Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, at the outset, I thank the massive cross-government and civic movement that has mobilised to fight the disease. It is not possible to name-check everyone, but I single out for thanks all those in the NHS, social care, volunteers, returned healthcare staff and the Army involved in the deployment of the vaccine. I thank scientists at universities and pharmaceutical companies and those running clinical trials for developing new vaccines, antivirals and all manner of therapies to combat the threat of mutant viruses. I thank all those in the Border Force, test and trace, the hospitality industry, Project Eagle and local authorities who have worked so hard in the last week to stand up new mechanisms for protecting the vaccine from variants of concern. Lastly, of course, I thank the general public for continuing to follow the lockdown rules. The attitude of the public remains resolute. I know there are exceptions, and I appreciate that there are huge sacrifices everywhere, but the actions everyone is taking now are doing a huge amount to protect your family and loved ones as well as the family and loved ones of others.
Our focus remains on the rollout of the vaccine, the development of a sure-fire system to battle any mutations, and an exit strategy from this awful pandemic. In the meantime, social restrictions are necessary while this occurs, so it is important that we bring forward this SI.
This SI makes a number of minor technical amendments to the all tiers regulations, which is necessary for legal coherency. It removes the provision for a linked Christmas household—the “Christmas bubble”—to prevent any scope for misinterpretation. It adds the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to the list of Acts governing permitted marriages, civil partnerships and conversions, so that we treat everyone equally under these restrictions no matter their sexual orientation. It allows cafés and canteens in all post-16 education and training settings to remain open. It inserts an exemption from the closure of sports facilities in tier 3 to allow for elite sports competition, which essentially ensures that elite sports competitions such as the Premier League are permitted. It clarifies that the exception to leave home to collect goods from businesses operating click and collect also applies to libraries. We know that libraries have been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, providing educational and IT support to those who need it, and this amendment will ensure that this keeps happening.
These regulations came into force on 20 January 2021, and we regret that we are only now debating them. However, they were simply technical amendments to existing law. They do not change policy which noble Lords have previously approved.
I thought it would be helpful to provide a short update of the situation we are currently in and our understanding of its impact. The general public recognise the importance of following social distancing rules to control the virus and protect the NHS, which is why the vast majority of people continue to follow the rules. An example of this is limiting social contact. The most recent ONS survey shows that only one in seven respondents reported meeting with someone that they do not live with or are not in a support bubble with outdoors. Some of these people will have met one other person for the purpose of exercise, which is allowed by the regulations. For those people who do not comply, we have a strategy. Police officers will engage, explain and encourage, and for those people who simply refuse to comply, we do enforce. We continue to review the tools available to police to take action and have introduced a new penalty for attending a gathering of more than 15 people in a private dwelling or educational premises, or as a rave.
I am cautiously delighted to be able to inform noble Lords that, as a result of the restrictions put in place and the efforts of the nation to follow the rules, we are now seeing the first signs of improvement. There has been a positive impact in reducing transmission of the virus, and as the Chief Medical Officer stated last week, we have passed the peak of the second wave. I said I was only cautiously delighted because, despite this being a very positive development, we still have more to do. The virus is still prevalent, with approximately 21,000 people testing positive for Covid across the UK each day last week and significant pressure still placed on the NHS.
We also still have approximately 29,000 Covid patients in UK hospitals as of 4 February. That number has been decreasing since the peak on 18 January 2021, when there were more than 39,000 Covid patients in hospitals. That said, the number is still far too high, much higher than the previous peak of just under 22,000, and this sustained pressure is coinciding with the period of greatest seasonal pressure on the NHS. As we know, any new measures take some time to take effect on our hospital numbers, so it is right that we remain cautious and continue, for now, with the restrictions.
This is clearly a challenging and worrying time for everyone. However, there is more good news. There is early evidence that the number of people testing positive has started to fall across England. As reported in the minutes from the SAGE meeting on 14 January 2021, we have indications that new infections are declining in those areas which have been in tier 4 for the longest. This indicates that it is likely that R can be brought down significantly during the lockdown, even with the presence of the new variant. It shows that our approach is working and that we are taking the necessary action to keep us all safe.
We intend to publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown on 22 February. That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme 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, easing restrictions in a sustainable way and beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. If we continue to make the progress that we want to see, and believe we can see, we hope to be able to begin to return to face-to-face education on 8 March. We will set out more detail in due course and will ensure that we give at least two weeks’ notice to allow students, staff and parents to prepare.
I again pay tribute to the wonderful staff of our NHS and social care sector, who are working tirelessly to protect the vulnerable and save lives. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
First, perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. On Thursday 4 February, I asked about antiviral drugs: Synairgen’s compound SNG001, an inhaled interferon beta drug, and the controlled trial which had been published in the Lancet and which showed considerable success. I also mentioned ACTIV-2, research established by the National Institutes of Health in the US. With the limits on time to reply to the Statement, I muddled Synairgen’s seemingly effective trial with ACTIV-2, giving the impression that it was a different drug. This made it impossible for the noble Lord to answer my question effectively and I apologise for that.
As many noble Lords have repeatedly affirmed from across the House, we must work together, particularly at times of national emergency. While I speak from these Benches, it is good to celebrate the spirit of proper collaboration of which your Lordships’ House is proud. This is a time of global emergency. Of course, we want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. With vaccines still not plentiful, it is natural to be anxious about ourselves and our families, but we must recognise those elsewhere globally, and particularly in poor nations. It makes economic sense, just as it does with climate change. It may be costly, but it is morally right, and the global fight is essential, not least because of our self-interest.
We should learn from history. Yersinia pestis, the Black Death, caused at least three major pandemics: the plague of Justinian in 1541, the Black Death in 1347 and the Black Death in China in the 1850s. There were repeated, devastating waves in between for many decades. These were spread mostly by travel, by mixing of populations and by people in poverty with poor hygiene and inadequate public health. In 1665, when over 100,000 people in London—probably one-third or more of the population—died in the Great Plague, the greatest proportion were poor and disadvantaged. Lockdown then was rigidly imposed. People were even bolted in their houses, which were painted with a red cross.
