The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 27 January.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the Government’s measures to safeguard our United Kingdom against the new variants of Covid until we have administered enough vaccinations to free ourselves from the virus.
I am acutely conscious that at this moment parents are balancing the demands of working from home with supporting the education of their children, businesspeople are enduring the sight of their shops or restaurants or other enterprises standing empty and idle, and, sadly, too many are coping with the anxiety of illness or the tragedy of bereavement.
I am deeply sorry to say that the number of people that have been taken from us has surpassed 100,000, as the House was discussing only an hour or so ago. I know that the House will join me in offering condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. The most important thing we can do to honour their memory is to persevere against this virus with ever greater resolve.
That is why we have launched the biggest vaccination programme in British history. Three weeks ago, I reported that the UK had immunised 1.3 million people; now that figure has multiplied more than fivefold to exceed 6.8 million people—more than any other country in Europe and over 13% of the entire adult population. In England we have now delivered first doses to over four-fifths of those aged 80 or over, over half of those aged between 75 and 79, and three-quarters of elderly care home residents. Though it remains an exacting target, we are on track to achieve our goal of offering a first dose to everyone in the top four priority groups by the middle of February.
I can also reassure the House that all current evidence shows that both the vaccines we are administering remain effective against the new variant that was first identified in London and the south-east, by means of our world-leading capability in genomic sequencing. The UK has now sequenced over half of all Covid-19 viral genomes that have been submitted to the global database—10 times more than any other country. Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Health Secretary announced our new variant assessment platform, through which we will work with the World Health Organization to offer our expertise to help other countries, because a new variant anywhere poses a potential threat everywhere.
To guard against this danger, we must also take additional steps to strengthen our borders to stop those strains from entering the UK. We have already temporarily closed all travel corridors, and we are already requiring anyone coming to this country to have proof of a negative Covid test taken in the 72 hours before leaving. They must also complete a passenger locator form which must be checked before they board, and then quarantine on arrival for 10 days. I want to make it clear that under the stay-at-home regulations, it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes. We will enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel.
We have also banned all travel from 22 countries where there is a risk of known variants, including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations. In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in government-provided accommodation such as hotels for 10 days, without exception. They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine. The Department of Health and Social Care is working to establish these facilities as quickly as possible. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will set out the details of our plans in her statement shortly. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and of Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and, as we have throughout this pandemic, we will be working closely with the devolved Administrations to implement these new measures so that, where possible, we continue with a UK-wide approach.
It was the emergence of a new variant that is up to 70% more transmissible that forced England back into lockdown, and I know that everyone yearns to know how much longer they must endure these restrictions, with all their consequences for jobs and livelihoods and, most tragically of all, for the life chances of our children. We will not persist for a day longer than is necessary, but nor can we relax too soon, because if we do, we run the risk of our NHS coming under still greater pressure, compelling us to reimpose every restriction and sustain those restrictions for longer.
So far, our efforts do appear to have reduced the R rate, but we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy. At this point, we do not have enough data to judge the full effect of vaccines in blocking transmission, nor the extent and speed with which the vaccines will reduce hospitalisations and deaths, nor how quickly the combination of vaccinations and the lockdown can be expected to ease the pressure on the NHS.
What we do know is that we remain in a perilous situation, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid, almost double the peak of the first wave, but the overall picture should be clearer by mid-February. By then, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, using data from the UK but also other nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections. We will also know how many people are still in hospital with Covid, which we simply cannot predict with certainty today. We will then be in a better position to chart a course out of lockdown without risking a further surge that would overwhelm the NHS.
When I announced the lockdown, I said that we would review its measures in mid-February, once the most vulnerable had been offered the first dose of the vaccine, so I can tell the House that when Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, subject to the full agreement of the House, we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown. That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, on the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.
Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way, guided by the principles we have observed throughout the pandemic and beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms. I know how parents and teachers need as much certainty as possible, including two weeks’ notice of the return of face-to-face teaching. I must inform the House that, for the reasons I have outlined, it will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half-term. I know how frustrating that will be for pupils and teachers, who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom, and for parents and carers who have spent so many months juggling their day jobs not only with home schooling but with meeting the myriad other demands of their children from breakfast until bedtime.
I know, too, the worries we all share about the mental health of our young people during this prolonged period of being stuck at home, so our plan for leaving the lockdown will set out our approach towards re-opening schools. If we achieve our target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by 15 February—and every passing day sees more progress towards that goal—those groups will have developed immunity from the virus by about three weeks later, that is by 8 March. We hope it will therefore be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter, as and when the data permits.
