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Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2021

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 29 November be approved.

Relevant documents: 22nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Instrument not yet reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, in moving these regulations, I will also speak to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021.

We have always known that a worrying new variant could pose a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. On Friday 26 November, the World Health Organization designated variant B.1.1.529, now known as omicron, as a variant of concern. I thank the Government of South Africa for their rapid identification of this variant and exemplary transparency in alerting the world. Yesterday, the Secretary of State spoke with Minister Phaahla to convey this unanimous message from G7 Health Ministers and reaffirm our commitment to working together to address the global impact of the omicron variant.

Some 22 cases have been confirmed in England and Scotland, but we expect that number to rise over the coming days. Omicron has been spreading across numerous countries. Early indications show that it may be more transmissible than the delta variant, and that current vaccines may be less effective against it. It may also have an impact on the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve. We are therefore concerned that omicron may pose a substantial risk to public health. That is why we are taking decisive action against it to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat.

Our test, trace and self-isolate system continues to be one of the key ways in which we can manage and contain the virus and protect the nation. The self-isolation regulations that we are debating today were introduced to provide a legal requirement to self-isolate for individuals who have been notified that they have tested positive for Covid-19 or are a close contact of a positive case. On 16 August, thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout, we were able to introduce a number of exemptions to self-isolation for close contacts, including for those who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18.

Given the greater threat that may be posed by the omicron variant, we have reviewed the application of these exemptions. This latest amendment to the self-isolation regulations is targeted at helping to slow its spread. Since 4 am yesterday, all individuals notified by NHS Test and Trace or a public health official that they are a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the Covid-19 omicron variant will be legally required to self-isolate, regardless of their age or vaccination status. Anyone who has been notified as testing positive for Covid-19, regardless of the variant, will continue to be legally required to self-isolate.

We have also reintroduced the requirement to wear face coverings in shops, including supermarkets, banks, and close contact services such as hairdressers, on public transport, and in transport hubs. Some noble Lords may ask why face coverings are not required in hospitality venues such as cafes and pubs. I would respond that this is part of a targeted and proportionate intervention. We recognise that not everyone is able to wear a face covering. That is why health and disability exemptions will continue to apply. However, those who are able to must continue to follow the rules so that we might slow the spread of this new variant.

I stress that these measures are temporary and precautionary, and will be reviewed in three weeks, which is the period scientists say is required before it is known how the variant impacts on the effectiveness of vaccines. Ultimately, the vaccination programme, and the test, trace and isolate system continue to be our most effective way of reducing transmission, along with continuing to practise good hygiene, keeping spaces well ventilated, and wearing a face covering in enclosed or crowded spaces.

The UK Health Security Agency continues to monitor the situation closely in partnership with scientific and public health organisations across the world. Covid-19 is not going away and so we are likely to keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to learn to live with the virus, we must follow the scientific evidence and advice and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do this, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking not just at the impact of these measures on the virus, but on the economy, education, and non-Covid health, especially mental health. I am confident that the responses we set out today are balanced and responsible steps that are proportionate to the threat we face.

I was happy to wait for the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak before me. I thank the Minister for introducing and explaining the content of these statutory instruments. As we discussed on Monday, the omicron variant is a sobering reminder that this pandemic is not over. I think we all agree that we need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the new variant at bay and to keep each other safe through the difficult winter period.

We on these Benches were critical of the Government’s slow response to the delta variant—slow to protect our borders, slow to act to reduce transmission in the community—so we welcome swifter action regarding this variant. It is right to be acting urgently given the seriousness of the threat. While it is sad to be debating these statutory instruments after the fact again, it is definitely an improvement on discussing them after Christmas or weeks later.

Turning to the regulations and starting with the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021—I still have a problem with all the numbers on these, but this is number 1340—as I said on Monday, it is right to reintroduce masks on public transport, in shops and other settings including banks, hairdressers and post offices for those who are not exempt. However, we believe this measure should never have been abandoned. While mask wearing in public spaces forms part of the Government’s plan B, as far as we are concerned it should have been part of plan A rather than an emergency measure, as should encouraging working from home.