The science community has repeatedly warned that we shall almost certainly need to live with Covid for a long time to come. This is likely for Covid-19 but is equally likely to be true of other deadly viruses in due course. So, in addition to global issues, we need everything we can muster: vaccines, better diagnostics, culture facilities, better public health—especially globally—and drugs which kill the virus. We also clearly need isolation, and that will reoccur from time to time. It is important that we do not breathe a huge sigh of collective relief at the blessing of new and better vaccines. There are still many important questions that we will need to consider. Randomised controlled trials must continue. One NIH trial, for example, done in the rhesus monkey, showed that they got protection with different vaccines, but these did not necessarily reduce the replication of the virus in nasal tissues, while some others did. Those are the sorts of reasons why we still do not know how problematic contact between people will be.
Whatever the effectiveness of different vaccines, apart from new mutations, there will be pockets of this virus in the population. If we are to reduce the presence of the virus in our communities, at what stage do we consider vaccinating children? If we eventually do, shall we ignore the serious anti-vaccination protests associated with measles, a far less clinically risky virus? We are relatively safe now from yersinia pestis, not because of vaccines but because of antibiotics. For example, a portable, easily distributed antiviral would be a real asset. Unfortunately, monoclonal antibodies, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walney, in last Thursday’s debate, may not be quite as useful as a portable, easily distributed and administered antiviral, which could give safety, with fewer side-effects, at the early stages of infection. This might kill the virus before it starts to replicate rapidly. That would be useful during lockdown. An antiviral which gets access to the mucus membranes of the throat, pharynx, larynx and respiratory system, taken by mouth or as an aerosol, could be particularly beneficial because that is the route that the Covid virus generally takes. That would be another strategy to avoid the risk of mutations. This may be important, because we must remember how coronavirus is likely to have infected several animal species before moving into man. It is consequently more dangerous. In many parts of this crowded world, humans now perhaps live more closely to animals than at any time in our history.
Of course, we shall continue to jog the Government, but let us do so in the spirit of constructive collaboration that is important at this time of national emergency.
My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, it is important to stress that, for political leaders at this time, there is one overriding job to be done: to ensure that the relief sensed by everybody that the vaccines are coming is not misplaced into a false sense of security. We need to understand that over the next year or so we must continue the important social distancing measures that we have become used to. I believe the Government have one priority at the moment: to enable the country to emerge from lockdown to a situation which is sustainable in terms of social and economic health and well-being.
Key to that will be the opening of schools of colleges. I say that, but schools and colleges are open and people are working; they are just not physically present. It is important that as many schools as possible open as soon as possible. I urge the Government to move away from central fiats announced at short notice towards a culture of working more co-operatively with teachers and local authorities to work out what resources are needed in different areas to enable schools to open safely.
I draw to the Minister’s attention one issue that requires urgent attention. He will know that to open legally any children’s service has to have staff with up-to-date first aid qualifications. He will also know that first aid training cannot be completed online. Last March, the Health and Safety Executive announced an extension in the grace period for renewal of a certificate from one month to six. The HSE’s current advice is that all training will have to be renewed by 31 March and there will be no extension. That means that staff—and, incidentally, staff of training providers—are being told on the one hand that to get their training certificates renewed they have to go out to a training course, but on the other that they have to observe lockdown. Does the Minister realise that this potentially is a very big problem for schools, colleges and preschools? Does he also realise that this kind of mixed messaging is the last thing that professionals working at a local level to try and give some hope to their communities need?
I understand that it is being reported that test and trace is getting rid of staff. I and many others have been deeply critical of the poor performance of the test and trace operation, particularly the lack of support for isolation. Can the Minister say whether, as we go into this current phase, resources will be diverted to local authorities and local resilience forums so that we can continue to make sure that people are given supported, practical help to isolate? We can then have much more localised efforts to reverse trace so that we can find out where different variants have come from and how they have been transmitted among the population.
I have two final points. First, it is evident that mental health is becoming the big issue of this pandemic for schools and colleges. Are the Government now starting to plan to have emergency first aid mental health services for schools and colleges, exhausted public health staff such as doctors and nurses, and self-employed people who have not been eligible for any government support? Finally, on care homes, nursing homes and domiciliary care workers, when will the Government stop reporting the number of vaccinations that have been offered and start reporting the number that have been completed?
My Lords, from the cheap seats at the far end, I pay a warm tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for his masterful handling of the vaccination drive. As the NHS called me a critically endangered species, I had my jab last Thursday night and I am in no doubt that it was months ahead of where it would have been were it not for the brilliant handling of vaccination by the Government.
It has been a textbook operation. The Prime Minister gave Kate Bingham the order: “Stop people dying”. She formed a task force that rapidly decided the best vaccines to back and funded their production, bypassing NHS bureaucracy. It was based on scientific judgment, not just buying up everything in sight. The Secretary of State for Health told Oxford University to dump Merck and go with AstraZeneca. That was inspired. It was a masterstroke for which he deserves the highest praise. Then the logistics were fine-tuned, with Professor Van-Tam apparently demanding freezers way back last June. Then contracts for vaccine supply were signed three months ahead of other countries.
I also thank the Prime Minister for getting us out of the slow-moving EU oil tanker. What a perfect description of the EU—a lumbering monster, unable to move quickly and full of last century’s concept of power. If we had stayed in then there is no way we would have approved the emergency use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Theoretically, of course, we could have, but a vote to remain would have made us a very tame, subservient puppet, afraid to do anything on our own. We would also have been trapped into the corrupt EU purchasing racket, paying for French Sanofi vaccines that have not yet been invented. Little did we know four years ago that leaving the EU could save thousands of British lives or we would probably have put that on the side of the bus as well.
While the NHS staff, the military, the volunteers and others are doing a fantastic job of sticking needles in people’s arms, there would be nothing much to inject if it were not for the leadership, judgment and far-sightedness of the Prime Minister, Ministers and all in the Government. Thank you, Prime Minister, personally—the Boris haters will have to gnash their teeth a while longer.
I have a couple of ethical and moral questions to pose to my noble friend, but I do not want answers today. It seems that we will have tens of thousands of vaccine refuseniks. I defend their absolute right not to be vaccinated, so long as they respect my right to get hospital treatment ahead of them if they catch Covid. Hundreds of thousands of people with all other life-threatening illnesses—cancer, heart conditions and so on—have had their treatment postponed to give priority to Covid cases. That may have been the right thing to do when there was no cure for Covid, but now that there is a vaccine it will be intolerable if honest patients who have been vaccinated cannot get into hospital because refuseniks are blocking beds. My message is simple: if you refuse vaccination and catch Covid, then tough luck. You have absolutely no right to displace from a hospital bed a decent patient who has been vaccinated. No matter your colour, ethnicity or age, if you refuse vaccination you forfeit the right to jump the hospital queue.
