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Commons Chamber

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022

House of Commons

Wednesday 5 January 2022

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Helen Margaret Lilian Morgan, for North Shropshire.

New Writ

Ordered,

That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Southend West in the room of Sir David Anthony Andrew Amess, deceased.—(Mark Spencer.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Infrastructure

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and of course House staff and Members a very happy 2022? May I also take the opportunity to acknowledge some fantastic news for Welsh sheep farmers? As many in this House will be aware, the US ban on the import of UK lamb has been lifted as of 3 January, which brings Welsh farmers one step closer to putting their first-class lamb in front of more than 300 million US consumers for the first time in 20 years.

More than £340 million has been provided for enhancements to Welsh rail, including investing in the core valley lines, Cardiff Central station and the electrification of the Severn tunnel.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all those involved with the House.

You will know, Mr Speaker, that the north Wales economy is massively integrated with the economy of the north-west. We have been promised, although it is very slow in coming, the northern powerhouse, because of the very poor infrastructure and very poor journey times across the north of England. Why have Welsh Ministers not demanded that north Wales be included in that northern powerhouse structure, and why are Welsh Ministers letting down north Wales so badly?

I disagree with the hon. Member’s comments about infrastructure. As he knows, we introduced the Union connectivity review; its proposals have just been published and we are working through them as we speak. We have spent a huge amount of money on road and rail infrastructure throughout Wales—and, for that matter, the rest of the Union—so he should not take such a gloomy view of things. I absolutely endorse his comments, however, about the fact that north Wales and the north-west of England—and, indeed, the rest of the UK—are integrated economies, and we need to look at them holistically.

Blwyddyn newydd dda—happy new year—Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State knows that HS2 will halve the time it takes to get from London to Manchester from two hours and 10 minutes to one hour and 10 minutes, but it will still be three hours to get to Swansea. Will he be taking forward the Welsh Affairs Committee’s proposal to give Wales its fair share of HS2 funding on the same basis as Scotland, which would give us an extra £4.6 billion for levelling up, net zero and connecting the Union? Will he meet me and Professor Mark Barry to help prepare to make the case to the Treasury to take this forward?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. He is nothing if not persistent and consistent in his campaigning. I should remind him—I suspect I do not need to—of the significant rail funding that has already come into Wales, but if it helps, I am always keen to look at new, innovative ways that will encourage investment and create jobs. I am very happy to do that.

May I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State, Jo Stevens, to her new position, and thank her for what she did previously?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; happy new year to you, and, if I may, blwyddyn newydd dda i chi i gyd—happy new year to all.

I am afraid I was a bit disappointed with the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) about HS2 reclassification as an England-only rail project, because it is utterly illogical to designate it an England and Wales project. Crossrail has an England-only classification; HS2 should as well. In addition to that missing £4.6 billion of rail funding for Wales, the analysis of his own Treasury colleagues confirms that HS2 will result in an economic disadvantage to Wales estimated at £150 million every year. Levelling up will remain an empty Government slogan unless he persuades his Cabinet colleagues to cough up, so will he do that?

May I also welcome the hon. Lady to her place? I much enjoyed our time on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee where we worked in harmony on many different subjects for quite a long time, and I was hoping we might be able to continue that habit across the Dispatch Box; things are starting quite well, I think. However, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question and look forward to further discussions. I would just point out that there has been more than £430 million of rail funding so far, including £125 million for the core valley lines and £58 million for Cardiff Central station; I could go through the list but I think Mr Speaker would stop me. This constant refrain, and going over old ground, about whether HS2 has any benefits for Wales is an overused cliché; we all know there are significant direct and indirect benefits to Wales from the HS2 project and that will continue to be the case.

There is another conversation the Secretary of State should be having with Cabinet colleagues about HS2 and Wales. Ministers have previously confirmed that around 2 million tonnes of steel will be used across HS2, but I am going to upset him again by mentioning that £4.6 billion that the Government are cutting from Wales. The Transport Minister has just confirmed that there is no target for the use of UK or Welsh steel in HS2 construction, so will the Secretary of State commit today to making the case in Cabinet for a Welsh steel target for HS2 construction to protect Welsh steel jobs, and will he come back to the House to confirm that he has done that?

I am very happy, as ever, to make the case for Welsh steel; indeed, we have done so on numerous occasions, and if the hon. Lady is in any doubt about our commitment to it she need only turn her mind back to the beginning of the pandemic when nearly 1,000 steelworkers in her own city were saved as a result of Government intervention. Our commitment to Welsh steel, and in particular its being used strategically and extensively in UK infrastructure projects, is completely undiminished, and I am always happy to join forces with her to make that case.

Renewable Energy Generation: North Wales

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the development of large-scale renewable energy generation in north Wales. (904896)

We recently opened the contracts for difference renewable energy support scheme, with £285 million per year available for projects in Wales, Scotland and England. Nuclear will also play an important role as a low-carbon source of electricity and we continue to explore how we might support a nuclear project at Wylfa.

If we are to achieve net zero while maintaining economic growth, we need more large-scale low-carbon generating projects of the sort represented by the tidal lagoon proposed for Colwyn bay in my constituency. That would have an in-store capacity of over 2 GW and make a huge contribution to national energy security, so is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), who also have a constituency interest, to discuss this project and see what the Government can do to help move it forward?

