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Covid-19 Update

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 7 January 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 6 January.

“Mr Speaker, I share your gratitude to the House of Commons staff for all their efforts and hard work to allow us to meet today in the way that we are. Before I begin my Statement, I would like to say that I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the honourable Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who is currently in hospital with Covid, and we wish her a full and speedy recovery.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement about the measures we are taking to defeat this new variant of Covid-19, protecting our NHS while it carries out the vaccinations that will finally free us from this wretched virus. There is a fundamental difference between the regulations before the House today and the position we have faced at any previous stage, because we now have the vaccines that are our means of escape, and we will use every available second of the lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable.

Already, with Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca combined, we have immunised over 1.1 million people in England and over 1.3 million in the UK. Our NHS is following the plan drawn up by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is aimed at saving the most lives in the fastest possible time. Given that the average age of Covid fatalities is over 80, it is significant that we have already vaccinated more than 650,000 people in that age group, meaning that within two to three weeks almost one in four of the most vulnerable groups will have a significant degree of immunity. By 15 February, the NHS is committed to offering a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups, including older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all front-line NHS and care staff and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.

In working towards that target, there are already almost 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, including 595 GP-led sites, with a further 180 opening later this week, and 107 hospital sites, with another 100 later this week. Next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadiums and exhibition centres. Pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country, and I am grateful to Brigadier Prosser, who is leading the efforts of our Armed Forces in supporting this vaccine rollout. We have already vaccinated more people in this country than the rest of Europe combined, and we will give the House the maximum possible transparency about our acceleration of this effort, publishing daily updates online from Monday, so that jab by jab honourable Members can scrutinise the progress being made every single day.

Yet as we take this giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives, we have to contend with the new variant, which is between 50% and 70% more contagious. With the old variant, the tiers agreed by the House last month were working. But, alas, this mutation, spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, has led to more cases than we have ever seen before—numbers that, alas, cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing. When the Office for National Statistics reports that more than 2% of the population is now infected, and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40% higher than during the first peak in April, it is inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response. And so we have no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England, with similar measures being adopted by the devolved Administrations, so that we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will open the debate on the full regulations shortly, but the key point, I am afraid, is that once again we are instructing everyone to stay at home, leaving only for limited reasons permitted by law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if people absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance such as getting a Covid test or to escape injury or harm, including domestic abuse. We are advising the clinically extremely vulnerable to begin shielding again, and, because we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease, we have asked schools and colleges to close their doors to all except vulnerable children and those of critical workers.

I do not think the House will be in any doubt about our determination—my determination—to keep schools open, especially primary schools, for as long as possible, because all the evidence shows that school is the best place for our children. Indeed, all the evidence shows that schools are safe and that the risk posed to children by coronavirus is vanishingly small. For most children, the most dangerous part of going to school, even in the midst of a global pandemic, remains, I am afraid, crossing the road in order to get there. But the data showed, and our scientific advisers agreed, that our efforts to contain the spread of this new variant would not be sufficient if schools continued to act as a vector, or potential vector, for spreading the virus between households.

I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all the teachers, pupils and parents who are now making the rapid move to remote learning. We will do everything possible to support that process, building on the 560,000 laptops and tablets provided last year, with over 50,000 delivered to schools on Monday and more than 100,000 being delivered in total during the first week of term. We have partnered with some of the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free mobile data to disadvantaged families to support access to education resources, and I am very grateful to EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone for supporting this offer.

Oak National Academy will continue to provide video lessons, and it is very good news that the BBC is launching the biggest education programme in its history, with both primary and secondary school programmes across its platforms. We recognise it will not be possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal, and the Education Secretary will make a Statement shortly.

I know many people will ask whether the decision on schools could have been reached sooner, and the answer is that we have been doing everything in our power to keep them open, because children’s education is too vital and their futures too precious to be disrupted until every other avenue, every other option, has been closed off and every other course of action has been taken. That is why schools were the very last thing to close, as I have long promised they would be. When we begin to move out of lockdown, I promise that they will be the very first things to reopen. That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead.

As was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping. That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until 31 March, not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis, carefully and brick by brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement, but without risking the hard-won gains that our protections have given us.