Now we have the issue of building confidence for compliance in the new law. The guidance will be important. When will the guidance about wearing of face masks be issued? USDAW, for example, the shopworkers union —in fact, the union I was a member of when I worked for the Co-op—said:

“Shopworkers aren’t police officers and shouldn’t be expected to act like them. They’re key workers who have kept our country going during these tough times. They deserve our respect.”

I also congratulate my friend and Co-operative colleague Paul Gerrard, who was on “Good Morning Britain” yesterday. He said on Twitter:

“We’ll make sure customers know rules & we’ll help them to follow them but we won’t put colleagues at risk”.

The Co-op is a responsible retailer, as are most of our retailers, but they all need the Government’s support. Have the guidelines been issued yet and what are the Government’s plans to support retailers?

As I said, we think these regulations are too modest and will not provide the protection the Government have described. For example, you will wear your mask to go into the off-licence to get some booze, and then you will go to a party indoors where no one will be wearing a mask. If you attend the theatre, you may get a taxi to the theatre and will wear your mask, and in the theatre some of the people in the audience may be wearing a mask but some will not. Will the Minister explain the scientific justification for those differences?

Anyone who has taken a journey on public transport in recent months will have seen at first hand the lack of compliance—I do not mean just the Prime Minister. From what all of us have seen on the Tube and elsewhere in our commute, it looks as if there has been an increase in compliance in the last 24 hours or so, but on Monday morning it was depressing to see how few people on the Tube were wearing masks. I am very pleased to say that the statutory instruments committee has been busy and has issued its report this afternoon. It says there is a long list of places where people must wear face coverings, as well as on public transport. It also remarks on the doubling of the fixed penalty, and says:

“The House may wish to ask the Minister to explain why some places were chosen and not others, and, because the list is complex, how members of the public will be able to understand where and when a mask must be worn.”

As the Minister said, it goes on to state:

“These Regulations are due to expire at the end of 20 December 2021 which falls into the period of parliamentary recess”,

so, as I said on Monday, we might need to ask the Minister how he will

“ensure that any decision to extend these Regulations is announced before the House rises.”

Will that be possible?

Why do the Government not specify ventilation in these regulations? Throughout the pandemic, these Benches have called for a radical upgrade of the ventilation of public buildings, particularly schools. We know that is not something that can be done just by clicking your fingers. It is expensive and time consuming, and possibly harder to do than asking people to wear a mask, but it is a very effective intervention. Some 18 months into this pandemic, how many public buildings now have proper ventilation systems as a result of decisions taken during the pandemic?

I turn to statutory instrument 1338 regarding self-isolation. The regulations introduce new rules for self-isolation after contact with a person who is suspected to have contracted the omicron variant of the virus. The issue is, how is it suspected? It begs the question of how on earth one will know. I am keen to hear from the Minister how the decision to introduce only two-day testing and not to reintroduce pre-departure tests, which I understand the United States of America has just announced, was reached. I am keen to know the scientific basis behind that. We have heard many reports of private tests not being followed up, perhaps especially by those offering tests at the cheapest prices. What are the Government going to do to enforce this and to ensure that bringing back two-day PCR tests will be effective? We saw in the summer how frustrating they were for people who would otherwise have been able to avoid self-isolation by being vaccinated. They will now have to stay at home for the full period. However, as we now wait to see how our vaccines and antivirals respond to the new variant, it is right that we prioritise caution and seek to limit community transmission as much as possible.

Perhaps the Minister can clarify why the Government have flatly contradicted the Covid guidance from one of their most senior health officials that people should not socialise before Christmas unless it is necessary. Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said during an interview with the BBC on Tuesday morning—I heard it on the radio—that unnecessary gatherings in the festive period should not go ahead. She said that people can do their bit to halt the spread of Covid in the next few weeks by reducing social contact. She warned that omicron is “more highly transmissible” and could have

“a significant impact on our hospitals … our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”

When asked if Dr Harries’s view was shared by Boris Johnson, the PM’s spokesman told reporters:

“No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend. We have put advice out on face coverings and on inward travellers ... Beyond that we haven’t set out any further guidance to the public.”

