House of Commons
Wednesday 12 January 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths
Between 2010 and 2020, under this Conservative Government, the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK has increased by 49%.[Official Report, 25 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 9MC.] We are utterly committed to ensuring that more women and girls study STEM through funding programmes that boost uptake, such as the Inclusion in Schools physics programme.
Would my hon. Friend be able to let me know exactly how many women are taking up STEM apprenticeships? I ask this question specifically because the electric vehicle revolution in the west midlands is leading the way, and I am keen to see women taking up such opportunities so that they can have a long-term career in high-quality, high-paid jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and I look forward to visiting the west midlands to see that with my own eyes, because apprenticeships are exactly the sort of first step on the career path we are looking to provide for our young people. Women now account for more than half of all apprenticeship starts across the country and our apprenticeships diversity champions network is working with employers across the country to make sure we see the improvement we need.
The under-representation of women in STEM is informed by a variety of factors. What assessment have the Government made of how careers in niche areas of STEM such as photonics can be better advertised and incentivised for women?
We are always doing whatever we can to encourage more women and girls to study STEM. I am delighted to say that the number of women on full-time STEM undergraduate courses has gone up by 49% since 2010. The percentage of women on full-time STEM undergraduate courses has gone up from 34% to 42% since 2010, and A-level science entries are up 36% among girls. Girls now account for more than 50% of all science A-level entries, and women now account for over half of all STEM undergraduates. Those are significant increases since the Conservatives came to power in 2020, and I look forward to taking that from strength to strength.
Wockhardt in Wrexham made the AstraZeneca vaccine ready, setting the scene for Wrexham to be at the forefront of opportunities. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to encourage young people, including women, into STEM opportunities, and that Wrexham, with Glyndŵr University and Coleg Cambria, is just the place to do that?
The Law Commission published its comprehensive review of hate crime laws on 7 December. Recognising the complex issues that the Law Commission has identified, the Government will carefully consider those recommendations and provide a further response as quickly as possible.
Women and girls in Dulwich and West Norwood and across the country are desperate to see action on the sexual harassment they experience daily on our streets and in public spaces. The suggestion from the Prime Minister that these offences should simply be prosecuted under existing laws demonstrates that he is as out of touch with the public mood on this issue as he is on everything else. The Law Commission recommended that the Government undertake a review of the need for a specific offence of public sexual harassment. Will the Minister confirm that the review will be undertaken swiftly, so that new legislation can be brought forward without further delay?
I can reassure the hon. Lady and the whole House that the Prime Minister takes all forms of sexual harassment against women and girls extremely seriously. That is why we are focusing on the Law Commission’s recommendations, which involve a number of complex issues, as she will understand. If there are gaps in the specific laws that tackle this appalling crime, the Government will act.
To follow up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), a kite was flown in The Telegraph saying that the Government were absolutely going to put in place a public sexual harassment law, as has been called for, as has been suggested by the Law Commission and as was talked about in the violence against women and girls strategy that was published six months ago. Now the Minister is standing in front of us and saying, “We are still looking at it.” Was what the Home Office official told The Telegraph right, or is what the Minister is saying right? The Government committed to this law six months ago, so when can we expect it?
I am happy to put on record the official position, regardless of what has or has not been reported in The Telegraph, which unfortunately I have not read. We are responding to the Law Commission’s review as quickly as possible, as I already said to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood.
Our Streets Now, Plan UK and a variety of organisations from Girlguiding to the Soroptimists all agree with the Law Commission that hate crimes would best be prosecuted as a specific law. Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that she will look for a legislative vehicle to make that possible quickly?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue again and for representing the views of many across the country. She should be in no doubt that we take these horrific crimes seriously, and that is why we published the violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out a number of measures to keep women and girls safe. We are working at pace to work through the complex issues identified by our legal friends so that we are in a position to bring forward a response swiftly.
With regard to the wider strategy on tackling hate crime, Home Office statistics show that there are about 124,000 hate crime incidents. Under the category religion, there was a real rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. What will the Government do in their strategy to address those two real issues concerning our society?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for making representations on the important issue of the persecution of religious faiths in this country. The Government take these issues extremely seriously, and that is why we will publish a refreshed hate crime strategy. We are also investing in a number of measures to keep communities safe, wherever they may worship. Freedom of worship in this country is a vital principle that we all believe in.
Transgender women can be allocated to women’s prisons only following a rigorous risk assessment, with particular consideration given to the type of offence they have committed and the risk that they pose to others. The result is that well over 90% of transgender women in prison are held in the men’s estate, and there have been no assaults or sexual assaults carried out by transgender women in the women’s estate since we strengthened our approach in 2019. Just to emphasise, there is an exemption to the Equality Act 2010 requirement not to discriminate against transgender people in relation to single-sex spaces where doing so is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Prisons can and do rely on that exemption.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the protection of women is of paramount consideration when dealing with the placement of transgender offenders in the prison system? On what basis would a male-born prisoner with a record of sex offences against women who now identifies as a transgender woman be placed in a women-only prison?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Just to be clear, the safety of all prisoners is of fundamental importance to the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and we are particularly aware of the vulnerabilities of many female prisoners. Transgender women who want to move to a women’s prison will be risk-assessed by an expert multidisciplinary panel chaired by a senior prison manager. The panel will consider an individual’s offending history, their anatomy, their behaviour in custody and their use of medication related to gender reassignment, as well as the risk posed to individuals.
Support for Disabled People
Under the 2021 spending review there will be delivery of targeted support for disabled people, including £1.1 billion of investment in helping them to get into work, £2.6 billion of funding for new school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and much more on health and other matters.
In the autumn statement the Government snuck out a £70 million stealth cut to benefits. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the Minister before questions, and I know he is not the Minister responsible, but can he confirm that disabled people will be involved in the process and say how it will affect them? If he cannot, will the Minister responsible write to me?
Yes, the Minister for Disabled People will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I can confirm that we will spend the record sum of £58 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the health and disability Green Paper and the strategy published in the summer of last year, which will be responded to in this House in the summer of this year.
The Conservatives are simply unable to get a grip on the cost of living crisis, and disabled people are paying the price. After failing to act in the Budget, yesterday the Conservatives voted against measures to slash the cost of fuel, which would have disproportionately benefited disabled people, who are more likely to be in fuel poverty. Indeed, the Conservatives seem to have little understanding of the reality of disabled people’s lives. Can anyone on the much enlarged Treasury Bench inform the House what percentage of disabled people currently live in relative poverty?
I find it astonishing that no one on the Government Front Bench appears to be aware that 27% of disabled people in our country live in relative poverty—that is up by 1 million more disabled people since 2010. The situation looks set to be exacerbated by the Chancellor’s £70 million stealth cut to disability benefits in the Budget, of which the Minister seemed to be unaware when it was raised a moment ago. Were the rest of the Women and Equalities team consulted about that stealth cut?
The hon. Lady will understand that only the Minister who is asked the particular question can answer. The practical reality is that the spending review has shown that £58 billion is a record sum. It is an increase of nearly £5 billion in real terms since 2010.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy assured me that he has had extensive conversations with the Chancellor about the cost of living crisis that we have just heard about, but what we need is action. Not only have disabled people on benefits lost the £20 a week universal credit uplift, but their benefits are lower in real terms than they were before the pandemic and many face the future with real dread. Disabled people should not bear the brunt of the cost of living crisis, so what discussions has the Minister had with his Treasury colleagues about tackling the toxic blend of Tory cuts, tax hikes, soaring inflation and surging energy bills that is affecting disabled people across the UK?
