With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the omicron variant and our measures to contain this virus, fortify our NHS and keep our country open.
First, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to everyone working in our NHS and social care for their extraordinary efforts in the teeth of yet another wave of this pandemic, and for all that they have done, together with thousands of volunteers, to get Britain boosted. Since we began the Get Boosted Now campaign just over three weeks ago, we have delivered 10 million extra boosters across the UK; we have doubled the rate of vaccination from 450,000 doses a day to a peak of more than 900,000; we have matched the NHS’s previous record day, then beaten it again and again; and we have met our target of offering a booster to every eligible adult in England a whole month early.
As a result, we have a higher level of booster protection than all our European neighbours, with more than 34 million boosters having been administered across the UK, reaching in England more than 90% of the over-70s and 86% of the over-50s. Together with the evidence that omicron causes less severe disease than previous variants, and the way in which the public have conscientiously changed their behaviour in response to plan B, that level of protection means that we are in a very different position than we were during previous waves.
I know that some hon. Members may therefore ask whether that means we can now do away with measures altogether, but I am sorry to report that hospital admissions are rising rapidly—doubling around every nine days—and there are more than 15,000 covid patients in hospital in England alone. We are experiencing the fastest growth in covid cases that we have ever known; over 218,000 cases were reported yesterday, although that included some delayed reporting. Potentially of greatest concern, case rates are now rapidly rising among the older and more vulnerable—doubling every week among those over 60, with the obvious risk that that will continue to increase the pressures on our NHS.
In response to the latest data, the Cabinet agreed this morning that we should stick with plan B for another three weeks, with a further review before the regulations expire on 26 January. People in England should carry on working from home whenever they can, wear face coverings on public transport and in most indoor public places, and take a test before going to high-risk venues or meeting the elderly or vulnerable. All of these measures are helping to take the edge off the omicron wave, to slow the spread of infection, to manage the immediate pressures on our NHS and to buy time for the boosters to take effect. Those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should, of course, continue to follow the rules where they live.
Faced with those pressures on our NHS, I know that some Members may ask the opposite question: whether we should go even further and move towards a full lockdown. But lockdowns are not cost-free; they impose a devastating toll on our physical and mental wellbeing, on our businesses, jobs and livelihoods and, worst of all, on the life chances of our children, so the Government do not believe that we need to shut down our country again.
Instead, we are taking a balanced approach, using the protection of the boosters and the plan B measures to reduce the spread of the virus, while acting to strengthen our NHS, protect critical national services and keep our supply chains open. We are building on-site Nightingale hospitals and creating 2,500 virtual beds to increase NHS capacity. We have bought more antivirals per person than anywhere else in Europe, and we are working to identify those trusts that are most likely to need military support, so that that can be prepared now.
From 10 January, we will provide 100,000 critical workers in England with free lateral flow tests for every working day to help to keep essential services running. That includes those who work on critical national infrastructure, national security, transport, and food distribution and processing. Those tests are separate—and in addition—from those already allocated to our public services, such as in education, where we have delivered 31 million testing kits to schools and colleges for the start of the new term.
We have the biggest testing programme in Europe, registering almost twice as many tests as France, and four times as many as Germany. Last month alone, we distributed 300 million lateral flow devices, enabling millions of people to get tested and keep their loved ones, friends and colleagues safe in the run-up to Christmas. Thanks to the sheer size of the omicron wave, we still need to take steps to ensure that our testing capacity reaches those who need it most, so we will be suspending the need to do a PCR test to confirm the result of a positive lateral flow test. From next Tuesday in England, if someone tests positive on a lateral flow device, they should just record that result on gov.uk and begin self-isolating.
Our balanced approach also means that where specific measures are no longer serving their purpose, they will be dropped. When the omicron variant was first identified, we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country, but now omicron is so prevalent, these measures are having a limited impact on the growth in cases while continuing to pose significant costs for our travel industry. I can announce that in England, from 4 am on Friday, we will be scrapping the pre-departure test, which discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring significant extra expense. We will also be lifting the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR, returning instead to the system we had in October last year, where those arriving in England will need to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day 2 and, if positive, a further PCR test to help us to identify any new variants at the border.
All these measures are balanced and proportionate ways of ensuring we can live with covid without letting our guard down, and we can only do this thanks to the biggest and fastest booster campaign in Europe. Yet there are still almost 9 million people eligible who have not had their booster. As many as 90% of those in intensive care with covid have not had their booster and over 60% of those in intensive care with covid have not had any vaccination at all.
There are 2 million slots available in the next week alone, so I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to do everything possible to encourage their constituents to get boosted now. This is the very best way to save lives, reduce pressure on our NHS and keep our country open. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. I wholeheartedly back him in asking people to come forward to get their jabs and booster jabs. It is of course right that plan B measures must stay in place during this wave of the pandemic. It was the Labour party that made sure that the Government had the votes to pass those measures in the House. If not for Labour’s actions, the NHS would be facing even greater pressure, and the likelihood is that we would have needed much harsher restrictions. My message to the Prime Minister is that, despite the people sitting behind him, and those eyeing up his job alongside him, Labour will always act in the national interest and put public health before party politics.
The Prime Minister said that we have to ride out the omicron wave, but the NHS is not surfing; it is struggling to stay afloat. We have seen several hospital trusts declare critical incidents, which means that they cannot provide services for cancer and heart disease patients. In my home of Greater Manchester, non-urgent surgery is being halted. I thank those trusts that have come forward and been up front about the reality that they are facing, and I thank our NHS staff who are going above and beyond, once again, to get us through this period.
Is it not time for the Prime Minister to be straight with people and give a frank assessment of the state of our NHS? He mentioned the use of the Army, but how many trusts have declared a critical incident and what does he plan to do about that? People in the north-east are being told to call a cab or phone a friend if they are suffering a suspected heart attack or stroke. That is shocking.
Even before omicron hit, however, thousands of suspected heart attack or stroke victims in England were forced to wait more than an hour and 40 minutes for their ambulance. Is it not true that our health service went into this wave of infections with the largest waiting lists on record, the longest waiting times on record and major staff shortages? After a decade of Tory mismanagement, the NHS was not prepared for covid and did not have the spare capacity to cope with omicron. It is not just that the Conservatives did not fix the roof when the sun was shining; they dismantled the roof and removed the floorboards.