Asked if people should follow what he was saying or what Dr Harries was saying, the spokesman said:

“The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend.”

The least I can say about that is that it is confusing. I would like to have the Minister’s view.

Finally, I shall say something about people who are very vulnerable. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raises this time and again, and the Government need to take it very seriously. Even before the discovery of the new variant, people with underlying health conditions were being widely ignored, despite the fact that their case numbers remained high. Months after the official shielding programme ended, the Office for National Statistics figures from October showed that almost one in four clinically extremely vulnerable people were still shielding and that 68% were leaving the house but taking extreme extra precautions. Ministers have only made matters worse with this. Over the last few months, the Government have removed many measures that would have helped clinically vulnerable people. In England, the legal requirement to wear a mask ended as far back as July, apart from in healthcare settings and care homes, and once furlough ended in October, clinically vulnerable people had fewer options to shield themselves. Many were sent back to offices or public-facing roles without the legal right to work from home or to be paid if they could not. If the Minister cannot answer the questions about the guidelines and what should happen to clinically vulnerable people, I am very happy for him to write to me and put the answer in the Library.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these two statutory instruments retrospectively reintroducing face masks and rules for self-isolation. From these Benches, we repeat our thanks to the scientists in South Africa for their early-warning system and their excellent genomic sequencing of omicron. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its swift advice to your Lordships’ House.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 set out clearly the doubling of fines if somebody fails to comply without a reasonable excuse, up to a maximum of £6,400. When these regulations were first introduced last year, very few fines were issued. Face coverings are not required everywhere, which makes it even harder for this to be literally policed, as in the police intervening and issuing fines. I repeat the questions that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked: why were some places chosen and not others and, because the list is complex, how on earth will members of the public be able to understand where and when a mask must be worn? We completely agree with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The Minister knows that I have already raised this with him this week, and I heard his attempt in Grand Committee to defend the absolute nonsense about sitting in theatres versus walking around a shop or even sitting in a café in a shop, where one would, I presume, be required to wear a mask.

I also raised with him the vexed issue of local government, where since January councils have by law from central government had to meet in person, although many of them would like to return to virtual arrangements when there is a massive rise in cases. Cases are surging in certain parts of the country, and it is just extraordinary that the Government dictate to local government how it can meet. I raised this with the Minister yesterday and was grateful for his response, but I raise it again after a plea overnight from a councillor in Devon, where cases are rising very fast at the moment.

This regulation is due to expire on 20 December. Once again today, we are seeing emergency legislation to protect the public laid after it was enacted, but in this case understandably. However, it is set to expire at a point when not only will we have just risen for recess but the emerging facts of the omicron variant are only just going to be understood. The scientists say that they need a good three weeks to really understand this, so why were these regulations not set for expiry after 60, or even 90, days? It is comparatively easy, as we saw yesterday in Grand Committee, for your Lordships’ House to meet for early expiration of a regulation. It is much harder to justify setting this one for such a short period. It is treating Parliament with contempt as well.

I am really sorry to hear that Co-operative stores and Iceland have already made decisions not to follow the face mask guidance. It points to a big hole in the system that we from these Benches have repeatedly raised: which is how the regulations can be policed. The real answer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, outlined, remains front-line retail staff, often low paid, or security staff, who do not have the authority of the police. The Co-op has rightly said that it will not put its staff at risk of attack from customers, which it says happens to tens of staff per day across the country.

This regulation is the stick, but we need a carrot too. We need to see on a daily basis senior Ministers wearing masks. I understand that the Leader of the House of Commons was finally seen wearing a mask in the Chamber today, so I presume fraternal conviviality is no longer going to protect Members on the Conservative Benches from Covid. But both his and the Prime Minister’s frankly appalling record of not wearing masks has not helped the wider public to be encouraged to take precautions themselves. By the way, I note that the Government have today confirmed that it is still essential for everyone to wear face masks in hospitals, all the time.