I can definitely give my right hon. Friend that commitment, and I would be more than happy if he wanted to bring additional stakeholders from the area into that meeting because there is not only huge potential for nuclear; he mentioned a tidal lagoon and there is also the commitment already made around the Holyhead hydrogen hub; and of course there is almost limitless potential in the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. I would like to discuss with him and others exactly what opportunities they present.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Llefarydd—I wish you a wonderful new year. A National Trust-run hydro scheme with eight sites in Eryri has reached its target of producing 20 million kW of energy within eight years; that is enough electricity to power 5,300 homes for one year. The scheme has helped local communities to develop their own community hydro schemes but technical issues in connecting to the grid make that no easy task. What is the Secretary of State’s Government doing to upgrade the electricity grid in rural Wales to enable more such schemes?

The right hon. Lady has raised this issue with me a few times and her point about that initiative is really well made. I am very happy to go with her and talk about particular infrastructure requirements. These things are not straightforward, as she knows, but if there are sensible proposals that we can discuss with not only the relevant Department, but the Welsh Government, who will have a role in this, I would be very happy to do that.

I have heard the Secretary of State mention the offshore wind potential of the Celtic sea. He will know that, as part of Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, both parties agree that further powers are needed to support our path to net zero—specifically on the management of the Crown Estate and its assets in Wales. Two months ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), said that he would look with interest at my Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill. Given that there is now a clear majority in the Senedd to support the principle of Wales having the same powers, remember, as there are regarding the Crown Estate of Scotland, will the Minister also support my Bill to ensure that the profits of offshore wind go to the people of Wales?

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was very disappointed not to be here to answer this question in person; he is diligently following Welsh Government regulations on covid isolation and sends his apologies. That said, the relationship that the Crown Estate enjoys with the UK Government, the Welsh Government and stakeholders works very well. I do not think there is any public interest or appetite for altering the terms of that arrangement. Frankly, it is a case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I am always happy to listen to the right hon. Lady’s arguments.

Covid-19 Booster Vaccinations

3. What steps the Government are taking to support the roll-out of covid-19 booster vaccinations in Wales. (904897)

Booster vaccinations are absolutely critical in strengthening our defences. That is why I and the Secretary of State for Defence have made an additional 98 armed forces personnel available to support the vaccination programme in Wales. We have confirmed an additional £270 million that the Welsh Government can spend in advance of budgets being finalised at supplementary estimates.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Speaker. The personnel that the Secretary of State mentioned have been brilliantly organised from Army HQ Wales, which is based in Brecon barracks in my constituency, and I put on record again my thanks that the plans to close the barracks have been scrapped. The Army has been brought in three times to help us in Wales, most recently during the booster programme. The fact that we have a military assistance programme ready to support us in times of need is a strength of our Union, so will he continue to liaise with the Welsh Government to ensure that they have all they need to manage the pandemic?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right, and I cannot begin to tell the House how many times I have met members of the public in the past few months who have been filled with confidence and pride when they have arrived at a vaccination or testing centre to see representatives of the armed forces there to greet and look after them through that often quite difficult process. The comments that she makes are well received, and will be by the number of servicemen in her area. The answer to her question is emphatically yes. I note that the Welsh footprint of the MOD—the number of MOD personnel in Wales—has now increased as a result of recent MOD announcements, and that will make this job that much easier.

Over 75% of eligible adults in Wales have already had their booster, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Welsh Government have earned the respect and trust of the people of Wales due to the clear and consistent messaging throughout the pandemic. What lessons does the Secretary of State think that the Prime Minister and his Government could learn from the example set by the Labour Government in Wales?

That is a slightly cheap shot, especially in a week when, under Welsh Government guidelines, it seems that it is all right for people to go to a pub but not to their office. They can watch the rugby from the clubhouse but not from the touchline. They can go to a gym but they cannot partake in an outdoor activity such as parkrun. There is a huge number of mystifying and contradictory positions—the hon. Gentleman goaded me into that. The vaccine programme has to be one of the best examples ever of co-operation, not competition, between Governments. That has been absolutely essential and it has been done in a good spirit, with professionalism, and has been an enormous success.

Support for Businesses

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for businesses in Wales. (904898)

I am pleased that the Welsh Government have followed the lead of the UK Government in offering business rate relief to support the hospitality sector. The UK Government have supported Welsh businesses through £2.4 billion of coronavirus-related loans, £3.5 billion to the self-employment income support scheme and other measures.

The Federation of Small Businesses has warned that only a quarter of its members are ready for the new Brexit import controls, and that many will simply abandon trading with the EU if they are unable to receive support. What plans do this Government have to support businesses in Wales and the other countries of the United Kingdom in bearing the costs of their failed Brexit policies?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments are not reflected by the businesses that I speak to in Wales. They are looking forward in an optimistic and positive way as we climb our way out of covid. They accept the decision in Wales where, unlike his, nearly 55% of our nation voted in favour of leaving the European Union, so they are simply reflecting the views of the majority. They are confident that there is a healthy future to be had, and what is more, there are more people in work now than there were before the pandemic.

With the Prime Minister promising to take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit, further divergence from EU standards and rules appears to be likely. That will amplify trade disruption and increase costs for businesses, so can the Minister explain exactly how trade disruptions and barriers will be advantageous to businesses and whether the UK Government will provide any support to ameliorate the cost of these benefits?

The UK Government have been doing everything they can, including providing substantial investments in Wales under my jurisdiction, to address a number of the challenges that have been presented. As I said before, there is no appetite whatsoever in Welsh businesses and communities to keep trying to go back four or five years and pretend that the referendum result did not happen. It did happen, it happened in Wales and it got a resounding majority. Those businesses are reflecting that position.