Getting testing right remains the best way to avoid further restrictions. It is welcome that the Government are requiring daily testing to protect critical national infrastructure, but that will not begin until next week. Our essential services are buckling under the pressure now. Doctors, nurses, carers, teachers and pupils cannot get the tests they need now to do two tests a week. Emergency workers are reportedly stuck in isolation because they cannot get their hands on a test. So why did the Health Secretary claim on 13 December that there is “no shortage” of actual tests? Why was the Government’s delivery service allowed to go on holiday over Christmas with no contingency plan in place? The Government have been asleep at the wheel, and the result is total shambles. I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in thanking the Welsh Labour Government for sharing 4 million tests with England. Thank goodness that they had the foresight to plan ahead and secure enough tests for this period.
In April 2020, the Government published a strategy to scale up the covid-19 testing programme. They promised to work with the UK’s world-leading diagnostics companies to build a British diagnostics industry at scale, yet two years on, this has never materialised. How much taxpayers’ money was spent on this programme and why, Prime Minister, two years into the pandemic, are we still reliant on tests from China, instead of building the capacity to make the tests here in Britain?
The Prime Minister can chunter away, but he will have his opportunity in a minute.
People will be returning to work this week, but the Government are refusing to guarantee all workers sufficient sick pay, leaving working people with the choice of going to work to feed their families or staying at home to protect public health. Will the Prime Minister finally raise sick pay so that people are no longer faced with an impossible choice of doing the right thing or feeding their family?
In some of the poorest countries in the world, less than 10% of the population is vaccinated. This is shameful. We know we can do more to assist the international vaccine effort, and what are the Government doing about that? If we are going to break this endless cycle of new variants, we have to vaccinate the world. This is not just a question of doing the right thing for others; it is in our national interest, too.
Finally, there are Conservative Members sitting behind the Prime Minister who have spent recent weeks attacking hard-working public servants. Is it not time that the Prime Minister stood by our experts, professionals and officials, who are doing all they can to protect public health? If he was happy to defend Dominic Cummings, the former Health Secretary and Owen Paterson, why will he not defend those public servants who are actually doing the right thing?
When it comes to attacking hard-working public servants, why does the right hon. Lady continually attack our testing operation, for instance, which has done a fantastic job throughout this pandemic?
There were several things in that intervention that were simply completely the inverse of the truth. We are not cutting cancer services; we have invested more in oncologists. We have 4% more oncologists this year than last year and 5% more radiologists. She asks about ambulances, and yes, of course everybody should get an ambulance who needs one. That is why we have invested £55 million more in the ambulance service. There are 500 more ambulance staff now than there were in 2018, 10,000 more nurses and 5,000 more doctors than there were last year. That is because of the investment that we are making—£36 billion—every penny piece of which the Opposition voted against.
To come to testing, it really is extraordinary that the Opposition run down this country and its achievements time and again. We are doing 520,000 PCR tests every day and 1.25 million tests every day. We have done 400 million tests in the country—more tests per head in this country than in any other European country. The right hon. Lady talks about schools. We delivered 31 million tests to schools in the run-up to Christmas. She made an incredible point: she said that this country did not have its own diagnostics capabilities. She does not know what this country is doing—unbelievable! Let me tell the Opposition Front Bench that in this country we have the largest lateral flow test manufacturing facility—in this country! They should go and visit it. They do not know what they are talking about. It is in Nottingham, and we buy them all. By the way, the right hon. Lady talks about the testing regime, but it is thanks to the efficiency of our testing regime that the Leader of the Opposition, whom we wish well, is not currently in his place. It is thanks to the testing regime that the right hon. Lady is able to speak from the Dispatch Box at all, so she might as well support it. It has done an incredible job.
Two final points. The Opposition voted continually against our funding for the NHS that has made this possible, and let us be in no doubt that they would have kept this country in lockdown from 19 July. They were opposed to our measures. Members on their Front Bench chorused that we needed tougher restrictions as we came into omicron and said that we needed a road map for lockdown. That was their approach, and what would have been the result? Another body blow to the UK economy and to our ability to fund our NHS. That is the fundamental difference between this Government and that Opposition: we have a plan for getting through covid; all they do is carp from the sidelines.
I commend my right hon. Friend for resisting calls from the Labour party and others for more restrictions before Christmas, and also for the changes that he has announced today. Omicron is less serious than previous variants. We will see new variants appear in future, and the likelihood is that they will continue to be less serious. It is not in the national interest to partially or wholly shut down sectors of our economy every time we see a new variant. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to inform the House whether and how the Government will change their approach when new variants arise?
My right hon. Friend is totally right in what she says. We simply cannot go on, as a country and as a society, reaching endlessly for lockdown, which is the Opposition’s instinct, no matter what the cost and no matter what damage it does. We have to remain cautious, and I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that we can rule out absolutely everything to protect the public, but as I said to the country last night, I am confident—that is why I am repeating it today—that we can get through this wave of omicron with the balanced and proportionate approach that we are taking. I am glad to have my right hon. Friend’s support. For the future, we need the polyvalent vaccines that can deal with any type of covid mutation and variant, as well as the therapeutics, and that is what we are investing in as well. And as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) should know, we are investing more per head than any other country in Europe.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement. I hope that he had a safe and restful break, and that his festive parties were perhaps more sensible and legal then they were in 2020. He is right to say that the booster programme is absolutely crucial. Getting a booster reduces the chance of getting covid, protects against serious illness and helps to reduce pressure on our NHS, but his central approach of riding out the omicron wave is a reckless gamble that risks lives and risks the NHS. Let us talk about what “riding it out” means. It means allowing the omicron variant to rip through communities. It means avoidable deaths, long covid and stretching the NHS to breaking point. That is why the correct approach is to show continued caution and to slow transmission. That is the proactive, sensible and cautious approach being taken by the Scottish Government and the other devolved nations. It is the UK Government who are once again out of step. Recklessness has been the hallmark of this Prime Minister. He has acknowledged that parts of the NHS will feel temporarily overwhelmed, but hospitals in England are already overwhelmed, with heart attack patients being told to make their own way to hospitals. How appalling, Prime Minister! What a failure!
Will the Prime Minister now listen to his chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer, who acknowledge that the disease is moving up the age ranges and that we can expect increased pressure on hospitals? Will he act to slow the rate of transmission? The reality is that he has no choice but to ride it out, because he is too weak to get a more cautious and sensible approach past his divided Cabinet and mutinous Back Benchers. He knows he does not carry the moral authority to protect the public when he broke previous restrictions himself.
The public are faced with a Prime Minister who does not have the political leadership or the authority to act to keep these islands safe, so will he finally acknowledge that he is riding it out and risking lives and the NHS because his Back Benchers are now calling the shots?
Order. Either we behave—[Interruption.] I do not need any advice from anybody over there. That is the last thing we need. We just need to calm it down. This is a very important debate, and the country is watching. They want to hear what is going on. Catcalling across the Chamber is not good for anybody.
