With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the covid-19 pandemic. We are working night and day to understand more about the omicron variant. There is still a lot to learn, but some important data has emerged recently and I would like to update the House on the latest developments.
There are three reasons why the omicron variant is a threat. First, it is far more transmissible than the delta variant. The delta variant was much more transmissible than the alpha variant, and we are confident that omicron is significantly more transmissible than delta. We can see this most starkly when looking at how many days it takes for the number of infections to double for each variant. For delta, this was around seven days, but for omicron, based on the latest data from here and around the world, our latest analysis is that it is between two and a half and three days.
This has made the virus an even more formidable foe. Using S-gene drop-out as a reliable proxy for omicron, the rate of drop-out in England is similar to that observed in South Africa. Although there are only 568 confirmed omicron cases in the UK, we know that the actual number of infections will be significantly higher. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that the number of infections is approximately 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, so the current number of infections is probably closer to 10,000. UKHSA also estimates that at the current observed doubling rate of between two and a half and three days, by the end of this month, infections could exceed 1 million.
Secondly, we do not yet have comprehensive data on the severity of this virus, but rising rates of hospitalisation in South Africa show that it certainly has the potential to cause harm. In South Africa, the average age is 13 years lower than in the UK, there is a high level of antibodies from natural infection, and it is currently the middle of summer.
Even if severity is lower or the same as delta, high transmissibility means that the omicron variant can still have a severe impact, with the threat of more hospitalisations and unsustainable pressure on the NHS. That would mean an impact not just on covid treatment, but on the non-covid care that we all rely on, such as emergency care if somebody is sadly involved in a serious accident. When we set out plan B, we said that we would act if the NHS was likely to come under unsustainable pressure and was at risk of not being able to provide the care and treatment that people need. The omicron variant has given us cause for concern.
Thirdly, we have been looking closely at what the omicron variant means for our vaccination programme. New laboratory data that has emerged in the last 24 hours suggests that there is lower immunity against omicron from vaccination when compared with the delta variant, so that two doses of a vaccine is less effective at reducing transmission in the community.
However, early research published today by Pfizer suggests that a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine neutralises the Omicron variant to an extent that is similar to the impact of two doses against the original strain of the virus. It is more important than ever that we get the boosters that are available to all those who are eligible, and that we keep strengthening the defences that we have built. Today, we have opened booster bookings to 7 million more people in England, so people aged 40 and over and those in high-risk groups will be able to get their booster jab from three months after their second dose.
Another defence is new treatments, which have a huge part to play in protecting the most vulnerable from covid 19, especially those who are immunosuppressed, for whom vaccines may be less effective. Today we have announced plans for thousands of people across the UK to be among the first in the world to access life-saving antivirals through a new national study. People who are at highest risk from the virus—for example, those who are immunosuppressed or cancer patients—will also be able to access treatments outside this study from next Thursday if they have a positive PCR test.
We have built some powerful defences. We have put more boosters in arms than any other country in Europe. We have built a huge national infrastructure for testing, and we are leading the world in the deployment of new treatments. Thanks to these defences and our decision to open up in the summer, rather than the winter, we are much better protected than we were this time last year—and we need this protection now more than ever, because although Omicron is becoming more and more prevalent, over the next few days and weeks we will see the Delta and Omicron variants circulating together. Facing these twin threats without these pharmaceutical defences would have been hard enough, but even with them in place we still face a perilous winter, so unfortunately we need to take steps against the threat of this new variant.
When we were moving down our road to recovery, we looked at four tests to see whether we should proceed to the next stage. The tests are: that the vaccine deployment programme is continuing successfully; that the evidence shows that vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated; that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations that would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern. Unfortunately, the situation is markedly different from the summer, when we were able to open up, so we must take proportionate steps to meet this emerging threat.
These are not measures that any of us wants to take, but these measures give us the best chance of saving lives and protecting our freedom over the next few weeks, and it is precisely because we do not want a lockdown that we are putting these proportionate steps in place now. As we have seen before, if we act early, firmly and decisively, and come down hard on this new Omicron variant, we can avert tougher action later. I know that the news of further measures will be disappointing, of course, for many people, and that every measure comes with a cost. I can assure the House that, in making these decisions, we have taken a wide-ranging view that looks at the impact on not just the NHS, in terms of both covid and non-covid care, but the nation’s education, the economy, life chances and mental health.
I would like to update the House on the measures that we will take to enact plan B. First, we will reintroduce the guidance on working from home. It will be updated to say that only people who cannot work from home should continue to go into their workplace. We know that this has an important part to play in slowing transmission, both at workplaces and on public transport. Secondly, we will introduce mandatory certification, based on vaccines or tests, for nightclubs and large events. This will reduce the number of unvaccinated, infectious people in venues, which could limit overall transmission.
Thirdly, on face coverings, we will be extending the legal requirement from shops and public transport to all indoor public settings, including attractions and recreation, although hospitality will be exempt, and we will be exempting specific activities where it is not possible or practical to wear a face covering—for example, singing and exercise. We will be laying these regulations tomorrow, to come into force the following day.
Fourthly, as omicron spreads in the community, we will also introduce daily tests for contacts instead of isolation so that we keep people safe while minimising the disruption to daily life.
Fifthly, on communications, we will be urging caution in all our communications on covid-19 and will keep urging people to get their booster doses and to follow the little steps that they can to help get the virus under control. All these measures will be reviewed on 5 January, when we will also update the House, and they will all sunset on 26 January.
Finally, we will also be taking further measures to protect and support adult social care, and we will be updating the House on a package of measures later this week.
