My Lords, since May, individuals in England who have had two doses of an approved Covid-19 vaccine have been able to demonstrate their vaccine status for international travel. The services can be accessed through digital and non-digital routes, via the NHS app and the NHS website or by calling 111 to request a letter. The devolved Administrations are making available similar letters for use in travelling overseas. Over 63,000 people have requested a letter since the service was launched.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his positive answer. Can he tell the House exactly how long it takes to get a printed letter as opposed to downloading the app, and how this will relate to the new electronic travel authorisation, which hopefully will coincide with lifting restrictions on British travellers here and abroad?
My Lords, 57,000 people have received their letters so far. I am not aware of any delays. Those who wish to can use a pharmacy for the delivery of their letters. It is encouraging news and we have gone to considerable lengths to meet the suggestions of charities which we engaged with on the letters. They are available in different languages and in Braille.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. It sounds as though what you really need is a secure card that proves your identity and has important information uploaded to it, such as your vaccination status—something my noble friend was introducing, only to have it scrapped by an incoming Conservative Government. We have had 10 wasted years. If there is to be a vaccination app or some other certification, can we be assured that it will not contain data that purports to show that holders are safe to travel because they have had a negative test under the absurd test and trace scheme? The BMJ has reported that the level of false negatives is of the order of 30%. Such negative tests have no probative value, despite the Government, according to the Public Accounts Committee, wasting £37 billion on them.
My Lords, that is not our approach. Our approach is to try to use whatever technologies work in order to open up our borders. The idea that 30% of tests are not correct is an unhelpful suggestion by the noble Lord. We will be using testing in the validation app.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. My noble friend will be only too well aware that many on the autism spectrum are very IT-savvy. However, can he help those who would find it quite a challenge to phone 111? Is there any way the Government can communicate with the autism community, perhaps through the charitable sector and others, to make alternative arrangements other than just a phone call?
My Lords, we have engaged considerably with the sector on exactly these kinds of matters. GPs and pharmacies are briefed to help those with difficulties get this material. We are also conscious that some with autism may struggle to take a test and find the process of swabbing intimidating, so we are looking into workarounds for that.
My Lords, regardless of whether you hold a paper or digital record, personal health and data will be held on a central database. Can the Minister therefore inform us which government departments and private sector organisations will have access to the data on the central database?
My Lords, the Minister has really answered this question already, but may I add that it surely would be possible for vaccination units to have supplies of certificates that they could issue to people when they come to get their first or second vaccination?
My noble friend alludes to having pre-printed certificates. In fact, each vaccine certificate has a tailored two-dimensional QR code that is designed for each person. Therefore, it is necessary to print the certificate for the person because it has their specific details on it.
My Lords, I am a little confused by what the Minister is saying. Is he saying that we are not going to get a proper Covid passport, as the EU will be offering from 1 July and Ireland from 19 July in both digital and physical options? Could he answer that in detail?
My Lords, I apologise for not being clearer; I will be crystal clear right now. Today, you can have a digital certificate on your iPhone, you can have a digital certificate that is printed out from your computer or you can call a number and have a paper certificate sent to you in the post immediately. All of those options are live today.
Disability campaigners are deeply concerned about the integration of health data into cultural participation and worry that the Government’s plans to set up the vaccine passport scheme could undermine the rights of disabled workers and audiences who cannot have the vaccine because of a health condition. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that any scheme that is introduced obeys the seven key inclusive principles, including complying with the Equality Act in making reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people do not face discrimination?
My Lords, I am very alive to the concerns of the disabled. We have to balance the need to limit the spread of this virus to save lives, but in a way that is fair and just to all people. We are very much engaged with disability and other charities to ensure that that works. The noble Baroness is right that there will be some people for whom the vaccine does not work and who could yet catch the disease. We need to make provision for those people, and we are working on that.
My Lords, I am concerned for the significant numbers of people with existing mental health problems who often do not feel comfortable with smartphone devices, as the information overload such phones can provide can exacerbate their feelings of stress and anxiety. I am pleased to hear the Minister say that other channels will be available to these people, but what arrangements are the Government putting in place to ensure that they are aware that options other than smartphones exist that they will be able to use?
My Lords, all the promotions for vaccine certificates through travel agents and GPs make very substantial reference to the availability of paper letters and the channel of being able to call 119 to receive them. I completely sympathise with those who do not want to use their mobile phones for everything, and some will prefer a letter in the pocket to an app on their phone.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clarity, but proof of vaccination is irrelevant if we are prohibited from travelling. The Prime Minister is rumoured to have discussed travel to and from the United States with President Biden at the G7, but what are the predictions regarding UK citizens travelling to Europe, apart from Albania, which seems to be okay?
I do not know about Albania specifically, but the freedom to travel in Europe is, of course, in part defined by Europeans themselves. We are in conversation with all European countries at the moment as to how our vaccine certificate scheme can be aligned with theirs. Indications from Europe are that they are interested in having a two-vaccination programme for entry as well, but we are trying to understand that more thoroughly.
My Lords, I welcome the choice that people are being given in how to prove that they have been vaccinated. However, as the Government further the digital economy, will they make it clear that no one will be left behind, so that those who do not wish to go online and to always communicate in that way will never be prevented from using the telephone or corresponding by letter to access any government service?
Yes, I completely endorse that sentiment. I pay tribute to 111 and 119, two facilities that have been used to an incredible extent during this pandemic. A lot of people would much prefer to hear someone at the end of a telephone, to have that reassurance and that personal touch. That is why we have substantially invested in both those resources and will continue to do so.
My Lords, I love the NHS app—in fact, I used it yesterday to gain entry to Wembley stadium to watch England’s great victory over Croatia. Will the Minister consider making sure that additional vaccinations can be loaded on to it, such as the flu vaccination, and starting a major advertising campaign to increase the numbers from 6 million to who knows what?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the England football team, who did extremely well; I am glad that my noble friend was able to attend. He is entirely right: this is an incredibly valuable resource. We have a very strong preventive agenda in our healthcare strategy. The vaccine has demonstrated how we can use modern medical technology to prevent the spread of disease, and it is by using thoughtful technology like this app that we can popularise and make useful a vaccine approach that could reach out to other diseases.