The right hon. Gentleman says the UK Government are out of step with what the Scottish nationalist party wants, but we overwhelmingly do the same thing at the same time. There is far more that unites us than divides us. You may not like it, but that is the reality.
I take exception to the language used by the right hon. Gentleman. When it comes to the Union, he should reflect on the great success achieved by UK scientists working together on vaccines, on the formidable effort of test and trace operations I have seen in Glasgow and elsewhere, on the heroic actions of the British Army in ferrying vulnerable people who needed urgent covid treatment from remote Scottish islands to places where they could receive care, and on the huge furlough operation that saw many billions of pounds spent in Scotland, and a fine thing, too. He should take back some of his more intemperate remarks, which do him no credit at all. We should do our level best to work together in a civilised and collegiate way to get through this pandemic, and that is what this Government intend to do.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the Prime Minister on his balanced approach, unlike that of others in this House. There is increasing concern among epidemiologists, modellers, oncologists and scientists about the use of modelling and forecasts. Among the comments are that the forecasts we may have been using over the past two years are “almost hysterical,” “lurid,” “spectacularly wrong,” “consistently overconfident” and “substantially inflated.” Those comments are from scientists, not journalists or politicians. Does the Prime Minister trust the modelling he is getting, and will the Government consider an inquiry into the use of modelling and forecasts, many of which have been found to be unrelated to reality?
It is important for everybody to understand the limitations of models; they are not forecasts, but mathematical projections based on the data the modellers currently have, particularly when it came to Omicron, about the severity of the disease. That is why, when we feed assumptions about severity that are excessive into the models, we get results that are excessive; that is what my hon. Friend is driving at. Some of the models or calculations are much closer to what is happening now, and models are useful and cannot be dispensed with as we need to have projections, and we in this House should not in any way try to undermine or attack the independent scientists, whose independence is absolutely vital for our ability to handle this disease.
The Prime Minister knows that one of the big issues facing the NHS is capacity, in particular in the workforce. May I make some simple suggestions that would have an effect very quickly? We should reward people for staying on in the NHS right through to retirement. We should also reward people for returning from retirement. We must deal with the gender pay gap, too, as that is making it difficult for many women to stay on in the profession. We should also provide sabbaticals so that people do not burn out in the profession. Finally, we must deal with the problem of overtime, which is now barely worth doing for many doctors and nurses; if we increase that, perhaps we could increase capacity and save many more lives.
We are doing everything we can to ensure flexibility in the NHS so that staff can move more easily, by electronic passes and so on, from one place to another. We are also getting many doctors back to the service. We have, too, our volunteers in the vaccine roll-out and now in helping hospitals with the current pressure. More fundamentally, we are recruiting large numbers of NHS staff, and there are now more people working in the NHS than at any time in its history—about 50,000 more, all told, this year than last year. That is a result of the investments we are making.
I welcome the changes the Prime Minister has announced: all of us should want to be protected by vaccines rather than restrictions in future. He will be aware that on new year’s eve the UK Health Security Agency published a report that says that booster doses wane in their protection against infection but not against severe disease after 10 weeks. Given that NHS and care workers started having their booster doses in the middle of September, which is over 16 weeks ago now, is it right to consider giving those vital workers a fourth dose, as is happening for similar workers in Israel?
Parents, teachers and pupils are incredibly nervous that due to the unprecedented spike in covid numbers children might once again face hundreds of thousands of hours of lost learning. The reality is that due to staff shortages many of our schools are at breaking point, and an entire generation has already lost years of learning they might never get back. So will the Prime Minister do the right thing and properly fund a catch-up programme, starting by providing every parent with a £30 catch-up voucher for every day their child misses school? This Government are not only letting down millions of children, but, by short-changing them, are damaging the future of our country.
That is why it is so important to keep schools open and why it was so important to take the balanced and proportionate approach that we have. It is very important to ensure that schools are safe and I thank parents and teachers for everything that they are doing, but the right hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he says about catch-up. We are investing massively in catch-up. We have a £5 billion programme of investment in catch-up. We are innovating the whole time, particularly with investment in one-to-one tuition, or one-to-two-or-three tuition, for kids who need it. That is a huge development, which is of massive benefit to pupils up and down the country.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today. I also thank people such as Dr Tim Cooper in my constituency who took up the Prime Minister’s challenge and enabled absolutely every eligible person in my constituency to have their boosters over the Christmas period, with walk-in clinics continuing until Sunday of this week. Can the Prime Minister take care to remember some younger residents in particular who have had covid and have had to wait for their booster through no fault of their own? Can the situation of those individuals be taken into account if any new measures are considered, or, indeed, can he can think of ways that we could perhaps ease the restrictions on their access to boosters?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point; it is a fundamental point about fairness. It was raised with me last night at the press conference by one of the public questioners. It would not be fair to insist on boosters as meaning that someone has been fully vaccinated until young people in particular have had a chance to get boosted.
We have seen a huge demand for lateral flow tests. Does the Prime Minister regret urging everyone at his press conference to get “tested, tested, tested”, without making sure that there were the supplies necessary to deliver on that?
No, because it is thanks to the efforts of the NHS testing operation and of testing manufacturers not just around the world, but in this country—there was stupefying ignorance displayed by those on the Labour Front Bench—that we have been able to triple our testing capacity. We are testing more per head than any other European country. Usually, they love these European statistics, but they seem a bit shy about this one. That is the reality though. Testing is a good thing. It is very important that people do it, and people should certainly get a test.
I have certainly disagreed occasionally with my right hon. Friend in the course of this crisis, but I also credit him with doing his very level best to preserve freedom, lives and prosperity in this country. None the less, he will know, as I do, that the public are now yearning to know when we will get back to the old normal. Investors need to know, the wider public needs to know, and every business person in the country needs to know when the sword of Damocles of further restrictions will not be hanging over them. Will he please bring forward a plan to get back to the old normal?
The plan is the one that we have in place. It is to get on with plan B. As my hon. Friend knows, there will be a review of it—indeed, the plan B measures expire on 26 January. By then, we hope to have greatly increased the already extraordinarily high number of people in this country who have been not only vaccinated, but boosted.
The number of people who have been boosted in the UK is currently 34 million. There are a further 9 million that we still need to reach. As I said to the House before Christmas, our plan was to double the speed of the booster roll-out, which we did. Every eligible adult got a slot before new year. We need to increase the number of boosted members of the population, and, as omicron blows through—it is very much my hope and belief that it will blow through—I do believe that we will be able to get back to something much closer to normality. That does not mean that there will not be further challenges, but I think that life will return to something much, much closer to normality. It will not be necessary to keep the current restrictions in place, and business investors will have all the confidence that they need. To be frank, Mr Speaker, we are already seeing huge investments in this country because of the approach that we have taken.
