House of Commons
Wednesday 19 January 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The President of COP26 was asked—
Paris Agreement Temperature Goal
The Glasgow climate pact agreed by almost 200 countries is a historic agreement that advances climate action. It was the result of two years of marathon work and a two-week sprint of negotiations, following which the world can creditably say that we have kept within reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels. But to keep 1.5 alive, commitments must be translated into action.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing an enormous amount to tackle the issues in respect of net zero. On the COP itself and the joint work we are doing around the world, we have put in place a number of mechanisms that we will continue this year, particularly when it comes to sustainable development.
Given that the Centre for International Environmental Law states that plastic pollution and global warming are linked, does the Minister agree that we need to do far more to tackle the scourge of microplastic and microfibre pollution in our marine environment?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He knows that in some of these policy areas we are leading the world, and he will also know that we have been leading the effort to get countries to make the 30by30 commitment to protect our oceans and, of course, our lands.
As the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee knows, all countries have committed to come back to their 2030 emissions-reduction targets by 2022, if necessary. Of course, the G20 is responsible for 80% of global emissions and will have to lead the way.
My right hon. Friend is right: a whole range of commitments were made, some of which will continue beyond the end of 2022. As I said, a key commitment was for countries to revisit their emissions-reduction targets by the end of 2022. We will work with the COP27 presidency from Egypt to ensure that countries deliver.
Two months on from the COP, there is a worrying lack of momentum in this pivotal year, and it could get worse if we learn the wrong lessons from the energy crisis. Does the COP President agree that the lesson is not that, as some in his party would say, we are moving too fast on green energy, but the opposite: we are moving too slowly and our dependence on fossil fuels leaves us vulnerable? The only way, therefore, to keep 1.5 alive and provide energy security is to go further and faster on the climate transition.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the UK wants to have a managed transition to net zero, including in our energy mix. He will also know that under this Government we have led the world in offshore wind and that this Government are delivering investment in nuclear to ensure that we increase our baseload.
Consumers looking at their energy bills will ask, “If it is going so well, why are our bills rocketing and why are we so vulnerable?” We can keep 1.5 alive only if we have an energy policy that is fair at home and abroad. Many of the fossil fuel companies have made billions as a result of soaring prices, yet the Government say we should not tax them further because they are struggling. Is not the truth that we are only ever going to meet the Paris agreement if we stand up to vested interests, including the oil and gas companies, and that the fair and right approach is a windfall tax to help with the real struggles faced by the British people?
We want to see more private sector investment in offshore wind and, indeed, in renewables and the increasing of our green baseload. The right hon. Gentleman will have seen that in the net zero strategy we have set out a plan for an extra £90 billion of investment from the private sector. That is flowing in because of the actions of this Government.
Our young people have led the fight for tougher climate change pledges, so the world at least does not breach 1.5° of warming. To support their activism, Scotland recently hosted the UN Climate Change Conference of Youth ahead of COP26, has unveiled almost £1 million for a programme for young people in the climate conference and legacy activities, and has signed up to the UNICEF declaration on children, youth and climate change, along with countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Peru. The UK Government have not signed up to that declaration. Will they, and when?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that we absolutely need to ensure that the voices of young people are heard loud and clear—and indeed they were at COP26, both in terms of civil society and youth groups. For the first time ever, leading into that COP, we set up a civil society youth advisory group that helped us plan for the conference and identify the issues to take forward. We will continue to engage with young people in civil society during our presidency year.
COP26 Commitments: Government Procurement
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government put in place a new procurement policy that underlines the UK’s global leadership in tackling climate change. Prospective suppliers bidding for contracts above £5 million a year must now have committed to the Government’s target of net zero by 2050 and have published a carbon reduction plan.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The Department of Health and Social Care is indeed actively exploring the use of reusable face masks, reusable eye protection and reusable transparent masks. I will ensure that the relevant Minister from the Department writes to him with more details.
As the COP26 President knows, the Glasgow climate pact reaffirmed the ambition to limit global heating to 1.5°. He also knows that the International Energy Agency has made it really clear that if we are to meet that target there can be no new oil, gas or coal projects. So will he make the case to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that the 40 new fossil fuel projects in the pipeline for approval in the UK are plainly incompatible with the terms of the agreement that he presided over?
I wish that sometimes the hon. Lady would praise the work that the Government are doing in terms of pushing forward on renewables. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has set out a consultation on a climate compatibility checkpoint when it comes to future licences, and she should write in and set out her views.
Transition to Net Zero: North Sea Oil and Gas Industry
Through the North Sea transition deal, the oil and gas industry has committed to early targets for offshore production emissions reductions, with 10% reductions by 2025, 25% by 2027 and 50% by 2030, setting out the path to achieve a net zero basin by 2050.
I certainly will praise my right hon. and hon. Friends for their amazing work on renewable energy, and on the transition to net zero, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, although the net zero challenge is the greatest challenge of our generation, to keep energy bills down and to keep our energy security we must make best use of our oil and gas resources?
My right hon. Friend makes a very strong case. Obviously the answer lies with renewables, but it also makes no sense for us to increase imports of volatile-price fossil fuels, which come to us with higher embedded emissions. That is why we have the North Sea transition deal—not to close down the industry, but to work with the sector to make the transition to the net zero future that we all signed up to.
In a recent written question, No. 98384, the Government were asked if they would explain how individual policies in the net zero strategy, including on North sea oil and gas, would reduce emissions. In a reply dated 14 January 2022, the Minister said that he would publish the information when
“decisions on the design of the associated individual policy intervention are sufficiently advanced”.
How is it possible that the Government published a net zero strategy without an understanding of what the individual policies will mean, and how can we therefore believe their promise that we are on course to meet crucial targets for 2030 and 2035?
Of course the Government are fully aware of these issues; there is no change in the Government’s position. We published the net zero strategy and we are seeing it come through. We are delivering on all of the aspects. My right hon. Friend the COP President just mentioned the climate change compatibility checkpoint. We are delivering on all of these things with haste.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response and the Government’s ongoing commitment to support the UK oil and gas sector in their role to drive forward the energy transition to net zero. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming yesterday’s High Court ruling to throw out claims by certain environmental activists that UK Government support for the industry was unlawful?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We welcome yesterday’s judgment. I, probably like he, wonder whether the SNP and the Scottish Green Government in Edinburgh would share our welcome. There will be an ongoing need for oil and gas as we reduce demand amid the transition to lower carbon energy, which, in the end, is the solution. I know from my visit to his constituency just last month how important renewables are for delivery in his constituency of Banff and Buchan.
COP26 Commitments: Carbon Capture and Sequestration
The UK can become a world leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere. In the net zero strategy, the UK Government announced their ambition to capture and store 20 to 30 megatonnes of CO2 per annum by 2030, with 10 megatonnes to be delivered by track-2 clusters.
