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Covid-19 Update

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

Before I call the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I want to put on record my disappointment that the Prime Minister is not here to make this statement. Last night, in fairness to the Secretary of State, he phoned me to say that the Prime Minister felt the need to make the announcement to the country yesterday. I am surprised, though, that he did not therefore think it appropriate to come to this House to answer questions on the important announcement today. I have respect for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but I am really, really disappointed that, once again, this House has come second to TV news. It is not acceptable. If this is the game that we are going to play, we are going to have to play hardball.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on covid-19.

Since the UK became the first country to approve a vaccine against covid-19, almost exactly a year ago, we have been locked in a race between the virus and the vaccine. The success of our national vaccination programme has moved us ahead in that race, but now, with the new omicron variant, we have to work even harder to stay ahead.

Since last week, we have learned two things about this variant. The first is that no variant of covid-19 has spread this fast. There are now 4,713 confirmed cases of omicron in the UK. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that the current number of daily infections are around 200,000. While omicron represents more than 20% of cases in England, we have already seen it rise to over 44% in London, and we expect it to become the dominant covid-19 variant in the capital in the next 48 hours.

There are currently 10 confirmed people in England who have been hospitalised with omicron. It is vital that we remember that hospitalisations and deaths lag infections by around two weeks, so we can expect those numbers to increase dramatically in the days and weeks ahead. In preparation, the UK’s four chief medical officers raised the covid alert level to 4—its second highest level—over the weekend. NHS England has just announced that it will return to its highest level of emergency preparedness—level 4 national incident. This means that the NHS response to omicron will be co-ordinated as a national effort rather than led by individual trusts.

The second thing we have learned in the past week is that two jabs are not enough to prevent symptomatic infection from omicron, but a third dose—a booster dose—provides strong protection, with analysis by the UK Health Security Agency showing a third dose is 70% effective at preventing symptomatic infection. We expect the booster to take effect more quickly than the second dose. We are already running the most successful booster campaign in Europe. More than four in 10 UK adults have now received a third dose or booster and Saturday was a record, with more than half a million boosters given across the UK.

However, with the race between the virus and the vaccine so close, we must move faster. Two weeks ago, we announced that we would offer every eligible adult a booster by the end of January. In response to the omicron emergency—and as the Prime Minister announced yesterday evening—we are bringing that target forward by a month and launching the omicron emergency boost. We have opened the booster programme to every adult who has had a second dose of the vaccine at least three months ago to offer them the chance of getting their booster before the new year. From this morning, anyone over 18 can walk into a vaccination centre and, from Wednesday, they can book online via the NHS website. The UK Government will also provide whatever support is needed to accelerate vaccinations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have the jabs. The challenge now is to get them into arms.

To meet our ambitious target, the NHS will need to deliver a record number of jabs. Until now, the highest number of jabs we have delivered in a single day in the UK was more than 840,000. We will not only need to match that, but beat it every day. We can, and we have a plan to try and do it. We are opening more vaccination sites—including pop-up and mobile sites—and they will be working seven days a week. We are training thousands more volunteer vaccinators. We are asking GPs and pharmacies to do more, and we are drafting in 42 military planning teams across every region of our country.

This collective national mission will only succeed if we all play our part. Those who have not had their booster should find their local walk-in vaccination centre or book an appointment on the NHS website from Wednesday. Those who have had their booster jab should encourage their friends and family to do the same. Those who have or have recently had covid should wait 28 days from their positive result to get their booster.

To those who have not yet had their vaccine at all, I would like to say this: whatever has held you back in the past, please think again, and book your jab as quickly as possible. By acting together to get boosted now we can protect ourselves against omicron this winter.

I acknowledge that our national mission comes with some difficult trade-offs. We are redeploying NHS staff away from non-urgent services. That means that, for the next two weeks, all primary care services will focus on urgent clinical need and vaccines, and some non-urgent appointments and elective surgeries may be postponed until the new year while we prioritise getting people the booster. These are steps that no Health Secretary would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary, but I am convinced that if we do not prioritise the booster now, the health consequences will be far more grave in the months that lie ahead.

Our omicron emergency boost is a major step, but I am not going to pretend that this alone will be enough to see us through the difficult weeks ahead. Because of the threat of omicron, we are moving to plan B in England, subject to the will of this House. That means that: we must use face coverings in indoor public places; people should work from home if they can; and, from Wednesday—again subject to this House’s approval—people will need to show a negative lateral flow test to get into nightclubs and large events, with an exemption for the double-vaccinated. Once all adults have had a reasonable chance to get their booster jab, we intend to change that exemption to require a booster dose.

Even with plan B, we still have far fewer restrictions in place than Europe. I can also confirm that from tomorrow, fully vaccinated contacts of a covid-19 case will now be able to take daily lateral flow tests instead of self-isolating. This is a vital way to minimise the disruption to people’s daily lives and to avoid a so-called pingdemic. I can assure this House that the UK has sufficient lateral flow tests to see us through the coming weeks. If anyone finds that they are unable to get a kit online, they should check the website the following day or they can pop down to their local pharmacy and pick up a kit. From today, I can confirm that the NHS covid pass is being rolled out to 12 to 15-year-olds for international travel, allowing even more people to be able to prove their vaccine status for travel where it is needed. [Hon. Members: “When?”] From today. Taken together, these are proportionate and balanced steps keeping the country moving while slowing the spread of omicron and buying us more time to get more boosters into arms.