It was concerning that yesterday in a No. 10 press conference reference was made to a case of omicron in Croydon, but unfortunately the director of public health and the local council in Croydon had not been notified before it was made public. That would have been helpful, because they had lots of inquiries about what on earth was happening. When will this sort of information be joined up? It is vital that the experts in each area are informed before the wider public about what is going on, so that they can set up systems to reassure and support their public.

I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I also heard Jenny Harries on the “Today” programme yesterday, and I thought she answered very sensibly. She has asked us repeatedly over the past 20 months to consider risk when we go into any environment. She was clear that, in winter and especially at Christmas, moving into an environment, probably mostly inside and cold, where people huddle together is not ideal and people need to think about whether they go to their usual social events. How extraordinary to have that flatly contradicted by the Prime Minister. Perhaps he needs to get a grip. That is particularly relevant in light of the other story today, about the Christmas parties at No. 10 last year after London had been asked to go into tier 3—effective lockdown.

I also ask the Minister about air filtration units for schools—and I do mean air filtration units and not CO2 monitors. This is in light of an innovative air cleaning device developed by Cambridge University and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. When they placed the relatively inexpensive air filtration machine in Covid-19 wards, it removed almost all traces of airborne SARS-CoV-2. It is a very interesting article.

On the self-isolation regulations, from these Benches we just repeat our regular plea. This Government have chosen not to pay low-paid workers a proper rate when they are asked to self-isolate. Those people are doing a public duty. They may be required by law to do it, but to offer them sick pay for that period does not reflect the duty they are doing. We know that it really matters for some people on zero-hours contracts, and that some people have not been coming forward even for tests when they suspect they have Covid because they do not know how they would put food on the table if they had to isolate for 10 days.

We are glad that the vaccination rate paid to GPs has been increased after their pleadings, but how on earth does this reduce the other pressures on primary care? I note that NHS leaders have today called for support from the military on vaccines. Running in parallel with all this is the phenomenal pressure that other NHS services are under, from the crisis in ambulance services and A&E that we discussed earlier in your Lordships’ House to delayed discharges. As the Minister knows—I am really grateful for the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—people who are clinically extremely vulnerable, especially the severely clinically extremely vulnerable and their families, were already worried about this winter, but they have been shaken further by the uncertainty surrounding the new variant.

Earlier in the year, on 15 September, the Government ended the shielding programme, as it was believed that it was no longer necessary. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, as many as one in five of those previously shielding have continued to do so. Many feel that, after this date, they were left without any support and guidance, and many—perhaps a quarter —of the clinically extremely vulnerable who were eligible for it have still not had their third primary dose because of the confusion that persists around the third primary dose and the booster jabs. So I repeat my request to the Minister—which he agreed to, but I have heard nothing—to confirm when we can meet to discuss this with Blood Cancer UK and the Anthony Nolan trust, because this is now an emergency. If the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would like to join the meeting, I would be delighted if she were able to do so.

Everything is set for three weeks’ time. Christmas is coming towards us. I am really concerned that the tone from Ministers in the last 24 hours is that everything is going to be lifted again for Christmas, when we need to wait for the scientific advice. So can the Minister please send the message back that we should be cautious until we actually know and understand what omicron does and how dangerous it is?

My Lords, it is a pleasure and a surprise, as we are discussing an SI, to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton. Although I do not agree with much, I do agree that it is very helpful that we are discussing these SIs so quickly, so I thank my noble friend the Minister. I also agree that we must not put retail workers at risk, as we are in the process of discussing in our debates on the police Bill, and that air filtration systems can be valuable in many settings.

The background to this debate is that we have taken major steps to limit the impact of Covid-19, with 115 million vaccine doses now injected in arms across the country. The more vulnerable and elderly have received boosters now totalling over 18 million, and the race is on to double this quickly. This has been well done and we must all be grateful.