The Scottish carbon cluster site would address Scotland’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. It would unlock 30% of the UK’s carbon dioxide storage capability and combine hydrogen production, direct air capture and a shipping terminal to serve the rest of the UK in terms of carbon dioxide storage. Why then was the Scottish cluster relegated to reserve status and what representation has the right hon. Gentleman had from the “lightweight” Scottish Tory leader about this disgraceful decision?
As ever, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, Acorn is the first reserve, which means that it met the eligibility criteria and performed well in the evaluation criteria. As for the Scottish Conservatives, I speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, frequently. I also speak to the local MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), and others. The Scottish cluster, Acorn, has a good future. I have also recently met with Storegga, INEOS and Shell to discuss specific aspects in relation to the cluster, which moves ahead.
Zero Emission Vehicles
At COP26, the UK launched a joint statement with more than 100 signatories, committing to work towards all new car sales being zero emission by 2040 globally, and by 2035 in leading markets. Thirty-two per cent. of the global car market is now covered by manufacturer commitments to phase out polluter vehicles.
Cornwall is keen to take the lead in the emergency green economy, in particular looking at local lithium to store electricity. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what action the Government are taking to utilise this important asset and what benefits she sees for the people of Cornwall.
My hon. Friend the Minister for industry visited innovative UK companies Cornish Lithium and British Lithium just last week to see their exciting progress towards producing lithium in the UK. These are great examples of UK enterprise benefiting from Government funding to support jobs and growth in Cornwall and providing a critical mineral to support our green industrial revolution. We are looking forward to working further with industry as we develop our critical mineral strategy later this year.
The UK COP presidency has established the Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council. That will bring together the Governments of the world’s largest car markets to work towards accelerating this transition. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what role the council will play in the UK’s presidency year, ahead of COP27?
The UK will continue to work through the Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council for an accelerated and equitable global transition to zero emission vehicles as well as delivery of its 2022 action plan, which includes collaboration on regulations, heavy goods vehicles, infrastructure and support to developing countries. The ZEVTC will be one of the leading initiatives for international collaboration under the Glasgow breakthrough on road transport.
The ongoing work that the net zero strategy has set forward, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change continues to work on, will help build the new grids that we need, as we know that we are going to be requiring up to four times as much electricity. Also, our use of electricity will be through a much more distributed grid system. That will be ongoing work in the months and years ahead.
What does the Minister think is more likely to encourage greater use of electric vehicles: the Scottish Government’s grant scheme, with up to £28,000 for the purchase of a new vehicle, or her Government’s decision to cut the equivalent grant in England to just £2,500?
The Government are leading the way in supporting the transition that our vehicle manufacturers are making towards zero emission vehicles and through the work that the COP President set out, ensuring that all countries across the world will be part of the zero emissions revolution.
Coal Use Reduction
In the Glasgow climate pact, all parties agreed to phase down the use of coal, the first ever specific mention of coal in the UN climate decision text. The global coal to clean power transition statement gained 77 signatures from countries, sub-nationals and organisations, and the Powering Past Coal Alliance grew to 165 members
I congratulate the COP President on his achievements at COP26. I welcome our move away from the use of coal, and that should include any new exploration for both thermal and metallurgical coal. With that in mind, does he agree that the UK can be a beacon to the rest of the world and we can show a progressive environmental example by not going ahead with the proposed coalmine in west Cumbria?
As my hon. Friend is aware, an independent inspector has overseen a public inquiry into the scheme and a report is now being prepared with recommendations for Ministers to consider. He will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment at this stage. However, more generally, the UK has shown leadership on coal, not least through the significant reduction over the past decade in coal use to generate our electricity.
It would be entirely appropriate for the COP President to comment on that and to intervene—it is a political decision whether to go ahead with a new coalmine in Cumbria. Should he not cancel it now and instead invest in wind, hydro, marine and tidal energy that can be championed by Cumbrian businesses such as Gilkes, investing in green jobs rather than dirty, old-fashioned ones?
I have just concluded constructive visits to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the respective holders of COP27 and COP28. I met a range of Government Ministers and businesses, and we agreed that we would work closely to ensure the lasting impact of climate negotiations and other climate commitments made in Glasgow.
Just days after the Glasgow COP ended, Tory Ministers were wining and dining with senior fossil fuel executives, including from Shell and BP, apparently to urge them to keep on drilling for oil and gas in the North sea. As COP President, does he not agree that, instead of being in the pockets of fossil fuel giants, Ministers should be following the United Nations’ call for an end to all new fossil fuel projects—[Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman is definitely making my job harder by the amount of hot air he is emitting—I wonder whether he will offset those emissions. Let me be clear that we have a commitment to have a managed transition in our energy mix, and that is what we are doing.
I am surprised that the hon. Member is pursuing that line of inquiry. Labour’s motion here in this Chamber last Tuesday totally unravelled and was rejected comprehensively. The Government are taking action—we are supporting vulnerable households through winter fuel payments, cold weather payments, the household support fund and so on—but the Labour proposal unravelled tragically last week, Mr Speaker, as you saw.
My right hon. Friend raises a really important point, and of course I will continue to work very closely with Brazil on the commitments that have been made to make sure they are implemented. I will be speaking to Minister Leite, the Environment Minister, in the coming weeks to reaffirm those commitments and our view that they should be followed through.
Of course, as I said earlier, we want to see an orderly transition to net zero in our energy mix, which includes oil and gas, but the answer to delivering net zero, keeping bills under control and ensuring security of supply is to continue to build out our world-leading offshore wind sector and invest in nuclear and hydrogen, as this Government are doing.
The Prime Minister has absolutely been leading on this agenda for years—[Interruption.] He has been leading for years. I would just say that it was a Conservative Government who put in place net zero by 2050, and Members should just look at the commitments we have made under the current Prime Minister, with our nationally determined contribution and our carbon budget 6. We are leading the world when it comes to going green.
The Minister will know that Teesside is the hydrogen capital of the UK, where we already produce more than 50% of our commercially viable hydrogen, so will he consider throwing his weight behind Redcar and Cleveland’s bid to become home to the UK’s first hydrogen village by 2025?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He knows that we are co-operating very closely internationally and domestically on hydrogen. On Redcar’s bid, he is a passionate advocate for all things related to Redcar, and his message has been heard loud and clear by the Government.
Two years ago, Together Energy was providing 350 jobs in my constituency, leading on innovation for small and medium-sized utility companies. Yesterday, it went bust. While his Prime Minister and his Chancellor are missing in action doing other stuff, can the Minister tell me what his Government and Ofgem are doing to support small and medium-sized utility companies deliver zero emissions and deliver jobs in my constituency?