We are also taking steps to keep people safe in adult social care. We know that, sadly, people in care homes and those who receive domiciliary care are more likely to suffer serious health consequences if they get covid-19, so we are expanding our specialist vaccination teams to get more boosters to the vulnerable and those providing care. But even as we do so, we must go further to protect colleagues and residents from omicron. So we are increasing the frequency of staff testing and, with a heavy heart, we must restrict every resident to just three nominated visitors, not including their essential care giver. This is a difficult step, and I understand that it comes with an impact on physical and mental wellbeing, but we know from previous waves that it is one of the most effective things that we can do to protect vulnerable residents. We are also increasing our workforce recruitment and retention fund with £300 million of new money. This is in addition to the £162.5 million we announced in October. The funds will help to pay bonuses, bring forward pay rises for care staff, fund overtime, and increase workforce numbers over the winter.

I know that hon. Members had hoped that the days of this kind of covid-19 update were behind us. After our successful reopening in the summer, it is not an update that I wanted to deliver. But the renewed threat of omicron means that we have more work to do to stay ahead of this virus. We can, if we all play our part, and boosters are the key. We have achieved so many phenomenal things over the last two years. I know we are weary, but it is on all of us to pick up, to step up and do some phenomenal work once again to play our part and to get boosted now. I commend this statement to the House.

Can I suggest to the Secretary of State that we could be a pop-up site for all the staff that work here to get them boosted?

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

Today we learned of the first death in the UK as a result of the omicron virus, so on behalf of the whole House I send our condolences to the friends and family of that person who has lost their life. Their death puts this statement and the task at hand in context. It is a stark reminder that the pandemic is not over, that the new variant is a clear and serious risk to our public health, and of the urgency of getting Britain boosted and protecting us against this threat.

The Labour party will always act in the best interests of our NHS, our public health, and our nation. Having repeatedly called for the booster programme to be ramped up, we will give our full support to this effort. Labour Members will make every effort to get the message out that vaccines are the best tool we have at our disposal to protect ourselves, those closest to us, and our NHS. The target of getting 1 million people a day their booster vaccine is unprecedented and may even prove impossible, but we applaud the ambition. If anyone can do it, the NHS can, and the whole country will be willing them on and will not knock them for trying.

What people will not accept is the Government moving the goalposts. The Prime Minister is now famous for over-promising and under-delivering. In his televised address last night, he said that people

“will have the chance to get their booster before the new year.”

But, as we heard from the Secretary of State, the aim is instead to “offer” the booster to every adult by the end of the month, meaning that the delivery will wait until January or even February. Are the Government rowing back on the target set yesterday? If so, why has it changed overnight? What hope do we have of achieving the necessary level of booster jabs if the public and those delivering the vaccines are told one thing one day and another the next day? The Prime Minister has got to learn to be straight with people, because he is undermining public trust and confidence in the Government and in public health measures at a critical time. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local authorities, GPs, pharmacies and other delivery partners who will be crucial to that effort?

Then there is the shambles of testing. I thought the Secretary of State might be living on a different planet when he described the availability of testing, because the Government’s website states today that home testing kits are unavailable, pharmacies across the country are out of stock and, even here in Parliament, no home testing kits are available from Portcullis House. No doubt, that is due to a surge in demand ahead of the new testing requirements this week, but surely that should have been foreseen. This is a serious problem. Those coming into contact with positive omicron cases will not be able to follow the rules and get themselves tested daily, those who require tests to undertake home visits risk being left short, and many others need them for work. How does the Secretary of State plan to ensure that enough tests are in stock and available for everyone who needs them, when they need them? When will the problem be resolved? It does not appear that he was even aware of it.

Absent from the Prime Minister’s address last night was any plan to speed up the vaccine roll-out for 12 to 15-year-olds. On current trends, some teenagers will not receive their vaccine until February, five months after the Government’s initial target of October half-term. Children have already faced significant disruption to their education, so will the Secretary of State update the House on the vaccine roll-out for 12 to 15-year-olds? Will they receive their vaccines by the end of the Christmas holidays, as Labour has called for?

Of course, patients will be concerned by the news that appointments will be delayed to accommodate the booster roll-out. There is no doubt that the booster programme is the right priority. If we do not get ahead of omicron, the pressure on the NHS will be unbearable and the disruption to people’s appointments in the new year will be severe. But, let us be honest: the challenge is made so much greater as a direct result of the Government’s mismanagement of the NHS for 11 years. We went into the pandemic with record waiting lists and with six-figure staff shortages in the health service and the care sector. Where is the NHS workforce plan? Where is the plan for the recovery of elective care? Why can the Government not understand that their continued failure to fix social care is piling even more pressure on the NHS at the worst possible time? On social care visits, I ask the Secretary of State to think again about limits on care home visits. That feels like the wrong decision at the wrong time.

Mr Speaker, I will conclude, if I may, with some words directed to the public. We on the Labour Benches realise that the Prime Minister has tested patience by asking people to follow the rules when No. 10 did not. The Prime Minister’s actions in recent weeks have under-mined trust at a critical moment. I say to people feeling let down or lied to that I trust the chief medical officer, I trust the chief scientific adviser and I trust the NHS. The Prime Minister might not lead by example, but the rest of us can, and we—the Labour party—trust you, the British people, to do the right thing to protect yourselves, to protect the ones you love and to protect the NHS.

