The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 19 October.
“I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. As winter draws in, the virus is on the offensive: 40 million coronavirus case have now been recorded worldwide. Weekly deaths in Europe have increased by 33%, and here in the UK deaths have tragically doubled in the last 12 days. The situation remains perilous.
While the disease is dangerous for all adults, especially with growing evidence of the debilitating consequences of long Covid, we know it is especially dangerous for older people. Cases continue to rise among the over-60s, who are most likely to end up in hospital or worse. I am very worried that the cases per 100,000 among the over 60s is 401 in the Liverpool city region, 241 in Lancashire and, in Greater Manchester, has risen over the past week from 171 to 283. That is why the Government have been working so hard to act, and I am very glad that we have been able to agree, across party lines, the necessary measures in Liverpool and Lancashire, and we are working hard to reach such an agreement in Greater Manchester.
We are doing everything in our power to suppress the virus, support the economy, support education and support the NHS until a vaccine is available. That is the right strategy, charting a path that allows for the greatest economic and social freedom while protecting life. The director general of the World Health Organisation said last week:
‘Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical.’
I agree. I know that this is difficult and I know that it is relentless, but we must have resolve, see this through and never stop striving to support the science that will one day make us safe.
I was at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital this morning meeting NHS colleagues who are caring for patients with such dedication, as they always do. I heard from them how important it is for everyone to support the NHS by keeping the virus down so that the NHS is not overwhelmed by Covid patients and it can deliver all the essential non-Covid care that people need. I am glad to report that the number of people experiencing a long wait for cancer treatment has been brought down by 63% since its peak in July. I want to thank all the cancer teams who are working so hard to ensure people get the cancer screening, diagnostics and treatment that they need, even in these difficult circumstances, but the best way to protect cancer treatment and all the other treatments in the NHS is to keep the prevalence of coronavirus down.
In doing this, of course, we are taking as localised and targeted a way as possible. Our local code alert level system means that we can have different rules in places such as Cornwall, where transmission is low, and Liverpool, where transmission is high and rising. On Thursday, I updated the House about several areas of the country that we are moving into the high alert level and today I would like to inform the House at the earliest possible opportunity that Lancashire has now moved into the very high alert level. Infection rates in Lancashire are among the highest in the country and are continuing to rise rapidly, including in the over-60s as I mentioned. Both the number of cases and the number of hospital admissions are doubling almost every fortnight, and the number of Covid patients in intensive care beds in Lancashire has already reached nearly half the number seen at the height of the pandemic earlier this year. So we knew we had to take rapid action to suppress the epidemic in Lancashire.
We have always said that we stand side by side with any local area that agreed to move into this third tier and offer substantial support to local authorities, including for testing, tracing, enforcement and business support. I would like to thank local leaders in Lancashire who have been working with us so constructively, and I am sure that their willingness to put politics aside in the national interest, and in the interests of the people whom we serve, will save lives and protect livelihoods at this difficult time.
Following the successful introduction of measures in Liverpool and Lancashire, talks continue this afternoon with Greater Manchester, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. This week, further discussions are planned with South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, the north-east and Teesside.
Sadly, over the weekend, we have seen very directly the impact of this disease. I was shocked to learn on Saturday of the sad death from coronavirus of Bill Anderson, the brother of Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson. My heart and, I am sure, the sympathies of the whole House go out to the Anderson family and the people of Liverpool, who have lost a brother. All our thoughts are with our colleague, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who is in hospital with pneumonia after testing positive for Covid-19. We wish her a speedy recovery and send all our support to the NHS in Greater Manchester, which is caring for her and so many others.
I would also like to provide an update on testing—another vital line of defence. We are testing more people than any other country in Europe. We are now doing over 300,000 tests a day, up from 2,000 a day in February, and we have opened over 500 test sites, including new walk-in centres in Dundee on Friday, in Edinburgh on Saturday and in Newcastle this morning.