I am not going to take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman. He knows very well that the Government are working very closely with the sector. He knows that we have put in place a price cap, and he knows that, when it comes to jobs, this Government are investing, and we want to see 2 million green jobs created over the coming decades.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I will shortly update the House on this country’s fantastic progress in tackling covid-19, including through our booster programme, which is enabling us to ease plan B measures and restore the ancient liberties of this country.
I know that the whole House will be delighted that Her Majesty the Queen has given permission for a special medal to be awarded to all those who were deployed to Kabul. Operation Pitting saw our servicemen and women deliver the largest British evacuation since the second world war. The whole country can be immensely proud of their service.
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.
Last year, we were told by the Prime Minister that there were no Downing Street parties. Then it turned out that there were parties, but we were assured that no rules were broken. Last week, we heard that rules may have been broken, but that he thought it was a work event. Yesterday, from the man who wrote the rules, we heard, “Well, nobody told me what those rules were.” Five weeks ago, the people of North Shropshire were clear, and the people of North East Fife are being clear to me now: no matter the excuse, there is no excuse for taking the British people for fools. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time for him to resign?
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the British Council, which is a wonderful institution that we all love. That is why, through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are providing £189 million of funding this year—a 27% increase on the previous financial year—in spite of all the difficulties this country is facing. We have also provided a loan facility of up to £145 million to support all the wonderful work the British Council does.
I am not bothered, Mr Speaker. I assumed it was directed at the Prime Minister. [Laughter.]
Can I start by warmly welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) to his new place in the House and to the parliamentary Labour party? Like so many people up and down the country, he has concluded that the Prime Minister and the Conservative party have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and Government this country deserves, whereas the Labour party stands ready to provide an alternative Government that the country can be proud of. The Labour party has changed and so has the Conservative party. He, and anyone else who wants to build a new Britain built on decency, security, prosperity and respect, is welcome in my Labour party.
Every week, the Prime Minister offers absurd and frankly unbelievable defences to the Downing Street parties, and each week it unravels. [Interruption.]
First, the Prime Minister said there were no parties. Then the video landed, blowing that defence out of the water. Next, he said he was sickened and furious when he found out about the parties, until it turned out that he himself was at the Downing Street garden party. Then, last week, he said he did not realise he was at a party and—surprise, surprise—no one believed him. So this week he has a new defence: “Nobody warned me that it was against the rules.” That is it—nobody told him! Since the Prime Minister wrote the rules, why on earth does he think his new defence is going to work for him?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the rules. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) across the aisle earlier on. Of course, we must wait for the outcome of the inquiry, but I renew what I have said. When it comes to his view—[Interruption.]
If we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman about covid restrictions, which is the substance of his question, then we would have been in lockdown after July. This is the truth. If we had listened to the Labour Front Bench in the run-up to Christmas and new year, we would have stayed in restrictions, with huge damage to the economy. It is because of the judgments I have taken and we have taken in Downing Street that we now have the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and GDP is now back up above pre-pandemic levels.
As for Bury South—[Interruption.] As for Bury South, let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Conservative party won Bury South for the first time in generations under this Prime Minister, with an agenda of uniting, levelling up and delivering for the people of Bury South, and we will win again in Bury South at the next election under this Prime Minister.
Order. Look, it is important that I hear, and I want to hear both sides. I do not want this continuous chant. If it continues, there will be fewer people on the Conservative Benches, and the same on the Labour side. I expect both sides to be heard with courtesy. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Not only did the Prime Minister write the rules, but some of his staff say they did warn him about attending the party on 20 May 2020. I have heard the Prime Minister’s very carefully crafted response to that accusation; it almost sounds like a lawyer wrote it, so I will be equally careful with my question. When did the Prime Minister first become aware that any of his staff had concerns about the 20 May party?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for repeating the question that he has already asked. We have answered that: it is for the inquiry to come forward with an explanation of what happened, and I am afraid that he simply must wait. He asks about my staff and what they were doing and what they have told me. I can tell him that they have taken decisions throughout this pandemic—that he has opposed—to open up in July, as I have said, to mount the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe and to double the speed of the booster roll-out, with the result that we have the most open economy in Europe, and we have more people in employment and more employees on the payroll now than there were before the pandemic began. That is what my staff have been working on in Downing Street, and I am proud of them.
So apparently Sue Gray is going to tell the Prime Minister when he first became aware that his staff had concerns about 20 May. His account gets more extraordinary with each version of his defence. If the Prime Minister’s new defence were true, it requires him to suggest that his staff are not being truthful when they say they warned him about the party. It requires the Prime Minister to expect us to believe that, while every other person who was invited on 20 May to the party was told it was a social occasion, he alone was told it was a work meeting. It also requires the Prime Minister to ask us to accept that, as he waded through the empty bottles and platters of sandwiches, he did not realise it was a party. Does the Prime Minister realise how ridiculous that sounds?
I have said what I have said about the events in No. 10 and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait for the report. He asks for further clarification. I think lots of people are interested—I say this entirely in passing—in the exact legal justification from m’learned Leader of the Opposition for the picture of him drinking a bottle of beer. Perhaps he can tell the House about that in a minute. What I can tell the House is that, throughout the pandemic, people across Government have been working flat out to protect the British public with huge quantities of personal protective equipment, so we can now make 80% of it in this country, with the biggest and most generous furlough scheme virtually anywhere in the world, and with the fastest—and by the way, if we had listened to the Opposition, we would have stayed in the European Medicines Agency and we would never have been able to deliver the vaccine roll-out at the speed that we did.
Let us be absolutely clear: the right hon. and learned Gentleman is continuing to ask a series of questions which he knows will be fully addressed by the inquiry. He is wasting this House’s time. He is wasting the people’s time. He continues to be completely irrelevant to the—[Interruption.] We have an inquiry, and I am not going to anticipate that inquiry any further. What I can tell him is that because of the judgments that were taken in Downing Street, because of the willingness of the British people to put trust, by the way, in those judgments and to come forward in huge numbers to get vaccinated, which people did—and I thank them for it from the bottom of my heart—and because they listened to our messages, we now have the fastest growing economy in the G7 and youth unemployment, which the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) ought to care about, at a record low.
I know it is not going well, Prime Minister, but look on the bright side: at least the staff at No. 10 know how to pack a suitcase.
Last year, Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man she had been married to for 73 years. She followed the rules of the country that she leads. On the eve of that funeral, a suitcase was filled with booze and wheeled into Downing Street. A DJ played, and staff partied late into the night. The Prime Minister has been forced to hand an apology to Her Majesty the Queen. Is he not ashamed that he did not hand in his resignation at the same time?