As we are extending the period of remote learning beyond the middle of February, I can confirm that the Government will prolong arrangements for providing free school meals for those eligible children not in school, including food parcels and the national voucher scheme, until they have returned to the classroom. We can also commit now that, as we did this financial year, we will provide a programme of catch-up over the next financial year. This will involve a further £300 million of new money to schools for tutoring, and we will work in collaboration with the education sector to develop, as appropriate, specific initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium to support catch-up. But we recognise that these extended school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning, which will take more than a year to make up, so we will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this Parliament.
I know that the measures I am setting out today will be deeply frustrating to many honourable friends and colleagues, and disappointing for all of us. But the way forward has been clear ever since the vaccines arrived, and as we inoculate more people hour by hour, this is the time to hold our nerve in the end game of the battle against the virus. Our goal now must be to buy the extra weeks we need to immunise the most vulnerable and get this virus under control, so that together we can defeat this most wretched disease and reclaim our lives, once and for all. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I always think that it is shame that we are not able to hear the Statements in the House first.
When I heard the Prime Minister’s Statement, I was struck by how quickly it moved on from reflecting on how we have got to this point straight to vaccinations and quarantine. Obviously, the focus must be on the future, but surely at every stage we need to reflect on what has gone before—both on the successes and on what we would do differently.
More than 100,000 people across the UK have died. That figure is chilling. Each death has been mourned, often in shock and despair. In the 11 weeks since 11 November, the number of deaths has been higher than in the previous eight months. So when the Prime Minister says that the most important thing that we can do to honour their memory is to persevere against the virus with even greater resolve, he is only partly right. It is the absolute minimum that we must do.
We agree that we must use the expertise, energy and commitment of every agency and resource of government to ensure that our lives can start to return to normal as soon as possible. But there are two other ways in which we must respect the memories of those who have died: first, by recognising and learning the lessons of past mistakes and, secondly, by preparing for the post-Covid economy and the society of the future.
Such a worldwide crisis is unprecedented. The scale and severity of the pandemic would be challenging for any Government. Britain is the first country in Europe to suffer 100,000 deaths, with one of the highest death rates in the world. Add to that the deepest recession of any major economy and the lowest growth, and we are on course for one of the slowest recoveries of any developed nation. We recognise that the Prime Minister is trying to manage competing pressures from those who want to put health first and those calling for restrictions to be lifted early because of the economic impact. However, as we have said so many times, these are not competing issues; it is impossible to have a healthy economy without a healthy population and we will not emerge from the economic crisis with a further hokey-cokey approach to lockdown, where we start too late, stop too early and then start all over again.
With so many across the UK struggling mentally, physically and economically, Boris Johnson should reflect on his reaction to those who raise questions and concerns, or offer advice. Early last month, Keir Starmer questioned the Prime Minister on whether the Government’s four-day window for lifting restrictions over the festive period was appropriate, with the R rate rising. In response, the Prime Minister shouted that Labour wanted to cancel Christmas, before bowing to the inevitable a few days later. Again, last month, when schools in some London boroughs sought to stop transmission by closing early, they were threatened with legal action—by a Government that then took that same course of action. The Prime Minister has never properly addressed the times when he has been too slow to accept the advice from SAGE. Even if it is a different viewpoint, which does not chime with his position at that time, Mr Johnson should consider the merits of the suggestions and comments put to him. We want, and we need, the Government to get this right. It is no exaggeration to say that lives, and livelihoods, depend on it.
The way out of this nightmare has now been provided by amazing scientists, our National Health Service, the Armed Forces, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The vaccine programme is making incredible progress—a truly national, and an unprecedented, effort. The Government are of course right to focus on the rollout. There will be problems and glitches, so transparency and clarity are critical to success, and I have three questions for the Minister on that point. Can she tell us how the Government are ensuring the even distribution of vaccines around the country? How are they working with local government and other public bodies to ensure efficient targeting and take-up, particularly in the priority groups? Can she also tell us how quickly, when best practice is identified, it is communicated elsewhere?