Related to that, I assume that if, for example, care home or medical staff wandered round the wards, smoking 40 cigarettes a day they would be dismissed on the spot. Therefore, if medical or care home staff refuse vaccinations and wander round wards, belching out Covid all day, which is 100 times more lethal than passive smoking, should they not be considered to be sacked on the spot as well? I simply leave that for consideration.
Finally, we are repeatedly told that we must not call it the Chinese virus, but the variants are called the South African, Brazilian, Kent and UK variants. It simply identifies where they came from or were discovered. China is directly responsible for more than 2 million dead in the world. Since China let this virus escape from its Wuhan lab, covered it up and lies about it every single day, is it not about time that we called it by its true name—the China virus?
My Lords, the Minister described the purpose of the regulations very clearly, so I will not repeat that. I thank the House of Lords Library for its additional information and the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for its comments. Thanks are also due, of course, to the statutory instruments committee.
I am also delighted at the success in developing and rolling out the vaccines. It has been efficiently and thoroughly launched, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, thanks to many people, including those appointed to oversee it by the Prime Minister. I am aware that the regulations have had many stages and many consultations, and that the Government have used the affirmative procedure so that, according to the Explanatory Memorandum,
“public health measures can be taken in response to the severe and imminent threat to public health.”
Apart from the amendments under discussion, there are pressing concerns that should be aired and resolved by the Government to avoid a preposterous assertion of slowness and confusion. I will briefly refer to some of those issues.
Problems remain with the amendment to the power to use and disclose information in relation to the police. Can the Minister say whether the Department of Heath will reverse plans to allow police access to NHS Test and Trace data to reassure the public of medical confidentiality? I remember discussing the concerns about confidentiality when test and trace was brought in—a long time ago now. Those concerns now seem to be disregarded.
I still have concerns about levels of Covid among disabled people and about the situation in care homes. I do not see the legislative clarity needed for relatives, residents and those running care homes. I realise that this is a wider concern than these regulations, but it is urgent and worth discussing.
Last week, I asked the Minister a question about the situation in care homes. I should have given him that question in advance, and I apologise for not doing so, as he was not able to answer it adequately, and I hope that today he will be able to, because I gave him prior notice of what I shall raise. Briefly, I seek clarification on whether, for a relative to be able to visit a loved one in a care home, it will be necessary for all the residents and all staff of the care home to have been vaccinated. If so, is it to be once or twice, and what priority can they expect? Many families have been unable to have other than distant contact with relatives in care homes for a very long time.
This issue is relevant to the human right to family life, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed concern. Have discussions taken place in the Department of Health with this in mind? I ask the Minister to clarify that as residents in care homes and their relatives are confused and distressed and, of course, longing to get back together again. It is a public health issue; it is also a human rights issue. I hope the Minister will give me a good response.
My Lords, I support these regulations, which, as the Minister stated, include a reference to an exemption for elite athletes who train or enter competitions, and it is to that subject I wish to direct my remarks.
A recent review launched by the Home Secretary and still under consideration in Government concerns the current status of elite sports remaining exempt when travel quarantine rules are introduced. This needs to be seen in the context of the likelihood of the Olympic and Paralympic Games going ahead—despite the armchair critics who say otherwise. Given that there are only 23 Mondays before the opening ceremony, the detailed, careful and safe approach being taken by the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organising committee is first rate and, barring another spike in Covid-19 in Japan, it should be the showcase televised sporting event across the globe in 2021.
The proposal that athletes should be limited to the athletes’ village and competition venues on arrival, and that regular testing will be a feature of the Games, is commendable. All participants will be expected to undergo a period of quarantine before travelling to Tokyo. In this context, I encourage the Government to open early discussions with the British Olympic and Paralympic associations to plan arrangements, should it not be possible to organise training camps close to Japan.
On arrival, the athletes will be subject to frequent testing, including at the airport and the village. All sensible moves are clearly being taken to ensure the athletes’ village will be the safest place in Japan. The price of not going downtown during the Games is a wise price to pay to prioritise their health, with athletes arriving only five days prior to their competition and departing a maximum of two days afterwards.
In passing, and should there be no crowds, I look forward to the first scientific study which demonstrates that athletic performance should be even better in the absence of the body heat generated by tens of thousands of spectators. The IOC is wise to wait until March or April before making a decision on the presence or otherwise of spectators. For—and this is the key point—the interests of the athletes, not the administrators or sponsors, should always come first.
Those athletes who have failed to observe the exceptional restrictions here in the UK have been rightly named, shamed and penalised. The vast majority who have followed the rules—not least in the Premier League—have provided much needed respite for the television-watching British population in lockdown. With such exceptional and comprehensive measures in place, I congratulate my noble friend on continuing with the current status of exemption of elite sports from these regulations and, I hope, from future travel quarantine rules. Should that not be the case, it would result in increased losses for national governing bodies, many of which are on the threshold of administration. It would remove opportunities for training and competition—including the rest of the Six Nations, which is already successfully under way—and cause further problems for all sports men and women if the quarantine requirement for athletes to stay in airport hotels for 10 days after arrival was introduced for this currently exempt group.
The scientists are publicly on record as recognising that, with the exceptional measures already in place, this is a very low-risk group. I thank my noble friend for taking representations on this and know that, from his diligence and concern for the athletes, the steps being taken by sport and the close co-operation between the sector and government have delivered sensible, safe and appropriate measures.
In the context of the advantages to international training and pre-Olympic competition schedules, I hope the athletes will be able to secure vaccination immediately after—and only after—the completion of vaccination among all vulnerable groups in society. This will considerably help those Olympic and Paralympic athletes seeking selection and, with them, their immediate entourage of coaches and support staff. This is all the more important as the momentum for international vaccine passports increases.
