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Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 25 May.

“Our race between the vaccine and the virus continues. As a nation, we have taken some huge strides forward: there are now 908 people in hospital with coronavirus, a fall of 9% in the past week, and the average number of daily deaths is now six, the lowest number since the middle of March. On top of this positive news, our vaccination programme is accelerating at pace. Over 72% of all adults have now been given their first dose, and 43% of all adults have the protection of two doses.

This weekend, we reached the milestone of 60 million vaccines administered across the United Kingdom, and Public Health England also published new research showing that the effectiveness of vaccination against symptomatic disease from the variant first discovered in India is similar after two doses when compared to the B117 variant dominant in our country. As with other variants, even higher levels of effectiveness are expected against hospitalisation and death. This is encouraging data, and it reinforces once again the importance of our vaccination programme in giving us a path out of this pandemic, as well as showing just how important it is that everyone comes forward for both jabs when the call comes through. It is the progress made by the British people in following the rules, and in taking up the protection offered through our vaccination programme, that means we were able to take step 3 in our road map last week.

However, we take these steps with vigilance and caution, staying alert to new variants that can jeopardise the advances we have made. We have come down really hard on the variant first identified in India wherever we have found it, surging in testing capacity and vaccines for those who are eligible. Over the past few days, we have extended this rapid approach to even more areas: as well as Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, which the Prime Minister spoke about at his press conference on the 14th of this month, we are taking rapid action in Bedford, Hounslow, Burnley, Leicester, Kirklees and North Tyneside. As the Prime Minister set out two weeks ago, we are urging people in these areas to take extra caution when meeting anyone outside their household or support bubble, including meeting outside rather than inside where possible; keeping 2 metres apart from people they do not live with; and trying to avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work—if a person cannot work from home—or for education.

As the Prime Minister said, we want the whole country to move out of these restrictions together. We are trusting people to be responsible and to act with caution and common sense, as they have done throughout this pandemic, and to make decisions about how best to protect themselves and their loved ones that are informed by the risks. That is exactly what we should be doing. We are always looking to see how we can communicate more effectively with local authorities, and we will of course take on board the views expressed by the House over the course of this debate. By acting quickly whenever the virus flares up and protecting people through our vaccination programme, we can guard the incredible gains we have all made, and get ourselves on the road to recovery.”

My Lords, we can probably all agree that the Minister has drawn the short straw today—and not for the first time, I think.

The issue I want to raise on this Question is that the Government took powers in the road map legislation to impose local lockdowns, so I ask the Minister: are any discussions taking place about whether those powers will be activated in those areas? Secondly, we know that a single dose of the vaccine is less effective against this particular variant, so I repeat the question asked earlier: what plans are there to increase vaccination in the areas most affected by the spread of the Covid variant B16172? Will the Government produce a plan with the local directors of public health to roll out the vaccines to everybody in those areas, and consider including bringing forward a second dose for a larger cohort of people?

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks two very pertinent questions which slightly answer themselves, in a way—but let me try to update the House on our plans in that area. She is right that we have powers on local lockdowns, but that is not the focus of our thinking at the moment. Local lockdowns are an important tool, but not one that we think is a priority right at this moment. We are focused on the vaccines. It is beyond doubt that this Indian 2 variant particularly hits those who are not properly vaccinated—and by “properly” I mean “have had two doses and two weeks”. Those who have forgone either their first or second dose are particularly vulnerable, and you have only to look at the infection data and, particularly, the hospitalisation data to understand that.

That is why we have rolled out surge vaccination in those areas. What that means is a huge amount of communication, a huge amount of engagement with the communities and the presence of various mobile vaccination units sent directly into the heart of the communities to provide different channels and mediums by which people can step up for their vaccine. The response has been extremely strong and I am touched, as I have said, by the videos of people in some of those communities, particularly in Bolton, where people have queued up for their vaccines. I pay tribute to the DPHs and local authorities that have facilitated that programme.

