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Covid-19 Vaccinations

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 4 November 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on our covid-19 vaccination programme.

It is less than a year since Margaret Keenan made history by becoming the first person in the world to receive a covid-19 vaccination outside a clinical trial. Since then, we have been leading the world with our vaccination roll-out. We should all take huge pride in the progress that we have made. We have now delivered more than 100 million doses across the UK, including more than 50 million first doses, more than 45 million second doses, and more than 8 million booster and third doses. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that our jabs have prevented more than 24 million infections and more than 127,000 deaths.

Winter is always a challenging time for the NHS, but this year it is even more so, with more indoor mixing, the circulation of flu, and a new risk of more covid-19 variants.

We must continue to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our NHS. The vaccine roll-out is our best defence against the virus, and it remains the Government’s top priority. While more than 90% per cent of adults across the United Kingdom have received their first dose, about 5 million adults are yet to come forward, but it is never too late to come forward, and we will continue to help everyone to get their jabs so that no one is left behind.

Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics shows that the risk of dying from covid is 32 times greater in unvaccinated people than in fully vaccinated people. That only underlines what we already knew—the critical importance of vaccination—and we are committed to making getting booster jabs as easy as possible. More than 2,400 vaccine sites are now in operation across England, and people can access a vaccination via a walk-in site or book an appointment regardless of whether they have an NHS number. We recognise that the chance to book a jab early, even before the eligibility date, has the potential to drive up bookings for boosters, and we are considering that carefully.

We will not ease up on vaccine uptake, and will continue to work with clinicians, social media platforms, local authorities, faith groups and businesses—indeed, with anyone who can communicate the benefits of vaccination. We have funded community champions across the country to work with local leaders and communities to encourage people to come forward.

We have also accelerated our vaccination programme for children and young people. All those aged 12 to 15 can now get their vaccinations at school, or by booking an appointment via the national booking service. More than 200 sites are now available for appointments outside school, and school age immunisation teams have visited more than 2,500 schools in England so far, with 800 more due to be visited next week. I am delighted that more than 650,000 12 to 15-year olds have been vaccinated since the programme was launched in September.

We are also rapidly rolling out our booster programme to give people the best protection over the winter and help to reduce pressure on the NHS. Although our vaccines give powerful protection, we know that the levels of protection offered by a covid-19 vaccine fall over time—particularly in older people, who are at greater risk from the virus—and even a small reduction in protection can have a significant impact on hospital admissions. The goal of the booster programme is to top up that protection. More than 8 million people across the UK have now received the vital protection that a booster dose provides. Our brilliant NHS is delivering the biggest vaccination programme in NHS history, administering hundreds of thousands of booster jabs every day, and the pace has been accelerating rapidly, with a record 1.6 million jabs in England last week alone. A further 2.2 million invitations are going out this week.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and volunteers up and down the country are playing their part in delivering jabs to protect the country against the virus. GPs in particular continue to be the bedrock of the vaccine programme, delivering more than 70% of all vaccinations so far, and I know that the whole country is grateful for their tireless work throughout the pandemic.

The most important thing that everyone can do to protect themselves, their family and the freedoms for which we have fought so hard is to get their jab and, if they are eligible, their booster dose. We are making it easier than ever to get protected, so please come forward.

People eligible for their booster can already use the NHS online walk-in finder to find the most convenient site to get their top-up without an appointment. There are hundreds of walk-in sites across the country. We have also updated our guidance to make it clear that covid-19 boosters can be given slightly earlier to those at highest risk, where it makes sense operationally. For example, we are allowing care home residents who may have received their second dose at different times to be vaccinated in the same session when the vaccination team are in the home, as long as they have passed the five-month mark.

Covid-19 is not our only adversary this winter. We are also facing the threat of flu, which even before this pandemic, placed a great strain on the NHS at this time of year. Last season, we saw extremely low influenza activity levels globally and as a result, we may see lower levels of population immunity against the flu and more strains in circulation this winter. To combat this, a record 35 million people are eligible for a free flu jab this year, and this provides us with another way that we can keep our country safe.