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
While the Prime Minister wastes energy defending the indefensible, people’s energy bills are rocketing. Labour has a plan to deal with it: axe VAT for everyone, provide extra support for the hardest hit, and pay for it with a one-off tax on oil and gas companies—a serious plan for a serious problem. What are the Government offering? Nothing. They are too distracted by their own chaos to do their job. While Labour was setting out plans to heat homes, the Prime Minister was buying a fridge to keep the party wine chilled. While we were setting out plans to keep bills down, he was planning parties. While we were setting out plans to save jobs in the steel industry, he was trying to save just one job: his own. Does not the country deserve so much better than this out-of-touch, out-of-control, out-of-ideas and soon to be out-of-office Prime Minister?
I will tell you what this Government have been doing to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic and beyond. We have been cutting the cost of living and helping them with the living wage. We have been cutting taxes for people on low pay. We have been increasing payments for people suffering the costs of fuel—
We will continue to look after people throughout this pandemic and beyond, but we have also been cutting crime by 10% and putting 11,000 more police officers out on the streets. There was record home building last year—more homes that at any time in the last 30 years. We are building 40 new hospitals. Gigabit broadband has gone up from 9% coverage in our country to 65% already. As I said already—I think three or four times today—we have more employees on the payroll now than before the pandemic began, and youth unemployment is at a record low.
When the history of this pandemic comes to be written and the history of the Labour party comes to be written—believe me, it is history and will remain history—it will show that we delivered while they dithered, and that we vaccinated while they vacillated. The reason we have been able to lift restrictions faster than any other country in Europe, and we have the most open economy and the most open society in Europe, is thanks to the booster roll-out and thanks to the work of staff up and down Whitehall, across Government and throughout the NHS, and I am intensely proud of what this Government have done.
I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning for this wonderful project. We are supporting the electric vehicle industry. We made another £350 million available through the automotive transformation fund, on top of the commitment of half a billion pounds we have already made in a 10-point plan. I know that the campaign for Coventry airport is an excellent one, and I look forward to seeing how it develops.
This week was supposed to be Operation Save Big Dog, but it has quickly become Operation Dog’s Dinner. Over the past two days, we have had more damaging revelations about Downing Street rule breaking, more evidence that Parliament has been misled, and an even longer list of ludicrous—absolutely ludicrous—excuses from the Prime Minister. First he claimed there were no parties, then that he was not present; then he admitted he was at them but he did not know it was a party, and the latest sorry excuse is really the most pathetic of them all: “Nobody told me.” Nobody told the Prime Minister he was breaking his own rules—absolutely pathetic. [Interruption.] What a look—the Prime Minister laughing once again. He is laughing at the British public, taking the public for fools. Nobody believes him. Will the Prime Minister finally take responsibility and resign? Go, Prime Minister.
No, but I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question again. I remind him that there is an inquiry, which is due to conclude. I believe he is wrong in what he asserts, but we have to wait and see what the inquiry says. The most important thing from the point of view of the UK Government is that we are coming out of the restrictions—I am delighted to see that that is happening in Scotland as well—which is largely thanks to the wonderful co-operation that we continue to see across the whole of the UK, although you would not think it to hear him.
Nobody is buying this act any more. There ought to be some respect and dignity from the Prime Minister. Let us remind ourselves: more than 150,000 of our citizens died and he is partying, he is laughing. It simply is not acceptable—the fake contrition, the endless excuses, the empty promises that it will be different if only we give him one last chance. This is a Prime Minister who arrogantly believes that he is above the rules; a Prime Minister who brazenly twists the truth; a Prime Minister who simply is not fit for office.
The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser says that he lied to Parliament, breaking the ministerial code—a resignation offence, Prime Minister. Public trust is haemorrhaging. With every day that passes, this Tory Government lose even more credibility. When will the Tory MPs finally do the right thing? Show the Prime Minister the door.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I must say that I disagree with him. When we look at the levels of trust that the British people—people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the whole country—have shown in the Government, the single biggest index of that trust has been their willingness to come forward voluntarily, unlike in many other countries in the world, to get vaccinated on a scale not seen anywhere else in Europe. That is because of our ability, and the NHS’s ability, to persuade people that it is the right thing. It is a fantastic thing, and by the way, it is also a tribute to the United Kingdom, because that vaccine roll-out was a UK effort.
I thank my hon. Friend for all he is doing to champion trade with Latin America. I have no doubt that small businesses such as Squire Hair are eager to get into those new markets, and we will do everything we can to help and support him in his efforts.
As the cost of living crisis deepens, this Government’s priorities get ever more remote from my constituents. Only this week, I learned that a veteran in my constituency, James Scott, took his own life as a result of his struggle with mounting financial pressures. This is a Government who have been found to have acted unlawfully by the High Court over covid contracts and who are now preparing to write off £4.3 billion that had been allocated to those covid schemes. Why can the UK Government find billions of pounds for profiteers and fraudsters but not find the compassion to treat the people with dignity by lifting the benefits cap and reinstating the cut to universal credit?
First, I want to say how sorry I am for what the hon. Gentleman has had to say about James Scott. This Government do as much as we can to support veterans, and that is why we published the veterans action plan only the other day. We are also ensuring that we support people throughout this crisis. In my answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), I mentioned many of the steps we are taking to protect people on low incomes, and we will continue to do more. The hon. Gentleman attacks the contracts for PPE, but actually I think it was an astonishing thing to be able, at great speed, to give this country 17 billion items of PPE. Thanks to the efforts of people across Whitehall, this country is now capable of producing 80% of our own PPE.
I am very sad to hear the news of the loss of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Oliver. As is the case with so many victims of violent crime, the answer is not just policing, though that is vitally important and it is why we are investing so massively in 20,000 more police officers and supporting them with toughening the law. But it is also, as she rightly says, important to get all the institutions of the state to work together: schools, colleges, social services, the health service and mental health service as well.
I entirely understand people’s feelings and I entirely support what the hon. Lady says about someone obeying the rules when they make the rules. She is completely right. On the other hand, I urge her to wait, as I have said to Opposition Members, until next week.
We will certainly be legislating to expand the dormant assets scheme to include new financial assets, which would unlock an estimated £880 million. We will be considering how to spend the English portion of that. The community wealth fund that my hon. Friend proposes is certainly an option and I thank him very much.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to repeat that I understand the feelings that the hon. Gentleman has relayed to me, as I said last week. I sympathise very deeply with the feelings and I understand why people feel as they do. I thank people very much for everything that they have done. I recognise the enormous sacrifice that people have made. I apologise for the misjudgments that may have been made in No. 10 by me and anybody else, but please can I ask him to wait for the inquiry to conclude?
I will certainly do what I can to support it, although of course, as my hon. Friend knows, such memorials are a matter for local authorities. What the House and the Government can certainly do is ensure that memorials are not desecrated, as they have been across the country, and that we support legislation that penalises those who indulge in such desecration.