I echo the gratitude of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to the Minister for his stamina this morning. Can he say whether each of the 121 local authority areas reporting cases of Covid variant B16172 are being given specific extra resources for mass surge test, trace and isolate and arrangements for surge vaccination on top of their planned allocation for this financial year? Can he say when the pilots for extra help with self-isolation will conclude? When would any likely rollout of a proper approach to supporting those who have to self-isolate, including paying their wages, start?

My Lords, the noble Baroness alludes to a dilemma that we face. It is not possible to organise surge testing and have pinpoint outbreak management in 120 different areas. That is just too many and our resources do not stretch to that. Many of the outbreaks are substantial clusters. Sorry—let me phrase that better. There is a small number of very substantial clusters in the towns and cities of which noble Lords will be aware. That is where we are focusing the surge testing and surge vaccination. In the other areas, we are working with DPHs to ensure that they know the best way to target the particular behaviours of the India 2. That means that it has very high transmissibility, which requires an extremely quick reaction to school and workplace outbreaks, and within specific communities. That kind of briefing and guidance has been channelled through the Chief Medical Officer’s department and the kinds of infrastructure that I described in my answers to previous questions. The response has been extremely strong and I hope we are making some impact on the spread of the India virus, but we remain extremely vigilant.

My Lords, my question is about the implementation of quarantine regulations. How many travellers have been required to repeat the 10 days required in a designated quarantine hotel for a second 10-day period, with or without a positive Covid test? What appeal arrangements are in place because public guidance does not mention any? Is there any risk of exploitation?

My Lords, I must admit that I am not aware of a large number of people having to repeat their 10-day isolation, so let me look into that and I should be glad to write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in the light of the extraordinary personal vendetta that Dominic Cummings is pursuing against the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister, is it not obvious that the Government must now bring forward the official inquiry into the handling of the pandemic promised by the Government so that the public do not have to rely on a partial, self-serving account, fortified by hindsight?

I am extremely grateful for my noble friend’s remarks. The inquiry will, as he says, provide an important moment to look at the lessons that we can learn from the response to the pandemic. The Prime Minister has given extremely clear reasons why the timetable is as he described and we should stick to the timetable that he has suggested.

My Lords, I understand the Minister saying that he is focusing on the vaccines and surge testing. I even understand his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that one cannot have surge testing in 120 areas. However, I want to go back to the Bedford issue. Despite the director of health, the mayor and the local MP spending nearly a fortnight saying that the Indian variant was just as bad in Bedford as it was in Bolton, the surge testing took place days later. What weight is given to the advice from the local directors of health? There seems to be an imbalance here because it is the Government’s decision rather than that of the local directors. Can the Minister assure us that there is not a change in policy on this? He stated:

“We are … looking to see how we can communicate more effectively with local authorities”.

Actually, the local authorities are communicating effectively with the Minister. Has there been a change of emphasis on this?

Let me assure the noble Baroness that there has absolutely not been a change of policy at all. There are clear channels of communication from DPHs and local authorities to the contain secretariat at NHS Test and Trace, which can mobilise the community testing resources. I am not aware of there being a large glitch in the provision of resources to Bedford but I should be happy to look into it, given that it has been mentioned by two noble Lords. I should be glad to write to her to see whether there is anything that we should be improving specifically for the city of Bedford.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the desperate need for second vaccine doses in Nepal? While the majority of the most vulnerable old people have had their first doses, the suspension of exports from India means that they now cannot get second doses and time is running out. Will the UK offer doses to rectify that situation?

My Lords, the noble Lord points out an extremely challenging situation, particularly in Nepal, but, frankly, all around the world there is a global pressure on the supply of the vaccine. Britain has contributed enormously to that through COVAX, our financial support and the AstraZeneca vaccine, whereby nearly half a billion vaccines worldwide have been run through the profit-free AstraZeneca process. However, we are aware of the situation in Nepal. My noble friend Lord Lancaster spoke movingly in his debate on the matter in this Chamber and we take note of the particular needs of that country.