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Covid-19: Restrictions

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 7 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the success of the restrictions introduced to address the Covid-19 pandemic in reducing the transmission of Covid-19 between 1 July and 31 December 2020.

My Lords, the science of virus transmission is very simple: tiny bugs spread by contact and by breath. Lockdowns work because they put space between people, but there are costs—horrible costs. That is why each day we publish gigabytes of data on infection rates, we analyse the patterns and we design lockdowns to have the maximum impact for the lowest economic and social cost.

My Lords, yes, but: in the last few months we have seen ever more stringent restrictions—tiers 3 and 4, the failed circuit breaker in Wales, a second lockdown which ended only just over a month ago, and now a third lockdown—yet cases keep rising. The Prime Minister said on “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday that the evidence is not clear. We all want to see policy based on empirical evidence, so please, can the Minister go back to the department and instigate a detailed examination of why these hugely damaging restrictions have not seen a reduction in infections, hospitalisations and deaths?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that sage advice. I can reassure him that lockdowns do work—in Leicester, Bolton, Luton, Liverpool—and I can give him very clear case studies of how specific measures have affected national, regional and local outbreak infection rates. The truth is that tier 3 was enough for the original variant, but it is not enough for the new variant, which is 70% more transmittable. That has hit our country hard, which is why we have to have this new, horrible lockdown.

My Lords, the figures surely show that this pandemic is now endemic in our population. Clearly, lockdowns cannot permanently suppress the virus but might just temporarily prevent medical facilities being overwhelmed. What are the Government doing to ensure that vaccination is rolled out 24/7, including by Public Health England, and skilled medical staff on Covid duties are relieved from all non-specialist aspects of their work by the many skilled and suitable volunteers who are offering to help?

My Lords, the noble Baroness analyses the situation extremely well and has laid out exactly the Government’s plan for rolling out the vaccine. She is entirely right that we are using lockdowns to bridge the gap until herd immunity is achieved through the vaccine. We have mobilised an enormous amount of the NHS, and are very grateful to the volunteers who have stepped up and are making an enormous difference. We are trying to get as much of the vaccine as possible out of the factories and warehouses, with batch control, and into the country’s surgeries and hospitals to vaccinate millions of people before the spring.

My Lords, a weak link in the measures to suppress the virus has been the small percentage of people not self-isolating when they should. This is often because they cannot afford to do so. Dozens of times my Lib Dem colleagues and I have asked the Government to provide adequate financial support for self-isolators. So I ask the Minister again: in order to suppress the virus, will the Government pay the wages of poor people who need to self-isolate?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the advocacy of the noble Baroness and her colleagues on this important point. I acknowledge the financial pressures on those of limited means who are required to isolate. We have put in provisions for statutory sick pay and the £500 Covid bonus to help to support those people, and there are local authority funds and provisions to provide additional support. The point that she makes is made well and we completely acknowledge the challenge.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my incredulity that those who are opposed to lockdowns continue to make their arguments, in spite of the fact that cases are obviously rising very fast, in spite of the advent of the new variant, which is more infectious, and in spite of the current very serious pressure that our hospitals are seeing? Is it not the case that, in the end, their arguments boil down to the callous suggestion that somehow elderly people who have pre-existing conditions but might nevertheless expect to live for many more years are expendable, when they are clearly not?

My noble friend puts it well. I always welcome the challenge of noble Lords on any subject whatever, but I agree that underlying many of the objections to lockdown appears to be an assumption that some lives matter less than others. Whether you are asthmatic, diabetic, infirm or just old, I think that your life is worth just as much as everybody else’s. That is why I am extremely proud of the national effort to work together to protect those who are less advantaged and to protect our health service.

My Lords, thousands of people who are currently extremely vulnerable are now in greater danger from a lack of protection against the virus. Our care workers are more likely to come into contact with coronavirus, and requests for testing have escalated. Therefore, can the Minister please tell me when I and countless others who employ personal assistants can expect them to be vaccinated? Our workforce is not currently prioritised in the same way as care home workers and registered agency carers.

My Lords, I do not know the precise nature or status of the care that the noble Baroness has, but it is true that care workers are massively prioritised, and those with pre-existing conditions are also prioritised. We cannot prioritise everyone at once. Those over 80 are at the top of the queue, but those who work with the vulnerable, those shielding and those with pre-existing conditions are also towards the top of the list. We are working as hard as we can to get vaccines to those people as soon as possible.

My Lords, on this second day of national lockdown, it is important to look to the future and make every effort to keep our families and fellow citizens safe. Given how close London’s hospitals are to being overwhelmed—within days—what are the short-term plans to alleviate this very urgent and serious challenge? I gather that the ExCel Nightingale hospital will be used either for in-patients or as a mass vaccination centre, or both. How soon will that happen?

The noble Baroness quite rightly pays tribute to the work of the NHS. An enormous amount has been done on the marginal expansion of ICUs. My local hospital, University College Hospital, has increased the number of beds from 19 to 52 by expanding the scope of the wards and the oxygen supply. We have put a huge amount of work into A&E units, often building out the front of the units to create more space. Those marginal differences are being extremely effective, and that is our first line of defence. The Nightingale hospitals are there as back-up and, if they are needed, we will bring them into play.

My Lords, perhaps I may break with convention and the advice I was given when I first entered Parliament and ask a question to which I do not already know the answer. Every week, the Government submit figures to EuroMOMO for deaths from all causes. During the spring, the figures showed a huge level of excess deaths over the normal, but currently, and in recent weeks right up to the end of last year, they show almost no excess over the normal level of deaths in this country. That conflicts with all the evidence we are seeing from hospitals and elsewhere. Can my noble friend reconcile the figures and the facts?

The CMO has given some guidance on this matter. He has made the observation that deaths from other flus are down, partly because of the social-distancing that is part of the lockdown. He has also pointed out the very sad, but I am afraid inevitable, possibility that the large amount of infection that has grown up in the last few weeks will in time lead to further deaths. This is an uncomfortable piece of speculation but, as sure as night follows day, I am afraid that infections and hospitalisations will lead to further deaths. We are running at nearly 1,000 a day at the moment and that number is set to increase.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register and point out that my remarks are personal. Compliance and transmission are interlinked, and transmission rates are hugely dependent on public compliance. So I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, that, although senior libertarian individuals and leaders point to the fact that individuals can make their own assessments of risk, that is not the case. Does the Minister agree that complying with the rules is a public duty that we owe one another and not a matter of choice?

The noble Baroness makes the point well. My observation is that the British public are extremely supportive of both the lockdown and the measures involved. Of course, we all see highly visible exceptions in our travels and when we work, but by and large the British public have massively complied with the measures without any severe form of compulsion, and for that I pay an enormous amount of tribute. In the first lockdown, we had to behave as though the person we saw near us might have the disease; the suggestion now is that we should behave as though we have the disease. It is that discipline that we all need to apply.

Sitting suspended.