My Lords, another day, another statutory instrument on coronavirus. As the Hansard Society notes:
“The government has laid 364 Coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments … before the UK Parliament. The first two Coronavirus-related SIs were laid on 28 January and 10 February 2020, respectively. The rest have been laid since 6 March 2020, at an average rate since then of seven per completed week.”
No wonder people and businesses get confused. This makes a mockery of both Parliament and the tired excuse that Ministers keep trotting out:
“Owing to the speed with which the Government must take this emergency action to control the virus and save lives it is not possible for a debate to be held before these regulations come into force.”
The speed the Government said they needed for the 364 coronavirus-related SIs has not been effective, as we can see from the number of deaths. Some of the SIs have been superseded within days of coming into force, have caused confusion and have not achieved the goal of reducing the spread of transmission of the virus, thereby helping to keep people alive. The 364 SIs are indicative of a Government who have been far too reactive, rather than proactive, to the public health crisis we face. No other democratic Government across the world have introduced so much emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus.
What is needed is a clear governmental strategy. It is sadly missing in the UK. That is what is required urgently, not more and more knee-jerk emergency legislation. The country is now at a crossroads in dealing with the virus. We have some hope on the horizon with the vaccination programme, but it is not the end. The world will be living with the coronavirus, new variants of it and all the health and economic risk this brings for years to come. It is time to reflect on what is needed for the next phase, what has been learned and what needs to change for the future. Part of this has to be less emergency legislation and more detailed and well thought-out laws and rules to genuinely save lives and get the country on a firmer footing to be able to deal with the next stage of the pandemic. This Parliament needs to stop just nodding through coronavirus emergency legislation. It needs to force the Government to come forward with a clear strategy for living with this pandemic and help set laws within that strategic framework.
As the past year has shown, 364 pieces of emergency legislation have not been the most effective way of keeping as many people alive as we would have hoped or proactively slowing down the virus. It is time for Parliament to do its proper job. For this House, that means having time to review and revise laws needed to deal with the public health crisis we face. This will help to ensure that the rules that people and businesses are required to obey are much more effective in reducing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
My Lords, my wife and I tested positive at the beginning of January. We isolated. Half way through the isolation, my wife was taken seriously ill and taken into Bedford Hospital. Thankfully, she is now at home. I pay a major tribute to the efficiency of the testing at Bedford town car park, and particularly to the care and attention in Bedford Hospital.
On Saturday, I had my coronavirus jab. The whole thing took 10 minutes. It was brilliantly organised. I spent some time talking to the volunteers, and we owe a huge tribute to them. In that context, I hope that some plans are being made for the Prime Minister to write a letter to all the volunteers who have come forward and taken part.
I have three pleas to my noble friend on the Front Bench. One comes from me as a marketing man. The tiers have worked, but one thing you learn about marketing is that you need to refine down areas, particularly if you are test-marketing new products. We are not test-marketing new products; we are test-marketing something which we cannot totally get a grip on. I wonder whether it would not be more sensible, instead of thinking about district council areas, to hone down to major towns and have a close look at them. That way, we would begin to really get a grip on it.
Secondly, on timing, any organisation—whether it be a business, a school, or whatever—needs time to plan ahead. I hope that when the Statement is made on 22 February, the Government will be planning for approximately three weeks’ notice of any substantial change.
Thirdly, I again make a plea for sport. I declare an interest as president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. There was virtually no cricket at all last year. The new season starts, if my noble friend would like to note it, on 8 April with county games across the country. All the 18 major counties have Covid-secure grounds. A huge amount of energy, money and resources have been put into those 18 grounds. The staff are well briefed and organised; the players are the same. Can we please try really hard to start off this season—perhaps confining it to one member and one guest at the grounds? I hope that when the Twenty20 comes round, which will not be until the beginning of June, we will be in a position to open up to the public.
Finally, I make a plea for Wimbledon and declare an interest as a member. Wimbledon’s championship is the leading tennis championship in the world. A great deal of work has gone into ensuring that we can, if at all possible, hold a championship this year in the first two weeks of July. There would be no finer advertisement for UK Ltd, and for the great British public, than to see Wimbledon happening with spectators in those weeks. I wish my noble friend all success in the way he is handling these things, and to the teams working for him, I say: thank you—you have done a superb job.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for all the work he has done in fighting this terrible pandemic. I wish him well with all his efforts in future, but perhaps I can be a little critical of details today, because underpinning this SI are the basic nuts and bolts which make the system work—and they are creaking in places.
We sometimes do not realise that there is a difference between guidelines, which are what Ministers would like us to do but do not have the force of law, and regulations, which do have that force. As we have gone through the tiers created by the Government over the past year, some of the issues have been about guidelines and some about regulations. Let me give a couple of simple examples.
Colleagues will recollect that at the beginning of the year, two women were handed fixed penalty notices by Derbyshire police for reportedly travelling five miles for exercise. The police force subsequently stated that it was reviewing the action based on new national guidelines, but the issuance of the notice was still supported by the Health Secretary, although it did not have the force of law. Then of course we had a similar case—I am not making this as a political point—when the Prime Minister was cycling 18 kilometres to ride around a park in London. I have no trouble at all with that, but the issue is that it causes problems on a wider scale, and with tragic results.
I live in a national park. As I look out of the window, the snow is falling—the hills are covered in snow. Although people have guidelines that the Government’s wish is that they should not drive to the Lake District, but they do. Every weekend, they are still driving regularly from Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Kent and London. That is not illegal, but they are not allowed to spend the night. How do you trap people who are sometimes spending the night?
We had a tragic incident this last weekend involving the mountain rescue, which has been called out several times, when two young men went camping on the mountains above Kirkstone Pass. One of them got chest pains and called the mountain rescue in the middle of the night—it was two in the morning. One member of the mountain rescue slipped and fell; he has very serious injuries.
However, the police cannot stop people driving in to camp. Once they have camped, they can be issued with penalty notices because that is in a regulation: you cannot stay overnight in an area such as this. I am arguing that there needs to be some consistency in the regulations and guidelines so that we know where we stand, and that the police also know what they can and cannot do.
I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Could the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, please mute himself?
My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the work of my noble friend and Lords Ministers generally. They have had to deal with an unrelenting schedule in incredibly difficult times. Given the plethora of primary and secondary legislation, and the briefings that have kept my noble friend at the House and the Dispatch Box while many of us shield, self-isolate and keep safe at home, I am sure his work is valued by us all, whatever our political colours.