Finally, it is not just in vaccinations that records are being set. I am delighted to confirm that today we have become the first country in the world to approve an antiviral for covid-19 that can be taken at home. In clinical trials, molnupiravir has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalisation or death for covid-19 patients who are most at risk by 50%. This treatment has gone through a rigorous assessment for the highest standards of safety by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. We are now working across Government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients, initially through a national study so that we can collect more data on how antivirals work in a mostly vaccinated population. I urge everyone to get their covid and flu jabs as soon as they are eligible, in order to protect themselves, their loved ones, and the extraordinary progress that we have made together. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of the statement and take this opportunity say a huge thank you to our NHS. Frontline staff are doing a fantastic job continuing to deliver the vaccine programme, which is especially complex and fraught with challenges as they deliver first, second and third doses as well as jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds. They are coping with numerous pressures in the system, but continue to work flat out to get the UK through this pandemic.

Winter is coming, though, and frankly the Government just do not have a handle on covid, going into the busiest season for our NHS. The Government must get a grip on the stalling vaccination programme. Plan B, which contains measures that we already support, such as mask wearing and allowing working from home, is simply not enough on its own. Yes, we support it, but it is not enough on its own. We must turbocharge vaccine boosters, fix sick pay and improve ventilation.

The clinically vulnerable are simply not getting the jabs they need. Local residents are contacting us saying that they cannot get the boosters they so desperately need. One lady in her 70s who has underlying health conditions went to her pharmacy and called 119, just to be told that she was not eligible for her booster. She has now finally got one booked for December, but she had to rely on her daughter to book the appointment for her because she does not use the internet. The system simply is not working, particularly for many of those who need it most.

The Government had a deadline of 1 November for offering booster jabs to all care home residents. Right now, only 23% of care home residents in Leicester have had their booster jab, and the picture across the country is extremely patchy. To be clear, just promoting pop-up vaccine clinics does not help care home residents. We must use all the resources we have, including community pharmacists, retired medics and trained volunteers, to go into care homes and vaccinate residents. The Government are failing and this is putting people’s lives at risk.

In my borough of Wandsworth, the two-dose rate is only 67%, which means that almost 100,000 people do not have the recommended level of vaccination, but this is not an isolated example—people in Wandsworth are working very hard to get the vaccine out—and it is replicated across the country. What are the Government doing to increase the uptake?

Let us be honest, it is largely less affluent areas that have the lowest take-up, proving that vaccine inequalities are alive and kicking. Covid has shone a spotlight on the health inequalities that exist across the country. Why are the Government ignoring them again now? We are tired of issuing the same warnings time and again.

Our rate of child vaccination is shamefully low and slowed during half-term—the rate is still only around 20%. There were almost 250,000 children out of school in the days before half-term. Where is the plan?

On current trends, we will not complete the booster programme until spring 2022. The Government need to get a grip and set a target of 500,000 boosters a day. At the moment, the figure is less than 300,000 a day, which is why we are calling for more pop-up vaccine clinics, greater use of community pharmacies and the mobilisation of retired medics.

As we approach a difficult winter, Ministers have failed to put in place measures such as improved ventilation, proper sick pay and fully resourced local contact-tracing teams, all of which would help to reduce the spread of the virus. We must get the balance right and ensure flu vaccines, covid vaccines and boosters are all delivered at a high pace from now until the end of winter. While the booster scheme is so slow, the Government should never have scrapped mask wearing and working from home. The Prime Minister should never have abandoned those measures.

The Government have failed to plan yet again, and they are putting the country at risk going into winter. We need less bluster from this Government, who seem to spend more time planning to protect their mates than the lives of people up and down the country. We need action now.

Ninety per cent. of the adult population have had their first dose, and 8 million people have taken up the opportunity to have a booster jab. That is a successful vaccination programme, so I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady talks about care homes and, from a personal point of view, I know how important it is to make sure our most vulnerable are vaccinated, which is why I am delighted that nine out of 10 care homes have had their jabs either delivered or booked. That is a great success.

This Government have already recognised that covid has exposed the disparities across the nation, which is why on 1 October we launched the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to understand what is important and how we can make real change in our communities that need the most help.

The hon. Lady talks about bringing back retired medics and volunteers, but they are already back. They have been playing their part for months, and I take this opportunity to thank them for all their efforts. Just last week, I met a retired medic who had come back to St Thomas’ Hospital, and he was relishing his role in this amazing vaccination programme. The hon. Lady does those volunteers and returners a huge disservice.

