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Covid-19 Update

Volume 704: debated on Friday 26 November 2021

With permission, I would like to update the House on covid-19. Before I begin, I wish the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), well as he recovers from covid-19.

Over the past 48 hours, a small number of cases of a new variant have been detected on our international genomic database. I want to reassure the House that there are no detected cases of this variant in the UK at this time, but this new variant is of huge international concern. The World Health Organisation has called a special meeting this morning, and that meeting is taking place right now. I want to update the House on what we know so far, why we are concerned and the action that we are taking, although I must stress that this is a fast-moving situation and there remains a high degree of uncertainty.

The sequence of this variant, currently called B.1.1.529, was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone travelling from South Africa. The UK was the first country to identify the potential threat of this new variant and to alert international partners. Further cases have been identified in South Africa and Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries. Yesterday, the South African Government held a press conference where they provided an update on what they know so far. I want to put on the record my thanks to South Africa not only for its rigorous scientific response but for the openness and transparency with which it has acted, much as we did here in the United Kingdom when we first detected what is now known as the alpha variant.

We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusually large number of mutations. Yesterday, the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a new variant under investigation, and the variant technical group has designated it as a variant under investigation with very high priority. It is the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than beta. It shares many of the features of the alpha, beta and delta variants. Early indications show that this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it. It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve.

We are also worried about the rise in cases in countries in southern Africa, especially as these populations should have significant natural immunity. In South Africa in particular, there has been exponential growth, with cases increasing fourfold over the last two weeks. In Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, some 80% of cases, when tested with a PCR test, have shown something known as the S-gene drop-out, which we associate with this variant. While we do not yet know definitively whether the exponential growth in South Africa is directly associated with this new variant, this PCR test analysis does indicate that there could be many more cases of this new variant than just those that have been sequenced so far.

Even as we continue to learn more about this new variant, one of the lessons of this pandemic has been that we must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment. The UK remains in a strong position. We have made tremendous gains as a result of the decisions that we took over the summer and the initial success of our booster programme, but we are heading into winter and our booster programme is still ongoing so we must act with caution. We are therefore taking the following steps. Yesterday, I announced that from midday today, we are placing six countries in southern Africa on the travel red list. These countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident who has been in one of these countries in the past 10 days will be denied entry into England. UK and Irish residents arriving from these countries from 4 am on Sunday will enter hotel quarantine. Anyone arriving before those dates should take PCR tests on day 2 and day 8, even if they are vaccinated, and isolate at home along with the rest of their household. If you have arrived from any of these countries in the past 10 days, NHS Test and Trace will be contacting you and asking you to take PCR tests, but please, do not wait to be contacted; you should take PCR tests right away. We have been working closely with the devolved Administrations on this, and they will be aligning their response. In recent hours, Israel has also taken similar precautions.

I wish to stress that we are working quickly and with a high degree of uncertainty. We are continuing to make assessments, including about those countries with strong travel links to South Africa, and we are working with our international partners, including South Africa and the European Union, to ensure an aligned response. This variant is a reminder for us all that this pandemic is far from over. We must continue to act with caution and do all we can to keep this virus at bay, including, once you are eligible, getting your booster shot. We have already given more than 16 million booster shots. The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant, but now it could not be more important. Please, if you are eligible, get your booster shot. Do not delay.

We have made great progress against this virus—progress that we are determined to hold on to. This Government will continue to do whatever is necessary to keep us safe, and we all have our part to play. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his kind words about the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), which we all share on this side of the House.

We have been critical of the Government in the past for taking too long to protect our borders from new variants, particularly when delta was left to run free, so we are glad to see swift action today. Adding these countries to the red list is the right call and we support it. Can the Secretary of State explain why these specific countries have been added, and not the wider group where cases of this variant have been detected? Is the addition of further countries under active consideration over the coming days? Perhaps in the meantime, we might at least require PCR tests on arrival, rather than lateral flow tests, for countries not on the red list that have cases.

As the Secretary of State says, we have made great strides in getting people vaccinated in this country, but we have always warned that no one will be safe until everyone is safe. It is regrettable that when we offered plans to the Government earlier around the global expansion of vaccination, they were not taken up. Today’s news reflects a failure of the global community to distribute the vaccine, with just 5.5% of people in low-income countries being vaccinated. Can the Secretary of State tell us about the work he will be doing with his counterparts in affected countries to ensure they have the vaccines and infrastructure to deliver them? Can he give us an assurance that our cuts to aid that we made in this country will not affect that? Does he share our regret that we had to destroy 600,000 expired doses of the vaccine in August? What are we doing to ensure that our stockpiles get to other countries that need them?