In the few minutes I have today, I want to focus on the wedding hospitality sector. It is an issue I have raised on previous occasions, and one which I have remained engaged with throughout this pandemic. The sector has been devastated by the pandemic, particularly the Asian wedding sector where large premises with high overheads have now lain empty for some 12 months. Many have had to return, quite rightly, hundreds of thousands of pounds in deposits to those who have had to postpone weddings. They feel that they have had little national engagement to plan for their futures, even where local councils have worked closely with them to ensure they are Covid-compliant.
This SI specifically starts to address this process, of course, but I want to ask three specific questions. If my noble friend cannot answer them today, I should be grateful if he could write to me. First, what specific engagement has taken place with those in the Asian wedding sector? Secondly, what consideration has been given to the size of venues-to-people ratio when determining the numbers allowed to attend wedding receptions, or do the Government intend, once things starts to ease, to deal with the matter as they did previously? I would argue that that was clunky and ill informed, and that the one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Thirdly, what are the Government’s plans and timetable for easing the restrictions for weddings and civil partnerships?
My Lords, I want to ask about the route out of lockdown. I fear the Government are relying far too much on the vaccine programme to get us out of trouble and may be planning to ignore the need to reduce the prevalence of the virus in the community before easing restrictions. I hope that the Minister will reply to my noble friend Lady Barker’s question about a lot of test and trace being laid off. Surely this is the time to continue the effort to find out where the virus is and stop it in its tracks by supported isolation strategies? Can the Minister justify this reduction in testing staff? If he tells me that resources are being switched from the eye-wateringly expensive centralised system to locally based—and more cost-effective—test, trace and isolate services, I will be very pleased to hear it. However, the Government were so slow to make use of local expertise in favour of their expensive national system that I somehow doubt it.
Unless we bear down on incidence in the community, mutations will continue to occur and variants will result, with a possible consequence for the effectiveness of current vaccines. What lessons have been learned from what happened last autumn, when cases rose again after the summer easing of restrictions and we had a second wave worse than the first? What lessons have been learned from abroad, specifically Portugal, where there is now an even worse crisis for which it is having to get help from Germany and other EU countries because they had a free-for-all over Christmas?
Are the Government watching what is happening in Israel, where the level of vaccination is higher than here but levels of illness are not reducing as fast as expected? As Israeli epidemiologist Dr Ran Balicer has commented:
“Vaccines work, but the picture is more complex than that. Other steps are needed as well.”
Experts there believe that the lower level of adherence to lockdown in Israel is part of the problem, which should be a clear lesson for us here in the UK.
Can other noble Lords mute, please?
All this indicates the need for timely parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals for loosening restrictions, so that Members of both Houses will have at least as much notice as schools. Members need the opportunity to counter the pressure that the Government are clearly feeling from the so-called Covid Recovery Group, which does not agree with restrictions and seems to believe, mistakenly, that herd immunity can come from widespread natural infections. It does not seem to care about the deaths and long-term illness that would ensue from such a strategy.
Looking to the future, can the Minister say, first, what studies are being set up to monitor the ongoing level of immunity of those who have been vaccinated, testing against not only current variants but others that may arise? This will be essential if scientists are to advise on the nature and frequency of future booster vaccines. Secondly, do we have sufficient capacity in genome sequencing adequately to track new variants, which will inevitably come into the country until the whole world is vaccinated? We are world leaders in genome sequencing but capacity is different from expertise. Do we not need to scale up this work and perhaps do what they are doing in Denmark: sequence the relevant part of the genome of every positive case in order to detect new variants early? I am afraid that when I heard a little while ago that we have two cases of the South African variant I cynically suspected that we actually had many more but did not know about it. We can know this only if we increase our genome sequencing capacity.
Before calling the next speaker, I remind noble Lords to remain on mute when not speaking. I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.
My Lords, I want to comment only briefly and positively to support the application of the click and collect exception to libraries, as set out in the amended Schedule 3A. I know that reading books gives pleasure to so many people, particularly during lockdown. For many families, a trip to the library is usually a highly-anticipated weekly outing and it is important for a child’s development to help them pick out books to read and to expand their thirst for knowledge.
I have heard of families running out of books to read during lockdown having relied for reading books on libraries and schools, which are shut, and how limiting this is for a child’s development. Oxfam reported that after the first lockdown customers were desperate for books; it saw a massive rise in second-hand book sales. At a time when children in particular are spending so long in front of a screen, a book can be a magical place to escape. I welcome this provision to allow people to keep borrowing physical books from their local libraries. I urge local councils to ensure that this provision, albeit late in the day, is seized on and that local libraries expand their offerings from online to click and collect, and publicise that widely to help families and, particularly, children.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the speed at which the vaccine programme is rolling out and the boost to morale that it has provided. However, news over the weekend regarding the South African variant makes it clear that we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared to adapt our response. The vaccine is no silver bullet.
I want to focus on the impact of lockdown on the mental health and well-being of both young and old, particularly those living alone who may be socially isolated and for whom lockdown has been especially tough. We have, quite rightly, thought a lot about the impact on families, but, in my view, not thought enough about the impact on those living alone. For many, their mental health has suffered, not least due to anxiety that if they catch the virus they will have no one to look after them and check they are okay. Local community groups, charities and local authorities have played a valuable role, but they are unable to meet all demand.
Reports in the press over the weekend talked of post men and women taking on the role of checking up on the elderly, something that has been trialled in the Channel Islands. I would welcome such a trial on the mainland but was very concerned to hear that people might have to pay for this service. Surely the Government should step in to fund any such scheme, particularly for the less well-off and those living in deprived communities. What plans do the Government have in this area?
Last week, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, a question about recent scientific findings from Cambridge University showing that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine may not produce sufficient antibodies to kill off the virus, particularly for the over-80s. The scientists involved suggested that rapid antibody tests could be used to identify older people who had responded less well to their initial jab and prioritise them for a speedier second jab. What plans do the Government have to carry out such tests on older people and residents of care homes, who are currently having to wait 12 weeks for their second jab?