First, may I say that I heard your request, Mr Speaker? I am happy to take that up with you directly, if that is okay. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support of the need to accelerate the booster programme. I join him, as I am sure the whole House does, in expressing condolences for the individual who was the first in this country to die with the new variant.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, he asked about testing capacity. I would like to share more information with the House. There is no shortage of tests held by UKHSA—tens of millions of tests are in stock and millions are arriving each week. The limiting factor, because of the hugely increased demand—I am sure hon. Members understand why demand has suddenly surged—is the ability to deliver tests. The current arrangements with Royal Mail alone are not enough, but new arrangements have been reached with Amazon and other delivery methods. There will still be many hundreds of thousands—record numbers—delivered each day, but also the number of access points is being increased, including many more through pharmacies, and we are rapidly looking at other access points. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this, but I hope he and others understand that there has been a huge surge and increase, and this is not just about the number of tests available but getting them through and delivered; both are equally important.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the booster programme timing. He is right that just a couple of weeks ago the plan was to give everyone a booster before the end of January. That was after the change in advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the dosing gap should be reduced to three months and that it should now include everyone over 18. For the reasons I have explained and that the Prime Minister shared in his national broadcast yesterday, we want to bring that forward. That involves working hard with the NHS, which has done phenomenal work already to reach four in 10 adults with boosters and in the vaccination programme in general.

This is asking a huge amount of our colleagues in the NHS, and it is our joint view that we can try to offer adults a chance to get boosted by the end of this month. That does not mean every single person can necessarily get that booster; it requires them to come forward and take up the offer as well as everything going right in this huge expansion plan. But again, I hope the hon. Gentleman can respect that the NHS is doing everything it can, with the full support of every Department of Government, and is throwing everything at this to offer as many opportunities as it can and the maximum possible capacity for delivering on that commitment.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the challenges facing the NHS. I remind him and the House that this year the Government have put an extra £34 billion into the NHS and social care, £5.4 billion of that in the second half of this year, and over the next three years there is a commitment to at least £8 billion extra going into the largest catch-up fund the NHS has ever seen. In the last year almost 10,000 nurses and almost 3,000 doctors have joined the NHS; the NHS is increasing workforce and capacity, is looking at new ways to do electives, and is putting a huge amount of effort into its electives programme and its non-covid work as well.

Finally, I do understand what the hon. Gentleman said on adult social care and the limit on visitors, and it is important to get the balance right. We all know the problems and the sad deaths not long ago in care homes with this pandemic, and it is right to take balanced measures to protect people in care homes. We are working with, and listening to, those who run care homes and trying to take a balanced approach that allows visits to take place but also protects vulnerable people.

One year and five days ago the UK administered the first properly approved covid vaccine in the world, and the Government are absolutely right to focus on immunisation, but Israel approved booster jabs for all adults in September, France approved jabs for teenagers in June, both long before us, and the United States has already approved jabs for five-year-olds, again long before us. Is the Secretary of State worried that our regulators, having been the nimblest in the world, are now taking too long? They are brilliant scientists and they are rightly totally independent, but what can he do to speed up this crucial decision making in a pandemic?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, from experience. We can be proud of so much of what our regulators have achieved and done. As he said, we were the first in the world to approve a covid-19 vaccine, but he is right to challenge on this and ask what more can be done, especially in light of the circumstances we face. The JCVI is not a regulator but it is an important part of the approvals process, and I hope he will also commend its swift response since the emergence of omicron in changing the rules around boosters.

It is worth putting on record that Scotland is the most vaccinated nation in the UK, and I certainly encourage everybody to continue to take up the booster. Does the Secretary of State share my outrage that last week his Back Benchers were literally cheering the proposition that he needs to wait until more people are hospitalised before they will countenance the wearing of masks in public places? That is absolutely reckless, and it sends the wrong message to the public when we are trying to tell them to take the risk of omicron seriously.

Tragically, we know that people are now being hospitalised and, sadly, we have already recorded one death from omicron. Based on evidence elsewhere, what kind of upward trajectory does the Secretary of State think there will be in hospitalisations? Why in the plan B measures being brought forward—all already in place in Scotland—is there a pub exemption? That makes no sense.

Given that LFTs are only 50% accurate, what risk implications has the Secretary of State assessed in using the LFTs to keep people from self-isolating? Surely he needs to consider the minimum being a PCR test, following the more cautious approach adopted by the Scottish Government. Why, with LFTs as their key guidance, have the Government put themselves in this ridiculous position of the website saying it has run out of LFT kits?

If we are talking about supporting people to self-isolate, we need to revisit and extend the levels of statutory sick pay. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that? Critically, does he support calls from the devolved nations that they need Treasury support to put in place what restrictions they believe are required to control the spread and impact of omicron and support livelihoods at the same time?

The Scottish Government have already put in place more generous rates relief for hospitality venues than the UK Government did but, with trade dropping, suppliers and the trade itself need further support, especially if further restrictions are required. Will the Secretary of State take that up with the Chancellor? Is the Cabinet considering support for the travel industry? Does he agree that targeted sector restrictions, with full financial support, is a better long-term strategy than the “all or nothing” approach we seem to be taking, and praying that the booster programme alone will be sufficient? It will need a lot more work than just that alone.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the lag between the point of infection and hospitalisation. That emphasises the need to act early and strongly. That is why the booster programme and that response is so important in Scotland, in England and throughout the UK, and it is good that all four nations are working closely together on it.

On lateral flow tests as an alternative to self-isolation, I think they are the right approach. They can be taken daily, so the individual is tested each day for seven days, whereas a PCR would be a single test at a single moment. This is much more flexible and it is based on advice Ministers have received. On the hon. Gentleman’s questions on economic support, that is something we keep under review.

I congratulate the Government on the roll-out of the vaccination programme—it is impressive—but what does my right hon. Friend say to my constituent who says she is now less afraid of covid than she is of intrusive and incoherent Government regulations?

I would say to my right hon. Friend that I hope her constituent would appreciate that the Government have to act on the information they see before them on the rate of spread of this new variant and what we now know about its degree of vaccine escape—not just to protect my right hon. Friend’s constituent, but to protect that constituent’s loved ones and her community.