Mr Speaker, I think that was a question for you rather than me. Look, I have made my point. I think that the British public have responded to what the Government have had to say in the most eloquent way possible. They have beaten covid so far. They have helped to defeat covid so far with the steps that they have taken by getting vaccinated and implementing plan B, and I thank them.
The vast majority of people, and indeed the vast majority of politicians, across Northern Ireland believe that whatever the question, double-jobbing is not the answer. May I urge my right hon. Friend to listen to the majority and ensure that the Government amendment is not moved in the other place later today?
No, I really do not agree with the hon. Lady, and I do not think that she can have been following anything that has been said this afternoon. We have unemployment falling to near-record lows, and we have job vacancies at record highs. That is what Conservative Governments do: they create jobs and get the economy moving.
Like many on the Government Benches, I have spent weeks and months defending the Prime Minister against often angry constituents. I have reminded them of his success in delivering Brexit and the vaccines, and many other things. But I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday the Prime Minister did the opposite of that, so I will remind him of a quotation that will be altogether too familiar to him. Leo Amery said to Neville Chamberlain:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing… In the name of God, go.”—[Official Report, 7 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1150.]—[Interruption.]
I must say to my right hon. Friend that I do not know what he is talking about. I do not know what quotation he is alluding to. What I can tell him, as I have told the House repeatedly throughout the pandemic, is that I take full responsibility for everything done in this Government, and throughout the pandemic.
The Conservative approach to the Union is one that I think is right for our country. We want to keep it together. Conservatives in Scotland do an excellent job, which is why their stout defence of the Union was repaid at the last election. Labour is increasingly endangering our Union in Scotland.
Last week many people welcomed the five-year moratorium on smart motorways. However, the M27 is due to be opened as a smart motorway in a couple of months. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give my constituents, and others in the rest of south Hampshire, that the M27 will be safe, to give them confidence to use it?
Within hours of learning from scientists in South Africa about the emergence of a new covid variant last November, this Government acted to introduce balanced and proportionate restrictions at our borders to slow the seeding of omicron in our country. As we learnt more about this highly transmissible new variant, we implemented the plan B measures that we had prepared precisely in case our situation deteriorated, encouraging people to change their behaviour to slow the spread of the virus and buying crucial time to get boosters into arms.
We made the big call to refocus our national health service, necessarily requiring the difficult postponement of many other appointments, so that we could double the speed of the booster programme. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our NHS and its volunteers, we delivered the fastest booster programme in Europe, reaching half our population before any other European country. There are more than 36 million boosters now in arms across the UK, including more than 90% of all over-60s in England.
Taking a balanced approach, we resisted calls from others to shut down our country all over again. Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns, and many have seen hospitality curfews and nightclubs closed, capacity limits at sports stadiums, the return of social distancing and, in some places, Christmas and new year as good as cancelled. But this Government took a different path. We kept England open and we supported those businesses that faced reduced demand because of the response to plan B measures. Although we must continue to remain cautious, the data are showing that, time and again, this Government got the toughest decisions right.
Today’s latest Office for National Statistics data show clearly that infection levels are falling in England and, although there are some places where cases are likely to continue rising, including in primary schools, our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally. There remain, of course, significant pressures on the NHS across our country, especially in the north-east and north-west, but hospital admissions, which were doubling every nine days just two weeks ago, have now stabilised, with admissions in London even falling, and the number of people in intensive care not only remains low but is actually also falling.
This morning the Cabinet concluded that because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the plan B measures, we can return to plan A in England and allow plan B regulations to expire. As a result, from the start of Thursday next week, mandatory certification will end. Organisations can of course choose to use the NHS covid pass voluntarily, but we will end the compulsory use of covid status certification in England.
From now on, the Government are no longer asking people to work from home. People should now speak to their employer about arrangements for returning to the office. Having looked at the data carefully, the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse, the Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere. From tomorrow, we will no longer require face masks in classrooms, and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas.
In the country at large, we will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly where people come into contact with people they do not normally meet, but we will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one. The Government will also ease restrictions further on visits to care homes, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will set out plans in the coming days.
As we return to plan A, the House will know that some measures still remain, including those on self-isolation. In particular, it is still a legal requirement for those who have tested positive for covid to self-isolate. On Monday, we reduced the isolation period to five full days with two negative tests, and there will soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether—just as we do not place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu. As covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.
The self-isolation regulations expire on 24 March, at which point I very much expect not to renew them. Indeed, were the data to allow, I would like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forward. In advance of that, we will set out our long-term strategy for living with covid-19, explaining how we hope and intend to protect our liberty and avoid restrictions in future by relying instead on medical advances, especially the vaccines which have already saved so many lives.
But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter. When there are still over 16,000 people in hospital in England alone, the pandemic is not over—and make no mistake, omicron is not a mild disease for everyone, especially if you are not vaccinated. Just look at the numbers in intensive care in other countries where vaccination rates are far lower. Indeed, from our NHS data, we know that around 90% of people in intensive care are not boosted. So I urge Members across the House to do everything possible to encourage any remaining constituents who have not done so to get boosted now. For the next few weeks, I encourage everyone across the country to continue with the behaviours that we know help to keep everybody safe—washing hands, letting fresh air in, getting tested and self-isolating if positive, and, as I say, thinking about wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings.
Omicron tested us, just as alpha and delta did before, but let us remember some of what we have achieved. We were the first nation in the world to administer a vaccine. We were the fastest in Europe to roll it out, because, outside the European Medicines Agency, this Government made the big call to pursue our own British procurement strategy rather than opting back into the EU scheme as some people urged. We created a world-beating testing programme, the largest in Europe, and procured the most antivirals of any country in Europe too, because this Government made the big call to invest early in lateral flow tests and in cutting-edge drugs to protect the most vulnerable. We have delivered the fastest booster campaign in Europe, and we are the first to emerge from the omicron wave, because the Government made the big call to focus on our NHS and to refocus our activity by leading the Get Boosted Now campaign.
That is why we have retained the most open economy and society anywhere across the European continent, and the fastest-growing economy in the G7—because we made that tough decision to open up last summer when others said that we should not, and to keep things open in the winter when others wanted them shut. This week the World Health Organisation said that while the global situation remains challenging, the United Kingdom can start to see the
“light at the end of the tunnel”.
That is no accident of history. Confronted by the nation’s biggest challenge since the second world war and the worst pandemic since 1918, any Government would get some things wrong, but this Government got the big things right. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. Throughout the pandemic, the British public have made enormous sacrifices to limit the spread of the virus through staying at home, social distancing and—unlike the Prime Minister—cancelling parties. I thank everybody who has followed the rules and I thank the NHS staff and volunteers who have rolled out the booster jab.
The Labour party does not want to see restrictions in place any longer than necessary. We will support the relaxation of plan B as long as the science says that it is safe, so will the Prime Minister share the scientific evidence behind his decision and reassure the public that he is acting to protect their health and not just his job?