These restrictions will be kept under continuous review, with a statutory requirement to review every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus. For as long as restrictions are in place we will continue to support everyone affected by them, from the continued provision of free school meals to the £4.6 billion of additional assistance for our retail, hospitality and leisure sectors announced by my right honourable friend the Chancellor yesterday.

We are in a tough final stretch, made only tougher by the new variant, but this country will come together. The miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only sight of the finish line but a clear route to get there. After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint—a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them, and every needle in every arm makes a difference. As I say, we are already vaccinating faster than every comparable country, and that rate I hope will only increase, but if we are going to win this race for our population, we have to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can and that is why, to do that, we must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I think it is appropriate to begin with a comment on the shocking and extraordinary events that unfolded on our TV screens last night. Today we are discussing the impact of a global virus on the UK and the drastic and difficult measures needed to tackle it. At the same time, the United States is having to contend with an additional virus of lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have infected the very heart of its democracy. Last night was perhaps predictable, given the toxic atmosphere that has characterised President Trump’s term of office and the clear attempt by him and his close allies, including some involved in UK politics, to poison democracy.

It is right to condemn the violence of last night, but to do so without also condemning the cause of such violence is an empty gesture. Given that the Conservative Government gave the extraordinary honour of a state visit to President Trump and given his close relationship with the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson is in a strong position to lead that condemnation. To do otherwise would be a failure to defend democracy.

I hope that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, being the only Cabinet Minister speaking in Parliament today, as the House of Commons is not sitting, will also condemn the actions, comments and tweets of President Trump. She should be clear that we stand alongside those Senators and House Representatives, Democrats and Republicans, who have defended and preserved the rule of law.

Tackling the Covid virus here at home needs that same resolve and determination of purpose. It is disappointing that our current way of working means that Ministers no longer read Statement repeats, particularly on matters of such grave importance. When events are so fast moving, and the government response changes so often, it would be helpful.

With the Covid virus mutating and infections, hospitalisations and deaths rising at an alarming rate, we must all abide by the new lockdown rules and play our part in trying to minimise the impact on our fellow citizens. As far as I am concerned, that is not for debate. I am appalled by those who have tried to downplay the impact. Since Monday we have seen 2,278 Covid-related deaths in the UK and over 180,000 new cases recorded. The position is now worse than in April and we all know that winter is a more dangerous time for viruses to spread.

Our National Health Service risks being completely overwhelmed by this new variant, which is at least 50% more infectious than the original. An increased number of infections means not just greater prevalence of the virus, but also the possibility of further variants. The last Statement from the Prime Minister on Covid, when he announced the so-called winter plan, was just six weeks ago, although, with all that has happened and the policy changes we have seen, it feels much longer.

We understand that policies change in response to events. However, too often policies are changed at the last minute, then again and even again, when others with greater expertise and knowledge have been issuing warnings for weeks. Many of us heard with incredulity the Home Secretary claim:

“The Government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regards to coronavirus.”

This is an extraordinary claim when the Prime Minister’s actions have often lagged behind the advice of the Government’s own scientific advisory body, SAGE. Yes, we support the proposed measures, but the Government have to understand that it is in the national interest to raise concerns and make suggestions. We will press for further economic measures for individuals, businesses and jobs. This is vital for their survival now and the post-Covid recovery.

I know that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House understands that public confidence and support are essential. Lockdown restrictions might buy time by reducing the number of infections, but they are not a cure. The only game in town is now the vaccine. The new vaccines bring great optimism, but also challenges. The rollout needs to be swift, efficient and successful. This will be a huge logistical exercise so the Government must fully exploit all the experience and expertise available. We must all give our support.

The Statement announces that there will be updates online. Can the noble Baroness confirm that this information will provide details for the whole of the UK? Will she ensure there is an opportunity to ask questions of Ministers in the House? She will understand the need to ensure there are not local or regional disparities that leave some areas more vulnerable than others. In the Statement, the Prime Minister said that

“pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine”

but she may have seen the reports that major pharmacy companies with expertise in vaccinations have said that their efforts to support the scheme have been rebuffed. Can the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal comment on that?

On schools, teachers, parents and pupils are in despair at the Government’s incompetence. The constant chopping and changing of policy is mind-blowing. A start to rebuilding some confidence would be an apology to the London Borough of Greenwich and other authorities threatened with legal action by the Department for Education before Christmas for daring to act ahead of the Government’s decision to do the same. The focus now has to be on protecting pupils’ education.

