With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on our strategy for living with covid. Before I begin, I know the whole House will join me in sending our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen for a full and swift recovery.
It is a reminder that this virus has not gone away but, because of the efforts we have made as a country over the past two years, we can now deal with it in a very different way by moving from Government restrictions to personal responsibility, so that we protect ourselves without losing our liberties, and by maintaining our contingency capabilities so that we can respond rapidly to any new variant.
The UK was the first country in the world to administer an approved vaccine, and the first European nation to protect half its population with at least one dose. Having made the decision to refocus our NHS this winter on the campaign to get boosted now, we were the first major European nation to boost half our population, too. And it is because of the extraordinary success of this vaccination programme that we have been able to lift our restrictions earlier than other comparable countries—opening up last summer while others remained closed, and keeping things open this winter when others shut down again—making us one of the most open economies and societies in Europe, with the fastest growth anywhere in the G7 last year.
While the pandemic is not over, we have now passed the peak of the omicron wave, with cases falling, hospitalisations in England now fewer than 10,000 and still falling, and the link between infection and severe disease substantially weakened. Over 71% of all adults in England are now boosted, including 93% of those aged 70 or over. Together with the treatments and scientific understanding of the virus we have built up, we now have sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition from protecting people with Government interventions to relying on vaccines and treatments as our first line of defence.
As we have throughout the past two years, we will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations as they decide how to take forward their own plans. Today’s strategy shows how we will structure our approach in England around four principles. First, we will remove all remaining domestic restrictions in law. From this Thursday, 24 February, we will end the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test, and so we will also end self-isolation support payments, although covid provisions for statutory sick pay can still be claimed for a further month. We will end routine contact tracing, and no longer ask fully vaccinated close contacts and those under 18 to test daily for seven days. We will also remove the legal requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate. Until 1 April, we will still advise people who test positive to stay at home, but after that we will encourage people with covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others.
It is only because levels of immunity are so high and deaths are now, if anything, below where we would normally expect for this time of year that we can lift these restrictions. And it is only because we know omicron is less severe that testing for omicron on the colossal scale we have been doing is much less important and much less valuable in preventing serious illness. We should be proud that the UK has established the biggest testing programme per person of any large country in the world. This came at vast cost. The testing, tracing and isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office; it cost a further £15.7 billion in this financial year, and £2 billion in January alone, at the height of the omicron wave. We must now scale this back.
From today, we are removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice-weekly asymptomatic testing. And from 1 April, when winter is over and the virus will spread less easily, we will end free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public. We will continue to provide free symptomatic tests to the oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to covid. And in line with the practice in many other countries, we are working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test. From 1 April, we will also no longer recommend the use of voluntary covid-status certification, although the NHS app will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel. The Government will also expire all temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Of the original 40, 20 have already expired and 16 will expire on 24 March. The last four, relating to innovations in public service, will expire six months later, after we have made those improvements permanent via other means.
Secondly, we will continue to protect the most vulnerable with targeted vaccines and treatments. The UK Government have procured enough doses of vaccine to anticipate a wide range of possible Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations. Today, we are taking further action to guard against a possible resurgence of the virus, accepting JCVI advice for a new spring booster offered to those aged 75 and over, to older care home residents, and to those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. The UK is also leading the way on antivirals and therapeutics, with our Antivirals Taskforce securing a supply of almost 5 million, which is more per head than any other country in Europe.
Thirdly, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advises that there is considerable uncertainty about the future path of the pandemic, and there may of course be significant resurgences. SAGE is certain that there will be new variants, and it is very possible that those will be worse than omicron. So we will maintain our resilience to manage and respond to those risks, including our world-leading Office for National Statistics survey, which will allow us to continue tracking the virus in granular detail, with regional and age breakdowns helping us to spot surges as and where they happen. And our laboratory networks will help us understand the evolution of the virus and identify any changes in characteristics.
We will prepare and maintain our capabilities to ramp up testing. We will continue to support other countries in developing their own surveillance capabilities, because a new variant can emerge anywhere. We will meet our commitment to donate 100 million vaccine doses by June, as our part of the agreement at the UK’s G7 summit to provide a billion doses to vaccinate the world over the next year. In all circumstances, our aim will be to manage and respond to future risks through more routine public health interventions, with pharmaceutical interventions as the first line of defence.
Fourthly, we will build on the innovation that has defined the best of our response to the pandemic. The vaccines taskforce will continue to ensure that the UK has access to effective vaccines as they become available, and has already secured contracts with manufacturers trialling bi-valent vaccines, which would provide protection against covid variants. The therapeutics taskforce will continue to support seven national priority clinical trial platforms focused on prevention, novel treatments and treatments for long-covid. We are refreshing our biosecurity strategy to protect the UK against natural zoonosis and accidental laboratory leaks, as well as the potential for biological threats emanating from state and non-state actors.
Building on the five-point plan that I set out at the UN and the agreements reached at the UK’s G7 last year, we are working with our international partners on future pandemic preparedness, including through a new pandemic treaty; an effective early warning system or global pandemic radar; and a mission to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified. We will host a global pandemic preparedness summit next month.
Covid will not suddenly disappear, so those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. This Government do not believe that that is right or necessary. Restrictions take a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children, and we do not need to pay that cost any longer. We have a population that is protected by the biggest vaccination programme in our history; we have the antivirals, the treatments and the scientific understanding of this virus; and we have the capabilities to respond rapidly to any resurgence or new variant.
It is time that we got our confidence back. We do not need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on our sense of responsibility towards one another, providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others. So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves without restricting our freedoms. In that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.
