Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
I welcome to the Front Bench the Minister who will respond to the debate, with whom I had a meeting earlier today. During the course of that meeting, she kindly agreed to come to an early meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on covid-19 vaccine damage, which I have the privilege of chairing. At that meeting we will have representatives of victims of vaccine damage. However, as I emphasised to my hon. Friend, we will not have people there who are actively engaged in litigation, because that would be inappropriate.
This debate is about the application of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 to those who have been bereaved or suffered adverse reactions to covid-19 vaccines. The Act was extended to apply to such vaccines before they were rolled out, but it is now abundantly clear that the Act is totally inadequate for addressing the needs of most of those who have been adversely affected.
On Wednesday this week, the Prime Minister told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright):
“We are taking steps to reform vaccine damage payment schemes, by modernising the operations and providing more timely outcomes”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2023; Vol. 730, c. 330.]
The Prime Minister did not answer or even refer to my right hon. and learned Friend’s requests that the Government should change the £120,000 maximum payment for those seriously injured and end the denial of any payment to those disabled by less than 60%. That was despite the Prime Minister having received notice of my right hon. and learned Friend’s question, and the fact that both he and I had raised the same points with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care weeks ago.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work on this issue. Has he had time to consider the paper produced this week by the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, which found a strongly significant correlation between covid-19 vaccine uptake in 2021 and excess deaths in the first nine months of 2022 across the European Union and the European economic area? In fact, the correlation was so strong that it could be stated that for every 1% increase in vaccination rates in 2021, there was a 0.1% increase in mortality in 2022.
I did notice that document, because it was drawn to my attention by my hon. Friend. May I suggest to him that he tries to engage the good offices of our right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee? I am delighted to see him in his place this afternoon, because I know that this issue is close to his heart as well.
The Minister confirmed to me earlier that the Government’s answer to both those questions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam put to the Prime Minister is no. It is rather sad that that is so, and it is regrettable that the Prime Minister did not put that on the record himself.
This month, we have already discussed in this House the scandal surrounding the supply of contaminated blood and the false imprisonment of postmasters as a result of the Horizon system. In both cases, after long resistance, the Government were eventually forced into accepting compensation schemes. If they are interested in tackling the developing scandal over covid-19 vaccine damage victims, they can and must act now.
I fear, however, that the Government have no will so to do, because they are still in denial about the whole issue. Why do I use that expression? I do so because at a meeting on 21 April last year, I asked the then vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), whether she accepted that some people had died as a direct result of having received the covid-19 vaccination. She declined to answer the question at the meeting and said that she would write to me. She did not do so, so I then had to put down a parliamentary written question—UIN 2325. She ducked that question.
I will therefore ask the same question again to the Minister today, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), bearing in mind that we now know that more than 50 coroners’ verdicts have confirmed that people have died as a direct result of covid-19 vaccines, and that her Department has been making awards under the 1979 Act to families who have been bereaved on the basis that their loved ones died as a direct result. Will the Government therefore unequivocally say today that they do accept that some people have died as a direct result of having received a covid-19 vaccination?
Was it not bizarre that all the Prime Minister could say on Wednesday, when told about Jamie Scott spending four weeks in a coma and remaining seriously disabled as a result of a covid vaccine, was:
“I am very sorry to hear about the case”?
Then, in an extraordinary non sequitur, the Prime Minister added:
“In the extremely rare case of a potential injury from a vaccine covered by the scheme, a one-off payment can be awarded.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2023; Vol. 730, c. 330.]
However, Jamie Scott’s injury is not a potential injury, but a real and substantial one. Nor was it caused by any old vaccine; it was caused by a new experimental covid vaccine.