On home schooling, could the noble Baroness update us on three issues? First, what progress has been made to relieve the financial burden of many families facing increased data charges? Secondly, how many pupils still do not have access to an adequate digital device and what further action is being taken to ensure that all pupils have access to the tech equipment they need? Thirdly, what are the Government doing to ensure that all school leadership teams are supported in their attempts to increase the online learning offer to home-schooled pupils? These are vital to stem the clear gap in provision between independent and state sector schools.

There is some progress in the Statement about financial support. However, as the Chamber of Commerce and others have warned, it does not yet go far enough. I have previously raised the issue of the self-employed, including our world-renowned creative arts sector. What are the plans to support our arts, music and performance industries? Alongside performers, an army of support staff, writers and many others add real colour to our daily lives, and we will all need a bit more of a splash of that when the pandemic has passed. I also make my now regular plea for the hospitality sector. It is among the hardest hit in this hokey-cokey year of lockdowns. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House outline any Government plans for pubs, bars and restaurants to ensure that they can function properly once restrictions start to be lifted again?

Given the further lockdown, it is harder for many to remain in or seek regular employment. When will the Government make further announcements on support for those in the private rental sector facing the possible threat of eviction? Will the Government now halt their pernicious plans to cut universal credit by £20 a week in April? It has been estimated that failing to do so could put 300,000 more children into poverty—a legacy no Government should want.

The noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal will be aware that Health Service Journal reported an official briefing by NHS England yesterday which suggests that

“London’s hospitals are less than two weeks from being overwhelmed.”

Can she tell your Lordships’ House whether NHS England expects the same impact on hospitals elsewhere in the UK? What national response is planned?

Even when concerned or exasperated by delays in action or failures in the available economic support, we have supported the Government’s efforts to tackle this awful disease and find a way out of the pandemic. It is challenging and we will continue to give that support. That also includes asking questions and raising issues of concern in the national interest, so that we can play our part in seeking to eradicate this virus and prepare the UK for the post-Covid recovery.

My Lords, I begin by associating myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in respect of recent events in America. This is probably the most sombre Statement we have heard on Covid. Despite all the restrictions of the past nine months, the incidence of the disease and the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths are at record highs. These terrible figures make today’s measures inevitable and we support them.

The difference between the first time we went into lockdown and today is, of course, the arrival of the vaccines. This is what can give the country some hope. The key challenge now posed to the Government, the NHS and the whole country is how to get as many people vaccinated as speedily as possible. The government targets are extremely ambitions. While such ambition is commendable, the failure to achieve so many past targets, particularly in relation to test and trace, make us somewhat cautious about simply accepting them. If they are to be achieved, every possible resource must be brought into play. In this respect, there are legitimate questions to be asked of the Government.

First, we clearly need more qualified health professionals to administer the vaccines than those currently employed by the NHS. Many retired doctors and nurses are desperately keen to get involved, but they are finding that the bureaucracy required before they can get started is ludicrously burdensome and disproportionately prescriptive. Both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have said in recent days that they would look into this, so what is the Government’s target for producing a new, streamlined application process for such retired medics? The Government will not meet their targets without them, so they had better get a move on.

Secondly, I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and ask why more pharmacists are not planned to be involved. They have an extremely good track record in administering flu jabs. What reason is there for not involving in the Covid vaccination programme any pharmacy that takes part in the national flu vaccination programme?

Thirdly, particularly at the larger vaccination centres, there appears to be a need for volunteers to support the medics in managing the flow of those being vaccinated, helping, among other things, to sort out their transport requirements. Last year, some 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS to deal with the disease. Is this volunteer pool being activated to help facilitate the vaccination process?

If we need every possible resource to be brought to bear, we also need to ensure that everybody who needs a vaccination actually gets one. In recent weeks, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has explained that, unless you are enrolled with a GP, you will not be covered by the programme at all. That is simply not good enough. Particularly in the inner cities, there are vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, who are unlikely to be registered with a GP, and unless the Government act those groups will fall through the cracks. Will the Government undertake to work with relevant homeless, refugee and other charities that are in touch with these registered groups to make sure that they do get registered and vaccinated in due time?

