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Covid-19: Plan B

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the rising number of Covid-19 cases and comments made by the NHS Confederation regarding the reintroduction of certain restrictions, what criteria they have put in place as the triggers to implement their Covid-19 “Plan B”.

I thank the noble Lord for the very important Question. As set out in the Government’s comprehensive Covid-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021, if the data suggests that the NHS is likely to come under unsustainable pressure, the Government have prepared plan B contingency measures. We monitor a wide range of Covid-19 data closely, so we can act if there is a substantial likelihood of this happening. We also track the economic and societal impacts of coronavirus to ensure that any response takes into account those wider effects in a balanced way.

My Lords, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of SAGE’s sub-committee, said yesterday:

“I don’t want lockdown … The danger is if you do nothing … in terms of infections, in terms of long Covid, in terms of hospitalisations … they will be left with no alternative.”

Based on what the Minister has just said, what evidence do the Government have of why scientists such as Professor Reicher are wrong in seeking mitigation measures now to deal with the worrying number of viral transmissions as a way of stopping future lockdowns?

In order to judge what the next action should be, the Government have laid out plan A. Plan A is focused, for winter 2021-22, on building defences through vaccines, antivirals and disease-modified therapeutics, identifying and isolating cases of transmission through test and trace, and supporting the NHS and social care, but also advising people on how to protect themselves and offering clear guidance and communications.

My Lords, it is quite clear that those things are not working. When I saw the Secretary of State for BEIS doing the media rounds this morning denying that plan B was coming down the track, I thought we might open a book on how soon the Government will actually launch plan B. I would like to ask the Minister whether plan B becomes necessary because the Government have made such a mess of plan A, with very late vaccinations for 12 to 15 year-olds and a worryingly low uptake of booster jabs. Is it too late to prevent an NHS winter crisis, with the knock-on effects that will have for our backlog?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and, while I have the opportunity, for all her advice, as a new boy in the role. We will continue to look at a number of different factors, including both economic and health indicators, before we judge whether it is necessary to move to plan B. Plan B does not actually involve complete lockdown. It involves introducing mandatory vaccine-only Covid status certification in certain riskier settings; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, such as public transport; and communicating clearly and urgently to the public if the risk level increases.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell us, following the amazing success of the vaccine rollout, what proportion of hospital beds are occupied by Covid patients? Because it seems to me that some people—some doomsayers—are trying to create panic where there is no need for it.

I thank my noble friend for his question. I do not have the detailed data and I will write to him. But in terms of the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, it is quite clear that the vaccine has been working to break the link between the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

Would the Minister accept that one of the unfair criticisms, in some ways, over the last 18 months, has been “too little, too late”? That cannot happen again. We need to set good examples. At Prime Minister’s Questions today, there was not a single Conservative MP wearing a mask in a crowded Chamber. What on earth is that as an example to the people on the Tube and everywhere else? Clearly, some small measures now will save the big measures later.

I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we take as many measures as possible to make sure that we do not have to move to plan B. I assure the noble Lord that I do wear my mask to, hopefully, set an example, and I hope others will too—but it is really important that we understand what factors are driving this rise in numbers and the most effective way of tackling it.

My Lords, can the Minister say what action the Government are taking to ensure that the inequalities that have been experienced by black and ethnic minority people in relation to Covid-19 are being addressed now?

I thank my noble friend for that question, particularly in the light of this being Black History Month, an important month to be celebrated in terms of the contribution that the Afro-Caribbean community has made to this country over many years. However, on the specific issue, sadly there are some demographics in communities that have a lower uptake of vaccines. The Government are discussing with a number of stakeholders how we can improve information, but also encourage and exhort people from these communities to take the vaccines.

My Lords, we know there are government advisers who are advising the Government to implement plan B. Can the Minister say which ones are advising the Government not to implement plan B?

I am sure the noble Baroness will appreciate that all these issues are not necessarily binary, and that there are often a number of trade-offs, not only between economic and health factors but also within the health community itself. For example, there have been warnings that if we go down the route of more restrictive measures, we will see an increase both in patients who are unable to have the surgery that they had planned and in mental health cases.

My Lords, taking the Minister back to the answer he gave to my noble friend Lord Rooker, on the issue of mask wearing, the evidence seems to be that wearing a mask does have an impact on whether viruses are transmitted, and in this case there is efficacy in respect not only of Covid-19 but of other viruses which could be circulating at this time of year and themselves putting pressure on the NHS. What is it that the Government cannot bear about asking people to wear masks? It has no economic cost, costs very little in terms of inconvenience and has a very significant impact.

