[Relevant document: e-petition 587380, Reform the VDPA 1979 to improve support for those harmed by covid-19 vaccines.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19 vaccines and the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Sir Edward, and I am grateful for the opportunity to present on this important subject.
My constituent Jamie Scott was a fit 44-year-old when he had his AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccination on 23 April 2021. He woke with a headache on 3 May, then experienced vomiting and impaired speech. He was taken to hospital by ambulance where he had multiple operations and was in a coma for more than four weeks. His wife Kate was told by doctors that he may not survive and that if he did, he would likely be severely disabled. The couple have two young children. Jamie was diagnosed with a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST, and subsequently with vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT. I am pleased to say that he has recovered somewhat, but he is still unable to return to the life he led before. His consultant’s opinion in December was very clear:
“It is very highly likely that the vaccine was responsible for the development of his symptoms (with no other possible explanation for the development of the symptoms).”
Jamie and Kate Scott are here today listening to me describe what happened to them, because their lives were changed utterly last year when Jamie did as the Government urged him to do and received a vaccination. I should make it clear that neither I nor they are making any argument against vaccination, but we are arguing that the relatively tiny number of people who are injured by state-advocated vaccination should be properly looked after.
Of course, the Scotts’ story is not the only one. I have heard, as I know you will have done, Sir Edward, from several colleagues who cannot be here today about the similar experiences of their constituents. For example, Mrs Birch, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton), was left near death and immobile in hospital, and she remains significantly disabled. Mr Walker, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), is a former marathon runner and semi-professional football referee who now finds that even getting dressed leaves him breathless, and he cannot live independently. Those people also did as the Government asked of them and have been seriously injured as a result.
Of course, this is not a new problem. People have been injured by vaccinations before and the Government have responded, notably with the vaccine damage payment scheme, established by the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 on the logic that injuries consequent on state-recommended vaccination need special treatment. That scheme was intended as an interim measure but no further legislation has emerged, although it is true to say that covid-19 vaccines were included in the scope of the scheme in December 2020.
My constituent did what she believed was right by getting vaccinated, but was one of those who had a blood clot after vaccination. The clot caused her to have a stroke and now she is unable to work. Her family are very concerned that she is going to be classed as not disabled enough to get a damages payout. Does the right hon. and learned Member agree that we need to look at these rare and few cases where people have suffered but might be falling through the net?
I am sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent and I agree with her. It is important that we do something differently for what she rightly says is a relatively small number of cases. If she bears with me, I will come to the exact point she makes about disablement, as it seems to be a deficiency of the scheme.
I have mentioned the VDPS and, of course, all help for those injured by vaccines is welcome. However, in my view there are three things wrong with the scheme and I will say something about each of them. The first is that it simply takes too long to pay out. The VDPS is a no-fault scheme, but it requires, not unreasonably, a causative link between vaccination and injury to be established. The problem is the time it seems to take to establish that link in the minds of the scheme’s administrators, even in cases such as that of the Scotts, where consultant opinions are clear and unequivocal. The Scotts’ application under the scheme was submitted on 3 June 2021, and was finally approved on 20 June 2022. According to the latest figures that I have—it may well be that the Minister has more up-to-date figures—there are 2,407 applications to the scheme related to covid-19 vaccines, and cases are currently being processed at the rate of 13 a month. At that rate, it would take more than 15 years to process all the cases.
My constituent Lisa Shaw, a BBC presenter in the north-east, died after getting a blood clot as a result of the vaccine, leaving her young son without a mother and her partner, Gareth, absolutely devastated. Gareth came to see me in my constituency surgery a very long time ago—months and months ago—and he is still waiting. A lot of the people in this situation will have huge financial commitments and maybe families; if they have not died or are disabled, maybe they are unable to work. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that speed is of the essence? It has taken decades to resolve recent scandals, such as the contaminated blood scandal. Is it not right that we need to learn the lessons of those scandals and get these payments out to people as quickly as possible?
Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who puts it very well. It is important not just that we have the right scheme—I do not believe yet that we do—but that, as he says, when that scheme is in place, it pays out quickly. It is clear that the scheme in place at the moment is not doing that, and it simply is not acceptable or feasible for families in severe financial distress to have to wait the length of time that they are being asked to wait. And the example that he gives is a good one.