The 438 deaths recorded yesterday are a solemn reminder that the pandemic is not over. We need to remain vigilant and learn the lessons from the Government’s mistakes. With new variants highly likely, we must have a robust plan to live well with covid—so where is it? The Prime Minister is too distracted to do the job. And it is not just the Prime Minister who is letting us down. Where is the Health Secretary’s plan to prepare for another wave of infections? Why is the Chancellor not working with British manufacturers to shore up our domestic supplies of tests? Where is the Foreign Secretary’s plan to help vaccinate the world? They are all too busy plotting their leadership campaigns to keep the public safe.
While the Conservative party tears itself apart, jostling for position and looking inward, the Labour party is focused on the national interest, filling their void. We have a plan, though the Prime Minister does not. We would train and retain a reserve army of volunteer vaccinators. We would build a supply of test kits made in Britain to protect us from global shortages. We would raise statutory sick pay and make all workers eligible, keep schools open by improving ventilation, and break the endless cycle of new variants by playing our part in vaccinating the world. We would produce a road map for decision making to ensure efficient action when it is demanded, stop the short-sighted sell-off of the UK’s vaccine manufacturing centre, and never again allow our NHS and social care service to be so run down, underfunded, understaffed and overstretched as it has been over the last decade of a Tory Government. Labour has a plan to live well with covid and secure our lives, livelihoods and liberties. Where is his?
I would be happy to share the scientific advice on which we have taken the decision, of course. The right hon. and learned Gentleman can see it—it is there for everybody to consult. He asked about our testing abilities. We are conducting about 1.25 million tests a day and we have the biggest capability to do tests of any country in Europe. As I promised the House—I seem to remember that he attacked me at the time—we have a world-beating testing industry and a massive diagnostics facility that we never had before.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman attacks the Government over the distribution of vaccines to the rest of the world. We have already done 30 million and we will do 100 million by June, and 2.5 billion AstraZeneca vaccines have been distributed around the world at cost price thanks to the deal that the UK Government did with AstraZeneca. He talks about funding the NHS, but Labour voted against the funding that we will need to clear the covid backlogs and fund our NHS.
Throughout the pandemic, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been absolutely shameless in veering from one position to the next, and he has been wrong about virtually every single important decision. He was wrong about keeping schools open—do you remember, Mr Speaker, that he consistently refused to say that they were safe because of what his paymasters in the union were telling him? He was wrong about going forward from lockdown on 19 July—do you remember, Mr Speaker, that he said it was reckless? He was totally wrong. Labour Front-Bench Members were wrong about going through Christmas and new year with plan B as we did—they said that we needed a road map back to lockdown. He did—that guy did! Oh, no—wait. Maybe it was actually the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting)—that guy! They said that they wanted a road map back to lockdown. Above all, they tried to undermine the vaccine taskforce—they said that we should not be spending £675,000 of taxpayers’ money on outreach to vaccine-hesitant groups. That is their idea of priority spending.
It has been absolutely miserable listening to those on the Opposition Front Bench because they have had nothing useful to say. They have flip-flopped opportunistically from one position to the other. Mr Speaker, did you get any idea from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said just now whether or not he supports what we are doing? No. [Interruption.] So he does support it. Okay, he supports it this week, but what you can be certain of, Mr Speaker, is that if he thinks there is any political opportunity in opposing it next week, he will not hesitate to do so. He has been Captain Hindsight throughout and he has had absolutely nothing useful to say or to contribute.
I refer the House to my entry the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Many of my constituents work in the aviation sector. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about plan B restrictions, but I note that he made no reference to the tests that are still required for people who come into England. If we are going to learn to live with covid, we need to facilitate travel, so will he take this opportunity to announce that when plan B restrictions are removed next week the Government will also make it clear that there will be no test requirements for anybody who enters England and is fully vaccinated?
We are certainly reviewing the testing arrangements for travel and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will make a statement on that in the next few days. It is important that everybody in the country understands that wherever they want to go in the world, getting their booster will be a pretty crucial thing to do.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement.
We are all grateful that the data suggests we have turned a corner in the omicron wave and that the success of the vaccination programme in particular gives us cause to be hopeful in the months ahead, but although it is declining, the level of infection is still undoubtedly high and the NHS remains under pressure. That is why caution is the key, rather than the Prime Minister’s strategy of throwing caution to the wind.
Baseline measures such as face coverings in indoor public places and working from home where possible—which Scotland still has in place throughout—are extremely important in the weeks ahead, as is the guidance on lateral flow tests. Will the Prime Minister guarantee—[Interruption.] Perhaps he can come off his phone, because this is important. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that lateral flow tests will remain free as they are required and put to bed the speculation that their provision free at the point of need will be removed?
Although the data gives us cause to be optimistic, the real problem for the Prime Minister is that no matter what the data has said today, he had no choice but to throw caution to the wind. The pathetic and unbelievable excuses—that he does not know his own rules—have left the Prime Minister weak. He is unable to lead on this issue or on any other. The public cannot trust a single word that the Prime Minister says: any shred of credibility has gone.
In a global pandemic that, as the World Health Organisation is cautioning, is nowhere near over, and during which new variants are likely to emerge, it is deeply concerning that we have at the helm a Prime Minister like this who is simply not fit to lead. Even though the figures thankfully give us cause to be hopeful, it is clear that the Prime Minister cannot carry on when his credibility has all gone.
I repeat the points that I made earlier to the right hon. Gentleman. The reason why we are in the state we are in is because of the immense co-operation there has been across the whole UK.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about testing; we will of course keep lateral flow tests free for as long as is necessary. Testing has been a fantastic example of Union collaboration. I have seen for myself tests from people in Sussex being assessed in Glasgow. I have seen the work of the UK armed services helping people across the whole UK to move people who needed treatment to wherever. It has been a fantastic example of Union collaboration and I hope the right hon. Gentleman bears that in mind.
At the height of the first wave, the Government had the courage to pre-order 400 million doses of vaccines without even knowing whether they worked. That has laid the foundations for our having the best vaccine programme of any large country, so I welcome today’s announcement. It will not surprise the Prime Minister, though, if I draw his attention to the fact that NHS doctors and nurses are absolutely shattered. He will have seen this week that one in six doctors say that they have had near misses or harmed patients because of exhaustion. If he does not want to accept the Select Committee’s recommendations to address the workforce crisis, what will he do to give hope to our brilliant frontline staff?
My right hon. Friend has a great deal of expertise in this matter. I thank all frontline staff and others in the NHS for what they have been doing. He is right in what he says about how tired people are; they are exhausted, but they are also working heroically and doing an incredible job. It is because there are 17,000 covid cases that we need to remain cautious, despite what we heard from the Opposition Benches. We do need to remain cautious, and we do need to make sure that we continue to recruit for our amazing NHS. There are now 44,000 more healthcare professionals than there were in 2020, and that is as a result of the recruitment by this Government.