Alongside that important work, we are working hard to discover and evaluate new testing technologies that are simpler, faster and cheaper. Some of these tests can produce a result as quickly as in 15 minutes, and we will make them available to local directors of public health as part of our strategy for local action, starting with areas in the very high alert level. We are rolling them out across hospitals and care homes, to test patients and residents yet more regularly and keep people safe, and for schools and universities, so that we can keep education open safely through the winter. These tests have shown real promise, and we are both buying them now and ramping up our ability to produce them at scale here in the UK. We will stop at nothing to support this extraordinary scientific and logistical endeavour, which can give us hope on the path back to normal life.
Finally, I would like to inform the House that on Friday, we laid regulations to support the roll-out of both the flu vaccination and any Covid vaccination. While, of course, no vaccine technology is certain, we must be prepared to deploy a vaccine as soon as one is safely available. The new regulations provide for a wider range of clinically qualified people to administer vaccines and for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to grant a UK licence for a vaccine before the end of the transition period, should that be necessary. We wish all our scientists well in this vital work, and we will give them all the support they need.
We are once again at a decisive moment in our fight against coronavirus. While our scientists work round the clock on the solutions that will finally bring this crisis to an end, we must all play our part, come together and work together to keep people safe, suppress the virus and save both livelihoods and lives. I commend this statement to the House.”
My Lords, first, I declare my interests in the register.
I thank the Minister for taking both these Statements, because we are in fact updating ourselves on Thursday’s and Monday’s Statements. Without doubt, the virus continues to grow. The R rate is now between 1.3 and 1.5, unless it has increased in the past 24 hours. We on these Benches welcome the advances in saliva and LAMP testing, of course. Indeed, I join everyone in being in awe of the work being carried out in our universities.
I will briefly describe the real-life experience of Test and Trace that happened to a neighbour of mine and her family in the past few weeks. After the first member of the family tested positive, they were given one ID and told to isolate for 14 days as a contact of that family member. The remaining members of the family tested positive four days later. They were given a second ID as a positive contact and told to isolate for 10 days. They all then gave each other’s names to Test and Trace as contacts—of course they did; they live in the same house—and were given a third ID. They were then rung up and told to isolate for another 14 days. When they put their test results into the app, they were given a fourth length of time to isolate, which did not match up with what they had been told on the phone. The various Test and Trace staff did not seem able to collate the information that they were being given or to join it up—although some of them tried, it must be said.
It is not surprising, then, that a significant number of people are not complying with self-isolation advice. They may not even understand it. This family, all of whom were being contacted several times a day by phone and text, felt that they were caught in a Kafkaesque world where they were given different advice daily. One said that when the Test and Trace adviser rang her to say that she could go out on Saturday morning, she was afraid to leave the house until the day after because that was what the app told her.
Everyone in that household wanted to get this right; indeed, they tried very hard to do so. What is being done better to make sure that people are being given clearer advice and to ensure that the Test and Trace system is keeping up with people’s changing circumstances? What efforts are being made to match up what the app tells people and what they are being told to do over the phone?
While all these resources are being expended on one family, we know that others are finding it difficult to get tests at all. The Government promised millions of tests a day. Now, 300,000 are happening per day, with the Secretary of State telling us that there will be 500,000 tests a day by the end of the month. Despite the hard work of Test and Trace workers on the ground, we know that the system is in chaos. People are not getting test results within 24 hours, and many people are still having to drive miles to a drive-in centre to get a test. If they send away for a test, it can take up to a week between ordering the test and getting a result back, especially if the test is delivered at the weekend. People are also being urged to take a test only if they have symptoms, yet we already know that up to 80% of people who have the virus have no symptoms. Once people test positive, they are being given contradictory advice about isolation times.
This virus spreads with speed, so testing must be quick, yet results are not being turned around within 24 hours. Again, when will that happen? Contacts must be traced quickly and those who are traced must be given support to isolate. Yet, to be frank, we have a badly designed system that is failing to trace sufficient contacts, has cost £12 billion so far and is paying consultants £7,000 a day. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right honourable Michael Gove, justified these failings on “The Andrew Marr Show” by saying that, when the virus is escalating,
“any test and trace system of whatever kind has less utility.”
I wonder what on earth that means. Perhaps the Minister can explain it to me.
