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Covid-19: Variant B.1.617.2

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will publish data on the spread of the Covid-19 variant B.1.617.2, first identified in India, in schools in this country.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the contribution of teachers, pupils and parents in the battle against infections in schools. By the application of hygienic measures, distancing and asymptomatic testing, the spread of the virus has to date been limited. We are very vigilant—we are looking at recent upticks in infection, we react swiftly to outbreaks and we have published variant data twice a week. But we continue to work on ways of having more detailed, setting-specific analysis.

My Lords, the DfE has just published the latest school attendance figures, which showed that the number of pupils in schools in England who had been shown to have Covid-19 had soared by some 33% in the space of a week. Those are national figures, so the increase would have been even greater in the eight hotspot areas. That surely shows the need for the Government to publish the latest data on a local government area basis to ensure that schools have the proper mitigation measures in place for their locality. The second wave of Covid caused immense disruption to children’s education. To ensure there is no repeat of that, will the Government enable secondary schools to carry out lateral flow tests on all pupils in the week following half-term in the hotspot areas?

My Lords, there is an enormous amount of data published. I draw the noble Lord’s attention to table 6 in the table test conducted on 28 May 2020, which has an enormous amount of weekly collection data for schools. In that week, 1,967,904 LFTs were taken by schools, and they yielded 1,806 positive results. Those were all examples of where we have cut the chains of transmission. Tests are delivered through a variety of channels, including the community testing channel. Reports on infections in schools are analysed by the tracing programme, and they are then taken through to PHE and JCB. We are looking at ways in which we can aggregate all that schools data into more specific tables. But until we do that, there is already a very large amount of data.

My Lords, my noble friend has pointed out that cases are substantially concentrated in school-aged children and young adults, who of course have not yet been vaccinated. Does the Minister agree that it was premature to announce last week that face coverings will no longer be required in secondary school classrooms and communal areas? Does he accept that this policy could drive an increase in infections in our unvaccinated children and young people, as well as in school staff, families and wider communities?

I share the noble Baroness’s concern, but I can reassure her on a couple of things. It is, I think, a real tribute to the hard work of parents, teachers and the pupils themselves that the infection rates in schools have been relatively contained, and certainly have not shown the same kinds of behaviours that they did in September of last year. But we remain extremely vigilant, for exactly the reasons the noble Baroness explained. On the question of face coverings, it is a very difficult balance to strike—they are intrusive and disruptive but, on the other hand, they are an effective way of minimising infection. It is an area that we keep a very close watch on.

My Lords, the delayed publication of official Public Health England Covid variant data, which was slipped out during the Eurovision Song Contest results, is bad enough, but can the Minister say whether the Secretary of State for Education has the power to remove official PHE data on cases in schools? If so, what were his grounds for that removal?

I really bridle at the suggestion that we run our data publication programme on the basis of the Eurovision Song Contest schedule. That really is not a credible suggestion. There is an issue with positivity rates for some of this data because not every test is registered, and, as a result, it is difficult to draw conclusions about exactly what proportion of tests have become positive. It is for that reason that we are careful about how we present some of the data, and that is behind some of the decisions that have been made about which tables to publish.

My Lords, Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University, is quoted as saying:

“We know from media reports there are many outbreaks of the so-called ‘India variant’ in schools but there’s no systematic data. In Bolton … it looks like schools are contributing to the rapid spread of the virus”.

She concludes that, in a public health emergency, it is crucial that Public Health England has the public’s trust. Can the Minister say how appearing to censor scientific reports and removing mitigations, such as the wearing of masks in schools, can create and sustain that trust?

My Lords, I do not quite recognise the world the noble Baroness describes. In fact, I would say that the work between Public Health England, schools, local authorities and local infection teams has never been stronger, and it has proved to be extremely effective. The noble Baroness is right that schools are often a source of infection, and we remember well what happened in September. In areas such as Bolton, we are very careful to ensure that infection measures are put in place. I do not accept that there is an issue of trust.

My Lords, are people who have not been vaccinated and who are diabetic being warned about the dangers of the deadly mucormycosis, the black fungus, which is associated with the Indian variant—and now there is a white fungus also? Is the Minister aware that antifungal medication for the treatment of these conditions has run out in India? Can the UK help? There are many children who are diabetic.

I have read reports about the fungus the noble Baroness describes, and they are absolutely chilling and a source of grave concern. I am not aware of that being a threat to British public health; I feel sure that Public Health England is watching it extremely carefully. I take note of the noble Baroness’s point about medicine being in short supply. I will be glad to look into it more closely and write to her with more details.

Do Ministers accept that more patient choice would help in dealing with problems over spread due to vaccine hesitancy? Having in mind data on vaccine hesitancy in the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine, when will we have a decision on the authorisation of vaccines of a different brand to deal with vaccine brand hesitancy?

That has not been the feedback from the public in the round. There are significant issues around the supply of vaccine, and we very much take an approach of getting the vaccine out of the warehouse and into the arms of the public in as speedy a manner as we possibly can. We are not aware of a huge amount of brand prejudice among the public, and that is entirely right, because all the vaccines are effective: that is the view of the MHRA, the JCVI and the British public.

My Lords, the latest data published by the Government show that the Indian variant was detected in 151 local authorities in the week ending 15 May, an 18% weekly increase, with 37 areas reporting the variant for the first time. What urgent action are the Government taking in all 151 areas and their neighbours to get on top of this surge in cases?

The noble Lord is entirely right, and I am grateful that he has looked at the dashboard as carefully as he clearly has done and drunk deeply from the rich array of data that we have available there. On a more serious point, there are some significant outbreaks—they are listed very clearly on the PHE dashboard—where we have put in place significant outbreak management procedures, including surge vaccination, surge testing and additional communication with the community. But the noble Lord is right that the Indian variant is proving to be extremely competitive with the Kent variant, and we should expect that to start to spread around the country.

I am afraid I do not have a specific update for the noble Lord. It is an area that we will be extremely interested in looking at, but there are regulatory processes to be gone through at the MHRA and vaccine policy procedures to be gone through at the JCVI. They will both be looking at that. At the moment, our focus is on getting the vaccine into as many arms as we possibly can, particularly among the high priority groups, but we will turn to that at some point in the future.

Sitting suspended.