Reports today that cases are falling, but not fast enough to ease the pressures on the NHS, bring home just how important it is that the test and trace scheme is effective. At a cost of £22 billion and rising, we were promised a world-beating system, and we desperately need it to succeed. I still think it would be helpful to your Lordships’ House if the Government permitted the Minister’s colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, to answer questions in the House on test and trace. In her absence, I ask the Minister: given the failures of test and trace in the autumn, what lessons have been learned since?
The Minister will be aware, as I am, of the changes to counting methodology. An individual who tested positive, having come into contact with others, four of whom then tested positive, would previously have been counted as one identified contact, because that person was the contact who passed the disease on. Under the new counting rules, that individual will now be counted as four identified contacts. I do not understand the reasons for that. The figures may look better, but no additional people will have been contacted. Even the Government have admitted that this change will result in duplicate counting. Can she explain why the counting is being changed but the process is not? The Government have confessed to spending almost £1 million a day on private consultants for test and trace. Is this really the best they can come up with?
We desperately want schools to be safe, and we agree that this is complex. We will look at the details of the Education Secretary’s plans for the Covid support premium, including how it will be allocated to help children catch up on missed education. Can the Minister tell me how the Government are dealing with gaps in online provision? On the previous Statement, I asked her how many children still did not have adequate access; she replied about how many people did have access. Yes, I agree that that is impressive, but the immediate priority is those who do not. Can she answer that same question today, or write to me with the number, and about immediate plans?
The Prime Minister has suggested that some schools might return in early March. Can the Minister therefore comment on Labour’s proposal—echoed, incidentally, by both the Children’s Commissioner and the Conservative Chair of the Commons Education Committee, Robert Halfon—to use the window of the February half-term to vaccinate school staff and other key workers? With the weekends either side, there will be a clear 11 days in which that could be done. We must appreciate that, if it were done, it would have an impact on the initial plans for a rollout. This is part of my point about clarity and transparency. Ensuring that everyone knows and understands how, when and why the vaccine is being rolled out will reassure, and assist with public confidence.
Finally, we know very little about how the Government’s quarantine plans will work in practice, including who will be responsible for enforcing them and how. I listened to the Home Secretary’s Statement, and I have to say that it provided more questions than answers. So I have two questions for the Minister today. Given reports that only three in every 100 people quarantining are contacted, how is that figure being increased, and what agreements have been reached with the hotels that will be accommodating those quarantined? I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness’s answers, and I trust that, where she does not have full details, she will write.
My Lords, this Statement marks the most sombre milestone. One hundred thousand deaths is an horrific figure. Our hearts go out to the families of all those who have died and to all those who are currently suffering from the disease, either at home or in hospital. We must also pay tribute again to the staff in the NHS and in care homes, who are fighting the battle against Covid on a daily basis, often under the most extreme pressure.
On Monday, in announcing the 100,000 figure, the Prime Minister said that the Government “did everything we could”, since the pandemic struck, to minimise its impact. This simply is not true. Among the many things the Prime Minister chose not to do was to take SAGE’s advice, on 21 September, for a circuit-breaker of restrictions. Instead, he did nothing for three weeks and then introduced a watered-down version of what SAGE had recommended. Many people died as a result. I know it is a big ask, but I ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to suggest to the Prime Minister that he would have more credibility in the future if he stopped misrepresenting his actions in the past.
I have not, until now, been a huge fan of the immediate initiation of an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic because I thought that all our efforts should now be going into fighting it. However, as the Government clearly do not believe that they have made any mistakes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I can now see no other way in which a light can be shone on past failings to ensure that they are not repeated. When do the Government intend to make good on the Prime Minister’s commitment, some six months ago, that an inquiry should indeed be held?
Today’s Statement repeats some past mistakes. Most obviously, the restrictions on arrivals to the UK from 22 countries where there is a known variant of the disease are both too little and too late. The requirement to spend quarantine in a hotel is a good one; it has been extremely effective elsewhere—Australia, for example. But given the weakness of the policing of self-quarantining, it surely makes sense now for all arrivals in the UK to quarantine in a hotel. The measure is too little, and it is certainly too late. We should have been doing this months ago.
The Statement is understandably upbeat on the progress of the vaccination programme, and we congratulate all those who have worked so hard to develop the vaccine, and now to deliver it. But it is curiously silent on the other principal pillar of the fight against the virus—the track, trace and isolate system. That system may have become a bit more successful at tracking and tracing, but it remains very largely ineffective in persuading those who are asked to stay at home actually to do so.