Do the Government have confidence in the leadership of Test and Trace, now that we know that so much money is being spent on it? The Minister’s honourable friend Sir Bernard Jenkin MP said yesterday:
“May I also emphasise that one of the reasons why public confidence in the Government’s strategy is somewhat in decline is that we have yet to see the transformation of the leadership of test and trace, which I have discussed with the Secretary of State many times?”.—[Official Report, 19/10/20; col. 784.]
The Secretary of State did not seem to have any answer to his honourable friend’s question. Perhaps the noble Lord could have another go.
What is the estimate of the number of Covid-19 tests that will be delivered per day by the end of the year? As winter is coming, healthcare workers will also need constant testing. Can the Minister guarantee that all healthcare workers and care workers will be able to have quick Covid tests this winter? The Secretary of State has said that quick tests are now being bought. When will they be ready and rolled out?
I understand that a Statement is being made right now in the Commons about the situation in Manchester and the lack of support for low-paid workers and the self-employed if they move to tier 3. If a person works full time for a minimum wage, their take-home pay will be based on £8.20 an hour. If that is reduced to two-thirds, it is £5.47 an hour. Does the noble Lord think that that is a reasonable amount of money for a family with children? Why do he and his colleagues feel that it is acceptable to ask their fellow citizens to live on such a small amount? Why are we not continuing the furlough scheme?
If the mayor, Andy Burnham, and the leaders of all the boroughs in the Manchester area seem to be angry, it is because they know and understand the hardship which the noble Lord’s Government are visiting upon their communities—people who are already living on low wages—and the effect that this will have on them and their children.
Next week is half term. If one looks at the graphs, the south-west looks to be a good destination for the week. I live in Cornwall and tourism is vital to our economy, which was already blighted in the earlier holiday seasons this year. We need visitors and we are ready. What guidance would the Minister give those visitors about the need for social distancing and the wearing of masks? In the summer, there was a reluctance in some cases to comply; many just said that they were on holiday.
My Lords, I am grateful for the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. If the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, returns, I shall be happy to answer her questions, too.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked a lot about the testing programme. Let me reassure her with some statistics about last week’s processes. Some 1,892,000 test were done in the week from 1 to 7 October—I repeat, 1,892,000 tests. That is a colossal number, and the vast majority of them were done promptly, accurately, and to the satisfaction of those involved. Of those, 89,874 results were positive, which is a substantial increase of 64% compared to the previous week. That is 89,874 people who would not have had a test six months ago, because we simply did not have the capacity, the knowhow or the systems to do that.
The number of people transferred to the test and trace programme since the beginning of August has increased by 10 times; 67,511 were reached, of whom 57,000 provided details of one or more close contacts. In other words, 67,511 people were taken out of the chain of transmission and asked to isolate, were provided with a financial supplement to care for them and were phoned—sometimes many times, it would appear but, generally, once or twice a week—in a pastoral call to ensure that they had access to local authority, charity and financial support. Of those non-complex cases, 55.9% were reached within 24 hours. That is not good enough, and we need to work on it more, but 55.9% is enough to make a serious impact on the progress of this virus. Without the test and trace programme, we really would not be match fit to combat this virus at all.
The story that the noble Baroness told of her friends was distressing. Anybody who has had the virus will know that it is a miserable affair. For the entire family to have had it is very sad, and my feelings are sincere when I say that I am sorry to hear about her friends who have had coronavirus. But the guidance is relatively straightforward. You are to isolate for 14 days from the original infection. That would have been the advice that they had on the telephone and, if their app said otherwise, the telephone supersedes anything that the technology might have told them.
On getting tests at all, I acknowledge that the general public are not at the top of the priority list right now. The top priority is to protect clinicians and NHS workers, as well as those in hospital care who have the threat of nosocomial infection. Secondly comes social care—protecting those who are vulnerable and live either in residential or domiciliary care. Those people are at the top of the list. We are building our capacity dramatically; we are on course to hit our ambition of 500,000 tests per day by the end of October, and many more beyond that.