I fully accept that the Government need to be rigorous about the priority order in which they undertake the vaccinations. However, do they accept that there is a strong case for vaccinating teachers and other school staff at a relatively early stage, possibly placing them in category 7—that is, when all the over-65s and the most vulnerable have been vaccinated? This will facilitate the resumption of the education system and give those who work in our schools the protection that they deserve.

Even if the vaccination programme goes to plan, the economic costs of Covid will be dire for many individuals and businesses. The Government have taken many welcome steps to support those affected, but there are two areas where I believe further action is needed. First, we know that many individuals who should be self-isolating fail to do so because they cannot afford the loss of income that this would involve. The Government established a scheme involving a payment of £500 for those on low income, administered by local authorities, but this is not working properly. Not enough funds have been made available—we suggest that full salary support should be offered in any event—not enough of those affected even know about the scheme, and many of those who need support are not covered by it. Could the Government undertake an urgent and fundamental review of the scheme, because at present its failure seriously undermines the whole test, track and trace system.

Secondly, it is now clear that for many businesses, particularly in retail, hospitality, the arts and accommodation, the impact of Covid will last far longer than anybody ever feared. For those who cannot trade at all, even the current government support will simply be inadequate because they cannot escape their overheads, so many fundamentally sound businesses will go under unless the support packages are improved and lengthened. Will the Government now commit to an enhanced support package arranged to last until the summer? Will they modify the job support scheme to include those who were previously excluded?

The Government have consistently responded slowly, overpromised and underdelivered. Trust and faith in government requires the Government to level with people, not just on the current threat but on the realistic, unvarnished possibilities of dealing with it. Only on that basis will we all be able to work together, as we wish to do, to see off this terrible scourge.

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and questions. I wish the noble Baroness a very happy birthday. I hope she enjoys a gin or two later, as I am sure she will. I also fully endorse the comments of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary about the shocking events in the United States last night.

The noble Baroness asked about data. From Monday we will publish daily data on the vaccination programme, going through the levels of detail that she asked about. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the economic response, quite rightly, and they will be aware that we have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive responses to the pandemic, spending over £280 billion so far on economic support. Of course, this week, we also announced additional support worth £4.6 billion for businesses affected by the new restrictions.

All businesses in England legally required to close as a result of this lockdown will receive one-off grants of up to £9,000, which will benefit over 600,000 businesses. As more businesses are forced to close by the restrictions, more will also receive the monthly grants, worth up to £3,000, which, taken together, means that businesses could receive up to £18,000 over the next three months if they have been forced to close due to restrictions. That is in no way to diminish the terrible time many businesses are having, but it is further support, and I believe it shows that we will continue to keep the package under review and react to circumstances as and when we can. Of course, I remind the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we have protected 12 million jobs so far through the furlough and self-employment schemes, both of which have been extended to April.

On the vaccine programme, by the end of the week, we expect there to be 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, with another seven major centres following next week. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about community pharmacies, and as more supplies become available and they can administer significant numbers of doses of the vaccine, they will certainly play a role in the programme. We have undertaken months of extensive preparations and significant investment, including £230 million for our manufacturing infrastructure, so that we can ensure that this ambitious programme, as the noble Lord rightly said, is rolled out.

He mentioned the bureaucracy for those wanting to help with the vaccination programme, and he may have heard my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday, when he was asked about this, saying that we will be tackling this as an immediate priority. Of course, we will work with charities and groups across civil society to help deliver our ambitious plan. Once again, the British people have shown their willingness to engage and help to deliver the programmes that we need, by volunteering and other things. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who is doing that on our behalf, and we thank them in advance.

The noble Baroness asked about education. We have bought over 1 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged young people throughout this pandemic. Over 560,000 have already been delivered, with an extra 100,000 this week alone, and by the end of the week we hope to have delivered 750,000 devices to the most disadvantaged families. We are working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for educational sites and to deliver 4G routers to families who need to access the internet. Of course, we will continue to work closely with teachers to support them through this difficult time, and we are very grateful for all the work that they undertook over the Christmas holidays in order to provide Covid-secure environments for young people. We know how disappointing it is that, unfortunately, the variant has meant that we have had to take the very difficult decision to close schools in the short term.

The noble Baroness asked about culture. She may well be aware that theatres, although with no audiences, are still able to open for training, rehearsals and filming. Of course, we have created the £1.7 billion Culture Recovery Fund, and, so far, over £500 million of grants have been awarded to the sector. The noble Baroness also asked about support for renters. The measures are currently being reviewed and we will provide an update shortly.