The reason for that is undisputed. A large proportion of those affected simply cannot afford to take the time off work. The Government’s response so far, in terms of financial support, has been pathetically inadequate. We hear that arguments are still under way within government about what to do next. Given that they spent £22 billion on the track and trace system but peanuts on the isolate system, surely it is now time to introduce a system that makes up for people’s loss of earnings if it is to stand any chance of being successful. So when do the Government intend to announce a new compensation scheme that might actually work?
Looking forward to the easing of the lockdown, the Government say that nothing will happen for at least another six weeks. But they completely fail to set out the criteria against which they will make their decisions in mid-February. That failure has both practical and psychological costs: practical because nobody can begin to plan for the reopening, and psychological because all that people can see in front of them is a further long period of lockdown, with no clarity on the conditions that will allow its easing.
Why is it impossible to set thresholds of case numbers and hospital occupancy, above which restrictions will remain, but below which they might—not will, but might— be reduced? Why cannot the Government say in advance of mid-February how, and by what stages, the opening of schools and the economy as a whole will proceed? In that way, school leaders would be able to plan now for a resumption of normal classes and would not need a further two weeks while a decision was taken to open up. The idea that parents need two weeks’ notice for their children to go back to school is just nonsense; given the stress they are under, two days would be more than long enough.
Will the Government therefore bring forward the point at which they tell schools the basis on which they will reopen, whenever the actual reopening date proves to be? Will they equally signal to those businesses which are now unable to operate the triggers that will enable them to do so?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. Like them, my thoughts and sympathies are with every family that has tragically lost loved ones during this terrible pandemic.
The noble Baroness asked about working with local government. I assure her that we are working extremely closely with local government, and indeed many partners. This is a national endeavour, uniting local and national government, the NHS and many more. Over the past few months, we have recruited and trained a vaccination work force of 80,000, including retired clinicians, the Armed Forces, pharmacists and volunteers. Over 200,000 members of the public and businesses have offered non-clinical support and help with the logistics of the programme.
I can certainly assure both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we are doing everything we can to roll this programme out as smoothly as possible. We are sharing data to ensure that priority groups around the country are receiving their vaccines as quickly as possible. We have vaccinated over 80% of the over 80s, and 75% of elderly care home residents. Vaccinations are now being offered to everyone over the age of 70.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about an investigation or inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. As the Prime Minister has said, we will turn to that, but at the moment I hope he understands that we have other priorities that we are working on.
The noble Baroness once again rightly asked about schools. We have bought 1.3 million devices and delivered over 870,000 to schools in England so far during the pandemic. We bought an additional 300,000 laptops and tablets this year, increasing our investment by another £100 million. We have spent over £400 million supporting disadvantaged children who need help with access to technology. I fully recognise that there are people who will fall, and currently are still falling, through the gaps, but we are working closely with our school partners around the country to try to make sure that all families and all children have access to the technology that they need.
The noble Baroness asked about vaccine prioritisation. It is an issue that many have rightly raised. I reiterate that the JCVI advises that the immediate priority for the vaccination programme should be to prevent deaths and protect healthcare staff, with old age deemed the biggest single factor determining mortality. That is why we are following the advice of the independent body. The top four priority groups account for 88% of Covid deaths.
I say to the noble Baroness that the ONS has looked at rates of death involving Covid in men and women who work as teaching and education professionals. They were not statistically significant when compared to the rates seen in the population among those of the same age and sex. I know that sounds slightly bureaucratic, but we are looking at the data and have taken advice from the JCVI. There is a reason for the prioritisation, although I entirely accept that there are many groups who would like to have the vaccine as soon as possible. That is why we are rolling out the programme as we are.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the international travel situation, as announced by the Home Secretary yesterday. The noble Baroness asked a number of questions. There will be further information and details set out next week, so I am afraid that I am not able to provide any additional information than that provided yesterday. But we will introduce a new managed isolation process in hotels for those who cannot be refused entry, including those arriving home from countries where an international travel ban has already been imposed. Further details about this policy will come next week—we are working as quickly as possible across government and industry to bring these measures in.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about test and trace. We have contacted over 7 million people who may otherwise have spread the virus through the system, and we have reached 86.7% of those testing positive, so the system continues to work and improve.
