The motion just agreed by the House provides for both motions in the name of the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) to be debated together. The questions on each motion will be put separately at the end of the debate.
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1340), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1338), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.
In September, the Government set out their autumn and winter plan for fighting the virus, which could be implemented to ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. Although we are not implementing the entirety of the plan now, we are taking steps to respond to a potentially potent mutation of the virus. We have taken great steps in our fight against the virus, having delivered nearly 115 million vaccine doses so far, and more every day, with almost 18 million people having also received their booster jab, including me.
Will the Minister deprecate those public appointees who, notwithstanding the clear proportionate advice of the chief scientific adviser, have been on the airwaves telling people that they should not socialise, to the huge detriment of people’s wellbeing and of an industry struggling to recover from earlier lockdowns?
I am sure the people my right hon. Friend is referring to will have heard him loud and clear. We all enjoy socialising but, as he will appreciate, we are in a difficult situation. However, we also have personal responsibility.
We are confronted with an emerging threat, which is familiar but not yet well known. The measures that we are putting in place are proportionate, precautionary and balanced, and are being made in response to the specific threat.
Late last week, the challenge arising from the latest covid-19 threat from the variant of concern known as omicron emerged. Public health officials in South Africa shared information on the omicron variant and it was identified as a coronavirus variant of concern. Thanks to our world-leading genomic sequencing experts at the UK Health Security Agency, we were able to identify that some cases of the new variant are present in this country. So far, we have identified 14 cases in the UK and, unfortunately, we expect to find more in the coming days.
The Minister mentioned the UK Health Security Agency, the head of which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was referring to. Dr Harries said two things this morning. First, she said that people should not socialise. Secondly, she also implied—only implied, to be fair—that people should work from home. When the Prime Minister was asked about that, he made it clear that that was not the Government’s position and that people should follow the advice. I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and I do not think that is quite what she said. Could she be clear that Dr Harries was speaking only for herself, not for the Government?
As my right hon. Friend said, the Prime Minister said that we are putting these measures in place, about which I will speak more. I cannot speak for any other person who goes on the airwaves.
Dr Harries is a public health professional who therefore understands what public health measures need to be taken to secure our wellbeing against the pandemic. Why are the Government not listening to what public health professionals are advising?
I reassure the hon. Lady that we listen to the advice of health professionals all the time, but today we are debating statutory instruments on face coverings and self-isolation following travel.
Is the Minister seriously saying that it is not for Ministers to have any particular view on officials employed in the Department going out and taking a position that is at odds with the Government’s public policy? If it is now the policy that even Department employees can take their own personal positions, we are facing chaos and the overturning of long-standing Government principles.
I reiterate that I cannot speak for other people. I am setting out the measures today that we implemented this morning in a timely fashion, and it is those measures that we are considering. From the Government’s point of view, that is the legislation that we are implementing.
I support what the Minister is putting forward. What happens here will happen in Northern Ireland, as the Minister in Northern Ireland has said that he will follow the instructions and guidelines from Westminster. We are aware of the variant and we are aware at this stage that our vaccinations may be enough to combat it. If we hand wash, distance and wear a mark, surely we cannot do anything other than support the measure. Does she agree that other hon. Members should adopt the same attitude?
I speak for myself in saying that I have changed my habits with regard to hand washing since the pandemic began, much to the detriment of my skin. We can take simple measures that have been put in place that have no impact on other people but help to protect us and others indirectly.
The Minister is being incredibly generous. Can I clear up something for the travel industry and the airline industry? There is an SI on travel restrictions, not least PCR tests on day two, as I understand it. They are not being debated today. Why not and when will they be?
Today, we are debating some travel restrictions about self-isolation, but the other restrictions are covered by different legislation and therefore they are not relevant to this debate.
The Minister mentioned hand hygiene. Is she aware of a study published in The BMJ on 20 November that showed that hand hygiene was as effective as mask wearing? Does she agree that anything we do here needs to be firmly evidence-based? Can she say why we have focused on mask wearing in the regulations and not, for example, if our aim is to improve public health, mandating for alcohol gels in hospitality venues?
My right hon. Friend, with his medical background, makes a good point that I will take away and look into further.
I will return to my speech. Accordingly, our scientists are investigating omicron to determine, among other things, how quickly it is likely to spread and what the impact may be on the immunity that many of us have acquired through vaccination.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
I must make some progress.
It is on that point.
I give way to the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point of immunity, many people who are immunosuppressed are extremely worried. I have asked the Secretary of State on several occasions whether he will consider doing antibody testing so that those people have some idea whether they have any protection or they need to adjust things in their working lives.
I have heard the hon. Lady talk about that before and I take the point seriously. It is partly about antibodies and partly about T cells; the science behind it is obviously quite complex. I will take that point away and get back to her.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way once more and then I must make progress.
My hon. Friend is the kindest of Ministers. On the question of the new variant’s severity, I wonder if she has data to hand about whether any of the new cases of omicron in this country that she mentioned have been detected in patients hospitalised with covid.
I am not aware of that, and it may not be in the public domain due to confidentiality. I must make some progress.
Meanwhile, the Government have responded quickly to introduce a temporary and targeted package of precautionary measures to combat the risk of transmission. The aim of the package is to buy our scientists time to investigate and gather information on the omicron variant, and to continue to build the protection that vaccination provides.
The package comprises the requirement for people to wear face coverings in shops, shopping centres and transport hubs, and on public transport; the requirement for those returning from abroad to take a PCR test by day two and to quarantine until they receive a negative PCR test; the requirement for people to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the omicron variant; the addition of 10 countries to the red list; and the requirement that those arriving from those countries in Africa quarantine in a managed quarantine service for 10 days.
Across England, at 4 o’clock this morning, face coverings became mandatory in all shops and shopping centres, which includes supermarkets, banks and close-contact services such as hairdressers, and on public transport.
I must continue.
They became mandatory in transport hubs, including taxis and private hire vehicles. From the same time, close contacts with confirmed or suspected cases of the covid-19 omicron variant will be legally required to self-isolate. These measures will remain in place until the end of the day on Monday 20 December. By this point, we will review the measures to see whether they remain necessary. We do not wish to keep any measures of this nature in place any longer than is absolutely necessary. However, these measures are an important step in the fight against the virus, particularly while we wait to discover the full implications of the threat from omicron.
The word “mandatory” was used but is that not just a word in the statutory instrument? In practice is it not unenforceable? As Darren Pearce, the manager of Meadowhall shopping centre, said in evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, “The biggest problem we had last time was about trying to get face coverings to be worn. I saw a group of young people going to Meadowhall, saying very loudly, ‘If they ask you, just say you’ve got asthma.’ Then they say, ‘We’ve got asthma. We’re exempt’, and there is nothing anyone can do, is there?” That causes all sorts of tensions with the shop assistants and with other people wearing face masks, who feel that some people are getting away with it. What is the Minister going to do about that situation?
I find it quite intriguing that the Labour party has been calling for this measure for some time and, now we are introducing it, it is unhappy about it.
Will the Minister give way?
I must make some progress.
In July, when we lifted most of the remaining restrictions at step 4 across England, we made it clear that our response to the pandemic was not over. The vaccination programme continues to be a huge success and vaccines remain the most important weapon in our fight against the virus. However, as we enter this uncertain time, we must do more and we must do it quickly.
Will the Minister give way on the timing?
I know I keep saying I will take one last intervention, but I give way.
I am very grateful. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the timing. The Government have said that they are going to review these measures after three weeks and she is right—on the face masks, the regulations expire on 20 December—but the self-isolation SI has no expiry date, which means it will run all the way until the main statutory instrument expires on 24 March 2022. Why is that?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I would like to reassure him that we will continue to update the House over the next few weeks, that we will not continue to have these regulations in place for any longer than is necessary, and that—[Interruption.] If I may just finish. The type of regulations he is referring to are reviewed under legislation every four weeks and are more likely to be reviewed every three weeks. I understand his point and I do take it very seriously. I wish we were not in a situation where we have this conflict, but I reassure him that I take his point very seriously and these measures will not be in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
I give way to the hon. Lady, who has been trying to intervene.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) raised a question about the enforcement of mask wearing. One of the major problems being faced by GPs in my constituency of St Albans is that some people are refusing to wear masks because, “The Prime Minister didn’t have to when he went to a hospital”, so could I ask the Minister how she intends to lead by example when half of her own colleagues are still refusing to wear masks on the Benches opposite?
As I said earlier, we are mandating the use of face coverings. I think we are in a different situation now with regards to that.
Will the Minister give way?
I will allow one more intervention and then I will move on.
The Minister is really being most generous and I thank her very much indeed. Our right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is absolutely right and I fear that, inadvertently, she has not given the fullest answer that she might have done to this. The fact is that motion 3 on the Order Paper expires on 20 December, yet motion 4 expires on 24 March 2022. Can she explain the logicality of that? I also observe that, given the extraordinary restriction on liberty that this potentially offers, most Members of this House would be more than delighted to return after the House rises for the Christmas recess in order to reaffirm our support for the measures that she has put before the House today.
I have listened to my right hon. Friend very carefully, as I did to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and I reiterate that we will not keep these measures in place for a day longer than we need to.
On that point, will the Minister give way?
I must make progress.
Given the potential severity of the consequences of not responding swiftly to this new variant, the Government have taken decisive action to bring back compulsory face-covering wearing in an array of settings. Face coverings are again compulsory in shops and on public transport, unless an individual has a medical exemption or a reasonable excuse.
On that point—
I will continue.
The requirement to wear face coverings is not new. We have asked people to do their bit to stop the spread of the virus before, so we are again asking people to play their part, this time to help slow down any transmission of this new variant of concern.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I must make progress. I have been very generous with my time up until now.
However, anyone who has an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering need not wear one, and they need not provide proof of their exemption. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has found that face coverings are likely to reduce transmission through all routes by partially reducing the emissions of and exposure to the full range of aerosols and droplets that carry the virus. This includes those that remain airborne and those that deposit on surfaces.
I must make progress.
Scientific evidence also shows that all types of face coverings are to some extent effective in reducing the transmission of covid-19 in all settings. This is through a combination of source control, which limits the spread of the virus from a person, and protection to the wearer. Laboratory data shows that even non-medical masks, such as cloth masks made of two or three layers, may have similar filtration efficiency to surgical masks. As ever, we are guided by the advice of our scientific and medical experts. We will keep these measures under review, and we will take further action if necessary.
Will the Minister give way on the point of exemptions?
No, I must make progress.
The self-isolation regulations were introduced to provide a legal requirement to self-isolate for individuals who have been notified that they have tested positive for covid-19 or that they are a close contact of a positive case. On 16 August, thanks to the success of the vaccine roll-out, we were able to introduce a number of exemptions to self-isolation for close contacts, including for those who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18 years old. Given the greater threat that may be posed by the omicron variant, we have reviewed the application of these exemptions. This latest amendment to the self-isolation regulations is targeted at helping to slow its spread. From 4 am today, all individuals notified by NHS Test and Trace or a public health official that they are a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the covid-19 omicron variant are legally required to self-isolate for a period of 10 days, regardless of their age or vaccination status.
Will the Minister give way on that one point?
No; I have been very generous up until now.
Anyone who has been notified as testing positive for covid-19, regardless of the variant, will continue to be legally required to self-isolate. We appreciate that self-isolation is not easy and that it places a burden on people, but we also know that it is highly effective in limiting the spread of the virus. The Canna model estimated the impact of testing—
I really must make progress.
The model estimated the impact of testing and tracing and self-isolation on covid-19 transmission from June 2020 to April 2021. During the period of the study, the model found that testing, tracing and self-isolation had a critical impact on identifying cases of covid-19 and reducing onward transmission. The model found that between 1.2 million and 2 million infections have been directly prevented as a result. Additional assistance is available to those who are being required to self-isolate through the range of financial and practical support measures that the Government have put in place.
I am confident that these two sets of regulations represent proportionate precautionary and targeted action in the face of the new covid-19 variant, the risk of which we still do not yet fully understand. [Interruption.]
Order. In fairness, I think the Minister has been very generous with her time, and I would say that I am sure we have some capacity to get more speakers in if they so require.
Together, the impacts of these regulations should combine to help slow down the spread of the omicron variant and give us valuable time to assess how effective our vaccines are as a shield against this new variant. We are committed to reviewing these measures in three weeks’ time, when further scientific analysis should help us determine whether they are still needed, or whether they need to be extended or strengthened to support us in our wider fight against covid-19. I hope colleagues will join me in supporting these regulations, and I commend them to the House.
It is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in this important debate.