Sadly, Jamie Scott’s case is not unique. I have received hundreds of distressing letters and emails from both victims and bereaved relatives, who are desperate for the Government and the NHS to listen. Several are from my own constituency. I will quote briefly from one letter, received on 18 March, from a 24-year-old, previously employed in a good job in financial services. He had a Pfizer vaccine booster in February 2022 and says:
“Within days of the dose, I started experiencing nasty symptoms that resembled those of an autoimmune disease. The symptoms include nausea, headaches, skin rashes and other immune issues. Despite numerous Doctors visits, blood tests, X-rays and medicinal prescriptions, Doctors have been unable to help ease symptoms at all. Symptoms have worsened with time and I have been unable to work over the past seven months or so. I have been unable to receive any disability benefits and have been left to use my entire life savings to fund my food and bills.”
An expert rheumatologist has now confirmed the link between my constituent’s symptoms and the Pfizer vaccine. My constituent asks me—and I, in turn, ask the Minister—will the Government admit that there are cases where these vaccines have caused reactions in people? Will they promise to provide further support and research funding for how these conditions can be managed and, hopefully, resolved?
My constituent is but one of so many who have suffered, and continue to suffer, because they did the right thing, on the advice of the Government, and received their jabs. The Express, the first mainstream newspaper to start giving the issue some publicity, began its crusade for justice for jab victims with four pages in one of its editions last week. On 15 March, its leading article, entitled “Injection of faith needed”, spoke for many when it said: “We must take care of the small number of people who suffered side effects as a result of their jabs. Innocent people who have suffered terribly must not be denied the damages they deserve. This is a matter of justice.”
The current situation is that over 4,000 claims have been made under the 1979 Act. Over the past five months, new claims have been running at the rate of 250 per month. Some 2,800 claims remain outstanding, and only a surprisingly and disturbingly small number have so far been successful. I shall now try to shame the Government into action by contrasting their head-in-the-sand approach to vaccine damage victims with what is happening in Germany.
On 12 March, Professor Dr Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s Federal Minister for Health, gave a disarmingly candid interview to the Germany TV news channel ZDF. The Minister is a scientist and physician of note, and had previously been professor of health economics and epidemiology at the University of Cologne and at Harvard. As the adviser to then Chancellor Angela Merkel at the beginning of the covid pandemic, he took a very hard line and publicly said on numerous occasions that the vaccines must be taken and that they were “without side effects”. He has now admitted in that interview that what he said about them being “without side effects” was a gross exaggeration. That is disarmingly frank, is it not?
He conceded that one in 10,000 of those vaccinated against covid-19 in Germany had experienced severe adverse effects. He described these “unfortunate cases” as heartbreaking, confirming that some of the severe disablements will be permanent. He added, “It’s really tragic”. The Minister said that Germany does not yet have drugs for treatment and that care entitlements are defined very narrowly, but he recognised the need to get faster at recognising vaccine injuries as the understanding of adverse events increases. He promised significant extra resources and said that he was in discussions with German Treasury Ministers to address issues around post-vaccine syndrome.
Sadly, our own Government do not even recognise post-vaccine syndrome. I have asked them whether they would report on what has been happening in University Hospital Marburg in Germany, where much work is being done on the diagnosis and treatment of post-vaccination syndrome. I suggested that it might be useful for them to have some discussions with the hospital. In answer to a parliamentary written question on 16 November—UIN 88798—I was told that there are
“no current plans to do so.”
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider that position, because it is important that we should get into alignment with Germany, whose health system is much more successful than our own. Germany has moved from wanting to get everybody vaccinated, although that was all done “voluntarily”, to recognising now that it must do its best to look after those for whom the vaccine was bad news.
What has happened over the past two years in Germany is that more than 300,000 cases of vaccine side-effects have accumulated in the Ministry’s own system, and more and more people are lodging compensation claims against the state, which, based on the contracts that Germany signed with the EU manufacturers, is liable for any vaccine-related damage. Meanwhile, the subject of vaccine injuries has begun to be openly discussed in the German mainstream media. Let us hope that we will see a bit of that developing in our own country, because one of the frustrations of the victims of these vaccines is that there seems to be much reluctance in the mainstream media to engage on this issue.