The noble Lord asked about support for those self-isolating. As he will be well aware, there is a one-off £500 test and trace support payment, which helps those on low incomes who are self-isolating, and we have extended that until the end of March. In total, more than 4 million people could be eligible to receive this support payment. In addition to that, accepting that not everyone is covered by it, we have provided £25 million funding to local authorities to make discretionary payments to those facing financial hardship who are not eligible for the £500 scheme. We have also made statutory sick pay available from day one, while making emergency changes to reimburse small and medium-sized businesses with two weeks of sick pay per employee. Of course, we continue to support the lowest paid with a temporary universal credit uplift worth £1,000.
The noble Lord asked about our future plans. The reason why the Prime Minister set out the end of February as when we will return with a plan is that at this point we do not yet have the data on the impact of the vaccine rollout on case rates, hospitalisations and deaths, which will be vital in determining the timeline to releasing the measures. By mid-February, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisation and deaths, using data from both the UK and nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections and we will know how many people are still in hospital with Covid. We intend to look at all that data and information and will set out the results of that and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown when we announce that on the week of 22 February.
Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing restrictions in a sustainable way, beginning as we have said with the reopening of schools, which is our national priority. We hope to commence the reopening of schools from 8 March with other economic and social restrictions being removed after that.
We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, I draw attention to the relevant interest in the register, which I have declared. I welcome the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday and, in particular, the remarkable rollout of the vaccine which has, rightly, impressed so many. Would my noble friend accept, however, that, despite fully recognising what she said about the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—and of course we all accept the view that the most vulnerable people should be vaccinated first—there are particular claims from groups of people for priority for the vaccine that we should listen to? In particular, the police—although I accept there are many others—are on the front line, very often putting their own lives at risk. A view has been expressed by the Police Federation and others that the police service and in particular front-line officers should be recognised when it comes to decisions about who should be vaccinated next. Can my noble friend take that view to the relevant authorities?
I am grateful to my noble friend for setting out an eloquent case for the police, as indeed many others do for teachers and many of the other keyworkers who we have been so relying on, and we are so grateful for all their help and work during the pandemic. As he alluded to, I set out the fact that we are following the advice from the JCVI, and I am sure that it hears the strong cases that people put forward. I reassure my noble friend that the JCVI has considered evidence on the risk of exposure and mortality by occupation. Under the priority group’s advice, those over 50 years of age and all adults in a risk group would be eligible for a vaccination in the first phase of the programme. This prioritisation catches almost all preventable deaths from Covid, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, Public Health England has reported that people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die of Covid, and those under the age of 35 with learning disabilities, 30 times more likely. They are at greater risk of transmission via peripatetic care staff and less likely to be able to understand and follow guidance on hand hygiene, social distancing and masks. Despite this, they are not recognised in the vaccination list; currently, they are in the sixth tier. Given that the Secretary of State has now accepted that he was not required to accept the JCVI advice on prioritisation, will the Government act swiftly to address this and give priority access to individuals with learning disabilities on an equal basis with other highly clinically vulnerable individuals?
The noble Baroness makes an eloquent case, but I have set out where we are with prioritisation. As we have said, the JCVI’s advice is clear that we should initially focus our efforts on those in care homes, health and social care workers, the elderly and the extremely vulnerable.
My Lords, the position for young people in school and education is mixed, with some students in poorer areas still not having access to online education and those in remote rural areas with not-spots simply not able to get online. Could the noble Baroness comment on the priority of trying to ensure that we move much more rapidly on the provision of broadband, particularly in those difficult areas? Secondly, we are going to have to do a big catch-up on educational standards and achievements, but it is important, at the same time, to look holistically at the spiritual, emotional and psychological work we are going to have to do with our young people. What plans are being made by Her Majesty’s Government?
The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. While we are putting in support to help now, we recognise that the long-term damage caused by this extensive period in which young people and children have not been able to go to school is clear and significant. We have set out that we will work with parents, teachers, schools and colleges, and, I am sure, wider community representatives, to develop a longer-term plan to make sure that pupils have a chance to make up their learning over the course of the Parliament. While we of course have short-term schemes to attempt to address issues now—for instance, partnering with the UK’s leading mobile network operators to guarantee internet access and providing free data to key educational websites for disadvantaged families—there is a much longer-term issue that we want to address, and we will be doing that in partnership.