The hon. Lady will know that there is the household support fund, the winter fuel payments, the cold weather payments and the increase in the state pension by 2.5% for this year and by 3.1% next year, and that there is everything from the energy price cap to the freeze in fuel duty, which all go to assist anybody affected.
The covid disparities report that I published last year summarised the unprecedented measures we have taken to promote vaccine uptake and includes recommendations to improve vaccination rates further for harder-to-reach groups that the Prime Minister has accepted in full. We have worked with faith leaders and other trusted local voices to overcome vaccine hesitancy and provided more than £23 million in funding to support the community champion scheme, which we have just extended to support the booster campaign.
Behind the boasts of jabs in arms that for a while were distracting from the death figures, until we hit 150,000, are the Government not as worried as I am that the Office for National Statistics is finding vaccine hesitancy among the black British population more than five times higher than among the white population? Among the over-50s, just 44% of Caribbeans and 42% of Pakistanis have been boosted, as opposed to 77% of white British. When are the Government going to admit that their “Take me to your leader” model of community relations just is not working?
I have to say—and I really do not say this lightly—that the hon. Lady has form in pretending that the Government are doing absolutely nothing, when we are doing so much to encourage vaccine take-up in ethnic minority communities. She will know that in her own constituency of Ealing Central and Acton we have spent £485,000 on the community champions scheme. The hon. Lady will not stand up and let her constituents know what we are doing to encourage vaccine uptake. Perhaps she should focus on the positive things that the Government have done, including in her own constituency. There would be less vaccine hesitancy if Opposition Members stopped scaremongering.
Women in Enterprise
The Government continue to support women in enterprise by implementing the recommendations of the Rose review. Our start-up loans company has advanced more than 35,000 loans to women since 2012, worth nearly £300 million, and that represents 40% of all loans.
My constituent Kerry Mackay from the Ceiriog valley has overcome hardship and just been named one of the top 100 most inspirational and dynamic female entrepreneurs in the UK for her business ScrubbiesUK, which makes environmentally friendly cleaning pads. Will the Minister congratulate Kerry and look at ways to raise awareness of the business mentoring and training schemes that were pivotal to her success and that of her business?
Kerry Mackay is inspirational and I congratulate her and all her colleagues at ScrubbiesUK. She is an exemplar for small businesses, leading the way to help the UK tackle plastic pollution and reach our climate goals. I am glad to hear that she benefited from Government mentoring support, and I will ask the relevant Business Minister to write to my hon. Friend with more details. In the meantime, I hope that people like Kerry Mackay will raise awareness of this opportunity through their own networks, which is often the most effective way to spread the word.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the sectors most impacted by covid, such as the arts and hospitality, include a high proportion of women-led businesses. She will be aware of the targeted measures to help these sectors that were announced just last month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, including one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises for the hospitality sector and £30 million through the culture recovery fund. That support will help female entrepreneurs to keep trading through the current difficulties and make the most of future opportunities as they look forward to the end of the pandemic.
Spiking in Nightclubs
The abhorrent crimes of spiking also speak to broader issues of violence against women and girls, which is taken extremely seriously by this Government. The Home Secretary has already asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue, and she is receiving regular updates from the police. The hon. Lady will know that we are delivering a pilot £5 million safety of women at night fund, which focuses on preventing violence against women and girls in the night-time economy, keeping them safe in public spaces at night.
Many girls and women are afraid of enjoying a night out or going to a music festival for fear of being spiked, raped and assaulted. What work is the Minister doing with venues such as bars, nightclubs and music festivals to prevent that from happening and to ensure that appropriate safeguarding measures are in place, and what is the assessment of the scale of the problem at those venues?
The hon. Lady raises a really good point. Those in the night-time economy play a key role and are taking their responsibilities seriously. The Government work very closely with them, and we are providing funding and helping them provide training to their staff so that women can feel safe at night. It is vital that the funding we are providing is being used by local authorities to provide, for example, testing kits and taxi marshals to get women home safely at night. Police are also ramping up their forensic capabilities. There is a lot of work going on.
The Government’s proposals will protect freedom of speech. The proposals will not affect a parent’s right to express their views and raise their children with their values. Parents, clinicians and teachers will, of course, continue to be able to have open and challenging conversations with young people or others about their sexual orientation or whether they are transgender or not.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. There have been instances of parents being reported to social services for not simply affirming their child’s new trans identity. Will my hon. Friend assure parents that their right to not simply affirm their child’s new identity will be protected in the face of the ideological capture of some of our public services?
We are five months away from Safe To Be Me, the UK’s first ever global LGBT rights conference. Everybody should be free to be themselves, but that is not true in too many parts of the world. We will work with friends and allies across the globe to turn the tide on authoritarianism, spread freedom and end the criminalisation, persecution and violence experienced by far too many LGBT people.
Aylesbury has a sizeable Pakistani diaspora. We have seen excellent campaigns locally and nationally to encourage uptake of vaccines among this community, but in the town’s central wards fewer than half of the people have had the booster so far. What steps is my hon. Friend taking across Government to encourage vaccine take-up among ethnic minority groups, especially those who do not have English as their first language?
My Department has been working across Government to promote vaccine uptake among ethnic minorities. We have worked with trusted local voices such as faith leaders to spread messaging, and we publish key information and advice via community TV and radio stations, translated into a range of languages including Urdu and Punjabi. In May, I met the high commissioner for Pakistan to consider other ways we can reach out to diaspora groups to promote vaccine confidence and uptake. I should say that between April and October 2021, the largest increase in vaccine uptake among the over-50s was in the Pakistani and black ethnic groups.
Department for Work and Pensions data show that four in five black people have less than £1,500 in the bank. More worrying is that approximately one in four black British, British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani people have no savings at all. Energy bills are going up, food prices are up and taxes are up. The increased cost of living will hit minority communities hardest. What action will the Minister take to ensure that minority communities are not pushed into greater hardship this winter?
We have put, on average, £1,000 a year more into the pockets of the lowest earners through changes to universal credit, increasing the minimum wage next April to £9.50 an hour, and helping with the cost of fuel bills. Our multibillion plan for jobs, which was recently expanded by £500 million, will help people across the UK to find work and to boost their wages and prospects, and this will disproportionately benefit people in minority ethnic groups.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about Sarah Gilbert’s achievements. She was part of our Gender Equality Advisory Council, working across the G7 to give women more opportunities and to enable more entrepreneurship, ideas and innovation around the world.
The DWP has launched 50Plus Choices, which specifically addresses the issues the right hon. Gentleman raises. I will get the Minister responsible for that matter to write to him.
Outcomes for people in Blackpool in education, health and employment are among the worst in the whole country. I welcome the equality data programme, which is examining how factors such as social background and geography contribute to inequality. How does the Minister expect the programme to reduce the inherent inequalities that have disadvantaged people in Blackpool for decades?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where one lives often has a bigger impact on outcomes than anything else. For example, the wage gap between London and the north-west is, on average, £5.22 an hour. We are examining the drivers of those disparities, and we have appointed Katharine Birbalsingh to lead the Social Mobility Commission and help to propose the policies that will sort this out.
I am keen to hear what the APPG thinks the solutions are to this issue. The hon. Lady will know that collecting ethnicity data is a sensitive issue and it is not something that all people want to do, but I am happy to work with her and the APPG to learn about how we can come to some resolution.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that increasing diversity in the STEM sector is not only good for the individuals who will benefit from well paid, creative and rewarding jobs, but brings a wealth of talent and creativity to an ever more important sector?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Jack Dromey. His working life was devoted to his trade union members and, in recent years, to his constituents in Birmingham, Erdington. I was deeply saddened to hear of his death, and my thoughts are with Harriet, the family and all those who knew him as a friend.