It is better to stay a step ahead of the virus, rather than reacting to what it brings—to take control of our response now, rather than waiting for what comes next. Waiting a few weeks would make it easier to explain the need for these measures, but by then it might well be too late, so we need to act now and take these balanced and proportionate steps.
We take these steps with a heavy heart, but we do so confident that we are doing everything in our power to keep our nation safe this winter. We have come so far over the course of this year, thanks to the defences that we have built against this deadly virus. Now, as we face this new threat, we must draw on the same spirit that has got us here, strengthening our defences, and think about what we can do to help get this virus under control. I commend this statement to the House.
I will run this statement for an hour after both Front Benchers have spoken. I will try to get as many Members in as possible, but we will all have to help one another, because the business has to carry on afterwards. In fairness to the Secretary of State, he has taken a bit longer because it was a very important statement, so I suggest that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), takes six minutes rather than the normal five—if he wishes to take it—and I will allow some extra time for the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day).
I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for the telephone call that he made to me this afternoon, which I greatly appreciated. On the Opposition side of the House, we have always put public health before party politics at every point throughout this pandemic, so I want to be clear with the House and the country that Labour will support these measures in the national interest. Let me reassure the Secretary of State that he does not need to compromise with the interests behind him; he has the votes he needs to do what is right by the public, and that is all the reassurance that the country needs.
Let me also agree with the Secretary of State: we do not do this lightly. Restrictions impact on people’s lives, livelihoods and liberties, and we do not take those for granted. We want everyone to be able to enjoy Christmas safely this year, given the trauma of last winter, but the omicron variant is a clear threat and we need swift action to limit its spread.
Let me take the actions outlined in turn. In our opinion, the Government should never have scrapped the guidance on mask wearing, so we support the strengthened guidance. Will the Secretary of State explain whether that extends to hospitality settings? Obviously, he was not able to give me advance sight of his statement, and I totally appreciate why, but if it does not, he ought to elaborate on why that choice was made.
We have always said that people should have the flexibility to work from home, so we also welcome the updated guidance on that. On the introduction of vaccine passports, I am glad that the Government have listened and responded to our proposal that people will also be provided with the option of presenting a negative test. That is exactly the right thing to do. Will the Secretary of State provide reassurance that vaccine passports will not be required to access essential services?
Clearly, in the light of what the Secretary of State has outlined, demand for testing will increase, so will he provide us with the reassurance that we need that the capacity for testing will be there and that tests will be provided for free to ensure that there is proper take-up among the public?
Of course, our greatest tool against the pandemic remains vaccination, so I ask the Secretary of State how he plans to speed up the booster roll-out, which is not hitting the target of half a million vaccines a day and is not currently on track to get everyone boosted by the end of January.
Public health relies on people’s willingness to comply with the rules, which in turn relies on confidence in the people making the rules. The damage the Prime Minister has done to public compliance and public trust in the rules that have governed our lives during the pandemic is incalculable. He has undermined public trust and distracted from key public health messaging at a critical time.
If we needed any proof of that, it was the absence of the Secretary of State from the morning media round today, which he was due to undertake to tell people why taking up the booster was so important. He was not able to do that, not through any fault of his own, but through the actions of the Prime Minister and those closest around him.
The past 24 hours have not been the only example or the only incident that has damaged public trust. The first turning point was the notorious trip to Barnard Castle. We saw the actions of the former Health Secretary in his office, the former Education Secretary holding his own private party while schools were struggling to get through the end of term and headteachers were on their knees coping with what confronted them, and the Prime Minister himself attempting to get out of having to isolate. Now, of course, we have the footage of the Prime Minister’s own staff laughing on camera and joking about breaking the rules at the No. 10 Christmas party.
It is hard to overstate how much damage that has done and how angry people feel—the businesses that were forced to close; the family weddings that were postponed; the chances to say goodbye at funerals missed; the educators, the key workers, people in the NHS and social care who ran into danger as other people were laughing in their office parties. That is what makes the laughter so stomach-turning; it feels as if they are laughing at us. The question we all need to ask this evening, especially in light of the statement made earlier this afternoon by Allegra Stratton, who has done the right thing, shown she has understood the anger and taken responsibility for what she did, is why it is so difficult for this Prime Minister to own up, take responsibility and admit he was wrong.
I will say two more brief things. The Health Secretary was heckled by his own side this evening, but he is not the risk to public health and this is not a laughing matter. Right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches need to think and to search their own consciences about whether, at this moment of serious crisis, we have the serious leadership our country needs. If not, they know what to do.
I conclude by saying what the Health Secretary was unable to tell the public this morning: “Get your booster jab as soon as you are able and, if you haven’t already, get your first and second jabs. It is safe, it is effective and it is the best tool we have to protect against the virus.” That is what we are all here to do, and that is why we support this Health Secretary in the national interest.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach in the national interest. He asks a number of questions. The face mask requirement includes a number of public indoor settings, but excludes hospitality settings. On the NHS covid pass, I can confirm that certification will not include access to any emergency setting. Tests will remain freely available, whether that is PCR tests for anyone who has any covid-19 symptoms, or very easy access to lateral flow tests, with even more of those available than before to help with some of the measures set out today and to allow people to exercise even more caution in the light of omicron. If perhaps people are visiting loved ones who might be particularly vulnerable, I certainly suggest they take up the opportunity to take a free lateral flow test.
On boosters, it is worth recalling that we already have the most successful booster programme in Europe, with more than 20 million booster shots given throughout the UK to some 35% of the population over the age of 12 and a commitment to offer booster shots to every adult by the end of January. That programme continues. As for what we are doing about it, as well as increasing access to vaccines through new vaccine centres and hubs, mobile vaccine units and in other ways, we will continue to extend eligibility, as we did today. Today’s move, reducing the gap between the second vaccine and the booster vaccine from six months to three months, has opened up eligibility to millions more people over the age of 40.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s questions about what may or may not have happened at Downing Street, I think that the Prime Minister addressed that issue quite clearly today from the Dispatch Box; and as for his final message about boosters, I wholeheartedly agree.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Jeremy Hunt.