That example is also important in another respect, because there is something else that the Government need to do. In relation to those cases where vaccine injury is fatal, as was the case with my hon. Friend’s constituent, the Government need to protect entitlement to benefits, as they have done with other similar schemes but which they are currently not doing in relation to payouts under the VDPS. Whether that is universal credit or some other benefit, that post-death entitlement needs to be protected in a way not currently allowed by the law.
The second problem with the VDPS is that it requires a 60% level of disablement. The first thing to say about that is that the percentage of disablement can be hard to quantify in these cases, as Jamie Scott’s consultant made clear in her opinion. However, the second thing to say about it is that 60% is a very high bar. There can be significant injury or disablement that does not meet that threshold but is still life-changing. The VDPS is all or nothing: it pays out the full amount or nothing at all. In other words, someone adjudged to be 59% disabled as a direct result of vaccination would receive no compensation at all under the scheme. That cannot be right.
Before my right hon. and learned Friend gets to the payment system, I want to raise the issue of support. My constituent Charlotte was a 39-year-old healthy mother of three children. I am furious and appalled after having had to approach three Government Ministers, two NHS trusts and the local GP to ask if someone can help her with the myriad health conditions she has contracted as a result of doing the right and getting her vaccination. She has not got long covid; the long covid units and clinics do not want to talk to her. No one wants to support her. Currently, she is going to Germany for treatment. Her life has been destroyed, she cannot be a mother and yet not one Minister or anyone else seems to want to make sure that this very small cohort of people have a meaningful pathway to care and support.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to get a grip regarding this very small number of people and that Ministers need to reach out individually to every single family in this situation, make sure that they know what support they can receive, ensure that there is a care pathway, and help MPs to help their constituents?
Yes. Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts her point very powerfully. It seems to me that there is an opportunity for the Government to do better, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues will take up that opportunity.
We are talking about people in very great need who have done the right thing. There is no fault whatsoever on their part, and the Government are best served by helping them, not just for individual reasons but collectively because of the impact that will have on Government policy. I will come back to that point. As my hon. Friend says, the level of support currently on offer is not adequate.
The third problem with the VDPS is that payouts under it are limited to £120,000. That may sound like a lot of money, but it is certainly not enough to compensate for more serious injury and loss of earnings and amenity over lifetimes, especially for people in the 40s, like Jamie Scott, who are disproportionately highly represented among the figures of those who have suffered vaccine-related injury. I appreciate that the Minister will say that the VDPS is not designed to be full compensation but an additional payment that does not prejudice a right to pursue damages through the courts. I want to explore that argument for a moment.
The fact that VDPS payments cannot and will not constitute full compensation in many of these cases makes legal action almost inevitable. When those cases are brought, they are likely to be brought against the Government, because of the perfectly sensible indemnities given by the Government to those firms that have produced the vaccines. The cases brought will either be won by those injured or lost. If they are won, the Government will be paying full compensation for injury, with additional and avoidable legal costs added. If they are lost, people who have suffered for doing the right thing, the thing that the Government asked them to do, will not be compensated for hardship they have suffered through no fault of their own.
Win or lose, the Government should not want those cases litigated. It will seem either that compensation is being dragged out of the Government or that it is being denied in what the public are likely to think are highly deserving cases. Worse still, those cases will put incidents of vaccine injury in the spotlight. We are rightly proud of the widespread take-up in what has been a successful and ongoing vaccination programme, but that take-up relies on public confidence in the covid-19 vaccine programme—confidence that is itself based on the safety of the vaccine. It is, let us be clear, overwhelmingly safe, but it is not universally safe. No vaccine is. The cases we are discussing today demonstrate that.
The Government need people to know, surely, that if they are in the tiny minority of those injured by the vaccine that they are being urged to take, they will be looked after. If people cannot be confident of that and see that as they witness those cases being litigated, it is likely to damage uptake of the vaccine. Of course, we must recognise that the Government may need to pursue mass vaccination again in the future. It seems to me that the Government should properly compensate those injured by covid-19 vaccines for reasons of policy as well as those of morality.
The question that follows is: can it be done better? You would, of course, expect me to say, Sir Edward, that yes, it can. These are relatively few cases in number, which means that the financial liability for Government is relatively delimited. There are domestic precedents we can follow—for example, the Thalidomide Trust. There are international examples that we can look to as well. The comparable scheme in Canada is also a no-fault scheme that compensates for
“severe, life-threatening or life-altering injury that may require… hospitalization or a prolongation of existing hospitalization, and results in persistent or significant disability or incapacity, or where the outcome is a congenital malformation or death.”