Mr Sheerman, please!
The statement was important and the Prime Minister ran over time, so I am more than happy for the Opposition leaders to run over as well.
May I start by sending my condolences to the family of Christopher Stalford? Christopher was a dedicated servant of the people of South Belfast and his loss will be deeply felt.
I also send our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen; as the Prime Minister said, the whole House wishes her a speedy recovery.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement and for the briefing earlier this afternoon.
Huge efforts have been made over the past two years and we would not be where we are today without the heroism of our NHS and key workers, without those who pioneered and rolled out the vaccines and without the sacrifices that people made every day to follow the rules and protect our public health. We must honour the collective sacrifices of the British people and do everything possible to prevent a return to the loss and lockdowns that we have seen over the past two years.
The Prime Minister promised to present a plan for living with covid, but all we have today is yet more chaos and disarray: not enough to prepare us for the new variants that may yet develop and an approach that seems to think that living with covid means simply ignoring it. This morning, he could not even persuade his own Health Secretary to agree to the plan, so what confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?
Let me be clear: the Labour party does not want to see restrictions in place for a moment longer than necessary—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, we have to take the public with us, and that requires clarity—[Interruption.]
Order. I call on Members to show some respect. Just as I expect the Prime Minister to be heard in silence, so, too, should the Leader of the Opposition. If you do not wish to be in here, there is plenty of room outside this Chamber. I suggest that you start using it, and I will be helping you on your way. Let us have silence.
We have to take the public with us, and that requires clarity about why decisions are being made. Will the Prime Minister publish the scientific evidence behind his decision to remove the legal requirement to self-isolate, including the impact on the clinically extremely vulnerable for whom lockdown has never ended?
Having come this far, I know that the British people will continue to act responsibly and that they will do the right thing: testing and then isolating if positive. What I cannot understand is why the Prime Minister is taking away the tools that will help them to do that. Free tests cannot continue forever, but if you are 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go, you do not sub off one of your best defenders.
The Prime Minister is also removing self-isolation support payments, which allow many people to isolate, and weakening sick pay. These are decisions that will hit the lowest paid and the most insecure workers the hardest, including care workers, who got us through the toughest parts of the pandemic. It is all very well advising workers to self-isolate, but that will not work unless all workers have the security of knowing that they can afford to do so.
The Prime Minister mentioned surveillance and the ONS infection survey. This is crucial to ensuring that we can ramp up testing and vaccination if the virus returns, so can the Prime Minister confirm that he has put the funding in place to ensure that the ONS infection survey will not see reduced capacity and that it will be able to track the virus with the same degree of detail as it can today? We cannot turn off Britain’s radar before the war is won. “Ignorance is bliss” is not a responsible approach to a deadly virus. It actually risks undoing all the hard-won progress that the British people have achieved over the last two years.
The Labour party has published a comprehensive plan for living well with covid. Our plan would see us learn the lessons of the past two years and be prepared for new variants. The Prime Minister’s approach will leave us vulnerable. Where is the plan to secure the UK’s supply of testing? Why are schools still not properly ventilated? There is no doubt that, as a nation, we need to move on from covid. People need to know that their liberties are returning and returning for good, but this is a half-baked announcement from a Government paralysed by chaos and incompetence. It is not a plan to live well with covid.
I really thought that this would be the moment when the Leader of the Opposition ended his run of making the wrong call on every single one of the big decisions. Time and again, he has had the chance to back the Government on the big decisions, but, I am afraid, he has got it wrong.
Let me turn to some of the points that the Leader of the Opposition has made. The scientific evidence for what we are doing today is amply there in the figures for the rates of infection that I have outlined today and in all the data that is freely available to Members of the House. Members can see what is happening with infection rates, with mortality and with what omicron is doing across the country.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the clinically extremely vulnerable, which is, of course, an entirely reasonable question. What we will do is make sure that they continue to be protected with priority access to therapeutics and to vaccines.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also asks about testing, which is absolutely satirical because week after week, month after month, I have listened to the Labour party complaining about NHS test and trace, denouncing the cost—did you not hear them, Mr Speaker?—of NHS test and trace. Now they want to continue with it when we do not need to go on with it in the way we currently are.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about our domestic ability to manufacture tests, as though he does not know that we have in this country now one of the biggest manufacturers of lateral flow tests in Europe. This is a Leader of the Opposition who, as I say, has shown an absolutely ferocious grip of the wrong end of the stick. He never ceases to amaze. He was totally wrong on 19 July, when he said we should not open up on 19 July. The Labour party said we needed a roadmap back into lockdown during December. The Labour party wanted—the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted for it several times—to stay in the European Medicines Agency. Contrary to his denials in this House, he voted several times to do so. He has been consistently wrong on all the big calls. He was wrong then; he is wrong now. We are moving forward in a balanced, sensible and proportionate way, moving away from legal compulsion in a way that I think the British people understand, and trusting in them and in their great sense of personal responsibility.
I support today’s announcement, which is a tribute to British science and to the Government’s leadership in the vaccine programme. Does the Prime Minister agree that when it comes to future pandemics, the real danger zone is those early months when we do not have a vaccine against a new virus and that, in that context, it is about not just whether the NHS can cope, but whether the NHS can cope without switching off other vital, life-saving treatments? If he does agree, it is not enough just to say that we have more doctors and nurses than we had before; we must also ensure we have enough doctors for the future. If he has plans for that, will he please tell the House how he will make sure that we are training enough of them?