There are a variety of ways in which the NHS can increase its capacity—for instance, through opening further surge beds in existing hospitals, mutual aid, using independent sector capacity and, of course, opening extra capacity in the Nightingale hospitals. I assure her that, around the country, options will be explored and taken up where they are both relevant and necessary across the country.

The noble Lord asked about the test and trace support payments—the £500 for those on low incomes to self-isolate. We have provided £50 million to local authorities delivering this scheme and have made sure that those advised to self-isolate by the NHS app can also access the payment. We have also made available £15 million for discretionary funding for those facing hardship when self-isolating but who are not eligible for the payment. The noble Lord will also be aware that we have made statutory sick pay available from day one.

My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that we can call a maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, as the PM’s Statement yesterday made clear, this lockdown is sadly necessary to avoid medical catastrophe, but he was also clear that it comes with significant costs, not least to schoolchildren, who face a year of disrupted education—I declare my interest as a founder of two schools and a parent of three school-aged children. Does my noble friend agree that the closure of schools if necessary is nevertheless highly regrettable? Does she commit to reopening schools as soon as is humanly possible and before any other institutions in society reopen once the vaccination programme is rolled out? Does she agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, with Robert Halfon, the chair of the Select Committee, and with others that teachers and TAs should be vaccinated as an urgent priority to make that happen?

I thank my noble friend for his questions. He is absolutely right. We entirely agree that schools and colleges are the best place for children and young people to be, not just for education but for their health and well-being, which is why we tried so hard to keep them open. Unfortunately, as my noble friend said, we just could not do it. It was not that schools themselves were unsafe for either children or pupils; it is that, with the new variant, we need to use every lever at our disposal to reduce community transmission and contact. It was for that reason that schools were closed; it was not because teachers have not done fantastic work. My brother and sister-in-law, who are both teachers, spent Christmas trying to make their schools Covid secure, but we still had to close them. We will certainly keep this position under review; we will certainly try to bring back schools as soon as we can. Of course, regular testing will be at the centre of our plans. All that hard work will not be in vain; it will just be used slightly further away than we may have hoped.

As the Leader of the House knows, it is not yet clear whether a person who has been vaccinated is still able to transmit the virus; it is quite possible in theory for them to have no symptoms themselves and yet to pass it on. I understand that a group of scientists is working on this issue. Is the Leader of the House able to indicate when those scientists might be able to report? Clearly, this is vital information which we need to have sooner rather than later.

I can assure the noble and right reverend Lord that PHE will be employing existing surveillance systems and enhanced follow-up of cases to monitor how effective the vaccine is in protecting against a range of outcomes, including infections, symptomatic disease, hospitalisations, mortality and onward transmission. I can assure him that that work is in progress, but I cannot give him a timescale. He will understand that we will need time to gather sufficient data to get a clear picture, but he is right that it will be critical.

My Lords, the black and Asian community is particularly at risk from the virus. The vaccine is our best hope. Yet that community is targeted by anti-vaccine campaigners. Will the Government work with faith leaders and work with and support the voluntary community health sector within those communities to promote strong and culturally appropriate public health messages? Will they work too with social media platforms to counter this insidious and deadly anti-vaccine propaganda?

Yes, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Work is already ongoing, but he is absolutely right: it is critical.

My Lords, this morning, the Health Service Journal has said that our already overburdened hospitals are trying to release Covid patients into care homes but that a major problem is stopping this. The National Care Forum reports that insurance for designated Covid settings is now almost impossible to get and that, without indemnity cover, they cannot take Covid patients. NHS Providers is begging the Treasury to help, as hospital beds must be freed up, but the Treasury is refusing. Can the Lord Privy Seal take this up with the Treasury as a matter of extreme urgency and help resolve this problem, not of care homes’ making, which is blocking beds in hospitals at a time of national crisis? Please will she keep me informed of progress?

I am very happy to raise those issues with both the Department of Health and the Treasury. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Bethell in particular will be able to keep the noble Baroness updated on discussions.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on being way ahead of the curve in vaccinating more people in this country than the whole of Europe combined—and thank God we did not sign up to the EU procurement racket. Does my noble friend agree that a jab in the arm is not rocket science and does not need experts to do it? Tens of thousands of people self-inject daily, and all we had was a two-minute teach-in from a nurse and that worked. Can we call on every able-bodied volunteer, not just retired medics and professionals and the military, cut out the NHS’s idiotic 21 forms to fill in, and run those vaccination centres 24/7? The public want to pile in to help. Let us encourage them to do it and put no obstacles in their way.