Significantly, there is no percentage disablement requirement and, crucially, no upper limit to the level of compensation that may be awarded.
In Australia, the scheme covers
“a clinical condition or administration related injury…most likely as a result of receiving the COVID-19 Vaccine”,
involving hospital treatment and resulting in at least $1,000-worth of losses. Again, it is a no-fault scheme but it has no percentage disablement requirement and no upper limit to the compensation amount.
Perhaps most strikingly, the no-fault compensation scheme attached to the COVAX programme, whereby countries including the United Kingdom make vaccines available to developing countries, can award up to 12 times the GDP per capita of the claimant’s country. In the UK, that would mean an upper limit roughly three times that of the VDPS. That means that the UK Government are funding better vaccine injury compensation for people in other countries than they are for people in our own. That surely is not a defensible position.
The Government must do better, and soon. They must either reform the VDPS in order to make it more similar to the best international comparators, or find a way to settle the inevitable legal actions in these cases swiftly and fairly. They must surely do so in their own interests, because in the end, the cost to Government of failing to compensate those who have acted on Government policy will be higher than the cost of compensating them.
It is because I support vaccination that I want confidence in vaccination to be maintained. Mostly, the Government should act because the people we are talking about did the right thing at the behest of their Government. Their Government now need to do the right thing by them.
We are here to discuss the vaccine damage payment scheme of 1979. My interest is as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, so it is clear that I am absolutely and utterly pro-vaccination.
We can be grateful for just how rare significant side effects or damage are when it comes to vaccines as a whole. However, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) has said, if we are to maintain confidence not only in vaccination in principle but in further covid-19 vaccines, it is important that people feel secure and supported and that they are not hearing horror stories of people who have been hurt in some way by the vaccine and then just left stranded. It is vital that we do that, or we will see a rise in vaccine scepticism and vaccine hesitancy, and that will be manipulated exactly as we have seen over the last couple of years.
As a former civil servant, I believe that the case load is so small that it is not unfair to expect Ministers to look at each case individually. They have the capacity and are capable. The purpose of vaccination is to protect not just ourselves but others around us, and many who have had negative consequences acted in the national interest and to protect their loved ones. They deserve the bare minimum of a Minister looking individually, case by case, to see what support they need and whether they deserve the vaccine payment or some exceptional support. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I totally agree. The Government’s response to the petition talks of 174 cases. When I was a breast cancer surgeon and there was the scandal about PIP implants, which I knew we had never used, I still had to go through every single breast reconstruction I had done in a period of 17 years in order to absolutely verify that that was not the implant. It is absolutely possible with such numbers.
At the moment, only 11 cases have been settled. Only 2% in recent years have been successful. Whenever any kind of scheme has only that kind of return, it has to be looked at. As has been said, it is a long wait and people are left not able to work or they have family pressures and receive no support. Who is deciding the 60% disablement? As has been said, it is an absolute cut-off. Even the maximum payment has not been reviewed since 2010 and it would not cover anyone for 20 or 25 years of lost earnings and ability.
The Government say it is not compensation. I think that a no-fault scheme is absolutely right. I raised this issue with the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) when he was Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, in December 2020, and said that if the Government were removing liability from pharmaceutical firms, they had to step in and replace them. I would like to see the VDPS improved for all vaccine users, but the covid-19 vaccine is a specific case where urgent action is needed and where it is even more important to get financial support.
We heard about cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and how catastrophic, but thankfully rare, it is. People have also had micro-thrombosis and an array of autoimmune responses to the vaccines. My constituent, who does not want to be named, suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is now recognised and mentioned in association with the vaccines. It is a neurological condition that has caused him to have partial facial paralysis and problems with balance. That may sound minor, but he worked at heights in a majorly physical job and has not been able to work since spring 2020. He, and people like him, are terrified of the 60% disablement. He imagines that when he walks into a room, regardless of his facial appearance or his balance, people will think, “Well, you’re not really that bad”, but he cannot do the job he was doing before.
It is vital that we take these cases out of the VDPS, deal with them quickly to ensure confidence in the covid-19 vaccine, and take the time to change the VDPS to make it responsive, quick and something that the public believe in. In total, there are currently only just over 2,000 cases, which is not an overwhelming number to work through if it means that we maintain confidence in vaccines and the benefits they bring to all age groups, throughout our lives, against multiple diseases.