Disappointing though the statement will be for many people, the Secretary of State has my full and unqualified support. This is not a choice between more and fewer restrictions; it is a choice between taking action early to protect a future lockdown and making such a lockdown inevitable. We all hope that the omicron variant is milder than delta, but if it is not, a failure to act now could cost many lives.
I want to ask the Secretary of State about the social care sector. I know that he will say more about it later this week, but he will have seen the estimate from NHS Providers that 10,000 beds—over 10% of all NHS hospital beds, and more beds than are currently occupied by covid patients—are occupied by people who are fit to be discharged but cannot obtain a care package. Will he provide funds to ensure that all those patients can be discharged, so that the NHS can be ready for any potential spike in new cases?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the statement. He is right to emphasise that by taking swift, early and proportionate action now, we can potentially avoid further restrictive measures in the future. As I have said, there will be a statement on social care later this week, but I can also give him the assurance that he seeks: the statement will include further measures to help with the discharge of hospital patients who are clinically ready to be discharged.
I call the spokesman for the Scottish National party, Martyn Day.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and indeed for advance sight of it, albeit fairly briefly.
Given the time when the press call went out this afternoon, I think that this could have been handled in a way that would have given everyone more opportunities to scrutinise what was happening. That said, I find myself much in agreement with the Secretary of State’s remarks, perhaps more so than many on his own Benches.
One aspect that should concern all of us is the lower immunity from vaccination. That is especially worrying, and I think we need to emphasise that it is still important for people to be vaccinated and, in particular, to get that booster vaccination. I had mine on Sunday, and I encourage everyone else to do the same.
England’s plan B does, remarkably, resemble the current arrangements in Scotland—working from home, face coverings and vaccine certificates, all of which measures we have repeatedly advised this Government to adopt. Better late than never; however, I cannot but comment that when my colleagues in Scotland were faced with these choices, they were given a vote on them in the Scottish Parliament. Likewise, it must now be time for a COBRA meeting to happen finally. How can the Secretary of State think it acceptable not to have held such a meeting with the devolved Governments when this point of restrictions has been reached?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive tone. He made the important observation that while the emerging data suggests that current vaccines may well be less effective in providing protective immunity, that does not mean that they are ineffective. It is especially important for those who have not had any jabs to have their first vaccination, and for people to have their booster jabs, and the older and more vulnerable people are, the more important that is.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need for us to work together. He may well know that I have regular meetings, sometimes more than once a week, with my counterparts across the UK, as does the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister for the Union. That is a well established and, I think, very good way to work together on this pandemic.
A week ago, the Secretary of State assured me from the Dispatch Box that he would not trigger further restrictions based on a rise in infections which was predicted and, in fact, was always inevitable. He said that
“what matters more than anything is hospitalisations.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2021; Vol. 704, c. 683.]
That data is not available yet, so why has the Secretary of State reversed his position and jumped the gun in this way?
That is a very fair question, and it requires a full explanation. There is new data since I was last at this Dispatch Box on the rate and growth in transmissibility, and there is new data, to which I referred in my statement, on the impact of the variant on vaccines. My right hon. Friend will know that if the vaccines were even a little bit less effective, especially against severe disease and therefore against hospitalisation, and if there was also a hugely growing infection rate, a smaller percentage of what would be a much larger number would still result in significant hospitalisations.
Could the Secretary of State tell the House what his understanding is of the development of a new vaccine specifically to target omicron and when it might be available? Secondly, can he tell us what the latest evidence is on the protection against this new variant that two doses plus the booster will give to people?
From the moment they learned about omicron, the vaccine manufacturers, particularly those that make the so-called mRNA-type vaccines, started work on new omicron-targeting vaccines. It is hard to put a timing on this, not least because the companies themselves are unable to, but it is reasonable to think that they can move very quickly. Some of the conversations I have had suggest that they may well be able to have vaccines ready for trial within weeks. There would obviously have to be a trial to ensure that they were safe and effective, but there may be cases where they could be used in emergency situations. On the question about the two doses and a booster, we do not have reliable data on that at this point. However, the information I referred to in my statement on the impact of vaccinations showed that South Africans, in this case, who had had two doses of the vaccine and who had also had an infection had a higher level of protection than those who had not had an infection. This suggests that that hybrid outcome, where someone has had an infection and two doses, is not too dissimilar from having a booster shot and that it had a positive outcome.
It’s déjà vu all over again, isn’t it? I remind the Secretary of State that in March 2020 we were asked to impose restrictions for three weeks while the health service capacity was increased. Can he tell the House how much that capacity has now been increased? Secondly, in moving from a world that last week depended on isolation to one that this week depends on testing, is he saying that the statutory instrument that was approved in this House on Tuesday last week will be rescinded, today or tomorrow?
On NHS capacity, since March 2020 there has been a significant increase in ICU capacity. My hon. Friend will know that most beds in hospitals are still for people who need emergency care. There are still approximately 6,000 beds in England taken up by covid patients with the delta variant, and around 4,000 beds that are not available for use because of infection control procedures that are still in place. On the timing of the regulations, I have said that there will be a review on 5 January and that they will all sunset on 26 January. There will be a debate in this House next week on all the regulations, followed by votes.
