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Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 December.

“At 6.31 this morning, 90 year-old Margaret Keenan from Enniskillen, who lives in Coventry, became the first person in the world to receive a clinically authorised vaccine for Covid-19. This marks the start of the NHS’s herculean task to deploy vaccine right across the UK, in line with its founding mission to support people according to clinical need, not ability to pay. This simple act of vaccination is a tribute to scientific endeavour, human ingenuity and the hard work of so many people. Today marks the start of the fight back against our common enemy, coronavirus.

While today is a day to celebrate, there is much work to be done. We must all play our part in suppressing the virus until the vaccine can make us safe and we can all play our part supporting the NHS to deliver the vaccine across the country. This is a task with huge logistical challenges, including the need to store the vaccine at ultra-low temperatures and the clinical need for each person to receive two doses 21 days apart. I know that the NHS will be equal to the task. I am sure we will do everything we can—everything that is humanly possible—to make sure that the NHS has whatever help it needs.

The first 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are already here in locations around the UK and the next consignment is scheduled to arrive next week. This week, we will vaccinate from hospitals across the UK. From next week, we will expand deployment to start vaccinations by GPs and we will vaccinate in care homes by Christmas. As more vaccines come on stream in the new year, we will open vaccination centres in larger venues, such as sports stadiums and conference halls.

People do not need to apply. The NHS will get in touch at the appropriate time and, when that time comes, we have one clear request: please step forward for your country.

I want to thank all those involved—the international team of scientists; the globally respected regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency; Public Health England; the vaccines taskforce; all the volunteers who took part in the trial; all those who have come forward for vaccination so far; and all those who will do so in future. Months of trials involving thousands of people have shown that this vaccine works and is safe. By coming forward, you are taking the best possible step to protect yourself and your loved ones, and to protect the NHS.

Help is on its way and the end is in sight—not just of this terrible pandemic but of the onerous restrictions that have made this year so hard for so many—but even while we can now see the route out, there is still a long march ahead. Let us not blow it now. There are worrying signs of the virus growing in some parts of the country, including parts of Essex, London and Kent. Over the coming weeks and months, we must all keep following the rules to keep people safe and make sure we can get through this safely together.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the update today, and for the all-Peer Zoom this morning. Yesterday was indeed a happy day. Like many—including, it has to be said, the Secretary of State—I was very moved watching 90 year-old Margaret Keenan get her jab. However, the challenges of the next period are as acute as, if different from, those of the period we have been through. What is the timeline for the vaccine for people who are housebound or shielded and cannot attend a surgery, whether in a hospital or anywhere else? It seems that the easy distribution of the vaccine will depend on the new vaccines coming down the track: communications will be vital. So what communications will people receive, from whom? Will that be centrally controlled or will it be done locally—through primary care networks, for example?

My Lords, the JCVI has laid out a clear prioritisation, putting great emphasis on those who are older—the over-80s—and those in social care. The vaccine will come to those who are shielded and living alone in due time. There are some practical issues with getting the current Pfizer vaccine: as the noble Baroness undoubtedly knows, it has to be kept in cold storage and comes in substantial batches, which are difficult to break up. The initial cohort consists of 6 million people—those over 80, and the health and social care workers who support them. As for future vaccines, those looking forward to being vaccinated should wait for a letter. Those letters are being organised through their doctors, who have access to a central database to ensure that the right prioritisation takes place.

I thank the Minister for the update, and join others in celebrating the good news about the first vaccines, administered yesterday. There are several different vaccines in the pipeline. Can the Minister update us on where they all are in terms of MHRA approval, and therefore of uptake? How many doses will be available, and by when?

My Lords, the precise status of each vaccine in the pipeline is a subject for dialogue between the vaccine manufacturers and the MHRA. I can tell the noble Baroness that we are extremely encouraged by the substantial number of vaccines in the pipeline. The safety data for all those for which we know the response is also extremely encouraging. AstraZeneca—the one that most eyes are on—is making good progress, but I am afraid that I cannot give a clear or confirmed time for when, or if, it will be authorised. As for doses, as the noble Baroness probably knows, we have committed to more than 320 million doses overall. The precise details of those are published on the Vaccine Taskforce website, and I would be glad to send her a link to that, so that she can get all the details.