I think I need to help a bit. Prime Minister, I am here in the Chair, not over that way—that will help us all. The other thing I would say is that I do not want to keep you here forever, Prime Minister, but a lot of people are standing to be called and we do want to hear from them, so it might be easier for you if you could shorten some of the answers.
At Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) movingly raised the plight of care home residents, especially those with dementia, who have been left without visits from their loved ones during the pandemic. We on the Joint Committee on Human Rights have repeatedly raised our concerns about care homes implementing highly restrictive visiting rules, potentially contrary to the Government’s guidance and in contravention of the human rights of residents and loved ones. We have recommended that proper individualised risk assessments be carried out in all cases. I noted the Prime Minister’s sympathy for the plight of my right hon. Friend and her mother, but what specific steps will his Government take to make sure that visiting restrictions are proportionate across the board?
I repeat my expression of sympathy for all those who need to visit people in care homes and for the loved ones in care homes who are desperate to be visited. As I said, we have in place a system that allows for unlimited-duration visits for three nominated persons, which is an improvement on where we were—the hon. and learned Lady might remember—at earlier stages in this pandemic. We want to continue with a balanced and proportionate approach that does not allow the disease to get back into care homes in the way that it did. The faster we can get through omicron, the quicker we will be back to normal.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I am sure that we on the Government Benches warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement.
I had the honour of joining an army of volunteers at my local vaccination hub over Christmas to help to get people jabbed—there have been thousands of people every day and it has been a huge privilege. My local hospital, the Great Western Hospital, has declared an internal critical incident. I would be extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if I received maximum assurance that the hospital leadership will get all the support it needs to maintain essential services for the people of my constituency and beyond.
I echo your congratulations, Mr Speaker, to my right hon. and learned Friend. The hospital he mentions will get every support throughout this difficult period and we will do everything we can to engage with him on the issues he raises. As I told the House, that support is made possible through the funding we are putting in.
I thank the Prime Minister, whose judgment was proven to be absolutely correct over the holidays.
As a parent, I know that although the wearing of masks at school may seem a small price to pay to ensure that kids are back in the classroom getting the vital face-to-face teaching they deserve, it is not cost free and does affect the quality of teaching and our children’s wellbeing. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give to me and parents throughout the country that the measure will be constantly reviewed and last only as long as is absolutely necessary?
Winter is always a difficult time for the NHS, but we are now in an unsustainable situation. Last night, 17 hospitals across Greater Manchester announced that they were suspending non-urgent surgeries because of the impact of covid-19, and at least 10 trusts throughout England have been forced to declare critical incidents since Christmas. Last week, the Prime Minister said that he hoped we could “ride out” this wave, but I do not think our hard-working NHS staff or the Government’s scientific advisers would agree. What additional steps will he now take to ensure that Greater Manchester’s hospitals do not become critically overwhelmed?
What we are doing is supporting hospitals in Greater Manchester and up and down the country with record investment and, as I said in an earlier answer, by making sure that we supplement the staff by calling doctors back to the colours and with volunteers, new therapeutic treatments and all the extra things that we are doing. But fundamentally, there is also a job for this country: to follow plan B and the guidance that we put in place and get boosted. That is the most important thing we can do.
I warmly welcome the boost that the Prime Minister gave to the “Get Boosted Now” programme. Over the recess, almost 1 million boosters a day were given to people and I thank everyone involved. I also welcome the leadership that he showed on the COVAX facility and in making sure that vaccinations have been spread around the world. Given the risk of variants emerging in places where vaccination rates are not as high as in the UK, is there more that we can do to boost vaccination rates around the world?
The UK can be proud of what we are doing—my hon. Friend knows this area well—to support vaccination around the world. Thanks to the deal we did with Oxford-AstraZeneca, 1.5 billion doses were administered to people who needed them around the world at cost—that was thanks to the deal negotiated by the UK Government. We put £478 million into COVAX and we have a pledge to deliver 100 million surplus vaccines around the world by June this year.
Throughout the pandemic, people in education have worked heroically to keep our schools open and children learning, but they are struggling. I spoke to a headteacher in my constituency this morning who is currently working as a school caretaker, receptionist, classroom teacher and covid tester. Can the Prime Minister at least admit to overstretched staff working in education that communication with schools needs to be better and that more could and should have been done before schools returned to prevent this highly predictable situation?
I share what the hon. Lady said about the amazing work that is being done by teachers and schools up and down the country. I have been to many of them and they have done incredible things to make their schools covid-compliant and protect against infection. They have done a fantastic job. We communicate with them the whole time. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has done a formidable job of interacting with teachers and parents to try and get our messages across. I know that the hon. Lady will want to be in the Chamber for the statement that he is about to make.
In their critique, the Opposition Front Benchers forgot about the 50,000 hospital beds that they cut when they were in power, including closing entire wards at Goole and District Hospital—but I digress. I remind the Prime Minister of the important role that volunteers are undertaking in the NHS, particularly those in services such as the ambulance service who will be attending more and more jobs in the coming weeks and months to support our NHS. Given that we will rely on our NHS to rightly keep the economy open, will he look closely at possible future reward and recognition payments to our NHS staff for the extra efforts that they will make this winter?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. He makes an incredibly important point about the record of the Opposition, because the pressure on the NHS is caused by the limit to the number of beds that we have—there are only about 100,000. That is why this Government are getting on with building 40 more hospitals—[Interruption.] Yes, we are. And that is why we are recruiting 50,000 more nurses. They opposed the lot of it.
Up until now, the advice to care homes has been that if someone tests positive with a PCR test, they should not be tested using a PCR or a lateral flow test for 90 days unless they develop new symptoms during that time, in which case they should be retested immediately using a PCR test. Given the changes to the testing arrangements that the Prime Minister has announced today, does that advice still hold?
The University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust has been overwhelmed recently with people effectively bed blocking because they cannot get back into the care homes. I know we are putting tents in car parks; I have seen that on the news. However, in a helpful way, I ask whether my right hon. Friend does not think it would be right to enact, in areas such as mine—more rural areas going north—the big Nightingale centres like we had in Preston.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but what we are doing is ensuring that we support hospitals up and down the country that are facing the pressures he describes, not only with more staff but with more facilities and on-site Nightingales, as I said in my statement.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), all of whom have been affected by the lack of proxy voting and remote participation, have jointly written to the Leader of the House seeking the reintroduction of remote provision. That is not just a covid issue, but we certainly see now how much it is needed. It matters because, as things stand, Parliament is excluding MPs and disenfranchising their constituents. Will the Prime Minister throw his weight behind their calls to modernise and ensure that no Member is prevented from fully representing their constituents?