The tests that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, described are incredibly impressive. The saliva testing is much easier to use, and the LAMP testing is phenomenally accurate. The capacity for those LAMP tests to be rolled out across social care and hospitals is enormous, and we are investing considerably in that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, also asked about Manchester, and there the situation is distressing. I cannot hide the fact that the increase in prevalence in Manchester is a source of enormous sadness, but I reassure her that the extra measures that have been taken there have been accompanied by the offer of extremely generous financial measures.
Those financial measures have been accepted by Lancashire and by Blackpool—but not, it seems so far, by Manchester. We hope very much indeed that Manchester will remain at the table. The negotiations being undertaken by the Government are generous and open hearted. We have already made available £465 million to help local authorities implement and enforce restrictions. Greater Manchester will definitely receive £22 million of this, and we will continue to work with the Greater Manchester councils to ensure that testing and local contact tracing are allocated in the right way. We will continue with those negotiations. The negotiations with Manchester were entirely proportionate to the support that we have given to the Liverpool City Region and to Lancashire, and it is a source of enormous regret that the mayor decided to reject it.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, the figures today for the number of cases and deaths are deeply worrying. It is a 20% increase in the week in the number of cases and, of course, the number of cases that we have seen in recent weeks is now tragically leading to a much-increased number of deaths, so there are no grounds for complacency. However, as I think we all understand, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is an inevitable tension in the question of how far businesses can be shut down on a permanent basis—and we want to avoid that.
I put it to the Minister that to support businesses that are Covid-secure and keeping open, we need compensating measures to try to limit the transmission in social circumstances. Would the Government consider extending the advice across England that, when indoors, people should mix only in their own household and social bubble, and that the rule of six, while continuing to apply, is not sufficient indoors? We need to limit the mixing of households indoors.
My Lords, my noble friend’s observation is entirely right. In Manchester alone there have been more coronavirus infections already in October than in July, August and September combined. The average daily hospital admissions in Greater Manchester are now higher than they were on 26 March, and there are now more Covid-19 patients in Greater Manchester hospitals than in the whole of the south-west and the south-east combined. These are illustrative of one region but it is a story that has already played out in others, and we naturally fear that it will play out in others in the future.
My noble friend’s advice on the mixing of households is very perceptive. One thing with that we cannot do anything about is the kind of infection that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, described among her friends, where it spreads within a household. That is something that no household can reasonably fight against. However, stopping the spread of disease between different households is something that we can lean into. It requires an enormous amount of social distancing and a return to the kind of lockdown measures that we had at the beginning of this year. That is something that we are extremely anxious to avoid because it has enormous social impact, it is disruptive to our way of life, and it has an economic impact because it has implications on social distancing and on some businesses. Still, my noble friend is entirely right that that is exactly the kind of area that we will need to look at if we are to contain the spread of the virus.
My Lords, from my background as a former Chief Nursing Officer, I am aware of the difficult decisions that Her Majesty’s Government are required to make, as well as of the importance at this specific time of good public health action. However, I have heard the concerns expressed by my colleagues in the north-east and the north-west of England, including some of my right reverend friends in your Lordships’ House: Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the vulnerable and, unfortunately, so are the restrictions. There are significant concerns about their compliance with regulations that they do not feel are fair. The Government have frequently made assertions about public health behaviour and science without publishing the evidence or properly engaging with people in the communities affected. The interventions may well be right but the implementation seems to be failing. The Government must genuinely engage with, listen to and learn from people affected at a local level. Without such local buy-in, public health actions will not happen.
There is also some concern that the restrictions are impacting on those least able to manage the health and economic impact. There are concerns that movement into tier 3 will continue to exacerbate matters such as child poverty, deprivation, economic and health inequalities and poor mental health. If the perception is allowed to grow that certain sections of the economy or society can be allowed to bear the substantive weight of fresh regulations without levels of financial support, the consensus will not hold. Will the Minister reassure your Lordships’ House that, as areas move to tier 3, local voices will be listened to and everything will be done to ensure that the risk to the most vulnerable is minimised?
As I have already said in your Lordships’ House, the local public health nurse can inform top-down rules with local experience. What is being done to ensure that when the ring-fencing of funding that was passed to local government for public health comes to an end at the end of this financial year, it does not lead to further disinvestment in public health?