I am always grateful to the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), because throughout this pandemic they have usually been co-operative, helpful and in agreement with us, but the hon. Lady’s remarks today give too little credit to the phenomenal role that the NHS and community pharmacies are already playing in the roll-out of our vaccination programme. They are delivering a booster programme of third doses while delivering the largest flu programme ever, with 35 million people now eligible for a flu jab. I call on people to come forward as soon as they can.

My apologies, Mr Speaker, for missing the start of the Minister’s statement because you managed to expedite parliamentary business with commendable briskness this morning.

I thank the Minister for her update. Let me say how welcome it is that we have approved the new antiviral, molnupiravir—a new word for us to memorise—which could be immensely significant. When does she think we will be able to distribute it to people who have caught covid who are at home? She says that there is going to be a national study, which is potentially an important step. However, in a pandemic we sometimes bypass these national studies and go straight to distributing medicines that we know are safe to members of the public. Might this not be one of those occasions where we decide to speed things up? I also commend her efforts on the vaccine programme, but, as the shadow spokesman said, one reason we are behind other European countries on vaccinating teenagers is that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation did not give its decision until September, whereas France was able to start vaccinating before the summer holidays. Is she looking at how we could speed up the JCVI processes? I appreciate that her hands are tied.

May I also ask the Minister to look at the booking system, because in parts of my constituency people are not able to book a booster jab until after they have passed the six-month mark? Would it not be better for anyone to be able to book their booster jab after they have passed the five-month mark? Finally, may I ask her when she is planning to tell the House about the very important decision on mandatory jabbing for NHS workers? That is a difficult decision. It is one I would support if the Government brought it to the House. I have read in the press that they are thinking of doing that in the spring, which mi well be the right timing, but this is something that NHS staff want to know about.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his questions. I reiterate on the antivirals that we are working across government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients. As he rightly says, it is important that we act very quickly. It was only earlier today that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency gave its approval, so we are already taking rapid steps in letting people know about this issue. He talked about the JCVI, for which I have huge respect. I do not think it is my position to intervene in its processes. We need robust processes to make sure that what we have available and the programmes we have are very safe, as the UK population would expect. He also talked about booking the booster. We always need to look at ways of improving accessibility, but we did open up the opportunity for people to go to walk-in centres for their booster, so that they do not need to book online or call 119. We are looking at ways of making this easier all the time. On the mandating of jabs, the Secretary of State will make an announcement in due course.

I thank the Minister for previous sight of her statement. Scotland leads the UK in both first and second vaccination rates: 90% of those aged over 12 have been vaccinated with at least one dose, whereas in England the figure is 85; for second doses, the figures are 81% as against 79%, with booster roll-outs taking place across these lands as we speak. How do the UK Government plan to match Scotland and encourage greater uptake of vaccines among those who are so far unvaccinated?

The Government said in their Budget that they planned to invest responsibly. Does the Minister believe it was responsible to cancel a multi-million-pound contract—threatening hundreds of jobs in Livingston for no good reason— to supply a covid-19 vaccine that phase 3 trials show may be more effective than the Oxford vaccine? Will she rethink that outrageous decision?

I thank the hon. Lady for her update on what is happening in Scotland. I commend those involved in the roll-out of the vaccination programme in Scotland. We can all learn lessons from each other in this pandemic and it is only right that we do so. On the contracts the hon. Lady talked about, I will not comment on commercial decisions.

I thank the Minister for her statement and the excellent work that she and her team are doing to roll out boosters as fast as possible. I urge her to consider whether bookings for boosters could be made in advance, so that people are already booked in when they become eligible and can immediately have their booster.

I reassure my hon. Friend that we always look at ways to make it easier for people to get their booster, as well as for people to get their first and second jabs and their flu jab. We are always open to looking at opening up further opportunities.

The Minister said earlier that she will not take any lessons from Labour on this issue but, given we have one of the highest death rates in Europe, perhaps she should.

I want to talk about one of the most vulnerable groups of people who have been left unprotected throughout this pandemic. One in six of the most critically ill covid patients in the UK are unvaccinated pregnant women. What are the Government doing to protect pregnant women now and throughout the ongoing pandemic?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I find it really concerning that one in six people in hospital with covid are unvaccinated pregnant women and it is an issue that I wholeheartedly want to address. I encourage every lady who is either looking to become or is pregnant to talk to their midwife and their GP and get reassurance that vaccines are safe for that cohort of ladies. The best thing they can do is to protect themselves and their babies.