The omicron variant is a sobering reminder that this pandemic is not over. We need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay, and to keep each other safe throughout the difficult winter period. We on these Benches were critical of the Government’s slow response to the delta variant—slow to protect our borders, slow to act to reduce transmission in the community—so we welcome swifter action with regard to the omicron variant and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) said in this place yesterday, we support the measures laid out in these two statutory instruments, one on face coverings and one on public health restrictions. It is right to be acting urgently given the seriousness of the threat, but it is sad to be debating these SIs after the fact; we need to build public confidence in whatever measures we bring in and it is always better to discuss them beforehand, rather than afterwards, to show that parliamentary scrutiny really matters.
I am very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that about parliamentary scrutiny. He will know that yesterday I asked the Government for assurances if they were to want to extend or strengthen these measures after the House has risen for the Christmas recess, as I feel that if that is the case the House should either continue sitting or be recalled. In answer to my question, the Leader of the House suggested that it would be up to the House. I therefore ask this of the hon. Gentleman speaking for the Opposition: if the Government were to bring forward strengthened measures or want to extend them after the House has risen, would the Opposition support the House being recalled so that we can debate and vote on the matters in advance, or is he prepared to give the Government a blank cheque?
My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Nottingham North had a strong record on recall of Parliament in 2003 and would smite me down if I were to dismiss the right hon. Gentleman’s question out of hand. It is a hypothetical question, however, and I am not going to be drawn on that, but I will say this: when we were getting through the backlog of such SIs over the summer I said to the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), that I would have met at any hour at any time to get through some of them, since they were weeks and weeks delayed at some points. I have not changed my view on that.
On that point, does the shadow Minister therefore think we should come back before Christmas, or maybe after Boxing day and before new year if the House is to be recalled?
The hon. Gentleman’s question makes me think he has some plans to book; if he is trying to book a weekend away, he should not let me set those dates for him.
Turning to the regulations, and starting with the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1340), it is right to reintroduce masks on public transport, in shops and other settings including banks, hairdressers and post offices for those who are not exempt. This measure should never have been abandoned. While mask wearing in public spaces forms part of the Government’s plan B, it was always part of the Opposition’s plan A rather than an emergency measure, as was encouraging working from home where possible.
I am slightly confused by these measures, because the risks are the same in any indoor setting; whether on public transport, in a shop or in some other indoor space, the risks still exist. Can my hon. Friend tease out why there is an inconsistency in these regulations?
My hon. Friend makes a good point that I will cover shortly. Of course the measure should apply to public transport and shops—and also to the House of Commons Chamber, but I will get to that shortly.
Last night I walked past the shadow Cabinet room and there was quite a party going on inside, and I popped my head round the corner and there was a lot of drinking and shuffling going on. That is fair enough, as those are the rules at the moment—knock yourselves out, it’s nearly Christmas—but why is it okay to come into the Chamber and tell us all one thing in front of the cameras and do something completely different behind closed doors?
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to redress grievances as to what Labour party parties he has and has not been invited to, I am the wrong person to address those concerns to.
In order to build confidence in this issue, I ask the Minister to publish the guidance she and her colleagues have relied on that says that public transport and shops are areas of likely transmission but hospitality spaces, for example, are not. We do need to build confidence.
Anyone who has taken journeys on public transport in recent months will have seen at first hand a lack of compliance; that is of course just the Prime Minister, but beyond that all of us will have seen it on the tube and elsewhere on our commute.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have travelled on the tube in recent months and seen a lack of compliance, but enforcement on the tube is of course handed over to Transport for London officers. Does the hon. Gentleman think the Mayor of London should be doing more to enforce mask wearing on the tube?
We will now start to see how effective these regulations are—they have only been going for nine and a half hours—but I will shortly address my reticence about members of staff whose primary job has not traditionally been to enforce such measures now being put in that position. That gets to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) was addressing.
The issue is that enforcement is impossible when people can just claim an exemption and we are not allowed to ask, “Why have you got an exemption; can you prove it?” Does my hon. Friend agree that we should have had a system in place from the beginning where if people wanted an exemption—a medical exemption is what the Minister called it—there had to be medical confirmation that they were entitled to it because they had a medical condition that meant wearing a mask was damaging to their health?
We are after the fact now on that, but I think we have to protect the principle that we do not expect people to wear masks if doing so is detrimental to their health. That is the right level of proportionality, but we are reliant on good faith and people not abusing that, and I would be disappointed to hear of cases such as those my hon. Friend raised.
I particularly want to raise with Ministers a point about shop workers. Our hard-working shop workers have given us so much during the last 20 months. They have kept open the vital community assets that mean we were all able to be fed and watered. In return they have faced increasing violence and abuse. It should be made very clear that they are not being asked to police this; I hope the Minister will do that and also give more detail, as colleagues clearly wish to hear it, about how enforcement will work in practice.
The largest number of infections is now in those aged under 20, with the peak at approximately 10. This is a big part of continuing transmission, yet the changing and drifting policies on masks have created confusion across schools, colleges and universities. Can the Minister confirm what the new requirements are across all settings?
I am very pleased that compulsory mask wearing has not been extended to the hospitality sector, as that would have been deeply damaging to businesses. What is the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition on this issue, because I think I heard something slightly different just now from what I heard yesterday?
It is hard to answer given that this is not on the face of these regulations, so I have asked the Minister to be clear about why that differentiation was made, and then all Members would be able to make a judgment as to whether that was a wise decision.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman before; I do not rule out doing it again, but will not do so immediately.
On ventilation, which links in to education settings, throughout this pandemic we on these Benches have called for a radical upgrade in the ventilation of public buildings, particularly schools. We know that is not something we can just click our fingers and do; it is more expensive and time-consuming and much harder to do than asking people to wear a mask, but it is a particularly effective intervention. Some 18 months into this pandemic, can the Minister update the House on how many public buildings now have proper ventilation systems as a result of decisions taken during the pandemic?
Have the Opposition done any analysis of how much it would cost to implement ventilation en masse across educational settings?
The hon. Member goes slightly further than I did in saying that ventilation should be rolled out immediately across all schools. Of course, that would have significant financial implications. It would also, of course, be very good for British business. We are saying that, as has been clear throughout the pandemic, better ventilation in public buildings should be a significant part of building regulations in general. What I seek from the Minister is a sense that any of that, never mind all of it, has been done at all.
Can the shadow Minister cast his mind back to the debates we had on smoking in public places? If he is suggesting properly engineered extraction ventilation, we dismissed that during those debates—although many of us would have liked to have seen it as an alternative to an outright ban—because of the sheer engineering cost of doing it. Or is he proposing simply opening windows? What exactly is he proposing when he says we need to improve ventilation? At one extreme it is going to be murderously expensive and virtually impossible, and at the other it is simply opening the window.
I cannot cast my mind back to that debate—I believe I had just started secondary school when it took place—but I can foresee the issues that were raised. I would not do down the idea of opening windows; that would be a good thing to do in and of itself, and I would support that. What I am saying is that there are certain places where that will work less effectively, and we ought to have some sense, certainly building by building, of what might be an effective measure. As I said, I do not think this is something that we can just click our fingers and do easily, but I would like to get a sense that we have tried to do any of it at all, and I have yet to get that. I hope the Minister will disabuse me of that.
I raised the issue of ventilation last summer—we have known for a long time that covid is airborne—and I wrote to the Chancellor on two occasions asking him at least to remove VAT, to help businesses and public bodies that pay VAT to afford ventilation. Sticking 20% extra on the cost of a ventilation system seems quite weird in the middle of a pandemic.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention, which gets to the root of the matter. We have been talking about ventilation for a long time. What I would really like to hear from the Minister is whether any progress whatsoever has been made in this area.
I turn to statutory instrument No. 1338 regarding self-isolation. The regulations introduce new rules for self-isolation after contact with a person who is suspected to have contracted the omicron variant of the virus, removing the exemptions to self-isolation. As we saw in the summer, this will be frustrating for those who would otherwise have been able to avoid self-isolation requirements by being vaccinated and who will now have to stay at home for the full period. However, as we wait to see how our vaccines and antivirals respond to the new variant, it is right that we prioritise caution and seek to limit community transmission as much as humanly possible. The Minister may have sensed colleagues’ eagerness to know more about this requirement. I hope that she will tell us when she thinks she is likely to have enough information about the variant to return to Parliament and say whether the Government feel that the regulations ought to remain.
There is, of course, a significant gap in the fence of these regulations. The gap has existed throughout the pandemic, and it is bewildering that we in the Opposition are still having to raise it. It relates, of course, to fixing sick pay. We have learned during the pandemic that the overwhelming majority of the British people want to do the right thing to protect themselves, their family and each other, but that falls short when they are forced to pit it against their need to feed their families. In both rate and availability, sick pay has proven insufficient to protect families against that horrendous choice.
These regulations will be weakened. They will be weakened when people ignore their symptoms and go to work, weakened when people say they are self-isolating and they are not, and weakened when people turn the app off to avoid being a close contact. Surely Ministers have learned this lesson over the last month. I am surprised that we did not hear more from the Minister about that.
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) raised the regulations relating to red list travel. My understanding is that we are not discussing those today because they were laid via the negative procedure, but the elements relating to testing will have an impact on SI No. 1338. Last week, we suggested that the Secretary of State should begin PCR testing for those entering the country, so I am pleased the Government have listened and included day-two PCR tests in the measures announced yesterday, but there are still holes in our defences on international travel.
I am keen to hear from the Minister how she and her colleagues reached the decision to introduce only day-two testing, and not to reintroduce pre-departure tests. I am keen to know the scientific basis behind that. We have heard many reports of private tests not being followed up, especially, perhaps, by those offering the cheapest prices. What are the Government doing to enforce this and to ensure that bringing back day-two PCR tests, which we support, is effective?
I will bring my remarks to a conclusion, because I am conscious of how many colleagues wish to speak in the debate. This is a concerning moment in the pandemic. We have learned over the last 18 months that it is vital that we act decisively at such moments. We are pleased to see these regulations come forward—indeed, in the case of mask wearing, it was premature to stop at all—but there is much more to do if we are to avoid being back here in the coming days and weeks, including working from home where possible, fixing sick pay and improving ventilation. The actions we need to take are clear. It is time for the Government to meet the moment.
I shall be brief, but I have a number of concerns about the regulations, the first of which is about the manner in which they have been introduced. I am glad that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) made this point in opening his remarks. Why on earth did the regulations come into force at 4 am today when we are here now, at 20 minutes to 2 in the afternoon, debating them? Surely it would have been possible to have a debate yesterday, or indeed to delay their implementation until this afternoon. I think that indicates a rather casual attitude to parliamentary scrutiny that persists in Government.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has asked important questions about what will happen if the regulations are renewed after the three-week period, when the House is not sitting. We still have no clarity as to whether the House would be recalled or whether the regulations would simply be extended for a period of weeks without the House having the opportunity to comment.
It is also worth saying that one of the things we get from Ministers when we press them on these things is about parliamentary time, but my hon. Friend will know that the House normally sits until 10.30 pm on a Monday. Looking at yesterday’s performance, the House got to the Adjournment debate at about quarter past 7. There were hours yesterday when the House could easily have debated both these measures, which means we could have debated them before they came into force. Even the Opposition agree that that is invariably the better solution when it is at all possible.
Absolutely. As a former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend knows very well that there is always parliamentary time available when the Government want to do something; it is only when they are reluctant to do something that parliamentary time becomes elusive.
There is a further question as to why only one of the instruments before us has an expiry date in the regulations. Surely it would have been better to put an expiry date in place, which would have required some positive action to renew or extend the regulations if that was deemed necessary.
There are also serious concerns about the efficacy of what is proposed. We know enough about covid by now that we can see which interventions are ineffective. We can see that even full lockdowns possibly delay the spread of covid but do not eliminate it. In this instance, I am intrigued to know from the Minister exactly what action the Government propose if their research finds that this new variant is effective in evading the vaccines. Surely they do not propose to return to a full lockdown, knowing that that would simply defer the problem for a period of days, weeks or months.
If my hon. Friend recalls, the reason for lockdown was to reduce a potential impact on the national health service. Does he agree with me and everyone who has opined on the subject that there is no conceivable way in which our NHS is going to be overwhelmed by this? That would be a remarkable thing, since 90% of us have antibodies right now. Therefore, a justification for a lockdown falls away completely.
I am grateful to my medically qualified right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is of course right that that is unlikely. There would have to be some evidence of a very different kind of variant of covid for it to pose any kind of threat of that sort. He is also right to point out that when we first went into a lockdown, it was intended to protect the NHS for long enough for us to increase capacity in the service for a three-week period. The first lockdown then spread into three months. That is the most important thing the House should be guarding against: the mission creep that allows Governments simply to introduce restrictions and further restrictions, and then extend them, getting into the habit of regulating what we do. That is my most important concern of all.