May I say to the Secretary of State that I was deeply shocked, when he was in this House recently and I said that all sensible Members of Parliament will be supporting any measure to save lives, to hear boos and catcalls from the Government Benches? I will repeat my view: does he realise what great potential we have as Members of Parliament in our communities, working for this, rolling our sleeves up, working cross-party with local councillors and volunteers? This House of Commons is a real resource. Please, please will he use us effectively?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his call for all hon. Members to do their bit to help the nation in this time of crisis. It is not just about what we can all do in this House; I am sure he agrees that it is about what we can do in our local communities.

My right hon. Friend rightly talked about protecting the NHS. Can I ask him to ensure that we protect our children as well and that the Government set out a plan to keep schools open in January? Given that The Sunday Times suggested that primary school children will be vaccinated, will he or the Secretary of State for Education make a statement about the vaccination programme for younger children and ensure that there is 100% parental consent?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on the importance of protecting our children. We in this House all know how children have suffered throughout the pandemic and the impact on their education, mental health and socialisation with other children. He is right to talk about that importance. One reason to take the measures that we have set out, especially around expanding the booster programme, is the ensure that we prioritise children. On the issue of vaccinations for younger children aged five to 11, the JCVI is considering that. When the Government hear back from the JCVI on that, we will bring it to the House.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Having listened to it and having studied the matter in some detail over the weekend, I will be supporting the Government and the measures that they are introducing tomorrow night. What would he say to those in the community who are saying, “If the rule makers can’t be trusted to obey their own rules, why should we?”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. It is important to emphasise that the rules that we are discussing—all rules of any type, really, but he is talking about those around the pandemic—are there for all of us and apply equally to all of us.

GPs, particularly in rural areas, are finding it difficult and challenging to deliver the booster programme, but will have to deliver the booster in great numbers. Can the Secretary of State look at measures that will speed up the flow for those GP surgeries? Will he send a message to all patients that they will need to be understanding in the next couple of weeks to ensure that the morale of our GPs, who work so hard, is not undermined?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about how hard GPs have worked throughout the pandemic, and about the need to provide greater support. We expect and need them to help with this big new vaccination effort. There are already signs of many people showing that they understand the need for GPs to reprioritise over the next couple of weeks, which is important too.

It is clear from the Secretary of State’s statement that he is a considerable improvement on his predecessor, so I am sure that he accepts that covid is now endemic and variants will probably emerge for years, if not decades. In that case, surely by now, instead of the erratic response that we have seen, we should have a well-prepared plan of action and chain of command ready to be activated as soon as a new variant is detected, as well as enough supplies and trained personnel to operate it. Why does his Department seem to be continually surprised by the arrival of variants so that, instead of a smooth-running plan, we have chaos and panic?

Well, there will be variants of covid-19 for many years, as the right hon. Gentleman says—indeed, there have been many hundreds of variants. No country in the world is better at the surveillance of those variants; I remind him that the UK alerted the world to the threat of omicron. No country is better prepared, if we look at how swiftly the UK reacted—for example, with international restrictions and the information that we shared with the world about vaccines. I think he understands those points, and I regret the way that he has framed the question.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Many of my constituents will be very surprised indeed to hear that, from this morning, anyone over 18 can walk into a vaccination centre. Will he give me an update on the Hampshire situation?

May I ask my right hon. Friend about the NHS covid pass being rolled out to 12 to 15-year-olds? That is such a welcome announcement; it is something the Secretary of State promised this House he would bring back, and I thank him for that. How exactly will it work? Many of my constituents will be travelling within the next few days, and certainly within the next week and over Christmas. How exactly will they be able to access this pass, given that they cannot access the NHS app in the same way that adults can?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. He is right that the covid pass is a very important measure. We will shortly publish on the website exactly how it will work, but it is being rolled out as a digital pass in the same way as it is working for adults, starting today.

The Prime Minister addressed the nation yesterday, but what he has not done is address the NHS in the same way. When I spoke at 4 o’clock to those in Derbyshire, they were unaware. They had had no system letter from the Department of Health about prioritisation of vaccines. They were unaware of whether the quality outcomes framework payments were suspended. And they were unaware that their winter access fund obligations had now been suspended. Will the Secretary of State make sure that all our health care providers are informed about these crucial matters, which actually give reality to the delivery of his really important messages on funding and priorities for the national health service?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is a very fast-moving situation. The NHS made the final decision to go on the expansion—this expansion of the booster programme that I referred to earlier—yesterday, and the system letter has gone out today.

First, I say to my right hon. Friend that it is welcome he has come here today, but I am a bit concerned about the mixed and heavy messaging coming from the Government, the unintended consequences of which can be dire. I notice, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chairman of the Education Committee, that the Centre for Social Justice has produced a report about the huge damage done to young children, particularly in the poorest communities, when schools start locking down and shutting them out. Will the Secretary of State please ensure that the message is clear to schools that they are not to lock down?

Secondly, when I spoke this morning to GPs in my constituency, I asked them, “What is the one thing that you would like the Secretary of State to do now if you’ve got to get all these people through?” They said, “Do we really need to have the 15-minute wait? Can we end that? We would triple our way through this, and you would get it going straight away?” Will the Secretary of State please act on that now?

First, I very much agree with my right hon. Friend on the importance of never losing sight of potential unintended consequences. He points to an excellent report by the Centre for Social Justice, which looked at this in the light of past actions. That is certainly not lost on me or my colleagues in Government, but he is right to highlight that to the House once again. I hope he agrees, however, with the messages we have set out so far. They are measured and they are proportionate. The focus should be on the booster campaign because that is our way out of this. On the 15-minute wait, it is being very actively looked at, and I am sure that I will have something more to say on that very shortly.