I was part of a vaccine trial for Novavax in Bradford, and the Bradford Hospitals Trust did amazing work on that, but it has still not been approved. My first question is: where are we at with Novavax? Surely we need more vaccines now. Also, will the Secretary of State give us a reassurance that he will still be providing free lateral flow tests and PCR tests continuously?
I assure the hon. Lady that there are plenty of vaccines available. We have no issue with vaccine supply, including the booster shots. The lateral flow tests from the UKHSA will be freely available, and there are plenty of them.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported on the omicron variant:
“All cases for which there is available information on severity were either asymptomatic or mild. No deaths have been reported among these cases so far.”
However we know that, by imposing plan B and bringing in restrictions, there will be an effect on mental health, physical health, jobs, the economy, livelihoods and children’s development. Will the Secretary of State release the data and analysis, upon which this decision was made, on the impact of the omicron variant on the public by, first, implementing plan B and, secondly, by not implementing plan B?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the non-covid health impacts of these measures and of the measures we had in the past. She makes a very fair point about the potential impact on mental health, and we have to accept there will be an impact, but there will also be an impact on the economy and individuals’ education. I accept that point, but I hope she accepts that, to the extent measures are necessary to save lives and to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS, it is better to take measures now that might mean bigger, more impactful measures are avoided in future.
On the vaccination data, I referred in my statement to the data that Pfizer published, I believe, today and to a study on transmissibility that was published by the South Africans yesterday. If my right hon. Friend is speaking about other data, I would be happy to know which specific data she is referring to and I will see what more we can publish.
When I was on the estate a couple of weeks ago, I was unable to get tested—I had missed the boat—so I had to get lateral flow tests from the local chemist. There was an additional step in which I had to enter a code to get the code to go to the chemist to get my testing kit. That is not the case in Scotland. If we are moving to daily tests for contacts, will we make it easier for people to access lateral flow tests?
I will look into whether it can be made even easier for people to access lateral flow tests, but I hope the hon. Lady was reassured when I said that we have plenty of these tests and we will make them as easily available as possible.
On the evidence we have seen so far, I think it is difficult to justify these extra measures, but I welcome the sensible shift from isolation to daily tests. In the bigger picture, we cannot allow the permanent threat of overloading the NHS to be a reason for maintaining semi-permanent restrictions on our people. What amount of extra capacity has NHS England looked at? Will the Secretary of State publish that data so we can have a cheaper option than recurrent damage to our economy and to people’s quality of life?
I am pleased my right hon. Friend welcomes the move from isolation to daily testing. As I said earlier, there is more capacity in the NHS than there was at the start of the pandemic, especially in intensive care, but some of that extra capacity has understandably been taken by the 6,000 or so patients currently in hospital with covid and by the infection prevention and control I mentioned earlier. He is right to say we should be looking for ways to further increase capacity, but I hope he will accept that, whatever that further increase may or may not be—there are plenty of measures in place to try to do that—there will always be a limit.
The Secretary of State will have the support of most reasonable people in this House for measures that will save lives and protect our country from a pandemic that takes many lives. I say in a very supportive way that one of the most effective things we have had are the local outbreak groups in which Members of Parliament and local government leaders work together to ensure we get real action at the grassroots. We found it to be very effective in Kirklees and Huddersfield, working and conspiring together, week by week, on the most effective way to get our community to get jabbed. Will he assure me that he will give his full backing to these groups?
I do, of course, back any working together, whether it is of local government, the NHS or directors of public health, to help to combat this pandemic. They are doing a stellar job across the country, especially on vaccination.
One of the most significant harms over the last 18 months or so of restrictions has been the effect on our children and schoolchildren. I welcome the fact that instead of causing another pingdemic and having teachers and students out of school isolating, the Government have said that children will not need to isolate but will be able to use testing instead. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that will be lateral flow testing and not PCR testing, for which they need an appointment? Can he tell us that we have enough tests if the scale of increase in cases is as he has said, and can he confirm to this House that he will resist any restrictions on schoolchildren?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is nothing more important in our society than our children. As a nation we have, like many other nations, learned a lot during the pandemic about some of the better ways to handle the concerns around the pandemic but better protect our schoolchildren. I am happy to confirm what she has said. If there is a positive case in a child, of course that individual child would isolate like anyone else, but any contacts of that child would not have to isolate. Instead, they can take lateral flow tests, not PCR tests.
Health is devolved in Wales. We already have in place reasonable measures that reflect what needs to be done to protect our communities. If we need to do more to safeguard people’s health in Wales, can the Secretary of State guarantee that his Government will enable sufficient funding to ensure that Welsh businesses get sufficient support to do what is necessary?
We work very closely across the UK, and the positive output from that work has been evident throughout the pandemic, especially on vaccinations and antivirals. We will continue to work together and provide whatever support is needed.
My right hon. Friend obviously understands that these measures will try the patience of the British people. Will he look at the other measures that can suppress the virus, particularly the booster rate? Does he agree that the rate of booster vaccinations is constrained not by supply or demand, but by the capacity of the health service to deliver the vaccines? Will he also, therefore, support integrated care systems that call on military assistance or local authority assistance and want to reopen the mass vaccine sites to accelerate the vaccine programme?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to point to the huge importance, more than ever, of the pharmaceutical defences—let us call them that—against this pandemic. Top of the list are the vaccines, and especially the booster programme. Although it is already the most successful in Europe, there are a lot more people whom we want to boost. I hope he will agree with me that in doing so, it is not just about the quantity, although that is hugely important; it is about getting through to the most vulnerable people first and making sure that we prioritise them. I should also point out that, as I said in my statement, the antivirals are hugely important pharmaceutical defences. Building on all these things—whether it is the vaccinations with the new hubs, the 10,000 new vaccinators we are hiring, the use of the military or the use of pharmacies more than ever before—will really help us to turbocharge access to those pharmaceuticals.