My right hon. Friend returns to a theme he has mentioned several times. We have a vast plan to recruit more nurses and more doctors than ever before, and there already are more in the NHS than at any time in our history. We have 45,000 more healthcare professionals this year than there were last year, and we will continue to fund them.
This statement was billed as the Prime Minister’s moment of pride, but it is clear that this morning was a moment of panic for this Government. Disagreement across Whitehall and the lack of any serious engagement with the devolved nations show that these decisions are bereft of science or consultation. It appears that these dangerous choices are purely political and have been made up on the hoof—another symptom of a Government in turmoil.
The illogical reality of UK finance means that these decisions, made for England by a failing Prime Minister, affect the money the devolved nations have to provide testing. It is unacceptable that the ability to protect—[Interruption.] I hear “Money!”, but we are talking about protecting the people of Scotland, something that this Prime Minister is turning his back on. It is unacceptable that the ability to protect our population can be imperilled on the basis of a political decision taken by a Prime Minister in crisis. His decisions directly affect whether Scotland has the funding required to keep its people safe. That is the ridiculous reality of devolution, but it is a reality that must be addressed.
Will the Prime Minister now confirm what the residual funding for testing will be, to enable the Scottish Government to pick up the pieces of this chaotic withdrawal of support? It makes the case for Scotland to take the necessary measures to keep our people safe. We need the financial ability to make our own choices, and that only comes with independence. [Interruption.]
I will also hear the right hon. Gentleman in silence. I do not need the barracking. He certainly does not need it and I do not need it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
PCR testing, the legal requirement to self-isolate and access to lateral flow testing have been instrumental in containing the virus. As we move forward to live with covid, these are the very safeguards that support a return to normal life. These short-sighted decisions have long-term implications. They also hamper vital surveillance efforts and impede the ability to respond to new variants. The reality is that we have a Prime Minister beset by chaos and mired in a police investigation for breaking his own covid laws.
He can shake his head, but that is the reality—a Prime Minister who has no moral authority to lead and is desperately seeking to appease his Back Benchers. We know that this reckless statement flies in the face of advice from scientists at the World Health Organisation. That is because this statement is not about protecting the public; it is about the Prime Minister scrambling to save his own skin.
Well, you would not believe it from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, but the co-operation between the UK Government and the Scottish authorities has been outstanding and will continue to be outstanding. He asked about free tests and how they are to be paid for. This is very important. The free tests will of course continue until the beginning of April. Of course, if people want to, they can continue beyond then. I have set out for the House the reasons why we think it is much more sensible to focus on surveillance and spotting new variants, and to put our investment into that rather than mass testing. He has access to the £41 billion record settlement that he has under Barnett. He also has access to hundreds of millions from the health and care levy—the only astonishing thing is that he voted against it.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. He will be aware of growing international evidence that lockdowns have been largely ineffective in preventing covid mortality, and we are acutely aware of the massive damage that lockdowns have done economically and to the non-covid health of people. Will he review pandemic planning for the future to make sure that these crucial lessons are learned?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to all sorts of studies about the efficacy of lockdowns. We will look at all the evidence. I happen to think that the collective actions of the British public were indispensable in saving many, many thousands of lives. But I am sure that all the evidence will be looked at in the course of the inquiry.
New antiviral drugs have made a huge difference to the treatment of covid—they are indeed, as the Prime Minister says, the first line of defence—but they work best when given early. At the moment, one of the requirements in order to qualify to get an antiviral drug is that the person has tested positive for covid. If he is going to get rid of free lateral flow tests, how are people going to get access to those medicines?
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, people who are symptomatic will of course continue to have access to testing.
Let us have birthday person Sara Britcliffe.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Our historic vaccine programme is the reason that we are in this position today. I want to take this opportunity to thank everybody involved in Hyndburn and Haslingden for the roll-out of the vaccination programme, and those who have had to deal with the restrictions for longer than most. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is exactly why we must learn to live with the virus, because of how damaging restrictions can be to mental health and wellbeing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to set all these things—the cost of lockdowns, and the cost in terms of people’s mental health and wellbeing—against the difficult decisions we have to make about opening up our society, and I think the House understands that this is a balanced decision that is entirely right.
I should just clarify to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that those who are vulnerable who are symptomatic will of course continue to have access to testing. I should have said that in my answer to his question.
In a recent survey, a majority of NHS leaders agreed that it was not the right time to end free testing for the public. Why does the Prime Minister disagree with them, and what scientific advice has he considered to come to this decision, which could have a real impact on the NHS elective recovery plan?
I hear the anxieties of people, but I have to say that I think this is the balanced and the right decision. On testing, I just remind the hon. Lady of what those on the Opposition Benches have previously said about the cost of testing. We now think that the best thing, given the severity of omicron, is to focus on surveillance and to use the huge funds that we are currently dedicating to mass testing on electives and all the other things that we need to do.
Sir Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group said this morning that it does not make a big difference whether the decision to lift these restrictions is taken now or in a few weeks’ time. It is therefore not clear what the purpose of waiting any longer would be. However, one of the things we do know is that we sometimes did not have the necessary testing capacity when we needed it most acutely. If the ongoing surveillance were to throw up a variant that was more dangerous than omicron, how quickly could we stand up and deploy mass testing again?
That is exactly the right question. That is why we are putting so much emphasis on surveillance—on the Office for National Statistics, with its amazing granular ability to detect what is going on in local areas, as well as other forms of surveillance. We want to spot the new variant of concern as soon as we can, and then we want to surge our testing capacity in the way we did before—indeed much faster, since it is all ready to go. We will have stockpiles, we will keep our labs in readiness and we will be able to surge when necessary. But from April it will not be the right time to continue with mass testing in the way we have.
