of covid, it is astonishing that so many Members on the Conservative Benches still try to make out that to be vaccinated and to wear a mask are alternative protections. That is a bit like saying, “If you have brakes on your car, why should you bother with a steering wheel and a seatbelt?” I was pleased that yesterday the Secretary of State repeatedly emphasised the need for everyone to wear face masks unless they had a genuine reason for exemption. Is it not very noticeable that more masks are visible on the Conservative Benches today than were visible yesterday, when those Benches were full for Prime Minister’s questions? Is that an indication that Conservative MPs have been told that they have to practise what the Secretary of State preaches and wear their masks in all circumstances in which the advice says they are needed?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am wearing my face covering today out of choice and because I believe it is the right thing to do.

We know that the success of any public health roll-out comes through working closely with local councils and local government, so will the Minister let the House know when she last spoke to the Association of Directors of Public Health or the Local Government Association about the potential plan B and how it would be successful?

I have spoken to numerous stakeholders with regard to my portfolio. I reassure the hon. Lady that we address the issues as and when we need to.

When I speak to my constituents I sense there is an element of uncertainty as to exactly who is entitled to a booster vaccination. May I ask the Minister to be really clear for my constituents in Warrington: who is eligible and how can they check?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is really important to make sure that people understand that, if they had their second jab six months ago, plus one week to allow for a bit of admin, they are eligible. They may get a text or a letter from the NHS, but if they do not, they can go online or phone 119 to book their jab.

Some months ago, the Prime Minister rolled up to Billingham in my constituency for a picture opportunity that Fujifilm scheduled for the manufacture of the Novavax vaccine starting around now. Since then the Government have gone very quiet about this new product and we have recently learned that the thousands of people who volunteered to take part in the Novavax trials are being given alternative vaccines to ensure that they are properly covered. While Fujifilm has assured me that the delay in the vaccine being submitted for approval will not affect jobs in Billingham, Novavax cannot be bothered to respond to the local MP. The Government have already ordered tens of millions of doses. Can the Minister offer a progress report on the trials and approval process for Novavax?

First, let me say a huge thank you to everybody who came forward to take part in clinical trials. Without those volunteers, we would not be where we are today, having the amazing vaccines that are helping to save lives. To ensure that I have the absolute up-to-date information, may I write to the hon. Gentleman on the latest with regards to those specific trials?

The problem is that the Government have put all their eggs in one basket with the vaccine when they should also be implementing public health measures and providing clear leadership on that. They should also restore the contact tracing that local authorities were doing with great success in locking down the virus. The Government took that right away from them, so will the Minister restore contact tracing to local authorities?

The Government have a range of measures. We have vaccines; we are world leading on antivirals; and we have lots of other measures. As I go about my constituency, I see many people blipping into venues, wearing their face coverings when they are shopping and lots of different things. It is important that people have that choice and make decisions based on the current circumstances.

Low-paid frontline workers without access to decent sick pay have been most likely to lose their lives during the crisis. Is it not those workers who will pay the price for this complacency?

The Government have been extremely generous in their support throughout this pandemic and will continue to be so.

I wish the Minister well in her new role. Will she outline what plans are in place to begin to get on top of waiting lists, for example on breast reconstruction post mastectomy, hip replacements and tonsil operations? Will additional funding be made available to outsource work to private hospitals to reduce waiting lists and to give people back their health, mobility and confidence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I reassure him that a lot of investment is being put into the health service, as I am sure he is aware, to ensure that we can tackle the backlog that has been created because of the pandemic.

I gather there may be a point of order. Did somebody wish to raise a point of order? We need to move on. There should be a statement from the Secretary of State.

Can you advise me how best to deal with the stress levels created by this morning’s timetable? I do not mean to complain—I am a big girl—but, quite frankly, I had departmental questions this morning, we heard on the grapevine that there was going to be a statement on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, for which we have been waiting for more than six months, and we also heard last night that there was going to be a deal with New Zealand.

I got a copy of the Government statement on the deal with New Zealand at six minutes past 10 this morning, when I was obviously on my feet dealing with departmental questions here. I do not complain about where my office is, as I have a wonderful office, but it does take quite a long time to get to it. I need to get to it, pick up the statement that has been given to me by the Government, read it, write what I am going to say, make sure that it is only half the length of the statement and then come back.

I also want to make reference, of course, to the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which the Government have said is a really important part of any future deal that they negotiate, because of the grave concerns that farmers have about their future business, to which the TAC is supposed to be part of the remedy. We got a written ministerial statement, which I received 20 minutes ago while running back from my office. [Laughter.] I got a ministerial statement at six minutes past 10. We have to put all those things together. Although in many ways it is funny, if I was a frontline farmer I would not find this funny at all.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that point of order. I very much suspect that the Secretary of State should also thank the right hon. Lady for that point of order. We have had some examples this morning of the way in which not to do business in this House. It is vital that Secretaries of State ensure that they are here in good time for their statements. I think that expresses the opinion of all in this House. Stress levels have been raised by this, so the best thing now is to move on as quickly as possible. I am sure that the International Trade Secretary will want to apologise—I call her to make her statement.