I want to raise the vital issue of public trust in restrictions during the pandemic. People across this country have followed the rules, even when that meant being separated from loved ones at the end of life, and families not being able to be together at funerals. Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of this country have the right to expect the Government to follow the rules as well? The measures he has just announced rely for compliance on people having trust and confidence in the Government, and that has been shattered by the news of the Downing Street party. How is he going to restore it?
Of course everyone should follow the rules—no one is above the rules. The hon. Lady refers to the exchange that took place earlier in Prime Minister’s questions; the Prime Minister set out the Government’s position in that exchange.
Where is the evidence that vaccine passports actually work? France introduced them in the summer and now has more cases than it had in the March peak. Austria, Greece and the German states that have used them are in the same position, with more cases. Vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the disease, and there is a sizeable chance that passports will introduce a false sense of security, giving exactly the reverse result to the one the Secretary of State intends, so why is he using them?
When we set out plan B for the autumn and winter in respect of the challenges we would face, whether from covid or flu, we set out in that plan how and why we thought vaccine passports could help in certain circumstances. Also, it is not straightforward to compare different countries. Different countries have taken a whole host of different measures at different points in time—for example, there can be huge differences in vaccination rates or in respect of other measures that may or may not be in place—so I caution my right hon. Friend in comparing, for example, France with the UK.
What advice does the Secretary of State have for our constituents who have not been able to visit their loved ones in times of illness, death or for a family event like a wedding in Kashmir, Pakistan, India or Bangladesh? Many of them will have planned a visit during the school holidays; do they go ahead with that? If not, what advice does the Secretary of State have for them? If further restrictions come in once they are over there, that could prevent them from coming back into this country for a length of time. They should not be put through that, especially if the advice is clear from the outset.
When it comes to travel measures such as the recent announcements in respect of the red list, I think the hon. Gentleman will understand why the Government took that action to buy time and to try to slow any incursion of this new variant. I am afraid it is just not possible to give a guarantee for any particular country that there will not potentially be any future measures. As he has raised the important issue of travel measures, one thing I would say is that very soon, in the days and weeks that lie ahead, if, as I think is likely, we see many more infections and this variant becomes the dominant variant, there will be less need to have any kind of travel restrictions at all.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State came to the Chamber and said, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), that there had been not one single hospitalisation from this new variant. Today, he comes here with his latest in a long line of arbitrary, unnecessary, socialist measures, supported by the socialists on the Opposition Benches. I am sorry that the Secretary of State seems to have gone native so fast and has come forward with this announcement without even doing a cost-benefit analysis. Will he give me any reason at all why I should not tell my constituents to treat these new rules in exactly the same way that No. 10 Downing Street treated last year’s rules?
I understand the importance of my hon. Friend’s point. First, we all know that in South Africa, where we believe this variant originated, we are seeing significant hospitalisations of people with the new variant, and they have been doubling on a weekly basis. Also, we know from the history of viruses, and particularly with this pandemic, that there is a lag—sometimes a significant lag—between infection and hospitalisation. It takes time for the virus to incubate and, sadly, in some people that might lead to serious disease, which might mean hospitalisation. It is worth noting that the UK had its very first case of covid-19 back in January 2019 but it was not until, I think, two months later that we experienced the first death.
As an inactivated whole virus candidate, the Valneva vaccine being developed in my Livingston constituency could well have advantages over other vaccines when it comes to the emerging omicron virus. Will the Secretary of State reconsider his disastrous decision to deny the people of these islands a vaccine that may well tackle the further pandemic? The EU can see its value, as it has bought 60 million doses.
The hon. Lady may know that, in making decisions on vaccines, the UK Government take advice from both the vaccine taskforce and the experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, and I know that they keep all potential vaccine options under review.
Our NHS is not being overwhelmed by covid, nor is it likely to be, but if the Health and Social Care Secretary really believes that it will come under pressure, what is he doing to ensure that novel antivirals, such as sotrovimab and molnupiravir, are freely available now to treat people, as we know that they will reduce hospitalisation and death by up to 80%?
We have secured, I believe, some 180,000 doses of new antivirals. There are two main antivirals that are specifically designed to work against covid-19. As I mentioned earlier in my statement, we are starting a national study that will help us to roll these out and make them targeted and effective. For those who are immunosuppressed and have a positive PCR test, we will be able to use them very shortly.
Many parts of the country have a lot of jobs that are impossible to do from home. I am thinking of factories and manufacturing jobs, many of which are in Hull. Hull also has below average vaccination rates, so will the Secretary of State say what more we can do to support areas such as that, and would not one start be to improve statutory sick pay?
It is important that sick pay begins from day one, but in terms of supporting areas—whether it be Hull or others—the right hon. Lady is right to point to the importance of the vaccination programme. The measures that we are taking, especially to help with the booster programme, including bringing on board more pharmacies, more hospital hubs and help from the military, will all help to increase access.
Having looked very carefully at the evidence and listened to what the Secretary of State said, I have to say that the initial evidence on omicron does not support the introduction of these measures, because the protection against serious disease remains strong. If the Secretary of State’s fears are confirmed, there is no exit strategy from the measures that he has set out; we will end up having to introduce them permanently. What I am really concerned about is that it is unquestionably the case that, over the past couple of weeks, the Government’s credibility—whether it is on Paterson or on the Christmas parties—has taken a hit. Why should people at home, listening to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, do things that people working in No.10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?