Mr Speaker, I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives and unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.
Though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know that there were things that we simply did not get right, and I must take responsibility. No. 10 is a big department, with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus. When I went into that garden just after 6 o’clock on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event, but with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way—people who suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all, inside or outside—and to them, and to this House, I offer my heartfelt apologies. All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others, so that the full facts can be established. I will of course come back to this House and make a statement.
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.
My constituent Carol Ridgway faces eight weeks of stress and worry as she waits for an urgent appointment at the local breast clinic in north Wales. Despite the pandemic, 85% of patients in England wait only two weeks for their urgent suspected cancer referrals. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure equality of healthcare across Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sorry about the case that he raises. Health of course is a devolved matter, but I thank our NHS colleagues across the whole of the UK. I point out that the Welsh Government will benefit from an additional £3.8 billion of funding this year, plus a further £270 million to support the response to covid.
I join the comments about Jack Dromey. We will, I think, be doing tributes in due course in relation to Jack.
Well, there we have it: after months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road. The Prime Minister’s defence that he did not realise that he was at a party is so ridiculous that it is actually offensive to the British public. He has finally been forced to admit what everyone knew—that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?
I appreciate the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making about the event that I attended. I want to repeat that I thought it was a work event. I regret very much that we did not do things differently that evening, as I have said, and I take responsibility and I apologise. As for his political point, I do not think that he should pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry. He will have a further opportunity, I hope, to question me as soon as possible.
Well, that apology was pretty worthless, wasn’t it? Let me tell the Prime Minister why this matters. Yesterday in this Chamber, hon. Members told heart-wrenching stories about the sacrifices that people across the country were making. The House and the whole country were moved by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) as he talked about his mother-in-law dying alone. He was following the rules while the Prime Minister was partying in Downing Street. Is the Prime Minister really so contemptuous of the British public that he thinks he can just ride this out?
I heard the testimony of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I echo the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s sentiments. It was deeply moving; nobody who heard that could fail to have been moved. I know that people up and down the country made huge sacrifices throughout the pandemic and I understand the anger—the rage—that they feel at the thought that people in Downing Street were not following those rules. I regret the way that the event I have described was handled. I bitterly regret it and wish that we could have done things differently. I have and will continue to apologise for what we did, but he must wait for the inquiry that will report as soon as possible.
When the Prime Minister’s former Health Secretary broke the rules, he resigned and the Prime Minister said he was right to do so. When the Prime Minister’s spokesperson laughed about the rules being broken, she resigned and the Prime Minister accepted that resignation. Why does the Prime Minister still think that the rules do not apply to him?
That is not what I have said. I understand the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. As I have said, I regret the way things happened on the evening in question and I apologise, but if I may say to him, I do think it would be better if he waited until the full conclusion of the inquiry—until the full facts are brought before this House—and he will then have an opportunity to put his points again.
This just isn’t working, Prime Minister. Everyone can see what happened. It started with reports of boozy parties in Downing Street during lockdown. The Prime Minister pretended that he had been assured there were no parties—how that fits with his defence now, I do not know. Then the video landed, blowing the Prime Minister’s first defence out of the water. So then he pretended that he was sickened and furious about the parties. Now it turns out he was at the parties all along. Can the Prime Minister not see why the British public think he is lying through his teeth?
It is up to the right hon. and learned Gentleman to choose how he conducts himself in this place, and he is wrong—[Interruption.] He is wrong. I say to him that he is wrong in what he has said—[Interruption.] What he said is wrong in several key respects, but that does not detract from the basic point that I want to make today, which is that I accept that we should have done things differently on that evening. As I have said to the House, I believe that the events in question were within the guidance and were within the rules, and that was certainly the assumption on which I operated, but can I say to him that he should wait—he should wait—before he jumps to conclusions, and a lawyer should respect the inquiry? I hope that he will wait until the facts are established and brought to this House.
So we have the Prime Minister attending Downing Street parties—a clear breach of the rules. We have the Prime Minister putting forward a series of ridiculous denials, which he knows are untrue—a clear breach of the ministerial code. That code says:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
The party is over, Prime Minister. The only question is: will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or he will he do the decent thing and resign?
I just want to repeat: I know it is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s objective and he is paid to try to remove me from office—I appreciate that and I accept that—but may I humbly suggest to him that he should wait until the inquiry has concluded? He should study it for himself, and I will certainly respond as appropriate and I hope that he does, but in the meantime, yes, I certainly wish that things had happened differently on the evening of 20 May, and I apologise for all the misjudgments that have been made, for which I take full responsibility.
The Prime Minister is a man without shame. The public want answers to their questions. Hannah Brady’s father Shaun was just 55 when he lost his life to covid. He was a fit and healthy key worker. I spoke to Hannah last night, Prime Minister. Her father died just days before the drinks trolley was being wheeled through Downing Street. Last year, Hannah met the Prime Minister in the Downing Street garden. She looked the Prime Minister in the eye and told him of her loss. The Prime Minister told Hannah he had “done everything he could” to protect her dad. What Hannah told me last night was this: looking back, she realises that the Prime Minister had partied in that same garden the very day her dad’s death certificate was signed. What Hannah wants to know is this: does the Prime Minister understand why it makes her feel sick to think about the way that he has behaved?
I sympathise deeply with Hannah and with people who have suffered up and down this country during the pandemic. I repeat that I wish things had been done differently on that evening, and I repeat my apology for all the misjudgments that may have been made—that were made—on my watch in No. 10 and across the Government, but I want to reassure the people of this country, including Hannah and her family, that we have been working to do everything we can to protect her and her family.
It is thanks to the efforts of this Government that we have the most tested population in Europe, with 1.25 million tests being conducted every day. We have been working to ensure that this population—our country—has the most antivirals of any country in Europe. It is because of the efforts of the Government, and of officials and staff up and down Whitehall, that we have driven the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe and one of the fastest in the world. That is the reason that we now have one of the most open economies, if not the most open economy, in Europe and the fastest growing economy in the G7. Whatever the mistakes that have been made on my watch, for which I apologise and which I fully acknowledge, that is the work that has been going on in No. 10 Downing Street.
We are investing in education up and down the country. I am delighted that Burnley College was successful in its proposal to become an institute of technology, and that Burnley is home to the growing University of Central Lancashire campus, which makes it a fantastic place to study in Lancashire.
May I add my remarks to those already made about Jack Dromey? He was a feisty fighter for workers’ rights, and an inspiration to many of us on both sides of the House because of the way in which he conducted himself. We will miss him, and I send condolences to Harriet and to the rest of the family.
The Prime Minister stands before us accused of betraying the nation’s trust, of treating the public with contempt, of breaking the laws set by his own Government. A former member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, Paul, wrote to me this morning. His father died without the love and support of his full family around him, because they followed the regulations, Prime Minister. Paul said:
“As an ex-soldier, I know how to follow rules but the Prime Minister has never followed any rules. He does what he wants and gets away with it every time”.
The Prime Minister cannot “get away with it” again. Will he Prime Minister finally do the decent thing and resign, or will his Tory MPs be forced to show him the door?
It is an open and shut case: this was an event that should not have taken place. It broke the law, Prime Minister.
