Motion to Approve
My Lords, we are making excellent progress along the spring 2021 road map, and we now have one of the most open economies and societies in this part of the world. But we all want to see restrictions lifted even further, and on that I am optimistic. However, we know we cannot be complacent. As the Prime Minister set out in his address to the nation on Monday, we do need to hold at step 3 of the road map for just a little longer. This is vital. The very latest scientific data and evidence show us that we must proceed with the utmost caution. By pausing at step 3, we are seeking to protect the progress we have made on infection rates and the vaccine rollout, and to make absolutely certain that we are on a stable footing before we go further.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of the highly transmittable vaccine escapee delta variant has shifted our assessment of the risks. It is now the dominant variant across England, accounting for 90% of cases, and it is set to spread around the world. Its R number is estimated to be 60% to 80% higher than the previously most widespread alpha variant. The overall R number in England has increased and is now between 1.2 and 1.4, meaning that we are in the age of doubling times. We need to be in an age of halving times. Early evidence suggests an increased risk of hospitalisations with the delta variant compared with the alpha. This pause will bring us more time in the race between the vaccine and the virus. It will ensure that we as a nation are equipped as well as we can be to take on the virus and the delta variant.
Can I say a word about the vaccine? Increasing the number of second jabs is absolutely crucial. The data that we have at the moment suggests that the vaccines are less effective against symptomatic disease cause by the delta variant, but that protection increases after two doses. Two doses of the vaccine has now been shown to be highly effective in reducing hospitalisation from the delta variant, with the latest PHE data suggesting that this could be 96% for the Pfizer vaccine and 92% for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the second dose.
In this time, while we pause step 3, we will deliver many more first and second vaccine doses. There are currently 1.2 million over-50s and 4.3 million over-40s who have had their first jab but have not had their second. By 19 July all those over 50 and the clinically extremely vulnerable who have had their first doses by mid-May will have had their second dose—or will have been offered it. Second doses for all over-40s will be accelerated by reducing the dosing interval from 12 weeks to eight weeks. All over-40s who received a first dose by mid-May will be offered a second dose by 19 July. All adults aged 18 and over will be offered a first dose by 19 July, two weeks earlier than planned.
I am confident that we can hit those targets, not least because our vaccination programme has made great progress. A network of vaccination sites continues to operate brilliantly across the UK; there are now more than 1,990 vaccination sites in England, with more coming on line in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of all those involved, more than 41.8 million people in the UK have received their first dose and 30.2 million their second. From today, all adults over 21 can book their first dose.
Vaccine supplies are robust and delivering to forecast. For the Pfizer vaccine, we expect supply in June to be 30% more than in May, and July’s will be 80% more than in June. Supplies should be sustained at this level in August. So I thank everyone involved in the vaccination programme for their continued efforts to maintain this tremendous progress over the weeks ahead.
I would like to anticipate a couple of the questions that may arise in the debate ahead, and I will start with borders. A number of noble Lords have asked why, if the delta variant has changed our assessment so much, we did not act sooner, protect our borders more quickly and prevent the variant entering the country. I would say that we did act quickly to reduce the importation of the delta variant; we took the decision to add India to the red list immediately upon being advised that this lineage of variant was potentially higher risk than any other variants under investigation, and several days before the delta was considered a variant of concern. We acted quickly and with caution. The contribution of variants to the surge in cases in India was at that time unclear. We added India to the red list on 23 April, with arrivals having to quarantine for 10 days in a hotel. Before India was red listed, everyone had to quarantine on arrival for 10 days, take a pre-departure test and two further tests on days 2 and 8 of quarantine.
The decision to add and remove countries from the red list is made by Ministers, informed by the latest scientific data and public health advice from a world-leading range of experts. As with all our coronavirus measures, we keep the red list under constant review, and our priority remains to protect the health of the UK public. However, this does not change the fact that this virus is a formidable enemy and needs to be tackled on many fronts. Border measures are important, but that does not mean that we can be complacent elsewhere. We have learned that Covid likes to take advantage of complacency, which is one reason why we each need to take individual responsibility for tackling the virus. We all need to follow the public health advice to protect the progress that we have made.
I will now move on to a topic that I know many noble Lords are interested in: singing. We are aware that singing can increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission through the spread of aerosol droplets. It is particularly dangerous indoors, where the particles can build up and, as with any activity, the cumulative effect of aerosol transmission means that the more people are involved, the higher the risk of transmission. The guidance mirrors our approach elsewhere to be more cautious indoors than outdoors and to be mindful of the impact that our actions have on other people.
Finally, can I say a word about adult social care vaccination? An extensive six-week consultation on making the vaccine a condition of employment for care home staff concluded on 26 May. It saw a fantastic level of engagement; we see a clear public health rationale for driving vaccination uptake in care homes.
So I am confident that we will be in a stronger position by 19 July. This pause at step 3 will help us reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths and will protect the NHS. I commend these regulations to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, we are told it is “one last heave”, “a teeny bit longer”, “just a little longer” and “we only rely on the data, not the dates”. “Freedom day”, which was meant to be next Monday, has now been replaced by “terminus day”, 19 July. I hope we all believe in freedom. It is no business of the Government to tell us whether we can, for instance, hug people. They can advise perhaps, but not order us. People should be free to make their own decisions and their own assessment of risk.
We have been told since this started 15 months ago so many contradictory things. I shall start at the beginning: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. I understand—the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—that 1% of hospital patients are now in for Covid-related issues. Are the hospitals overwhelmed? Is the NHS protected? It is not like Italy last March. On “save lives”, according to the Times, yesterday there were three Covid deaths. The average number of daily deaths over the past four weeks has been in single figures. We know that more than 75% of deaths are among the over-80s; we know that underlying health conditions—obesity, diabetes, respiratory problems or infections—are normally contributory factors to fatalities. The Prime Minister said that the extension to these regulations would save “thousands of lives”. I am not sure that is right.
This is a very serious and unpleasant virus that is killing people, but it is not the Black Death, the Great Plague or the Spanish flu. I ask every Peer in the Chamber or listening how many people they know—not know of, but know: friends or family—who have died of Covid. Most people will say none. I know two. One was an 89 year-old relation with severe dementia in a care home—where, by the way, he caught the virus; the second was a charming, really nice 55 year-old who had been working in the Commons tea room ever since I got there, Julia Clifford. It was a tragic death and I am so sorry. She had leukaemia, for which she was being successfully treated by the NHS with chemotherapy. Her immune system was damaged, and she caught the virus in hospital.