In the summer of 2020, the Prime Minister said that it was time to move on and time to start to trust people to make decisions for themselves. I rejoiced at that and thought what a wonderful thing it was that we were moving to a point where we would advise people, inform people and make sure they had the best evidence to make decisions in their own lives. Now, however, we see the first instinct of the Government when we do not even have any evidence that the omicron variant is worse in its effects. There is some suggestion from South Africa that it might be less severe, but the Government’s first instinct is to introduce further compulsory measures and regulations relating to self-isolation and to face coverings in some settings but only until 20 December, plus measures that affect the travel industry, particularly the move back to PCR tests on day two.
We are about to have another pingdemic as we approach Christmas, to the huge disadvantage of enterprises across the country. It fundamentally undermines the other main effort of the Government, which is to increase vaccinations. One of the advantages of being vaccinated is not having to self-isolate if in the company of someone who is infected. If that is taken away, one of the incentives—the principal incentive—to get vaccinated is removed.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a very serious concern that we might be entering a world where we lurch from one set of restrictions to another, where no business and no individual can get used to the idea of the freedoms they are able to exercise or what restrictions might be in force at the time.
What really concerns me—I think we all know and recognise this—is that we are dealing no longer with a pandemic, but with an endemic virus that will be with us for many, many years and probably forever in some form. Further variants will emerge. They might do so every couple of months or every year. We tend to have a new flu strain on an annual basis and some are much worse than others. But surely, we need to get back to an assumption that people will make decisions for themselves and have control over their own lives. We cannot move, as we appear to have done, to an environment in which the Government simply assume they can instruct us whenever there is the first small evidence from anywhere in the world of a new strain that might behave in a different way, and new and potentially swingeing public health measures are put in place. I ask Ministers to consider the implications of that and for looking at other diseases. Will we start to treat other diseases and viruses in the same way, assuming the best thing to do is to compel people and instruct them on what actions they need to take?
My hon. Friend is starting to explore the issue of what happens when there is a variant. What we see from the Government thus far is a load of new measures and, possibly, the pharmaceutical companies saying, “We can make a new vaccine for that within about 90 days”. We would then have many months to get it in everyone’s arm. Having done that and gone back to a sense of freedom, another variant would emerge and we would be on that track all over again. Has he considered the madness of that type of policy?
We should all be afraid of the madness of that kind of policy. The difficulty is that 18 months ago, when some of us started raising these concerns, it was possible for some people to suggest that we were being fanciful. We have now lived it for 18 months and we can see this reaching ahead. We think back to when the Coronavirus Act 2020 was renewed again, taking us through to spring next year, and the assurances we were given that that would be the last time. I thought we would not need this kind of legislation again, but we see the Government’s immediate assumption that they should reach for new controls, new compulsion and new rules to inflict on the British people. We need to move away from that and back to a world where we trust people, engage with the public and recognise that the Government are there to serve the people, not the other way around.
Happy St Andrew’s Day to all Scots across the parliamentary estate, whether they were born in Scotland or are adopted Scots like myself.
We are in the early days and need more research on omicron, the new variant of concern, but clearly it is heavily mutated, including mutations that suggest increased transmissibility and mutations associated with immune escape, and that is what is causing the concern. Cases are surging in South Africa, but we do not yet have proof that those surges are directly related to omicron. One thing that has emerged from South Africa is evidence of the reinfection of people with previous proven covid infections, which we have not seen often during the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) talks about people’s freedom to choose, but the people they might infect—especially those who are immunosuppressed or vulnerable—have the choice removed from them. It is a network. If Members have ever seen the little gif where someone drops a ping-pong ball on to mousetraps, they will realise how things spread. You may have a choice. I, as an immunosuppressed person, may therefore not.
Is exactly the same not true of flu?
We do not suffer the same deaths, hospitalisations or outcomes from flu. [Interruption.] Well, we don’t. Look at 170,000 deaths over the last 18 months in the UK. We certainly have bad flu winters where we can get up into the teens towards 20,000, but we have never got close to 170,000 over 18 months.
I know the hon. Lady has a great deal of medical experience, but she is referring to a period when we did not have vaccination. Am I not right in thinking that in a vaccinated population, the case fatality rate of covid is not remarkably different from that of influenza?
We are still seeing hospitalisations and deaths in people who are doubly vaccinated. The reason we are delivering boosters in all four health services is because that immunity is waning. What we are concerned about with omicron is that if it is able to immune escape, it could push us backwards. Therefore, we simply do not want it to become re-established and undermine the achievement that vaccines have made.
The British Medical Journal review, to which the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) referred, showed that masks had as big an impact as hand hygiene, so surely we should do both. Neither of them has a major economic impact. We are not talking about locking down. We are not talking about shutting businesses. We are talking about everyone trying to protect everyone else, so that they can continue to be active and continue to be out in society.
It is important to remember that even if our current vaccines were shown to be less effective against omicron, they would not have no impact. We already see that impact on delta with regard to spread: the reduction is only about 50% but it has markedly reduced hospitalisation and death. We would therefore still hope for that with omicron, so pushing vaccination and encouraging people to get boosted remains as important as it always was. Delta is still by far the most dominant variant circulating in the UK.
There is no evidence as yet of differing symptoms or severity, but one of the weaknesses of the data from South Africa is that the initial outbreaks were in students. Young people tend to get milder infections and we do not yet know what omicron will be like in an older or more vulnerable population.
We have one advantage in the diagnosis of omicron: the S gene, which is one of the three genes that common PCR tests look for, is missing. That means that rather than having to wait for genomic testing, which takes quite a long time, we get a heads-up or an early warning on the PCR test. There is a sub-group with S-gene dropout, which means that the chances are that it could be omicron. Those patients could be warned and their samples can then be sent for full genomic testing. In Scotland, a retrospective review of recent PCR results looking for S-gene dropout has identified the nine patients with omicron. I assume that similar work is happening in the other nations across the UK. In contact tracing of the nine patients, there is no evidence of a connection to either COP26 or the South Africa rugby game, but tracking continues.
PCR testing is, therefore, even more important. Lateral flow tests—which, hopefully, we are all doing regularly before coming here—cannot detect variants. It is a simple yes/no that someone does themselves, with no access to take further analysis. Lateral flow tests had been allowed as part of travel testing. In the Netherlands, 600 passengers arriving from South Africa were tested and one in 10 were found to have covid—an incredibly high incidence and much higher than we have anywhere in the UK—and a fifth of those cases were already omicron. Omicron is not just in southern Africa or in the UK. As a result of the use of lateral flow tests, it is probably already more widespread than we think. It is therefore welcome that today the Government returned to PCR testing for travellers rather than lateral flow tests, and that they are quickly re-establishing quarantine, but people should have a PCR test before they travel. It is rather like shutting the stable door if we find that someone is positive when they have just spent eight hours on a plane with hundreds of other people.
Is the hon. Lady not concerned, as I am, that there is too much emphasis on PCR testing for tracking variants of concern? During a three-week period in July, there were 500,000 PCR tests, of which 7,000 were positive for covid. Only 5% of those 7,000 were tested for variants of concern, so this is not quite the silver bullet on variants of concern that she might hope it would be.
I was not claiming that it was, because genomic testing takes a couple of weeks generally and it is therefore too late for someone to isolate. What I am saying is that with this variant, as in alpha but not in delta, the missing S gene means that on that initial test—which takes six hours or until the next day, or whatever it is—we already get a heads-up that we are dealing with an omicron case. We can go on to do the genomic analysis, but we can say to the patient, “We think you have this variant. You need to isolate thoroughly and for longer.”
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing her medical knowledge to the House. It is very interesting, particularly on the S gene. I do not know what magic goes on in a lateral flow test. We put the drips in at one end and then one band, hopefully, appears and not two. Could a lateral flow test be adapted to be specific for this type of variant?
I think we would be talking about redesigning the test for a whole new antigen. I mentioned just one advantage that we get from PCR testing, which basically looks at genes—I will not talk about the whole long name and what PCR stands for—and the benefit is that we get a heads-up. I do not think it is feasible on any reasonable timescale to change lateral flow tests, so we are lucky that this one has S-gene dropout and that we will get an early warning.
One issue with focusing only on a day-two PCR and then, if someone is negative, they are released—unlike what is being discussed for domestic isolation—is that the incubation period of covid, generally, is much longer than two days. It has generally been reported as an average of five days and it can extend for longer. If someone who may have had contact arrives in the UK, gets a negative PCR result on day two and then goes about their business, there is a real danger that that is a false reassurance. That is why the Scottish and Welsh Governments have asked for a Cobra meeting to debate the evidence on a four-nation basis and to discuss having at least an eight-day isolation period for travellers, with a negative day-eight test required before people can be released.
The Prime Minister should listen on that, because one issue that we had in Scotland when we tried to maintain stricter and broader hotel quarantine was that the majority of long-haul passengers arrive through hubs such as Heathrow. The devolved nations have no ability to have an impact on that and we should be working with the Republic of Ireland to make the whole common travel area safer from the point of view of how we move about inside it.
The Government Benches are not as sparsely populated as the Opposition Benches—and I do welcome the Opposition Members who are here—but considering what is happening later, am I right to presume that the Scottish National party, which the hon. Lady speaks on behalf of, will be supporting the Government in the vote at the end of the debate?
The reason that my colleagues are not here is that the debate is largely about the regulations in England and we do not normally vote on English matters. We have not normally voted on England’s covid regulations, but the one related aspect in these proposals is the testing and isolation of travellers. We support that but we think that it should go further.
On domestic precautions, Scotland never got rid of mandatory masks on public transport, in shops and in schools. We have not heard the Minister refer to whether the Government are planning to reintroduce mask wearing in schools. At the moment, with vaccination and its impact, we are seeing that the bulge and peak of cases among those who are unvaccinated is moving down to younger and younger teenagers and primary school children. If there will not be masks in schools, is there a plan to install CO2 monitoring and ventilation? How do we reduce the incidence in schools?
The hon. Lady perhaps answered some of this question, but will she set out her assessment of the impact of mask wearing in Scotland on case numbers? Is what has happened with younger children not just testament to how well we have done at keeping them apart and proof that we cannot hide from the virus when we come back together?
It is very difficult at the moment. Cases go up and down and we swap positions. At the moment, Scotland has the lowest incidence of cases at 349 per 100,000. Northern Ireland has the highest at well over 600 per 100,000. Obviously, we have whole baskets of measures, so it is harder—other than in the review that the Royal Society published last June and in the BMJ paper from a week ago—to pick out exactly which measures are having the impact. The BMJ found that masks and hand hygiene were equal in their impact and, in fact, bigger in their impact than physical distancing. To me, they enable people to engage and enable people who are vulnerable to feel safe and to come out, because otherwise, those who were shielding will be stuck in their houses all over again.
Although mask wearing was not mandatory in England, it has remained in this Government’s guidance if someone is in a busy public space. I am sorry to say that that guidance has been undermined by what Members on the Government Benches have demonstrated on television every day. Initially, when we came back in the autumn, approximately five people wore masks, then the number more than doubled to 14, and after the measure was pushed, the proportion rose to about two thirds. On the day when mask wearing in busy places is meant to be promoted, about a third of Government Members are still not wearing masks.
People will be led by the example of not just the Prime Minister, but every one of us.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I have given way a lot, and lots of other hon. Members are waiting to speak.
As for the Leader of the House’s nonsensical claim that people cannot catch covid from their friends, I have to say that words fail me—and as Members can well believe, that is not a common occurrence. It is clear that the most common spread is within households. If the Leader of the House thinks that husbands, wives and children are not friendly with one another, I really worry about his home circumstances.
It is early days, but we should be following a precautionary approach. As Dr Ryan of the World Health Organisation has always said: go early and go hard. In the last three waves, the Government often delayed making decisions until the problem was proven. I welcome the changes that they are making to try to get ahead of the curve this time, but as well as taking action on masks, they should advise those who can easily work from home to do so. They should promote “hands, face, space” again, to push it to people who may have got a little complacent.
The Government should also look at how to support the installation and improvement of ventilation. Covid is airborne. Hon. Members will remember how smoke used to hang in a pub before the smoking ban. Any Member who has ever worked in pubs, as I did as a student, will know that smoke would still be hanging there the next morning. That is the issue with poorly ventilated spaces, as we have seen from the outbreaks associated with Committee Rooms in the House.
The arrival of such a variant was inevitable. Last spring, we heard warm words about a global response to a global crisis, but while more than 85% of adults in the UK have been double-vaccinated, the figure is less than 4% in low-income countries, including many that have not been able to vaccinate their healthcare workers.
Does the evolution of an immune escape variant, which omicron may be, occur because of a vaccinated immune population or because of a naive population?
I think that its emergence in southern Africa would suggest that it is from a naive population. One of the issues with our complacency here and reliance on vaccination while allowing very high case numbers is that through Darwinism it can pre-select for vaccine-resistant variants and mutations. Those are the ones that will get a grip; the ones that are vaccine-susceptible will not, because we are so vaccinated.