What is so galling about that response is that the Prime Minister feels no sense of shame for his actions. The public suffered pain and anguish at being kept apart from their families, and all the while the Prime Minister was drinking and laughing behind the walls of his private garden. The public overwhelmingly think that the Prime Minister should resign. Trust has been lost; the public will not forgive or forget. If the Prime Minister has no sense of shame, the Tory Back Benchers must act to remove him. They know that the damage is done. This weak and contemptuous Prime Minister can no longer limp on.
The message from the public is clear: remove this unfit Prime Minister from office, and do it now.
Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his political advice, which I will take with a pinch of salt since it comes from the Scottish nationalist party. I think that most people looking objectively at what this Government have delivered over the last 18 months would agree—and I renew my contrition for the mistakes that have been made—that we have delivered the fastest vaccine and the fastest booster roll-out in Europe, and the result is that across the whole of our United Kingdom we have a record number of people back at work.
Yes, we are certainly looking at reducing the isolation period, and we hope to bring you more about that, Mr Speaker, as fast as possible. We will certainly look at all MACA requests, but more fundamentally what we can do to alleviate the pressures in my hon. Friend’s hospital is to fix the health and social care divide. That is what this Government are also doing, after a generation of neglect.
Today’s apology is too little, too late. If the Prime Minister were sincere, he could have apologised at any stage over the past 18 months, rather than waiting until he was found out. My constituents in North Down, and people across the UK, feel betrayed by the Prime Minister. We have had more than 150,000 deaths from covid over the past couple of years, and we have seen standards in public life trashed. For once, can the Prime Minister do the honourable thing and resign, for the sake of the public health message, and for standards in our democracy?
I can only repeat what I have said: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s feelings about the effect of this pandemic on the country, and I certainly grieve for everybody who has died and who has suffered. On his political point, can I propose that he waits for the inquiry to report?
Yes indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is notable that the Opposition do not like to dwell on these points, but it is an astonishing fact that we have 420,000 more people in work now than before the pandemic began, and youth unemployment is at a record low.
The Colne Valley regional park runs through my constituency and that of the Prime Minister. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the volunteers who tirelessly work to preserve that precious green space, and will he work with me to create better protections for that park moving forward?
No, Mr Speaker, because I immediately said in my answer to the question that of course we have to be concerned about inflation at all times. What I said, I think on TV, was that some of the predictions then about inflation had not proved well-founded, but clearly inflation is a serious risk. It is going up, we need a strategy to tackle it, and that is what we have.
My constituent Grant Bailey went back to Afghanistan in September. He disappeared in December, around Christmas time. We think the Taliban have him. Can my right hon. Friend advise me and his family whether he knows anything about this man, who has him, and what is being done to get him home?
This Friday, my private Member’s Bill, the BBC Licence Fee (Abolition) Bill, gets its Second Reading. It will abolish the BBC licence fee and require the BBC to be funded by subscription. In this day and age it is ridiculous to have a state broadcaster, it is ridiculous that people are forced to pay a fee just because they have a television, and what is totally wrong is that people who believe the BBC to be institutionally biased have to subsidise it. Will the Prime Minister, if he is free on Friday, come along and support the Bill?
I welcome the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in the partisan spirit with which I think it was intended. I do not agree with him, but can I suggest respectfully that he waits until the inquiry is concluded, which I hope will be as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign. I believe that we should tackle microplastic pollution, and I am glad that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at the introduction of legislation for microfibre filters on washing machines as a cost-beneficial solution. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs keeps him informed of how we are doing.
I believe the hon. Member does a serious injustice to the efforts of local councils up and down the country to look after people coming from Afghanistan and I think he does an injustice to the efforts of the UK. We are proud under Operation Pitting to have already evacuated 15,000 people from Afghanistan. We have allocated £286 million in assistance for people in Afghanistan and we are continuing to offer safe passage to this country from Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister will be aware that Eastleigh was formed as a railway town and, from producing locomotives and carriages to building gliders for the D-day landings, Eastleigh has a proud railway heritage. Given that pedigree, its excellent transport links and the need to level up the south, does he agree that Eastleigh would make the perfect home for the new headquarters of Great British Railways?
One of the first things that I did when I became Prime Minister was to uprate local housing allowance so that people on social rent would be able to afford where they live more easily, as a key component of tackling the cost of living. We are also building record numbers of homes. I was very pleased to see a huge increase in the number of people able to get the homes that they need, but the hon. Member’s point about renters is also very important, and that is why we are tackling the rights of renters as well.
£56 million through the levelling up fund and £40 million through transforming cities—that is just some of the investment that we have recently secured for Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend agree that, after decades of neglect, this Conservative party is the only party that is levelling up opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent?
What we are doing is offering financial and technical support to businesses, which are responding magnificently. As we come out of the pandemic, as I said to the House earlier, we are seeing record numbers of people in work and youth unemployment at a record low.
The motto of England’s smallest county, Rutland, is “multum in parvo”—much in little—and never has that been more true than in the last two weeks, with the greatest Roman discovery in 200 years and the discovery of an ichthyosaur, the greatest fossil discovery in 100 years. Will my right hon. Friend please support us to build a new tourism industry and two heritage museums in Rutland to preserve these amazing discoveries in our county?
We are supporting measures to retrofit homes up and down the country to improve insulation. We are also supporting people with the costs of their fuel, and we will continue to do that through the warm homes discount, the winter fuel allowance and all the other payments we make.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is indeed talking to his counterparts in the Welsh Government about establishing a freeport in Wales. I urge our friends in the Welsh Government to agree those plans as a matter of urgency.
We will do everything we can to support people throughout the recovery from the pandemic, we will support disabled people and we will continue to increase our support for families up and down the country. The hon. Lady requests that we publish the research, and we will do so as soon as we can.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his continued support for new nuclear. Following the Third Reading of our landmark Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill this week, will he put his weight behind my efforts and those of my Cumbrian colleagues to bring large and small new nuclear to Cumbria?
My hon. Friend is right that one of the disasters of the Labour Administration was that, over 13 years, they allowed a total collapse in our nuclear power, which is one of the reasons why we have a shortage of energy. That is why we are now investing in small modular reactors, as well as investing in the big projects.
I am grateful, as ever, to the hon. Gentleman—I think a former member of the Conservative party, as I understand it—for his party political advice. I do not agree with him. I have come to this House to make amends, to explain what happened on 20 May and to apologise. I really think, with all humility, I must ask him to wait for the result of the inquiry, when he will have abundant opportunity to question me again and to make his party political points again. Until then, I am going to ignore his advice.
Hundreds of respondents took part in the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke Bus Back Better survey, in which 80% said they would use the bus more if services were improved. The Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council has submitted a fantastic Bus Back Better bid for £90 million to improve our infrastructure and our services, so will the Prime Minister make our day in Stoke-on-Trent and announce that that money is coming soon?
I thank my hon. Friend for his fantastic championing of Stoke-on-Trent. I also thank him for volunteering to serve as a teacher again during the pandemic—a wonderful thing to do. I will certainly see what we can do to satisfy his request for more buses in Stoke as fast as possible.
I join the tributes to Jack Dromey, an outstanding trade unionist and Member of this House.
After another shameful week for the Prime Minister’s Government, this has been a shameful attempt to apologise to the House today. Can the Prime Minister explain why the only person to have resigned so far following this scandal is Allegra Stratton, a woman, while he, the man who sanctioned and attended at least one party in 10 Downing Street, still sits in his place? Advisers advise and Ministers decide. So will the Prime Minister, for the good of the country, accept that the party is over and decide to resign?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. We have built three lines of defence to give us the best chance of living with covid-19 and avoiding strict measures: vaccination, testing and treatments. Vaccination is the most important of those three, especially in light of the new omicron variant. Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that unvaccinated people are between three and eight times more likely to be hospitalised with covid-19, so every jab counts in keeping people out of hospital and saving lives.