Having spent Boxing day and new year’s in Wales, the home of my beloved mother, I met a number of business people in the evening who said that Mark Drakeford’s plans for covid restrictions were nothing but political posturing and that they were damaging their economy. Have they got it wrong?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There has been a huge effort on the part of the UK Government and the Welsh Government to maintain public confidence through what has been an incredibly trying period, and a number of people in Wales were happy to give the First Minister the benefit of the doubt. However, the recent raft of announcements, including the confusing examples that I gave the House a moment ago, have got even the most loyal people doubting whether he is still making the right decisions.

Strengthening the Union

Wales is a strong believer in the Union, with three in four voters opting for Unionist parties in the 2021 Senedd elections. The overwhelming majority of people in Wales are passionate about their national identity and proud supporters of the Union. The two things are not exclusive.

I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that parkruns are fantastic for people’s physical and emotional health. I am sure you enjoyed many of them yourself over the Christmas recess. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government’s decision to prevent people from taking part in parkruns—not just Welsh citizens but those from the English side taking part in Welsh parkruns—has meant that those people have been significantly detrimentally affected by such a bonkers decision?

I know that it might not look like it, but I am a veteran of 175 parkruns myself, and I absolutely endorse my right hon. Friend’s position. It seems mystifying and bizarre, when we talk about covid regulations needing to be clear and concise in order to command public confidence, that people in Wales can go to the pub but be fined if they go to their office, that they can watch rugby in a crowded club room but not from the touchline, and that they can have a gym session in their own property but not go and do a parkrun, which is known to have enormous health and mental health benefits.

Baglan Energy Park: Power Supply

6. If he will take steps with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to help ensure ongoing power supply for Baglan energy park until a permanent connection to the grid is secured. (904900)

Contingency planning for Baglan and support for businesses once the official receiver has carried out its duties is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Along with the Business Secretary, I will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to support this work.

In just nine days’ time the supply of power to Baglan energy park will be cut off by the official receiver. Not only will this leave businesses in the area in a completely untenable position but the power supply also feeds the energy park’s waste water pumps, which could have a massive and catastrophic effect on businesses and homes in the area. The UK Government are in a position to work with the official receiver to keep the power supply on. Will the Secretary of State engage with the official receiver and with his colleague, the Business Secretary, to avert potential catastrophe for my constituents and businesses on the Baglan energy park?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He and I have been following this saga closely, and the exact position is that the UK Government provided funding indemnity to the official receiver on 24 March 2021 to enable it to carry out its duties as liquidator of the Baglan group. The official receiver has temporarily maintained power to Baglan energy park while developing its plan to disclaim the site.

Transport Connections

7. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904901)

Effective and resilient cross-border transport links are vital for levelling up every part of Wales and the rest of the UK, which is why we commissioned Sir Peter Hendy to lead the Union connectivity review. Notably his review recognised the importance of the north and south Wales transport corridors.

The Secretary of State will know that certain roads, such as the M4 and the A55 in north Wales, connect our great Union and are therefore the property of the whole Union. Does he agree that these roads should be treated as pan-UK roads and should be overseen in a similar way to how the European Union oversees the trans-European transport network?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will have heard me refer to the M4 on many occasions as a vital asset that joins the European mainland to the Republic of Ireland. It is not just a Welsh road; it is of economic significance to the UK and more widely, and it plays a strategic role. That, combined with the slightly mysterious position that the Welsh Government have adopted on a moratorium on road building, leads me to the conclusion that he has reached, which is that there are better ways of maintaining and improving the UK-wide network, including roads that are exclusively in Wales.

Omicron Covid-19 Variant

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the impact on Wales of the omicron covid-19 variant. (904904)

The UK Government have worked closely with the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic. We continue to do so in tackling the omicron variant, and Ministers in both Governments are in regular discussions.

With Labour Welsh Government Ministers now introducing fines to try to stop people going to their workplaces, with the crazy decision to prohibit parkruns at this time and with the Welsh hospitality sector effectively under lockdown through new year, does my right hon. Friend share my deep concern that, yet again, Wales faces the most burdensome and most intrusive restrictions in any part of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that these measures are driven more by fear and pessimism than by good science?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes a good point. I might have found myself disagreeing with him if it could be demonstrated that the results of covid controls in Wales are in some way better than the results in the rest of the UK, but they are not. It is absurd that the popular parkrun in his own town of Haverfordwest cannot take place and that people cannot watch rugby from the touchline, but they can cram into a club where they ought not to be. That is nonsense. It is throttling the recovery and it is throttling economic activity.

Transport Connectivity and Infrastructure

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on connectivity and infrastructure in (a) Wales and (b) between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904905)

The Union connectivity review recommended a multimodal review of the north Wales transport corridor, including the A55 and the north Wales main line. We are considering this and the other recommendations in the review.

We received the Union connectivity review five months later than scheduled; will my right hon. Friend indicate when its recommendations will be implemented? Will he throw the weight of his office behind the proposals for the new station in Greenfield, which is vital to connectivity in the region?

The hon. Member raises a good point. We do not have a precise date as yet, but there is some imminence to it. I ask him to bear in mind the fact that, thanks to interventions and recommendations by the Treasury, other funding models are also available. He should not overlook the work that he can do in future with his local authority in respect of things such as the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv. BSL interpretation will also be available for the Prime Minister’s statement following PMQs.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

May I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and all Members a happy new year?