Other advice included, “It’s pointless to wear face masks”—we were told that until August last year. I can see some wisdom in wearing them, but we are now told that droplets of breath escape from the sides—I really do not know, but I deprecate the litter they have brought. We were told “wash your hands”—very good hygiene—and “clean surfaces”. Now a study shows—I do not know whether it is true—that one in 10,000 cases are contracted from surfaces, and many fewer than 10,000 cases were reported yesterday. Can my noble friend tell me whether that study is correct?
The Government say that “we are following the data”, but we are not; we are being spooked by the possibilities of risk. The only huge success story is vaccinations. I congratulate the Government, all those involved, Kate Bingham—who was criticised by some members of the Opposition for being, first, successful and, secondly, married to a Conservative Minister—and the Minister, Nadhim Zahawi. Is it not the case that 95% of vulnerable people—those most at risk of death or severe consequences—have now been vaccinated? So who are we protecting and from what risk?
If I might digress, mandatory testing for travellers is a completely pointless racket and hugely expensive. I went to Lisbon a couple of weeks ago. I had three tests to go on a long weekend. Two were in the UK. There was a special deal; the price was reduced by 50% to £120, but while I was away it went down to £86, so that is a huge profit for the company. As two vaccinated people, we paid a total of about £450 for tests.
We are literally mortgaging our children’s future. They will be paying off the national debt for decades. We are deliberately harming our country; this is deliberate self-harm. Even Tony Blair, with whom I disagree about most things, says that some 6 million jobs may be lost offshore, and the data shows me that this is unnecessary. Airlines, the travel industry, hospitality—all are hugely harmed. Hotels, pubs and restaurants have closed and will never open again. The impact on education and our children’s development is horrendous, and what is it for? The data says that there was an average of fewer than 10 deaths daily post the vaccination success, but in the summer something like 1,300 people die daily in the UK, and there is an average of some 1,700 deaths each day over the year.
It gives me no pleasure to move this fatal amendment to the Motion, but I fear that the Government’s policy is foolish and harmful, and I know a great many people agree with me. The Government admit that they do not know the impact. I shall quote from page 4 of the regulations:
“No impact assessment has been prepared for these Regulations.”
The front page says that this is a
“serious and imminent threat to public health”.
Is it really, if the vulnerable have all been vaccinated? Is it proportionate to close businesses and put people out of work for very little? To repeat my noble friend Lord Hannan in the last debate, to what problem is this SI the answer? We need to live with the virus, as the Chancellor and, I think, the Prime Minister have said, and we need to live with risk. Parliament is responsible for legislation, especially of course the House of Commons, rather than here. We are being asked, as parliamentarians, to suspend our critical faculties. This measure does not deserve to be nodded through. It impacts adversely on too many lives and on our country’s future. I shall, with regret, divide the House today, in the hope that many who agree with me will wish to be counted.
First, I thank the Minister for his briefing this morning, which I found extremely interesting and useful. I thought at first that I had strayed into a private seminar with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and the Minister, but after half an hour other people managed to get in. Having said that, the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, were very pertinent and well answered by the Minister and his officials. I also watched the debate in the other place this afternoon, so there are obviously a lot of outstanding issues.
I support these regulations with a heavy heart. I accept a lot of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said about the impact on our economy. I want to ask, for instance, about compulsory vaccination for care home staff. Does that extend to care staff who go round various houses on the same day? If it does, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that their civil liberties are protected, that they get financial support and that the vacancy rate for care staff, which is already over 100,000, is actually tackled?
One point that came up frequently is the need to get rid of sloganising. We do not want “freedom day” or “terminus day”; we want facts and proportionality, in the way that the Minister is very good at. This sloganising does not help—it builds unrealistic expectations and diverts us from the detail.
Finally, there is an extraordinary thing about this fatal amendment. If I had read this letter from the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister was Keir Starmer and I was then moved to table a fatal amendment, questioning my Prime Minister when he said:
“By being cautious now we have a chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people”,
it would be a very serious thing to try to kill off that statement. So, what is it about the Prime Minister that the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, does not think is to be trusted? I very much hope that the House will turn this down. It is not just an opportunity for a debate; this is a matter of life and death.
My Lords, here we are again, discussing emergency regulations because of incompetence and lack of speed by government. It is appalling that the Government did not take the correct decision to put India on the red travel list in early April, at the same time as Bangladesh. Yesterday, the Minister said that I should stand in his shoes about that decision. I note that, time after time, both the noble Lord and the Secretary of State gave the reason for Bangladesh but not India going on the red list as the positivity rate.
The data that I am about to read were on the Minister’s desk when the decision was made. In the two weeks leading up to Bangladesh going on the list, its positivity rate—based on the Government’s own test and trace data—was 3.7%. India’s positivity rate was 5.1%. You do not have to be a genius to work out that India’s positivity rate was higher than Bangladesh’s. Can the Minister explain why, when India had a higher positivity rate than Bangladesh, based on the Government’s own test and trace data, Bangladesh was put on the red list and India was not.
That catastrophic mistake by government meant that, rather than just under 40 seeded cases of the delta variant being in the UK on 2 April, it went up to nearly 1,000 seeded cases by the time that India was put on the red list. Public health research shows that, if India had been put on the red list at the same time as Bangladesh, it would have given four to seven weeks’ grace before we started hitting the surge levels of the delta variant that we are seeing now. That would have meant that everybody over 40 could have received a second dose—in four weeks—or everyone over 30—in seven weeks—and all adults would have had a single dose of the vaccine. The Government were driven by a date: a date for the Prime Minister to visit India to look for a trade deal. A consequence of Ministers not following the data is that trade in this country is now suppressed for four weeks. This is a disgraceful abdication of following the data and keeping our country safe. The country deserves far better than this. It is clear that the Minister and the Government made the wrong call.
We will have to live with the virus as it becomes endemic, and take measures to support this. One area where change is required is self-isolation. Evidence is overwhelming that the biggest impediment to people self-isolating, or even taking a test, is practical support and financial security for the whole period of isolation. We do not need pilots to re-prove this; action from the Government is required now. A self-isolation system that gives individuals both the practical and financial support to isolate for the full period will be essential to minimise future local lockdowns. Despite repeated requests from these Benches to pay people their full wages, the Government will still not do so. They need to address this now and not continue to ignore the data.