We now face the challenge of the omicron—I am told that is stressed like omega, if you studied Greek, which I did not—and I rise to offer modest support for, but also some concerns about, the new regulations on masks. In particular, I agree that it is right to limit their compulsory scope to transport, shops and services such as hairdressers and banks. I am less happy with the regulation on self-isolation, which is potentially much more onerous and lasts, as we have heard, not for three weeks but until 24 March. I have some questions for my noble friend the Minister.

First, how will all this end? What virulence criteria in relation to omicron will lead to the removal of the restrictions? Can this be done at speed like their imposition or, as we have seen before, will such regulations linger on?

Second—and I have a family interest here—can there be an opt-out from travel quarantine testing for those who have recently recovered from Covid and registered as such? This is very important for children at school, where the virus continues to spread fast. I know that the travel PCR requirements are not covered in these regulations, but I hope that the Minister will answer anyway and make sure that further regulations are clear. There is so much confusion.

I would like to record my belief that both sets of regulatory proposals have a serious defect: we do not have the benefit of an impact assessment or anything like it. It may be technically true that there is an exemption for rules lasting less than a year, but it is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. An assessment of the cost and economic impact of such measures is essential to good government and the future well-being of our country, and should inform all decisions such as these. Take the first instrument on masks; the analysis in Paragraph 12 of the Explanatory Memorandum is embarrassingly inadequate and does not even mention small business. What studies have the Government conducted into children wearing masks, the negative and the positive? What is the evidence that they will help with the infectious omicron variant?

Let us consider the second set of regulations. The new self-isolation controls will have a huge impact on work, schools, health, social care and other services, as case numbers rise and the “pingdemic” of last summer returns. They also deal a body blow to the already struggling transport industry, with billions wiped off its value since last week. Do the Government prepare proper assessments to inform their actions? I hope they do; they should summarise or publish them for debates such as these. Doing so would serve to limit overreaction. The last couple of days have been full of rumours of possible overreactions, such as masks being required in theatres and restaurants, and school plays and Christmas parties cancelled. Government spokesmen should be calming matters, not encouraging people to close things down.

We have been partly saved by vaccination, but we have encountered needless damage across the economy and society over the last two years, because of our lack of attention to economics. Saturday’s BBC coverage helped me to understand why. At his press conference, the Prime Minister was sensible and serious, but the lead commentary afterwards came from a member of one of the SAGE committees, Susan Michie. She is a professor of health psychology at UCL and a well-known communist, and she wanted to go much further. Why are there a number of psychologists on SAGE and not economists—although I think there is a leading statistician? Indeed, you might ask why communists are involved at all.

On my final point, perhaps my noble friend could say whether he and the Secretary of State, both of whom are more aware than their predecessors of the importance of growth and economics to the well-being of everyone in the country, might look at the composition of SAGE and add an economist or two, now it looks as though, sadly, Covid is continuing to be more extensive than we all hoped.

My Lords, I first support what my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said about impact assessments. In fact, I have tabled a Motion on a later coronavirus order regretting the lack of impact statements, which I look forward to debating with the Minister in due course.

I start by recording what Reuters reported today from a World Health Organization official. He said that, to date, most omicron cases have been “mild” and that there is no evidence yet of reduced vaccine effectiveness. On that basis, we may find that these orders have been overhasty and that we do not see an extension of them.

I will concentrate my remarks on the mask-wearing order, because I continue to believe that there is insufficient scientific evidence on which to base requirements for people to wear masks. Much attention was paid, a week or so ago, to a meta-analysis that was published in the British Medical Journal. Its headline was that masks showed a 53% cut in the transmission of infection. When one looks at the detail of that meta-analysis, the case falls apart. Of the large number of studies included, only six related to mask wearing, of which two had a critical and four had a moderate element of bias. Of those four, only one was a properly randomised trial and its results were inconclusive. There is no evidence that scientifically supports the wearing of masks.