I thank my noble friend for this very good news, and for his tireless work in keeping us informed. Throughout this crisis, we have been given an object lesson in who are truly the key workers in our society, such as those working on farms and in supermarkets, and those servicing utilities, cleaning streets, organising deliveries and keeping us safe. Will he ensure that this lesson is remembered when ordering the front of the queue for the rollout of the vaccine?

I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind comments, and endorse his tribute to all those who have worked hard on the front line of healthcare during this pandemic, at times putting themselves at risk, and all of them under great stress. We owe them enormous gratitude. The JCVI has made a clear priority list and advised that the first priorities for any vaccination programme should be the prevention of mortality and protection of healthcare staff and systems. Therefore the vaccine is being rolled out to the priority groups, including care home residents and staff, people over 80, and healthcare workers. They are the ones who will be at the top of the list, and that seems to me proportionate, fair and right. As we work through the later prioritisations, others in the population will have access to the vaccine.

My Lords, many congratulations to the Minister, the Government, Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce on V-day, yesterday. Does the Minister agree that this has been possible only because of the collaboration, in just six months, between the private sector, the Government, the NHS, universities, including Oxford, and the pharmaceutical sector, including AstraZeneca? In due course, could business help to roll out the vaccines, through inoculations taking place in offices, factories and business premises, thus causing less disruption? The CBI, of which I am president, stands by, ready to help.

I am enormously grateful to the noble Lord for his clear and heartfelt offer of help, and I completely endorse his comments. The collaboration between the NHS, the Government and business has been at the heart of our entire response to the pandemic. This collaboration has been termed the “triple helix”—a phrase that I like very much indeed. It is going to be at the heart of our building back of the healthcare system in the years ahead. On the noble Lord’s kind offer, I remind him that when someone takes any medical treatment, including a vaccine, they have to have the space to take stock and recover from the excitement of the vaccine, and they have to be supervised in that space by someone with some kind of clinical experience. So, while his offer is kind, it is likely that vaccine distribution will be in locations where we can put clinical supervision.

My Lords, do the Government intend to create some kind of vaccination passport, which will allow people to attend events across the UK and to travel to and from the UK without quarantine, if they have been vaccinated?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an extremely intriguing prospect. If it is indeed the case that those who have been vaccinated are not themselves contagious and cannot transmit the disease, there is the possibility that the vaccination will enable them to do things that might not be open to other members of the public. However, it is too early to call that one. We do not have the scientific evidence to demonstrate that the vaccine stops any infectiousness. We are working hard to try to understand that better. If it can be proved, we will look at an enable strategy.

My Lords, there have been many bleak days since the early part of this year, but yesterday was a day in which we can take great pride in the MHRA and all the people who were involved in bringing this vaccine quickly to the public in this country—the first in the world. In the past, a lot of criticism has been made of Kate Bingham. She has done a remarkable job in the way she has helped secure these vaccines from across the world. Will the Government be sure to learn the lessons of involving both private and public sectors in this remarkable venture?

My Lords, I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the MHRA. We have all seen Dr June Raine in her flawless presentation and authoritative explanation of the authorisation of the vaccine. I am sure that, if she were here today, she would want to pay tribute to her incredibly impressive team at the MHRA. I also pay tribute to Kate Bingham and the very many people from the private sector who have stepped forward during the pandemic to take on onerous, sometimes high-profile and sometimes quite controversial roles in the battle with the pandemic. We owe them a huge tribute. They have often given up their time and put themselves in the firing line in order to do this work. Kate Bingham has massively delivered for this country and I am grateful to all those, either at the top of the task force or in local community work, who have stepped forward and made a contribution to our battle against Covid.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a danger that this whole programme could be undermined by crazy anti-vaxxers, particularly on social media? What are the Government going to do to counteract this?

The noble Lord speaks truth, as always, in this matter. We are naturally concerned by those who deliberately seek to undermine the integrity of the vaccine. However, we are also considerate of those who might have quite reasonable questions about it or might even have what we think are completely unreasonable ones but who have concerns about, or an emotional response to, vaccines. Our approach is to handle those doubts and questions in a dialogue and a spirit of partnership, trying to answer them as considerately as we possibly can. Yes, we should battle those who seek to profit commercially or are acting in their own narrow, national interest to undermine the vaccine in this country. But we want to answer those in our community who have questions about the vaccine with transparency, reassurance and science.

My Lords, the time allowed for this question has now elapsed. We will pause for a minute before the next item of business.