The Prime Minister deserves real credit for his recent decisions on covid. He has followed the evidence, but he has also taken the wider view of our society and our economy, and that has to be right. In my opinion, England is not out of step with Scotland and Wales—they are out of step with us. May I ask my right hon. Friend to also take the long view? It is increasingly clear that we are a long way from learning to live with covid, but we also have an NHS on a permanent war footing, and that is not sustainable. What is the long-term plan for living with covid in 2022, and could that include any changes to mandatory isolation and test and trace? For instance, we see different isolation dates in the United States and Germany from here in the UK.
We will continue to keep isolation timings under review. We do not want to release people back in to society or to their workplace so soon that they just infect all their colleagues; that would not be sensible. As I said in my earlier answers, we have a good chance of getting through this difficult wave and getting back to something like normality as fast as possible. It is important that omicron seems to provide some sort of immunity against delta, for instance, and that may be a positive augury for the future.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. He has announced that those testing positive with a lateral flow test will no longer have to go for a PCR test, but that it will be down to the individual to inform the Government of the result. May I ask what percentage he thinks will do that—and, more importantly, will not do that? As PCR tests are important for analysing the genome of the virus, what affect will that non-reporting have on our ability to look at new variants that develop?
I am grateful, but I must say that throughout the pandemic the public have continually surprised on the upside with their determination to take this seriously. Rather than undermining confidence in them, a very high proportion of them continue to do the right thing and I believe always will.
May I press the Prime Minister on a couple of previous answers? He has come to the House today to extend plan B restrictions for a further three weeks, but he will know that the chief scientific adviser has said that covid is going to be with us forever, and we are going to have variants forever, so may I press him on his answer to our right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) about an exit strategy? We cannot respond to every new variant in the way we have to this one. We must have a plan to live as normal with this virus forever. When will he set out that plan in this House so that we all know where we stand?
If my right hon. Friend looks at what we are doing, he will see that the measures we have in place expire on 26 January, as he knows. Whatever the situation may be then, we will continue with the fundamental tools that we have—that is, vaccination, therapeutics and testing. But it is important that omicron already seems to provide some sort of immunity against delta. That is a point that he should feed into his capacious brain.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Ambulance services and paramedics are desperately struggling to maintain a safe and timely service across the country. My constituency of North Shropshire is no exception, and inexplicably has seen two of its ambulance stations closed, as well as waiting times sky-rocket. With the crisis in emergency care escalating, will the Prime Minister commit today before this House to supporting my call for a full and proper review of ambulance services by the Care Quality Commission?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the eyes of the world are literally upon us, with The New York Times and newspapers in France, Germany and Israel, among others, talking about the Prime Minister’s bold initiative in sticking to plan B and recognising that omicron is less serious than previous variants? They say that Britain was the first to recognise that, and that we were the first to start a vaccine programme in Europe and also the largest testing programme in Europe. Will my right hon. Friend still, however, maintain a watching brief on other variants, because there may be more serious variants in the future—we just do not know? Will he also take this opportunity, again, to correct what the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) said and say that we are not cancelling any cancer operations?
Yes indeed. I really think that she should withdraw that because it is not—[Interruption.] She did say that. [Interruption.] She did, and it was totally untrue. It is because we are the most boosted and the most tested, and because we have the most antivirals of any European country, that we are able also to be the most open. That is thanks to the efforts of this Government, but also hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country—millions of people—who are doing the right thing.
NHS workers say that they are broken—overworked, exhausted and undervalued, pushed to the brink before the pandemic and now abandoned by the Government. So will the Prime Minister listen to workers and trade unions and support NHS staff by protecting doctors and nurses who treat covid patients by giving them FFP3 masks and properly rewarding them not with cuts or pay rises that are actually pay cuts when you take inflation above 5% into account, but with a genuine pay rise of 15%, making up for a decade of falling pay? If he asks how we are going to pay for it, he could look at the £37 billion put towards the privatised test and trace budget.
I really think that the hon. Lady should listen to what is actually going on this country today. We are investing record sums in the NHS. There are 5,000 more doctors and 10,000 more nurses now than there were last year. There are record numbers of people in the NHS. That, in my experience, is what NHS staff want to see, in addition to the extra money we have put into pay rises. That has been made possible through the £36 billion that we have voted through and that she opposed. [Interruption.] Maybe she did not, but I think the record will show that she voted against it.
United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust declared a critical incident on 1 January, not due to the number of omicron patients but due to pressures on staffing caused by omicron cases and isolation pressures. Local MPs have been reassured that acute services are safe and open. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff of United Lincolnshire Hospitals for their work and dedication under extraordinary circumstances, and will he give me his assurance that he will do all he can for United Lincolnshire Hospitals, and that his Government will provide it with all the support that is necessary?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know United Lincolnshire Hospitals: I remember going there with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), the former Health Secretary—whose grandmother worked there, if I recall correctly—and I know what an incredible job its staff do. I know how difficult it has been for them, and as I said to the House and to the country, it will continue to be difficult in the course of the next few weeks, but we will get through it, and we will give the NHS all the support it needs.
Average pay in Barnsley is in the lowest 30% in the country, and those on lower incomes are more likely to rely on statutory sick pay. Does the Prime Minister accept that the shockingly low levels of sick pay in this country will impact the number of people able to isolate, and can I ask him again to commit to increasing those levels?
As I said in an earlier answer, we have made sure that sick pay for those who are isolating kicks in on day one. That is equivalent to a 75% increase, but what we are also doing—because I do appreciate that some families are finding it very tough at the moment—is increasing the £500 million hardship fund that is available through local councils to help people through a difficult time. What would not be sensible is to follow the advice of so many on the Opposition Benches and go for tougher measures, locking down the economy, which would be something that would impoverish the people of this country.
My right hon. Friend has touched on the number of people in intensive care: 90% of those have not had their booster, and 60% have not had any vaccination at all. He will know that there are people out there with very good reasons not to be vaccinated, who get tarred with the same brush as people who have been reading nonsense on the internet. Can we have better stats, so that people can see the benefits of vaccination and be encouraged to take it up? Obviously, everybody benefits if those people are not in hospital.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful and important point: we should not bully or demonise those who, for medical reasons or for whatever reason, simply cannot get vaccinated. Of course that is right, but it is also very important that people understand the benefits to them and their families of getting boosted in particular. The benefits are overwhelming—they are there for everybody to see—and I am afraid that that tragic statistic about the people in ICU is also plain for all to see.
