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Covid-19 Update

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2022

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on our progress against omicron and the review of our plan B measures. [Interruption.]

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.

Does the Prime Minister agree that unlike someone who attended bring-your-own-booze parties, the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has behaved with decency and integrity throughout this entire pandemic?

The collaboration across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been exemplary. I have enjoyed working with our partners and will continue to do so.

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.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much, but I think the evidence is clear that healthcare professionals should get 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 notice that the hon. Gentleman is at variance with his Front Bench on that point, and not for the first time. I do not think he is right. I think that we should trust in the judgment of the British people, and that is what we are going to do.

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 thank the hon. Lady very much. We are working fast to unblock it so that people get the fourth jab as fast as possible.

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.

Can I have confirmation from the Prime Minister? Is he getting rid of the covid rules simply because he does not understand 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?

I thank my right hon. Friend for standing firm immediately before Christmas in the face of much pressure from the Opposition for further restrictions to effectively cancel Christmas. It is due to his instincts that we are the freest country in the western world and leading the way in showing the rest of the world how to live with covid. Throughout the pandemic we have had masks in schools in Cumbria, even when the guidance did not recommend them, to no effect on case rates when kids started mixing again, as proven by the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who has been struck by covid a number of times, despite allegedly wearing his mask. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the guidance will go further by removing the option of masks for schools completely?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic campaigner for Workington and for liberty. He is absolutely right in what he says about masks in education. I am delighted they are going. We need to work together to ensure we have a way of living with covid that ensures they never, ever come back.

Early in the pandemic, the Government banged their fist on the table and demanded that the UK diagnostic sector respond to the challenge ahead. The industry responded, and its reward was to be ignored and side-lined—because contracts there came none. Two weeks ago, the UK diagnostics industry looked on in disbelief as the Prime Minister bragged about Government support for the manufacturing of lateral flow devices. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care bragged about buying UK-manufactured lateral flow devices. I could ask the Prime Minister how many UK-manufactured lateral flow devices his Government have purchased, but I do not need to because the answer is, none. Why is the Prime Minister trying to hide his Government’s undermining of the UK domestic diagnostic sector?

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. He should go to Nottingham, where he will find a SureScreen Diagnostics factory, which makes lateral flow kits, and we have bought millions and millions of them.

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s lifting of the covid restrictions. At the present time, 70% of those in Kettering General Hospital with covid are unvaccinated and the vast majority of those could have had the vaccine but made the wrong choice in not doing so. May I urge the Prime Minister, when the daily hospitalisation cases are published, to emphasise the fact that the vast majority are unvaccinated, as an incentive to get more boosters done?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend. He is spot on. He is absolutely right in what he says. I have tried to draw repeated attention, in what I have been saying, to the sad fact that 90% of people in ICU have had no booster and 66% of people are unvaccinated. Omicron is not a mild disease for everyone and it can be particularly nasty if you are not vaccinated.

I acknowledge the enormous effort the NHS has made. The Prime Minister referred to the many thousands of people who have been treated. May I also point out the cost to 50,000 cancer patients of delayed diagnosis? His colleague sitting alongside him, the Health Secretary, said in this very Chamber that it is the Government’s intention to wage a “war on cancer”, a statement welcomed by the Catch Up With Cancer campaign. May I respectfully remind the Prime Minister that, unless that rhetoric is backed up by a plan, new resources to address the workforce crisis, and new IT networks and new equipment, it will just be seen as empty rhetoric?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. Tackling the cancer backlog is a massive priority for the Government. It is not just a question of making sure people have access to the right drugs. The delays are very largely caused by delays in diagnostics by scans and screens. As he knows, that is one of the biggest problems we have. That is why, since October, we have rolled out 40 community diagnostics hubs. They will be part of a total of 100 going forward. We want to see much more rapid diagnosis to help to contract those periods that people are now spending on the waiting lists.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Prime Minister made the right call on restrictions before Christmas and he has made the right call today, except in one respect: the compulsory vaccination of NHS workers. Given that leaked advice to Ministers said that that is neither rational nor proportionate, and given what we now know about omicron and its behaviour, will he think again before redundancy letters start going out from 3 February?

That argument has been well made by colleagues across the House today. I remind my right hon. Friend that this policy is supported by the NHS for patient safety. It is a very difficult point when it comes to patients who have contracted fatal nosocomially acquired covid. People want their medical staff to be vaccinated. I repeat what I have said throughout the afternoon: I think it is the responsibility of all healthcare professionals to be vaccinated. I hope that he shares that view.