Thanks to the heroic efforts of our vaccination programme and people coming forward up and down the country, we managed to ensure that families could still celebrate Christmas. With more than 34 million people now boosted, I want to take this opportunity to say that anybody who has not yet done so should come forward and get boosted now.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

With Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London in tatters and the Welsh Labour-nationalist coalition in Cardiff Bay an unfunded devolved disaster, does the Prime Minister agree that the great British public do not need to look back at the last UK Labour Government to see what the Opposition’s answer to all our problems is? It is to bang at the doors of the Treasury and demand that the taxpayer bail them out of their own ineptitude and incompetence.

It is not just Labour’s record in London or in Wales: every Labour Government in history since the second world war has left office with unemployment higher than when they came in. That is because only Conservatives can be trusted to deliver on the economy and on the people’s priorities, which is why, thanks to the policies that we have pursued, this country now has the fastest economic growth in the G7.

A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the rest of the House.

Over the Christmas break, the world lost a giant in the fight for equality and human rights: the great Desmond Tutu. I offer my condolences to his family and to the people of South Africa.

I thank all the key workers who have kept our essential services running over the festive period. In particular, I thank all the staff and volunteers working at vaccination sites and our amazing NHS staff, who are working incredibly hard in incredibly stretched circumstances. We will come to that after Prime Minister’s questions, with the Prime Minister’s statement. I also thank the formidable Sue Gray, who has been busier than Santa over the festive period.

In October, the Prime Minister said that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, but working people across the country are starting the new year facing rising bills and ballooning prices, so how did he get it so wrong?

Of course, I said no such thing, because inflation is always something that we have to be careful about. We are making sure that we protect the people of this country throughout what is unquestionably going to be a difficult period, which is why we have lifted the living wage by record sums and why we make sure that people have cold weather payments, the warm home discount and all the other protections, including the £500 million fund we have put in to help local councils look after people through what will be a difficult period. The most important thing we can do to look after people during this very difficult time is to ensure that we take the balanced and proportionate approach that we are taking to ensure that we are able to keep our country and our society going, which is exactly what we are doing. That is why we have doubled down on the booster programme and why we are sticking with plan B. That is the right approach for the country.

Inflation is about to hit 6%. That is the highest rate since the early ‘90s, when the Conservatives had been in power for more than a decade—when they were mired in sleaze, with a divided party and a Prime Minister losing the support of his Back Benchers and governing shambolically, and a Labour party ready to take over and provide Britain with a better future. Familiar stuff, Mr Speaker? The Prime Minister promised that wage rises would offset inflation. They have not and they will not. Millions of British workers now face a further pay cut and the Chancellor is handing them a tax hike. What will the Prime Minister do to get a grip of this?

It is great to be here with the right hon. Lady, the shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work—we know the future job that she has in mind. I wish her well. What we are focused on is delivering jobs for the British people. It is a quite extraordinary thing that there are now record numbers of people in work—420,000 more than there were before the pandemic began. We have youth unemployment at a record low. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron hit this country, what was the instinctive response of Labour Members? [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. They said that we needed a road map to lock down. If we had listened to them, we would not have anybody working at all.

I have heard on the grapevine that there might be a vacancy for Prime Minister soon, so perhaps I should have aspirations.

The Prime Minister pretends that it is not his fault. He blames the global forces. He blames the markets. We are an aspirational party. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs to be more aspirational for this country. The Prime Minister has made political choices that have led us to this place. His Government have failed to invest in long-term energy security. His Government decided to let gas storages collapse. His Government let the energy market run out of control: 27 energy companies have gone bust in the past year, and now household bills are going through the roof, or, as the Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis put it, there will be a “seismic” hit to energy bills. Cannot the Prime Minister see what is happening? Yet again, working families are picking up the tab for his incompetence.

The right hon. Lady talks about energy. I think the House would agree that she has a lot more energy than the current Leader of the Opposition. I welcome her point, because what the Government are doing is supporting people throughout the pandemic: 2.2 million people supported with the warm home discount, worth £140 per week, which we introduced; pensioners supported with the £300 winter fuel payments; and there are cold weather payments worth £25 a week for 4 million people up and down the country. That is what we are doing, and that is on top of everything that we are doing to support people on low incomes. We are cutting taxes for those on universal credit and increasing the living wage—£1,000 more for everybody on the living wage. These are record sums. Let me remind the House of the fundamental difference between that Labour party and this Government. Labour Members would have kept us in lockdown in July. When omicron hit, they were calling for further restrictions. [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. We have been able to keep this country moving, keep the economy growing, and keep the money going into people’s pockets.

I will tell you what this Prime Minister is doing, Mr Speaker. He is increasing taxes for the hard-working people of this country. That is what he is doing. That is what he did not promise to do in his manifesto, but that is what he is doing to the people.

“The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend”,

and

“VAT on…energy bills…makes gas and electricity…more expensive.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Prime Minister himself. When energy bills are to be hiked again in April, any decent Government would find a way to help British families. Even Tory Back Benchers have finally accepted Labour’s call for a cut in VAT on energy bills, so will the Prime Minister finally stand up to his Chancellor and do the same?