Lastly, faith communities, like public health nurses, are part of local populations and areas, and should be used more as experts to help leverage insights that they gain on the ground to support the public health action and interventions needed. I again encourage the Government not to neglect the whole-system approach to public health, as we work together on the challenge of Covid-19.
The right reverend Prelate puts it extremely well. We completely recognise that not only does the virus attack the most vulnerable, but those who are least fortunate bear the huge brunt of the lockdown and the measures needed to crack down on the virus. In these matters, I emphasise that it is worth stepping back and reminding ourselves that the Government are not the source of the problem; the virus is. All the Government can do is take measures to save lives, protect our healthcare service and keep our schools open. In that way, it is not right to demonise central government for taking measures.
Central government can take measures to help protect the vulnerable, and I acknowledge the right reverend Prelate’s point on this. I reassure her that we have put in place the Job Support Scheme to ensure that those affected by business closure are still paid; we have made £465 million available to help local authorities implement and enforce restrictions; we have provided £1 billion of extra funding to local authorities across the country; and we are committed to working with local authorities to allocate testing and tracing locally.
On the message the Government deliver, I recognise the phenomenon described by the right reverend Prelate, but I reassure her that there is no intent by government to make an association between poor behaviours and results. The data is there. We have published every piece of data we can and, to an extent, it does not lie. It is an uncomfortable truth, but some communities have consistently higher prevalence and infection rates. There is some responsibility on those communities to address the causes of that. It is an intent shared by government, local authorities, communities and individuals. There is no avoiding the fact that you cannot pin responsibility on any one of those four pillars.
Lastly, the right reverend Prelate is entirely right that faith communities pay an important role. I pay testimony to those faith communities in cities such as Leicester and Bolton, which have worked with us to great effect. We continue to put our relations with faith communities at the centre of our outreach to communities.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, today, a highly respected member of SAGE, Professor Stephen Reicher, said that the three-tier system is
“the worst of all worlds … where there is no sense of clarity. There is a growing sense of inequity and resistance”?
Wales has decided to go for a circuit break, with the situation deteriorating, and a poll suggests that public opinion is very much moving towards recognising that this is necessary and will support it. What evidence can the Minister provide to show Professor Reicher that he is wrong?
The noble Baroness makes her point well, but I will defend the three-tier system. It is an important mechanism to avoid a national lock- down, which is our objective. It was designed in close collaboration with local authorities and stakeholder groups. It has proved effective in a number of areas, and there is evidence of infection rates coming down where local lockdowns have been effective. But I completely agree with her analysis of public opinion. There is a growing sentiment that decisive action may be necessary, and an enormous amount of support, despite what one reads in the newspapers, for decisive action by the Government to restrict the spread of this virus.
I will change the subject. Early in the Statement yesterday, the Secretary of State referred to the shortening of the wait for cancer treatment since the long waits in July. I support the Secretary of State in thanking all the cancer teams working so hard, and indeed single out the staff of Hereford County Hospital in charge of my treatment, which started in Christmas week last year. Can the Minister confirm that the two-week cancer diagnosis plan is still functioning, and will he do more to encourage people to attend their GP, as I did, not guessing what was wrong? They do not have to be uncertain or have a suspicion, but if they know something might be wrong, the GP and the specialist will find it out. People need to be encouraged to do that and not be put off by the pressures on the NHS from the virus.
My Lords, I am enormously pleased to hear that the noble Lord’s cancer treatment has progressed so well. Like him, I pay tribute to those at the Hereford County Hospital who participated in his treatment, and in fact to all those who have maintained an incredibly high level of cancer treatments through the difficulties of the pandemic. Broadly, cancer treatments were maintained at around 85% of their normal practice during the summer months, and the restart has come on a long way. In July 2020, 87.8% of patients saw a cancer specialist within two weeks following a referral from their GP, and 94.5% of patients received treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. However, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s analysis: more could be done. That is why we are backing the Help Us, Help You campaign, which is a very high-profile marketing campaign, to try to drive up attendance rates and ensure that no one is put off by fear of hospitals or GP surgeries when they have a tell-tale sign, and that they go and get the referral that they need.