My Lords, if anyone had told me when we first debated Covid controls that we would still be in lockdown over a year later despite, first, only 1% of hospital beds being filled by Covid patients, and, secondly, that vaccines that are between 92% and 96% effective had been given to over half the UK adult population, including the vast proportion of those most at risk, I would not have believed them. This creeping government control of daily life, aided by all opposition parties, in a country which used to be free, is depressing. There is always an excuse for new controls: pressure on the NHS; risks from new variants; long Covid. Will this ever end? Most importantly, what could be any different in four weeks’ time?
The extension is yet again a fait accompli, but I will make two points. First, it is extraordinary that cost-benefit is still neglected. Every week of continued lockdown is costing billions. We are crippling our economy, which is still well below last year’s levels. Debt is building up on a scale not seen since World War II. Inflation is taking off. Some 5 million are on NHS waiting lists, which will lead to unnecessary deaths. It is difficult to see your GP and visits to patients and old people’s homes are restricted, causing unhappiness. University students have had their academic careers affected and mental health problems have increased. The streets are blighted by old masks and the internet by Covid scams. There is almost no overseas travel. Furlough schemes are still running and being phased out too slowly, stopping the labour market working properly. Bars, fruit farms and even the NHS are short of staff, but billions are being spent on furlough, adding to the eye-watering £70 billion cost which the Minister mentioned yesterday.
There is an extraordinary, time-consuming bureaucratisation of life: costly social distancing; paperwork in every pub; a huge amount of time in every respectable company devoted to observing the rules. Now there are rafts of costly cancellations as well—for example, of cricket tickets, to declare a personal interest. My noble friend has always been resistant to cost-benefit analysis, which I find surprising given his esteemed business background. Is this being looked at in a broad way for the future management of pandemics?
My second point is about the misuse of emergency powers. Has the Minister read the blistering report by the Constitution Committee? I hope that that powerful paper leads to some necessary, even if tardy, reflection in government circles. When I worked in government, we took pride in helping Parliament to scrutinise, cost and help Ministers come to the right conclusions. I think that such an approach might lead to greater success.
My Lords, public health is more important than it has ever been, apart from during the Black Death and the Spanish flu. We now have a variant that is more serious than the original coronavirus. The delta variant is relentless and sweeping across the UK. It is attacking young people who have not been vaccinated and are at risk of getting long Covid. It has also put some people who have not been vaccinated in hospital. A young student at school in Gloucestershire told me that the class above his had got the virus, and the class and teacher were isolating. Young people do not want to be spreaders. When can they be vaccinated? Is the problem that there is a shortage of the Pfizer vaccine?
I hope that the Government will think again about senior schoolchildren wearing masks. There is confusion about mask wearing. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, people were told that masks were not necessary. Prevention is better than cure. I send my heartfelt condolences to all the families whose loved ones did not make it. It is a very difficult matter to have to continue with restrictions, but with the rise in infections again, I think that it is the right thing to do.
I am concerned that there are staff working in hospitals, in care homes and visiting people in their own home who have not been vaccinated and do not want to be. They could be putting patients and their colleagues at risk. Perhaps, they should not work in contact with people. Local authorities are given enforcement powers. How are these going to be enforced?
Having read the information for health protection, I am not clear on the outcomes before 19 July 2021. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House clearly about air travel, weddings and funerals. How many people are allowed at these functions?
My Lords, many of you will remember going past Westminster station last week to see a crowd of people shouting about freedom—young, intelligent people, many of them properly educated, not wearing masks, crowded together in a mass. Indeed, those of your Lordships who travel on the Northern line, as I have done today and all this last week, will have seen numerous young people not wearing masks, as there is no enforcement of that. They are a risk to other people, young and old. Nothing is being done about it because it is not being enforced. There is nobody on the Tube to enforce it.
I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, with great interest, as I always do. His wide and extensive knowledge of medicine and science does not need to be explained to the House, nor indeed his undoubted expertise in statistics. That is admirable. Indeed, I have listened to him with great interest in this Chamber and on the Long Table from time to time. I also recognise that he will very much understand the issue of human ethics. As a distinguished soldier, he will remember the paramount issue for all people, including soldiers: we try at all times, above all, to protect human life.
Therefore, it is important for us to consider that this is a very difficult situation. As a practising soldier, the noble Lord will know the difficult choices that are made in order to protect life. I suggest to him that, although extensive, his knowledge is not likely to be as extensive as that of those expert advisers giving advice to the Prime Minister. I have no doubt at all that the Government have made very many mistakes, but we are not here to discuss those mistakes. They are undoubtedly riding high on the output of vaccines. They have been very lucky, and we are glad that they have been lucky because we could been very unlucky, whichever Government had been in power.
The fact is that the Government have succeeded, and it is really important, at this moment of national tension, when people are still not fully prepared to accept what is necessary to regulate us, that people respect what the Government are doing. To challenge the Government at this moment is a shocking risk. It is an ethical risk to do that because these people will be damaging lives. We see those people in the streets and I will see them on the Tube when I go home tonight. Even if I told them to wear a mask, they would be abusive at the very least and I would possibly do it at my own risk.
We have to recognise that there is a need for us to be supportive, not to undermine Parliament and this instrument. To do so would bring this measure into disrepute and bring more distrust and concern. What the Government need to do is to communicate better. I do not say to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, that that is easy, as he knows that very well, but the communication we have all done has not been good enough. We need to find a way somehow to encourage those young people to think about their responsibilities to their parents, grandparents and other people in our community.
My Lords, I support the postponement of the easing of restrictions and reject the fatal amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, as daily cases have now jumped to 9,000. We need more time to continue the vaccination programme before it will be somewhat safer to ease restrictions.
However, people are still suffering economically, so can the Minister say whether the furlough scheme will be extended, as well as the ban on domestic evictions, now that the Government have extended the ban on commercial evictions? Can he also tell us about the border restriction system? New variants will arise wherever large amounts of virus circulate and some may be resistant to the current vaccines. Have the Government learned from their disastrous mistake in not red-listing India three weeks earlier, when the information indicated they should? Have the criteria been adapted to prevent such a mistake happening again?