I join the Prime Minister in sending our very best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen and in hoping that she gets well soon.
Millions of family carers across our country are taking regular lateral flow tests to ensure that they do not pass covid to their vulnerable loved ones. The Prime Minister now says that these family carers must pay for covid tests out of their own pocket, even though many of them can hardly make ends meet at the moment. Is he really telling people that they must choose between money for the weekly shop or a test so that they do not accidentally take this contagious virus into their loved ones’ homes? Surely such a tax on caring would be unfair and unjust?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need to protect care homes and those who work in care homes. He should wait until March, when we will be setting out in more detail those who will continue to be entitled to free tests.
The man for the rules—Matt Hancock.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Almost two years ago now this House voted unanimously on the statutory measures necessary to keep people safe during the pandemic. I agree with the Prime Minister that, thanks to the vaccines, those measures are no longer necessary and we are the first major country in the world to be past the pandemic. However, is it not extraordinary that, despite the consensus on restrictions back then, the consensus on giving people back their freedom, which is often so much harder, and on trusting in personal responsibility appears to exist only on the Government side of the House?
Yes, and it is a great shame that the Opposition cannot find it in themselves to support what I think is a balanced and proportionate approach that recognises that covid has not gone away and that we cannot throw caution to the winds.
Given everything else the Prime Minister has said this afternoon, why is he keeping the bureaucratic and irritating passenger locator form when the rest of Europe can already travel freely by showing a vaccine certificate?
That is a welcome call for liberty from the Opposition Benches. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we already have one of the most open travel systems in the world. I understand his grievance against the passenger locator form, and we will certainly review it by Easter.
It is great news that our freedoms are being restored, so will the Prime Minister now bring the same focus and Government innovation shown on this topic to vanquish the cost of living crisis so that more people have enough money to enjoy the freedoms?
We do not know how well the vaccine works on immuno-compromised people, and they and their loved ones will rightly be extremely worried. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, delays in getting test results are delaying access to lifesaving antivirals, so can we allow the immunocompromised to have a supply of antivirals at home? If pharmaceutical interventions save lives, let us ensure that people can access them as soon as possible.
We have already secured more antivirals and therapeutics per head than any other country in Europe. We need to ensure that the clinically extremely vulnerable have access to them, and 1.3 million of them have already been sent tests.
While the threat from covid has changed—thanks in no small part to the outstanding vaccination efforts led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—he will know that the effects on local hospitals will last for years to come. Does he agree that now is the right time to invest in upgrades to hospitals such as Scunthorpe’s?
Now is exactly the right time to invest in hospitals such as Scunthorpe’s and across the country. I cannot commit to the particular project that my hon. Friend describes, but that is the kind of project, 48 of which we are progressing across the country.
I welcome the lifting of restrictions and hope that the Prime Minister will engage with the Health Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that the same measures are exercised there. The Prime Minister said that it is important that we get our confidence back, but we have lived through two years of fear being instilled in the population. What nudge tactics does the Prime Minister now intend to use to ensure that confidence is restored and that people can get back to work, back into shops and restaurants, and back doing the things that make life enjoyable?
I begin by echoing the condolences for the DUP MLA Christopher Stalford.
I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We do need people to get their confidence back, as I said the other day. People can set an example—[Interruption.] The Opposition Front Bench should wait and see. People can set an example by going to work.
May I cheer up the Prime Minister by welcoming what he has to say today? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] The Leader of the Opposition’s comment that the Government had no plan to deal with this was destroyed by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who pointed out that antiviral therapeutics are incredibly effective—95% effective—against this disease. Can the Prime Minister confirm that we already have 2.75 million courses of such therapeutics available to us?
No, I cannot confirm that, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that we have twice that amount. We have 4.9 million doses.
Living with covid does not mean ignoring it, and the Prime Minister will be aware that lifting restrictions today flies in the face of advice from many NHS leaders and health experts, including the British Medical Association and the World Health Organisation. Saying that everyone should take personal responsibility, while at the same time taking away their means of taking that personal responsibility, is utterly perverse. What would he say to those of my constituents who are clinically extremely vulnerable, for whom his freedom day is a day of profound fear and loss of freedom? Will he clarify his response to the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), because the issue is free testing for not just people in care homes, but, at the very least, the almost 7 million carers up and down the country?
On that, the hon. Member should wait, as I said to the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey). On the clinically extremely vulnerable, I think it is very important to remember that we will continue—as we have done throughout the pandemic—to look after them with all the therapeutics that we can offer, and with vaccines where that is appropriate. As the House knows, the shielding programme ended in September. What people need to recognise with the CEV—the clinically extremely vulnerable—is that we should treat them with caution, just as anybody with any respiratory disease should treat the clinically extremely vulnerable with caution, respect them and act with responsibility.
I fully endorse the Prime Minister’s statement, which is a significant step forward. However, while we want to get more confidence back into the country, people will also want consistency, so that they can plan ahead. To that end, will he look at what we do with schools, and education more generally? In particular, will he look at making them an essential part of our national infrastructure, so that on future occasions when we consider restrictions across the country, schools, nurseries, colleges and universities are at the very back of the queue, and we make sure that what happened during this pandemic—the lost learning—does not happen again?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why we are ensuring that schools are as covid-secure as possible. We are sending out 350,000 CO2 monitors and 9,000 air cleaning units; those are among the steps that we are taking to protect schools. It is very important that we should get the message over to everybody that schools are safe—one of the many things that the Leader of the Opposition got wrong.