Since omicron began making its way around the world, our strategy has been to massively expand vaccination. We set the highly ambitious target of ensuring that everyone eligible for a booster would be offered one by the end of December, and we met that target. Some 80% of eligible adults in England have now had the booster, including 87% of people over 50. That means that, per capita, we are the most boosted large nation on the planet. In addition, more than 1.4 million young people aged 12 to 15 have already had their first dose since the vaccine was rolled out to that age group in September, with thousands still getting jabbed every day. As of 10 January, eligible children aged 12 to 15 are being offered a second dose in their school. The vaccination effort is a vital part of ensuring the safe return of pupils to the classroom after Christmas, and the continuity of in-person education, which we know is so important for their development.
Throughout our vaccine programme, we listened to the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, whose clinical expertise is second to none. As we have done so, our vaccination strategy has been highly successful, allowing us to live with fewer restrictions than many other places around the world and keeping our children in education settings, where they belong. Once again, I underline my thanks to everyone who has made our national vaccination programme possible, including the JCVI, the NHS, our vaccines taskforce, the vaccinators and all volunteers across the country. I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking them for everything that they have achieved.
I thank the Minister for her statement. The UK’s vaccine roll-out has indeed been enormously effective, but in September the JCVI expressed concerns about a child vaccination programme because of uncertainty regarding the magnitude of potential harms. Following advice from the chief medical officer, the Government pushed ahead with the mass vaccination of healthy children on the basis that, although the benefits to children’s health were marginal, it may reduce transmission and keep kids in school. Around 50% of 12 to 15-year-olds have now been jabbed, so what assessment has been made of the effectiveness of the vaccination programme in keeping children in face-to-face education?
Now that the omicron variant is dominant and more evidence is available, the benefits and risks of vaccinating children may have changed. What assessment has been made of the risk of hospitalisation of healthy children due to omicron compared with delta? Evidence is emerging that vaccination has minimal impact on omicron transmission, so what reassessment have the Government made of the potential future impact of child vaccinations on reducing transmission in schools? Given a recent Centres for Disease Control and Prevention study showing that the risks of myocarditis in young people following vaccination may be greater than previously thought, and compounded by multiple doses, will the Government urgently review the potential harms of vaccinating children?
This weekend, the NHS put out a press release encouraging more children to get jabbed, including the line:
“Young people can get their life-saving protection”.
It also said:
“Vaccines will protect young people from Omicron”.
Where is the evidence for those claims, and does the Minister believe that that communication meets the commitment not to put pressure on children? Lastly, given the evidence on transmission, will the Government push ahead with the compulsory vaccination of NHS staff, and will they insist on a booster dose for all staff every few months? If not, where is the evidence that compulsory vaccination of staff will increase patient safety in the long term?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise some of her concerns. We need to start from scratch, remembering that it is the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which is the highly thought of regulator, that has deemed the vaccine to be safe for this age group. As a result, the JCVI provided its recommendations, and our chief medical officers across all four nations added to that. The vaccine has already been given to millions of 12 to 15-year-olds in a number of countries, including 8 million in the United States. Data from those countries shows that the vaccine has a good safety record. I am completely confident that the JCVI would not make those recommendations if there were any doubt at all. That is why all eligible 12 to 15-year-olds are able to book their second jab. It is the best way to protect young people and make sure that they are kept in education. We all know that face-to-face education is one of the most valuable things for young people, and we will do whatever we can to keep them in that position.
We must recognise that myocarditis occurs as a result of covid infection as well. We need to get the balance right to ensure that we are doing whatever we can to protect the majority of young people and make sure that they are kept in education in a timely manner. I think it is right that we continue to follow the scientific evidence and the clinical advice, as we have done throughout this pandemic.
I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this urgent question; you, Mr Speaker, for granting it; and the Minister for her statement.
Our incredible NHS has moved heaven and earth during the vaccine roll-out and has achieved an extraordinary amount in the face of profound challenges. As the Minister makes clear, it is only through vaccination that we can begin to contemplate building a world beyond covid. I would therefore be grateful if she explained what assessment she has made of the current vaccine take-up rates, which have dropped to the lowest level since mid-October, and what plans she has to ramp them up again.
Will the Minister also clarify what action the Government will take to drive up vaccination rates among 12 to 17-year-olds, following media reports of children having to wait until February and travel 50 miles to get an appointment for their first covid-19 vaccination? Will she advise the House on what steps she is taking to persuade those who have yet to have the vaccine to do so as soon as possible, and what action her Department is taking to tackle the raft of misinformation about the vaccine that continues to circulate on social media and beyond, doing real damage to public health messages? I would also be grateful if she gave an assessment of the impact on vaccination rates of the introduction of NHS covid passes.
Over the course of the pandemic, immunocompromised, immunosuppressed and clinically extremely vulnerable people have been badly let down. They are crying out for further clarity, and recent reports highlight that more than 300,000 housebound people are yet to receive their booster. Will the Minister take this opportunity to provide the vital clarity that people need and set out the Government’s booster vaccination strategy for housebound, clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable people?
Lastly, will the Minister outline what further steps are being taken to vaccinate the world? As the development of omicron shows, delay with regard to global vaccination has stark public health consequences here at home. With reports of the UK discarding hundreds of thousands of vaccines over the past few months, can she reassure the House that assisting with vaccinating the world remains a priority for her Department and this Government?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his measured approach. We have seen throughout the pandemic that everybody working together gets us where we need to be, which is making sure that people are safe.
The hon. Gentleman asked a few questions about the current vaccine programme and the uptake rate. I am delighted that about 80% of people over 18 have now been boosted, which is a fantastic achievement. Over 90% of the population aged 12 or over have had their first dose and 83% have taken up the offer of a second. I reiterate that the offer of a first and second dose is always there. If people have not yet come forward for their first dose, it is not too late: they can go to a walk-in centre or make an appointment through the national booking service or their GP to get that all-important vaccine.
With regard to 12 to 17-year-olds, the school-age immunisation service has started to roll out again this week. People can also take the out-of-school offer through the national booking service or the walk-in sites. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a case where somebody had to travel 50 miles. We did look into that situation, and it was not quite right. We have been in touch with that member of the public, and the situation has been resolved.
Housebound patients are the responsibility of the primary care network or the clinical commissioning group, depending on the local scenario. Every housebound patient has been offered their booster vaccine now, but if the time was not quite right, or any Member has taken up such a case with their CCG and not had a solution, I would be happy to take the case up on their behalf.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the ambition not just to vaccinate the UK but to make sure that people globally are protected. I am delighted to announce that, as of the end of last year, we donated 30 million doses, partly through COVAX and partly through bilateral agreements, which is a great achievement, and we have a commitment in place for 100 million doses by the end of June this year.