Clearly, Covid will continue to circulate in the UK for a long time after we ease restrictions, so an effective test, trace and isolate system is as important as ever. The weak link is the isolation system. An internal Whitehall assessment, seen yesterday by the media, of the financial support for those who need to isolate gave the system a low to medium effectiveness rating. Barriers and disincentives exist, particularly for those on low incomes or in precarious work, so more needs to be done.
Every time my noble friends and I have raised this over the past 15 months, the Minister has referred to the £500 grant, ignoring the fact that it is not available for most people who apply for it because they believe they really need it. I heard yesterday about a pilot scheme for increasing this support. We do not need more pilot schemes; we need immediate action. We will be living with this virus for a long time and, if nothing is done to improve isolation rates, the restrictions that the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, so abhors will have to be reintroduced in the winter.
One thing that should be done straightaway is to increase sick pay. The current sick pay rates are not enough for a mouse to live on. No wonder people go into work coughing, spluttering and spreading germs of all sorts—they cannot afford to stay at home. In the end, encouraging people to stay at home could increase the country’s productivity by reducing the number of fellow workers catching transmissible infections. We need a culture change on that.
However, coughs and colds are by the by. We have not yet conquered Covid-19. The Government must use these extra few weeks well, not just to vaccinate more people but to transform the isolation rate for the better. Can the Minister therefore tell us how the Government plan to achieve this?
My Lords, as the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have said repeatedly, we ultimately will have to learn to live with Covid. This means accepting that a tiny proportion of those who are immune, either because they are young and healthy or because they are have been vaccinated, will none the less succumb to Covid in future, which will continue to circulate as the flu and other viruses do.
We have already offered the vaccine to all those who are particularly susceptible through age and health condition. That accounts for 99% of potential deaths. Some 30 million of those people have had both jabs and are as safe as they ever will be; 12 million have had the first jab so are already partly protected. We are told that the only reason for extending the regulations is to give those people time to have the second jab. Surely it would be possible to say to those 12 million people, “If you want to achieve the maximum level of protection, you should, during the remaining 10 weeks, make sure that you behave very cautiously in who you mix with and obey more restrictions than the Government are imposing upon you.”
Of the remainder, a few have chosen not to be vaccinated. That is their right and their risk. They should not be able to hold the rest of us to ransom. The young and the fit face a tiny risk of fatality commensurate with other risks with which they also live and, I am told by officials, commensurate with the tiny risk of blood clots from the AstraZeneca jab. I can see no reason to extend the controls beyond 21 June. The only reason given was this business about allowing the people who have had one jab to have their second. Surely that should be left to their personal responsibility.
During the seminar this morning to which the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, referred, I was told that there is an additional reason: many of the 30 million people who have had two jabs could be infected asymptomatically and spread the virus. But who could they spread it to? The answer is: only people who are already vaccinated or are too young to be at serious risk. By definition, therefore, there is no reason for these regulations. I shall oppose them and possibly even vote against them via the fatal amendment.
My Lords, I have no problem with the step approach that the Government have taken. For the country psychologically, it has been a very good thing that there has been a plan, even if that plan has had to be modified. Restrictions have been a necessity even if they can be fine-tuned. I do not support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.
The problems lie in other areas, including how quickly the Government react. We cannot afford to make another mistake like we did in letting the delta variant into the country, which is the very reason for the four -week delay. I ask the Minister the same question I asked in the helpful meeting earlier today so that it can be put on the record: how carefully are the Government watching other countries? In Vietnam, for instance, where there may be a different strain of the virus, cases are rising quickly. That country is currently on the amber list.
The Minister will appreciate that, for the arts, hospitality and night-time sectors, this delay in progressing the road map will be devastating. The live events organisation LIVE estimates that 5,000 events will be cancelled and over £0.5 billion in revenue will be lost. It is essential more than ever that a government-backed insurance scheme should be put in place for both music events and indeed for commercial theatre.
I ask the Government to provide much greater transparency over the results of their Events Research Programme, whose results should be published in full. If findings can support full reopening of similar settings as in the pilot events, we need to know this as quickly as possible. Thousands of jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Despite what the Minister said earlier, I ask the Government to look again at the restrictions on amateur choirs and the most recent scientific evidence supporting some lifting of the current restrictions, such as the Costello PERFORM study, which, somewhat ironically, allowed some opening up of professional settings in the autumn. But the many amateur choirs up and down the country are not hobbies; they are organised creative activities, often led by professionals, and should be treated as such.
Although the Government are signalling that they want to wind financial support down, we should not forget that many freelancers continue to fall through the gaps in support. Some 40% of musicians have still received no financial support. Many of the 1.3 million PAYE freelancers who have received no support now for well over a year work in the creative sector, many also in digital technologies and many in small businesses. There are two things here. There is the misery these freelancers have been going through, which anyone who attended the last Gaps in Support APPG meeting will be very well aware of. But there is also the effect this is having on the industries themselves. Highly skilled workers are being forced out of their jobs and some are leaving the country, including coders. These industries, which should be at the forefront of recovery, deserve protecting and the Government should look at this again.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate today and declare my music festival interest as stated in the register.
Can my noble friend tell your Lordships’ House what the Government are doing to correct the appallingly low take-up of vaccinations in some areas of London such as Tower Hamlets, where only 24% of adults have had a single dose and only 49% both doses? Indeed, in London as a whole, 20% fewer adults have had either one or two doses compared with the country at large.
Along with millions of other citizens, I could understand the logic of the Government’s original decision to introduce lockdown measures to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, in spite of the successful rushed construction of the Nightingale hospitals, which much reduced the likelihood of that happening. There was and is a balance between protecting people from serious illness and death from the disease and avoiding serious damage to the economy and peoples’ livelihoods. Whether or not the Government have always got that balance right since the onset of the pandemic, I sincerely think that the decision to extend further restrictions is not justified, and I will support my noble friend Lord Robathan if he should decide to divide the House. I do not believe there is any real possibility of the NHS being overwhelmed by this new spike in the Indian, or delta, variant.
The information presented at the Downing Street press conference was selective and misleading. It purported to show that hospitalisations are now rising following the surge in infections. However, examination of the data on the number of patients in hospital as opposed to the number of admissions to hospital gives a rather different picture. The number of in-patients with Covid is flatlining, because most of those admitted to hospital are not seriously ill and are discharged after a much shorter period than was the case in previous waves. Is it not now unreasonable to argue that the NHS is anywhere near being at risk of being overwhelmed?