The Government were right to encourage people to get tested over the holiday period. Like many of my constituents and thousands of people across the country, I went around several pharmacies, and all I saw were notices in the window saying, “No lateral flow tests available.” That is the reality of the situation, so I ask the Prime Minister two simple questions: first, what steps did he take before the holiday period to get an assurance for himself that tests were going to be freely available? Secondly, when did he become aware that millions of tests were locked away in a warehouse and would not be available until after the holiday period?
We took every possible step to step up our supply of tests. We tripled the supplies, and deliveries went up to 900,000 a day. To listen to Labour Members, Mr Speaker, you would not believe that this was the country that was conducting more tests per head than any other in Europe. They are simply refusing to give credit where it is due. I appreciate that huge numbers of people want to be tested, but we are doing our level best to meet demand.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements today. One of the best things we could do, both for public health and for our hard-pressed hospitals, is to make sure that the small but significant number of people who refuse vaccination altogether are persuaded of the error of their ways, so can I ask my right hon. Friend to redouble the Government’s efforts? Some people will no doubt be completely, misguidedly recalcitrant, but I believe that the vast majority are persuadable. Whether through education, advertising, or frankly anything this side of coercion, can he redouble the Government’s efforts to persuade those who are unvaccinated to take the jab?
My right hon. Friend is quite right, and that is why we are enlisting the help of community leaders up and down the country—anybody who speaks with authority in communities—to get that message across. That is also why the vaccine taskforce, as I recall, spent £675,000 on outreach to hard-to-reach groups. What did the Opposition say? They said that the funding could not be justified.
I give the Prime Minister credit for not rushing into new restrictions, despite the hysterical views of some medical advisers. I only wish the Health Minister in Northern Ireland had taken some advice from him rather than rushing into restrictions. I also welcome the lifting of restrictions on the aviation industry and of the need for pre-departure tests.
The Prime Minister rightly identified that one of the problems is the shortage of staff in the national health service because of the need to isolate. Looking forward, however, what concerns does he have and what plans has he made for when the vaccine mandate applies to health service staff? The assessment of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is that up to 114,000 staff will not be available because they have not been or will not have been vaccinated. Is the Prime Minister concerned about the pressures on the health service come April?
At the start of the pandemic, there was evidence that members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic community were more vulnerable to the covid virus. Has any analysis been carried out to determine whether omicron acts in a similar way? The Prime Minister will appreciate that that is of particular relevance given the significant number of people from the BAME community who work in the health and care sector.
My hon. Friend asks an extremely important question. I think the answer is that there is currently no evidence, but there is certainly evidence that the different levels of vaccine take-up, and booster take-up in particular, are affecting outcomes.
Disraeli gave his one nation speech in Manchester in 1872; I doubt he would recognise the party political knockabout that the Prime Minister is engaging in over a national crisis. What I will say about the situation is that tonight, with case rates rising in Greater Manchester, there are 600 patients across GM who cannot get out of hospital due to social care staff shortages. About half of care homes are not currently accepting anyone. That is not just to do with the pandemic; it is historical under-investment in our social care sector. Surely the Prime Minister sees that.
I have a couple of points—I do not think the hon. Gentleman knows much about Disraeli, by the way. The Mayor of Greater Manchester actually just said that the Government are taking the right approach. To the hon. Gentleman’s point about fixing the problems of the social care sector, which is valid, it is this Government, after decades of failure by Labour to do it—[Interruption.] Absolutely true. We are fixing social care, and they would not even support it.
Mr Speaker, I hope you had a good Christmas break—a better break than the shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, who, since we last met, has taken a number of positions. On 19 December, he said that the Government need to “act now” and Labour called for actions before Boxing day. On 20 December, he said that the British public know that “additional restrictions are inevitable”. On 21 December, he criticised the delay. On 27 December, he said that
“people will be relieved to see no new restrictions”.
We all want a responsible and constructive Opposition, but does the Prime Minister agree that that is not opposition, but opportunism?
That sums up all people need to know about the Labour party. It instinctively reaches for measures to lock down the UK economy and do huge damage. We are taking a balanced and proportionate approach. There are difficulties ahead, but we are taking the right approach. If the Opposition are now saying that they support it—[Interruption.] Are they saying they support it? I do not know. Let us wait for Captain Hindsight to come back.
The Prime Minister has made his position clear in saying that the Government will see out the current wave with no further restrictions or new support for businesses, but, as he will know, the Government in Wales have implemented new measures to limit the spread of the virus. Does he not agree that it would be better for Wales to be afforded the fiscal powers required to support those public health measures, so that the Welsh Government’s response can be as flexible and effective as possible?
The UK Government have supported Wales, and the UK as a whole, throughout the pandemic to the tune of billions and billions of pounds. We supply the vaccines, we supply the testing kits, and furlough will continue to do everything to support the whole of the UK.
On Friday, I will be holding my team meeting in the local pub because under Welsh Government rules we are not allowed to go to our socially distanced office. We cannot do parkrun and we cannot watch outdoor sport on the touchline—but we can cwtch up together in the clubhouse to watch it. May I commend the Prime Minister for his bold decisions, and ask whether he agrees that the inconsistencies in the rules in Wales are not just ludicrous, but are harming the Welsh economy?
I have tried to be consensual across the House—[Interruption.] I have, and I have tried to build on those aspects of our handling of covid—[Interruption.] I was very consensual to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and, frankly, I thought he was rather rude.
Let me put it this way. There is much, much more that unites all parts of the UK in our handling of covid than divides us. In comparison with any other European country, we are moving virtually in lockstep. There are some baroque eccentricities in various other parts—in Wales—and I will make no comment on those, but I will repeat what I have said: we will continue to provide support throughout the UK.
Many of my constituents who were doing the right thing and self-isolating are becoming frustrated on days six and seven because they cannot gain access to the lateral flow tests that they need to be released early, although just three weeks ago the Health Secretary told the House that the country had tens of millions of tests. Can the Prime Minister tell us what has gone wrong, and will he apologise to my constituents for putting them in this position?
I certainly share the frustrations of everyone who has found it difficult to get a test during a time of unbelievable demand. We have taken responsibility by tripling supply and creating our own home-grown UK lateral flow testing manufacturing capability, of which the Labour Front Bench was in unbelievable ignorance when this debate began.
Earlier this week the Lincolnshire hospitals declared a critical incident, and people in Lincolnshire no doubt thought that they were being overrun with covid. However, NHS officials told the Lincolnshire MPs yesterday that of all the intensive care beds in Lincolnshire, only two were taken by people because of or with covid, and although there were large numbers of staff absences, a quarter could be accounted for by staff being absent because they were isolating. The suspicion is that the NHS is being brought to its knees not by covid, but by the rules that require people to isolate for so long. What is the road map for shortening the period of isolation?