The Prime Minister, in outlining his reckless plan for living with covid, announced that he is relying on the British public to apply personal responsibility when it comes to the virus. Does this also apply to the Prime Minister?
The hon. Member says it is a “reckless” plan; that is exactly the word that the right hon. and learned Leader of the Opposition used to describe the 19 July openings. I wonder whether she still believes that.
I will take the Prime Minister’s statement, if I may, as his application to join the Covid Recovery Group. He is very welcome indeed; I only wish it had been made sooner. All the lockdowns and the serious restrictions were implemented using the Public Health Act (Control of Disease) 1984. Some of those restrictions were made by ministerial decree, and were approved by Parliament only retrospectively. If we are to believe that next time will be different, why does this plan not include proposals to change the Act now, in order to make Ministers more accountable to Parliament, rather than our kicking this into the long grass and waiting for the results of the covid public inquiry?
I know that my right hon. Friend is a staunch Thatcherite; he will recall that it was Margaret Thatcher who promulgated the public health Act in 1984, and it has served this country well for a long time. I will consider the point that he makes—it is a valuable one—but I think it may also be something that the inquiry will want to consider itself.
With 38,000 new covid cases today, can the Prime Minister explain which public health experts advised abandoning testing and isolation, and when will that advice be published?
I thank the hon. Member very much. As she knows, cases are falling, hospitalisations are falling, and the number of excess deaths from omicron is actually in negative territory. We consult a wide range of scientific opinion, including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and, clearly, the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, but the decisions are for Ministers, and we take them.
Unlike the Opposition, the Prime Minister got all the big decisions right throughout the pandemic. Does he agree that we should never return to a full lockdown, and that any isolation should be targeted: it should be the clinically vulnerable, the elderly, and the Labour Front Bench?
My hon. Friend has put it brilliantly and succinctly, and I have nothing to add.
Liberty is always better than the alternative, as long as everybody can share in that liberty equally, so the anxiety for some of us, especially those who represent very poor communities, is that if free testing is ended, those who are symptomatic may end up having to pay £59 or £119 for a PCR test. On top of that, they may be in a job where, if they do the responsible thing and stay away from work, they do not get any money at all, or get pathetic sick pay. If we are to make sure that everybody shares in this liberty equally, must not the poorest in Britain get a better deal?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but first, statutory sick pay will be available, and secondly, if I may say so, I think he underestimates people’s sense of responsibility and willingness to do the right thing by others.
I welcome what the Prime Minister has set out, and especially his commitment to Scunny hospital. I also welcome his continuation of the Office for National Statistics survey study, not least because my mam and dad have been taking part in it, and it has given them something to do throughout the course of covid other than text me constantly. On NHS testing, as the Prime Minister knows, I work in the NHS and I like getting my test before I book on duty; it makes me feel safe when I go into care homes or elsewhere to attend patients. When he sets out how testing will continue in March, will he clearly set out the situation for testing NHS workers?
First, may I thank my hon. Friend very much for his service in the NHS throughout the pandemic? I have seen him in action. On his point about the NHS, that will be for the NHS itself to determine.
The Prime Minister mentioned that this is about personal responsibility, and it is. It is about our personal responsibility not to inadvertently pass on the virus to someone who is vulnerable; it is about our personal responsibility to do the right thing if we have symptoms, or have covid; and it is about our personal responsibility to think about our neighbours, our friends, our carers—the people who need those restrictions to be lifted. What does the Prime Minister have to say to my vulnerable constituents in Vauxhall who are concerned that this personal responsibility that the Prime Minister wants us to take might inadvertently lead to their catching covid?
The hon. Lady is right to focus on personal responsibility, but the other part of the strategy is the vaccinations. This is a vaccine-led strategy, and that is what enables us now to rely on people’s personal responsibility as well.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and the way he set out the argument on living with covid in terms of respecting and restoring people’s freedoms while protecting public health. The key advance we have for the future is the mapping exercise, and vaccination centres are already in place, including in Medway. Will the Prime Minister thank the excellent volunteers and NHS staff in Medway, and look at the bid for a new Medway hospital in my constituency?
I had better be careful what I say about more hospitals; we want to build as many hospitals as we possibly can, but we will have to look at my hon. Friend’s plan. I do want to thank the Medway volunteers; I want to thank everybody still involved in the vaccination campaign. There are still millions of people who have not yet had their booster, and I urge them to get it.
It is lovely to have the Prime Minister with us today, and that he is not filling in his questionnaires or busy having his meetings with the police. Can he confirm or deny the reports of a sell-off plan for the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, which was founded on the values and mission of people like Dr Sarah Gilbert, who invented the AstraZeneca vaccine? There are rumours going about that this public-private enterprise will be sold off to the private sector. Will the Prime Minister confirm or deny that that is the Government’s intention? The essence of the reason why we were ahead with the vaccine was the excellence and values of those wonderful British scientists who worked their socks off for this. Don’t just sell it off.
I might add that one of the most important factors in the success of the vaccine roll-out was the private sector. It was private sector investment that led to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine. We will work with the private sector to continue to develop the country’s native, indigenous ability to manufacture mRNA and other types of vaccines.
Keeping healthy people at home in isolation has had a devastating impact on lives, businesses and important life events such as weddings. I therefore welcome these changes, and the move to trust the British people and allow people to plan with confidence. Yet we all have constituents who are immunocompromised and vulnerable, such as the woman who wrote to me this morning. We care about these people; despite what Opposition Members say, they do not have a monopoly on compassion. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us again that those people will get the support that they need, that the timing is right, and that there is no point in waiting to make these changes?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will ensure that those people get not just the antivirals but the tests that they need.