We know that the vaccine still remains one of the best defences against this virus, but over the past month we have seen a slowing in the booster vaccination rates. Will the Prime Minister update the House as to when he expects a completion date for the booster vaccination, and will he also set out a plan as to how he will encourage take-up of the vaccination among certain groups, particularly young people?
The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point and I am grateful to her. There is a job of work for all of us to do in reaching out to certain groups. At the moment, it is not actually hesitancy but apathy that is the problem. Omicron is seen wrongly to be a mild disease, so people are not getting the vaccine in the way that they might. We need to break down that apathy in those groups, and we are doing everything that we can to do that. The numbers are rising the whole time, but we want them to rise faster.
Mr Speaker, you would think that, today of all days, those on the Opposition Benches could be delighted for our great United Kingdom, delighted that legal restrictions could come to an end soon, delighted about the amazing vaccine roll-out, and delighted about the strength of our economy—all a superb team effort led by my right hon. Friend. However, can he reassure me that, in the work that looks beyond that, he will very carefully assess the impact of lockdown on people having babies, and in particular those who were separated from partners unable to take part in the birth experience with them, which is so vital for giving every baby the best start for life?
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has just said. Her point about birth partners being able to attend is unbelievably important. I am glad that we were able to address it in spite of some difficulties. Her “best start for life” programme is unbelievably important. I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Health and Social Care are working with her to deliver it.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister had to accept that he was unaware of what his own covid rules actually allowed. With millions of British people now seeing that the Prime Minister cannot even grasp what his own basic rules are, he is no longer a credible person to set the rules for others during this public health crisis. Is it not time that he accepted that the House and the country can no longer trust him with the nation’s health and that the best policy to beat covid now would be for him to resign?
Ni hao, as we say to the right hon. Gentleman. Renshi ni hen gao xing! I do not agree with him, Mr Speaker. I want to go on and deliver on the people’s priorities. This Government were elected with an enormous mandate to level up across our country, and that is what we will do.
I hope the Prime Minister will forgive me for not being extraordinarily grateful for the withdrawal of these measures. I and many colleagues did not think that they were necessary in December, but I do, none the less, welcome their removal. May I draw his attention to a further policy which it would be helpful for him to reconsider? The Government’s current plan is to say to our valuable NHS staff that if they refuse to be vaccinated, they are to be sacked. Those sackings are to commence in a couple of weeks’ time, with no compensation. We know now that the Secretary of State is being advised by his own officials that, due to the lack of protection against transmission, this needs to be rethought. May I urge the Prime Minister to rethink this policy? We should not reward our NHS staff, for all their dedication, with the sack. We should allow them to continue doing the valuable work that they deliver to our great country.
I thank my right hon. Friend and respect very much the points of view that he has put across consistently throughout this pandemic. It has been very important that we have had a voice speaking up for freedom in the way that he has done. But I have to think also of those who will be at the bedside of elderly and vulnerable people who are dying of nosocomially acquired covid, and their feelings about our failure to get vaccination rates up high enough within the NHS. It is a very grim problem, as I am sure my right hon. Friend can understand.
Nobody wants to have compulsory vaccination, but since the policy was announced, rates of vaccination within the NHS have gone up notably, and that is a positive thing. We will reflect on the way ahead. We do not want to drive people out of the service, but it is a professional responsibility of everybody looking after the health of others within our NHS to get vaccinated. I hope my right hon. Friend agrees with that.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today, particularly the decision to remove face masks from schools. I know many staff, pupils and parents will be extremely pleased that that is now happening.
I know the Prime Minister will share my concern and that of the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, that during the pandemic we have seen many thousands of children become off the radar of schools—off school rolls. Particularly for the most vulnerable children, this causes serious problems through their exposure to crime and exploitation. Will the Prime Minister look again at some of the recommendations in my review of school exclusion in order to try to address this, so that we can track every pupil who is of school age? We should, as a basic principle, know that every child is in school, where they are in school and what their future is to be.
My hon. Friend is an expert in this, and he is spot-on in what he says. I do not want to see excluded kids being locked in a cycle of ever-growing deprivation. He is absolutely right: the best place for kids is in school. That is why we worked so hard to keep schools open and to insist that they were safe.
I was listening carefully to the Prime Minister’s statement. I do not think he mentioned long covid once, yet according to the Office for National Statistics, over a million people are living with this debilitating condition. Yesterday, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus heard heartbreaking testimony from frontline NHS workers who are living with long covid, many of whom cannot return to work because of this condition. Will the Prime Minister now commit to formally recognising long covid as an occupational disease and launch a compensation scheme for frontline workers who are left unable to work after catching covid while on the frontline of our pandemic response?
I really understand the concerns of people with long covid. Everybody knows people who have had an experience with covid that has gone on far longer than for many others, and who have had a genuinely debilitating time. We are looking at it. The research continues, and we will do whatever we can to support people with long covid, but there is a deal of work still to be done.
May I welcome wholeheartedly the announcements that have been made today? I would ask the Prime Minister to review again the need to sack unvaccinated domiciliary workers and NHS workers, and to examine the evidence that suggests that they pose a risk to their patients. Our belief is that they will not do so any more than the vaccinated.
The rush to remove the requirement for masks, including on public transport, will cause people to fall ill and die unnecessarily. Is this not all about saving the Prime Minister’s political skin, not protecting public health? What a moral failure and what a bad way to go.
I, too, welcome today’s statement and the review of the plan B measures. Like Conservative colleagues, I question the need for mandatory vaccination on behalf of the 100,000 NHS workers. Given that the chief medical officer told MPs that vaccination has a “minimal impact on transmission”, is it not the case that there is no reason at all for mandatory vaccination for care workers and NHS staff? Over the past two years, these key workers have worked tirelessly on the frontline and we have clapped them. Will the Prime Minister make sure that he does not sack them? It is utterly unjustifiable.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, but the NHS fully supports the policy because of patient safety considerations. I repeat what I have said to several Members: I really think that it is the duty of healthcare professionals to get vaccinated.
After he called for the Prime Minister’s resignation over partygate, the branch manager of the Scottish Conservatives was referred to as a “lightweight” by the Leader of the House. How does the Prime Minister think he can maintain his position and continue to issue rules and advice on covid, when he cannot follow the rules himself?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady, with the greatest respect. She will have to wait for the inquiry to conclude. The work on rules and guidance, which we have done together with our friends and partners in the Scottish Administration, has been exemplary and has helped the whole country to come out of covid faster than any other European country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the part about masks. I hope that they never, ever return in our schools. Sadly, it felt to many of us who were concerned about the plan B measures that there was no learning from the last two years. The impact on businesses, including in my beloved weddings sector, has been serious, with fears about next winter already affecting bookings. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we are learning from facts and not just models, to provide confidence that our response to the next variant—because it will come—will be assessed accordingly?