This country has one of the best vaccination programmes in the world and the very best in Europe. We should remember that the foundations were put in place when, at the height of the first wave, the then Health Secretary bought 400 million doses of vaccine that we did not even know would work. That has meant that we are now emerging sooner and more broadly than nearly anywhere else. But that success was also because a lot of GPs in the NHS were diverted away from their normal work into the vaccination programme, and that has come with costs in terms of the other treatments they are not able to deliver. When will we see a workforce plan that takes account of the new responsibilities for vaccination that the NHS will have? When will the budget for Health Education England be agreed, because two and a half months before the next financial year we still do not know what it is? Will the workforce plan have independent forecasts so that we can make sure we are training enough doctors and nurses for the future?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He has made it his ambition, as has the Department, to ensure that we have the right workforce in place. He raises a really good point about the vaccines and how we continue to administer them—not just the covid vaccine but the flu and other vaccines that we have throughout our lifetimes. We have learned an awful lot from rolling out the covid vaccine programme, and like my right hon. Friend I commend the vaccine taskforce for having the foresight to look beyond what some other countries did, to make sure we had the vaccines in place when we needed them.
We do need to look again at how we maximise what has been such good will. In terms of the vaccinators who have come forward, some were not trained as vaccinators before. As I travel around some of the vaccine sites, I meet people from all backgrounds who have taken up the challenge to come forward and become vaccinators. The other day, I actually met a builder who is now a vaccinator, and he is loving every minute of it. I also thank the volunteers who have come forward and made sure that this programme has been so effective. It is about bringing together what we have learned in this programme over the last year to make sure that we can roll out other programmes in an effective manner.
Once again Scotland has set an example for the UK, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all those NHS and frontline key workers involved in the excellent vaccination roll-out programme. We lead the way on first and second doses administered, and we rank second worldwide for the most successful booster roll-out programme, with over 80% of our adult population given their third vaccine. The rest of the UK also has one of the highest vaccination records in the world, along with most of Europe. Is it not well past time to begin a serious campaign of vaccine sharing and the vaccination of those who have so far been left behind in our global community?
Secondly, when the booster roll-out does wind down, will the UK Government commit to shifting the momentum from domestic vaccination to vaccination sharing with the poorest countries? While we welcome the 30 million doses that have been donated, they are a mere drop in the ocean in terms of what is actually required. Lastly, will this Tory Government finally show a shred of compassion for the plight of those around the world?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about ensuring that rural communities have access to vaccines, and that is exactly what we have done through our programme. We have made sure that walk-in centres have been stood up, as well as other ways for people to access vaccines such as vaccine buses, so that community pharmacists can deliver in rural settings and among hard-to-reach groups. Whether in rural or urban areas, it is important that we use every possible route—for example, working through community groups, local leadership and faith groups—to put everything in place to ensure that everyone has access to the life-saving vaccines.
I reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), that to date we have donated 30 million doses to COVAX and bilaterally. We will continue to fulfil our commitment to donate 100 million jabs globally by the end of June this year.
I was not expecting to be called, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing this important urgent question. Reflecting on what the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), said about workforce planning, I know that in my constituency, Wealden, and across East Sussex, there is huge concern about accessing healthcare and treatment. Will the Minister explain what risk assessment has been done of how, if unvaccinated staff—as many as 88,000—leave the NHS, treatment will be made available and how my constituents will be able to access day-to-day healthcare and treatment?
I think my hon. Friend is referring to vaccination as a condition of employment. I should like to inform the House that already over 93% of the NHS workforce have had their first jab, which is incredible. It is the will of the House, expressed before Christmas, that we implement this policy. Peer-to-peer conversations are going on to make sure that people have the right information they need to take up the offer of a jab, which not only protects them but protects their patients, who are some of the most vulnerable people in society.
I pay tribute to the hard-working staff at St Thomas’ Hospital in my constituency, who have helped many Members of this House to receive their booster jab, and to the many volunteers throughout Vauxhall. The Minister outlined that 90% of people have had their first dose and over 80% their second. With the emergence of omicron, we have seen that unless everyone is vaccinated, we are not safe. We are not safe until everyone is safe, but around the world there are still places where people are not receiving vaccines. Will she outline what work the Government are doing to make sure that there are enough vaccines globally to ensure equitable access for everyone?
I also pay tribute to the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital. I visited the vaccination centre there and was really impressed by the way it is set up, with the paediatric side as well, and by all the volunteers who were there making sure that everyone felt comfortable about going forward. Some of the people there had thought for quite some time about taking the plunge and getting their first dose, so I thank the staff for their work.
The hon. Lady makes a good point when she says that we are not safe until everyone is safe. I reiterate our commitment to COVAX, not just through donating vaccines but financially as well. Just over a year ago, the first AstraZeneca vaccine jab in the world was given to a gentleman in Nottinghamshire. As a result of our collaboration with Oxford University and AstraZeneca, those jabs continue to be delivered at cost throughout the world. That is a really good outcome of the Government’s investment.
Given its success, I believe we should now place our faith in the vaccination strategy and not in further controls. When I voted against plan B before Christmas, I said that more and more regulation creates more and more hypocrisy. Despite what is going on in Russia and the cost of living, we spent most of Prime Minister’s questions debating the fact that the Prime Minister wandered out of his house, where he lives and works, and had a drink with colleagues. The truth is that the Government should learn a lesson from this. We must sweep away every last vestige of telling people how to live their lives. We have had enough of it. The British people have had enough of it. These controls are actually making things worse—for example, forcing staff to isolate and putting our NHS at risk—so please, let us free the people.
Many hon. Members have constituents whose long-awaited treatments and operations are being cancelled because hospitals are full of the unvaccinated. We in England have one of the most indulgent approaches to the unvaccinated. Why does the Minister not follow the example of New Zealand, Australia and the rest of Europe and do much more to incentivise people to get vaccinated?
I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are doing what we can to ensure that people get vaccinated. Some of the stats speak for themselves: people are eight times more likely to be hospitalised if they are unvaccinated and more than 60% of those in ICU are unvaccinated. We are not a nation that forces people to do things unnecessarily. The behavioural insights team across Government has been looking at different ways to get those who have not come forward yet to get their jab and at the pros and cons of different ways of doing that. At the moment, I think we have the right approach, which is explaining why it is important for them to come forward to get a jab.
The question of my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) was about whether there was a reassessment of the strategy on the basis of what we know now about omicron that we did not when the strategy was set out. Will the Minister answer that, particularly in respect of the policy of sacking NHS staff who are not vaccinated, given that we know that the rationale has disappeared because it does not stop people from catching it or from infecting others?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I go back to the MHRA, which is globally recognised as one of the best regulators and has advised that,
“the benefits of vaccination still outweigh any risk in most individuals.”
With regards to myocarditis, to which I think he was referring as well, it is greater in those children who have been infected with covid than in those who have been jabbed. I must stress, however, that instances of both those circumstances are extremely rare. The JCVI continually reviews all the data.
It is clear that the Government need a new strategy for driving up vaccinations among the unvaccinated. Around the country, there are practical examples of things that are working that they could roll out nationally. Will the Minister commit to looking at ideas such as vaccine tracing; the offer of an on-the-spot vaccination when somebody comes into contact with any part of the NHS; and the offer of free cabs for those who are struggling to get to a vaccination centre because of the cost or caring arrangements? Those things are working already, yet they are not being rolled out nationally.
I reassure the hon. Lady that many different measures are being put in place across the whole country depending on what works in different specific areas. For example, there are pop-up clinics in mosques and temples; there have been all-female clinics that help different communities; and there have been clinics in restaurants in certain parts of Bradford. There is a wide range of measures because, as she rightly indicated, there is not one solution for everybody. The fact that more than 90% of people have already had their first dose is a huge success, but the last few are the hardest to reach. That is why we are putting in place different measures to ensure that we do the right thing for individuals in different places and look at what will work for individuals across different communities.