Like other noble Lords, I continue to be concerned about reports of care home staff not taking up the offer of a vaccine. While I understand that no one can be compelled to be vaccinated and that education and reassurance are the key, equally care homes have a duty of care towards their residents, including their well-being. I recently heard a union representative say that one reason some care home staff were refusing the vaccine was that they were fearful of having a reaction which would mean they had to take time off work. Surely the Government should be able to underwrite the pay of any care worker in this situation to encourage take-up. Unless action is taken, residents and relatives who have had a vaccination and had time to develop their immunity may still find that they are unable to visit their loved ones, which feels so unfair—a point made powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.
The pandemic has put a huge strain on many young people who were already struggling with their mental health due to bereavement, social isolation, a loss of routine because of school closures or a breakdown in support. What plans do the Government have to provide additional funding for the rest of this academic year and the school year beginning in September to allow schools to invest in mental health and well-being support, including school counsellors, but, crucially, without having to divert resources away from academic catch-up funding which the Government have already announced?
This lockdown must be the last. The public would never forgive this Government if, by coming out of lockdown too soon or without a comprehensive strategy to defeat the virus, we once again found ourselves in a full national lockdown.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests with dispensing doctors as in the register. I add my congratulations to the Minister, the Government and all those involved with such a successful vaccination programme in which we can all take great pride.
I draw my noble friend’s attention to one aspect of the South African variation which is causing deep concern across the medical community: the fact that the mutation, or the variation, that we are now identifying as coming from South Africa actually arose during South Africa’s summer, but nevertheless spread quite widely and rapidly throughout the community. Does my noble friend share my concern that this shows that this particular variation—and perhaps others to come—is not a seasonal variation but could actually spread throughout the warmer months? Have the Government done any specific research on this, and do they have any plans for how to tackle this particular dimension of this variation?
Looking ahead to the fact that there will be, in all probability, a need for a booster vaccination this autumn and in years to come, what plans have my noble friend and the department made to ensure an equally smooth rollout of booster vaccinations in addition to the annual flu vaccination for the elderly and, as was the case this winter, the over-50s? Will my noble friend give a commitment today that the department will rely specifically on rural GP practices to ensure a smooth rollout of both the flu vaccination, as in previous years, and a booster vaccination this autumn and in successive years? Will he ensure that GPs, being closest to their patients in very outlying areas, will be asked to deliver these as effectively as they have this year? Can he update us about the inclement weather and what delays the department is expecting to occur—albeit in the short term—to the vaccination timetable which has been rolled out?
Through my noble friend, can we pay a heartfelt thanks to all those involved on the front line, particularly in hospitals? As my noble friend mentioned, this has been a very long winter, and those staff in hospitals, ambulance services and paramedics have been stretched to the utmost. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for all the work they are doing and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. It is important that we pay tribute to the department and all on the front line at this time.
We are a stoic lot in this country, but I cannot go swimming. I cannot watch rugby. My team has been promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, and none of us can go to watch and cheer them on. I cannot accept the kind offer from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to be his guest at Northamptonshire cricket club. I cannot have any weekends away. I cannot go to the theatre with my wife, which is what she loves doing. I cannot climb mountains. In fact, I cannot do anything I want to do. I have no interest in Ocado, Amazon or Netflix—none. And I am in a better position than most people. A teacher on BBC Radio 5 Live this morning said three out of 25 kids in her school were in class today—22 were not there. People are struggling to cope.
The Government are making a fundamental error in what they are saying at the moment. It is the first big error, in my view. Of course, you can criticise various things from the past—whether they were done by the Government, NHS England or Public Health England—and say that they could have been done better with hindsight that we did not have before. But this is an error of the future, and it is a political error. I have heard Ministers in the past day or two say that we are not having a vaccine passport because we are not forcing people to have the vaccine, and that we are not a country that will legislate to force people to have the vaccine. But that entirely misses the point of a vaccine passport.
I can tell the Minister that no one will be allowed in the miners’ welfare clubs if they have not had the vaccination, because we are damned if we have been through everything we have gone through to have some Herbert turn up thinking they are better than the rest of us, choosing not to be vaccinated and causing problems. We are not having it.
A week ago, my tiny grandchildren, who I have not seen for eight months, packed their rucksacks in Budapest in Hungary—we are talking about under-sixes—and announced they were going to get a plane to come to visit us, but they cannot. I am damned if, when I am eventually allowed to go to Hungary, I have to ask my GP for a note and waste their increasingly valuable time to say that I have had the vaccine I need to get into Hungary. That is what will be required. The last time I went there, I had to prove that I had had the tests. I had to wait 24 hours—there was a big red cross on the door until those tests came through. They will require a vaccine card. You cannot get into Tanzania or other parts of Africa without a yellow fever card. That is sensible.
The vaccine card is not about saying you have to do it; it is absolutely about, “Here’s the injections you’ve had.” Idiots like me need it on one piece of card so we can remember what we have had—particularly if we will need to have boosters—just like you do if you go to places such as Africa, to remember that you are up to date. That is what it is about.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said. He usually speaks a lot of sense. I am with him in spirit, although not necessarily in the detail, on care homes. We have 308 Peers over the age of 75. I would expect Peers to demonstrate to the staff here that they have had their vaccines. Therefore, the vaccine card would be peer-group pressure to get people vaccinated. It is essential. The Government need to get this right.
My Lords, these regulations once again are being hurried because of their expiry date, before the Prime Minister addresses Parliament and the country on 22 February with his route map out of lockdown. I ask the Minister: what evaluation have the Government done of the tiered system and the total lockdown? Do they think that the slow decline to around 15,000 cases per day and just under 9,000 deaths per week means that it is safe to consider easing lockdown next month?
We note that the regulations make minor changes to the tiers legislation, including on elite sports competitions, the exemption to leave home to collect goods ordered via click and collect and from libraries, cafes and canteens in post-16 education centres being open, and marriages and conversions under marriage being permitted. I do not believe that these are contentious. But, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, it is the bigger, more strategic approach to what needs to happen to unlock the “stay at home” orders that must be considered.
As my noble friend Lady Walmsley outlined, too many people still think that vaccines alone are the answer, but in the light of the spread and strength of the new variants, can the Minister say how the surge testing in the postcodes announced last week is proceeding? Are there effective results in further isolating both the South African and UK variants? Are there any indications yet about the spread of these variants that might affect the easing of lockdown?