Parents and carers are concerned about their child’s safety and protection from the virus. Ventilators are proven to work to reduce the spread of the virus, but the Government have provided a fraction of the ventilators needed in schools. Will the Prime Minister say when ventilators will be provided to all schools up and down our country?

From memory, we have provided 350,000 carbon dioxide detectors and I think we are supplying 7,000 ventilators. I realise that that does not cover every school in the country but, on the other hand, not every school in the country has a severe problem, and many schools are dealing with it, in my experience, with a great deal of practicality and common sense.

I, too, welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Will he reassure my vulnerable constituents that the move and general Government approach to covid is based on the trends in data, and that despite some still very high case rates, the risk of serious disease faced by a double-vaxxed and boosted individual is very low and they should continue to live their lives to the full, along with the rest of us?

My hon. Friend is completely right. Covid has caused a great deal of apprehension across the country, particularly among vulnerable people, in my experience. It is important as we go forward and recover our freedoms that they, in particular, regain the confidence to live their lives to the full, as we would all want.

Following the discussions between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Information Commissioner, is the Prime Minister satisfied that NHS employers will have access to all the information that they require to ensure that all their staff have indeed been vaccinated?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. The data I have is that we are up to 94.7% of NHS staff who have been vaccinated. That is a great improvement, but we have to make sure that we cull all the data as fast as possible and work with all the NHS trusts to do that. One of the big things that we have learned in this pandemic is that data needs to be much more accessible—faster—to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Had we listened to the Opposition prior to Christmas, the restrictions that they were asking for would have had a catastrophic effect. Thank goodness we have this Prime Minister, who has done the right thing. May I ask him about the Feilding Palmer Hospital in Lutterworth? Will he help me to arrange an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to discuss the important future of that hospital, which is being used as a covid vaccination centre?

When the Prime Minister read out the line, “The Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks,” a number of his Back Benchers took off their masks and waved them around their heads. Will he acknowledge, without a hint of irony, that we have a deadly virus still at work in our communities, and that it falls upon us all to behave in a manner that encourages people to act responsibly within their own communities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much and direct him to exactly what I said earlier, which I am sure he listened to.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which is very welcome. I thank him also for the investment and care taken with vaccine-hesitant groups. Sadly, such groups exist within the NHS, and he is right to stress the need for healthcare workers to get the vaccine. However, may I ask him to consider carefully the consequences for our NHS in our constituencies if we cannot convince the remaining 5% of NHS staff who are yet to have the vaccine?

Yes. I want to reassure the House that this is a complex and difficult issue, but it is important that we give NHS staff the strongest possible encouragement to get vaccinated. That requires a lot of work and a lot of effort, but the risks of not being vaccinated are very real.

I pay tribute to the fantastic NHS staff up and down Vauxhall and the many volunteers helping with the roll-out of the booster jab. I speak regularly to staff at St Thomas’ Hospital in my constituency—a hospital the Prime Minister knows very well, as it was the hard-working staff there who cared for him when he was sick with this deadly virus in 2020. Those staff tell me that they are tired and that they are mentally stressed. Those staff are burnt out. What is the Prime Minister going to do to redress, first, the staffing shortages across our NHS, and secondly, the sheer mental health stress that staff are facing, day in, day out?

I echo what the hon. Lady said about the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital, to whom I owe a massive personal debt. They are indeed wonderful people. I know they are tired now, but they have kept going. London hospitals went through a pretty nasty wave of omicron and they got through it brilliantly. We have to make sure that we support them with more investment but also with more staff. I find when talking to them that that is what really helps—another pair of hands in the night to help on the ward can make a huge difference. That is why it is important that there are 44,000 more NHS staff this year than there were in 2020, but we need to do more, which is why I think the £36 billion more that we are putting in over three years is hugely necessary. I do not want to make a political point again, but I wish those on the hon. Lady’s side of the House had voted for it.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today. He is right to highlight the sacrifices made by the British people and the success of the early vaccination and booster programmes. This news will be especially welcome for people who are desperate to see loved ones in care homes, but there is a risk that those listening to his statement might think that the job is done. Will he continue to ensure that the NHS focuses on making sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated as quickly as possible, particularly among harder-to-reach groups?