The damage to the economy and particularly to the entertainment and creative sectors is now more serious. The Government have helped many businesses survive until now, through various schemes including the Culture Recovery Fund. However, there are many among those whose survival they have assisted that are now between a rock and a very hard place. For example, music festivals scheduled for dates after 21 June but before 19 July have no alternative now but to cancel. Those scheduled for later dates must make a judgment as to whether to go ahead without insurance—a substantial risk, as they have to incur irrecoverable expenses to make necessary preparations. Can my noble friend tell the House if the Government will, at last, put in place a suitable insurance scheme, which is so desperately needed? On that point, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.
My Lords, I reluctantly support this extension for the reasons my noble friend the Minister has given. Personally, I would have taken the risk since, although the number of cases is rising, deaths are not. There is no danger of the NHS being overwhelmed and, in any case, I always thought the NHS was there to save us, not the other way round.
But I am afraid the Government had to do this or else they would have been accused of not following the scientific advice and we would have yet more rent-a-quote professors from SAGE, NERVTAG or whatever these groups are called popping up in the media, spouting about catastrophe. Like my right honourable friend Michael Gove, I am heartily sick of scientists now. From even the first press conference way back last March, as soon as Vallance or Whitty sat down, the media—both TV and press—produced a professor from SAGE who contradicted them and said it was too slow or too fast, or few would die or half a million would die. Will my noble friend not insist on collective responsibility from these advisory organisations and sack those who do not accept it? They are frightening the public unnecessarily with their one-off, individualistic views.
I must congratulate the Government again on their masterful handling of the vaccination programme. The NHS gets the credit for sticking needles in arms, but there would be no needles or vaccinations to stick in arms if the PM had not given Kate Bingham the instruction to save lives, and she pulled together a fantastic private enterprise team to do just that. Then we had the brilliant decision of the Secretary of State for Health to tell Oxford to go with AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca deserves our everlasting praise and thanks.
Look at the top 20 countries in the world for percentage of population vaccinated; nine of them are the United Kingdom and our overseas territories. Look at the countries that have done the most injections overall; we are in the top three. Therefore, in terms of population vaccinated and sheer numbers, we are the first in the world and I congratulate my noble friend and all Ministers on that magnificent achievement.
I was pleased to read today that the Government will make it compulsory for care home staff to be vaccinated—and about time too—but what about NHS staff? It is utterly unacceptable for there to be refuseniks among NHS staff. That should be a gross misconduct offence, leading to a final written warning and dismissal. Why should patients who have followed the rules and had their vaccinations be put at risk going into an NHS hospital and brushing shoulders with staff who refuse to be vaccinated?
Finally, I hope the whole country will not be stuck in lockdown again because some areas or groups of people refuse to be vaccinated. If people in London or Bolton do not want vaccinations, tough luck on them, but the rest of the country should not suffer because of their stupidity. They should be at the end of the queue for hospital treatment, behind people who have had their vaccinations but require other essential medical care.
My Lords, I refer to the register of interests to the extent that any are relevant to this debate. I know that many were disappointed when the Prime Minister announced on Monday evening that he would not be lifting all the coronavirus restrictions next week but instead leaving them in place until at least 19 July. I do not demur from that decision, as it is important that the Government look at the data and the vaccination figures to help them decide. Given the speed at which the delta variant spreads and the achievement with vaccinations, it was a wise step. Clearly, as much notice in advance would have helped, so perhaps this can be borne in mind, as many businesses need more than a week’s notice to gear up to open.
I will speak on two aspects. The first is that many of the Government’s protections were due to expire in June. Given this delay, can these now be extended until 19 July—for example, business rates relief—particularly since businesses will not be getting the income from trade?
The second is how we can increase the take-up of vaccines. In my daughter’s central London borough, Kensington and Chelsea, the take-up of vaccines is merely 48%, compared with a national average of 78%. What more can the Government do to increase take-up, as it affects more than just the individual concerned?
My Lords, yesterday, in a perhaps intemperate intervention, I expressed frustration over the Government’s vaccine manufacturing strategy. However, the Minister’s response—characteristically frank and generous—left me both alarmed and even more concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said that
“we make hardly any vaccine at all. It is not for us as a nation to manufacture the vaccine. Where we have contributed is, first, through the science—particularly the AstraZeneca vaccine—and, secondly, through global leadership.”—[Official Report, 15/6/21; col. 1785.]
I profoundly disagree with this strategy.
In February last year I challenged the policy on mask supply, and I now challenge the strategy on vaccine supply. I am using this SI as a peg on which to hang my case. WHO stats indicate vaccination rates of less than 5% across much of the globe. The world is becoming increasingly reliant on China, with its hugely expanding export programme, for vaccine supplies.
India, with a vaccination rate of perhaps 6%, is struggling to deal with its own Covid crisis. Covishield, under licence from AstraZeneca, Covaxin, under licence from Bharat Biotech, and potentially Sputnik are all needed to deal with the Indian crisis—there are a third of a million deaths already, and Indian vaccines are now subject to an indefinite export ban.
Therein lies the problem. Diverse vaccine ingredient supply arrangements cannot be relied on at a time when world demand is soaring. We need to ramp up our own ingredient and wider vaccine production capacity. The current vaccine shortages are an alarm call. A policy based on fortress Britain scouring the world in the future for precious ingredient supplies has huge implications for foreign policy, stability both at home and abroad, and the third world.
The answer is for the UK to change course and follow a more adventurous strategy. We should lead the world in vaccine supply with a manifold, substantial increase in full-spectrum-of-ingredients vaccine production capacity, here at home. We would win the respect of the world if we were to follow that course.
We need to listen to Gordon Brown when he stated last weekend:
“At least 11bn vaccine doses are needed to guarantee all countries the same levels of anti-Covid protection as the west. Without that … the disease will continue to spread, mutate”.
I hope we are all listening to those very wise words.
My Lords, the best news of today is the letter from the Lord Speaker indicating that we will go back to normal on 6 September, debates will take place on the Floor of this House and we will not vote from our beds in the south of France.
I associate myself to a large degree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I will not oppose the Government today for two main reasons. First, the vaccine programme has been an outstanding, unmitigated success, and we must all be grateful for that.
Secondly, on a more personal note, I have been badgering my noble friend on the Front Bench month after month for the announcement that he gave this evening about care workers in care homes and compulsory vaccination. Of course my noble friend Lord Blencathra is right about the NHS, but I implore the Minister to speed the process up. We really must make sure that the most vulnerable are not at risk from those who cater for their most intimate needs.