Now we have a situation in which the German Federal Minister of Health is saying, “let’s see if we can get some help from the pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily help compensate those harmed by the vaccines.” He then goes on to say that that is because the profits have been “exorbitant”. Just a year ago, he had said that the pharmaceutical companies would not get rich on the vaccines, but it is one of the privileges of Ministers across the world to be able to eat their words when the facts change.
In my submission, the Government here need to completely change their approach and become much more realistic, accommodating and, dare one say it, compassionate towards those who did the right thing by the public interest and accepted the vaccines.
May I ask my hon. Friend a whole series of questions? It will not be possible for people to follow all of the questions I want to ask, because I do not have time to read out all of them. Are the Government aware of the 2017 case in the Court of Appeal where the Court said that, for VDPS purposes, loss of faculties had no real relationship to the kind of injuries set out in schedule 2 of the relevant statute relating to calculating the percentage of disablement? Schedule 2 calculates physical disability—for example, an amputation below the knee could be calculated at 60%. The Court decision was that that should not be some kind of straitjacket, but it seems that it is being used as a kind of straitjacket in the assessment of covid vaccine claims.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government are following the decision made by the Court of Appeal? Will she also reconsider the amount of the £120,000 payment? Its value has been eroded by inflation since 2007. Can she explain why there are still no plans to align the disablement threshold for the VDPS with that in the England infected blood support scheme, under which it is possible to get £100,000 without any evidence of disability? There does not seem to be any alignment between that scheme and the VDPS.
The Government said that within 56 days of receiving any prevention of future deaths report from a coroner, they would report back on it. The only such report made to the Government relating to this issue was delivered on 13 October. Will my hon. Friend explain why there has still not been a response? In the light of what is happening in Germany, will she agree to set up specialist clinics to look at post-vaccine situations? How many people are now working on vaccine claims, and does she see any prospect of the enormous backlog being reduced quickly?
There are lots of questions there, but they are only a small sample of those that I have. I look forward to members of the APPG raising further questions with the Minister when she comes to our meeting.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for securing this important debate. I met him earlier to listen to many of his concerns on the issue. We know that, unfortunately, there have been some rare instances in which individuals have suffered possible harm following a covid-19 vaccination. Of course, my sympathy goes out to them and their families. The Government are keen to help those who feel that they have been affected by this issue; that is why I have agreed to meet the all-party parliamentary group and Members from across the House who have concerns on the issue.
The vaccine damage payment is a one-off, tax-free payment to individuals who have been found, on the balance of probabilities, to have been harmed by any vaccine, including covid vaccines. It was established over 40 years ago, and provides support to those who have experienced severe disablement that could have been, on the balance of probabilities, caused by a vaccine against one of the conditions listed in the legislation. The NHS Business Services Authority took over the scheme in November 2021 to try to improve the process, and speed up the response to and assessment of applicants. Assessments are done on a case-by-case basis by experienced, independent medical assessors, who have undertaken specialised training in vaccine damage and disability assessment. That is partly why the process can take so long. I will touch on the other reasons.
My hon. Friend raised concern about the payment of £120,000. I have listened to his point; indeed, it was raised at Prime Minister’s questions this week. It is important to note that the amount is a one-off, lump-sum payment. It is not designed to cover lifetime costs for those impacted. It is in addition to other support packages, such as statutory sick pay, universal credit, employment and support allowance, attendance allowance and personal independence payments. Also, it has increased since the scheme was put in place; it was just £10,000 in 1979. The amount has been raised several times, the current level having been set in 2007. The amount will be kept under review. I will take away the points that my hon. Friend made in this debate and in our meeting beforehand. As he is aware, a successful claim under the scheme does not preclude individuals from bringing a claim for damages through the courts. There are a number of claims under way, and I cannot comment on those specifically.
My hon. Friend also touched on the 60% disability threshold, which was lowered from the initial 80% threshold in 2002, to remain aligned with the definition of severe disablement set out by the industrial injuries disablement benefit, so that there is consistency across the board. Only 67 of more than 4,000 rejected claims were rejected as not being eligible for the scheme, on the basis of not meeting the 60% disability threshold. Claims are usually rejected for other reasons, so the threshold is not affecting a significant number of claims. We do not see the threshold as a big barrier to those who want to make a claim but, of course, we will keep it under review as the scheme progresses.