When it comes to the exit strategy—this is a very important question from my right hon. Friend—a number of factors are at play. The one that I would point to that is possibly the most important is the pharmaceutical defences that I referred to earlier, particularly the booster programme. Whatever emerging evidence there is on vaccine efficacy against omicron, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that, at this stage, a booster dose gives significantly more protection, and the more booster doses that we have in arms will certainly help with the exit strategy. As for the comment that my right hon. Friend made about activities that may or may not have taken place in Downing Street, I refer him to the comments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made earlier today.
In the United Kingdom, there are 45,000 infections a day. In Japan, there are just 200 infections a day, because people in Japan understand that they do not have the right to put other people at avoidable risk. Will the Secretary of State consider extending what he is saying to introduce vaccine passports and testing at pubs, because I for one do not want to go into a pub where I can be infected by someone who is not vaccinated. Secondly, will he look to introduce masks into schoolrooms for older children? Let us get to grips with this.
When it comes to case numbers, we should be cautious about making straightforward comparisons between countries, not least because different countries have different ways to measure infection and different capacity. Regarding the measures to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, what we have set out today is proportionate and balanced.
This morning, the think-tank Bright Blue published polling showing that 11% of those working from home during the pandemic experienced domestic abuse, compared to just 1% of those not working from home, and that 27% of disabled home workers reported domestic abuse in the same period. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the physical, emotional and psychological cost of this work from home mandate to some of the most vulnerable women in our communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the non-covid impact of these measures, which I mentioned earlier. She is right to point to emotional distress and mental health issues, but I hope she agrees that, for the reasons I set out earlier, if we do not take these measures, the impact on the very people about whom she rightly cares deeply could be especially challenging.
Following the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), given that omicron is now spreading rapidly here, what is the point in maintaining his damaging travel restrictions a day longer?
As I mentioned earlier, we will keep that under review.
It is clear to me that “learn to live with covid” is now as dead as the zero-covid proponents want it to be. I am pleased about the change from isolation to daily tests, as that will avoid a dangerous pingdemic, but may I ask my right hon. Friend about the “papers please” mandatory certification world that we are now moving into, with respect to young people? Does he consider young people to be in possession of a vaccine passport if they are double vaccinated, which of course many are not yet able to be; and how will they be able to prove their status given that they cannot do so through a digital vaccine passport and are having huge problems accessing any other form of vaccine passport through their primary care centres?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomes the move from isolation to daily testing. On his questions about the NHS covid pass, the requirement and definition of vaccination will be two jabs—a first and second dose—but I hope that he welcomes the fact that it is that or a negative lateral flow test.
Does the Secretary of State feel that the important messages and measures that he has announced today will be undermined by the fact that we have a Prime Minister who does not lead by example, and who has a cavalier attitude towards mask wearing, particularly in places such as hospitals—as well as the issue of the alleged parties that have taken place at No. 10? Is it not one rule for him and another for everybody else?
The Prime Minister has addressed both those issues.
My right hon. Friend keeps referring to South Africa, but it does not have the same level of vaccination as we do here. This country is just getting back on its feet, and today hope and freedom—our freedoms—are being taken away again, on the basis of what a variant might, not does, do. These variants will continue to hit us for years to come, and this country cannot go on reacting to them in the way in which we are doing, when there is no evidence to support what my right hon. Friend has said today.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that South Africa has a much lower level of vaccination—I believe it is around 25%—but there are other differences between South Africa and the UK, including that the vast majority of South Africans have antibodies against covid through infection. Not only do they have antibodies through infection, but a huge number of South Africans have antibodies through infection from the beta variant. It is important to know that the beta variant is much closer to the omicron variant, and it is quite possible that it might be giving an even higher degree of protection than people have in countries such as the UK, with vaccination against the Wuhan strain.
I welcome a precautionary response given the emerging data. By introducing these measures to slow down the doubling of the rate from two to three days to five to six days, we will enable more people to get vaccinated, which is very important. Will the Secretary of State authorise the immediate roll-out of the directors of public health float stock PCR pilot to help tackle omicron clusters before they become significant outbreaks?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes these measures, which will certainly help to slow down the growth of omicron. I will look at the measure that she referred to.
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House to make this statement this evening and showing this place the respect that it deserves and expects. The hospitality sector has had a huge hit over the past 18 months because of the covid pandemic. In the past two weeks, following the omicron travel restrictions, we have seen a 25% cancellation rate in bars, restaurants and hotels in central London. Can he give assurances that whatever measures the Government introduce in the short term really will be short term, and that we will be able to get back to normal as soon as possible to support the hospitality sector?
Yes, I am happy to give that assurance. My hon. Friend may want to know that the mandatory certification will apply to entertainment venues that have more than 10,000 seated people, 4,000-plus outdoor or 500 indoor, so a lot of the types of venues she refers to will be excluded, and also the requirement on mandatory face coverings will exclude hospitality settings.
Many constituents have contacted me today outraged by the antics at No. 10 Downing Street. One, a young man of 14, was unable to attend the funeral of his much-loved grandfather during last Christmas’s lockdown. He wants me to ask the Government this: is the Prime Minister heartless and cruel enough not to tell the country the truth and apologise to us all? How will the Secretary of State, at this crucial time, regain the trust of my constituent and that of millions of others that the Prime Minister has lost by his disgraceful conduct?
I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. Of course there will be many people across the country who found themselves in such an awful situation. In terms of what he refers to about what may or may not have happened in Downing Street, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister addressed that from the Dispatch Box earlier today.
It is often said that the first casualty of war is the truth. Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the so-called war against covid-19, truth is indeed the casualty? In his statement he used expressions such as “could”, “can”, “potential”, “suggests” and “might”. Does that not show that there is no justification for these restrictions upon liberty?