Allowing high spread, which means common mutations, is a problem wherever it happens, but in the naive populations in the global south there is a real danger. They do not have testing, they do not have the materials, they do not have genomics and they do not have vaccines, so the danger is that they will therefore get a variant that builds up and eventually comes to Europe and to the UK. Sending occasional batches that are almost out of date, as was reported recently to us in the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, does not allow Governments in the global south to prepare and use vaccines within date.
The UK is still among the countries blocking a TRIPS waiver. We must realise that it is not a matter of just sharing some leftover doses. We need to massively increase global population, which means sharing intellectual property and sharing technological expertise. If anything, this variant should be a reminder that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
’Tis the season to be jolly, Mr Deputy Speaker. As my colleagues know and as you know, I am always jolly, but it is not particularly jolly at the moment. [Interruption.] I did not hear that—I shall pretend that I did not.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), whom I remember shadowing me well when I was a Health Minister. She makes very many good points, as always. Her point about vaccinating the rest of the world is absolutely right—I agree completely—but we certainly should not throw away intellectual property, because it would leave absolutely no incentive for us to produce what we have produced in this country, which is what has saved so many lives around the world. However, she is absolutely right that we should be doing more through our overseas aid effort to help the rest of the world.
It was bad enough when the extension of the Coronavirus Act 2020 was nodded through without a vote. There has been lots of excitement and flurry recently about Members of Parliament and the work that we do. There is now one Labour Back Bencher, one Liberal Democrat—albeit that she is one twelfth of the parliamentary party—and one Democratic Unionist party Member in the Chamber. I understand why SNP Members are not here in force, because they rightly do not vote on English matters, but I think that this is something that the public should be concerned about. We are making an impact on their lives today, and it is a disgrace that this House is so empty.
Is anybody other than the Minister going to speak in favour of the regulations today? In the House of Commons, in my experience of 11 and a half years, you do not just have to win the vote; you have to win the argument as well. Of course the Government will win the vote today, because the Opposition—who always say “How high do you want us to jump?” when the Government propose new restrictions on our lives—will pretend to ask difficult questions while voting for the restrictions anyway. They said that they would vote for them before they had even seen the published regulations. Frankly, I think that that is a derogation of duty from Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Okay—now I will try to be nice. I know Jenny Harries of the UK Health Security Agency well; I worked with her when I was a Health Minister. I am sorry to return to this point, but for the benefit of Ministers on the Front Bench, she said to the media this morning that people should not socialise
“when we don’t particularly need to”.
She also urged people to decrease social contact.
I understand that Downing Street has had to dismiss and distance itself from those comments this morning, and rightly so. Jenny Harries is a very careful and very professional public servant—as I say, I know her well—and she does not just say things off the cuff without thinking. If what she said is not the Government’s position, we need to know. The Minister is quite right to say, as I would have said myself, that she cannot speak for others and cannot comment on what others say, but she can say what she thinks and what the Government’s position is; that is the duty of a Minister at the Dispatch Box. If the Government do not agree with that position, it should have been said at the Dispatch Box this afternoon—ample opportunity was given for it to be said. But if that position is the policy of the Government, we are in completely different territory.
As for the regulations before the House, I do not even know where to start. They are the fly on the back of the rhinoceros. Let me start with the face coverings regulations, which expire on 20 December. I have to say that I do not much like them—I think that they go against the individual choice that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) talked about—but it is not a huge imposition on my life to wear a mask when I am in the Chamber. I choose to do so. Nor is wearing masks a huge imposition on the lives of my constituents, many of whom I see wearing them in all sorts of settings, including outside—that is their personal choice. To be honest, the face coverings regulations do not bother me greatly.
The self-isolation regulations bother me a great deal more. Under new regulation 2B(1)(ba)—I know; how are the public meant to follow this?—of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020, if one child in a class of 30 has had close contact with someone who
“is suspected of, or confirmed as, having an Omicron variant”,
presumably the other 29 are out. We are not just looking at a pingdemic in our economy and in our businesses; we are looking at a pingdemic that will devastate education again. After everything that we have learned—everything that I have felt in my own family—are we really, seriously, going to do that to our children again?
The explanatory memorandum tells us that the regulations make provision for
“NHS Test and Trace to notify an individual that they are a close contact”.
In fact, the detail of the legislation makes such provision not just for NHS Test and Trace, but for anyone in a local authority involved with communicable diseases.
One of my children was sent home before the school holidays to isolate for 10 days, despite being confirmed by the headteacher as not having been a close contact. That had a significant impact on the rest of the family, as hon. Members can imagine; it was based on the advice of a director of public health that the whole year group should isolate. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that this is lockdown by default, through activist directors of public health and others?
I do not think I would call directors of public health “activists”, although I understand that some of them play it very differently from us. It is the job of this place to get legislation and regulations right, and if we draft them in a way that makes them so wide, so loose and so flexible that any director of public health could be an “activist” if so minded, it will lie at this door, not that door. I should like the Minister, in summing up the debate, to define “suspected”, because I think there is an element of the Salem witch trials in this. What is a “suspected” case? I should like an answer from the Dispatch Box, please, before I am asked to vote for this measure.
I said in the House yesterday that the regulations, in and of themselves, were relatively mild. I have already talked about face coverings. What concerns me is the chilling effect that this is having on the rest of our society. The fact that No. 10 Downing Street, the centre of government, has taken to the national newspapers today to ask head teachers not to cancel nativity plays because of the announcement that we made on Saturday night makes me ask, “What on earth are we doing?”
We should think of the effect that this is having on confidence, on society and on hospitality. Those in hospitality have put everything into this Christmas in order to survive and to save their year. There is nothing in these regulations that says Christmas parties must be cancelled—unless, of course, Dr Harries is in charge—but there is everything in the language and the narrative coming out of the Government right now that is causing Christmas parties to be cancelled left, right and centre. I have seen organisations in my constituency cancel events that were due to happen within the next few weeks, on a “just in case” basis. These regulations will have a chilling effect, and we should not underestimate that just because it is not written in black and white.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Business Secretary should have been involved in these decisions? Does he share my concern about that? I have received several emails from travel companies in my constituency whose potential bookings have dropped off a cliff because of the cost of PCR tests. My hon. Friend mentioned a “chilling effect”, but it goes deeper than that: there is also a huge impact on business. If these regulations are to be implemented, it must surely be done hand in hand with the Chancellor and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Having been a Minister of the Crown, I hope that the regulations have been through the right-round process, albeit an accelerated right-round process, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will worry the travel industry that the regulations that have not been subject to a motion today are not being debated in the House—and yes, I am greatly concerned. I have to say that I agree with the Opposition about departure testing. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have introduced it. I do not think that the Opposition have had an answer from Ministers about why they have not chosen to do the same, and I should like to hear an answer in the Minister’s winding-up speech.
My hon. Friend has touched on an important point about the process within Government to ensure that all aspects are considered. What normally happens is that regulations are thought about and there is a right-round process—which, for the benefit of those listening to the debate, means that all Government Departments have the opportunity to provide an input. One thing we have discovered is that in the case of covid regulations, that right-round process does not operate in the normal way. Through my hon. Friend, I ask the Minister to clarify in her winding-up speech whether, as these regulations were being drafted, other Departments were consulted and given the usual opportunity to provide an input, or whether this was done purely in the Department of Health and No. 10 Downing Street.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, which will have been heard on the Treasury Bench.
I do not understand the timing here. What will we really know in three weeks’ time that we do not know now? This causes me to question the three-week rule. South Africa does not give us the insight into the progress of the virus, and of this variant, that we were able to take from, say, Italy—with a broadly similar European population—this time last year. South Africa has a much younger population, and, sadly, a greatly under-vaccinated population. As we heard from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, it was spreading like wildfire among students, who, of course, are younger and fitter and therefore less susceptible to serious illness as a result of this variant.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. Does he accept that the evidence from South Africa so far suggests that there have been very few hospitalisations, while we in the United Kingdom are introducing regulations that are causing economic disruption, are causing people further anxiety, and will disrupt all of Christmas because of this variant when we do not even know whether it will have a severe impact on the UK in any event?
I do accept that, and I also accept that the scientists who discovered the variant said on the media at the weekend that this was often a less serious disease than the delta variant. However, notwithstanding the point that I have just made about the people whom it has affected in South Africa—younger, unvaccinated people—given that numbers are so small in this country, I fail to see how we will be any the wiser in three weeks’ time. That may explain why the isolation regulations will apply until next March. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me, through an intervention now or in winding up the debate.
Finally, let me return to the situation in my constituency. I have raised this matter twice in the House. This morning I spoke to the Winchester City primary care network, which is responsible for some 62,000 people who are on its roll. PCN patients will be contacted if they are in one of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s groups 1 to 9, if they are clinically extremely vulnerable or if they are over 50, and will have been offered a booster. The PCN expects that process to be complete by 17 December, and by the middle of January it will start to offer the booster to others. From that date onwards the booster will be offered to those aged 18 and over, following the welcome announcement from the Secretary of State during his statement yesterday.
Many of my constituents do not live in the area covered by the Winchester City PCN, but have access to vaccinations at the Badger Farm community centre. If they consult the NHS website, they are offered the opportunity to go to Salisbury, Portsmouth or Southampton. That is not easy access to the booster. In my constituency there is no easy walk-in access to it, and I am inundated by questions from constituents about why they cannot have such easy access in Winchester today. The difference between what is being said on television and by Ministers from the Dispatch Box and the reality of the access available on the frontline is growing, and it is a problem.
I know that the Minister has been looking into the matter for me. We have not teed this up, Mr Deputy Speaker, but she is kindly going to intervene.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend. I heard what he said yesterday, and I have asked my office to look into it further. I will get back to him as soon as I can.
I greatly appreciate that. The Minister is a good friend, and I know she is sincere. This morning I sent her some correspondence between me and the head of the new integrated care system in Hampshire, where we are trying to make progress with this. If “boosterism” works—in the context of covid-19 and this variant, which is where it probably does work—that will be all to the good, but let us get those boosters, and let us make it easy for people to get them.
I will end by reiterating that I am ambivalent about the face coverings regulations, but the isolation regulations concern me greatly. I am concerned about the timing and the conclusion of their application, and about their chilling effect, and unless I hear a very good answer to my question about the definition of “suspected”, I will not support them today.
The Liberal Democrats will support the regulations, but we have grave concerns about whether the Government are doing enough to protect people, to protect the NHS, and to buy scientists the time that they need in order to learn more about the new variant.
We know that masks are effective. We know that they reduce transmission, and they are a small price to pay for the guaranteeing of all our other freedoms. They also allow the clinically extremely vulnerable to leave their homes, which many of them have not done for a very long time. They continue to shield, cut off from society, because they do not have the confidence even to enter a shop or board a bus. I am worried by the Secretary of State’s pledge to abandon masks in a few weeks’ time if omicron proves to be no more dangerous than the delta variant, because the delta variant is still dangerous, and the NHS is already on its knees before we go into the worst of the winter.
I wish there were more support for those in self-isolation. For too long, the support has been too stingy and too hard to access. We must create a sense among people that it is their civic duty to self-isolate if they are asked to do so, and if the Government ask people to self-isolate, they must step up and provide proper financial support. I would also like to see the reintroduction of the encouragement to “work from home if you can” from the Government. The colleagues have also mentioned ventilation, on which the Government have been far too slow to act. In schools right across England, people have been crying out for ventilation for months and months, but the Government have been dragging their heels.
I want to pick up on the hon. Lady’s comment about working from home. I say gently to her that a great many of my constituents have businesses that thrive on footfall in the city centre of Leeds, and that the working from home encouragement had a devastating impact on their ability to earn a living. When people say, “Let’s just work from home again”, they must recognise that there would be a very large economic impact on a great number of my constituents if that were to happen.
I take that point. We know that many of these measures often result in a lose-lose situation. A real problem over the past 18 months has been the way in which people have tried to frame this as public health versus the economy, because for me, having a strong and healthy workforce and a strong and healthy economy are two sides of the same coin. Notwithstanding that, I am encouraging the Government to ask people to work from home where they can, in order to strike the right balance that would reduce levels of transmission. I am not suggesting a blanket mandate for everybody to stay at home; I am suggesting encouraging people to work at home where they can, in a balanced way.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Member has to say. Does she agree that the group in society that has really borne the brunt in the past 18 months is young people? They have been particularly affected by so-called work from home, and their mental health in particular—which I know her party takes a close interest in—has in many cases been devastated. I commend to her the best available evidence as published last week. As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) pointed out, that evidence suggests that two interventions—that is to say, mask wearing and cleaning our hands properly—may well have some impact, but to be honest the evidence for social distancing is pretty thin. Would the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) perhaps like to reconsider the sort of swingeing measures that she appears to be recommending?