The Secretary of State says that there are millions of tests available, but only nine local authorities out of the 153 across England have access to a float stock of 500 PCR test kits to use at their discretion, using local knowledge, to tackle covid clusters before they become significant outbreaks. This is very important to disrupt outbreaks and slow transmission, but it is not available outside those nine pilot local authorities. Given the importance of slowing transmission of the omicron variant, will the Secretary of State agree to authorise the same float stock of 500 PCR test kits to every director of public health and every area, to give them the tools they need to fight this variant?

I was referring to lateral flow tests earlier, but I think the hon. Lady asked me about PCR tests. I will look into what she said.

Last week’s Ofsted report was damning about the impact lockdown has had on our nation’s children and the immense harm students have suffered, with the Children’s Commissioner saying that schools should not close again. However, it seems that the Government have left the door open to school closures after the Christmas recess. What specific conditions would need to be met for schools not to open in the new year?

I welcome that question from my right hon. Friend. What I would say to her is that with the risk we see from omicron at this point in time—the rise in infections, the increased risk of hospitalisation and the information we have on vaccines—we think we have taken the appropriate response. It is a balanced and measured response. It is designed to protect so much of what we love in our country, especially the interests of our children. The most important thing to focus on now is the booster programme.

First of all, I encourage everybody to be vaccinated and to have the booster jab. I am delighted that the Secretary of State has moved away from passports to people having an LFT if they cannot show their covid pass. I thank Labour Front Benchers for the work they have done, too. The Secretary of State talks about the incredible work the NHS is doing and what it will do over the next few weeks, but will he pause his plans for mandatory vaccination of all NHS workers, have conversations with the trade unions and come up with a plan for it to be by consent, rather than mandatory?

First, I agree with the objection I think the hon. Lady had to vaccine passports as a requirement for people to be vaccinated to enter a high-risk venue. It is important that we focus on a test requirement with an exemption if one happens to have the right level of vaccination. On her question about mandatory NHS vaccination, however, I am afraid I have to tell her we will not pause what we have already announced, not least because—this is the view of the NHS leadership as well—omicron has made it even more urgent that we continue with it.

Four weeks ago, I raised the matter of a family member who is aged 90, completely bed-bound, vulnerable and at home, and had still had no booster jab. I was promised action, but nothing has happened and he is still waiting. I understand that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of very old, very vulnerable people trapped in their own home still waiting for a booster jab, with carers coming in and out all day, yet we are now offering booster jabs to 18-year-olds who have virtually no chance of falling seriously ill. This is an absurd situation caused by massive delays, bureaucracy and the ridiculous rule that a doctor has to come and a nurse has to wait 20 minutes with the old person, despite a minuscule risk of harm. We need action this day. These people are in danger of dying. Will the Secretary of State now act on behalf of very old people trapped in their own home?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. Those who are in care homes or homebound have been prioritised. For example, I can tell him that I believe that, as of the end of November, 97% of care homes had been visited by GPs or other primary care teams to deliver vaccinations. In cases where they could visit, that was because the care home itself had a lockdown. They will all be revisited again and again. My right hon. Friend asks specifically about people who are homebound. The same approach is being taken. We will absolutely ensure that every single one of those people—as he rightly says, they are more vulnerable than others—get a visit and get their booster jab.

I had a busy weekend: on Saturday I got my booster jab from Margaret, a hard-working staff member from NHS Lanarkshire—I highly encourage everyone to get jabbed and boosted—and yesterday I met my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), a hard-working and dedicated Member of this House. It is an utter shambles that she is unable to speak and vote, but she is doing a power of work in her constituency. She is an inspiration to us all.

Given the danger of this new variant, does the Secretary of State agree that the House should follow the lead of the Scottish Parliament and move to virtual proceedings, or at least hybrid proceedings, to protect vulnerable Members and their families and to set a positive example of working from home?

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be aware that a couple of days ago the Department of Health and Social Care published something on social media that jumped the gun on the decision the House is being asked to take tomorrow. It is welcome that the Secretary of State intervened, saying:

“No law is decided until Parliament votes on it. I’ve asked for this graphic to be deleted”.

Of course that is not entirely true, because most covid laws, including the mask mandate, have come into force before Parliament voted on them.

This morning the Prime Minister refused three times to rule out further restrictions being imposed before Christmas. I will not ask the Secretary of State to contradict the Prime Minister, but if the Government do decide to announce further restrictions before Christmas, or indeed after Christmas, will he assure me from the Dispatch Box that this House will be recalled to debate and vote on the measures? It is not acceptable to keep governing this country by decree; the Government have to involve Members. I agree with what the Secretary of State said about using Members of Parliament; that means involving us in decisions and getting this House to make the laws. He will then find there is much more of a team approach, rather than decrees and late-night television addresses without taking the House seriously.

I am not aware of any plans for any further restrictions. As I told the House from this Dispatch Box last week, we are focused on the regulations that are coming before the House and will be subject to the will of the House. We will see if they are approved.

My right hon. Friend asked for an assurance, and I will take that back to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Eighteen weeks ago, on 9 August, I asked the Government what assessment they had made of using community pharmacies. The response, in full, said:

“No assessment has been made.”

Nine weeks ago, on 22 October, I asked the Government whether covid-secure transport would be available, so that the clinically extremely vulnerable could go for their booster jab appointments. The Government said they had made no assessment.

Six weeks ago, I asked the Government for guidance to the clinically extremely vulnerable. I asked them to sort out the confusion between third primary doses and booster jabs, and two weeks ago, on the same day that the British Medical Journal published data showing that omicron is more transmissible, I asked the Government whether they will renew contact-tracing funding for local authorities. A week later, they said they were still assessing it.

Will the Secretary of State apologise for the shocking levels of complacency in rolling out the booster programme over the past four months? And will he now apologise to all the patients who will have their treatment cancelled as a result of these new announcements?