Yes, and my hon. Friend should look at other European countries. I share her enthusiasm for the wedding industry—it is a fantastically important business sector and a massive employer in our country. I hesitate to make this point again, Mr Speaker, but other European countries have been in a far worse state in respect of the closures and restrictions they have been forced to impose. I am thrilled that we have been able to open up in the way that we have, and to get people married in the style and pomp that they want.
Prime Minister, there is a group of vulnerable people who are not able to receive the booster. They have inquired through clinical commissioning groups, doctors and NHS England, but there is a blockage in the system. They have had three injections, but the third does not count as a booster. They were told that they would have a fourth, but they cannot access it. Please intervene and get people talking to unblock this.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he not just remove the work from home guidance but actively encourage people to return to the office, which is good for the economy and particularly important for younger workers, who cannot get the skills, experience and networks that they need by working from home?
I agree with that. I think that across Whitehall we need to show a lead and make sure that we get back to work—that everybody gets back to work. It is safe to do so, provided everybody exercises the due caution that I have set out today. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
We are, mercifully, in a much better position today than we were this time a year ago, and that is thanks to the heroic efforts of the NHS in the roll-out of vaccinations, but just 9% of people living in Africa have been vaccinated against covid-19 to date. Does the Prime Minister agree that the UK is failing to honour its humanitarian obligations to the poorest countries in the world, and will he commit this Government to support a waiver of intellectual property rights on covid-19 vaccines?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of vaccinating the world. No one is safe till everybody is safe. That is clear, and we must get more vaccines to Africa in particular. I have talked to colleagues in African Governments and to African leaders about what we can do to have more fill and finish in Africa and to encourage Africa’s own supply of vaccines—that is the best long-term answer. But what we need to do in the meantime is donate our vaccines, which is what we are doing—the UK is donating £100 million by June, as I told the House earlier—and continue the roll-out of the AstraZeneca jab, which, do not forget, is basically underwritten by the British state, in the sense that it is delivered at cost, thanks to the deal that we did. That is in addition to the £548 million that we have given to COVAX and the investment in Gavi as well. So the UK has a proud record on vaccinating the world, but there is clearly much, much more that the world needs to do; I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that.
It is a warm welcome for the return to plan A from me; I hope it is irreversible this time. The Prime Minister knows that our young people have missed out on so much, and now they face punishment for doing the right thing when it comes to travel, especially our teenagers. They cannot prove that they have had two jabs on the NHS app if they are under 16, because they cannot access it. Even if they can access the cumbersome process involving a letter from the NHS, those with one jab and a recent infection cannot prove that at all. That effectively grounds them. Prime Minister, half-term is coming. Family memories are now, not at some point in the future. Please can we urgently, with the Health Secretary, who is sitting next to the Prime Minister, find a way that teenagers can be treated with fairness and parity with their parents on these important issues, so that they can get on with their lives with their families?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about young people and vaccinations. I do think that people need to appreciate the value of vaccinations for ease of travel, particularly boosters, but it should be as simple as possible for young people; I totally agree with him about that. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will make a statement in the next few days about what we propose to do.
I want to quote the words of my constituent Steven Booth:
“I wish to add my name to the angry voices regarding the conduct of politicians who broke the rules during lockdown, but especially that of the Prime Minister, who demanded we follow the rules, which we did to the letter, while completely disregarding the rules themselves…This is one scandal too many.”
Mr Booth and other constituents will now have no confidence in the rules or the public health messaging from this Prime Minister, and that is a serious failing. What is the Prime Minister’s response to my constituent?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady’s constituent for his point of view and I understand where he is coming from, but if you look at the evidence, the UK population have been amazing in the way we have followed the guidance and followed the rules, and the results are there to be seen in what I have been able to announce today.
I warmly welcome the lifting of restrictions and congratulate everyone involved in the booster vaccine roll-out. Mental health services in Rushcliffe have seen a huge spike in demand following the pandemic. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that mental health services will have their share of the billions of pounds of catch-up funding that this Conservative Government have awarded to the NHS and that the party opposite voted against?
My hon. Friend is totally right. I believe the No. 1 priority for the British people is not just to keep our economy moving forward, as we are, but to make sure we clear those covid backlogs. We cannot do that without the steps the Government have taken. I thought it was amazing that the party opposite voted against them.
We are able to make progress on the covid rules, and to get rid of them, because of our deep understanding of the pandemic. I thank the hon. Gentleman and all our Scottish colleagues for helping to communicate what we are doing in such a way that British people across the whole UK have been able to move forward more or less together. The differences between us are far, far smaller than the similarities, about which I am very proud.
Only this morning, I received an email on behalf of deaf pupils who have been so disadvantaged by forced mask wearing in schools. But for this Prime Minister, we would have had far more severe lockdowns and restrictions. Will he please remain true to his instincts and sweep away all the remaining controls, such as isolation, that are crippling the NHS? To paraphrase Leo Amery, “For God’s sake, keep going.”
I have not sat here quite long enough—nothing like it, in my view—but, yes, my right hon. Friend is right about schools. It is very important to keep them going. I think masks erode our ability to educate properly and to learn properly, and I am glad they are going.
Today, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Royal College of Nursing and others have rightly raised concerns about the rationality, proportionality and recklessness of mandatory vaccination for NHS staff. With approximately 100,000 vacancies already, does the Prime Minister think that, come April, sacking more than 70,000 NHS staff will increase or decrease the pressures on our NHS?
I hear the hon. Lady’s point, which many other colleagues have made today. I am glad the numbers are going up, but her Front Benchers do not agree with her. They agree with the policy, as far as I understand their position. I repeat that I think it is the duty of healthcare professionals to get vaccinated.
I am absolutely delighted with my right hon. Friend’s announcement that children will no longer be required to wear a mask in school. This is a welcome and evidence-based return to prioritising the interests of our children, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic.
My right hon. Friend knows I have not always been a supporter of restrictions, but does he agree that under a Labour Government, far from being the freest country in Europe, we would have had longer, harder lockdowns and school closures, causing immeasurably more harm to the poorest, the youngest and the most vulnerable in our society?
I see the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) shaking his head on the Opposition Front Bench. He was cruelly exposed last week as having repeatedly called for lockdowns. The reality is that the Opposition would have kept us in lockdown in July, and their response to omicron was to call for a road map back into lockdown. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) is totally right.
In Birmingham we have been trying to tackle areas of low vaccine take-up, which has been difficult. When we go to people now, they say, “These rules aren’t good enough for the Prime Minister and Downing Street. This Prime Minister couldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it.” What should I now say to my constituents to ensure they take up the vaccine?