My noble friend is absolutely right: I am pleased to say that more than 1.3 million people across the UK have already received the first dose of the vaccine—as he said, it is more people than the rest of Europe combined. This is a united endeavour across all four nations. We will move every sinew to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine programme as quickly as we can, but, of course, it must also be done safely.

My Lords, all GPs are required to register their patients with learning disabilities—that is just 200,000 people nationally. All are entitled to a flu jab, along with the over-65s. Given their 20-year shorter life expectancy in ordinary times and a Covid mortality rate for under-35s that is 30 times higher than for their chronological age group, will the Lord Privy Seal ask the Government to offer early vaccination to this whole group of registered patients with learning disability and not just to those with Down’s syndrome or severe learning disabilities?

As the noble Baroness will know, we are following the advice of the independent experts on the JCVI on which groups of people to prioritise for vaccines. The committee has advised that the immediate priority should be to prevent deaths and to protect health and care staff, with old age deemed the single biggest factor determining mortality.

My Lords, in his Statement yesterday, the Prime Minister said

“we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the disease”.

Of course, we all agree with that, but one thing missing from the Statement was any reference to the importance of wearing face coverings in places where it is mandatory—I am thinking particularly of public transport, shops and other areas where it makes a real difference to the spread of the disease. Last Wednesday, in the debate on the Covid SIs, I asked the Lord Privy Seal’s noble colleague what the Government intended to do about the attacks on public-spirited individuals who attempt to encourage non-wearers of masks to comply with the law and what advice they could offer to members of the public who believe that the law should be obeyed but are deterred by the threat of physical violence from confronting the law-breakers. He was not able to give me an answer; he said that it was not in his brief, but I wonder whether the noble Baroness is able to do so today.

I am afraid I shall have to go back to my noble friend and ask him to get back to the noble Lord, because I do not have the answer. Obviously he will know that there are fines available, including enforcement fines, so there are mechanisms in place—but I will return to my noble friend and ask him to respond.

My Lords, it is not only American democracy that is under threat from conspiracy theories and fake news, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, indicated, so it is important that the Government keep their nerve and keep to a consistency of policy in taking us forward. We have some very hard pounding ahead of us, and it is important to make people aware of how difficult the way ahead is. To that extent I found myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that we have to avoid the tick-box approach to using the vast number of volunteers and retired medics who are willing to come forward and help us in this crisis. I hope that the Government will stay consistent, but also be flexible in bringing forward those volunteers to help.

I hope I addressed the noble Lord’s point when I responded to similar comments from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and also, of course, from my noble friend. The Prime Minister said yesterday quite clearly that we wanted to cut through the bureaucracy as an immediate priority.

My Lords, if any may have doubted the seriousness of the current situation, they had only to watch last night’s BBC report from University College Hospital, or to note that we are once again seeing multiple deaths in care home settings. Along with the Prime Minister’s Statement, it was announced that places of worship in England may remain open. I know that that has been welcomed by some faith communities, although others have already gone largely online. However, all such communities continue to engage with energy in acts of pastoral and community service. In the light of this, would the Leader of the House care to suggest what she and her colleagues would most wish to ask of our faith communities? What further might we offer? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, may already have provided part of an answer.

I thank the right reverend Prelate—and, of course, all the people from all the different faith communities who are working so hard to help with the difficult situation we find ourselves in. He is absolutely right: the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, raised some very important points, and we all need to come together to encourage people to take up the vaccine, and to deal with some of the myths and worries that people have. Trusted local community leaders such as faith leaders can really help to do that. We want to try to get everyone involved, so that we can get to the light at the end of the tunnel and, we hope, beat this thing once and for all.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what assurances have been received from AstraZeneca that vaccine supply will be able to keep pace with the Government’s commendably ambitious deployment plans? And what contribution is expected of other vaccine sources?

I am sure we would all like to pay tribute to everyone who has worked so amazingly quickly to help to develop both the Oxford vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine. I can assure my noble friend that AstraZeneca is accelerating its delivery schedule. Obviously, we are working extremely closely with the companies in order to deliver what the noble Lord called our ambitious programme. We of course have access to 100 million doses of the vaccine on behalf of the whole of the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories.