I turn to testing. Earlier this month capacity went down significantly, with members of the public reporting that their local centres had closed. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that testing will still be an integral part of our approach? Will he take this opportunity to refute the rumours that Test and Trace will be scaled down further?

This is also a reminder that we need to go further and faster with vaccination at home. Children’s vaccination rates remain low. The progress on the booster is of course welcome, but we know that to get there by Christmas we need to go even quicker. There are huge pockets of the country where significant numbers of people remain unvaccinated—40% of people in Nottingham, 38% in Wandsworth and 30% in Bolton, for example. The message the Secretary of State had for those people today was very important.

This is a reminder that covid has not gone away. Will the Secretary of State make commitments to fix sick pay, which is still necessary 19 months on? Will he go further to ensure that public buildings, schools and businesses have the support they need? Surely, we must now revisit cost-free measures, such as mask-wearing in public spaces.

To conclude, this is a sobering reminder of the challenges the pandemic brings. We must meet this moment as we have throughout the last 19 months: by pulling together and looking out for each other, and in that British spirit of doing what must be done.

I am pleased to respond to the shadow Minister. His first question was on the six countries we have decided to put on the red list from midday today. We are going primarily by where the new variant has been detected at this point. It has been confirmed in two countries in southern Africa: South Africa and Botswana. We included the four other countries in southern Africa I mentioned earlier as a precaution. The shadow Minister will not be surprised to know that we are keeping this under review and that there are very live discussions going on around whether and when we should add further countries. We will not hesitate to act if we need to do so.

On vaccine donations to developing countries, the shadow Minister is absolutely right about the importance of that. He will know that the UK has, for a country of its size, done far more than any other country in the world, with over 30 million donations already. We are absolutely committed to our 100 million target and will continue to work bilaterally with countries, but also through the COVAX alliance, to get out more vaccines to the developing world.

Testing remains a hugely important part of our response to the pandemic. It is playing an incredibly important role and that will continue for as long as is necessary.

Lastly, vaccinations are of course the primary form of defence in our country. In one sense, we are fortunate with such a high level of vaccination. Over 80% of people over the age of 12 have been double vaccinated and 88% at least are single vaccinated—one of the highest rates in the world—but we need to go further and even faster. It is great news that our booster programme, at over 16 million jabs across the UK, is the most successful in Europe—now, I believe, over 26% of the population over the age of 12—but we want more and more people to come forward as soon as they are eligible. I cannot stress the importance of that enough. Today, as the hon. Gentleman said at the end of his remarks, is a sober reminder that we are still fighting this pandemic and we can all play a part.

The viral mutation process of genetic drift depends on the number of times a virus gets to replicate, so the wider the spread geographically and the longer it goes on, the more viral replications will occur and the more chances there will be for mutations—so there is a need to redouble our efforts to vaccinate populations right across the globe. My right hon. Friend mentioned the potential increased transmissibility of the virus, but there is another important element, which is the severity of the illness produced by a variant. What do we know about that so far and the potential, therefore, for an impact on the health service?

As always, the analysis provided by my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. On the severity of the new variant, I am afraid we do not know enough yet. From what we can tell from what we might call a desktop analysis, the number of mutations that have been identified—double those for the Delta variant—does indicate that there is a possibility that it might have a different impact on an individual, should they get infected. But as I said earlier, there is a lot we do not know about it and we are working with our international partners to find out more.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for emphasising the importance of vaccination. However, his statement makes it clear that we are seeing new variants and the risks still remain. Therefore, taking further public health measures is really important. I ask him again to give clear leadership on ensuring that face coverings, social distancing and high levels of hygiene are instituted, as well as better ventilation. Those measures make a difference, as we have seen throughout the past two years.

The hon. Lady makes a good point about the need to follow guidance and the rules currently in place. The plan A policies that we put in place remain the policies we need at this time, but she will not be surprised to know that we keep them under review and, if we need to go further, we will.

The shadow Minister mentioned the number of people who are unvaccinated. Please, Secretary of State, can we bring a nasal vaccine to market? Stage 2 trials are proving really positive, with high rates of efficacy. We have to throw the kitchen sink at this. I cannot understand why we are not making nasal vaccines, which would increase the uptake of vaccines in this country and across Europe, available.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the continued importance of the vaccination programme. There are some 5 million people in the UK who have not received a single shot of any type of vaccine. He is right to talk about the importance of the delivery methods of a vaccine and, as he has mentioned, there are trials of nasal vaccines. However, I am sure he will understand that until such vaccines are approved by our independent regulator, we will not be able to pursue them.