My Lords, we have clear evidence that obesity is a real hazard with regard to Covid-19. Tackling obesity and promoting the benefits of exercise, both for our physical and mental well-being, are quite rightly priorities of this Government, both now during this pandemic and beyond. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that we need to do all we can to ensure that gyms remain open as long as they can operate in a Covid-safe environment? Can he also confirm my understanding that we have two regions that are both currently in tier 3 with differing restrictions: Merseyside where gyms are closed, and Lancashire where gyms are open? Surely we need clarity of message.
My noble friend illustrates the complexity of trying to work with local authorities and the impact of giving local authorities the discretion to make decisions on their own. In this area, in tier 3, we gave discretion to local authorities on their gyms. Merseyside decided to close its gyms and Lancashire did not. It is entirely appropriate for them to make their own assessment. I confess to feeling a real and genuine dilemma when it comes to gyms. My noble friend is entirely right that activity is important, particularly at a time of lockdown. However, medical advice on hygiene is that the spray from exertion and sweaty bodies is very difficult to contain, even in a well-meaning and well-managed gym. That is why we have given local authorities that choice and why we keep the matter under review.
My Lords, I have two brief questions. Somebody I know received the following message on their mobile phone:
“Possible COVID-19 exposure. Verifying exposure info. The app has accessed the date, duration and signal strength of this exposure.”
Can the Minister say what this means? Is the recipient supposed to do anything about it or is this some maverick message? My second question is on a different point. Does the Minister agree that there are people in this country who are too apprehensive about the possible quarantine to go abroad and so have to quarantine on their return to this country? Could we not adopt the system, which certainly seems to be working in Germany, that we offer testing for people arriving from areas where they are liable to be quarantined, possibly testing them two or three days later? That means they would not have to be in quarantine for two weeks and risk losing their job, and so on. Could we not adopt that simple expedient?
I reassure the noble Lord that his friend’s notification came from a new feature of Apple phones called “Exposure Notifications Express”. This is something that we have worked hard to incorporate in the existing app. I slightly suspect that, if she has a new version of the NHS app, she will not receive these notifications any more. We are grateful to Apple for enabling its phones to work in developing countries, but there has been some turbulence with our own app, which we think we have resolved.
On quarantines, I say that, as a follower of these debates, the noble Lord will know that the CMO’s view is that testing on arrival will capture only 7% of infections, and it is very difficult to apply quarantines to get people to commit to staying longer. However, we are committed to running pilots to try to open the kinds of schemes that he describes, and I would be happy to report back on their development.
My Lords, at the beginning of this debate, the Minister gave a very spirited defence of the test and trace system. This morning, my daughter and her 15 month-old daughter were tested, and it was very efficiently done, but they were told that they should expect results in two to three days’ time. The Minister mentioned 24 hours; what timetable are the Government trying to operate on for test and trace because, clearly, if there are two days that are fallow, an awful lot of people risk being infected?
I will also address the issue of gyms. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, talked about the lack of clarity at the beginning of this debate. If people are to stick to the rules, they need clarity. I do not understand why gyms are open at all, quite honestly. It seems to me—as the Minister indicated—that they are potential hotbeds for coronavirus. However, we are told that discretion is given to local authorities to decide what they do and do not allow. I recall that Manchester was absolutely determined that it would like to stop alcohol sales at the same time that, if not sooner than, pubs were forced to close, but it was not given discretion over that. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain when local authorities do and do not have discretion.
I also wonder whether the Minister could tell the House the position on travel to work. Office workers are told to work from home if it is possible for them not to work from the office, but there does not seem to be a ruling that says, “Do not go to work in an office unless you absolutely have to”. What counts as essential? What instructions are the Government giving to civil servants about whether they should travel to work? We are told that gatherings that are “reasonably necessary” can take place in office environments with no limit on the numbers involved. In the circumstances, that seems crazy. If the Minister could clarify the position, I would be grateful.
