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Covid-19: Vaccines and Medical Equipment

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure equitable access (1) to vaccines, and (2) to medical equipment, to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the UK is at the forefront of efforts to drive global collaboration on the development of new vaccines and has committed to procuring a Covid-19 vaccine for the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. We are collaborating with international partners on vaccine development, manufacturing scale-up and future distribution. The NHS has allocated and assigned more than 28,000 items of critical care equipment across the UK and Crown dependencies and the remainder is available for allocation across England according to NHS regions, based on future need.

My Lords, equitable access to vaccines has a number of dimensions and all must be secured across the world and in the UK. The Covid-19 pandemic respects no lines: if we neglect the developing world, we neglect ourselves. A lack of global access will hamper global health and development. Inequitable access would impede the unity of the United Kingdom.

The UK has pledged more than £1 billion in aid to counter health, humanitarian and economic risks, including £829 million on the development and delivery of vaccines. I thank all those involved in the COVAX Facility, a multinational mechanism administered by Gavi which pools funding. The COVAX scheme is an emphatically impactful scheme. Britain has taken a leadership role in it, and I thank all those involved in its development.

My Lords, it is essential that those at economic and social disadvantage be given proper access to a functioning distribution strategy. Can the Minister reassure the 200,000 people with blood cancer in the “extremely vulnerable” classification that they can rely on proper evaluation of the suitability of vaccines, treatments and equipment for their distinctive condition, and provide some insight into how construction of the prioritisation list will be undertaken to address the acute problem those in such circumstances face? In this regard, would the Minister be prepared to meet with representatives of Blood Cancer UK to take these matters forward?

The noble Lord raises an important point about those with blood cancer. In fact, many who are in the “extremely vulnerable” group have conditions that may or may not be affected by the vaccine. We are working extremely hard to accommodate their particular needs. The JCVI has an extremely thoughtful prioritisation process. I would be happy to meet the group the noble Lord describes.

I warmly welcome the agreement that was reached yesterday between Her Majesty’s Government and the three devolved Governments on Christmas household arrangements. That is a good example of working together across the United Kingdom. I press the Government to continue that approach with the rollout of vaccines across the United Kingdom. Nothing would be worse than to have one area or region ahead of another when it comes to vaccinating clinical staff, care workers and vulnerable people.

I entirely endorse the sentiment the noble Lord expresses. I offer my profound thanks to the devolved authorities for the immense spirit of collaboration which has characterised the response to the pandemic. Often, it would seem from the headlines that the nations are at odds with each other; that is not my experience. The Christmas negotiations he cites are a very good example of that, and I hope the vaccination arrangements will be the finest moment.

My Lords, on 25 September the JCVI reported the serious risk of disease and mortality from Covid according to deprivation and ethnicity. These issues have to be taken into consideration in the vaccination programme, so why does the present list of priorities for the vaccine ignore those factors completely?

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right that deprivation and ethnicity are key considerations in the morbidity of Covid; we are all acutely aware of them. The JCVI has looked extremely closely at a variety of different models for prioritising vaccination. Prioritisation based largely on age gives the most accurate and thoughtful prioritisation of the vaccine and is also simple to understand and deliver. That is why it has gone down that route.

My Lords, I congratulate AstraZeneca and Oxford University on their triumph in developing this vaccine. I hope that my noble friend agrees that without the exceptional input from the private sector, this game-changing treatment simply could not have been developed. What plans do the Government have to cope with the anti-vaxxers? Some of them will simply be individuals exercising their right to say no, but others will be deliberately spreading lies and misinformation that can only undermine trust in the vaccine. Do the Government have any specific plans to deal with this challenge?

My Lords, we have extremely detailed and energetic plans to deal with misinformation, which is based on confusion, and disinformation, which is based on malice. It would not be right for me to go through those plans in detail at the Dispatch Box, but I reassure my noble friend that they are in place and are being characterised by a degree of consideration for those who have concerns about the vaccine. It is a grave undertaking to have an injection such as that. People naturally have searching questions they would like to ask, and we are trying to meet those questions with a degree of thoughtfulness and to answer them in the spirit in which they are asked.

My Lords, my question follows on well from the previous one. The development of highly effective vaccines against Covid-19 is a remarkable scientific advance. It is crucial that the public have absolute confidence and trust in their use, which they should. This will be reinforced when the scientifically-led process of market approval by the regulator and scrutiny by the wider science community is completed, following publication of the peer-reviewed data. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be no political interference in any way to speed up that process before the vaccines are made available to the wider public?

I thank the noble Lord for the opportunity to make this crystal clear: the MHRA is an independent regulator, its work on vaccine approval has no political interference whatever and there is no pressure on either time or outcome. I pay tribute to those at the MHRA, who are extremely dedicated to the cause. We are going to approach the entire process with a spirit of transparency for exactly the reasons the noble Lord identified. Public trust is essential, and the only way we can gain the public’s trust is by being open and honest about how we go about these approvals. That is the way we will pursue the process.

My Lords, on COVAX, which the noble Lord mentioned, has there been any contact with the new US Administration to encourage its participation? Will the UK use its position within Gavi to ensure that the facility pays no more than cost price for future doses of Covid vaccines? What assessment has the noble Lord made of the impact of the further and substantial cut to ODA, after the £2.9 billion reduction earlier this year, on our global response to the pandemic?

My Lords, our forthcoming chairmanship of the G7, at the beginning of next year, is giving us a good opportunity to engage with our partners, including the United States, on issues such as the vaccine. We are grateful to Gavi, which is doing a terrific job at buying the vaccine; it is being characterised by what I would term commercial savviness. The spending review implications for ODA have yet to be published fully, but I reassure the noble Lord that funding the global response to the pandemic and the equitable distribution of vaccines, in particular, remains a massive commitment for the Government.

My Lords, notwithstanding the good use of UK aid via the WHO’s COVAX initiative, evidence shows that treatment providers and Governments have had to grapple with intellectual property barriers to essential products such as therapeutics, respirators and reagents for test kits. Do the Government maintain the position they held at the WTO TRIPS council meeting of 16 October that IP barriers to the Covid-19 response are hypothetical and will not stand in the way of scaling up vaccine manufacture?

My Lords, the question of vaccine intellectual property is a delicate one because, as was mentioned earlier, we rely on the private sector for a lot of funding and research, and for supplying the research. So, we are respectful of intellectual property as a principle. None the less, we are also grateful to vaccine manufacturers that have taken an open-source approach to vaccine intellectual property and have made local manufacturing available, so that there can be an extremely wide distribution of vaccines, including to those in the developing world who would otherwise struggle.