I assure the noble Baroness that plan B does involve legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, such as public transport and shops. I am sure many noble Lords will have recognised, when they are travelling in by public transport, the number of people wearing masks on public transport, even though advice by the transport companies has dropped.

My Lords, I have a daughter who works in A&E in a London hospital who simply says, “Please will you make people act responsibly once again?” It costs us absolutely nothing. We acted too slowly previously. We have seen 10% increases in the last week; please just get on with plan B.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. It is important. Personally, I do believe that many people should be wearing masks and that there is evidence for this. But the fact is, we have to look at a number of indicators and balance those up.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell us how many of us who are eligible for the third jab have had it? I have had mine. Could he also tell us what forward planning we have? Is this going to be an annual event? Are the resources available to ensure that it can be continued indefinitely?

I thank my noble friend for that very important question. Some of the data suggests that there has been a slower uptake for the booster. I do not have the exact information and data available on the uptake of the booster, but I will make sure I write to my noble friend.

My Lords, the Minister keeps referring to plan B, but he has not answered the fundamental question that my noble friend Lord Rooker raised. This Government have too often in the past been slow to respond, and as a result has had to introduce far harsher measures as a consequence. Does he accept that that has been the case in the past, and what assurances can he give us, as we go forward, that that will not happen later this year?

I am afraid I disagree with the noble Lord on that particular question. In fact, the UK is seen as a leader in the speed and efficiency with which it adopted vaccines. Countries that criticised the UK were, only a year later, saying “How did you do it? How did you manage to roll out your vaccines so quickly?” Of course, things change, and it is very important that we balance all the factors when considering whether to move to plan B.

One of the reasons why there is a health crisis at the moment seems to be that it is a non-Covid crisis. Would the Minister comment on the fact that the backlog, the collateral damage of lockdowns, has created a terrible situation? It is non-Covid related, so we should not overreact. Quickly, on plan B, which experts will he take advice from? Will it be Professor Reicher, a behavioural and social psychologist, or the NHS Confederation, run by someone who was on “Moral Maze” with me? Not all experts are experts, or should be listened to.

I thank the noble Baroness for pointing out the important issue that there is a trade-off. There are some who continue to argue against moving to plan B, and it is important that we assess the balance of arguments. There are trade-offs within health itself. There will be some patients who will be concerned about plan B because of how it will affect their access to healthcare, and there are other, wider societal factors.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that before any change in government policy, whether it be plan B or any other changes, there will be proper consultation with the devolved Administrations?

The Government have co-ordinated action and been in constant conversation with the devolved Administrations—or, as one noble Lord said, the devolved Governments—to co-ordinate and to learn from each other in terms of a UK-wide response.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that not only have ethnic minority communities seen tremendous disparities in their experience of Covid, but so have people with disabilities where long-term care is needed. Is his department in consultation with them at the moment, in preparation for plan B?

The new office OHID, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, clearly assesses a number of factors and government policy to help those from more deprived communities and in more deprived areas. If the noble Baroness has specific examples and wishes to write to me, I will answer.

My Lords, would my noble friend tell me whether the Government are still happy with the composition, mathematical modelling and advice from SAGE?

My Lords, can the Minister explain now—and not write to me—how and by whom these decisions are made? Are they made by the chief executive of the NHS or by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, or do they have to wait for a decision from the Prime Minister and wait until he returns from his beach holiday?

The Government are consulting widely on the measures to be taken, balancing and looking at the trade-offs not only in health but with wider societal factors.

My Lords, nearly 1,000 people are dying every week from Covid. What is the trigger in deaths before plan B comes into effect?

I am not sure I agree with the noble Baroness on the figure she cites; I will double-check and write to her. On the triggers, it is clear that we have to look at a range of factors before deciding whether to move to plan B.

My Lords, clearly these are very difficult issues, but can my noble friend help the House—if not today then in writing—by explaining some of the statistics being used to judge what is happening with Covid right now? For example, the use of a Covid-positive test within 28 days of death is not necessarily indicative of what is happening, and the vaccine programme seems to have ensured that those who are seriously ill or sadly dying of Covid are those who are not vaccinated or have serious underlying other conditions—in which case, the statistics may be misleading us somewhat.

I thank my noble friend for making that valuable point. When one looks at the broken-down data, one sees that there are some demographics that have not taken up the vaccine as much as they should have, including a number who have not received the booster. We want to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated so that we do not have to move to plan B and can continue with plan A. Plan A includes provisions for ensuring that we increase the number of people vaccinated.