I reassure the noble Baroness that 24 hours is our objective, and it is clear that a 24-hour target is right. Having swift turnaround is conducive to effectiveness, and that is what we are trying to do. There has been a very large increase in demand in the last 11 weeks, which has put pressure on our operations and pushed back some of our turnaround times. We are working extremely hard to address that; new capacity is coming on-stream all the time, and we are hopeful that that can be turned around very quickly.
The noble Baroness is entirely right to raise her point on clarity, which is very similar to those raised by others, including the right reverend Prelate. There is a really important balance that we have to get right here because to have communal buy-in to our measures, we need to somehow mobilise leaders that people trust, from their faith community, their local community or other leadership groups that they subscribe to.
However, to give people a role in the decision-making about what measures are to take place in one area or another, there will be an uneven application of regulations—what happens in one place will not be the same in another. We have made a commitment to a partnership between national and local government, and we are trying to manage that complex partnership at the moment. As noble Lords know from the discussions in the other place and our conversations with Manchester, this is an extremely bumpy affair and it does not always work out well.
However, we are committed to doing this precisely for the reasons the noble Baroness described: to have buy-in, we need to mobilise all the country and all the people who are respected by those who adhere to the rules. That is why we take the approach we do. It means that gyms will be open in Lancashire but not in Merseyside. It is argued that this is a complexity that the British public can handle. It also takes us into very public conversations about funding, the allocation of resources and the establishment of new testing facilities. We believe it is worth the administrative and political effort to try to do that. There are also delays to the implementation of some of the restrictions. The British public will form their own judgment on their politicians and whether that is worth their while. These are the prices and friction costs to the local/national partnership that we are committed to, which has been advocated on the Benches of this Chamber for many months.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to the risk of mixing indoors. From the housing department, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, today kindly answered a Written Question from me about ventilation standards in building regulations in the light of Covid-19. It referred to the most recent SAGE paper on aerosol transmission, dated 22 July. The science on aerosol transmission has moved on a great deal since then. The noble Lord indicated that a new paper is being prepared by the SAGE Environmental and Modelling group. I note that German schools, for example, have strict conditions about opening windows regularly, even in the coldest conditions. Is the Minister confident that the current strength of advice on levels of ventilation, particularly to businesses where people are mixing, either retail premises, offices, or gyms, as we have been discussing, and to schools, is adequate?
The noble Baroness is right to raise questions about the way in which the disease is transmitted. We have put a huge amount of effort into studying it. I pay tribute to the epidemiologists who have crafted sophisticated models and have sought to test them in practical ways in order to establish, for good, the really important questions of how one person’s conversation, breathing and spoken word might transmit the disease to another person either through the air or on surfaces. Understanding that is absolutely essential in order for us to put in place the right kinds of Covid safety measures. However, at this stage it is an imprecise science. For instance, there is some evidence that transmission from hygiene and surfaces can play a very important role, perhaps meaning that we have to invest more thought and commitment in cleaning measures. The guidelines we have for workplace and school testing reflect the very best provable standards according to scientific evidence. We continue to invest in these important epidemiological insights, and I welcome very much the contribution of the scientists on SAGE and all those who continue to try to gain a better understanding of this issue.
My Lords, in the first Statement that we are debating, the Secretary of State spoke about the strategy being to suppress the virus and support the economy and the NHS. He did not specifically mention the vaccine programme, although clearly it is an important part of our approach. Although the Government have secured early access to, I think, over 300 million doses, there will not be enough for the entire population to receive them immediately. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published interim advice on a prioritisation programme. Will the Government follow that advice, and can the Minister say more about what work is being undertaken to encourage a high uptake?
I thank the noble Lord for his interest. The JCVI is, as he described, the agency responsible for giving advice on the prioritisation plan. Our policy is to follow that advice, and I pay tribute to those on the panel for the hard work they are putting into that. The interim advice is extremely thoughtful and follows the best values and standards of this country. We are putting a lot of work into trying to raise adoption rates of the vaccine. We face a challenge from those who would like to query the science or have some form of national or commercial vested interest in undermining confidence in the vaccine. We are putting a lot of work into mitigating that risk. That is not work that I would like to discuss at the Dispatch Box but I would be very glad to share some of it privately at a later date.
House adjourned at 8.11 pm.