That is the point on which I would like clarification from the Prime Minister. We learned today that 7 million carers will not get tests, and that money for tests for NHS and care staff will have to be found from within existing budgets, which makes waiting lists even more precarious. Will he confirm that those eligible for antivirals—for which they will have to pay—are those who are over 12, at high risk, and have symptoms or test positive for covid-19? I see the Health Secretary helping him out. Clarification on that would be really helpful.
If the hon. Lady waits a little longer, she will get a breakdown of how we propose to support the most vulnerable. We will support them, as we have done throughout the pandemic.
Experts will argue for years about whether we made the right choices. Some of us, for what it is worth, would have liked a lighter touch. However, one thing is certain, and we know this from independent testimony that has emerged from a former adviser to the Prime Minister: but for the Prime Minister’s freedom-loving, libertarian instincts, these lockdowns would have been much longer and much worse, with incalculable consequences for the young and for people’s mental health. Can we rely on him to rule out any more lockdowns in the coming decade as he remains Prime Minister?
What you can certainly rely on, Mr Speaker, is the Government taking the tough decisions to protect the British people. We will have a vaccine and science-led approach to dealing with the pandemic.
The Prime Minister has come to the House unable to state whether carers in our communities, visiting home after home in one day—often the homes of older people and the clinically extremely vulnerable—will still have access to free tests to keep themselves and their patients and clients safe. He said that testing for NHS staff will be a matter for the NHS. Surely he can do better than that. The NHS and carers need to plan ahead. Will he come clean with the House about his intentions?
What we are doing is moving away from systematic mass testing of large numbers of people, which is no longer the right way to deal with omicron, to a surveillance-led approach. Of course, we will continue to look after the most vulnerable and those who need it.
I welcome the path to freedom that the Prime Minister has set out. I am sure that, like the Leader of the Opposition, the Welsh First Minister will condemn the plan today, but will in about two weeks present this same plan as his own. Will the Prime Minister reach out to the Labour First Minister and the other devolved Administrations—we have worked well with them, when ugly nationalism is put aside—to get those freedoms for residents in Montgomeryshire as quickly as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend. Indeed, as I extend the hand of co-operation to our friends in the Scottish Administration, I hope the Welsh Administration in Cardiff will see the way forward. As I have said many times before, the similarities in our approach greatly outweigh the differences.
It is hard to imagine that this is the Prime Minister who missed five Cobra meetings at the start of the pandemic. My constituent who spoke to me yesterday is immunosuppressed. She anticipated the difficulties that the Prime Minister is having over testing for people who are clinically vulnerable. She wanted to know whether she would have ready access to free tests and anti-virals should she test positive. What is the situation that those people have been plunged into today?
The answer to those questions is yes and yes. The 1.3 million clinically extremely vulnerable will of course be given access to free testing. They will also have access to the largest quantity of anti-virals and therapeutics per head of any European population.
With a world-leading successful vaccination programme, the fastest growth rate in the G7, and in my constituency some of the highest employment we have seen in generations, does that not demonstrate that when it comes to the big decisions during the covid pandemic this Prime Minister and the Government he leads have got them right?
Yes, I have to say. I am casting modesty, if not caution, to the winds. Yes, we have got it right, although there have been some very difficult decisions. It would have been nice today, finally, to have had the support of the Opposition.
I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to my constituent, Jamal Edwards, a musical pioneer taken from us way too young yesterday.
The Prime Minister justifies this crowd-pleaser for his own MPs by warning us about damage to the economy. The Office for National Statistics says that 1.3 million of our fellow citizens are suffering from the debilitating condition of long covid, which has rendered 396,000 people economically inactive. It causes dysfunctionality and ages people by 10 years. What is the Prime Minister doing to advance research and treatment into this condition? How does today’s exercise help those people?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention the problem of long covid. We have invested £224 million in expanding NHS treatment of long covid and we are putting another £50 million into researching that syndrome.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s statement today: a return to liberty, so we can further grow our economy and tackle other health conditions. Can he say a little more about what targeted support will be provided to those who are immunosuppressed and immune-compromised, such as those with blood cancer?
As I told the House, we have secured supplies of monoclonal antibodies in record numbers. We will also ensure that those who are immunosuppressed have access to testing to see whether they need the therapeutics.
The deep irony of this Prime Minister lecturing us on personal responsibility will not be lost on the public watching at home. To misquote Kevin Bridges, personal responsibility won’t pay the bills.
The Prime Minister called for a four nations approach time and time again, bemoaning any deviation in approach from Cardiff, Belfast or Edinburgh. Now he is recklessly and dangerously dropping all restrictions in England and ending community testing without consultation or consideration of devolved needs, and flying in the face of the scientific advice he has been given. That just proves that his four nations approach has simply meant “Follow Westminster’s direction, no matter how rash.”
First of all, we are not dropping the testing until the beginning of April, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is thanks only to the massive financial firepower of the UK that we have been able to run the biggest testing operation in Europe plus the fastest vaccination roll-out.
Let me ask my right hon. Friend to cast his mind back to January last year, when Chris Whitty said that there will come a time when covid will be the same as flu, from which there are 7,000 to 20,000 deaths each year. At that time, there was no comment against him from either the Labour party or the Scottish National party. Now that we have excess deaths at minus 9% of what is normal at this time, is my right hon. Friend as baffled as I am about the attitude that Labour Front Benchers now take?
Yes, actually, I am. I am genuinely surprised by the approach that the Opposition have taken today; I think that it is wrong. My hon. Friend is making an important point about the comparison with flu, because it is very important that people with any respiratory disease think about those who are clinically vulnerable and behave in a responsible and considerate way.