It is always a pleasure to speak in such debates. I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) for putting forward and illustrating such a good case. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). She knows that I always look forward to her contributions, because I believe they are based on the evidence and facts that she knows. She expressed that very well in her contribution, which I thank her for.
For almost two years we have encouraged our constituents to be vaccinated against covid, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and others have said, in order to do their bit to protect themselves and others. We have begun to see the impact that vaccines can have on individuals only recently. It is sad, unfortunate and devastating for families and friends who have seen the health of loved ones deteriorate or, sadly, pass away.
It is essential that we do our bit, through this debate, secured by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, to ensure the vaccine damage payment scheme is swift and accessible to those who deserve to take advantage of it. As others have said, there are not a great number of cases but they are very important. I know the Minister will respond in a positive fashion, and I look forward to hearing what she and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), will say.
We have all heard stories from friends, family or constituents about people who may have suffered negative impacts from the covid vaccine. I am glad to say there have not been many cases, but the number is still significant and those cases need to be addressed, which is what this debate is about. These people have suffered life-changing conditions because of their willingness to do their public duty. I was glad to have the vaccine and not to have had any side effects from it, and I am glad the vaccine was able to give me and millions of other people across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland immunity to that awful disease.
Under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979, first payments of the £120,000 lump sum went out in June, but many people have felt let down by the out-of-date scheme. Hundreds more people across the rest of the United Kingdom are awaiting assessments and decisions, including people in Northern Ireland. As of May this year, over 1,300 claims have been made but only 20 have been referred for medical assessment. That is not enough and it is too slow.
There is no doubt there have been issues with punctuality under the 1979 Act, and I understand the reasons for that. As always in this House, it is not about the reasons but the solutions. We look to the Minister to give us some encouragement as to where we are. Some applicants are waiting almost six months for assessments and decisions—six months! The scope allowed for qualification is to be over 60% disabled, either mentally or physically, due to adverse impacts of the covid vaccine. The Government have urged that it is not a compensation payment, but it is intended to ease the burdens caused by severe vaccine damage. Whatever the reasons and criteria, the request from the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam, and from others in the Chamber, is to get it done quickly and not to delay.
We have heard of instances where the AstraZeneca vaccine has impacted on a small group of people when it comes to clotting.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense. He will have heard me say that the Government have a choice: they can either reform the VDPS or they can deal properly with the cases that are going to come their way. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that what we are looking at here for the Government is something of a burning platform? They will get those cases, and if they would rather litigate them in the full glare of publicity then that is an option—but they will perhaps be foolish to do so. Would it not be better if they dealt with those cases more quietly?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his words of wisdom. Minister, there is an easy option sitting before us. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman: in my book, I believe if we can do it the easy way then we should. Let us address the issue in a way that gives the Government less hassle, satisfies the needs and requests of our constituents, and ensures that we can move forward.
In terms of clotting, as of June this year there were 444 cases of blood clots out of 49 million doses of AstraZeneca given. There is still evidence that not all those were caused by the vaccine. Regardless of that, why should we not be speaking out on behalf of those who have been impacted? There is no amount of money in the world that can fill the void of loss—it cannot be measured in pounds and pennies—but we must do our best to ensure that the process of vaccine damage payments is timely and simple.
That is what we are asking for; I do not think we are asking for the world, but for something that can be done very easily—in my simplistic way of looking at things—by Government. They can do it in a way that can give succour right away and thus do away with the thoughts and process of litigation, which would be long, laborious and much more expensive.
It certainly is. Things are never straightforward and there are complex issues. However, today our request is quite simply on behalf of those who have contacted the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and each and every one of us. We have them in Northern Ireland as well; some of my constituents have been impacted. I think it is really important that we do that.
It is not just a matter of who they sue—whether it is a pharmaceutical company or the Government. As with contaminated blood, is the point not that people injured by vaccines—or damaged in some way through healthcare—should not struggle with some long court battle? Look at how long the contaminated blood scandal has been running—surely we do not want to put people through litigation if it can be settled more fairly.
As always the hon. Lady gives us a focused way forward. Since I was elected as an MP in 2010, the contaminated blood scandal has been at forefront of my mind, as it has been for the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who is the Opposition spokesperson for that issue. People have waited all that time for compensation, but there is some hope now of it coming.
However, many people in the compensation chain for the contaminated blood scandal have not yet got satisfaction. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire is absolutely right: litigation, by its nature, is traumatic and it adds to the problems for those who are already distressed because of their physical health, and experience anxiety, depression and all sorts of other issues. If there is a way of doing it—and the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam has referred to what that is—then let us do it.