The right hon. Lady obviously did not listen to my previous answer. Let me remind her that the warm home discount already supports 2.2 million people to the tune of £140 a week. Pensioners are supported with £300 through the winter fuel payment, and there are cold weather payments for 4 million people. The Opposition now have the effrontery, having campaigned to remain in the European Union—and she did too, did she not? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Oh yes, she campaigned to remain in the EU. [Interruption.] Oh yes she did—and they now have the barefaced cheek to come to this House of Commons and say that they want to cut VAT on fuel—[Interruption]—and so did the shadow Foreign Secretary—when everyone knows full well that that would be absolutely impossible if we were to do what Labour would do, go back into the EU and remain aligned with the EU single market. That is the objective of the Labour party. It cannot be trusted on Brexit, and it cannot be trusted on the economy.

Prime Minister, how’s it going? Are you okay?

The Prime Minister and his Chancellor have presided over economic mismanagement, low growth, and neglect of our public services, and what is their solution to fix that? Whacking more taxes on to working people. When the tax rises are combined with soaring energy prices, the average family faces a £1,200 hit. This is an iceberg, right ahead of us, so will the Prime Minister finally stop and change course—[Interruption.]

Order. We did not start the new year in the way we left the last one. I was given an assurance that we would try to calm down, so if we could, it would be helpful.

Given that hit of £1,200, will the Prime Minister finally stop and change course, or will he plough on towards what will be a disaster for thousands of families?

As a direct result of what we have already done on universal credit, a single mother with two kids is £1,200 better off. As a result of what we have done with the living wage—introduced by this Conservative Government, never let it be forgotten—everyone on that living wage has seen another £1,000 of income every year. But that is not the point. We will continue to look after people throughout the pandemic, but the fundamental point is that because of the steps that the Government have taken—because of the tough decisions we have taken, and because of our balanced and proportionate approach to covid—we have been able to keep this country open and keep our economy moving. We have kept our economy more open than any comparable economy in Europe, and the Opposition know it, although they opposed it on every step of the way. That is why people are seeing increases in employment, and increases in their pay packets as well.

The Prime Minister always gives with one hand and takes away more with the other. Under this Prime Minister, the country is worse off. Prices of everyday goods are soaring out of control. Hard-earned savings will be hit, and the wages of working people will not go as far. Inflation is not an economic theory; it has serious consequences for people’s lives. We need serious solutions to stop people falling into poverty or debt, but instead we have this Prime Minister and his incompetent leadership.

Every time we are faced with a challenge, he denies that there is a problem. He tries to laugh it off. He looks for someone else to blame. May I suggest to the Prime Minister that this is not about brushing his hair, but about brushing up his act? Does he accept that his incompetence is taking our country backwards and costing our country dear?

No—what I would tell the House and the country is that Labour incompetence has ruined this country time and time again. There has never been a Labour Government that have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in. And what is the right hon. Lady’s answer to the energy crisis? It is to nationalise our energy.

It was in fact Labour’s failure to invest in supply over a decade or more that reduced our ability to have cheaper, cleaner energy. We are rectifying that. We are taking the tough decisions that this country needs for the long term. It is because we have taken those tough decisions—because we have taken the balanced and proportionate approach we have that they opposed every step of the way—that we have youth unemployment at a record low. We have 420,000 more people in jobs now than there were before the pandemic began, and we have not only the most open society and economy in Europe but the fast economic growth in the G7. That is completely contrary to what the right hon. Lady has just said, and it is because of our stable, balanced and proportionate approach. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron presented itself, what did they vote for? They reached for the lever of more restrictions. They said lockdown; we said boosters. They carp from the sidelines; we get on with the job.

You want more? You won’t get more at this rate, will you? Mr Penrose has been waiting patiently. Why do you not want to hear him? I do.

2. The biggest factor driving up our fuel bills and cost of living is the sky-rocketing international price of gas, which is currently dancing to a tune set in Moscow. Does the Prime Minister agree that Labour’s short-term proposals to shift the burden from bill payers to taxpayers will not address the fundamental underlying problem at all, and that the crisis demands structural reforms to the energy price cap, rather than just resetting it to later this year, as well as energy self-sufficiency to uncouple us from Russian gas? (904883)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is completely right. That is why this Government are taking the tough decision to invest in the long-term future of our energy supply, investing in massively increasing our supply of renewables but nuclear as well. That is the right way forward for this country. It was Labour, of course, who completely failed to take those decisions, with the result that nuclear, in particular, fell away dramatically. It is absolutely farcical that Labour’s answer today to the energy price rises that my hon. Friend correctly diagnoses is to nationalise our energy—[Interruption.] Yes it is. Is it? Well, maybe they have changed their minds now, but it was. Maybe they have had second thoughts. But their answer was to nationalise our energy sector and to send bills even higher, and that is not the way forward.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, colleagues and all staff a guid new year.

Over the last few weeks, serious warnings have grown over the Tory cost of living crisis, which will hit the majority of families over the coming months. New research from the Resolution Foundation has found that, on average, families will be £1,200 worse off from April as a result of Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring energy bills. For members of the Tory Government, £1,200 might not seem very much. For the Foreign Secretary it is just another taxpayer-funded lunch in Mayfair. For the Prime Minister it is just a roll of fancy wallpaper for his taxpayer-funded flat. But for the vast majority of families, losing £1,200 a year will be catastrophic. For some it will mean that they cannot afford to pay their rent and bills, to heat their homes or to put food on the table. So will the Prime Minister apologise for leaving millions of families worse off, and will he commit to an emergency financial package to reverse his Tory cost of living crisis?