This is a plan for living with covid that does not provide for older and extremely vulnerable people and which does not include schoolchildren, sick pay for working people or testing. Is this not a plan only in the same sense that the Prime Minister’s birthday was not a party?
No. This is a plan that addresses every single one of those priorities: sick pay, schools, the vulnerable—this plan deals with all of them. It is the right way forward and, actually, the hon. Lady should support it.
I strongly welcome and endorse my right hon. Friend’s statement today on restoring our freedoms. Does he agree that the restrictions, although necessary, have taken a very heavy toll on businesses and our society and that we have to live with the virus in the future? However, we Government Members passionately believe in trusting the people to take personal responsibility.
Are the 100 million vaccine doses that are being donated as part of the global response counted towards or in addition to the Government’s 0.5% official development target? And when will they stop blocking agreement on a TRIPS—trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—waiver so that developing countries can take vaccine response into their own hands?
The hon. Gentleman is raising a very important but very difficult issue. In answer to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I mentioned the importance of the private sector. We need to ensure that the pharmaceutical companies have the wherewithal to make these colossal investments that offer hope for humanity.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his forbearance, because across from the Government Dispatch Box he was faced first by the vacillations of General Indecision and then by the rank opportunism of Captain Hindsight. Does he agree that if he had listened to Lieutenant Lockdown, instead of being the first major economy to unlock and having a world-leading vaccine programme, we would now be facing a Major Catastrophe?
Yes. The most important thing is that if we had taken those steps and remained in lockdown, we would not have the financial wherewithal—the firepower, the money—to pay for all the things that people now need support for, not least clearing the covid backlogs.
The Prime Minister says that this is a scientific decision, so will he remind the House what the current R rate or infection rate is; what it is projected to be by the start of May; and at what R rate he is willing to reintroduce testing and self-isolation? Or is it not a scientific decision?
As I said earlier, the rate of infections is falling and so are hospitalisations.
One of the cruellest aspects of the pandemic has been that many people have been unable to visit their sick or even dying relatives in hospital. Visiting has still been very difficult even with the improvement in the covid situation. Will the Prime Minister make sure that this is the day when NHS visiting requirements in our hospitals go back to normal? That is the humane and compassionate thing to do.
I know that my right hon. Friend speaks for millions of people around the country. I can tell her that many, many restrictions have already been lifted, and they will continue to be lifted.
Three years ago, the Government consulted on much-needed reforms to statutory sick pay, rightly recognising that the current system is inflexible and does not reflect modern working life. Those reforms were postponed when the pandemic hit, and day one access to statutory sick pay was introduced instead. I think the Prime Minister has just announced that day one access to statutory sick pay will be withdrawn in a month’s time. Will he now bring forward the much-needed and long-delayed reforms to statutory sick pay?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, statutory sick pay is only a part of what many employees already receive as part of their sick pay.
I just want to remind people that the Prime Minister was right last July when we came out of lockdown with the sensible steps that we took. He was also proved right that we were absolutely doing the right thing when we went against the grain of many other nations and ended up riding out the situation that we had at Christmas, so I entirely endorse what we are seeing today.
There have been a number of good questions about the immunosuppressed. Could I ask a slightly different one? Rather than having people wait for assessments from GPs or consultants, who are after all very busy and are not working 24/7 all the time, could we consider a 24-hour immunosuppressed hotline for advice? That would help these anxious people and give direct support as they learn to live with covid.
I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely interesting idea, which my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary may wish to discuss with him.
I am not sure that the Prime Minister understands that supporting people to self-isolate is not a restriction on their freedom; it is actually what a responsible Government do. He will know that millions of people do not qualify for SSP at the moment and that without financial support they cannot self-isolate. Does he understand the invidious position that he is putting some people in?
Of course I understand the difficult position that some people may find themselves in, but I hope that everybody will also understand that it is our job to be responsible towards others and to avoid spreading the disease.
One of the biggest tragedies of the pandemic has been the isolation and desperation of those living in care homes and of their families at home, many of whom joined groups such as Rights for Residents. Can the Prime Minister assure them that they will now be able to visit their loved ones in care homes, with the use of testing and other measures to keep them safe?
When people attend our wonderful Lewisham Hospital accident and emergency department for treatment and have a blood test, they are automatically tested for HIV unless they opt out. The oldest person to discover that she had HIV was 75 years old. I raise that point with the Prime Minister because many people still have weakened immunity and do not know it. Lifting covid restrictions further exposes people with weakened immunity to the virus. Can the Prime Minister say how he intends to protect those people?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the immunosuppressed and those who are particularly vulnerable. They will continue to have access to free testing, plus the therapeutics that I have described.
The British sequencing regime is one of the best in the world, with more than 13% of all tests sequenced here in this country. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps are being taken to ensure that despite reductions in testing, our sequencing capacity in this country will stay one of the best in the world?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will retain that capacity.
In order to have good surveillance, the Prime Minister will need data; in order to get that data, he will need testing, particularly for looking at future variants of the virus. Can he explain where he will get that data to trace the future mutations of covid?
That is exactly what the ONS survey does.
It is the vaccination programme led by this Prime Minister that got us to the position we are in now, and it is the vaccination programme that will keep us out of lockdown, but what we know from the pandemic is that online misinformation about the vaccines costs lives. The Prime Minister took a very strong line on this early in the pandemic. As we continue to rely on vaccines, can he reassure me that we will not suffer online misinformation about vaccines that will continue to save lives?
Yes. One of the things that the online harms Bill does is try to tackle that kind of pernicious online disinformation.