I also say to my noble friend, who has tried to be helpful, but was not actually terribly helpful on the singing issue—and I associate myself very much with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friend Lord Trenchard—that there has been a devastating impact on the creative music industry.
Throughout this period, there has been a lack of clarity and consistency in the messages that have come from on high. I attribute this to the fact that Parliament has not been as respected as it should have been. It was, frankly, a disgrace that the Prime Minister made his announcement to Daphne from Dewsbury in the press corps on Monday evening, when he should have been taking questions from the Member of Parliament for Dewsbury instead.
It really is crucial that we have a Government who respect Parliament. The great thing about 6 September is that after then, they will be more answerable to Parliament. We will be able to intervene on Ministers. We will be able to hold them properly to account. That is essential, because we have lost a lot during this pandemic, and the greatest loss of all could prove to be an erosion of parliamentary sovereignty. We must always make sure that we are here in great numbers from September, debating in this Chamber and in our committees and holding the Government properly to account, so that as we continue to battle this scourge—and we will—we defeat it.
My Lords, speaking from Cambridgeshire, like my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Blencathra I intend to support the Government’s regulations, but I do so with significant reservations. When we discussed the previous iteration of these regulations, I think my noble friend the Minister and I agreed that the time was fast approaching when we should move from legislation and enforcement to guidance. I think that moment is now very close.
Why have the Government decided to defer the date from 21 June? Looking at the four tests, it seems to me that they can have taken the decision only on the fourth; that is, if noble Lords recall, whether variants of concern have “fundamentally changed” their risk assessment. I do not think the data supports a fundamental change in the risk assessment, but Ministers quite understandably do not yet know why, for example, a Public Health Scotland study found that hospitalisations were at twice the levels of the alpha variant. I think they want to know why this is the case.
The observation from my noble friend the Minister that 1.2 million people over 50 or clinically extremely vulnerable have yet to receive their second vaccine dose is relevant but, at 175,000 second doses a day at present, there is no reason why in the week ahead—or a fortnight at most—those requiring a second dose who are most at risk should not all receive it.
This fortnight is about finding out whether the delta variant is a variant of concern or a variant of high consequence. It has not been designated as such by the WHO, the CDC or anyone else yet. It would be so designated only if it substantially reduced the effectiveness of vaccines against it. I do not think that has yet been proven, and I hope that Ministers will look at the data literally daily and, if it is obvious that the vaccine doses are effective against the delta variant, intervene and lift the remaining legal restrictions while keeping in place so many of the social distancing and other precautionary measures we should all take as matters of individual responsibility.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I join in the thanks for the Minister’s briefings to Peers, which are helpful in the ever-changing landscape of the Covid pandemic. These Benches are pleased that we are debating these two SIs prior to them being enacted. We warned weeks ago that renewal was almost inevitable given the way that the delta variant had seeded so quickly and case numbers were increasing steeply, as they still are.
It is obvious that the delta variant is much more transmissible than the previous dominant variants. PHE has said today that the variant may have an R number as high as seven without measures. It is clear that we are at the start of a further major surge in infection and to do anything other than renew these regulations now would be a major mistake. This time last year, when the first lockdown restrictions were lifted, the daily case rate was below 1,000. Two weeks ago, it had crept up to more than 3,000. Today’s rate is a shocking 9,000. The delta variant is spreading fast, hospital admissions are increasing and in the north-west ITU beds have also increased, so my first question to the Minister is: if in two to three weeks’ time the data shows that restrictions need to continue, will he guarantee that further renewal of these SIs will be before they are brought into effect and before we go into recess?
This afternoon, it has been announced that business evictions will now be stayed until March next year. That is something, but on its own it is not enough. Why are residential evictions proceeding? For those struggling to find alternative housing, this is a real crisis. I am afraid it also sums up this Government’s attitude. They will help business tenants, but not individuals who are likely to end up homeless. Can the Minister explain why other government support for people and businesses is not being extended? The furlough scheme rates are about to reduce on 1 July and it will be abolished in September, despite hospitality not being able to open up fully, the creative sector still not being able to work and all workers still being advised to work from home if at all possible. Other support for businesses also remains firmly locked on the “freedom day” of 21 June, which is now clearly anything but.
I echo the points made by my noble friend Lord Scriven on the Government’s delay in putting India on the red list. There is only one reason why we are having to extend these regulations: the Prime Minister’s trip to India.
The Speaker of the House of Commons made it plain on Monday that the Prime Minister and his Government should not make announcements to the press first, yet today our papers are full of news that Ministers plan legislation to force social care home staff to have vaccinations. When will this be announced in Parliament? Given that the leaks seem to cover a lot that was not part of the original consultation, will the Minister answer the following questions? Will the scheme cover just care home staff? There are mutters about the wider social sector, so will it include supported living staff, staff in sheltered accommodation and staff at residential boarding schools for pupils with medical or learning disabilities? If not, what are the differences?
What will the Government do to assist the sector? Many small care providers took legal advice about whether, if they could not redeploy unvaccinated staff elsewhere, they would be liable to be sued by any staff who are sacked on Government orders. Only the Government can help to answer that. What will be the effect of this proposal on the social care workforce? Care providers are currently reporting that staff are leaving to go to work in the hospitality sector, where substantial pay increases are being offered as restrictions are lifted. Agriculture is also short of workers and is reported to be offering £20 an hour, which social care just cannot match. Will all agency staff have to be vaccinated too? What is the timescale to introduce this?
I support the call of my noble friend Lady Walmsley for proper funding for those who have to self-isolate. From these Benches, we continue to ask repeatedly for wages to be paid and, as a last resort, sick pay to be increased to a sensible level. That will increase the numbers of people self-isolating.
Overall, the proposed measures are sensible and continue part of the process of enabling local, rapid response on the ground, run by directors of public health, local authorities and local resilience forums, without the need to constantly return to central government. This process needs to include more powers over protective measures to be taken in schools, so that locally they do not need to ask the DfE for permission. With the delta variant growing in schools, rapid action needs to be taken.