No, I will not apologise for speeding up the booster programme to protect the health of the British public, and I will not apologise for asking the NHS to make it a priority. If the hon. Lady believes we should not be vaccinating people in this country, why does she not just say so?

It has been suggested more than once that, when deaths with covid are announced each day, it should simultaneously be stated how many of them were of unvaccinated people or of people with underlying health conditions or other specific vulnerabilities. Will the Secretary of State now undertake to do that? Did he notice, as I and no doubt others did, that the Prime Minister said this morning that one person in the UK had died with omicron, but the shadow Secretary of State said the death was a result of the virus. Does the Secretary of State know which version is correct?

My right hon. Friend is right to point to the distinction between, sadly, people who die with covid and those who die of covid. There is a difference. I have come to the Dispatch Box before to say, certainly with the delta variant—we do not have enough data on omicron yet for reasons that he will understand—that, as I am told by the NHS, approximately 20% of the people in hospital who have covid are there because they happen to have covid, rather than them being there because of covid.

Why are PCR tests so expensive in the UK? Why is the UK the second most expensive place in the world to have a PCR test? Why does the Government website still advertise PCR tests for £15 or £20 when they are not available anywhere in the UK for £15 or £20? Why are such PCR tests still being advertised given that, when someone goes through to the company concerned, the test ends up being £50, £60, £70, £80, £120 or £150? Is there not something that we can do to get the price of these tests down? A family going on holiday at Christmas or new year could end up spending £1,000 to £1,500 just on the tests.

The UKHSA has removed many so-called providers of PCR tests from the listing on the Government website. It has set a minimum price that must be met to try to avoid misleading prices. Unlike some other countries, we have not chosen to subsidise the cost of private PCR tests, because we have rightly concentrated our resources on the PCR tests that are available for people domestically if they have symptoms.

The extended vaccine roll-out is welcome to prevent infection, but given that this puts even more pressure on resources, what steps have the Government taken in tandem to increase capacity in the NHS to address the increasing demand from both covid and non-covid patients? I know that the Army is being brought in, but what about Nightingale hospitals? Might they be reinstituted? Will we look again at the pension challenge, which stops senior people staying in the profession? Will we look at accelerating the training programmes for our health professionals, as other countries have? Will we create new health professionals with shorter training programmes? Action is needed now to deal with the capacity issue.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the importance of increasing capacity. The pandemic has brought that acutely to the front of our minds. There has been significant investment since the pandemic started, particularly in certain types of capacity, such as intensive care units, PPE and oxygen, as well as personnel, with some 10,000 nurses and 3,000 doctors added over the last year. As a result of the omicron emergency, we are revisiting the issue of how we can further increase the temporary capacity.

NHS data in November showed that 98% of the pregnant women in hospital with covid were unvaccinated. Pregnant women want to do the right thing to protect themselves and their babies, but there has been a lack of clarity and a lack of prioritisation for vaccines for this group of people. Will the Secretary of State set out what the Government will do to send the message loud and clear that vaccination uptake for pregnant women and their babies is a priority for the Government?

It absolutely is. Work on this is being led by Lucy Chappell, in particular, in my Department and the UKHSA. One of the central focuses of her work has been to encourage more pregnant women to come forward and take up the offer of the vaccine. As the hon. Lady says, sadly, when we look at the data on pregnant women who are going into hospital because of covid infections, we see that almost all of them are unvaccinated.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the speed and efficiency with which he, the Government and the NHS are rolling out the booster programme. Does he share my concern that the roll-out of the programme is somewhat slower in Wales? There is no access to walk-in centres, no online booking system and the local health boards are depending on Royal Mail when the postal system is under the greatest pressure because of Christmas and because of staff off with covid. Will he agree to share the expertise and capacity that the UK Government have built up in the most positive way with the devolved Administrations—specifically with the Welsh Government —so that my constituents can receive the same access as his?

I very much agree: the omicron emergency is UK-wide and all parts of the UK should respond by increasing whatever they are doing on the booster programme further. I think that that view is shared throughout the UK. We will provide more support to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to make sure that they can increase their booster programmes.

Testing and self-isolating are vital in preventing transmission, but for people in precarious jobs who are struggling to make ends meet, it can be incredibly worrying and difficult. Why have the Government still not fixed sick pay so that everyone is properly supported to do the right thing, including those who might be worried about getting their vaccination or booster due to possible side effects and the need to take time off work?

We of course keep under review the support that is available throughout the pandemic. It is important that the House decided to extend the availability of sick pay from day one. There is also a hardship fund that is administered by local authorities.

I commend the Health Secretary for bringing forward the boosters and aiming so high to get them out. One of the key things is to make sure that we have enough vaccinators and staff to do it, as well as volunteers. In that vein, will he ask the integrated care systems—all 42 of them—to review the bureaucracy they have around signing people up to give vaccinations, and potentially even to allow people from GP practices to work in hospitals and vice versa, because one of the practical issues over the past year has been that people have been turned away or have lost interest because of the paperwork around vaccinating. Given the challenge ahead, I would be grateful if he considered asking for that approach.

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience, and he is right to ask how the training programme for vaccinators, especially volunteer vaccinators, can be streamlined. That work is going on at urgent speed both within the NHS—within the ICSs—and in support of the fantastic work that St John Ambulance has been doing in this space.

I have asked the Secretary of State on numerous occasions about antibody testing for immunocompromised people. His answer has been about antivirals for when people get covid. Has he looked into giving immunocompromised people antibody tests so that we have a clear picture of who will need the antivirals quickly if they get covid?

My understanding is that antibody tests are available for the immunocompromised and the clinically extremely vulnerable if that is what their consultant believes is necessary.