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, but I respectfully disagree with him. What we have learned over the past few months, from public health directors in particular, is that the more measures we take, the better protection we have. It is not an either/or. If we wear a mask, wash our hands and limit the amount of time spent in close proximity to someone else, we limit our overall chances of either catching covid or passing it on. The more measures we can take, the better. Notwithstanding that, when I was talking about working from home, I was not referring to children studying at home. I was talking about the working population. I recognise that there have been enormous impacts—
I was talking about university students.
Ah, okay. I thought the right hon. Gentleman was talking about schools and young people. Of course there have been major issues for young people, but when I was talking about working from home, I was talking about the working population. On the question of students at universities, of course there needs to be a balance. Many universities got it wrong during the pandemic, and I said so at the time. I was utterly appalled when some universities put railings around the student accommodation. We need to strike a balance. This is about reducing our contacts to reduce transmission. There is nothing to prevent university students from going in to study, if that is the point that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to make.
How on earth does the hon. Lady think that we can mandate or suggest that people work from home but then expect students to tip up? University is about being taught, and being taught requires people to go to work. Or have I missed something?
Something appears to have been lost in translation here. I am not entirely sure whether the right hon. Member is referring to students or to the academics who teach them. I am talking about encouraging people to work from home where they can. There are of course examples where people will need to go into work, and they can change the ways in which they work, but working from home has been proven to reduce levels of transmission.
I am concerned that we are talking solely about the new variant, and that the mantra around putting in place restrictions to protect the NHS appears to have stopped. I worry that the Government appear to have lost their tongue. Ambulance services across the whole of England are at their highest alert level: level 4, or code black. That means that there are people in the back of ambulances who cannot get into hospitals. The NHS 111 line has had more than 1 million calls abandoned after 30 seconds this year, when they should be answered within 20 seconds. We have GPs who are reducing their hours or resigning because of the workload and the abuse. Some of them are really worried and saying that they will not to take on the contracts to deliver the booster jabs because of the expectation that they will still have to do the same amount of work seeing their patients and that if they are required to do the booster jabs as well, that will mean longer waits for other appointments. They are not getting the support they need in that regard, and I hope that the Minister will respond to this point. We have record backlogs—
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s comments, and I wish that she had amplified them more in regard to the ambulance service. I represent a large rural constituency, as many colleagues do, and if people are waiting for ambulances because people are queueing at the acute sector because others cannot be discharged, that is going to lead to huge problems during the winter months. Does she agree that that is something we should all keep at the forefront of our minds?
I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I have tried to raise that issue as often as I can through various means, and that is probably all I can say on the matter. Back in October, I tabled a written question to the Government to ask how many ambulance services were at level 4, and it took a couple of attempts at chasing that up before I got a response. I believe that hon. Members would benefit from having time to debate the issue in this House. In my own constituency of St Albans, there have been some incredibly tragic cases. A woman lost her baby because she was stuck in the back of an ambulance for many hours without being able to get into the local hospital. Another constituent lost their partner because they were stuck in the back of an ambulance for 12 hours and then died a week later because they had not been able to get that emergency treatment—
Order. Important though this matter is, the hon. Lady does appear to be straying. Could she please get back to the regulations that we are discussing?
The point that I am trying to make is that the Government are framing the introduction of these specific restrictions in terms of whether or not there is extra transmissibility from the new variant. My concern is that they are not talking about whether we need these restrictions, and perhaps others in the future, because of the pressures on the NHS in its broadest sense.
The hon. Lady is making an important and relevant point. Would she not accept, however, that these restrictions place a burden on businesses, on people’s individual freedom and on the operation of the education system, all to deal with a problem that is not going to go away as long as we have patients going to accident and emergency because their GPs are not seeing them, and as long as we have patients taking up beds in hospitals because they are not going into care? This will not be solved simply by introducing more regulations that put the burden on private industry because of the failures of the health service.
I disagree with some of those points. As a liberal, I believe fundamentally in giving people the most personal freedom they can have up to the point at which it interferes with the personal freedom of others. We hear a lot in this House about personal freedom, particularly from those on the Conservative Benches, but there is very little discussion about our broader responsibilities to others. That is the challenge that we as legislators have in this House: it is about getting the balance right. I do not think this is about putting restrictions on businesses because of the failures of our health service. GPs in particular are struggling with their workloads and with the abuse resulting from campaigns against them that are being led by national newspapers. If we had a stronger workforce to deal with these issues, and if the NHS had not been run into the ground, we would have more frontline health workers to deal with these problems right now. However, I am mindful of the Deputy Speaker’s entreaty to stick to the regulations, to which I now want to return.
As I said at the start, we will support these regulations. I agree with other Members that it is vital we have full scrutiny of any decision to repeal, extend or renew the regulations in any shape or form in the coming weeks. I implore the Government to take action and consider these restrictions in the light not only of this new variant but of the overall pressures across our NHS, whether on GPs, ambulance services or elsewhere.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper). I absolutely agree with her when she says she wants to maximise personal freedom. Unfortunately, most of her speech seemed to be about quite the reverse. I do not understand the lack of consistency, or perhaps I do, because I have been familiar with the Liberal Democrats over so many years.
There is a fundamental fallacy in the hon. Lady’s argument about masks, which is brought out in paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory memorandum:
“Evidence demonstrates that face coverings are effective, when worn correctly, at reducing virus transmission.”
Very few people wear their face mask correctly. The World Health Organisation’s advice says that people should wash their hands as soon as they take off their face mask, that they should discard temporary face masks and that they should wash their hands again when they put on a fresh face mask.
I had a discussion with Mr Speaker on this subject some months ago and, while we were having that discussion, one of our colleagues came into the Tea Room wearing a mask, took it off and put it on the breakfast table. I said to Mr Speaker that it really makes my point. Frankly, if we are talking about public hygiene and public health, the Government should be saying, “If you think you want to wear a mask, go and wear a mask but, for crying out loud, make sure you don’t contaminate yourself and others by not wearing it correctly.”
I cannot support these oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial regulations, which are neither necessary nor desirable. They will have an adverse effect on lives, livelihoods and the mental health of our constituents. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care considers that
“the requirements imposed by these Regulations are proportionate to what they seek to achieve, which is a public health response to the threat.”
Where is the evidence? The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), adduced no evidence whatsoever, and there is no regulatory impact assessment—the excuse is that the regulations will be in force for less than a year. Why is there no regulatory impact assessment? Why are we being asked to support a policy for which there is no evidence?
If there had been a regulatory impact assessment, there would be a requirement on the Government under the regulation rules of the Cabinet Office to put forward the possible alternatives to these regulations. We need goal-setting requirements, rather than prescription. More and more prescription seems to be the Government’s recipe.
To take an example, why is a shopkeeper not allowed to permit people to shop without wearing a face covering, provided those people have had a proper vaccination? Why is the keeper of a small shop not allowed to keep their front door open and allow people to go in and out without the need to wear a face covering—there would be adequate ventilation—or perhaps, as some small shops in my constituency do, have a one-in, one-out rule so that there is only one person in the shop with them? Why are we not allowing shops to have that freedom?
If we want to have a consistent policy, why are we treating those who have been fully vaccinated in the same way as those who have not been fully vaccinated? That seems to be wholly inconsistent with the regulations introduced by the Government in relation to people who work in care homes, and they propose to bring in similar restrictions for those working in the health service. If, having required those people to be double-vaccinated, we are saying that they are not in a privileged position when it comes to going into their local shop, what is the point of depriving those who have not been double-vaccinated of their right to work? There does not seem to be any consistency.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the major incentive for people to be vaccinated is to reduce their own chances of hospitalisation and death, not just so they can go to the local pub, shop or anywhere else?
I hope the hon. Lady accepts that people should be free to make their own decision on whether they wish to be vaccinated. I am therefore extremely nervous about backdoor proposals to require vaccine passports. I do not believe people’s freedom should be conditional on taking compulsory medication, which is why I am against the provisions in the Health and Care Bill on compulsory fluoridation. To that extent, I am probably on the same side of the argument as she is.
A mood of increasing intolerance is being engendered towards those who have a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering. Paragraph 7.8 of the explanatory memorandum makes it clear
“people do not need to show proof of this reasonable excuse”
but that is not being promoted by the Government. Regulation 5 says:
“For the purposes of regulations 3(1) and 4(1), the circumstances in which a person (“P”) has a reasonable excuse include”—
this is the important point—
“those where P cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability…or without severe distress”.
That is one reasonable excuse, but there are many others. The Government seem to be rather conflicted or muddled, because paragraph 7.8 of the explanatory memorandum says:
“Nobody who has a reasonable excuse and is therefore not wearing a face covering should be prevented from visiting any setting because of the requirements in these Regulations. Furthermore, people do not need to show proof of this reasonable excuse under the Regulations.”
In other words, people do not have to show a face covering exemption certificate, such as this one from Hidden Disabilities. I see quite a lot of people wearing these certificates but, as soon as people have to wear them, they are asked questions, “Well, what are your disabilities?” Most of my disabilities are well hidden, and I intend to keep them hidden. It is unreasonable that we should be creating an environment in which people are being challenged, and being encouraged to be challenged, on their personal and private health.
That brings me to the conflicting content of paragraph 12.3 of the explanatory memorandum. It may just be a misprint, but it says:
“The Department has also included a range of exemptions to ensure that this policy does not unfairly discriminate against those with protected characteristics. Furthermore, the policy will be supported by a communications campaign that will make clear that some people are exempt from these regulations and people should be challenged by members of the public for not wearing a face covering.”
Surely it should say “should not be challenged”. I do not understand it, because paragraph 15.3 says:
“Maggie Throup, the Parliamentary under Secretary of State”—
she is sitting on the Front Bench—
“can confirm that this Explanatory Memorandum meets the required standard.”
If it was indeed a misprint, the explanatory memorandum does not meet the required standard. If it is not a misprint, it is a serious contradiction within the explanatory memorandum and seriously undermines people’s freedom to go about their business without having impertinent remarks and questions put to them by busybodies acting on behalf of enforcement authorities.
My hon. Friend has been a Member of this House far longer than I have. Is there a mechanism where that could be clarified before today’s vote?
The mechanism is for the Minister to intervene on me, and I am happy to give way to her, to say that it is a misprint, or it is a deliberate confusion—it is to confuse the punters, so we can have it both ways. That might be the response of a Liberal Democrat, were there one on the Front Bench. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that serious point.
Obviously, people out there will be wondering about exemptions and reasonable excuses. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, drew attention in his intervention to the fact that young people are going around in shopping centres saying that they have a reasonable excuse for not complying with the regulations and for not wearing face masks. What is the problem with that? If people have a reasonable excuse for not wearing face coverings, let us not get too fussed about it. That is why these regulations are part of a scaremongering propaganda campaign on the part of the Government that is designed to try to stop or restrict social interaction between social animals who happen to be living in the United Kingdom. That is potentially the most damaging aspect of the regulations before us today: they are designed to suppress freedom of the individual and to suppress social contact and they are doing that through unreasonable fearmongering.
Yesterday, I intervened on the Secretary of State and during his statement he repeated to me:
“we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2021; Vol. 704, c. 679.]
With that assurance in mind, I thought I would come to listen to this debate and speak on behalf of the transport sector, which relates to my Select Committee, willing to support these measures as proportionate measures in circumstances where we do not know whether the new variant will have an impact on transmissibility and on our vaccine effectiveness. On regulations 1340, on face coverings, I can get there in that regard because they expire on 20 December and they are well set out. I have concerns about the way the transport sector is somewhat singled out, albeit with retail, as perhaps being an unsafe setting, whereas hospitality is marked differently. If we put £10 billion into the rail network alone just to keep it going, sending out a message that it is a less safe setting than a pub or restaurant will not be the way to give people confidence to get back on to that network which we need to survive.
I also have concerns about what happens on the buses, given what I witnessed today. That may well have been because people had not tuned into this debate and did not realise that these regulations had already come into force. People are still getting on board without a face covering. Despite the powers given to drivers to ensure that they do not do so, there is no questioning and on they go. Not only does that wind people up, but it leaves others thinking, “What’s the point in bothering? If not everyone is wearing a mask, what’s the purpose of anyone wearing one?” However, I can get there on those regulations because of the unknowns that we need to deal with.
One of the wonderful things about coming into this Chamber is to be educated. I might make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) has made: perhaps more of us can come here and be educated. I have grave concerns about the issues around regulation 1338, on self-isolation. If the aim is for us to be covered for no longer than is necessary, why do they have no end date and default to 24 March? The impact of these regulations is even greater than our having to wear a face covering for longer periods because, as has been mentioned, we could well be back to “pingdemic” territory.
I emphasise that the regulations mean that, regardless of a vaccination having been given, one has to self-isolate for a period of time if there is a suspicion that one has been in contact with someone who has the omicron variant. Right now, and perhaps for the period up to 20 December, I can understand that the suspicion would perhaps be linked, as the transmission rates are slower to build—one would hope that would be so for the next few weeks—to whether one had been in contact with someone who had been in South Africa, or something on those lines. If, however, we move to 24 March and the variant has spread fast but, as we hope, it has not had a negative impact on the vaccine, we could see the default option being, “I have come into contact with somebody who has covid. I did not know whether they had omicron or not, because that does not tell me that. Therefore, I must be cautious, as we are always told to be. Therefore, I must self-isolate.” Then we could see the whole country being pinged again, as it has been before.