I will not oppose this order and I hope it runs out in a few weeks’ time, but I hope that the Minister ensures that the right messaging is put out. I have heard that the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, want it extended, including to theatres. They may like to know that this is already happening. I reveal one of my hobbies by saying that, yesterday, I received emails from both the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House telling me that, as of yesterday, they were mandating masks. I have to put up with a mask for the sake of listening to Wagner, this weekend, but the messaging that this order relates only to shops, transport and the close personal services that were referred to earlier is not out there.

In addition, when I got back to my apartment block last night, the management company had splattered the place with “Masks now required”. I challenged that today and of course there is no legal basis for that prohibition, so I have asked it to remove or alter the messaging. Unless the Government give clear messages to the public at large that this is a very limited measure for very good reason, and there is no need for it to be extended further, it will carry on spreading like some kind of virus throughout all social activity. We must not let that happen.

My Lords, I would like to add to the words of my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe. I am afraid the Government have got themselves in a muddle over this. This is a “worrying new variant”, as the Minister rightly said, and I think he quotes from the WHO. But while sitting here, I got an alert from the news that said exactly as my noble friend Lady Noakes just said:

“Most Omicron cases are ‘mild’ and there's no evidence to suggest vaccines may be less effective against the variant, says WHO official”,

speaking on behalf of the organisation. He specifically said that people should

“apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach”

to travel measures and that

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the … spread”

of the new omicron Covid variant.

We should look at the evidence, not opinions. What is the number of deaths that this or Covid are causing? I am going to yet another memorial service tomorrow for a Member of this House who died of cancer, not Covid. I think I have been to six memorial services so far this year of people who have died from cancer—nobody from Covid. All Peers should ask themselves how many people they know who have died from Covid under the age of 85.

We need to show some understanding of risk and should not be scaring people. As my noble friend Lady Noakes said, we are just scaring people into running around like headless chickens, worried about what on earth this variant means. I regret to say that I think the Government are trying to look decisive after what has not been an extremely good month or so for them. They are responding to the accusations of the Opposition that they must be more decisive and take firm action. We are keeping people scared, not keeping them safe. We are damaging children’s education and hugely damaging the economy, and cancer waiting lists are stretching. I heard today that waiting lists for hospital treatment may extend to 12 million by the end of next year. This is shocking.

My noble friend Lady Noakes asked to see the proof about face coverings, because we do not actually know if they work. Of course surgical masks work, but these flimsy paper or cardboard things we are all wearing are not effective. Since, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, we have to wait for the scientific advice, let us listen to the advice that Jenny Harries gave us in March last year that, in fact, if you wear a face mask you are more likely to increase the severity of any Covid you have, because you would trap all the germs and keep them there. As late as August last year, she was saying that she did not think there was any point in us wearing face masks.

I urge the Government not to listen to those, particularly from the Opposition, who want an authoritarian crackdown and would lock down society for ever, as far as I can work out, making for a docile and compliant population. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that she wants everybody fined and that it was terribly good news that we are going to double the amount of fines. I think that most fines imposed during this pandemic have actually been overturned. We need to treat the people of the United Kingdom with respect, realise that they are capable of making their own decisions and not treat them with contempt.

Lastly, after 18 months-plus of restrictions, I ask everybody in this Chamber, and the Minister in particular: have the restrictions worked? In May of last year, there had allegedly been 250,000 cases; there have now been some 10 million. What did the restrictions achieve? The vaccines have been fantastic but the restrictions have not achieved very much, except perhaps occasionally to slow down the spread. On that note I will sit down, except to say to my noble friend: this is not a good policy.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I like to spend an evening at the Royal Opera House. In fact, I have been a couple of times in the past three weeks and noticed from where I was sitting that enormous numbers of people were wearing masks—including one John Major, sitting just in front of me. I cannot see that there is any problem with sitting in the Royal Opera House and wearing a mask. In the area where I sat, there was very high compliance. It is not even just that there have been these announcements. The fact is that there was an announcement from Antonio Pappano every evening before the performance, encouraging people to wear masks. My own view is that it would have been much better if we had never stopped people wearing masks. We would not then have to start every time from a lower base to encourage people to take it up. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said that it may have stopped transmission on some occasions. Is that not good? That is what we want to happen.