My Lords, the Prime Minister’s claim that the Government have done everything they could to minimise death and suffering during the pandemic has, tragically, been contradicted by the shameful figure of 100,000 deaths. The BAME community has suffered disproportionately. I have two questions for the noble Baroness. First, can she tell me what the take-up of the vaccine is among BAME communities? Secondly, what are the Government doing, with whom and to what effect, to maximise take-up? We are one of the richest countries in the world and we have one of the best health services; we should not have failed our poorest communities in the way we have.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We are still in the early days of collecting vaccination data, but the early data we have confirms that we need to work hard to make sure we get the vaccine take-up that we need. We will be looking to improve the data that we publish, although we are doing a lot already, to make sure we are aware of the issues she raises. I reassure her that we are cognisant of the need to encourage BAME communities. That is why, for instance, patient leaflets have been published in around 20 languages, as well in easy read and British Sign Language, and as audio advice. We are doing targeted advertising in 13 languages and holding regular meetings with local authorities and local faith leaders to encourage take-up. I do not know whether noble Lords have seen it, but there is an excellent video on social media with BAME MPs from across the House of Commons, highlighting the importance of taking the vaccine. These cross-party, cross-community initiatives are what we need to ensure that all our communities take up the vaccine.
My Lords, countries that have managed this public health crisis best, with fewest deaths, least damage to their economies and young people being kept in education, have adopted “elimination of the virus” lockdown strategies. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House inform the House whether the lockdown exit plan criteria will be predicated on achieving elimination or suppression in the next phase of government policy for dealing with the virus?
As I said, we will be looking at all important data, which we will be publishing and reviewing so that we can then set out a strategy for leaving the lockdown. Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing restrictions in a sustainable way. A sustainable way is critical, beginning, as I said, with the reopening of schools, which is our priority.
My Lords, when the Prime Minister says in his Statement that the UK has more than enough vaccines for this year, does he mean that we have sufficient vaccines on order or sufficient vaccines accessible to the NHS and the vaccines rollout programme? If we have only sufficient vaccines on order, and in view of the EU conflict and in particular the threat of the German Government to block exports of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK, can the noble Baroness guarantee that the most vulnerable groups will still have access to their second vaccinations within 12 weeks, as promised, and that the rollout of our first vaccinations can continue as planned?
I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that we have total confidence in our supplies. We remain in close contact with all suppliers, and scheduled deliveries will fully support vaccination of our top four priority groups by mid-February, as intended. I can also confirm that individuals will receive their second dose, as it does provide better, long-lasting protection, as we planned.
My Lords, this is not a time to play the blame game, and as my noble friend recognised in her opening words, it is a time to strive for national unity. To this end, would she not agree that all information on the pandemic should be shared on Privy Council terms with all opposition leaders, and that Sir Keir Starmer should be invited to meet the Prime Minister every week, both before and after Prime Minister’s Questions? That affair does not help to cement national unity.
I think the engagement between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition is for them. I have been extremely heartened by the unity your Lordships have shown in presenting the importance of the vaccination programme and in raising important issues in the House during this. It is in that spirit that we will continue to work.
I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. Lord Morris? I will move on. I call the noble Lord, Lord Storey
My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree to publish the written advice from NHS England and the Chief Medical and Scientific Officers that led to the letters issued by the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution to political parties and MPs about campaigning in the local elections? Will she request a statement from the Government’s law officers confirming the precise legal status of this advice? Could the noble Baroness tell the House whether this is her advice, the Government’s view, or part of the legally enforceable Covid regulations?
My Lords, clinically extremely vulnerable shielding patients below the age of 70 who receive some private healthcare are not being given any priority to receive the vaccine, despite their critical condition. They are told by despondent clinicians and their NHS-registered GP surgeries that they must wait in the queue for their age category. I am sure there is no intention to discriminate against these incredibly ill patients. Could my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal ask the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to address this critical issue as a matter of urgency?
Many noble Lords’ contributions have shown how difficult this issue is. So many groups and individuals rightly have a claim to prioritisation of the vaccine, which is why we have been following the advice of the JCVI, which has taken all these issues into account and come up with its prioritisation list. Most importantly, that is why we are rolling out our vaccination programme as quickly and effectively as we can, so that we can reach the largest number of people as quickly as possible during this endeavour.
My Lords, the Covid-19 pandemic has so far taken the lives of over 100,000 people. Businesses small and large have collapsed or are on their knees, 800,000 fewer people are in employment, and millions more remain furloughed. Would the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree that the Government should have used the experience of other countries to improve its approach, to save lives while protecting the economy?