The situation could even be worse than that. If it turns out, as is currently being discussed in South Africa, that although the strain may transmit quickly it may not have the same impact as even the delta variant, stopping people being out and about may make things worse, because they will not get the antibodies that we want them to get. Surely those on our Front Bench are aware of that. The beta variant was a variant of concern, and the amber-plus regulations were brought in, as there was a concern that beta would have been worse against the vaccine than delta. It turned out that one dose of AstraZeneca was more effective against the beta strain than two doses of it were against delta. So variants of concern can quickly turn out not to be a concern at all.
That is why we must make sure that our legislation stops and is flexible and nimble, yet these regulations will roll on until 24 March. That is what our job in this place is about; I can agree in principle that there is a need to take measures, but I cannot vote for legislation that does not actually do what I believe the Government intended it to do. There are options, and they can be used right now. The Minister could stand at the Dispatch Box and find a way to reassure those of us who have the same concern. Alternatively, the default option for me is to vote against this legislation, not because I disagree with the principle, but because I disagree with voting for legislation that I know to be poor, badly drafted and not to meet the intention. Surely we should not be stubborn and pig-headed when legislation does not work; we should fix it or we should vote against it.
I have one last point to make in relation to a motion that I thought would be before us but is not—one that deals with the restrictions on travel and the introduction of PCR testing. Yesterday, the Secretary of State also reassured me that PCR testing would not be expensive and that we would not be at the mercy of unscrupulous providers, as we saw happen during the summer. A wise person just told me about an incidence of a three-hour PCR test, which many will need to take in order not to have to self-isolate—that is good for the economy—costing more than £200. Why are these regulations being laid under the negative procedure? We need to be discussing that legislation and finding the pitfalls, as we have with the regulations before us—I applaud my colleagues for doing so this afternoon—yet they are not even being brought forward.
I wish to return to the point I made earlier, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend shares my genuine concern. As he said, we are here today because of a variant that has been discovered. More variants are going to be discovered and the cost of the PCR test will make people think carefully about going abroad, and that is going to have a devastating impact on the high street, travel agents and holidays. Does he agree that this issue has to be taken as a whole, and that it cannot be separated out so that every time there is a variant we say that we have to shut everything down?
I do agree with that, and it is a good point for me to end on. Let us look at not just the consumer, but those who work in aviation. Some 5,000 jobs have been lost on a monthly basis since February 2020 in that area; this has been an absolute disaster for the aviation and international travel sector, and for those who want to trade around the world. We had just started to see the easing of restrictions, with no damage to public health at all. My right hon. Friend is right to say that we need to learn lessons. It is okay for us to take tentative steps perhaps this once, on a limited basis, but we cannot keep shutting down parts of the economy every time there may be a variant of concern. Otherwise, to quote the Prime Minister, we will never “live with” this virus.
I understand the dilemma that the Government face and are in. There are two main questions that we need to ask and to which we all—including the Government as much as anyone—want to know the answer: first, what is the state of the omicron variant’s resistance to our vaccine programme? Secondly, if someone becomes infected, is their illness weaker or worse than it would have been with the delta variant that we have got used to? In some ways, it does not matter what happens with the vaccine if the omicron variant does not cause bad illness. Frankly, if it does not cause bad illness, I do not care about this thing at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) just made an interesting point: if, as we all hope, the omicron variant is weaker than the delta variant in terms of illness and effect, we are going backwards a long way today, because we will all have to lock down when we get the text, email or phone call to tell us we have been close to somebody with the new variant. That makes little sense at all.
Let me address the proposals before us in some sort of order. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), I do not have too many concerns about the face-mask regulations: they are an extension of rules that we have pretty much got used to and there is very little difference from what I have been doing on public transport, where I have been wearing masks religiously. I am still a little bemused as to how a fairly flimsy mask with a filter size that is far greater than a coronavirus particle can somehow be the salvation, but so be it. I am not terribly concerned about that.
We are, though, left with a gross absurdity that will perhaps face everyone in the House over the next few weeks. When someone goes to the off-licence on the way to a party later, it might take them only 45 seconds to get their tiple of choice but they will have to wear a mask on pain of a fine. They can then make their way to a house party, with 100 people or perhaps more—perhaps an infinite number of people—where it will be enclosed, warm, cosy and friendly and they can take that same face mask off. Really? It is an infantile proposal and we are in danger of falling down the same absurdities as we fell down before, with the madness of the couple who could walk across a golf course but dare not play on it. This is the absurdity that I have voted against previously and will vote against again.
Let me move on to the self-isolation requirements. I am afraid that the proposals mean we are going to fall into a new pingdemic. There is nothing in the regulations, in anything the Minister has said or in anything else I have heard to date to say that the testing regime will be backed up with proper genome sequencing at the right rate, so we can get back to a situation in which people can be told, “No, your contact was not omicron. You’re fine.” My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester picked up on a very dangerous phrase in the regulations, and that is “suspected of”. I do not know what that means. I know what “confirmed as” means—to be confirmed through a proper genome-sequence test—but what about “suspected of”? When people get that phone call, text, email or ping from the NHS—if they have been daft enough to have the app on their phone—are they now going to hear, just because the words “suspected of” have been added, “Thou shalt be held indoors for 10 days”? This is where we end up with mission creep and the chilling effect that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned.
I am going to be somewhat concerned about going to that Christmas party or that pub, because I have friends and family coming round for Christmas day. This legislation is going to have a dangerous pingdemic effect, either through a proper pingdemic or just through the effect of fear. I asked the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who spoke for the SNP and is knowledgeable on these matters, whether we might be able to get a new lateral flow test that is specific to omicron, but I think the answer is possibly no. We are in a confused state and I am concerned that the regulations will shatter businesses that are getting ready for Christmas. With the support of Opposition parties, sadly the regulations are likely to go through.
I am somewhat confused, as are many other Members, that we are not considering the regulations on travel today. It seems somewhat bizarre. There is a new requirement for a PCR test within two days. I am afraid we have seen far too much of what I call wild-west behaviour out there when people try to obtain a test. We have a well-established, well-working, accurate and fast PCR network that has stood up throughout the whole country. For instance, I can go on the NHS website and organise a PCR test tonight, probably within a mile or two of where I live, and I would probably get a result back tomorrow. The system works very well and that is to the Government’s credit. We went down a stage, for good reason, and said that lateral flow tests for people who travel in are fine. We are now back to the confusion—do lateral flow tests work or do they not work? If they work, surely that will do; if they do not work—if they are not reliable—why on earth have we spent billions of pounds over the past few months and why are everybody’s draws and cupboards full of these things, which are handed out like candy in the streets? It is something of a nonsense.
We have not yet discussed the regulations on the travel restrictions, so perhaps we have a chance of changing them for the good. We are introducing new requirements so it is only fair that we offer the ability to meet those requirements within the NHS PCR testing system, either for free or at a minimal cost. That way, we will not have these situations involving what I have described as wild-west companies that have not served us well.
Sadly, we are allowing ourselves to go back into a rabbit hole, and I am concerned that we will never get out. Last year, before we had the big vaccine roll-out, there were reasonable reasons, although I did not support them, for the levels of restrictions: we were waiting for the cavalry of the vaccinations and wanted to protect the NHS from being overloaded. We did that, it all worked and we got back to a semblance of normality. But we have a new variant, so we introduce new measures, then await a new vaccine formulation, then wait another few months to get that into people’s arms, and then we might be able to go back to normality—but then we will find another new variant and do it all over again. This has to stop. We have to live with this ever-changing virus. Enough is enough: it is done.
I see five people standing; the debate has to finish at 3.58 pm and we all want to give the Minister sufficient time to be able to respond to the number of important questions asked during the debate, so will people be mindful of the length of their contribution?
I shall endeavour to be mindful of that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and shall try to put some of those questions on the record for the Minister.
As many Members have said, and the chief scientific adviser agrees, covid is going to be with us forever and variants are going to be with us forever. This is the first test that we—the Government, the House and society—face in respect of how we deal with covid in a post-vaccine world, where we have vaccines and have vaccinated most of our population. It is important that we do not mess this up and fail that test. It seems to me that we need to respond calmly and proportionately, so I give the Government credit for resisting the calls for the economically damaging measures in plan B. Working from home, for example, does have significant economic consequences, as we saw from the Treasury’s own analysis. Vaccine passports are both illiberal and, as we have seen from the evidence—or lack of evidence—from Scotland, ineffective, so they are the worst of all worlds. They are an ineffective and illiberal policy, and we certainly do not want them introduced here.
Before I deal with the measures, I want to pick up on the point about the NHS made by the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats. She is absolutely right that the NHS is facing significant pressure, but it is not facing pressure from the number of patients in hospital because of covid, which is around 6% of total bed capacity. The NHS is under enormous pressure dealing with the significant number of patients who were both unable to be treated and scared away from the national health service during the pandemic. We must be careful not to repeat the mistake and scare away a whole new set of patients, as it will take the NHS another very significant period of time to deal with them. There is nothing about the measures that she suggested that will deal with those pressures; they will just make them worse.
Although I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s assertion that covid accounts for 6% of patients in hospitals, I urge him to think about the impact that covid in-patients have in the hospital setting. We know, for example, that for every one patient being treated, an entire ward can be taken out, because it has to be cleaned and if a staff member catches covid, they have to take time off work. I have asked the Government to produce an assessment and provide this House with the details of the impact of covid patients on the availability of beds, staff and elective procedures. Will he support me in asking the Government again to provide that assessment so that we can take an informed decision in this House as to whether these restrictions are necessary and how they may or may not help?
I support the hon. Lady’s general call for transparency, but my point about the numbers is not an assertion; it is about looking at the data and seeing how many patients are in hospital because of covid. That information is published. It is not an assertion, but a fact. Secondly, if hospital trusts do what my trust does, they put covid patients together in hospital. My trust currently has one ward full of patients. It clearly has an impact, but it is not the thing that is causing the biggest problem. The biggest problem in my trust is that it has at least three or four times the number of patients who are not able to be discharged because of inadequate social care. That is the point that I have made several times in the House.
Mindful of your admonition to be relatively brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me touch on the regulations in front of us. On the face-covering regulations, they are relatively not damaging economically. I listened carefully to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), and I agree that it is disappointing that we have moved away from a model where the Government lay out the evidence and the arguments and allow people to make their own decisions. That was a big choice that the Government made last year, and I am very disappointed that they have moved away from it. Weighing against that—this was set out very clearly by the Chairman of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), a distinguished former public health Minister—is that at least those regulations have quite a tight expiry date, and they will expire in three weeks’ time. Although I do not like the move back to mandating, I am prepared on this occasion—balancing up the pressures, and because there is an expiry date—not to oppose the regulations, but I will not support them either.
On the self-isolation regulations, I am afraid to say that I am much more concerned, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, for two reasons. First, while Ministers have been clear that the regulations will be reviewed in three weeks—I will press the Minister on what we might learn in those three weeks—the regulations are not time limited; they amend another set of regulations that do not have an expiry date until March next year. Although the Minister tells me that they will not be enforced for a day longer than necessary, she must recognise that, given the events of the past few weeks and how Ministers handled, among other things, the standards measures, there has been a diminution in trust between Back Benchers and Ministers. Ministers must work hard to rebuild that trust. Having open-ended statutory instruments that do not expire for many months—when they are telling us that the measures only need to be in place for a few weeks—is not, I say respectfully to the Minister, how to build that trust.
Secondly, there is the point that my hon. Friend made. Let us remember that we are making the law, which should always be clear, precise and specific so that people know what their legal responsibilities are and what they are not. I am afraid that reference in the regulations to people who are “suspected” or “confirmed” as having the omicron variant, with no detail about what that is, is simply not good enough. I was trying to be genuinely helpful to the Minister when I intervened on her. I wanted to give her the opportunity to set out in her opening remarks—and I hope she will do so in her closing remarks—how the Government determine whether someone has the suspected omicron variant and what measures have been taken in terms of the scripts that are used by NHS Test and Trace, the information provided to people whom it contacts, the training that staff undergo, and, indeed, whether the app is to be changed to deal with the new regulatory approach. I am afraid that nothing in the regulations that I have seen gives me any confidence that those matters have been properly thought through. Despite what the Minister may or may not say at the Dispatch Box, the law should be clear in the regulations, and it simply is not. On that basis—how the regulations are drafted—I will oppose them.