My second point is about schools. The fact is that schools are not generally well-ventilated buildings. My daughter is a year 4 primary schoolteacher and, for the whole of last year, she had to teach with the windows open. This year, they have come back and again had to do so. It is not easy for a child to learn in a very cold classroom where they have to wear their coats, hats and gloves. It would be so much better if we had managed to get in a programme to bring in ventilation or some kind of air filtration scheme. Although there was a big concern about whether young people would be oppositional to the idea of wearing masks, people I know who are teachers—I do know a great many of them—have found that when you have the discussion with young people, they absolutely understand why it is important to wear masks: it is about protecting themselves, each other and their grandparents, who they may see out of school.

While a great number of things have been done too slowly, the reinstitution of wearing masks has been done in a speedy way. I hope it will continue beyond 20 December.

My Lords, on a personal level, I do not have a problem with wearing a mask. I understand that the Government are in a difficult position, because they are almost damned if they do and damned if they do not on issues of this nature. My concern is that we started off following the science but now seem to be anticipating what the science might show, in the absence of evidence that this omicron variant is any more deadly than previous variants. We seem to be ignoring the fact that, unlike when delta started, so much of the population is now vaccinated; they are therefore protected. The Government should be given enormous credit for the vaccination programme and the booster programme.

Looking at the evidence from the delta variant, as the virus progressed it became much more contagious, as all viruses tend to, but it was much less deadly. The people for whom it was particularly dangerous were those who were unvaccinated. Since we have given everybody who could have an opportunity to be vaccinated the chance to do so, and that some people have—for reasons that they know best—refused to accept the vaccine, it seems there are implications for the wider public in continuing to try to protect those people. I recognise that there are clinically vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated, which is an issue in itself. But I am seriously concerned about wider society, particularly as the self-isolation rules will not run out until next March and have a psychologically damaging impact on society. They frighten the public and could cause, I believe, significantly higher numbers of deaths from loneliness, mental ill-health and illnesses such as cancer, which the public may be too frightened to see their doctor about, or for which GPs may now again say that they cannot see people face to face, and therefore miss the symptoms.

I hope that this mask-wearing SI will be lifted at the end of the three weeks. We need to trust the public. I agree that we need to help people understand the risks and that they need to consider them, but it is perfectly valid for people to decide that they do not consider the risks too large to stop them seeing friends and family. I have significant concerns about mandating and fining them for not doing things, when we do not have evidence to suggest those are as damaging to the public as we previously considered them to be.

My Lords, I would like to make a few comments about the mask-wearing regulations, which I strongly support while feeling that wearing masks should never have been abandoned in England. It is with great sadness that I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that at exactly this time last year I attended the funeral of a friend of mine, the exact same age as me, who died from Covid. I wonder what the families of the over 1,000 people dying from Covid each week would think if they were listening to our debate now.

The questions I would like to ask the Minister are primarily about compliance and enforcement. When I got on the Tube yesterday, it was clear to me that the message had not got across to quite a few people. I was concerned that there was no one standing at the Tube station to point out to people that it was now a legal requirement and that there were no notices making it clear that that was so, rather than a condition of passage. Those things are different. Can the Minister please explain the responsibilities for enforcement, particularly on public transport, as between, for example, Transport for London staff and the police or transport police?

It is going to be hard to get the messaging back on track after people have been told that they did not need to wear masks; now they are being told they need to again. There is a good reason for it but the bit I have not heard so far in the debate today is that mask-wearing is primarily about protecting other people. Yes, I believe scientific evidence says that it confers a degree of protection on the wearer but it is primarily about protecting others—and we do not know the medical vulnerabilities and risks of the people we sit next to, be it in this Chamber or on public transport. That is the main reason I feel mask-wearing should never have been abandoned.