I got my jabs on time, I then managed to get covid—probably from this place—and I have also had my booster jab. I understand from the Minister that there is a new antiviral drug; how would that have been given to me when I was quite poorly with covid? When we have new drugs, can we give them easier names to pronounce?

My hon. Friend makes a good point: I do not know why the pharmaceutical companies come up with these tongue-tying names for their drugs. As I said earlier, we need to make sure that we roll out the new antiviral to the right people. The important and exciting thing is that the drug can be taken in people’s homes.

Today marks the day when we have the most covid cases ever, so it is a sad day for the UK.

My concern is schools. The advice is that ventilation works against covid, yet schools are desperately underfunded for ventilation measures. Will the Minister speak to the Minister for School Standards to ensure that the budget for such measures can be refreshed so that all children, staff and families can be as protected as possible from covid?

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is so important to protect our youngsters. A lot of investment has gone into making sure that there is ventilation in schools, but I will talk to my counterpart in the Department for Education to see whether more can be done.

I recognise the enormous amount that is going into the booster programme and thank the Minister for that. In Norfolk and Waveney we are already up to nearly 55% of all eligible constituents having had their boosters, but my North Norfolk constituency has a particularly elderly demographic and we have no walk-in booster availability at all. I urge the Minister to put pressure on my local clinical commissioning group, given the worry it causes for the elderly demographic, to make sure that people can access walk-in booster jabs as quickly as possible.

I think my hon. Friend has already got his message over loud and clear to his CCG, but we can have further discussions if he finds that has not worked.

I am grateful to the Minister for having fixed the problems with the booster booking system that I raised with her two weeks ago, but the system for third jabs for the clinically extremely vulnerable is still in total chaos. Some clinically vulnerable people are saying that their GPs do not know which group they are in and, even if their GPs do know, those people who are eligible for their third dose and their jabs cannot be identified on the online system. Will the Minister commit to fixing the system in the next 48 hours and urgently reinstate the monthly meetings that her predecessor held with patient groups, which have been trying to bring these concerns to her attention?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. However, it is important that, for that individual whose GP is not able to give them a jab, they have words with their hospital consultant who may have more knowledge of their condition. I will definitely look into the system.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. Delivering 8.7 million booster jabs at 2,400 vaccination sites is a great achievement. I agree entirely with the point about making booster jabs as available as possible. On that point though, in North Yorkshire, where we have had fantastic vaccine roll-out and take-up—it has been a great achievement—I am hearing mixed messages about what is happening in schools. The CCG has told me that they should be eligible for visits by the end of this month, but some schools have been reporting that they are not looking at visits until January or February next year by which stage, of course, it is too late. If I look at the website on the location of walk-in centres and tap in Harrogate, it brings up five locations in Halifax, which is about 17 miles away. Are there any problems with vaccine supply, or are we having some difficulties in North Yorkshire at the moment?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no problem at all with the supply of vaccines; we have plenty of supply. He talks about schools. The vaccine programme in schools is being carried out by the school-aged immunisation service, which is very experienced in carrying out vaccinations for different conditions in schools. If there is a problem in his area, I will definitely look into it on his behalf.

I cannot accept that the deaths of 217 people yesterday and 293 the day before shows good management of this pandemic. The fact that so many people are now dying of this virus is a call on Government to take urgent action. With the Minister’s own confession that 5 million people are yet to be vaccinated and the fact that my constituents are not able to get access to the flu vaccine either, it is clear that we are heading for a real health crisis. Will she urgently take back the message that we need greater public health measures to be introduced in order to keep our communities safe?

No death is acceptable and my condolences go to everyone who has lost somebody in this terrible pandemic. Our best wall of defence is through vaccinations. Vaccinations do work, so my message is: get your booster. If people have not had their first jab, they should get their first jab and continue to build that wall of defence.

Many of my Bath constituents have got in touch to say that they have trouble getting access to the booster vaccines. This is particularly worrying for the clinically extremely vulnerable, as we have already heard. The support for the clinically extremely vulnerable has been woefully inadequate, including the advice that they were given throughout the pandemic. As we head into winter, what guidance is the Minister giving to the 3.7 million people who were advised to shield last winter?

I think it is important that everybody takes personal responsibility and makes sure that they protect themselves. As we know, people were shielding last winter, but we did not have this highly successful vaccination programme. The best way for people to protect themselves is to get jabbed, get protected and to protect themselves from the virus.