What we are doing is supporting the NHS, supporting staff and making sure that we have as much capacity as possible, and absenteeism, although high, is not as high as it has been at some other points during the pandemic, although that is no cause for complacency. What we will do is keep the period of isolation under constant review, and if we think we can bring it down without increasing infection, of course we will do so.
The Prime Minister is right to laud our life science industry, as British universities and British scientists have helped us to get through covid; so why, after developing the UK’s Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre with taxpayer money alongside British universities, have the Government decided to sell it off so that in future pandemics future vaccines will be held not in public for all of us, but in a few private hands?
What we are doing is investing hundreds of millions to make sure that we have a dynamic vaccine industry. Clearly the Government need to work hand in glove with the private sector, as we have done. No matter how deep the abhorrence of the private sector on the Opposition Benches, it was private-sector private capital that produced the vaccine success.
At the beginning of 2020, Stepping Hill Hospital in my constituency was under such severe winter pressures that it was reaching critical OPEL, or operations pressure escalation level, 4. Since then, doctors, nurses and staff have worked tirelessly during the course of the pandemic, but covid is now taking its toll, particularly the omicron virus, and it is one of 17 hospitals that have said they will be taking a pause on non-urgent surgery. Will my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care work with the Greater Manchester hospital trusts to ensure that they get all the support they need through this critical time?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the support that she gives to hospitals in the Greater Manchester area, which I know well, in which she knows we are investing hugely. I thank them for the care and the trouble that they are taking in a very tough time. They will get all the support that they need.
The Prime Minister has to make decisions based on evidence. However, reinfections are not included in the UK Government covid cases figures, despite warnings by scientists at Imperial College London that up to 15% of omicron cases could be of people who have had coronavirus before. So can the Prime Minister assure us that reinfections will be tracked and recorded on the UK Government’s dashboard, and if so, when?
I welcome the ongoing support, financial and otherwise, for our hospitality sector, particularly in cases where it is a critical lifeline, even still. Of course, the best thing we can do for them is to take away all restrictions that remain in place, but we also have to recognise that there may be an opposite scenario where new restrictions are considered in the future. To that end, can my right hon. Friend confirm that weddings and funerals would be exempt from any further restrictions?
In Warwickshire last year, there were 436 excess deaths caused by covid in care homes. Currently, 77% of residents and staff in care homes are boosted; the other 23% are not. What are the Government doing to ensure that they get the booster vaccination, so that we do not repeat the mistakes of last year?
It was welcomed by both sides of the House when, in the summer, the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box to announce that an inquiry would take place on the lessons learned. Just before we broke for the recess it was announced that Baroness Hallett would be leading that inquiry. Can the Prime Minister give us an update on how the panel is forming, the timings of when that will happen and the terms of reference, if they should appear?
As is the case for Members across the House, many pharmacies in my constituency are out of stock of lateral flow tests, and when people try to order online it says that none are available. Yet The Sunday Times reported this week that British manufacturers of lateral flow tests are battling with the Government after their kits failed to be cleared for use in this country, despite being available in Europe. When will the Prime Minister pull his finger out to boost testing capacity and boost British manufacturing?
Of course kits need to be approved—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) wants kits that are not approved to be on the market. They have to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and that is the right thing; but my understanding is that we have been up at 15% of lateral flow tests in this country being supplied in the UK, from zero.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on sticking to his guns and not bringing in additional restrictions over the festive period and threatening to charge people £60 for going to work, like they did in Wales. However, the mental health damage done by even the threat and fear of restrictions has been significant. Some of my constituents have actually said it was worse this time than it was when the lockdown happened, because then they thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and their fear now is that this could be a never-ending nightmare. Could the Prime Minister give me assurances that mental health is at the heart of the decisions on covid that we will make in the future?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly powerful point, which I think should be heard in all parts of the House. As for those calling for restrictions—as the hon. Member for Ilford North, who I think speaks on health matters, did repeatedly before Christmas—lockdowns have an effect on people, and particularly on mental health.
Will the Prime Minister make it very clear to some of his Back Benchers that a strategy for living with covid cannot include every hospital in Greater Manchester being unable to deliver elective surgery? Other hon. Members have raised that point. Will he make it clear that the strategy will include resources being put in to make sure that we catch up in Greater Manchester for people such as one of my close friends, who needs a hip replacement because she is in such pain?
I was fortunate to visit our new vaccination hub in Scunthorpe and speak to the healthcare professionals and staff who are doing a tremendous job, not just of jabbing people in the arm very efficiently but of reassuring the small number of residents who are still nervous about joining the rest of us in having our vaccinations. Will my right hon. Friend thank the wonderful volunteers and staff across my constituency for the important work that they are doing and their contribution to the national effort that he is leading?
As chair of the all-party parliamentary health group, I have been contacted by people up and down the United Kingdom who tell me that they are still having great difficulty in accessing GP appointments. GPs are working flat out during the pandemic, but ongoing capacity issues remain. What more can be done to support GPs to increase capacity, which is needed because other illnesses that must be seen at an early stage are continuing during the pandemic, and ensure that everyone who needs to see a GP is able to do so timeously and safely?
I thank my right hon. Friend for holding firm on plan B and for rolling back travel restrictions, which will relieve many of my constituents. I also welcome the increased use of lateral flow tests for diagnostic testing. For clarity, is it the case at the moment that that is only for asymptomatic testing—for people who do not have symptoms—and that if people have symptoms, they will still be required to get a PCR test? If so, can I urge him to look further into using lateral flow tests for that purpose, because if people with symptoms have to trundle over to a PCR testing centre, wait 24 hours to get the results and self-isolate until negative, we will not be living with the virus?
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who talked about the severe shortages of lateral flow tests in pharmacies, the Prime Minister was incredibly dismissive and seemed to suggest that my hon. Friend was making it all up. The Prime Minister might like to speak to my constituent who both phoned and emailed me on Monday desperate to go to work the next day as a crucial frontline NHS worker but who could not get his hands on a test. I ended up popping round myself with some spare tests. Can the Prime Minister assure me that from now on my constituent will be able to get the tests that he needs when he needs them, so that he can go to work and do his job in the NHS?
The hon. Lady really must not misrepresent what I said. I began by saying that I shared the frustrations of people up and down the country who had been unable to get the tests that they wanted. I also pointed out that we had huge demand for tests that we were doing our level best to meet, that we tripled supply, that we were making tests in this country on a scale never seen before, and that we were doing more testing than any other country in Europe. Those are positives. I fully accept that it has been difficult for people to get tests, but we are stepping up supply the whole time.
