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Covid-19: Public Health Information

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review public health information on the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that any (1) linguistic, (2) cultural, and (3) digital issues with such information are addressed.

My Lords, the Government provide clear public health information about Covid-19 through a wide range of channels and formats. To ensure the widest reach possible, the Government translate information into multiple languages and formats, including videos, animations and infographics. Information is provided free of charge online, in local and national press, on television and radio, and via the free NHS app and public advertising. They provide guidance in BSL, Braille, large-print and easy-read formats.

Do Her Majesty’s Government agree that black, Asian and minority communities across the country have been overexposed, underprotected, stigmatised and overlooked during the Covid-19 pandemic? We also know that, for some, language barriers played a part in communication. What special measures do the Government propose to introduce in order to reduce the vulnerability of such communities, especially over the immediate winter months, and where are they in the rollout of the vaccine?

My Lords, there is a large packet of questions there. I will obviously try to provide answers to some of them, but I cannot provide answers to all of them. The Government certainly recognise the priority attached to the groups for whom the noble Baroness so rightly and strongly speaks. Our strategy ensures that our audience receives bespoke Covid communications. Our partnership includes 47 BME publications, and core market materials are translated into community languages on request. The Government are overseeing BME audience-focused communications and engagement as part of specific campaigns.

My Lords, will the Government publish an equalities plan to ensure that there is the correct infrastructure across the country so that no community is left behind in the rollout of the vaccine? We already know that poorer areas have fewer GPs, so additional facilities need to be in place to ensure that these areas are not left behind in the rollout.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome the fact that this country is leading the world in the availability of vaccines. We have a programme, for which the set of priorities has been published, to distribute that vaccine broadly and widely, without fear or favour, to any group within this country.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that government-appointed agencies have allocated a small amount of adverts and health information to be disseminated by small satellite and radio channels. Given that the Government have been fully cognisant of the enormity of the impact of social, economic, digital and health divides in our nation among some communities, and with Covid’s detrimental toll on specifically the Bangladeshi communities—among other minority communities, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence—what steps are the Minister and his colleagues taking to review some of these materials and to intensify the frequency? Will he agree to meet with me and some of the experts to discuss their communications and review some of the materials and the forward strategy?

My Lords, I am sure that the Government—whether it is me or my colleagues who are specifically leading—are always happy to engage with the noble Baroness or anyone else who speaks for the communities concerned. I believe that the diversity and inclusion team within the Cabinet Office, for which I can answer, has allowed for better co-ordination of cross-government efforts to improve accessibility and we will continue to work on that.

My Lords, clearly there needs to be a professional review of the Covid-19 pandemic in due course to learn for the future how to better contain pandemics. Why, however, does the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, limit the public health review to linguistic, cultural and digital issues? Is not the priority how to contain pandemics before they become national and materially damaging to economies?

My Lords, it is, of course, highly desirable to contain any pandemic or any threat to the welfare of our citizens. We have to deal with the situation that arises; I believe that the Government have sought to deal with it energetically. We certainly have said that we will consider the lessons learned from this pandemic.

My Lords, this morning I looked at the English NHS website and could not find Covid-19 information in languages other than English. I then looked at the NHS Scotland site, which had information in 12 languages, including British Sign Language. Given that this information can save lives, when do the Government anticipate making Covid-19 online information available to those living and working in England and are more comfortable reading information in their own language?

My Lords, I will refer the noble Baroness’s comments about what is available on the NHS website to those responsible. The Government have enabled at least 22 languages to be accessible for Covid publicity.

My Lords, in the report Beyond the Data: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Groups, published by Public Health England in June this year, a number of recommendations were made. Can the Minister explain how many of the recommendations have been implemented six months on and what the impact has been on the number of people contracting Covid and the number of Covid deaths in BAME communities?

My Lords, there were a wide range of responses; my noble friend is quite right to say that the report was important. Following on, more than 95% of front-line NHS workers from ethnic minority backgrounds have had a risk assessment and agreed mitigating actions. BEIS issued revised guidance to employers in July and September highlighting the findings of the review and explaining how to make workplaces Covid-secure. Some £4.3 million has been provided to fund new research projects relating to Covid and ethnicity.

My Lords, I declare that I chair the National Mental Capacity Forum. Will the Government collate all resources available into an online library? This should include resources produced by them and all relevant charities, such as Books Beyond Words, to link easy-to-read pictorial guides and signing videos covering Covid-19 regulations, testing and vaccination to support those with learning difficulties and cognitive impairments, including people with dementia or literacy difficulties. They might find that a resource produced by a different organisation is particularly helpful to their personal situation and would help them understand the pandemic-control measures that are required nationally.

My Lords, I endorse the need to reach all vulnerable groups. I take the noble Baroness’s suggestion seriously and will ask colleagues to reflect on it.

My Lords, we were all delighted to see the news this morning that 90 year- old Margaret Keenan got the first vaccination from nurse May Parsons. However, can I take the Minister back to two points? First, he said that the information was available in many languages and different formats; yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, has pointed out, that is not available on the NHS website. I know that he would never want to—even inadvertently—mislead the House, so will he check with his department and report back to the House on how that information is available? I am sure that it is in everyone’s interest that it is as widely available as possible.

Secondly, what are the Government doing to combat the anti-vaccination messages online? There has to be some action taken against social media firms. When Margaret Keenan and others come forward to show how important it is that they are taking the vaccine, it is very sad, disappointing and worrying if no action is taken against social media when they try to deny people the protection offered by the vaccine.

My Lords, I would never wish to mislead the House; I hope that Hansard will reflect that I said that I would take back to colleagues the point about the NHS. The point that I made about languages is broader. I totally agree with the noble Baroness that vaccine disinformation, spread unchecked, could cost lives. We take the issue seriously: we have secured a commitment from Facebook, Twitter and Google to tackle it by not profiting from this material and by responding to flagged comment more swiftly.

My Lords, 10% of the adult population in the UK are not internet users. What provision have the Government made for these 5.3 million people to have parity of access to Covid-19 information services? How are the Government measuring whether these are effective?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. In terms of reaching all vulnerable groups, those without access to the internet are important. This is taken into consideration. I can assure the noble Lord that the performance of the Covid campaign is reviewed in detail twice a week between the centre and agencies, but I will underline the significance of the specific point he raised.