My hon. Friend is very wise and completely right. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members across the House totally get that this is not the moment when we roll out the bunting and say, “It’s all over.” We are not saying that, because we have to be cautious. We have to continue to recognise that the virus is not mild for everyone, and, as he rightly said, for people who are not vaccinated the consequences can be severe, so for heaven’s sake, get boosted.

The Prime Minister spoke about the importance of the vaccination programme, but the first dose, second dose and booster jab rates in my constituency are significantly behind the national average. Will he explain in detail what he is going to do to drive up vaccination rates in my constituency and elsewhere?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We need to drive up booster take-up, but a lot of people have not even had a first and second dose. Our launch of the booster drive had a beneficial effect on first and second dose take-up as well—I think there were 2 million more in December alone.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today, which I am sure will welcomed by people across Cornwall. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to the NHS and social care staff across Cornwall, who have cared not only for the people of Cornwall, but for members of my family throughout this pandemic.

Last night, Cornwall Council announced that we were in a critical incident for adult social care. As we know, this is multifaceted, but one of the reasons Cornwall hospitals have struggled in this pandemic is that the brilliant infection control they have had to put in place in hospitals has lowered the capacity of beds. With this announcement, can my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State work at pace to give hospitals the reassurance that that can soon be lifted?

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we gave another £300 million of funding this December.

Now is not the time for complacency—1,000 people have died over the past week; 438 just yesterday. I am also concerned at complacency about putting everything into the vaccine. I really do encourage everyone to get vaccinated, but according to the Government’s own figures, the depletion rate of the efficacy of the booster vaccine is between 40% and 50% after 10 weeks. So what happens then? What are the next steps, and is it really worth sacking NHS staff for that?

I totally support what the hon. Lady says about combating apathy. I do think that apathy is our foe now, particularly among people who think that the variant is so mild that they do not need to get vaccinated. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) was saying, people need to get their first dose and their second dose, and they need to get their booster.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement today, having backed his very cautious, calm and proportionate plan B measures. I would like to congratulate everybody involved in the superb vaccination roll-out. Last week, I had a telephone call with a constituent who is an ambassador for Blood Cancer UK, and he told me about the challenges still facing those who are immunosuppressed. Will the Prime Minister please ask the Health Secretary if he could update the guidance and support for those with blood cancer and other conditions, so that they can emerge from the omicron wave and covid, and live with it safely and cautiously?

My hon. Friend is completely right to draw attention to those who are living with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. That is why it is so important that, among all the other things the Government have done, we have invested more in antivirals per head than any other country in Europe.

Reports are circulating that the Government plan to lift all restrictions by early March because No. 10 thinks that we must all just learn to live with the virus. However, 438 people across the UK yesterday failed to live with the virus. How does this Prime Minister persuade their loved ones that the wholesale lifting of restrictions is not premature and misguided?

I must just repeat that that is not what I said in my statement, but I do think this is the right, balanced and proportionate approach. I notice that measures are also being lifted in Scotland, and I think that that is appropriate.

Many people were sceptical about whether the sunset clauses would ever be triggered, so I congratulate the Prime Minister on responding to the clear evidence by bringing plan B to an end. However, as covid will be with us for a long time to come, will he ensure that regional Nightingale hospitals maintain the surge capacity necessary to deal with any future variants, so that they do not put unsustainable pressures on our NHS and we do not have the kind of restrictions that we have seen over the past two years?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is completely right. We need to learn the lessons of the last two years. We need to make sure that if we are, heaven forbid, attacked by another variant—a more lethal variant than omicron—we have different ways of dealing with it, and we have resilience built in to the NHS and into the way we handle it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be setting out our plans for how to live with covid, irrespective of what kind of variants we encounter.

I was very concerned earlier to hear the Prime Minister repeat an incorrect claim. He said that the UK was able to approve the vaccines only because we had left the European Medicines Agency. That claim has been roundly and repeatedly debunked, including by Full Fact in December 2020. Was he aware that that claim is incorrect, or is it just that in the last year, nobody has told him?

I make an appeal to the Front Benches on both sides of the House. We voted for the compulsory vaccination of NHS staff on the basis of the argument that it significantly reduces transmission, but it now appears that the evidence is changing. I note the careful words that the Prime Minister used to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) when he said that he would reflect on the policy. I hope that both Front Benches will reflect on it and consider the advice of the Royal College of Nursing that we should at least delay the implementation of the policy until the evidence is clearer.

I repeat my careful words to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I also repeat what I think is common ground, that it is the responsibility of every healthcare professional to get vaccinated.