The Second Reading of the Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill is scheduled for the end of October. I would like to hear that we must do well by our constituents across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland who fell victim to this particular problem. We know that the 1979 Act does not apply to many other vaccines, and we have heard so much anti-vax rumour and speculation. I, for one, am willing to put my faith in healthcare professionals to ascertain why someone has been impacted in a certain way by the covid vaccines. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, who spoke before me, is not here as a healthcare professional; she is here as an MP, but she still has the expertise, knowledge and understanding of that, as do many outside. I previously added my name to present the private Member’s Bill earlier in the year, and I am very happy to do so again.
To conclude, we must stand by those who have stood by us in doing their civic duty to be vaccinated. I call on the Minister and Government, beseechingly, to engage with Health Ministers in the devolved nations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to collectively work to ensure that the Bill can be passed with the support of others. They must ensure that those impacted by the covid vaccines have something to ease burdens past and future. Along with other Members here today, I hope that the Government will address those issues with compassion and understanding, and do so now.
I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) for securing today’s important debate on covid vaccines and the vaccine damage payment scheme, and also for the manner in which he presented the case. I think we can all agree that it is vital that those with genuine claims are supported, and that spurious anti-vax conspiracists are not allowed to undermine legitimate claims.
It is clear that it is beyond time for the UK Government to review the compensation scheme. Although the vast majority of vaccinations do not cause serious side effects, in a tiny number of incidents there have been and will be serious side effects. Any medicine, even an over-the-counter medicine, is capable of having seriously detrimental side effects. It is a tragic reality that, although vaccination is the right course of action, and the risk of harm from coronavirus far outweighs the risk of harm from the vaccines, some people will have serious side effects, including disablement and death.
The first payment under the compensation scheme in the UK has been handed out, to a bereaved individual whose partner lost their life as a consequence of the AstraZeneca vaccination. There are serious, valid claims of harm, and they must be respected and listened to. That is also vital to maintaining faith in the UK’s vaccination programme, both now and in the future. As those claiming make clear, making claims is not about being anti-vaccine.
Anti-vaxxers have attempted, however, to abuse the scheme and undermine the delivery of compensation. At one point, it was claimed that the compensation scheme was for anyone who was not made fully aware of the health risks of the vaccine. Such actions are designed to overwhelm the system, making it harder for people with legitimate claims to be heard, which ultimately undermines faith in the system. They promote the unfounded claim that the extremely unlikely consequences of the vaccine were hidden. Similar actions were seen in America, where there were many spurious claims for compensation, including on the basis of having a sore arm after vaccination. That was the only symptom that I had, and it was similar for many of my friends; it was a regularly experienced side effect, as we know.
We must support those with valid claims, while ensuring that anti-vaxxers do not hijack the scheme for their propaganda purposes. As I stated earlier, it is beyond time for the UK Government to review the compensation scheme.
I understand exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Would he agree that the best gift that we could give to the anti-vaxxers would be to allow them to say that people injured by the vaccine will receive no compensation and no help from the Government?
I absolutely agree. MPs have warned since 2015, before I was in Parliament, that the system is out of date and in need of review. Payment levels under the scheme were set in 2010, and have not been reviewed since. Lawyers specialising in vaccine injury cases have criticised the 60% disablement criterion as out of date and as not reflecting the reality of some consequences of covid and the covid vaccinations.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and the largest mass vaccination programme in the history of the United Kingdom, it is well beyond time that the vaccination compensation scheme is reviewed. This is made even more necessary in the face of the spiralling cost of living crisis, with those who have been disabled or bereaved by vaccine injury facing higher costs and lower incomes. In conclusion, the SNP calls on the UK Government to deliver an uplift to the compensation quantity and to ensure that no legitimate cases are being denied rightful compensation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for this debate on covid-19 vaccines and the vaccine damage payment scheme. I commend the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) for setting out such a compelling case for reform. As he said, the application process is painfully slow and the level of disablement is really hard to assess. Setting the level at 60%, and having a limit for compensation, really does penalise so many people who ought to benefit from the scheme. It seems crazy that the COVAX scheme is three times more generous than the scheme that we have in the United Kingdom.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for setting out those facts to Parliament, and I hope the Minister has taken them on board. I also thank him for setting out the case of the Scott family, particularly Jamie Scott—one of a number of people who have been affected by the covid-19 vaccination, whose voices absolutely have to be heard in this Parliament. Hopefully, we can address some of the concerns that he set out.