My hon. Friend will know that when it comes to, in this case, a new variant, or viruses more generally that are new in some way, there are uncertainties —there always will be. I do not think a new infection is going to come along and we will have all the answers to all the questions we would logically have on day one. But I hope he agrees in terms of what we do know. For example, I said in my statement that we are confident about the transmissibility—the growth rate—of this, and I hope he will respect that.
It is quite clear from the tone of the Health Secretary’s comments tonight that things are going to get worse before they get better, and that we are in something of a holding position. Can he confirm that the Chancellor was involved in initiating plan B and that the Government, and indeed the Treasury, will again do whatever it takes in terms of generosity in financial support to those most vulnerable in our communities?
I can confirm that the Chancellor, and indeed every member of the Cabinet, is fully behind these decisions.
A few weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon produced a 70-page report that outlined whether or not coronavirus vaccine certificates actually worked. That report presented absolutely evidence, so where is the Secretary of State getting his evidence? The Office for National Statistics published a report saying that the fact that 95% of English and Welsh adults have antibodies should also be a consideration, far above what is going on in South Africa. If there is a severity document published in the next few weeks that shows that transmission is lower than expected, will we see an end to these measures? If I can sing in a club, drink in a pub and not have to go to work with colleagues, why are the Government pursuing a completely illogical process?
During the next few days, when we have the debate in Parliament and a vote next week, we will set out more of the data. In terms of one of my hon. Friend’s key questions about what happens should the data change or we get more evidence that suggests that omicron is less severe or its impact on the vaccines is not what it seems at this point, we will not hesitate to act and remove these restrictions.
I thank the Health Secretary for his timely update to the House today. I am still somewhat unclear as to what additional support is available for individuals and businesses as a result of his announcement. In particular, can he ensure that enough support is made available for those businesses where people will now have to work from home?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that with the measures set out today, which are essentially the plan B measures that were the contingency plan the Government set out to this House two or three months ago, although there will be some impact on some businesses, that should be minimal. The extent to which any further support needs to be provided will be kept under review.
While I realise that the Secretary of State has a difficult call to make, the symptoms of this do seem mild, and I remain to be convinced that the measures are necessary. My constituents in Wolverhampton North East have put up with an enormous amount over the pandemic. Can he reassure them, in the light of these measures, that at least they can make solid plans for the Christmas and new year period to see their family and their friends, whether at home or in our hospitality industry? Can he reassure them about their right to include family members who are resident in care homes?
May I say to my hon. Friend, as I said to one of my right hon. Friends earlier, that even if the symptoms turn out to be less impactful than delta, if we see the growth we are seeing and we get to the kind of numbers that I mentioned earlier, it would be a smaller percentage in terms of severity, but of a much larger number? I ask my hon. Friend to take that into account and the impact that might have on her constituents. I also hope she accepts that by taking these proportionate and balanced measures now, we are in a much better place to avoid any further measures in the future.
The Secretary of State spoke about communications being a key part of his statement. We know that good communications are not just about what someone says, but what they do. Does he accept that the Government have lost the moral authority to ask our constituents and the people of this country to follow all the rules, given that the Government having parties last Christmas in No. 10 blatantly showed disregard for the rules?
As I said in response to a question earlier, whatever the rules—whether for this pandemic or anything else—they apply equally to everyone. With regard to Downing Street, as the Prime Minister has said today, there will be an investigation, and we should all await the outcome of that.
If bed capacity is the problem, were we right to close the Nightingale wards, and are they available for reopening? If so, does he expect to have to reopen them?
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that we will be taking measures to increase substantially capacity in the NHS. He will know that it is not just about beds, whether Nightingale or elsewhere, but having the right amount and type of workforce to help with those beds.
We have a range of measures put in front of us, some of which will perhaps help a little bit, but will not actively control the virus very much, coupled with a colossal attack on civil liberties, which is a strange juxtaposition. Can I ask the Secretary of State to pay special attention to something that the Government have overlooked too much over the past two years, which is to invest in catching up with cancer? What the Government have done through this period is do a great job on vaccine roll-out, but I would love to see them show the same ringfenced dedication and commitment to catching up with cancer, given that we know that at least 50,000 additional people will lose their lives as a consequence of the covid situation.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the importance of cancer and he will know that it remains a priority for the NHS. That is one reason why recently, when the Government set out the extra catch-up funding for the NHS over the next three years to pay for a lot more elective operations and diagnosis, cancer was a priority in that.
As in South Africa, many people in this country have had covid, particularly young people and school age children. Can my right hon. Friend tell us what is the estimation of that in this country? He must be aware that while he was delivering his statement, in No. 10, Chris Whitty was saying that hospitalisations and deaths have gone down, so why are we having a kneejerk reaction today when we were not going to do it until Monday at the earliest? We should have waited.
I am happy to answer that. Thankfully, hospitalisations have fallen in recent weeks; they are at roughly 6,000 in English hospitals at the moment. Although they have fallen, however, the numbers are still relatively high. It is good and encouraging that they are falling, but all those hospitalisations at this time are to do with the delta variant. With omicron, as I mentioned in response to a previous question, there will be a lag between infections and hospitalisation. With delta, that has often been about 10 or 12 days, or even longer. We are not quite sure what it will be with omicron, but we know that there will be a lag. The history of the pandemic has always backed that up.
This week, the TUC published research showing that more than 600,000 workers in hospitality, retail and entertainment do not qualify for statutory sick pay. That workforce is especially at risk over the busy Christmas period and the lack of support available to those workers means that they risk going without income at Christmas if they are infected with covid-19. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a scandal that so many people go without such basic protection in the workplace? Will the Government commit to ensuring that every worker in the UK is entitled to sick pay that at least matches the national minimum wage?