We have in fact put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive economic packages in response to the pandemic, spending over £280 billion on support so far. That is absolutely not to diminish the situation that many people have found themselves in, or to question the hardship that many have faced, but we have put an extremely generous package in place. We have continued to review and refine it as and when it has been necessary. I also remind the noble Lord that we have protected more than 12 million jobs through the furlough and self-employment schemes, both of which have been extended until April.
My Lords, the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, showed that we currently suffer from an immature system of national leadership. I spoke earlier today with a year 8 pupil. She wants to get back to school. She said she did not feel that schools would be safe at present, and that she wants a staggered return, announced as soon as possible after 8 March. She also thought that support for the staff to be vaccinated was a good idea. Is she being sensible?
She sounds like an extremely sensible young lady to me. I hope that the noble Lord reassured her that the issue we face with school closures is not that schools are unsafe for pupils or teachers. The problem is that the new variant is so pervasive that we need to use every lever at our disposal to reduce all contacts outside households, wherever possible, to reduce the pressure on the NHS. I am sure she will be aware that her teachers will, I have no doubt, have implemented a lot of protective measures to ensure that children who can still attend school are safe. Perhaps he might also like to let the young lady know that we are offering biweekly asymptomatic testing for all secondary school and primary school staff. Over 90% of secondary schools and colleges have now registered for this testing.
My Lords, we can probably all agree that sending pupils back to school on the Monday and keeping them home from Tuesday was not a wonderful situation to put schools, pupils and families in. The Government are clearly trying to give some indication of a timescale well ahead this time, which is welcome, but as a single parent of three boys, who are here at home with me now, it is evidently the case that parents and schools need good notice. There also needs to be some understanding of the pressures on parents. What does a phased return mean? Will it mean one child stays at home while a parent drives the other to school? How will it be managed? Is it regional? The more notice that can be given, the more arrangements can be made at school and at home to make this work. I hope the Government will continue to work to give the earliest possible indication of how schools will be brought back to functioning.
The noble Lord speaks on behalf of parents throughout the country. He is absolutely right that, when we do start to re-open schools, we want to ensure that will be sustainable. That is why we have taken the difficult decision, in the light of the current data and the current situation, to say that we will not be able to open school immediately after the February half term. He will also know that we have promised to give at least two weeks’ notice to schools, colleges and universities of when they can return to face-to-face teaching to do exactly as he says: to allow student, staff and parents to prepare.
My Lord, I really must press the Minister to reconsider her scant response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on the pressing need of those with learning difficulties. Does she not understand the desperate challenges facing these people’s families and carers? I beseech her to think again and, in doing so, I declare my interest—[Inaudible.]
I entirely understand the points that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness made. I am sorry if he felt that I had not responded properly, but I have reiterated in answer to a number of noble Lords that many individuals and groups throughout the country would love to get a vaccine, and quickly. All I was trying to do was to explain that we are following the independent JCVI advice. I hope that I have set out the reasons for that, albeit while entirely acknowledging that many noble Lords feel that there are other very worthy groups, which I would not question.
My Lords, I had wanted to speak from personal experience, since, as someone aged over 80, I have been very satisfied: I have been given both of the injections and I think well of them. However, I will ask the Minister about the plans to impose hotel quarantine on travellers from 12 countries with new Covid variants. As an Australian, I know that Australia has been using this system for quite a long time. It has a high profile at the moment because the Australian Open tennis players are in hotel quarantine. How can we be certain that travellers will not seek to hide their country of travel origin by routing through other countries to avoid restrictions and costs? In addition, how effective is it to ask all other travellers to quarantine for 10 days after arriving when my noble friend Lady Harding tells us that track and trace reports that only 60% of people isolate when asked to do so? Should all travellers be made to quarantine in hotels?
People from any country have to fill out a passenger locator form, on which they have to declare which countries they have previously visited. Any traveller coming into the country would have to fill that out, so we will know who has visited the red countries, even if that was not the immediate place they travelled in from. We can therefore make sure that they go to a hotel. I am sure that my noble friend would be interested to know that failing to provide information accurately on a passenger locator form is an offense and can lead to a £500 fine. As I said in my opening remarks, more details about how this scheme will work will be set out next week.