To the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, I say that the tripling of cases in a fortnight, and hospitals in surge areas seeing an increase in patients—even if not as severe—are preventing our NHS from being able to tackle the backlog of urgent cases, including cancer and other serious and life-changing illnesses. I have known three people who have died of Covid—but, much more worryingly, a young family friend in her 30s has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which was missed because of a missed smear test last year. We have to have an NHS that can operate and look after the whole population and is not just trying to catch up with Covid.
One thing is evident: with the delta variant, we are going to have to learn to live with Covid and its restrictions, whether on mask wearing or ventilation inside. At times like this, we must continue the current arrangements in some form while the variant can be seen to be working its way round to those who are still vulnerable. If we do not manage these restrictions well, we will find ourselves back in a much more stringent lockdown, which not one of us wants. We must continue to take these precautions to keep ourselves safe. We must continue to test, trace and isolate to keep everyone safe. That is why, from these Benches, we cannot support the fatal Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.
My Lords, as we discussed yesterday when we took the Statement about the delay in actioning the road map, the Prime Minister is responsible for the position we are in. He was too slow to protect the country’s borders and too indecisive to take tough decisions. This left the country exposed and allowed a new variant from overseas to take hold. The Minister waxed lyrical yesterday about how much work is being done to keep our borders safe, but the truth is that his Government failed to protect us. Because the British people did their bit by supporting the vaccine programme and getting vaccinated, in effect our Prime Minister is squandering our vaccine. That is the danger of what has happened.
I do not intend to repeat the questions I asked yesterday about why and how the delta variant arrived and thrived in the UK, because other noble Lords have asked them already. We on these Benches understand that cases and hospitalisations are rising and the delta variant is more transmissible; we therefore understand why these regulations are necessary. Even with the current restrictions in place, the daily total of positive tests is rising: the seven-day rolling average is over 7,000 new cases a day. Cases are doubling every seven to 14 days and the delta variant is dominant in the UK.
Although hospitalisations remain low, they are now rising—particularly in the north-west, but other regions are beginning to follow. Early public health data from England and Scotland points to an increased risk of hospitalisation from the delta variant, with the likelihood of hospitalisation 2.3 times higher than for those infected by the alpha variant. So we support these regulations and will be voting against the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.
I would like to turn to weddings; let us look at something joyful. These regulations leave thousands of couples, businesses and employees with uncertainty that could and should have been avoided. Under the regulations, the 30-person cap on wedding ceremonies and receptions has been removed. Speeches, cake cutting and the newlyweds’ first dance are permitted—but cash donations, dancing outdoors and hymn singing in church are advised against. Indoor dancing on dancefloors, standing drinks receptions and buffets remain banned.
This Government are of course fond of tiers and traffic-light lists but do not seem to have learned anything from the previous confusion that they have sown by issuing advice that contradicts the letter of the law. Indeed, the amber list of wedding activities that are merely advised against but not explicitly banned will surely be viewed by many as a legal loophole, just as holidaymakers travelled to and from amber-listed countries, despite being advised not to do so.
The banned list is less confusing, but it is unclear who is responsible for ensuring that the rules are enforced: is it the happy couple or the venue? Will the DJ be expected to cut the music if someone starts to sway in time to the beat? What happens if these rules are broken? Many noble Lords flagged up this inconsistency yesterday.
Having said that, the ratio of cases to hospitalisations remains the key uncertainty. Keeping restrictions in place allows more data to be gathered on the delta variant before fully unlocking, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and several others have said.
As the Minister said, vaccination is the key over the next four weeks. Does he believe that we have the vaccine supplies needed to vaccinate everyone to the timetable that he has set out, and what steps will he be taking to increase the speed of vaccinations over the coming weeks? Cases of the delta variant have been found in this country for two months, and yet, in some areas, surge testing and vaccination are yet to be implemented. Does the Minister believe that it is the failure to introduce mitigating measures early that has led to the delay to the easing of lockdown restrictions we are discussing today? We learned from the media today that there may be a shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. Is this the case, and what effect will that have on the drive to vaccinate young people in England?
Why, when we are 15 months into the pandemic, have the Government failed to take meaningful action to help businesses, schools and leisure facilities improve ventilation, when this is an airborne virus? I suggest to the Minister that we need a ventilation strategy.
The issue around care homes has been covered—but when is this likely to happen? This is a significant change and not an uncomplicated one. Will there be time for a proper debate in Parliament before it is implemented?
Leading on from that, I hope that, in a month’s time, we will be in a different place from now. I also hope that this is the last time that the House will have to discuss regulations that have such far-reaching consequences for our citizens without proper accountability and due process. I accept that this is a few days before the regulations are implemented. Surely, it is time to stop using emergency powers for matters that are clearly not actually an emergency and of which we have prior notice.
Yesterday, the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said that he thought partial working from home would become permanent for some people as restrictions were lifted. The Minister needs to confirm how that will happen and whether guidance will stay in place for the long haul as part of a raft of measures being considered by the Government for life after Covid? For example, there have been reports that Perspex screens are ineffective in sufficiently stopping transmission of the disease, despite businesses having invested in them. I would like to know that the ones we sit behind in our Committee Room are indeed safe.
Finally, we on these Benches yet again do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. My noble friends Lady Donaghy and Lord Winston raised pertinent questions of ethics and judgment. We will vote against his amendment to the Motion if he calls a Division.
My Lords, this delay comes with huge regret—no one likes to see step 4 delayed in this way. I start by acknowledging that it will have an impact on many people’s lives. We have talked a lot in this Chamber about singing. I do not think that it is necessarily the biggest impact, but it is iconic and important. I am disappointed that I have not been able to satisfy my noble friend with my comments on it. I have the guidance on singing here, and I make it clear that the Government are not banning singing or dancing. We know that people want to get back to normal activities, but they need to acknowledge that singing and dancing can increase the risk of catching and passing on the virus. We know that singing is risky; that is proven. Covid can spread from person to person through small droplets in aerosols, and singing increases the risk of transmission through these. It is particularly dangerous indoors.
I return to the question of singing because I want to convey a sense of the science basis on which we have made these decisions and because of the importance we put on individual responsibility. We advise on amateur singers, sports matches, bars and restaurants and audience participation—I should be glad to share with the House a copy of this advice—we allow outdoor singing for amateur singers, audience participation and at sports matches, and professional choirs and singers are permitted to rehearse and perform in any number. That is a way of trying to say that a huge amount of consideration has gone into the practical impact of this advice and these guidelines, and where we have made tough decisions, it has been done with consideration.