I find that criticism hard to take from the humble crofter, if I may say so—with whom, I stress, I normally have very good relations off the pitch. What we are doing is helping families up and down the country with the taper rate, ensuring that a single mother with two kids gets £1,200 more on universal credit, £1,000 more as a result of the increase to the living wage. The crucial thing I am trying to get over this afternoon is that we, unlike virtually any other European economy, have been able to keep going and keep people in work. We now have more people in work than there were before the pandemic began. That is because of the balanced and proportionate approach we have taken, and the right hon. Gentleman’s support would be welcome and deserved.

My goodness, Mr Speaker—we are talking about a Tory cost of living crisis. So much for a new year, a new start: it is the same nonsense from this failing Prime Minister. We have had the year of Tory sleaze, but now we have the year of Tory squeeze for family budgets. Economists have warned that UK living standards will worsen in 2022, with the poorest households hit hardest by Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring inflation driven by his Government’s policy. Under this Prime Minister, the UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe. Now the Tories are making millions of families poorer. In Scotland, the SNP Government are mitigating this Tory poverty crisis by doubling the Scottish child payment to £20 per week. I ask the Prime Minister this: will he match the Scottish Government and introduce a £20 child payment across the UK, or will the Tories push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty as a direct result of his policies?

The right hon. Gentleman is talking, I am afraid, total nonsense. This Government are absolutely determined, as I have said throughout this pandemic, to look after particularly the poorest and the neediest. That is what the Chancellor did: all his packages were extremely progressive in their effect. When I came in to office, we ensured that we uprated the local housing allowance, because I understand the importance of that allowance for families on low incomes. We are supporting vulnerable renters. That is why we are putting money into local authorities to help families up and down the country who are facing tough times. The right hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is wrong. He is just wrong about what is happening in this country. If we look at the statistics, we see that economic inequality is down in this country. Income inequality is down and poverty is down, and I will tell you why—because we get people in to work. We get people in to jobs. That is our answer.

3. The London Borough of Bromley has achieved the fastest and most significant improvement in children’s services of any local authority in England. Much of the credit is due to its exceptional chief executive, Mr Ade Adetosoye. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mr Adetosoye on his appointment as a Commander of the British Empire in the new year honours list, and congratulate the Conservative majority on the council on delivering the only debt-free council in London? (904884)

I cannot believe that Hillingdon is not included in that list, but it is no surprise to me that Bromley runs such a tight ship; I have been familiar with Bromley over many years and my hon. Friend and I have campaigned there together. I commend particularly Ade Adetosoye CBE on his achievement.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker! I am sure the Prime Minister will want to join me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in welcoming my hon. Friend the new Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan).

People’s already high heating bills are about to jump by more than 50%, with average energy bills rising by nearly £700 a year. Gas price rises will push millions more families into fuel poverty, when we know many are already afraid even to open their heating bills. Does the Prime Minister accept that he could be doing much more than he is to prevent millions of people from going hungry and cold this year while he remains—for now at least—in the warmth and comfort of No. 10?

Of course I welcome the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) to her place; but as for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, I think balls was the word—you were right first time, Mr Speaker. Your word, Mr Speaker, not mine. I simply advise the House to go back over what I have just said about all the protections that we are putting in place—the winter fuel payments, the warm home allowance, what we are doing to support pensioners, the £650 million we are putting in to support local councils. He talks about long-term energy solutions; is this the same Ed Balls/Davey who was an Energy Minister?

4. Hospitalisations in London have peaked, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right to hold his nerve on new restrictions in the last few weeks, but does he agree that the NHS faces not just omicron staffing absences, but permanent and dangerous staffing shortfalls in nearly every specialty? Will he end the cycle whereby those shortfalls continually threaten not just patient care, but sometimes even our freedoms, by overhauling workforce planning by backing Baroness Cumberlege’s amendment to the Health and Care Bill in the House of Lords, having a word with his neighbour in Downing Street and making 2022 the year we finally solve this problem? (904886)

I think my right hon. Friend’s amendment may have re-emerged in another place, and I thank him. He knows a great deal about the issue and I understand what he is trying to do. We are taking, for the time being, a different approach, and that is having record numbers of people working in our NHS—more than ever before, with 5,000 more doctors this year than last year, and 10,000 more nurses. That is thanks to the investment that this House voted through, and that that Opposition, unbelievably, opposed.

6. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd. My mother, Dr Nancy Saville, was diagnosed with dementia just before Christmas. She had a stroke a year ago. I was called to sit with her in hospital on Monday because of a covid staff shortage but I fear that, like many of our constituents in similar circumstances, we are likely to be separated indefinitely when she is moved into an EMI, or elderly mentally infirm, nursing home. John’s Campaign has successfully campaigned in every UK nation that people disabled by dementia have a special need for person-centred care—under the Equality Act 2010—but in reality there remain many care homes and hospitals where even the most minimal visits can be denied, leading to isolation and separation, which cause irreversible damage to wellbeing. Does he agree that the human rights of disabled people, sick people and the elderly are not fair-weather luxuries, and that everyone with dementia, wherever they live, has the right to family life? (904889)

May I extend my deepest sympathies to the right hon. Lady? I am sure the whole House, and everybody who has listened, will have shared her feelings and will simply wish to extend their condolences in view of her mother’s condition. I know how her feelings must be exacerbated by the difficulties that so many people up and down the country are facing because of the restrictions that we are having to put on care homes, and I sympathise deeply. We do have to try to strike a balance and to keep home care residents safe and to do what we can to prevent the epidemic from taking hold in care homes. We continue to allow three nominated visitors to care homes, and there should be no limit to the duration of those visits. I understand the particular distress and anxiety that the right hon. Lady’s circumstances are causing. May I suggest that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care?