I declare my interest as a vaccinator. I support the level of ambition that the Secretary of State has articulated, but does he distinguish between being offered a jab and actually getting a jab? Someone can be offered a hip replacement, but it does not mean they will get it any time soon.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for being a vaccinator and for all the work he has done personally to help this country get through the pandemic. Of course there is a distinction—he is absolutely right. The NHS can offer an individual a jab—they might receive an email or a text saying, “Please come forward. Either book or walk in. You are eligible.”—but the individual has to come forward and take up that offer. That is why a huge amount of effort—even more effort than before—will go into persuading people to come forward.

May I ask the Secretary of State why the Government have no coherent plan for dealing with delays to elective surgery and treatment? I say that because I asked some parliamentary questions about what impact the recently announced Government funding will have on waiting times over the next three years, but the answer said that no estimate has been made at this time. I then asked what assessment has been made about private sector capacity. Again, I was told that no estimate has been made. I ask the Secretary of State: where is the plan to deal with the huge backlog of elective treatment? Macmillan estimates that there are 50,000 missing cancer diagnoses in the UK and that 32,000 people are waiting for their first cancer treatment in England.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have already announced the biggest catch-up fund for electives that the country has ever seen in order to deal with that challenge.. There is an extra £2 billion for the second half of this year and a minimum of £8 billion over the next three years, and the NHS is working on a detailed plan which will be published as soon as it is ready.

The Health Secretary should be very proud of our world-leading vaccination programme, and I join the Secretary of State in sending those who are anxious the message that they should come forward and get their vaccinations.

This morning, breakfast telly was being broadcast from the Buxted Medical Centre, a GP surgery in my constituency, where huge anxiety was being expressed about how NHS staff would cope with delivering the vaccinations. I am extremely anxious about the statutory instrument that is mandating vaccinations for NHS staff, because I believe it means that 126,000 of them will leave the sector. Is this the right decision, when NHS staff are already saying that they are working all the hours God gives?

We will debate the SI in the House, and I shall be happy to talk more about it then, but I think that the number to which my hon. Friend referred is the number of people whom the NHS estimated to remain unvaccinated at the time when the Government said they were going ahead with the SI. I am pleased to inform her that since then the number has fallen. Tomorrow I will come to the House with the latest figure that we have, but it is improving all the time. When we introduced a similar measure in the residential care home sector, we saw the number of unvaccinated people fall day by day as more and more of them had positive engagement and took up the offer of a vaccine.

When the transmission rate of omicron is twice that of delta and we are asking people to work from home, why are we also telling them that they can go out and socialise in venues unmasked, although the contact tracing data from last December shows that it is in those social spaces that there are high levels of transmission?

This is about having a balanced and proportionate response, and that is the approach that the Government have taken. It is about recognising that while these restrictions help to slow the rate of spread, they also have a real impact on people’s lives.

I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that booster vaccines were to be offered to all adults, and I was grateful for the opportunity to receive mine last week at Stafford’s St George’s Hospital, but to defeat the new covid-19 variant we need to vaccinate as many people as possible, so may I urge the Secretary of State to open a walk-in vaccination centre in Stafford?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting boosted. She may have heard me say earlier that we will be opening many more walk-in and pop-in centres. I have heard her representation and so has the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), and we will certainly try to make that happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) asked me earlier about proof of vaccination for children. Let me make it clear that although the proof will take the form of a letter, it can be ordered online. The digital pass access will come later.

The contain outbreak management fund is a vital resource used by local authorities and directors of public health, but it is due to end in March 2022. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether it will in fact continue beyond that date, and also whether it will be increased to support local authorities?

I thank my right hon. Friend for everything that he and his whole team are doing in what are incredibly challenging circumstances. Can I bring him back to the specific issue of access to booster appointments? He said in his statement that the booster roll-out was now a national programme rather than being locally led. Our local GP teams are doing a fantastic job, but will this difference in approach mean that more pharmacies, such as those in Basingstoke, will be able to be part of the booster roll-out in a way that they have not been to date?

The booster and vaccination programme is a national programme, but it is locally delivered. My right hon. Friend is right to point to improving local delivery in her area by having more pharmacists involved, and I can give her the assurance that part of our plan is to involve hundreds more pharmacists. The good news is that they are incredibly keen, so that is exactly what I expect to happen.

I thank the Secretary of State and his Vaccines Minister for finally sorting out the problem of the under-18s not being able to access their proof of vaccination. Will he assure me that this will be operational in time for the end of the school term this week? On travel more generally, he agreed with me last week that once omicron became widespread here, the draconian, costly and complex travel rules that he introduced two weeks ago to prevent omicron from coming here would be “pointless”, to quote my word, so why are they still in place?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the under-18s, the proof of vaccination for travel is available from today. The individual or the parent can go online and request it, and it comes in the form of a letter, which is perfectly acceptable to all the countries that we are aware of that require it. On his question on the current travel restrictions, he makes a very good point. Given that the omicron variant is fast becoming the dominant variant in our capital city and spreading rapidly throughout the country, the justification for having those rules is minimised. This is something that I have already raised with my colleagues in the Department for Transport, and I hope that we can act quickly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the measures to enable travel for the 12 to 15 age group, which will be particularly welcomed by the Wray family in my constituency who are travelling tomorrow on what is possibly their last family holiday together. Will he clarify whether a person who is isolating today can switch to daily testing from tomorrow? Also, what plans does he have to extend the opening hours of the walk-in vaccination centres, such as the one at St Thomas’ Hospital just across the river, which will close at 8 pm tonight?