That is another important issue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that sick pay begins from day one and that there is a hardship fund to help with the most difficult situations.
My right hon. Friend will not wish to move too slowly, but I am struggling to understand how we have come to this decision a week before the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory reports on the omicron variant. One in five critically ill patients in ICU is an unvaccinated pregnant woman—not one fully vaccinated pregnant woman has ended up in ICU. What is he doing to ensure that we do not see a catastrophe over winter with the loss of young life and of mothers?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of vaccinating everyone, and especially to the risk to pregnant women. A huge amount of work has gone on in the last few months to reach out to even more pregnant women. A new campaign launched in the last few days and we have already seen a positive response to it. As she says, sadly, almost all the women who are pregnant and in hospital because of covid are unvaccinated.
To refer to the start of my hon. Friend’s question, I think she was suggesting that we wait a week. I hope that she can reflect that, based on the doubling time that we have now observed, that would make a substantial difference to infections, and can take into account the lag between infections and hospitalisation.
Throughout the covid crisis, the Government have continually had to take draconian steps because they took those steps too late. I welcome the fact that the Health Secretary is attempting to get ahead of it this time, because it means that the steps being taken are not as bad as they were last Christmas, which is really important. Mask wearing is important and it is regrettable that it had been stopped on public transport previously. Does it not undermine his message on mask wearing that, when he is making his statement, 21 Conservative Members are not wearing masks in this crowded place?
I think the approach that we have taken to mask wearing, which I have set out, is the right one.
We seem to be on a slippery slope towards lockdown based on precisely no real data, which is a worry. It seems to be the precautionary principle gone completely mad. However, I will give my right hon. Friend credit in that I am very pleased that daily testing is going to replace the self-isolation proposed just a week ago. I am sorry to say to my right hon. Friend that he is looking a little silly on these things as we shilly-shally between different rules. Could he answer me this: is he proposing a reformulation of the vaccine and then keeping these or similar restrictions in place for the period until that new vaccine is in arms, then in a year’s time when we get a new variant, we do it all over again ad nauseam—like a stuck record, only more annoying?
First, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me that one of the reasons for these measures is precisely to avoid a lockdown. We all want to see a lockdown avoided for all the obvious reasons, and taking the right proportionate measures now will certainly help to do that. On the vaccine, I am not proposing reformulation. I think the most important thing right here and now, and more important than even before, is the booster programme—not a reformulation, but getting a third shot to boost everyone’s immunity. On the future, where I see vaccines going is multi-variant vaccines, a number of which are already being developed. Just as we see that with flu, I am sure we will see that with covid.
Mr Speaker, I am sure you, the Health Secretary and everybody in the House would like to thank the South African scientists for their early work and discovery of the omicron variant. If we are to avoid more variants in the future, it is really important that we have a high level of vaccination not just in the UK, but everywhere in the world. Is it not our duty, as a country that produces vaccines, to ensure that countries such as South Africa and others have high levels of vaccine, and that we end the Government policy of vaccine nationalism?
First, I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the South Africans for their huge efforts with respect to this variant, recognising how they have worked with the world, including us, on it. I think the way they have reacted to this is nothing but exemplary. However, I would have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on referring to the Government’s approach as vaccine nationalism. We have already given more than 20 million doses to COVAX and bilateral doses, and there are another 9 million or so ready to go.
Last month, the aviation and travel sectors were showing real signs of recovery from the covid-19 pandemic restrictions. Their reimposition has seriously dented confidence in people being able to travel, and that is having a direct impact on jobs in an industry that is already on its knees. What discussions have been had in Government about reintroducing support packages for critical sectors of the UK economy, without which we will not have the economic recovery to be able to pay for the public services we need?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the best support we could provide for the transport sector right now is to remove these recent restrictions. I am confident that, as we learn more about this variant and if, as is expected, over time it becomes the dominant variant, we can start removing those restrictions very quickly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I believe his response reflects the seriousness of the current covid disease levels. Has there been any opportunity to speak directly to the Health Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that the regulations put in place here in Westminster may be considered for Northern Ireland, so that all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can together combat and defeat the latest omicron variant?
We do work very closely together across the Union, and I have regular contact with my counterpart in Northern Ireland. I have not been able to discuss these particular measures with him today, but I know that we will do so shortly.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for coming to this House first, and for providing a copy of his statement. In it, he said that
“we will introduce mandatory certification, based on vaccines or tests, for nightclubs and large events.”
Could he explain if this will look like the Euros, when people had to present whether or not they had had a test? Failing that, if we are to have mandatory certification, which is the concern for Conservative Members, will there be an explicit vote on the regulations?
The NHS covid pass already has an in-built capability to allow for either a vaccination or the result of a negative lateral flow test, and next week there will be a debate on these regulations and a vote.
The final question is from Liz Twist.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State rightly emphasised the importance of vaccines, but the Government have fallen short of their target to offer all 12 to 15-year-olds the vaccine by October, so what will he do to ensure that programme is speeded up and rolled out?
We recently took measures to increase take-up among that age group by allowing those children, with their parents or guardians, to use the national booking system and the walk-in facilities, and that has certainly helped boost take-up.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of the Health Secretary’s announcement about the guidance that people should work from home wherever possible, are you able to say anything to the House about what will happen to Parliament before we rise on 16 December?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I think we established when debating these measures before that it was essential for the proper conduct of business and for Ministers to be held to account that we attended Parliament in person to make sure that the right decisions were made for the British people, and I very much hope that will continue.
I have only just heard the statement and have not had time to reflect on it, but there is a Commission meeting on Monday. I am also having a discussion later tonight with officials of the House, but obviously a matter for the Chamber is also for others rather than just myself. However, I do take the point.