5. Many of my constituents have contacted me with their concerns about rising utility bills and the high cost of fuel for their cars. People in rural constituencies such as Sleaford and North Hykeham are particularly affected by this, because rural areas are colder in the winter, many homes are not on the gas grid, rural people are much more reliant on their cars, and public services are very much further from home. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend what more he can do, particularly in rural communities, to ensure that my constituents have a reliable and affordable source of energy and fuel. (904887)

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to a very important consideration as we try to abate the increases in the costs of gas and of energy. For people in rural constituencies such as her own, it will be important that we have frozen fuel duty for the 12th year in a row, that the energy price cap itself remains in place, and that we are doing everything we can to help people with the energy efficiency of their homes. We are also taking all the other measures that I have explained to the House, but the most important thing that we can do to help people in her constituency and across the country is to have sustainable, clean, cheaper forms of energy, and that is what this Government are investing in now. We are taking the tough decisions necessary.

8. Statutory sick pay is worth £3 a week less in real terms compared with the start of the pandemic, and millions of workers are being forced to choose between isolating and putting food on their table. In Germany, 100% of workers’ salaries is covered by sick pay, whereas in the UK, the figure is a pitiful 19%. If the Prime Minister thought earning £250,000 from his second job was “chicken feed”, how on earth does he expect working people to survive on £96 a week when they get sick? If he agrees that many lives and livelihoods could be saved by increasing sick pay, will he commit here and now to raising it to the level of the real living wage? (904892)

Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the first things we did when covid struck was make sure that statutory sick pay was payable from day one, so it is up to 75% more generous if a person needs to self-isolate. The current statutory sick pay is, of course, a minimum—more than half of employees get contractual sick pay from their employer—but the most important thing we can do is ensure that we continue to keep people in work and in higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs, and that is what we are doing.

7. Later today, I will present a Bill to extend auto-enrolment in pensions to everyone aged over 18, including part-time workers. That would see trillions of pounds in long-term savings levelling up the retirements of workers, especially women, in the towns and villages of North West Durham and across the country. As the Prime Minister seeks to build back better from the global pandemic, will he throw his weight behind these important changes that would benefit workers across our United Kingdom? (904890)

Over 10 million people have been automatically enrolled into workplace pensions already: that has put another £28.4 billion into pensions, so it is a great success. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be listening closely to what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) has said.

9. We know the Prime Minister is happiest at Peppa Pig World, but in the real world, people in Southwark face rising energy bills, rising shopping costs, and a new Tory tax. Leaseholders also face huge costs for fire safety works post Grenfell required by his Government, so will the Prime Minister try to keep just one promise in 2022 and protect all leaseholders from those costs, and will he back the cross-party campaign to make those works exempt from VAT in order to add £1 billion to the building safety fund? (904893)

Actually, in my experience, what most Londoners want is protection from high-taxing Labour councils, but what they will also get is that we will deliver on our pledge to protect residents from serious fire safety risks, and also to manage the injustice that leaseholders face. The House can look forward to being updated shortly.

10. The very best of British science has been on display over the past 18 months, being responsible for the design and manufacture of many of the vaccines that have kept us safe during this pandemic. The focus of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on making the UK the best place to practise life sciences and to innovate is therefore welcome, as is its cluster strategy. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend back Ulverston as the pioneer place for the cluster strategy to be rolled out, enabling high-wage and high-growth jobs to be based in my constituency? (904894)

Yes, because we are going to get on with our job of levelling up across the whole of the UK, making sure that every part of this United Kingdom shares in our ambition to be a science superpower, which is what we are and what we will be. Ulverston has a rich history in the life sciences, and we are in regular consultation—not just officials in BEIS—with my hon. Friend and with officials in the sector to see what more we can do to further investment in the area.

A number of people in my constituency have contacted me about the lack of NHS dentists and the prohibitive cost of private dental treatment. Just a few weeks ago one constituent contacted me and said:

“I work full-time as a mental health support worker, I am on minimum wage and can barely afford the reduced NHS dental costs. In the past three months I have had to go to the emergency dentist three times for the same tooth, with the infection initially getting so bad I collapsed at work. The problem is not being dealt with because you need a second appointment which isn’t classed as an emergency and thus needs your ‘regular’ dentist.”

Does the Prime Minister agree that such stories amount to nothing less than a national scandal? What steps will he take to reduce the backlog of NHS dental appointments, and will he commit to increasing the number of NHS dentists across England?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that goes to show why it is so important to keep this country going and to keep people going to the dentist. One of the troubles we have had during lockdown is that people have not been going—there are 10 million unfilled fillings, I am told. That is why we are putting record investment into dentistry and into the NHS—£36 billion. [Interruption.] For all their caterwauling, the Opposition opposed that investment.

Can we remedy the current flawed budgetary process whereby it is possible to build 14,000 new homes in my constituency without any commensurate increase in general practice capacity? As we house the next generation, we must make sure that the infrastructure goes in at the same time.

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, and he is completely right: we cannot build new homes without putting in the infrastructure to go with it. That is why we have a colossal programme of infrastructure investment—the biggest for a century. That is why we are not only investing in more GPs but investing another £250 million into more GP practices—[Interruption.] The Opposition are cachinnating away as usual. They voted against that spending.