This issue is very important, and it is equally important that facts remain at the heart of the debate. From the outset, I want to make it clear that the covid-19 vaccination programme has saved countless lives and enabled us to reclaim many liberties that we were forced to forfeit over the course of the pandemic. Nearly 51 million people have been fully vaccinated in the United Kingdom and, for the overwhelming majority of people, the vaccine is safe and effective, and it protects against covid-19. However, we are here today to talk about the small number of people for whom the vaccine has had devastating consequences.
The data has consistently shown that, by comparison with the unvaccinated, the rates of death from covid-19 are lower for the fully vaccinated in all age groups. In August 2021, just eight months after the first vaccine had been administered in this country, the UK Health Security Agency estimated that over 90,000 lives had already been saved in England alone thanks to the vaccination programme. Covid vaccines went through several stages of clinical trials before being approved and met strict independent standards for safety, quality and effectiveness.
As with many medical interventions, there are, sadly, instances of serious side-effects and, in extremely rare cases, death. According to the Official for National Statistics, 49 deaths in England have had the covid vaccine mentioned on the death certificate since 2020. Although that is incredibly low, given the scale of the vaccine roll-out, every single one of those deaths is a profound tragedy, and I can only extend my utmost sympathy to individuals and their families who have been affected by rare vaccine side effects.
Although no amount of money can bring back a loved one or reverse physical damage, it is only right that those who have developed health problems, or who have lost a relative as a result of vaccination, can access a financial payment. As we have heard, the vaccine damage payment scheme was created back in 1979, and Members of all parties will agree that its principle is important and necessary. However, I have been concerned by reports of operational delays and inadequate support given to those who have suffered from rare vaccine side-effects. While I fully appreciate that identifying the causal link between covid-19 vaccinations and damage is a complex task, it is disappointing that the first vaccine damage payment related to the covid-19 vaccination programme was only made in July 2022—a full year after similar payments had been made in other countries such as Norway.
In November last year, the VDPS was administered by the Department for Work and Pensions alongside the Department of Health and Social Care. Since then, its management has been transferred to the NHS Business Services Authority, working exclusively on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care. Given that the scale of the covid-19 vaccination programme is likely to increase applications to the scheme, can the Minister reassure colleagues that the NHSBSA and its contractor Crawford & Company will have the requisite capacity to process applications in a timely manner?
Further to that point, I note that in response to a written parliamentary question in December last year, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), stated that the NHSBSA will
“review the Scheme’s processes to improve claimants’ experiences through increasing personalised engagement, reducing response times and providing general support.”
She also stated:
“The NHS Business Services Authority will also work with the Department on service improvements and further digitalisation, including an online claim form to increase accessibility.”
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister responding to today’s debate could outline how that work is progressing and what recent discussions she has had with her departmental colleagues on streamlining the VDPS. I would also appreciate it if she could set out the current average processing time from when a claim is made to when it reaches its conclusion, and whether there are any plans to improve on that average processing time.
As the Minister will no doubt be aware, payment levels for the VDPS have not been reviewed since 2007, when they were increased under the previous Labour Government. In a recent response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), the Minister stated:
“There is currently no formal plan to review the payment amount for the VDPS.”
Can she clarify whether that is still the Government’s position and, if so, what assessment her Department has made of the current level of support for those who are experiencing lifelong severe side effects, especially considering the evidence presented during the debate regarding the support available in countries that are part of the COVAX initiative?
I reference in particular a recent BBC report about Hamish Thomas. Hamish suffered from extremely rare side effects after a polio vaccination, and remains paralysed to this day. He rightly received a payout from the VDPS. However, Hamish says:
“In the grand scheme of things, especially for someone’s entire life span,”
“won’t cover the vast amounts of medical expenses that are needed to be paid for and the NHS unfortunately can’t provide.”
What assessment has the Minister made of stories such as Hamish’s, and will she commit to meeting campaigners to ensure that those who require support can access it, either through the VDPS or by other means?