My Lords, Covid is rampaging through our hospitals, but some eligible in-patients are not receiving the vaccination. That ensures that infection continues to rise in some hospitals. It also seems that the latest strain is behaving differently in relation to unborn babies. In the early stages of this virus, pregnant women might contract the virus, but their babies did not. This time it seems that the babies, too, are at risk. Could the Minister answer two questions? First, what is the policy on vaccinating elderly and vulnerable patients in hospital for other reasons? Secondly, when will the Government consider reversing the policy on vaccinating pregnant women, which was arrived at before this strain arrived?
I can assure my noble friend that new data around the impact of the new strain is being continually looked at and a lot of work is going on to survey and understand the new variants. That will feed into any advice or information, or decisions made. I can only reiterate to my noble friend what I said in answer to a number of noble Lords: we are following the advice of independent experts on which groups to prioritise for vaccines. The advice has been clear: we should focus our initial efforts on those in care homes, health and care workers, the elderly and the extremely vulnerable. I reiterate again that these top four priority groups have accounted for 88% of Covid deaths.
My Lords, I will follow on from the question of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. We know from the Office for National Statistics that only half of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income of more than £40,000. How will the Government ensure that the £300 million of catch-up and tutoring money will be targeted in areas where there are high levels of digital poverty and will go directly towards the pupils who have suffered disproportionately because of deprivation the high rates of infection and isolation that have kept them off school?
I can reassure the noble Baroness that we will be targeting this money towards the very pupils she talks about. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that we will provide a further £300 million for tutoring. We will work in collaboration with the education sector to develop specific initiatives for summer schools and a Covid premium to support catch-up in exactly the way she said.
I refer back to the longer-term plan I mentioned. We understand that, while help is needed immediately, this situation is not going to be fixed quickly. Our pupils have lost a lot of time by being out of school and we want a longer-term plan, looking across the Parliament at how we can make sure we help pupils across the country to catch up as they have lost so much over the past few months.
Throughout the Covid pandemic, the Government have supported the bus and rail industries. There are long outstanding appraisals of both industries, a national bus strategy and a White Paper on railway reform. As both are key components in combating climate change, can the Leader of the House please inform the House of when the publication of these documents may be expected?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and the Government on the vaccination programme and for sticking to the advice of the JBC. It is vital for people to have confidence in the integrity of the vaccination programme. Does my noble friend share my concern about the South African mutation? If this was a seasonal variation, it would respond to the heat and climate of South Africa at this time of year, so it is deeply disturbing. What research is going into this variation at this time to ensure that it can be defeated and managed at the earliest opportunity?
I assure my noble friend that much work is going on in our scientific community to analyse the new variants. As she will know, the UK has one of the most extensive genomic sequencing capabilities in the world. We have offered a new variant assessment platform to work with the WHO to offer our expertise in genomic sequencing to other countries. Indeed, we have sequenced over half of all viral Covid genomes that have been submitted to the global database. I assure her that we are at the forefront of work on these variants.
The one thing that I hope will give her some comfort is that all the current evidence continues to show that both vaccines we are currently using remain effective against both UK and South African variants. Moderna has said that it expects its vaccine to protect against the South African variant as well. It has also said that the reduction in antibody levels suggests that immunity could wane more rapidly, so Moderna is having a further look at its vaccine. That shows how much work is going on, both within the companies developing vaccines and more broadly, to make sure we stay ahead of these new variants.
I will follow on from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Newby. Perhaps the greatest area of government failure, although there is tragically lots of competition, is the failure to provide sufficient support to the infected and exposed who cannot self-isolate. Given that the Government are finally looking to set up quarantine hotels for overseas arrivals, will they consider a similar programme for those such as families forced into over- crowded accommodation by the bedroom tax, who cannot self-isolate in their current accommodation?
My Lords, while congratulating the Government on their amazing achievement in rolling out the vaccine so rapidly, I urge the Minister to do all she can to ensure that the new mass vaccination centres do not operate to the detriment of traditional GP practices. Their patients’ needs are the same as everyone else’s and they frequently live in remote rural areas.
I can certainly—[Inaudible.] Sorry, I seem to be having a battle with my unmute button. I can certainly assure my noble friend that that will not be the case. I hope I can assure him that more than 2,000 vaccination sites are now set up and 96% of the population in England live within 10 miles of a vaccination site. We are incredibly grateful to the GP surgeries, pharmacies and everyone helping to roll out the programme. I would like to mention, as the noble Lord did, the mass vaccination sites. They are operating from 8 am to 8 pm, but across our communities we have lots of ways in which people can access the vaccination. They can do so in the way most appropriate and easiest for them.