The BSA took over the scheme in November 2021, because we found that claims were taking a while. A key issue was getting access to patient records. NHS BSA has done a huge amount of work in that short space of time. On average, it is now taking around six months to process a claim, whereas it was previously taking significantly longer. The BSA has put in place digital modernisation processes that allow for a quicker, easier and faster application process. It has also put in place a strategic research agreement so that patients who make a claim can give consent on application, which enables the team to request the patient’s records from hospitals, GPs and other organisations to be able to determine the claim.
While the new process has bedded in, NHS BSA has introduced quality standards. Although everyone has the right of appeal if their claim is rejected, we want to get it right first time. Making sure those quality assurance processes are in place means that we determine eligible claims first time. The last thing we want is for people to have to appeal because the initial assessment was not correct.
We have also increased staff numbers. The scheme had four members of staff when it sat with the Department for Work and Pensions but, because of the sheer number of claims, more than 80 people are now taking part in the process to assess claims quicker.
I hope I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend, but I will touch on some of the issues around vaccine safety in my remaining couple of minutes. I recognise that he has concerns about the vaccine, and that is why we have instigated further research. There is £110 million going into the National Institute for Health and Care Research to fund covid vaccine research, and that includes vaccine safety and the robust monitoring of adverse events. We have also allocated £1.6 million to researchers at the University of Liverpool, to understand the rare condition of blood clotting with low platelets following vaccination.
I am happy to write to the MHRA to get a response for the hon. Gentleman on that point, but I hope he will be reassured that the Government are investing in research on vaccine safety both at the University of Liverpool and at the National Institute for Health and Care Research, because we want to reassure people about the safety of vaccines.
On the VDPS, I want to reassure those making claims that the Government want to support them through the process. I have not touched on it much in my response, but I am keen to reassure those who feel they have suffered and who are struggling to get healthcare for their symptoms that we are looking at this.
I am not going to commit to that specific point on the Floor of the House, but I will commit to this: if people who feel that they have symptoms from the vaccine—that includes a range of symptoms—are struggling to get the healthcare they need, when I come to the APPG I will want to look at the sort of symptoms they are experiencing and help them to get the care and support that they are struggling to get at the moment. It is the same with long covid: there is such a range of symptoms. What we have found in setting up specific long covid clinics is that they have not always been able to cover the wide range of symptoms that people have had. I am very happy to discuss that further with my hon. Friend at the APPG.
My hon. Friend refers to long covid clinics, but people who are suffering from the consequences of vaccine damage feel that they are being treated differentially and in an inferior way. If we have clinics for long covid, why do we not have clinics for post-vaccine syndrome?
I thank my hon. Friend. The point I was trying to make is that we have set up long covid clinics, but they have not always addressed the needs of those who are suffering long covid, because they have such a wide variety of symptoms. What I can say to those who feel that they have experienced side effects from the vaccine is that I am very happy to meet them, hear about those symptoms and see what more we can do to support them in getting the care and services that they find they are struggling to access at the moment. I just want to reassure my hon. Friend that I have taken his points seriously—we do not have our head in the sand. I am very happy to meet the all-party parliamentary group and those who are concerned about their experience.
We will continue to prioritise improving the operations of the VDPS: six months is the average time taken, but ideally we want to make it quicker and more efficient for those who put in a claim. We are working alongside the BSA team, who are doing an amazing job to turn around so many claims as quickly as possible within the limits of getting notes and access to information from a variety of sources. That is often challenging, particularly when there are different computer systems and some paper notes are still in operation across healthcare settings. They have a very tough job, but they are trying to do it as speedily as possible by modernising and scaling up operations to improve the experience for those who are claiming, as well as helping those who want to make a claim.
Question put and agreed to.