It is vital that the VDPS is protected, but it is also vital that it is fit for purpose and has the confidence of the public at large. There is a right way of dealing with this, which the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam has set out, to avoid the litigation and the mistakes we have seen with other scandals, in particular the contaminated blood scandal. It is a public health imperative that people appreciate that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective, but the public also deserve to know that in extremely rare cases where an individual experiences harm or damage, suitable and proportional support is available.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister. Reshuffles are difficult to predict, but I wish her well in whatever comes out of the new Prime Minister’s decisions on who’s who in the Government. As this might be our last face-to-face, and I do not know what the future holds for her, I thank the Minister for her work and for the courtesy she has shown to me as I have shadowed her from the Opposition Benches. I wish her the best of luck in whatever the Prime Minister dreams up for her new Government.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) for securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members for their participation. It has been a measured and important debate. I offer my sympathies to my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituent, whom I welcome to the Public Gallery today. While my right hon. and learned Friend will understand that I cannot comment on the case itself, my thoughts are with his constituent and his family.
After clean water, vaccination is the most effective public health intervention in the world for saving lives and promoting good health. Globally, we have one of the best and most innovative immunisation programmes, with vaccine confidence and uptake among the highest in the world. That has allowed us to get covid-19 and many other vaccine-preventable diseases under control. The UK became the first country in the world to deploy an approved covid-19 vaccine, saving countless lives and helping to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed. This week, the NHS will become the first healthcare system in the world to use next-generation bivalent covid vaccines.
All vaccines must go through a rigorous testing and development process before authorisation to ensure that they meet the strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness set by the independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. We are also guided by the latest clinical and scientific evidence and advice on vaccine safety and efficacy from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
Unfortunately, in some rare instances, some individuals may sadly experience harm because of vaccination. The vaccine damage payment scheme, or VDPS, provides a one-off, tax-free payment to those individuals who have been found, on the balance of probabilities, to have been harmed by a vaccine. The NHS Business Services Authority, which has a proven track record of delivering services that support the NHS, manages the operational side of the VDPS on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care, following its transfer from the Department for Work and Pensions in November 2021. VDPS assessments are performed on a case-by- case basis by experienced, independent medical assessors who have undertaken specialist training in vaccine damage and disablement assessments.
Covid-19 vaccines were included in the VDPS from the very start of the vaccine roll-out in December 2020. This approach is in line with most comparable countries, with similar existing schemes in the US and other G7 countries extended to cover covid-19. It allowed those whose severe disability was found, on the balance of probabilities, to be linked to a covid-19 vaccine to receive timely support through this established, tried and tested system.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam mentioned the COVAX programme, which was set up as a result of the covid-19 vaccine and provides a no-fault lump-sum compensation payment in full and final settlement of any claims. The VDPS is different: while it provides a one-off lump sum, it is not compensation and is not given in full and final settlement, leaving it open to individuals to make a claim for damages through the courts. The COVAX programme is also time-limited to 30 June 2023, which is just next year.
In June 2022, the first outcomes of covid-19-related VDPS claims began to be communicated to claimants. Given the novelty of the covid-19 vaccines, the processing of claims had to wait for scientific evidence to reach a more settled position to better understand the potential relationship between the vaccines and certain adverse events.
Before my hon. Friend moves off international comparisons, can I ask her about the Canadian and Australian schemes that I mentioned? I take her point about COVAX providing full and final settlement, but, as I explained, that is not the case for the Australian model or the Canadian one, neither of which has either a 60% disablement requirement or a maximum sum in compensation. If my hon. Friend is able to comment on that now, I invite her to do so. If she cannot, would she write to me to explain why the Government think those are not appropriate models to follow?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. What I was trying to relay is that those countries that had established schemes in place extended those to the covid-19 vaccine, and where countries did not have established systems in place, they set up new ones. I will write to my right hon. and learned Friend with further details, but that is a broad outline of where we are with that.
While evidence of a causal mechanism between vaccines and injuries reported has yet to be fully established, careful monitoring by regulators and scientists around the world has enabled certain adverse events to be identified as being linked to the covid-19 vaccines. The NHSBSA works closely with the MHRA and UKHSA to ensure that concluded outcomes reflect the most up-to- date evidence on causation and the covid-19 vaccines.
My right hon. and learned Friend raised concerns that the payment of £120,000 is not sufficient to meet the needs of individuals. It is important to note that that amount is a one-off lump-sum payment, and is not designed to cover lifetime costs for those impacted. It is in addition to the Government’s support package for those with a disability or long-term health condition, which includes statutory sick pay, universal credit, employment and support allowance, attendance allowance and personal independence payment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her forbearance. On the point she has just made, it is true, of course, that people have access to the benefits system. However, as I said earlier, at the moment, at least, if someone is in receipt of a payment under the VDPS, that will count against their entitlement for benefits. It is possible to deal with that if the claimant is still alive; if they are not, it is not possible. Will the Government look at how that might be remedied, as it is in relation to other types of payment under other schemes?