When what is at stake is the balance of health risk for children right across Wycombe and every constituency in the whole country, is my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) not absolutely right to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to task the JCVI and the medical officers with a reassessment of new evidence? My hon. Friend just said at the Dispatch Box that evidence is kept under continuous review—and she nods—so why can she not please say at the Dispatch Box that she will ask the experts to revisit the new evidence, just to check that the balance of health risk for children is still appropriate and that she is satisfied with the responsibility, which she bears, for the decision that has been taken?
My hon. Friend is quite right that we do bear responsibility. I do not take these decisions lightly at all and neither does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That is why the JCVI and the CMO continually review not just the UK data but the national data for every age range, every vaccine and every eventuality. The CMO will have heard my hon. Friend’s request and I am sure he will be completely focused on making sure that the JCVI continues to monitor the situation in the specific way my hon. Friend asks for.
First, I congratulate everyone in Sheffield—including GPs, the hospitals and the city council—who worked brilliantly together to deliver thousands of vaccines in the run-up to Christmas.
I want to ask about people with compromised immune systems, and I declare my own interest in that. Having the third dose, followed by a booster, is absolutely right, but to begin with there was a lot of confusion about whether the consultant or the GP should be responsible for contacting people. I think it has just about been sorted out, but I have received an email today from my constituent Jeanette, who says that although everyone in her situation should have received a letter offering the availability of new treatments, she got a letter but her husband did not; that although everyone should have been sent a PCR test in the post, she did not get one; and that although she was told to ring 119, when she did so she could not find the option to complain that she had not received a PCR test. Will the Minister have a look at who is responsible for the availability of new treatments and the sending of PCR tests, and at what happens when things do not happen properly?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important part of our strategy to make sure we can react quickly in respect of those with certain conditions. Giving them ready access to the antivirals is the third part of our strategy to combat coronavirus. GPs and hospital consultants should link up to make sure that the right conditions are considered. I advise the hon. Gentleman’s constituent initially to contact her GP to make sure that she fits the category. If she has received the letter but no PCR test, she should contact 119—Test and Trace—
Or she should go online to find out whether there has been a mismatch in the data. If she has received the letter saying that she should receive the PCR so that she can do one if she has symptoms, we just need to make sure that she gets one delivered to her home.
It is great news that the Minister reports that 93% of NHS staff have received the vaccine—that is fantastic—and I commend every effort made to encourage NHS staff and all those involved in the delivery of care to receive the vaccine, but what will the Government do if, in a few weeks, a critically high number of people in the NHS have still not had the vaccine? Will they all face being sacked or moved in April? How would that protect the NHS?
As my hon. Friend said, to date over 93% of NHS staff have had their first jab. I want to put out a plea. We already have vaccination as a condition of deployment in the care sector and we did not see the cliff edge that so many people predicted. In terms of my own personal circumstances, my father was in a care home for over seven years and his carers became his family. We always do the best for our family and want to make sure that they are protected in the same way that we are protected, and that carries through to NHS staff as well, and to those in other Care Quality Commission-regulated organisations. It is about patient safety: at the end of the day, we are looking to make sure that every patient is kept safe.
I must say that I am amazed at the Minister’s complacency about the potential loss of staff as a result of the vaccine mandate. The care sector has lost 54,000 people who refused to take the vaccine, with the result that hospital beds are blocked, care packages are not being given and care homes are under pressure. The social care sector is an indication that we cannot force people to take the vaccine, and the Minister’s own assessment is that up to 88,000 staff could resist taking it. In the past week, 40,000 people in the NHS have been off work because they had to isolate, and we have seen the chaos that has caused. How does she intend to deal with the chaos of 88,000 staff not being available because of the vaccine mandate?
I do not recognise the data given by the right hon. Gentleman. We have already invested £465 million in a recruitment and retention programme for care home staff. It is important to recognise that caring is a worthwhile career. The carers I have met are really dedicated and get a lot from it. I come back to the fact that it is important to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe, whether they are care home residents or patients who are acutely ill in hospital.
My sources in the NHS tell me that last week they received either from the Department or from NHS England instructions effectively on how to go about firing people from the NHS in April if they have not been vaccinated. That caused them considerable concern. The Government’s own analysis, prepared by the Minister’s own Department, is not of the position now; it is of the expectation of where we will be in April. Analysis from her own Department, signed off by her, thinks that 73,000 NHS staff and 38,000 domiciliary care workers will leave.
I want people to be vaccinated, but we know that the protection against infection wanes quite quickly from 10 weeks onwards, which means that we are not protecting others. I want people to be vaccinated, but I—and public health professionals—think that the best way is to persuade them, not threaten them with the sack. If people have not had their first jab by 3 February they will be unable to be fully vaccinated by April, so may I urge her, even at this stage, to come back to the House and reflect on whether threatening people with the sack if they do not get vaccinated is the right policy?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that persuasion is the right way to go. That is why the uptake went up tremendously among care home staff and since we implemented the policy for the NHS the uptake among NHS staff has increased tremendously as well, which is really encouraging. We want it to be a positive choice, and we want people to understand that they are protecting not just themselves and their families but the patients they care for, ensuring that they are safe. Those one-on-one conversations are ongoing to ensure that people understand that, from the perspective of patient safety, this is the right choice to make.
With rates of infection high among teenagers, many are simply unable to get double vaccinated yet as they were infected in the period when they would have been eligible and had to wait 12 weeks to get the jab. Unfortunately for families hoping to travel in half term, they cannot access a covid recovery certificate through the NHS app or through 119, despite contracting covid being the reason that they are not double vaccinated. Families are facing the prospect of cancelling their travel plans for half term, which will have an impact not only on our constituents but on the travel industry. I know that the Department is considering a solution, but will the Minister give some clarity that that will be achieved before half term, to give people the confidence to make travel plans?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, and it is not the first time the issue has been raised with me. We had that situation in the run-up to Christmas, and we are obviously now in the run-up to half term and Easter as well. I assure her that measures are being considered to see how to resolve the situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her efforts to save us from vaccine-only passports, leaving the option for testing on the table, given what we know about the impact of vaccination on transmission and that fact that with compulsory vaccination the Government’s central assumption is the loss of more than 100,000 healthcare workers. She has set out that patient safety is paramount to her. Does she therefore share my concern that we risk lulling healthcare workers and patients into a false sense of security? Is it not the case that daily healthcare worker testing is a much safer option to rely on for the protection of patients?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about daily testing, which is being carried out with certain cohorts of the workforce. The UKHSA continues to monitor the best way to ensure that the workforce, whether in the NHS or other parts of industry, protect one another as they go about their work tasks.
Having turned 60 yesterday—[Interruption.] It is very difficult to believe, isn’t it, Mr Speaker, but you are not saying I am misleading the House, obviously. Having turned 60 yesterday, I feel I ought to ask a question about the elderly. Quite a lot of people in the elderly group who have had their booster vaccines will have had them in September and October of last year. I had mine at the beginning of November. What will our policy be from now, because, as the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) pointed out, the immunity that comes from the booster runs out somewhat after 10 weeks?
I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday for yesterday. He does not look a year older than 59—just one day older. He makes a good point. The JCVI, which provides advice for Ministers, has considered that question. Towards the end of last week, it felt that a fourth dose or a second booster was not appropriate at this time and that it was important to focus on first boosters and people coming forward for their first and second doses. But I reiterate that the JCVI continues to keep the question under constant review and, should the situation change, it will provide that advice.
I declare my interest as a consultant paediatrician working in the NHS and as a volunteer vaccinator. I am very proud to be part of the vaccination programme that has undoubtedly saved so very many lives.