I, too, thank the Prime Minister for his statement. As we all know, it is thanks to the sterling and courageous efforts of our NHS staff and many dedicated volunteers that the Government could deliver some 36 million booster vaccines across the whole of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As restrictions ease, what additional moneys will be provided to the Northern Ireland Executive by way of covid recovery funding for businesses that have suffered due to the ongoing restrictions?

I am proud of all the work that we have done together with the authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure that we look after business, such as the furlough scheme and all the loans that we have made available, and to ensure that we continue to support the Northern Ireland economy as we come through the pandemic and beyond.

Last summer, the Government’s decision to remove all covid restrictions and reopen society was proved correct. The decision to resist all calls for further restrictions before Christmas, as craved by the Opposition, has again been proved correct. Does the Prime Minister agree that, while Opposition Members dither, delay and opine in hindsight, on covid, the Government get the big calls right?

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent summary of what I was trying to say in response to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). It would have been a great thing—a fine thing—throughout the pandemic to have had useful advice and co-operation from the Opposition. We did not get it, but I think we have taken the right decisions on the whole and we have got the big calls right.

I take this opportunity to thank staff at NHS Tayside and the Angus Health and Social Care Partnership for their tremendous work. If we look at the covid heat map across the United Kingdom as of 18 January, almost all of England is in the top two of four categories for infections per 100,000, whereas all of Wales and Scotland are in the bottom two. Why is now the time to reduce control measures in England? Is it on the basis of public health advice or is the Prime Minister having to kowtow to the febrile ambitions of his Back Benchers on whom his future now depends?

Really, that is a complete travesty. If we look at the numbers, as I think even the Opposition Front-Bench team have accepted, we can see that they are going down in all age groups across the country. What is interesting is that hospitalisations have not only stabilised but started to come down, which has always been the most important thing for me. That is why this is a sensible and proportionate step to take, but I have to remind him and everybody that it is still important to be cautious, and I am sure he will be.

Before the Prime Minister becomes overly euphoric about covid, he might do well to remember that 150,000-plus people have died in this country as a result of covid, with 438 people having died yesterday. On 9 December, when he introduced plan B, the rate of cases per 100,000 in my constituency was 412.6, whereas today, when he has withdrawn the restrictions, the rate is 1,517.5—it is astronomical. What reassurance can he give my constituents that his withdrawals are safe and they have not been made in the best interests of the political issues that face him at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman is asking an excellent question. The difference between the situation when plan B came in and today is the sheer level of vaccination in this country, including in his constituency. That, combined with the direction of travel of the figures, as I said to the hon. Member for Ilford North, is what gives us the confidence to take the steps we are taking now.

It is disappointing that the Prime Minister’s statement did not include measures to recover the £4.3 billion fraudulently claimed through coronavirus support schemes. With the £20 a week cut to universal credit, inflation at over 5% and energy prices going through roof, ordinary families are not experiencing coronavirus recovery in the same boozy way as the Prime Minister, so will he now commit to supporting those families to the tune of £4.3 billion, in the same way as criminals have been supported?

We continue to support people throughout the pandemic, and we can be very proud of the speed with which we not only did the vaccine roll-out, but secured 17 billion items of personal protective equipment for the use of people across this country.

It is good to see some positive signs on covid, but throughout the pandemic it has been clear that we need to remain cautious and accept that covid may well have some surprises up its sleeve for us, and that is not really the approach set out in this conveniently timed statement today. The Prime Minister’s changeable and increasingly distant relationship with the rules that he himself set undermines public health messaging and future compliance. Does he really not recognise how damaging that is?

The hon. Lady is right in what she says about the risks we still run. I think they are diminishing but we still need to be cautious. She is also right to say that even if this is the final reel, there can be a twist in the final reel and we will have to deal with it then. The Government have been able, to quite an amazing extent, working with healthcare professionals up and down the country, to deliver—

It is directly on her point. We have been able to deliver a vaccine roll-out that has commanded the confidence of the British people in a way that I have never seen—I have never seen anything like it, and there are countries around the world that have never seen anything like it. As I said, it was done not by compulsion. We have got the numbers up to their stratospheric levels—more than 90% of people over 60 have done this. Huge, huge numbers of people are still coming forward to be vaccinated entirely voluntarily, because, despite all the noise, hubbub and politicking, they are listening to the messages and understanding them, and I owe them my deepest thanks.

I thank the Prime Minister. I will pause to allow Members to leave the Chamber, and I hope that they will do so quietly and quickly.