For 11 months, we from these Benches have urged the Government to run an effective test, trace and isolate system. The need for that will be even more important as part of the route map out of lockdown, so I echo my noble friend Lady Barker’s concerns that the Secretary of State is reducing or curtailing some contracts with tracing firms, which have summarily sacked their staff. On Friday, Sitel—one of the contractors—said:
“At this point in time as a business we need to reduce the number of agents because we have done our jobs.”
But while there is some reduction in case numbers, the daily level, at around 15,000, is substantially higher than the 1,000 a day when the first lockdown was lifted last year. As the Minister said, the numbers in hospital and number of deaths remain too high.
Does this mean that the Minister no longer believes that test and trace is an essential tool? Perhaps it means that, at long last, local test and trace teams, which have always had a much better success rate at contacting people and persuading them to isolate, will be increased. Can the Minister please explain what is going on?
Last week, in a reply to my noble friend Lord Scriven, the Minister said that 86% of contacts were now being traced, appearing to show a substantial improvement. However, “More or Less”, the Radio 4 programme, reported last week that if a tracer tells one person in a house of five that they must all isolate, that apparently now counts as five separate successes. Is this correct, and does it explain the rapid increase in tracing rates for call-centre companies such as Sitel? What arrangements are in place to give confidence that everyone in any household is self-isolating after they have been asked? Can the Minister say whether this higher level of success is connected to the new way that tracing data is assembled?
From these Benches, we have repeatedly listed the key steps needed for successful test, trace and isolation, especially the latter. Those self-isolating need to be paid their proper wages, as they are performing a civic duty. The Government’s sick pay levels are pathetic, with a theoretical, one-off £500 grant that hardly anyone can access because, local government tells us, the rules are too hard and complicated. Those with dependants, such as unpaid carers looking after disabled or elderly family members who are not allowed to be in the same room for their self-isolation as those they care for, may also need particular support.
As my noble friend Lady Tyler commented, there should be state-funded places in pandemic hotels for those who cannot effectively self-isolate at home, especially when there are many other family members living in a confined space. There should also be a proper care package of support for those isolating, as in Germany and Taiwan, with regular calls to check on mental health, and to ensure that food and pharmacy supplies are getting through. Most importantly, there should be consistent, strong, clear messaging to the public every day. That would provide confidence for those who currently have to choose between feeding their families or self-isolating.
Finally, as we approach 31 March, when the emergency pandemic legislation expires, I echo the comments of my colleagues on the broader issues relating to these almost daily Covid SIs. The Government took to themselves extraordinary Henry VIII powers on the understanding that SIs were to be brought to Parliament in a timely fashion for debate. They are not. Far too often they are enacted weeks ahead of when the Commons debates them, and we have to wait a number of days before they then come to the Lords. The Government must start consultation on the renewal of these powers with both Parliament and the wider public as soon as possible. When will this happen?
I start by placing on record, from these Benches, thanks and great admiration for the way that the NHS, in its widest capacity, is coping under the combined demands of so many Covid patients and, indeed, other patients. A dear friend of my family is about to go into one of our trust hospitals to have a baby any time now. The support for her and her partner has been exemplary, as has the tremendous drive for the vaccine, with the whole public sector and volunteers stepping up to deliver millions of jabs—the hope for the future.
I have some sympathy with the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about vaccine passports. My husband, who is also a great supporter of Leeds United Football Club, travelled the world—pre-Covid—on internet safety issues for children, so has had a vaccine passport. Of course he has, because he has to show many different countries that he has had the right vaccines. I cannot understand why the Government are finding this such a challenge.
It is a few weeks since we last discussed regulations that were already in effect. These make minor amendments and corrections to the all-tier regulations, and offer an opportunity to scrutinise the detail and effectiveness of the lockdown at this stage. It seems that the public have taken a few weeks to come to terms with an effective lockdown and I think the Government need to recognise the strain that this is putting on families and communities across the UK. This was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Clark.
February is always a difficult month for illness and depression because it is dark and cold and miserable. I get the impression that people are struggling with this, so the light at the end of this tunnel is even more important. That is not only the vaccine, but cracking the test and trace system so that everyone who needs to self-isolate can do so, and protecting our borders from mutations of Covid by effective quarantine. Neither of these have been working effectively and both need to do so as we move forward. I so agree with my noble friend Lord Winston about the effort that needs to go into research and co-operation across the world.
I have three detailed questions. These regulations clarify that marriages and conversions under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 are permitted. Can the Minister advise the Committee whether the need for this clarification was identified as part of an administrative exercise or stems from difficulties that have arisen from conducting a same-sex marriage during the third lockdown? I sincerely hope he can assure us that it is not the latter, given that, under the regulations, weddings and civil partnership ceremonies are permitted only if there are exceptional circumstances, such as where one of those getting married is seriously ill and does not expect to recover, or due to undergo debilitating treatment or life-changing surgery.
The regulations also clarify the exemption to leave home to collect goods from businesses operating click and collect, and that this also applies to libraries. Everybody will welcome that fact as access to libraries is very important indeed. However, the Minister will be aware of concerns that non-essential retail click-and-collect services are a significant source of transmission and are undermining the lockdown due to people who are gathering to collect their items not wearing masks and failing to observe social distancing while queuing. Indeed, John Lewis suspended its click-and-collect services after a change in tone from the Government over the virus. Yet despite continuing to urge people to leave home only for essential purposes and government adverts asking us whether we really need go out, neither the guidance nor the regulations permitting takeaways and retail shops to operate click and collect in England and Wales have changed. Does the Minister recognise that this could be an anomaly and risks confusing the “stay at home” message?
The guidance clarifies that elite sports competitions are permitted. The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that despite strict protocols established during the summer, many athletes and players have been involved in various coronavirus rule breaches while the rest of society is locked down. This has ranged from scenes of crowded dressing room celebrations to players attending gatherings and parties in private homes. While the Government have been keen to stress personal responsibility, what discussions have they had with the sports’ governing bodies? Can the Minister confirm whether any of the athletes involved has been fined under the regulations or whether the consequences have been purely at the discretion of the club or body they represent? Does the Minister agree that this is inherently unfair, especially when allowances and different rules already apply to athletes than to ordinary members of the public?