I want to focus on children. I have worked in hospital over the past month and have been looking after children who have had positive tests. That is not unexpected because the virus is high in the population and of course we test everybody. However, I have not been looking after children who were admitted because of covid. In September, we heard that the decision on whether to offer children vaccines was finely balanced. Indeed, the JCVI referred that decision to the chief medical officers, who finally decided, on the basis of educational disruption, to offer children vaccines. Given that omicron is less harmful than the variants we were considering at the time, has the Minister asked the JCVI and the CMOs to consider whether these vaccines are still, on balance, better for children than not—except, perhaps, in the context of travel?
I thank my hon. Friend for her role in vaccinating probably thousands of people by now. Everybody has played their part, using their skills and their time to roll out the vaccination programme in such an amazing way. I assure my hon. Friend, who obviously has an awful lot of expertise and knowledge, that JCVI continually looks at the data. We hear announcements from the JCVI and think they are just about what it has considered on that particular day, but I assure the House that it continually looks at the data to make sure that we move forward in the right manner.
As vaccination uptake increases, conspiracy theory-inspired groups have hardened their language and threats against those involved in vaccination delivery have also increased. Some groups—I will not name them, because what they do is so despicable—are attempting to disrupt vaccinations, and even to attack testing facilities. The threat posed by conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxer groups is real and cannot be ignored. What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of how to counter those groups and safeguard the vaccine roll-out?
Misinformation costs lives. It is totally inappropriate, and there is no place for it in our society. As the hon. Lady rightly highlights, testing centres have also been attacked, which I am sure is under police investigation. I reassure her that we have a unit that considers such issues all the time, and numerous online presences are taken down on a regular basis. As she will imagine, various police investigations are under way.
When the facts change, we are entitled to change our minds, and since we passed the regulated activity regulations in December we have had further evidence to suggest that the transmissibility of covid declines after 10 or 12 weeks, as has been mentioned. In light of that, has the Minister gone back to challenge the JCVI on its advice about whether we should compulsorily vaccinate health workers, particularly given that it now appears that the risk they pose to patients declines after a very short period, and especially given that we have the alternative of regular lateral flow testing, which will tell, more or less in real time, whether healthcare professionals pose a threat to their patients?
It is important to go back to some of the stats I set out earlier. Those who are unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalised, and more than 60% of people in intensive care units are unvaccinated. If we can stop people getting the virus in the first place, it will not be transmitted and people will not catch the disease and be hospitalised. It is important to note that it was the will of the House to introduce that policy in December. As I have said repeatedly, the JCVI keeps all the data under constant review, which obviously has an impact on Government policy.
I wish to follow the question raised by the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), because the reality is that the facts have changed, and depleting efficacy, as well as transmissibility, is presenting a challenge for the Government and their longer term management of covid. Rather than forcing NHS staff to have their first vaccine by 3 February, which will present a massive risk to the NHS—the Government’s own assessment is that between 64,000 and 115,000 NHS and healthcare staff will be sacked—will the Government go back and review the issue, and ask the JCVI what the best strategy is for managing the pandemic from this point forward?
We have our plans in place. We have our vaccination programme, our testing, and our antivirals. Part of the purpose of the vaccination programme is to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society are protected. As I said earlier, having the vaccine as a condition of employment is about patient safety and ensuring that people who are in hospital or care homes are protected from this deadly virus.
I have been a big advocate of the vaccination programme, and I got my jabs as soon as I could. Will my hon. Friend address a key issue of concern? The time gap between the different vaccines has been adjusted at various times and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned, those who are extremely clinically vulnerable had their booster a long time ago and its effectiveness is waning. We know that Israel is already administering a fourth dose to the extremely clinically vulnerable. Will the Minister take that point to the JCVI, so that it can look specifically at the extremely clinically vulnerable and see whether they need a fourth dose?
Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or immunosuppressed have already been offered a booster, so they have already received four doses. As I said earlier, at the end of last week the JCVI determined that at this stage it was not appropriate for others to have a booster or a fourth dose.
The Titanic Exhibition Centre, which is the largest vaccination centre in Northern Ireland, is to close on Sunday 16 January. Has the Minister made an assessment, in her Department, of the impact that the closure of mass vaccination centres will have on the booster process throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
As I understand it, the location of vaccination sites in the devolved nations is the responsibility of those nations. I can only speak for England in that regard, so the hon. Gentleman may wish to take the matter up with the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland.
May I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to my daughter, and to all her colleagues across the NHS who have worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic, caring for those who have sadly needed hospital treatment?
I have been very supportive of the Government’s approach to the pandemic and their actions, but I tend to agree that as the facts change, we should change our approach. What we have learnt about omicron is that the rationale behind mandatory vaccination has now shifted from protecting others to protecting oneself. Should we not revisit that, given the figures that the Minister has been quoting about the vaccination status of those in hospital and in intensive care units?
Before Christmas, the JCVI issued the welcome guidance that five to 11-year-olds who are either clinically vulnerable or living with someone who is immunosuppressed should be vaccinated against coronavirus, but since then we have heard very little. Can the Minister tell me when the roll-out to five to 11-year-olds will start, whether it will take place in schools or in vaccination centres, and how those who are immunocompromised will be identified—this is very important to those who are living with someone in that position—given that their GP records will not show their condition? I declare a personal interest.
I often pay tribute in this place to the leadership on vaccines of Dame Kate Bingham. Speaking about the cancellation of the Valneva contract in Livingston, Dame Kate described the decision as “short-sighted”, “problematic” and “inexplicable”. She also said that it
“set aside the need to build resilience”
and “capability” through the
technology that Valneva offered. Moreover, it would help us to tackle vaccine hesitancy and our international responsibilities, owing to the lack of cold chain problems. Will the Government listen to the sage advice of Dame Kate, and reinstate the Valneva contract as a matter of urgency?
I, too, pay tribute to the work of Kate Bingham. Without her leadership, we would be in a worse position in regard to vaccines.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of Valneva in the past, and, as I have said in the past, I cannot comment on commercial decisions.
I join the Minister in thanking all those who rushed out the booster programme in December, but some of our constituents have been confused by the two booking systems, the one for the GP centres and the national booking system. Will she commit herself to trying to establish a single booking system by the time we get round to the autumn boosters, or whatever we are going to have, so that we can see full capacity in all the sites that patients can use in one location?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I think what we have achieved in the last year is incredible, and we know that we can improve things such as booking services, which is one of the areas I am sure we will be looking at. My hon. Friend makes the point that sometimes people were not aware that slots were available through their GP and thought they had to go through the national booking service. These are lessons to be learned. We have achieved an awful lot in just over a year, and I am sure we will be looking into that as a matter of urgency.
I congratulate the United Kingdom Government on one of the most successful and leading covid-19 vaccination programmes anywhere in the world. As we go forward, can I seek assurances that those who are immunocompromised and immunosuppressed, such as blood cancer patients, will have a real focus from the Department of Health?
The House was asked before Christmas to vote for the mandatory vaccination of health workers on the basis of the argument that it would stop transmission. We now know that this is almost certainly not the case. I think we are almost at the end of this session, and it would be tremendous to hear a commitment from the Minister that she will formally request the JCVI to review the evidence behind this policy. The only argument she is giving for it is that it will help protect health workers, but that has to be a decision that they take for themselves. Rather than sacking compulsorily what may be over 100,000 health and social care workers, surely before the deadline is upon us we should reconsider this policy.