I thank the Secretary of State, the NHS and everyone responsible for the booster programme that is helping to protect us as we enter the winter months, but is not one of the lessons of the news he has announced today that, if we do not tackle the enormous vaccine inequality around the world, we will continue to be exposed to new variants of this type? In Africa, for example, just 6.6% of the population have been vaccinated. Of course, it is every Government’s first duty to protect its own people—everyone understands that—but does he agree that the United Kingdom and other rich countries in the world must do more to ensure that surplus doses that we do not need are distributed to countries that do need them, rather than not being used and ultimately, in some cases, destroyed?

I very much agree with every word the right hon. Gentleman says, especially about surplus vaccines. That is exactly what we have done: whenever we have identified vaccines we may not need, we have offered them either bilaterally or through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, programme. We will continue to play our role but, importantly, we will also continue to urge our international partners to do all they can as well.

I commend the Government for the speed with which they have taken this decision and I welcome the Scottish Government’s following suit, because in the past there has been concern about the lack of consistency across the UK. Does the Health Secretary agree that this is a useful reminder that the pandemic is still with us and we all have a responsibility to get vaccinated, which includes getting the booster?

First, I can tell my hon. Friend that there has been excellent co-ordination across the UK on this matter. As I mentioned earlier, Scotland and all parts of the UK will be aligning with what I have announced. The booster programme, as I say, could not be more important. The very latest figures are that 28.5% of the UK population over the age of 12 has been boosted, far and away more than any other country in Europe and, I think, second only to the United States, but that is still not enough. We need everyone to come forward, and if there are people out there listening and wondering what they can do, the single most important thing they can do, if they are eligible for a booster, is to go and get it. Go out this weekend and make it your booster weekend.

I recognise that the Secretary of State has come to the House at the earliest opportunity, and I appreciate his swift action. I hope that it is an indication of the way in which he will engage with us all on this vital issue. Has he received any information from South Africa and the other nations of southern Africa that he mentioned about the impact of the variant on children, and are there any plans to offer second doses to children here in the UK?

That is a very good question. This has moved so fast that so far we have had no indications about the potential impact of the new variant on children in particular. As soon as we have any information, we will want to share it.

The child vaccination programme in the UK is going well throughout the country, and has built up a significant momentum. As for whether second doses would be recommended, we will await the expert advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

I welcome the swiftness of the Government’s response to the new variant that is under investigation. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, as the situation develops, the Government will continue to move at the earliest possible opportunity?

Yes, I can certainly make that commitment to my hon. Friend. She may know from the information that the Government have already shared that we identified the significance of this variant only two or three days ago, and we did not hesitate to take action, because, as we have always said, we will protect our borders when it comes to this pandemic.

As the Secretary of State has reiterated, getting vaccinated is vital, and I am looking forward to my booster jab tomorrow. However, as he knows, some groups and some communities are more hesitant and more fearful about being vaccinated. I am conscious that vaccination rates in the city of Nottingham are below those in the wider county, and also that our local health services are already under huge pressure. What is the Secretary of State doing to drive up vaccination rates in areas where there has been low take-up, and will he now offer places such as Nottingham additional support as we head into winter?

I want to ensure that all the support that is needed for our vaccination programme is there, across England. The hon. Lady rightly asked what we were doing to reach out to those who, for whatever reason, have so far been a bit hesitant. We have been working actively for months with many community leaders. We have added many more venues and ways in which to receive the vaccine, so access has been improved. Significant work is also being done on communications and ensuring that the right messages are there, and that people, including clinicians, are available to answer questions. However, the hon. Lady was right to point to the importance of this issue, and I am pleased to hear that she will be getting boosted this weekend.

Ivermectin has shown promising results as a potential treatment for covid-19 in places including South Africa. More than five months ago it was added to the Oxford University trial, which is called PRINCIPLE. When will the results of that trial be available, and what are the Government doing to expedite the process? Ivermectin may not be a magic bullet, but on the other hand, it may be.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. One reason for the difference between dealing with this pandemic today and dealing with it even a year ago is that we already have more treatments, and my hon. Friend has just mentioned another potential new treatment. I am afraid that I cannot give him any exact date for when we think the trials will be over, but I am pleased that they are taking place. He is right to point to the potential of that treatment, but I can reassure him that whether the UK’s engagement is with ivermectin or with other potential new treatments, it could not be more engaged.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House today to make his statement with such urgency.

A number of high-profile sporting events were due to take place in South Africa this weekend, including the united rugby championship, in which the Cardiff and Scarlets rugby teams were due to play. What assistance has been given to get them home ahead of the midday deadline today? May I also ask what discussions the Secretary of State has had with the devolved Administrations to ensure a co-ordinated, orderly introduction of the new travel restrictions?