Finally, my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised care homes. Can the Minister confirm how many people in care homes have been vaccinated rather than just been offered a vaccination which, of course, is important? What do the Government propose to do about staff in care homes who refuse vaccinations?
My Lords, I want to say a massive thank you to all noble Lords for their questions and, in particular, for the extremely kind and generous comments about the NHS, healthcare workers and all those who have contributed to our pandemic response. It is very rewarding to hear those remarks and I am sure that everyone involved is extremely grateful.
I will try to answer as many questions as I can. If I cannot answer now, I will endeavour to write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, was right at the beginning of this debate to point out that pandemics last for a long time. We are profoundly conscious of that from the Black Death, Justinian’s plague, the Chinese plague and 1665. We are in it for the long haul and we hope that the remedies and protections we are putting in place today will help protect society for years to come. The noble Lord is entirely right that those worst affected disproportionately come from areas of deprivation, the elderly and the poor. That is very much on our mind.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked about children. The green book is very clear about what vaccines are appropriate for children. We have endorsed the provision of vaccines for CEV children and are doing tests and clinical trials to see if the vaccine can be extended to children because, while not likely to be hospitalised, they are a source of transmission. He rightly raised antivirals. He and I have had correspondence on that subject. He also alluded to a key challenge in the administration of antivirals, which is portability. Access is a profound challenge in primary care for the delivery of antivirals, and that is one of the issues we have to resolve.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about first aid training. If first aiders are unable to access annual refresher training face to face during coronavirus, HSE supports the use of online refresher training to keep skills up to date. If the noble Baroness has more questions about this important issue, I will be glad to answer them by correspondence. I reassure her, though, that when we publish the vaccination figures they are not vaccinations offered; they are vaccinations delivered. Some 549,078 were delivered on Saturday.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, rightly raised the massive liberal dilemma of refuseniks. He alluded to the massive public health truism that my health affects not only me but the people I meet. I confirm that surgeons currently have validation for their vaccinations. A surgeon cannot perform surgery if he or she does not have, for instance, a hepatitis vaccination. That is, indeed, food for thought.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about police data. We are looking forward to debating that issue on 1 March. On the very challenging question of social care, she asked quite reasonably about when we will be able to change the extremely distressing current regime for meeting those in social care. At the moment, meetings do happen outdoors and with protective measures, such as screens, but close contact is not allowed. This is not just to protect those involved but also to prevent the virus entering care homes, where it runs rife. We are seeking data on asymptomatic infection, transmission and the other relevant details from post-vaccination clinical trials. We will publish updated guidance after this period of national lockdown. More than anyone, I hope that this uncomfortable and challenging regime can be changed.
I completely hear the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on sport. She asked some very specific questions and I will be glad to write to her. In reply to my noble friend Lord Moynihan, I pay tribute to those in elite sports for raising our spirits. The Six Nations this weekend was great entertainment, even if the result was rather disappointing for England supporters. We are engaged with elite sport on the border issues, as he knows. We completely hear his arguments and we are trying our hardest to meet the hopes of elite sport. However, I say to him that we are in the hands of the variant and these matters are not completely in our control.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that Parliament has a voice and that these debates on regulations do have an impact on the way that they are delivered. We are working within the framework of the laws we have and are doing our best to respect the influence of Parliament. He makes important points about the use of emergency legislation and I suggest that he addresses these comments to the Constitution Committee, which is doing a report on emergency legislation at the moment and would, I am sure, take his comments into account.
To my noble friend Lord Naseby, I am very glad, as I am sure we all are, to hear to hear of both his recovery and, in particular, that of Lady Naseby. I share his tribute to the NHS staff who have been delivering the vaccine. However, I well remember my noble friend’s comments. On six occasions last year, he made comments about cricket. I also remember, on 3 September, his profound scepticism about my comments that a second wave was on its way, so I gently and kindly remind him that we are not through this pandemic yet and I just cannot give him the reassurances on the reopening of cricket that I know he is looking for.
I completely share the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and I agree wholeheartedly with his appeal for consistency. The bottom line is that the current guidance is that there should be no travel beyond the most local area—full stop. I completely understand his frustration about those travelling to his area.
My noble friend Lady Warsi’s comments are best directed to MHCLG, which provides guidance on wedding issues. The PM has made it clear that he will be issuing new guidance on 22 February, and the matters she asked about will be addressed in that. Although I hear the concerns of the wedding venue industry, I cannot make any promises on this today. The close proximity that weddings inevitably create does not suit pandemic management.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is entirely right on Israel. Vaccinations are not a panacea. Social distancing remains essential, transmissibility after the vaccine is not clear cut, and therefore our message to the British public is to be patient and maintain the face, space and distance rules. She also asked about new genome sequencing. I reassure her that we are increasing our capacity for turnaround times and the amount of analysis that we provide. She is entirely right that about 5% of the positive PCR tests done today are genomically sequenced, so if a couple of cases of the South African variant are found today, you can expect there to be more tomorrow. But she is not right that central testing is more expensive than local testing; it is in fact much, much cheaper. Nor are we standing down resources: 783,851 tests were done yesterday—a phenomenal number. We continue to invest in local outbreak management: £925 million has been put in the contained outbreak management fund, supporting local testing.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that the CMO’s very strong view is that 12 weeks is a safe interval for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and that an antibody test is therefore not needed.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who echoed his remarks, very much for his sincere comments on certification, which he made extremely persuasively. I reassure him that we are at a very early stage of the vaccine rollout at the moment. There are questions of fairness and justice when only a small proportion of the population have had access to the vaccine at all, but I take his points very much on board and will take them back to the department.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that the Project Eagle detective work and fire-blanket scheme is proceeding extremely well. It is too early to be able to give her categoric evidence of success, but the implementation is promising so far. She mentioned messaging and payment, and we have addressed those matters before. We have published an assessment of the tiering system, and I would be glad to email her a link to it. On her comments on test and trace, it would be generous and warm-hearted to say at least one word of praise to the management and the tens of thousands of people who work in test and trace for their phenomenal achievement over the past few months, turning around a massive enterprise that is having a huge impact on the virus.
In conclusion, I reiterate the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the NHS. She is entirely right that this shows the NHS at its very best. The vaccination programme has been a phenomenal achievement, and I look forward very much to its successful deployment.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 5.40 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.