Unless the Prime Minister publishes the full advice which says that this decision was science-led, it will confirm what we have long suspected: that he is prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone to save his own skin. He just claimed that he had been working closely with the devolved Governments on this issue, so why are the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government saying that the first they heard of this “plan” was his throwaway line during Prime Minister’s questions just 10 days ago?
I should have thought that 10 days was quite a lot of notice.
I agree with the Prime Minister that now is the right time to make these changes, so may I ask him how retaining the passenger locator form can be justified, and may I ask him for a commitment to end it by Easter? That would give the travel industry a much-needed shot in the arm.
I hear my hon. Friend loud and clear. I have already heard several pleas on that matter today, and I repeat that we will be looking into it before Easter.
Covid case numbers are rising in Wandsworth, and people are very concerned about this plan. They have had to choose between eating and heating, and now they will have to choose between heating, eating and testing. There has been a flurry of reports in the media about a paralysed Cabinet arguing over what to announce here, at the eleventh hour. The Prime Minister is asking us to have confidence in a plan in which health leaders do not have confidence. Can he assure the House today that all members of the Cabinet—the full Cabinet—have confidence in this plan?
Yes, of course they do, and this plan is completely scientifically attested to. It is the right thing to do.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his important statement, and for the reassurance that he provided in it for the clinically extremely vulnerable. The Government took huge steps to support those individuals by, for instance, creating the shielding programme that delivered millions of food boxes to people’s doors within a matter of weeks. It is absolutely right that we continue to stand by and support those people into the future with testing and with antivirals, as my right hon. Friend has already said today.
My right hon. Friend is quite right in what he says about the plan, and I thank him for his outstanding work, when he was responsible for local government, in helping to deliver those parcels and helping to support people in the way that he did.
I am sure that the Prime Minister has consulted the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer for England, but consulting them is not quite the same as taking their advice. Can he confirm that he has taken their advice on the issue of ending mandatory self-isolation periods and ending testing?
I have not only consulted them for their opinions, but have taken their advice. I hope very much that after these exchanges, the hon. Member will be able to see a press conference involving both those gentlemen, and hear the questions that will no doubt be put to them as well.
To lead is to be in a lonely place. I have seen courage today, and I want to thank my right hon. Friend for the statement that he has made. He may recall that we were not on the same side when it came to lockdown. In that context, may I gently suggest to him that were a pandemic to strike again, the Government should advise and counsel, and should not curb our freedoms?
It is fair to say that I think everyone will want to learn all the lessons from this pandemic and make sure that we take the best steps should a new variant strike us, but I have great confidence in vaccines.
The Prime Minister is now focused on a vaccine strategy as our first line of defence. Will he assure me that he will take personal responsibility for areas such as mine that have a booster rate of only 39%, to ensure continued vaccination in our community so that my constituents are not left behind in this rush to freedom?
The hon. Lady makes a good point and I will do anything I can to help her. The national average for adult boosters is now about 71%, so that figure is low and we will do what we can to help.
The data has proven that Labour and the naysayers were wrong about omicron. How important was the decision not to lock down at Christmas, building resilience in our communities and our economy, to our ability to lift restrictions today?
We have to be humble in the face of this disease. It remains a dangerous disease and we must continue to be cautious, but we also have to take balanced decisions that are right for the country. It is clear now that the 19 July decision and the decision on Christmas and the new year were correct.
Is it not the case that the decision being taken here today has nothing to do with protecting public health and everything to do with protecting this Prime Minister from his own Back Benchers?
No, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong.
The businesses in the market town of Thorne in my constituency are failing to benefit from the UK’s fantastic growth due to the main car park being used by a covid testing facility. With today’s announcement, can the Prime Minister confirm that these facilities will now be vastly reduced or removed so that towns such as Thorne can get back to their bustling pre-pandemic norm?
I know exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about, and I am sure he speaks for many. That facility has done fantastic work, but it will be decommissioned shortly.
I thank the Prime Minister for the covid-19 vaccination programmes that all the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have benefited from. I am broadly in agreement that we need to move safely forward, but will he outline whether the plans will include free lateral flow tests for the army of unpaid carers who have kept society ticking over? The indication is that one in seven of our unpaid carers in Northern Ireland need to test before they provide care for the vulnerable and for their elderly loved ones. They must therefore have access to free testing if they are to continue to provide this often overlooked but very necessary care.
I want to repeat to the House, because it is incredibly important that people understand, that the strategy for containing omicron is not to test everybody or large numbers of people; it is surveillance. We will be bringing forward particular groups to whom we want to continue to offer free tests, such as the clinically extremely vulnerable, and there will be more on that in the next few weeks.
The prize for patience and perseverance goes to Greg Smith.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement this afternoon. He is making the right call. Freedom works. Indeed, we should always cherish freedom, but as we have seen in the past when restrictions have been lifted, some bodies, particularly those with a union hand hovering over them, have continued with restrictions regardless. So, as we rightly lift these restrictions and allow others to lapse, can my right hon. Friend give a clear message that the turn towards personal responsibility is not a licence for those bodies to carry on with the restrictions regardless?
If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he is referring to devolved Administrations—[Interruption.] I think that is what he was saying. The instinct for liberty burns just as brightly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I think the people of the whole United Kingdom will understand that we want a sensible, balanced and proportionate approach that moves away from legal compulsion—something that has been quite extraordinary for these times—and in favour of people being considerate towards others and taking personal responsibility.
Thank you. I will pause for a moment to allow people to leave in a swift and silent manner before making space for the statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.