My Lords, about 40% of those working in the arts, which continue to buckle under the strain of the pandemic, remain ineligible for financial support. Will the Government allow the guidance for the culture recovery fund to be changed so that freelancers can benefit, if there is still time—or will they provide directly the necessary support that they and the rest of the 3 million workers who have fallen through the gaps in support since March desperately need?

As the noble Earl rightly says, we have created the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, of which £500 million in grants has already been awarded to more than 3,000 museums, music venues, independent cinemas, circuses, heritage sites and theatres in England. I know that there is ongoing dialogue between the Secretary of State and the sector to which he refers, and I am sure that all is being done to try to see what else can be done.

My Lords, as we now know that, in facing this virus, no one is safe unless everyone is safe, are the Government going to repeat and expand the successful Everybody In programme from the first lockdown, to ensure that every rough sleeper is in safe accommodation, with adequate washing and toilet facilities, so that they are safe and the community is safe?

The noble Baroness refers to an extremely important issue. Through this dreadful time, we can all agree that the programme to help get rough sleepers into accommodation has been one of the positive things that has come out of it. I can assure her that our £15 million Protect programme, which is running alongside the Everyone In campaign, is providing targeted funding for councils in areas with high numbers of rough sleepers, prioritising the clinically vulnerable and those with a history of rough sleeping. That is on top of the £10 million cold winter fund, which is helping all councils support rough sleepers into self-contained accommodation. By September 2020 we had housed 29,000 vulnerable people as part of the successful Everyone In programme.

My Lords, the Minister quite rightly said that we now have access to Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines, which will be distributed across the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies. Can she also undertake to publish data on a regular basis on how many vaccines per 100,000 of population are being made available in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

I can say to the noble Baroness that currently we are allocating the vaccine doses based on the business as usual Barnett formula. As I have said, we will begin to publish daily data next week. I suspect that the data she is talking about will be part of that, but I will make sure that her request goes to the Department of Health, because I am sure that is data that everyone would be interested in.

My Lords, the rollout of vaccines is a massive achievement, and gives us much-needed light at the end of the tunnel. However, I read today that clinicians in South Africa suggest that administering a single dose of the vaccines leaves patients at great risk from the new coronavirus variants. Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that urgent research is being undertaken in this country to ensure the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, now that the second dose has been moved from the original recommended three-week gap to 12 weeks?

I can certainly assure my noble friend that, obviously, this will be kept under review—but the UK CMOs agree with the JCVI that the evidence shows that one dose of either vaccine can protect people against the effects of the virus, reducing severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths. For both vaccines, data provided to the MHRA demonstrates that, while she is right to say that efficacy is optimised when a second dose is administered, both offer considerable protection after a single dose in the short term. I would also reassure her that everyone will still receive their second dose within 12 weeks of their first. The second dose completes the course and is important for longer-term protection—but the data provided to the MHRA gives us comfort that giving one dose with that gap remains an important thing to do.

My Lords, as the need for tighter restrictions is, sadly, all too evident, can the Minister explain the rationale for issuing regulations that fall short of the guidance? The government website offers a sphinx-like riddle by way of explanation: the law is what you must do—that bit is clear—and the guidance might be a mixture of what you must do and what you should do. How does this confused messaging help citizens who are trying to do the right thing, and how does it help our police, who are being asked to enforce restrictions that are not, in truth, mandated by law?

We are continuing to work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing on updated guidance. I think that with the new strain, and the figures we are seeing on a daily basis, people are well aware of the situation we are in. The British people have been fantastic in all the work they have done and the efforts they have made to get us this far. With the vaccine rollout there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we repeat the message “Stay at home, wash your hands, keep your space and protect the NHS”.

I hope that the noble Baroness will support the campaign launched today by the Daily Mirror, the TUC and the Labour Party called Let’s Vaccinate Britain. To go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said—and I might not agree with everything he said—it is an effort that we should all be making on a 24-hour basis. Furthermore, what are the Government doing about the 9% of children who do not have technology at home so they can take advantage of remote learning?