I understand that this is difficult news, whether for the sports teams or the thousands of British tourists and others who currently find themselves in South Africa, Botswana or any of these countries, but I hope that many will understand. Indeed, I have had messages today from people who are in South Africa, saying that this has made their life a bit more difficult when it comes to getting back home, but they fully understand and support the action that has been taken.

The hon. Member asked what could be done to try to get the team back before the deadline. The answer is nothing; we will not do anything to help them get back before the deadline, because for anyone who is in South Africa, the best thing to do is to come back after 4 am on Sunday and go into hotel quarantine.

I commend the Secretary of State for the extremely prompt action that he is taking to protect our citizens. Although these are early days—he has spoken about the uncertainty and said that we do not know enough about the new variant—does he have any assessment of the length of time for which the measures that he has announced might be necessary?

That is a good question, but such is the uncertainty around the variant and the rate at which it seems to be spreading that I am afraid that it is not possible to put a timeline on this action.

If we are to help reduce the chance of further variants emerging that will threaten the health of our citizens, we clearly need to accelerate vaccination programmes in other countries, particularly in the Commonwealth. Why are Ministers therefore so determined to use the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting next week to block progress towards achieving—as South Africa and India want—a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules to help developing countries to develop their own vaccine manufacturing capacity?

The answer is that a temporary waiver of intellectual property for such purposes would be a huge step backwards. It would not help developing countries and it certainly would not help if we needed new vaccines, not just for covid-19 but for a future pandemic; the industry and businesses might step back and not bother developing if they believed that the intellectual property would always be waived in such circumstances. What is important, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, is that the companies developing these life-saving vaccines have an appropriate pricing and access policy for each country, so that vaccines are priced appropriately and accessibly for developing countries, and rich countries such as the UK, the US and others continue to do all they can through international vaccine donation programmes.

I commend the Secretary of State on the swift actions he has taken in relation to the new variant. He is completely right that the booster programme is more important now than ever, but residents in Rothwell, Desborough, Burton Latimer, Barton Seagrave and Kettering are telling me of the difficulty that they are experiencing in getting a booster in the Kettering constituency. They are being asked to go to Corby or Northampton, which is difficult for many people. Can we have a boost to the booster programme in Kettering, with immediately local walk-in booster centres?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about ease of access to the booster programme. Of course we want to make it as easy as possible, and we are adding numerous sites day by day. I will absolutely see what we can do with regard to Kettering. The Vaccines Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), has heard what my hon. Friend has said. I suggest that they have a quick meet after this, as I am sure that she is eager to open up more access points in Kettering.

I echo the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). I have my booster on 18 December, which a few days ago was the first date being offered near me in Bristol. There is now a growing divide between people who will have had three jabs and people who will not have been jabbed at all. There are some hardcore vaccine refuseniks, but there are also quite a lot of people who think that they are now immune because they have had a mild dose of covid. However, we know that they could well be at risk, particularly with new variants coming on board. What more can we do to persuade those people who have not been jabbed at all that it is time to get jabbed?

The hon lady is absolutely right: there are still too many people out there who are, let us say, vaccine-hesitant—they are not complete refuseniks but just want more information and perhaps have read the wrong type of information. More needs to be done, continuously, to reach out to them. Where there are people in particular communities, we are working with community leaders. There has been a real change in our comms programme and we are trying to reach out to people in different ways—for example, we are making much more use of social media, as well as our general comms. If the hon. Lady has some new ideas that she thinks we can try, we are listening.

I, too, welcome the speed with which the Government have acted. Many Carshalton and Wallington residents had previously contacted me to express concerns about people rushing to fly to the UK before a country was added to the red list. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that flights from the six countries will be banned until the quarantine is introduced on Sunday and that the same policy will apply to any new countries that are added to the red list?

The decision to ban the flights—it is obviously a temporary ban—was taken to allow us the time to stand up the red-list managed quarantine system. Once that system starts and we are comfortable that it is functioning as we would like, we will review the decision on those flights. We will consider banning flights from any other country if it is necessary for reasons similar to those taken in respect of this decision.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to take the new variants as seriously as he does. Given the critical importance of the need to avoid damage to children’s education and development and the economic havoc that more lockdowns would bring, if the news from our world-class scientists who are analysing the effectiveness of our existing vaccines against the new variants is positive, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the ability to stretch the booster programme to bring it down through the age categories as we head into winter, thereby getting boosters into more arms sooner than the six-month gap?

Regardless of the news about this variant, the booster programme remains crucial. In fact, as I said earlier, it is even more important because of this news. My hon. Friend asked about whether the programme can be extended to lower age categories; as he knows, boosters were extended to the 40-to-49 age group on Monday, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is already considering whether the programme can be extended further. I await its advice.