I can give some good news to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. BEIS estimates that there will be 50,000 weddings in the four weeks from 21 June. To give the Chamber a sense of scale, assuming an average reception size of 50 people, that means that 2.5 million people will be able to go to a wedding this summer, and I know that that will be a huge relief to many of them.
I shall take a moment, a long moment, to address my noble friend Lord Lilley’s point seriously, because it is an important one. I agree with him wholeheartedly that we will learn to live with Covid, with some people catching the disease and, sadly, a very small number of them succumbing to it. The nation will need to commit to public health measures to fight new variants and outbreaks, as we have done through history. But let me address his strongly held view that we are today ready to unlock.
Yes, the vaccine programme is going well—and I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that the supplies are in place to commit to the programme as advertised—but the supply is still limited only to the supplies we have booked, so we need another month to offer it to everyone. Despite the effect of the vaccine on infection, transmission, serious disease and death, to which my noble friend referred in his very persuasive speech, infection rates are rising, and they are rising dramatically. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, put the statistics extremely well. The doubling rate in many LAs is just six days. The infection rate in schools is bubbling up. Outbreaks in social care are becoming regular.
We have been here before. To give your Lordships a specific example, in a city such as London, which has a relatively young population, there is a huge reservoir of potential novel, unvaccinated people, so we are just not quite out of this yet. Even if the vaccine does prevent severe disease, I remind noble Lords that there are more than a million—nearer 2 million—people who are immunosuppressed for one reason or another and for whom the vaccine does not offer a way out at all.
I also remind my noble friend Lord Lilley that if the infection were to be rife, even if the consequences were not disease and severe illness, it would not be consequence-free. We do not know the incidence of long Covid, but we do know that many of the people who have long Covid are completely asymptomatic, and we know that high rates of infection increase the conditions of mutation. That is what happened in Kent, to very grave effect, in September. So I say to my noble friend that I think this delay is necessary; it is right.
I remind the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that red-listing is not decided by some simple algorithmic relationship to infection rates. Red-listing is used principally to keep out variants of concern. During the period that he talked about, we were understandably focused on the South African variant, and it was the South African variant that was rife in Pakistan and Bangladesh and that led us to red-list those two countries. We did not have a copy of delta. We did not have the necessary sequencing data. The WHO had not attributed it as being a VOC. Let us look at what actually happened. The delta variant became a variant of concern on 7 May 2021. By this point, India had already been on the UK red list for a full two weeks.
I absolutely sympathise with the difficulties faced by individuals, families and businesses which my noble friend Lord Robathan reflected on. On his specific point, which was also raised by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, an impact assessment was not published for this instrument because it is a temporary measure extending the steps regulations for only a short period. But I completely understand their point, and I reassure them both that in making these decisions, we continually assess the economic and societal impact of restrictions, balancing these with risks to public health.
On my noble friend’s substantive point, I am always grateful for the challenge he brings. Over the last 18 months, he has expressed his scepticism. He is sceptical about the effectiveness of lockdowns. On both 9 October and 12 November, he questioned whether additional restrictions in Leicester were having any impact at all, yet we know that lockdowns work. In Leicester, we managed to reduce the daily incidence rate from 135 cases per 100,000 on 28 June to 25.3 cases per 100,000 on 3 September.
My noble friend is sceptical about the accuracy of tests. On 6 October, he claimed that a high proportion of tests bring back false positives, yet after 193 million Covid tests, we know that this is not true. Independent confirmatory testing of positive samples indicates a test specificity that exceeds 99.3%, meaning that the false positive rate is less than 1%.
My noble friend has been sceptical about the rate of deaths from Covid here in the UK, and he is sceptical that the Covid death rate is a cause for concern. On 24 July last year, he questioned whether the death rate was really that bad. On 23 September, he told us that the death rate is still
“only between 1% and 2% of the average daily death rate in this country.”—[Official Report, 23/9/20; col. 1889.]
My noble friend is sceptical that the NHS capacity has ever been at risk. On 29 July last year, he said that hospitals were “not particularly full” and that they had not been “swamped”.
My noble friend is sceptical that world leaders are right to consider and worry about this pandemic so much. In May 2020, he said:
“According to the figures, perhaps 316,000 deaths around the world so far have been linked to CV-19. This is awful—every one is tragic—but it is not callous to point out that some 60 million people will die anyway around the world this year.”—[Official Report, 18/5/20; col. 949.]
My noble friend is sceptical about the Government’s whole response to the pandemic. I remember that he told the House:
“A huge number of people, including me, are concerned that we will overreact—although the Minister has said that we will not—and cause panic in the country, where panic should not be seen.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 521.]
He said that in March 2020, and I did not agree with him then. With 128,000 deaths in the UK and around 4 million deaths around the world, with a million people in the UK reporting long Covid symptoms, and with the rise of this nasty, highly transmissible, vaccine-evading new variant which seems set to spread around the world, I do not agree with him now.
I do not believe in doing nothing in the face of the evidence. I do not believe in leaving the elderly and vulnerable to fend for themselves or hoping that the virus will somehow blow itself out. I do not expect the economy to rock and roll even as the death toll rises and public confidence collapses. We are prepared to take tough decisions to save lives, protect the NHS and get us out of this awful pandemic, and we will continue to do so. For that reason, I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, by his last rant my noble friend Lord Bethell really knows how not to get me to withdraw an amendment. I point out that, yes 127,000 people have died from or with Covid, at the same time as somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 people have died altogether. Of those 127,000 people—and they are all tragic—three-quarters have been over 80. I am older than him—let me tell him: mortality is on the horizon.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, very much for the advice on military tactics. I always thought it was about judgment, risks and balancing risks. I agree with Clemenceau who said that war is too important to be left to the generals. In this case, this crisis is too important to be left to Neil Ferguson and his risk-averse colleagues. We are asked to suspend our critical faculties and called to make a judgment as parliamentarians on the evidence. I am sceptical, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said.
It is the responsibility of the other place to determine this policy, notwithstanding what has not been good treatment by the Prime Minister. I have found this debate and the feel of this House rather disappointing and pusillanimous. As far as possible, I have taken the mood of the House; it is pretty difficult at the moment. I am very happy to go over the top at any time to certain defeat, to continue the military analogy of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, but on this occasion—notwithstanding the support of various colleagues who have urged me to force a Division—I can see that certain defeat is going to be rather overwhelming, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.