Millions across the United Kingdom are facing great difficulty with their energy bills. Some 30% of those bills is actually driven by the Government, in the form of VAT and various green levies. Now that we have left the EU, can we use our Brexit freedom to at least review the VAT on those bills? Given that some of the green levies are spent on madcap ideas, such as subsidising Drax B power station to the tune of £1 billion a year and bringing in wood chips from America when there is fuel down the road, can we have a review of the green levies as well so that people are not faced with the burden of unsustainable fuel bills?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that we are addressing the issue of fuel. We should not forget that the cap is still in place, and all the mitigations that I have talked about are there, but we are determined to do what we can to help people through this pandemic. What we must do above all is make sure this country has a better supply of cheap and affordable energy, which the Opposition hopelessly refused to institute during their 13 wasted years in government.

Last week my constituent Edna Constable turned 100 years old. She lived through the second world war, and now she is living through a pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing her a belated happy birthday, and will he pay tribute not just to the care workers taking care of her in Fountains care home but to care workers across my constituency and across the rest of the country, who go over and above to protect the most vulnerable in our society?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. I want to thank all the staff at Fountains care home for everything they have been doing to look after people throughout the pandemic. In particular, I want to join my hon. Friend in wishing the centenarian Edna a very happy 100th birthday.

Groundbreaking research published yesterday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, from King’s College London in partnership with Compass Pathways, has now established that psilocybin can be safely administered and may have significant therapeutic benefit in treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As someone who knows first-hand how debilitating PTSD is, as well as hearing from many constituents who have developed the condition as a result of sexual assault or their experience serving in our armed forces, I ask the Prime Minister to commit today to a review of the regulatory regime that would allow further and more rapid research in this vital area of mental health support, for which current treatment options are sorely lacking.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I appreciate the personal experience that makes her interested in psilocybin. I am aware of interest in the area and it has been talked about several times. I propose that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with the relevant Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care.

Apparently the Government are thinking of relaxing visa controls for India in order to get a free trade deal. While a free trade deal is valuable in itself, we should not be held to ransom. Does the Prime Minister agree that our new working-class voters who voted for Brexit did not vote to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world, any more than that when they were told that we would take back control, we would lose control of the channel? Will he convince us that he is determined to connect to our supporters and control immigration?

Yes. I do not recognise the account that my right hon. Friend has given: we do not do free trade deals on that basis. Indeed, I can tell him that since we took back control, net immigration has gone down—[Interruption.] That is all the Opposition want—their answer is, everywhere and always, uncontrolled immigration. That is their approach to the economy, and it is not the right way forward. That is why our Nationality and Borders Bill, currently in the House of Lords, is so important—it will enable us to take back control of our borders properly and to tackle illegal immigration. What would be good would be to hear some support from the Labour Benches.

Five years ago, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, my constituent Luke Symons was taken captive by the Houthis in Yemen. Fortunately, the Prime Minister has a former Foreign Secretary sat next to him and another behind him, both of whom served in the last five years. Luke Symons is still in captivity in Sanaa, even though other nations—including the Americans—have managed to get their citizens released. Will the Prime Minister pledge that his Government will do everything they can to get Luke released from captivity in Yemen and arrange for the Foreign Secretary to meet my constituent, Mr Robert Cummings, who is Luke’s grandfather, to discuss how to go about doing that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this case again. I remember it, and it is very sad. I know that our staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office work hard to try to release people from the positions they find themselves in around the world. Luke Symons is no exception, but I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman has a meeting with the relevant Minister to report on the progress we are making.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Nobody wants to mislead the House, and I am sure that the Prime Minister would not wish to do so. I quoted the Prime Minister saying that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, and he said that he did not say that. However, the Sky journalist Beth Rigby has now put the clip on social media. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to correct the record.

If the Prime Minister wants to come back, he can do. If he does not, what I would say is that it is not a point of order.

Sorry, Prime Minister. I am not going to extend the debate. It is a point of clarification, and that has been achieved.

Covid-19 Update

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?

The right hon. Gentleman should be respectful of the tradition of this House that you do not accuse people of things they have not done. It is totally untrue. This Government have taken—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Blackford, please. We just want to calm it down. This is a new year. Let us start off as we mean to go on, and not in the way we are behaving.

While the Scottish National party continues to do serious economic damage in the way they do, we will continue to get on with a balanced and proportionate—

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.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I think what we need to do is get on together with a plan that is both balanced and proportionate and that does a huge amount to protect the public. It is the right way forward in dealing with omicron.

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.

I did not hear what was said because Members were chuntering at the same time. I want us to calm it down and to use language that is appropriate to this Chamber. Please make sure we treat each other with the respect that I expect from all of you.

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?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation continues to keep fourth jabs under continuous review.

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.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to join me in thanking the Welsh Labour Government for sharing 4 million tests with England?

Actually, the UK Government have supplied tests to the whole country. We are very proud to collaborate with people and testing organisations throughout the country.

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?

I can give my right hon. Friend a categorical assurance that masks in schools will last not a day longer than we need them.

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?

No, it does not, and I will make sure that the right hon. Gentleman is advised on the new arrangements.

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?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I think I speak for everybody here when I say what we want to see is the House getting back to normal business as fast as possible, and to that end I suggest that everybody follows the guidelines and gets boosted.

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?

It is very important that everybody should get the ambulance service that they need. That is why we are investing £55 million more and that is why there are 500 more people on the ambulance staff than there were in 2018.

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?

We are actually seeing very encouraging signs of take-up in the health sector and in social care. That is a great and positive thing for individuals in both those professions.

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?