As I said in a previous answer, we have bought more than 1 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged people, which are being distributed. By the end of the week we will have delivered 750,000 devices. We are also working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for educational sites and have been delivering 4G routers to families who need access to the internet. Of course, the BBC has also announced that it will deliver 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household, which is also very welcome.

I remind my noble friend and this House that major elections involving millions of people have actually successfully taken place in Georgia this week, and by-elections have taken place in Scotland. Given the rollout of the vaccine, could my noble friend please reconfirm that elections will take place here on 6 May? As with other aspects of government, will that be reviewed in mid-February and stuck to? At the same time, could the request be made to all parties that they desist from delivering literature until the end of March?

As my noble friend will know, primary legislation provides that local elections take place in May. The Cabinet Office is working with election administrators and public health bodies to make sure that everyone can cast their vote safety and securely. I am sure that the whole House would like to thank those authorities for the work they are undertaking to make sure that elections can go ahead in a Covid-secure way.

My Lords, do the Government anticipate approving a programme of digitalisation of all vaccination records when passporting of such becomes a necessary fact of life? Will that include those from abroad, and in a way that counters fraud, which I am informed occasionally happens with PCR test results? In so saying, will the Government consider an immediate mandatory pre-boarding PCR test within 72 hours of travel to avoid the need for self-isolation on arrival, while somehow making provision for in-transit passengers?

We will be, and we are, looking at additional measures for international travel. Pre-departure testing is an option that we are considering for an extra layer of protection, which would be in addition to our mandatory 10-day self-isolation period for countries not on the travel corridor or the test and release scheme. Work is going on in the DfT and an announcement on decisions around that will be made in the coming days.

My Lords, could the noble Baroness come back to the issue of community pharmacists? They have huge experience of flu vaccination, are used to opening all hours and are very accessible, yet the Government and NHS seem very reluctant to use them in the vaccination programme. Is that being reviewed?

As I said, as supply becomes more available, community pharmacies will be involved in the programme as we roll things out, so conversations are certainly ongoing.

My Lords, I welcome the additional financial support for businesses and communities announced by the Government this week. I highlight in particular the extra £729 million that will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Does my noble friend agree with me that that further underlines the value of our union and the fact that, during and beyond this pandemic, we are stronger, safer and better off together?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. He is absolutely right about the £729 million that we have provided to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, as we have already discussed, the vaccination programme is a UK-wide effort, and we will all be working together for a common aim within our union.

My Lords, the Government have given commitments regarding rolling out the vaccination programme in England. Is the noble Baroness aware that the Government of Wales have been unable to give such a firm timescale because of uncertainty about time scheduling and the quantity of vaccine available to them, which is provided by the NHS in England? Can she ensure urgent transparency concerning an adequate supply of this vaccine for the Welsh Government?

I think all the devolved Administrations are working closely with central government. As I mentioned in response to a previous question, we are allocating vaccine doses based on the business-as-usual Barnett formula, and more than 1.3 million people across the UK have already received the first dose of the vaccine. Of course, we will continue to work closely together because we want to ensure that the programme is rolled out across all four nations so we can all benefit from it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness may well be aware that in Brighton and Hove the council made the decision to close nurseries under its control, except to vulnerable children and those of key workers. Councillor Hannah Clare of Brighton and Hove Council has written to the Education Department to say that it believes that the same data and science that led to school closures applies also to the early years sector. I note that the Early Years Alliance says that many nurseries are closing voluntarily to protect the staff, the families and their communities. Will the noble Baroness tell us how the science differs between primary schools and nurseries, and whether the Government will provide financial support to nurseries making this decision in the interests of their communities?

What I can say to the noble Baroness is that within schools, vulnerable children and those of key workers can still attend, and we intend that early years settings remain open.

The rollout of the vaccines means that many people will shortly have had two jabs, which in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, at least, confers over 90% immunity against catching Covid-19 and also against transmitting it. Are such people still forbidden from seeing their children and grandchildren or from using public transport?

As I mentioned in a previous answer, those who have been vaccinated still need to follow the rules, as the challenge we currently face is that we do not yet know how the vaccine impacts on transmissibility. As I mentioned, PHE is assessing the effectiveness of the vaccine in protecting against a range of outcomes, and the issues that the noble Baroness raises will be among those considered. We do not yet have the data to say to people anything other than what I have just said, which is, I am afraid, that if you have been vaccinated you need to stick by the rules.

Sitting suspended.