First, I hope that the Wray family will have many more holidays. No one wants this to be their last holiday as a family, but I am pleased that they can go ahead with their plans and that they will be able to access that proof for their children today. On the question of daily contact testing, I can confirm that people who are vaccinated—they have to be vaccinated—and isolating today will be able to move from isolation into daily contact testing from tomorrow, subject to the will of the House. On the opening hours, they will be increased, certainly for all the large vaccination centres. The minimum will be 12 hours, but many of them will be going way beyond that.

The aim is to get high numbers given their booster through the booster programme by the end of the year. How will the Secretary of State ensure that inequalities are not generated by the push for numbers rather than need? I am thinking of those who may not be able to access the various systems digitally and those in areas of health inequalities.

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Need is more important than the actual overall numbers. Of course we want to see the numbers increase, but the focus should always be on the most vulnerable first. The NHS will ensure that that happens through the work that is being done especially by GPs to ensure an increase in the number of homebound visits and visits to care homes and the more vulnerable people in society.

Is not the lesson from this pandemic that early and proportionate action saves lives and ends up preserving more, not fewer, of our freedoms and that it is strongly supported by the silent majority of the British people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly the purpose of the plans we have set out and the measures we will be debating in the House tomorrow, and also of the action we are taking on the booster programme to get more people protected so that they can enjoy their freedoms.

To my frustration, it was only immediately prior to this statement that I was able to obtain a copy of the regulations we are voting on tomorrow, so could the Secretary of State provide me with clarity with regard to mandatory passes, in two respects? First, will an individual no longer be able to demonstrate their covid status on the basis of natural immunity via a positive PCR test as regards accessing these high-risk venues? Secondly, can he reassure me that those who do not have access to computers or smartphones will still be able to apply for and obtain an NHS covid pass letter to gain access to the venues he has in mind?

There will be two ways to access high-risk events, be it a nightclub or larger events. The main way will be to take a lateral flow test and get a negative result, which would need to be registered through the NHS website and the proof could be through the pass or a text message result, for example. There will be an exemption from that for someone who is double-vaccinated. The proof of vaccination can also be given through the letter process.

A constituent of mine has both anaphylaxis and urticaria. She has been told that she cannot be medically vaccinated. Amid all the talk about second doses and third doses, she cannot access even her first dose. What assurances can the Secretary of State give her regarding access to non-invasive forms of vaccination?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. The rules around the need to be vaccinated, whether for passes or otherwise, do not apply to anyone who is medically exempt. Many people have received exemption certificates directly from their GP. That is the best route. Some individuals have called 111 and received advice. If I can be of direct assistance to my hon. Friend, then of course I will help.

I thank the NHS staff and volunteers at the vaccination centres in my constituency, including at the one at Aintree racecourse and at the one at Holy Rosary, where my wife and I had our booster jabs in the past few days. There is low vaccine take-up in some communities in the Liverpool city region, as in communities across the country. The Secretary of State has told us many times from the Dispatch Box, as did his predecessor, that nobody is protected until everybody is protected. Will he make sure that the resources go to those areas of the country where vaccine take-up is low and additional resources are needed so that our public health directors and teams, and the NHS, have everything they need to protect everybody through the vaccination programme?

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Over the past hour or so we have, understandably, talked a lot about the importance of the booster programme, but it is still hugely important that we continue to focus on those that currently remain unvaccinated.

I welcome the news that a daily lateral flow test will replace self-isolation for those in contact with a covid case. I welcome the extension of the travel pass to 12 to 15-year-olds. I especially welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that a lateral flow test is the clear alternative to being jabbed for access to any venue and any event, so there is no reason for anyone to contact us asking us to vote against a “vaccine passport”. What would he say to those who have recently had covid, been told by the NHS that they should not have a PCR test for three months and then need to travel abroad for work purposes? What should they say when asked for proof of a negative PCR test?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s first remarks. This House is not being presented with a vaccine passport. That is not on the table. It is not in any regulation. The Government have been absolutely clear that when we talk about access to nightclubs or large and very large gatherings—very targeted events—the requirement is to take a free lateral flow test and make sure it is negative. If people do not want to do that, they can prove their vaccine status. It is up to that individual. That is what it is. It is not a vaccine passport, and the sooner we get rid of that misleading description of what the Government are proposing, the better. On the question that my hon. Friend has asked, I want to ensure I get the answer right, so if he will allow me, I will look into that and get back directly to him.

My constituent Lexi is seven years old and has heart and lung conditions that mean she is clinically extremely vulnerable and has been home-schooled since the start of the pandemic. Her parents are understandably desperate for her to get vaccinated and to get back into school. I understand that it is the JCVI’s decision as to when that will take place, but can the Secretary of State give us some idea of what information the JCVI is waiting for, when it is likely to make a decision and whether he is doing everything in his power to hurry it up to make the decision that Lexi’s parents so desperately need?

I understand the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, and there will be others across the country in a similar situation, so we understand the importance of this issue. The JCVI, as he says, is looking at this, which I confirmed earlier, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that before we can deploy any vaccine in any particular age group, it needs to be approved by our independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, as safe and effective. At this point in time, we do not have that approval. The MHRA is actively looking at this, but those two things are crucial before Ministers can make a decision.

I, too, had my booster vaccine last week. It was easy, and I had five different options near me, but that was here in London and after weeks of unsuccessfully trying in Bath to find anything near me or anything that was convenient with the times I had available. That is the experience of all my constituents in Bath. When will we have services that match those available here in London in constituencies such as Bath?

It is an important to make sure that capacity is increased throughout the country. I am pleased that the hon. Member has got boosted, by the way, but she is right to say that she, like her constituents, should be able to get it closer to home. With the plans that we have announced recently, and especially with the plans from this morning, I am confident that there will be many more opportunities to get boosted in Bath.