Mindful of your instructions, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have only a couple more points. When I said that I was worried that the regulations would trigger a new pingdemic, it was picked up in a number of publications. Politico’s London Playbook, which is much read in the Westminster village, said that a Government insider, trying to allay concerns about a pingdemic, had argued that, because people no longer check into restaurants or pubs, they will not be contacted by NHS Test and Trace. They said that contact tracers are really only interested in catching contacts of cases coming into the country on planes. If that is true, I would suggest that the £30,000 million-odd we spend on Test and Trace is not terribly useful. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed at the Dispatch Box whether what that Government insider has said is Government policy.
It has also been reported in the Financial Times that officials in the Department of Health and Social Care are drawing up contingency plans to require masks in many indoor settings, with a possible work-from-home order over Christmas. Apparently, these plans are being worked on by officials. Will the Minister confirm whether officials are working on such contingency plans? If they are not working on them under instructions from Ministers, can she, as a Minister, instruct them to stop working on such contingency plans and focus on the Government’s actual policies?
My final point is the one that I made yesterday. Ministers have said that they will review the measures in three weeks’ time, as of yesterday. That would be 20 December, when the House will have risen for the Christmas recess—I touched on this in my intervention on the Opposition spokesman. If any of the measures are to be extended, or if further measures are to be brought in, it would be unacceptable for Ministers to do it by decree, which is effectively what the Minister at the Dispatch Box did with these two orders. They should be brought forward to this House for a debate in advance of their coming in. If we have to sit in the days running up to Christmas, so be it. Many people in this country work over the Christmas period in many industries serving the public. We are better paid than most of those people, so if we have to come here and do our jobs, working on behalf of the public, to scrutinise the laws that affect their lives, then I for one am very happy to do so. It would be a failure of the responsibilities that Ministers have if they do not seek to keep the House sitting or recall it if they wish to take those powers. Ministers are accountable to the House and to our constituents through us, and they would be wise never to forget it.
I refer to the declarations that I have made relating to the Covid Recovery Group.
I am especially pleased to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), with whom I agree. I will try to elaborate on some of the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who made a particularly brilliant speech.
My starting point is that today’s debate is not really about the incremental inconvenience of the mandating of face masks. I repeatedly chose to wear one on the train recently when it was not mandatory to do so, but that is not the point today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West implied, the issue is that we are taking away the public’s right to choose what they do, based on flimsy and uncertain evidence. We do not know the extent to which this new variant will escape the vaccines and we do not know how harmful it would be. This debate goes to the heart of the nature of the society that we are creating.
The hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) talked about the harm principle. I entirely endorse the idea that our liberty should be constrained by the harm that we do, but in an intervention my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West made the point about flu: now that we have got the case fatality rate down to a comparable level with that of flu, we should be living with coronavirus like we live with flu. As my hon. Friend asked, are we going to manage other diseases like this?
Let me turn to the point that I really want to flesh out. The Government’s approach seems to be to say, “Better safe than sorry. You can’t be too careful.”. The trouble is that we really can be too careful. There is a problem that I call tunnel vision and my friend, Professor Paul Dolan from the London School of Economics, calls situational blindness, whereby we end up looking only at the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has set out brilliantly the harm that will be done to children. I cannot begin to understand the psychological harm to children of being in masks all the time; we cannot go back and repeat the experience of a missed nativity play, and so on.
The economic cost of the coming pingdemic will be huge. Only today, the problems that Virgin Atlantic will have were on the front page—and fleshed out in the business section—of The Daily Telegraph. If the Government keep going down this path in these circumstances, when, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, the disease is going to be endemic and we must learn to live with it, and if we panic every time that there is a new variant—and there will be new variant after new variant—we will make entire sections of our society uninvestable, such as airlines, hospitality and tourism—many of the things that give us joy, hope and something to look forward to.
Where is the hope from the Government? I know young people who are demoralised and depressed, and who have been telling me that we will go back into lockdown, and I have been saying, “No, because the vaccines are working and I do not believe that Conservative Ministers will do this to us”, but we have already started to see the scope creep, the mission creep, and the goalposts perhaps being slightly unshackled from the ground, ready to be moved.
Today’s debate is not about face coverings or the coming pingdemic through self-isolation measures. It is about how we react and the kind of nation and civilisation that we are creating in the context of this new disease. What is the relationship between the state and the individual? Are we to be empty vessels or mere automata—things to be managed, as if a problem? Or are we free spirits with, for want of a better term, a soul? We are free spirits with a soul—people who deserve the dignity of choice and the meaning in our lives that comes from taking responsibility. It is possible that meaning in our lives comes from little else. This is a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell. If we continue to react to these fears and uncertainties by taking the authoritarian course, without impact assessments—because the regulations are only temporary, you know—we are embarked on that downward course.
Even loneliness shortens lives. Again, Paul Dolan has been very clear with me that loneliness cuts lives short, and yet we find an official going beyond Government policy to say that we should not have unnecessary socialising. The most extraordinary set of choices are being taken because of an overwhelming, narrow focus on the one issue of coronavirus. It falls on Ministers to provide the lead, the breadth of thinking, the vision and the values to set out what broad kind of society we are trying to create. Where are we going as a society and civilisation? What will be our redemption and salvation? How will we provide that hope for our future? I believe that it will be by having faith in one another. The public are not fools. We are not here to govern idiots. I have faith in the British public that they can choose for themselves to do the right thing: to wear a mask when it is sensible, to pay attention to the level of cases, to choose for themselves whether they go to a restaurant, and, indeed, to choose whether they visit vulnerable relations in care homes—I could tell a sad story about that point.
Before I finish, I need to put on the record one constituency case. I have a 75-year-old constituent who is stranded in South Africa, with flights out of the country cancelled. He has a pre-existing anxiety disorder and will run out of medication in a matter of days. He is struggling to find accommodation, and now has to find a local source of new prescription medication. If that man is suffering for the greater good, let my hon. Friend the Minister say so. The rights of individuals really matter; justice is about how individuals are treated. Yes, of course we should care about overall social outcomes, but the rights of individuals really matters, and how we treat those people really matters. That man matters. He should not be stuck in South Africa. He planned to go there and come back, and his plans have been cut short, causing him immense suffering.
There is no plausible path set out before us that leads to a genuine public health emergency, yet the Government are choosing to react in this way. As a result, I am afraid that the Government are choosing that downward path towards, frankly, hell—the hell of minute management of our lives by edict, with nothing that we can do about it and not even a say in advance in Parliament—and, incredibly, a clear majority of this House is going along with it. Some of us today have to take a decision to vote no to everything. I, for one, intend to chart a course towards heaven, and I hope that hon. Members will come with me.
It is always a pleasure to follow such a powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
Today’s debate is fundamentally about uncertainty—uncertainty about omicron. It looks spooky, and it seems to be out-performing other variants in Africa. Why? Who knows. We do not know whether it is going to be more harmful or less harmful; we just do not know.
The problem with these restrictions is also uncertainty. Their direct effect is certainly not trivial. They are going to batter the international travel sector, which has already taken an absolute battering over the past two years. They will yet again have a disproportionate impact on children, when we see the collapse of bubbles in schools because of omicron and our children having to wear face masks at disproportionately high rates compared to adults; yet again, children are going to be the most affected. Sadly, that has been the story of the pandemic thus far.
The real harm from these restrictions is the, “Here we go again.” That is how I felt when the 5 pm press conference on a Saturday was announced again. In the click of a finger, I was back to 2020. I think that everyone at home watching was starting to worry and think, “What is going to come next? Here we go—is this the start of the ratchet again, moving monotonously and inexorably towards higher and increasing restrictions?”. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was exactly right when he said that it is this chilling effect that does, and is doing, the most harm.
Immediately, I started thinking, “Shall we hold off on ordering the booze for my 40th birthday party in a couple of weeks? Shall we just wait and see what happens?”. There are stories of countless events that we already anticipate will be cancelled, thinking, “Let’s hold off on making clear arrangements about seeing our parents at Christmas” and “Let’s just hold off on ordering the goose or the turkey”. All this has a snowballing impact.
I remember, as I think many people do, when it was just three weeks to flatten the curve. Heaven forbid that because of this chilling effect, people at home say to themselves, “You know what, actually? That lump I found? Let’s not bother the GPs. They’re too busy—too much to deal with, with covid.”. That is a serious and severe concern.
There is a final uncertainty that gives me the most trouble: how much we will really know in three weeks’ time. We know that it takes three weeks to get from infection to hospitalisation and three weeks from hospitalisation to get to death. We have only just started finding our domestic omicron cases. Will we really know from our domestic data in three weeks’ time what on earth omicron looks like: what it is doing, how transmissible it is, and the impact it is having on our NHS? Can we really compare international data with ours? We have had a phenomenal vaccine roll-out. We celebrate the impact of our vaccine roll-out and the booster: it is far better than many other nations’. Are we really comparable in those terms, whatever data ends up coming out across the world? I am really uncertain that we will know in three weeks’ time what is going to happen and what our next steps, if anything, should be.
In the face of the uncertainty that all of us are feeling, where can we find confidence? I would argue: here. Here is where the public find confidence, because they see us standing here debating and scrutinising, raising their points and concerns, chewing over in the most minute detail the SIs that are coming forward, and challenging the Minister on why we are doing what we are doing—having a great debate across the House on these issues. They see this and they have confidence that whatever we do in going forward, and whatever impact we are having on people’s day-to-day lives, we have scrutinised it—that we are here representing them and making sure that we make the best possible decisions.
We have some big decisions to take in three weeks and I do worry about what is going to happen then. Will the data from omicron be bad, will it be good, or will it be “not sure”? Parliament must be able to debate this, being recalled if necessary or, better yet, not going into recess until we have the data so that we know what our next steps should or should not be. For me, in terms of ending uncertainty, I would be grateful if the Minister gave certainty that Parliament will have its say whatever happens in two or three weeks’ time in terms of our response to the omicron variant or wider variants that may pop up between now and then.
It is pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I thank them for their fantastic leadership on this issue.
I want to develop one point specifically: I believe that Government must take a balanced view. I accept the argument made by various people, including the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), that the precautionary principle is good. I think we can be criticised for potentially not acting quickly enough at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago, but overreaction is not good. We have had a damaging obsession with a very narrow view of what we perceive to be health. The poorer you are and the younger you are in this society, the higher the price you have paid, and that is not acceptable.
I look at this debate and this motion in the context of some dreadful forecasts and dreadful assessments that have driven Government’s nervousness. I want to explore them and put them on record because I believe it is in the public interest, but I do so within the terms of the motion. I want to look particularly at Imperial College and Professor Ferguson. I have a great deal of respect for them and I will be careful how I phrase this, but I am concerned that some of the forecasting we have had has had a track record in, frankly, getting it wrong repeatedly. In 2001, Professor Ferguson predicted 150,000 human deaths from foot-and-mouth; under 200 died. In 2002, he predicted between 50 and 50,000 deaths from BSE; in the end, 177 died. In 2005, he said that 150 million people could be killed by bird flu; 282 died. In 2009, a Government estimate based on his advice said that a “reasonable worst-case scenario” for swine flu would lead to 65,000 British deaths; in the end, 457 people died. I am happy to be corrected on any of those points, but that is the publicly available information.
Moving forward to covid, Ferguson predicted 85,000 deaths in Sweden; in fact, 6,000 Swedes have died. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, said in September 2020:
“We looked at the”
“model and we could see that the variables that were put into the model were quite extreme...Why did you choose the variables that gave extreme results?
I love experts—don’t get me wrong; I know we sometimes have our issues with them—but it is helpful if they are right, if only very occasionally. Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist, said that Ferguson’s models were “not very good”. The Washington Post quoted Giesecke as saying that Imperial’s forecasts were “almost hysterical”. This is the forecasting that has been, in part, driving Government action.
In this country, oncology professor Angus Dalgleish, in this country, described Ferguson’s modelling as “lurid predictions”. He said that Ferguson and his colleagues were getting it “spectacularly wrong”. He said:
“Unfortunately, we have a Sage committee advising a government that is devoid of any scientific expertise, on speculative concepts such as the R number”—
which we now all know is the reproductive rate—
“and the need for everyone to stay indoors, even though the evidence strongly suggests that people are less likely to catch Covid-19 outside.”
So some of the scientific evidence may have actually driven the rising covid rates in the same way that going into hospital may have been the place that people caught covid and died from it.
Viscount Ridley has criticised Ferguson’s modelling. Lund University has applied Ferguson’s models and found a massive difference between his predictions and what actually happened. Professor Michael Thrusfield from Edinburgh University said that Ferguson’s previous modelling of foot-and-mouth was “severely flawed”.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in highlighting the predictions that are wrong, but the unfortunate thing is that politicians then jump on to them and quote them. For example, the Health Minister in Northern Ireland, on the basis of Mr Ferguson’s predictions, talked about deaths “of biblical proportions” and scared the life out of people.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point most eloquently. Politicians then become fearful. They think, “What if the worst-case scenario is right?”, and lose faith in more balanced predictions.