Yes, we will definitely look into that on my right hon. and learned Friend’s behalf.
The VDPS payment amount has significantly increased since the original VDPS payment of £10,000 set in 1979. It has been revised several times and, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said, the current level was set in 2007. This will be kept under review as part of business-as-usual policy work. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam is aware, a successful claim to VDPS does not preclude an individual from bringing a claim for damages through the courts.
I am getting a bit short of time. Lots of points have been raised and I want to make sure that I cover them all, so I will continue.
In line with the pre-action protocol should a claim be brought, where the Government are party to any claim, they will consider whether alternative dispute resolution might enable the settlement of the claim without the need to commence proceedings. The form of any ADR would depend on the details of claims that are made.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam also raised concerns about the 60% disability threshold. That threshold was lowered from the initial 80% to 60% in 2002, and it remains aligned with the definition of severe disablement set out under the DWP’s industrial injuries disablement benefit, a widely accepted test of disability. There is no evidence at present that the current level is a significant barrier; in 2019 and 2020, just one claim out of 70 was rejected due to the disability threshold not being met. We will review the latest data as covid cases are processed, but at present, evidence does not support lowering the threshold.
Working alongside NHSBSA, our focus is now on improving the service offered by VDPS by scaling up operations and improving the underlying processes. Since taking over operational responsibility in November 2021, NHSBSA has transformed the administration of the VDPS, which was previously a paper-based system. It has significantly increased its capacity to meet the demands placed on the scheme, expanding from four to 40 caseworkers and additional support staff, with further recruitment under way. This means claims can be processed more quickly, with personalised engagement with applicants through the allocation of named caseworkers.
NHSBSA awarded a new contract to an independent third-party supplier in March 2022 to provide additional medical assessment capacity to process covid-19-related claims. That has allowed for the conclusion of the first of those claims. NHSBSA is working to digitise applications and medical records, streamlining the process. A wider modernisation project is also being taken forward to digitise the application form, to create a simpler and swifter process and allow caseworkers to manage claims more efficiently. To allow more rapid assessments and processing, NHSBSA is setting time limits for the provision of medical records, with a call-back process in place. Further approaches are being looked at to secure relevant medical documents faster, as this has been a key limiting factor in processing rates.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam raised concerns about the rate of progress of VDPS. I am sure that he will appreciate, from what I have just indicated, that there have been vast improvements over recent months. As an update, NHSBSA has 2,458 live cases, of which 1,203 claims are awaiting returns on requested medical records, 181 claims are with medical assessors, and 261 claims are awaiting requests for medical records. The average claim takes around six months to investigate and process from the date NHSBSA requests the claimant’s medical records. The timeframe varies from case to case. NHSBSA has scaled up a dedicated team of caseworkers, as I have indicated, to move claims forward and update claimants on the progress of their claims.
My right hon. and learned Friend raised an interesting question about establishing a bespoke compensation scheme for covid-19 vaccines. Establishing a dedicated, stand-alone compensation scheme would risk favouring those potentially damaged by covid-19 vaccines over those damaged by other vaccines. That could create an inequality between vaccines, which could be detrimental to other vaccination programmes.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend again for securing this important debate. Everyone has made really sensible contributions, and we will take everything that has been said into consideration. I am pleased that a number of covid-19 VDPS claims have now been concluded, offering outcomes to claimants, with further cases being progressed. Now is not the right time to review the VDPS: our focus must be on improving and scaling up its operations and continuing to process claims. We will continue to further improve the service so that outcomes can be provided sooner, giving additional support to those who qualify.
It simply falls to me to thank everyone who has participated in the debate. I hope that the Minister has a sense of the degree of consensus about the need to look again at the VDPS or, if not, to look at ways in which these cases can be settled by other means. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) put it, we cannot ignore these cases. Seeking to deal with them justly does not in any way undermine our commitment to vaccination as a public health approach; indeed, I think most of us argue that it strengthens it and makes it more coherent, so I hope the Minister will go away and think again. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not know what the future holds for her, but I know the officials behind her will stay where they are, and I hope they will be able to talk either to her or to her successor about what more can be done on this front. The families who have been injured deserve better than they are getting, and the Government’s policy objectives would be better served if the scheme worked better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19 vaccines and the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.