Representing a constituency with a very international outlook, I warmly welcome the changes to the travel regulations. My constituency is also very dependent on commuters coming into central London, and certain businesses are suffering as a result of the work from home guidance. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that we will drop the work from home guidance at the earliest possible opportunity?
Parents of children who are of primary school age and have disabilities will have been disappointed not to hear in the statement about a roll-out of the vaccine for five to 11-year-olds. Two Putney parents have written to me this week, one with a child with cystic fibrosis and one with a child with Down’s syndrome. Those children have been shielding since March 2020, and they are desperate to leave shielding. They really want the vaccine but they cannot get it. Can the Prime Ministers say more about when the vaccine will be rolled out to vulnerable children aged five to 11?
I welcome the announcement of no new restrictions and of the changes to testing for travel, which will make it far easier and cheaper for families to go abroad, but many immunosuppressed people in Redcar and Cleveland are unsure about what they should be doing in the face of omicron. Can the Prime Minister give a message to those who were previously shielding?
The Prime Minister’s answers on the shortages of tests would have more credibility if he were to support British manufacturing. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) asked him earlier why British manufacturers had not been given permission to make lateral flow tests and sell them in this country while they had permission to do so in the European Union. Why is it that the European Union has given them that permission when the British Government have not done so? Could he find out the answer to that? Giving them that permission would increase the supply of tests, which are currently in chronically short supply as we have heard again and again this afternoon, and it would be a great way of supporting of the British economy and manufacturing in this country.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is talking total nonsense. There was no manufacturing capability at all for lateral flow tests in this country, but we now have the largest single manufacturing plant for LFTs in Europe. Let me repeat that, because I do not think the Opposition knew this. The UK has the largest manufacturing plant for LFTs in Europe—
For the digitally excluded, the need to go online to obtain a code to take to a pharmacy in order to obtain their lateral flow tests has proven to be a real barrier. Can the Prime Minister say what assessment of the Government have made of the extent of this problem, and how it will be addressed?
Last summer, the respected senior journalist Paul Waugh reported that the Prime Minister had been accused of making empty promises to British bioscience firms after it emerged that rapid covid tests being offered to NHS staff were manufactured by a Chinese firm. Is the NHS now buying British, or were the Prime Minister’s words today about British manufacturing simply more hot air?
I really do not think that the Opposition Front Benchers, or indeed any of them, have the faintest idea about what is going on. They have six or seven different positions on lockdown. They came to the statement this afternoon not even knowing that this country has the largest lateral flow manufacturing facility in Europe—they did not know it.
In his statement, the Prime Minister indicated that lateral flow tests would be given to 100,000 critical workers, but the national railways alone employ almost double that number, and GPs and pharmacists in my constituency of St Albans are wondering why they have not been included as critical workers. Indeed, we could add supermarket workers to that list. Would the Prime Minister explain where that number of 100,000 came from, because it seems at the moment to have been plucked out of the air for yesterday’s press conference?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, and I know that a lot of people will have jumped to the same conclusion as she did about what we could do. We have targeted the 100,000 that we have in mind. Obviously, all the public sector has access to free tests, including teachers and everybody else, but what we wanted to do particularly was to ensure that those vital nodes such as railway signalling hubs, and other crucial services such as HGV drivers, had access to tests.
I would like to thank the Prime Minister for heaping praise on the amazing scene at Redbridge town hall in Ilford South led by Dr Seedat, who managed on Christmas day and Boxing day to vaccinate 1,700 people—a phenomenal effort. At the same time, we hear that NHS workers across the country, in their thousands, are not at work because they cannot get the tests that they need. When is the Prime Minister going to sort that out, and when is he going to prioritise tests for NHS and other frontline staff, such as in transport? He needs to get a grip, and he needs to get a grip fast.
Letting covid rip through our communities has come at a serious cost, placing new burdens on business and putting more risk in our health and care system, along with unnecessary risks to lives. In York, infection rates are on a par with London, and are still rising sharply. Can the Prime Minister explain not only why tests have been rationed but why there is a doubling of the contact tracing time released to our local authorities, delaying the vital opportunity to lock down the virus quickly?
I must have the strongest legs in the Chamber, as I have been bobbing for the past hour and a half.
I thank the Prime Minister very much for his statement and his replies. Will he outline whether he intends to work with the Chancellor and the Treasury to provide a scheme for small businesses that employ fewer than five people and have to close with no income if there is a contagious omicron case or a close contact? Too many businesses that are viable and successful can no longer hang on by a thread, and they need a further package of help right now.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have given significant support to businesses throughout the pandemic, and we keep that under review. What would not be good for businesses would be to release people back to the workplace too soon so that they infect everybody else who is there.
Yes, it is. I am disappointed that the Prime Minister has left the Chamber, because I informed him that I would be making a point of order at the end of his statement. During his statement, he twice asked me to withdraw remarks that I had made during the statement. I do not withdraw any of the remarks that I made in the statement, because I am happy to confirm that everything that we have said was truthful and was about making sure that the Prime Minister was addressing the comments that we were making. That is in sharp contrast—
The right hon. Gentleman should bear with me; I have not quite finished. What you have done is corrected, and put on record your views and opinions, and I am quite happy for that to be noted. I do not want to get into a debate. I hear that there was some unparliamentary language from both sides. I do not expect it. I do not want it. I want us to start going forward in the new year with more tolerance and better respect for each other. I do not want to continue this argument or the debate any further. We have two more statements and other business to get through, so just for now let us turn the temperature down. I do not want to get into further arguments about what was said from each side, which is where we were going.
I am very happy that the point is on the record. It has, in your opinion Mr Blackford, been corrected. It is up to the Prime Minister whether he wishes to take that view. I do not like the sniping from the sidelines. I know some carried on afterwards, but I really want to move on. Nadhim Zahawi is going to make a statement.
The point is that the Prime Minister asked me to withdraw remarks, when what we had done was speak truth to power. However, there were several things that the Prime Minister said that were quite simply incorrect in relation to both myself and the deputy Leader of the Opposition, most importantly on the issue of poverty. Figures from the House of Commons Library and, indeed, from the United Nations confirm that poverty in this country has increased, and we need to stop the situation where the Prime Minister can come and make up his facts in the House of Commons.
Order. Can I just say to the leader of the SNP that that is on the record? You have corrected it. I am not going to continue with a debate. I am going to get on with the statement, because the statement matters to all our constituents. I am not going to continue a debate that has already ended.