John Ioannides from Stanford University said of Ferguson’s modelling that
“major assumptions and estimates that are built in the calculations seem to be substantially inflated”.
He is a serious customer, Professor Ferguson, and Imperial has an impeccable reputation. I pay respect, overall, to their work, and I do not seek to criticise for the sake of it; I want to highlight that bad forecasting and bad modelling drives bad Government decisions that then become illiberal and intolerant of other people who have more balanced views.
More recently, in July 2021, Ferguson predicted 100,000 cases, saying that it was “almost inevitable”. Yet we got nowhere near there. The US forecaster Nate Silver, who is very good at predicting US elections, said:
“I don’t care that the prediction is wrong, I’m sure this stuff is hard to predict. It’s that he’s consistently so overconfident.”
The political scientist Professor Philip Tetlock agreed with Nate Silver, adding:
“Expect even top forecasters to make lots of mistakes…When smart forecasters are consistently over-confident, start suspecting”
other factors in play, such as
“publicity or policy-advocacy games”.
I make no such allegations.
More recently, I understand that this summer Professor Ferguson predicted upwards of 100,000 cases. They topped at just over 30,000. In an interview with The Times, the good professor said that his prediction was off because the football messed up his modelling. That for me comes to the essence of the problem with forecasting. When someone can predict 100 million deaths and no one dies but someone gets a sore thumb, they can say mitigations were taken by Government. When a forecaster’s work becomes verifiable, we can see when he predicts and gets it wrong. When that forecast comes up against reality, reality kicks in and makes a fool of the forecast and sometimes, sadly, a fool of the forecaster. Every time Professor Ferguson’s forecasts have been verifiable, they have been seen to be very badly flawed, and this is a serious man and a serious university.
To sum up, if we look at the forecasts made about covid, just like the forecasts for so many other things, reality changes those forecasts and very often undermines their credibility, so we need another set of factors to guide us. Members on the Opposition Benches and on this side have said we need principles. We need a precautionary principle, but we need a sense of balance so that we do not overstep the mark, damage our society, damage our young people and damage poorer people by seeking to control when we need to learn to live with this. My final question to the Minister is: will the Government look into forecasting and perhaps hold an inquiry into the success of forecasting and what we can learn from it, so that we do it less badly in future?
Finally, going from the theoretical to the very practicable, and on a point related to the Isle of Wight, we are not getting the boosters in the Riverside Centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) raised a specific point about his constituency, and in the same way, will the Minister please look at getting more booster jabs to the Isle of Wight and our Riverside Centre?
The last contribution before the Minister responds is from Dr Andrew Murrison.
I record my interest as a practising doctor. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) that there appears to be a problem with the availability of slots for vaccinations, and that was before the Government announced this week that we were to expedite the booster programme. I am concerned about that, and I hope the Minister, who has commented briefly on that already, can confirm she has a cunning plan to ensure that people who need to be vaccinated are vaccinated and in particular that those vaccines reach the elderly and the vulnerable. At the moment, I have severe concerns about the availability of those slots, if not the vaccines themselves.
I will be supporting SI No. 1340 today on face coverings. I am mindful that we have to rely on the best available evidence. The evidence for a lot of these non-pharmaceutical interventions is more common-sense than actual. It seems to me to be a minor imposition to ask people to wear a face mask, particularly given the evidence published by The BMJ last week on this matter, which we have referred to already. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) in particular spoke about it.
I am more concerned about SI No. 1338 for two reasons. While SI No. 1340 expires on 20 December—or, at least, Ministers can decide whether to continue it on that date—there is no such luxury contained within SI No. 1338. That seems to be illogical. When pressed earlier, I regret to say that the Minister, who was very good at taking interventions from hon. and right hon. Members, did not address that point. She needs to explain to my satisfaction, and that of other Members, why 20 December stands in SI No. 1340, but it is 24 March for SI No. 1338. It seems that there is an appetite in the House to return here, if necessary, to reconfirm or refute the need for these measures to continue into the new year. I hope that the Minister has heard that loud and clear.
I for one would be more than happy to be here well past the time at which we rise, and right up to Christmas if necessary, and the reason for that is this: the things we have been discussing today touch heavily on the liberties and livelihoods of our constituents. These things are not trivial; they are of vital importance, and all actions have consequences. I am worried about things like this because of the messaging it gives off. It will be very difficult for businesses deciding whether to invest. They will look at SI No. 1338 and think, “Good gracious me, this will go on and on and on.” While they have been happy to go along with some of the impositions that we have had over the past 18 months, they are now coming to the point where they are thinking, “This could basically be the new normal. This will go on and on, and on what basis will we continue to invest in our businesses if every few months we have these kinds of things and goodness knows what else that may follow?” I am worried about that.
I am also deeply worried, as other hon. and right hon. Members have pointed out, about this “suspected of” bit. That seems to me to be rather clumsy and I am not comfortable with it. Presumably, anybody showing any coronavirus symptoms could be “suspected of” having the omicron variant.
The World Health Organisation touched on a potential solution to that at the weekend, which is the Thermo Fisher PCR test. I assume that it relies on the detection of the S-gene dropout that has been referred to, which could expedite the diagnosis of omicron as opposed to straightforward coronavirus. I wonder whether the Minister could reflect on that and say whether her understanding is that such a test would be the basis on which we would decide whether somebody was suspected of having it, because that could shorten the length of time that people are required to be out of action and might make No. 1338 slightly more palatable for those of us who have concerns about it.
I disagree with some hon. Members about what will change in three weeks’ time, because I think a great deal will change, as a number of international authorities have made clear. Indeed, the doctor who first found the variant, Angelique Coetzee, seemed to be of that view in her upbeat assessment of how it is affecting her patients, as is Dr Anthony Fauci, the adviser to the President of the United States. Many international authorities are saying that in two weeks’ time, we should be a lot further along the journey of understanding how the variant behaves.
That makes sense because, in two weeks’ time, if the variant is a problem, we will presumably see an uptick in hospitalisation at least among the vulnerable population. It is wrong to suggest that everybody in South Africa is young and vibrant; of course it has its fair share of elderly, vulnerable and frail people and of people with comorbidities. In two weeks, I expect there will be at least some indication of whether it will be a problem. We should also keep in mind that it might be part of the salvation, rather than the problem, because we do not know how the virus will behave. Some viruses mutate downwards and others mutate upwards. We must hope for the former not the latter, but at the moment we simply do not know, which is the basis of my support for No. 1340.
There is an assumption that perhaps southern Africa is not sophisticated in healthcare terms, but I gently make the point that the Republic of South Africa certainly is sophisticated. It has been the victim of its own generosity in having invested heavily in sequencing. It is a bit like the UK in relation the Kent variant: if we look, we will find. We need to be careful about suggesting that other healthcare economies are not up to spec, because I do not think that is necessarily the case for South Africa.
I also observe that yesterday, 25 deaths were attributed to covid-19 in South Africa and the seven day average is 35 deaths. Many of us are captivated by the covid graphs; I check them daily. I confess that I do not generally obsess about South Africa, but recent events have made one focus on its graph, which is bumping along the bottom. We are in no way seeing a wave as yet, although we may yet do so, but we need to be careful about suggesting it will be a major problem, as Angelique Coetzee and others have been.
The Government are right to be cautious—of course they are—but we also need a sense of proportion. We need to understand that everything we do in this place with regard to regulation has a consequence for liberty and livelihoods, for the economy in general and for young people in particular. I made that point in connection with the apparent suggestion of the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) that it was a no-cost measure. We need to be careful about the impact that it all has on young people and especially on mental health.
Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration that we have all these charts about covid, but we have never had them in context—how many people are born, how many people die, how many people die of flu, how many people die of other illnesses—so we have become fixated by something when there are many other causes of death in this country that, frankly, claim many more people, and by taking this out of context we create unnecessary fear?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The point about that is of course that the national health service at the moment is running very fast to catch up because for the past 18 months, necessarily, it has not been doing a lot of the elective work in particular that it would have wanted to do. That is actually going to be a problem, I think, for years to come. What I would say is that there seems to me to be very little likelihood of our NHS being overwhelmed this winter. There are always pressures at this time of the year, and an overwhelmed NHS was the absolute cornerstone of Government policy towards this particular public health emergency at the start. Those things are not there now, and I think that we just need to contextualise a lot of what is going on.
Of course we need to reduce the number of admissions to the NHS, particularly to ITUs, for covid-19. It is a huge burden for the NHS, and it prevents us from doing other things, but we are certainly not in the position now that we were in this time last year. So while I will certainly be supporting No. 1340, I am afraid that I will not be able to support the Government in respect of No. 1338, because of the lack of a sunset provision similar to that enjoyed by No. 1340 and also because I am very concerned about “suspected of” and what that might mean in terms of a chilling effect on schooling, the economy, liberty and livelihood.
I am pleased to bring this wide-ranging debate to a close. We are now almost two years on from when this virus first emerged in Wuhan. Since then, science and disease have been locked in a battle for ascendancy. For the last year, science has been on top as the global effort on vaccines has dramatically reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death for those who catch covid-19, but we know from the history of previous diseases that they mutate and change, so that vaccinations and treatments become less effective. That is why only one disease, smallpox, has been eradicated, although we are close to eliminating polio, too.
The virus is fighting back, and we must respond. To those who say that the regulations we have debated—the reintroduction of face coverings in some settings and self-isolation requirements for close contacts—are an imposition on our liberties, I agree, but they are a necessary imposition to slow the spread of a new variant and allow science to catch up. However, there is a balance to be struck. Too many restrictions have a crippling effect on social and economic life, as well as adding to the burden of mental illness. For those who say that the regulations we have debated are not enough, I say that they will buy us time to understand this new variant better. That is why they will be reviewed in three weeks’ time.
We will continue to closely monitor all the emerging data on the new variant. We have committed to review all of the measures in three weeks’ time, ahead of the face coverings regulations expiring. Restrictions will not be in place any longer than necessary. We do need to learn to live with this virus, but it is right, in the face of a potential threat, to take balanced and proportionate measures, and we will continue to closely monitor all the emerging data on the new variant. Overall, I would like to reiterate that this will be a moving picture over the coming weeks. We will get a better idea of its nature in the next couple of weeks. Its transmission advantage, vaccine escape and severity of infection are some of the things we are looking at as we observe how the variant develops in southern Africa and the rest of the world, too. Alongside that, the scientists will continue to study it in the lab, but it will be several weeks before we get a clear picture. The most important thing is that the world keeps sharing information and findings as new cases emerge. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for raising an inconsistency in our explanatory memorandum at paragraph 12.3. For clarity, I will read out the section as it was intended:
“Furthermore, the policy will be supported by a communications campaign that will make clear that some people are exempt from these regulations and people should not be challenged by members of the public for not wearing the face regulation.”
I trust that that reassures my hon. Friend on the matter and on the seriousness with which the Government take supporting those who are exempt from these requirements. I will be working with officials to rectify this.
With respect to omicron-positive cases, NHS Test and Trace will work with the positive case and/or their parent to identify close contacts. Contacts from a school setting will only be traced by NHS Test and Trace where the positive case and/or their parents specifically identify the individual as being a close contact. There is likely to be a small number of individuals who will be most at risk of contracting covid-19 due to the nature of the close contact. I reiterate that the direct contact will be by NHS Test and Trace, rather than via the covid app.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) talked about suspected cases. My right hon. Friend hit the nail on the head: many of the laboratories processing the PCR tests will be able to test for the S-gene dropout and that will give a very good indication of cases of the omicron variant. While it does not provide 100% confirmation, we can get that information very quickly and at the same time the test result is reported and that is ahead of any genomic sequencing.
I want to continue as many points have been raised and I was very generous in giving way when opening the debate.
A debate on this subject would not be complete without the Opposition spokesman asking about financial support for those in self-isolation. I reassure the Opposition spokesman that anyone who is legally required to self-isolate as a contact or positive case will be able to apply for a test and trace support payment or practical support such as the medicines delivery service if they meet the normal eligibility criteria. The latest figures show that almost 363,000 people have received a test and trace payment since the scheme began, and over £180 million has been paid out. The help is there.
We have set out proportionate and balanced measures which do not include limiting socialising. It is the Government who set policy and guidance, which is what the public should follow. The Secretary of State updated the House yesterday on the changes to the JCVI guidance for boosters and the NHS will be issuing instructions on how that guidance should be operationalised shortly.
These regulations are precautionary and proportionate, helping to safeguard the gains made by our fantastic vaccination programme, which has seen almost 18 million people across the UK get a booster jab already. The Government have acted rapidly and reasonably to ensure that science retains the upper hand in the struggle with the virus and I commend these SIs to the House.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1340), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Business of the House (Today) motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).
Motion made, and Question put,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1338), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.—(Craig Whittaker.)