I also want to ask the Minister about people who genuinely have medical exemptions. Clearly, there are people who do. Yesterday on the Tube, I was standing next to a lady who was wearing a green lanyard and a badge; personally, I found that very helpful. She was making it clear that she was exempt. To help with the compliance issue at the moment, what plans might the Government have to encourage people who are genuinely medically exempt to have badges, lanyards or exemption cards, or something like that? However, it was clear to me that a number of people not wearing masks on the Tube, yesterday and today, were certainly not genuinely exempt.

My Lords, I will intervene briefly. I do not like retrospective legislation, and even though these regulations have been introduced much more quickly than some previous ones, we should have brought them in a couple of days ago. Parliament should approve regulations before they are issued. I do not take exactly the same line as my noble friend Lady Altmann, although I generally find myself in great sympathy and agreement with her, because I think we are all tackling the unknown. Nobody knows just how severe this new variant is or how effective the vaccines—I am triple-jabbed—will be. We must bear that in mind.

I make a suggestion which I made a year or more ago, which I think has some merit. Your Lordships’ House and the other place have found our agenda dominated to a large degree by Covid and the various regulations that have been brought in to try to deal with it. I suggested then, and repeat now, that we must accept that we will be living with Covid for a very long time. I have accepted it by coming to your Lordships’ House in person almost throughout the whole pandemic, partly because I hate dealing with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but also because I like the human contact here. I also believe that, if we are Members, we have a certain duty to be here.

It would help enormously if we could have a Joint Committee of both Houses sitting in almost continuous session, where we could discuss proposals, assess evidence and not disrupt the ordinary and important business of the House. There is a parallel, in a way, with how waiting lists have been added to in the National Health Service and people have been put under enormous strain because of Covid. We would be well advised to try to have continuous parliamentary supervision and monitoring of what the Government propose in the light of all developments. I put that suggestion forward once again.

I have another specific question which I would be grateful if my noble friend would answer. I was contacted a few days ago by someone living in south-west London who is unable to have a vaccine for medical reasons. There are such people. He went to inquire of his general practitioner about the medicine that is now being developed—I am terribly sorry; I am having a senior moment and its name escapes me as I stand before your Lordships. My noble friend referred to it and will know what I am talking about. The general practitioner in question had no knowledge of it, or of where my friend could get it.

I would like an assurance from my noble friend that there is a proper dissemination of information so that doctors who are approached by those who cannot have the vaccine for genuine medical reasons can be informed. I mean genuine medical reasons, as I was one of those, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, knows, who called time and again for compulsory vaccination of those working in care homes. She is kindly nodding approval. I felt the same about those working in the National Health Service. Those who are in contact with the most vulnerable should be obliged to have protection.

We must all be understanding of the repeated dilemmas facing the Government. We all have cause to be enormously grateful and appreciative for the rollout of the vaccine. It is very important that we heed the words of Gordon Brown and do all we can to get the vaccine around the world, because in protecting others we are protecting ourselves. I would value my noble friend’s reaction to or consideration of the creation of some form of continuous parliamentary monitor. It is not just retrospective legislation that concerns me, but the fact that on 21 December both Houses will have risen and the Government will make an arbitrary decision. I would rather they had this particular protection in force until we come back. Something must be done to ensure that the Government are more answerable to Parliament than they have been.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, importantly said that the pandemic is not over. I think sometimes, listening to your Lordships’ House, that some people have not accepted that. Your Lordships’ House, based on its loudest voices, also appeared to have decided to act as though it has not in the procedural decision we made earlier.

On the mask-wearing regulations, I go back to Monday’s repeated Statement on Covid. At the time, on Twitter the hashtag “COVIDisAirborne” was trending. As far as I could trace through the mysteries of Twitter, one of its origins was Dr Kimberly Prather, chair of atmospheric chemistry at the National Academy of Sciences in the US. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government understand that fact, as expressed by that hashtag. A number of contributors to these debates have indicated this, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, and others addressing ventilation in schools, and both Front-Bench speakers.

Why does the mask mandate not cover cinemas and theatres? In his response on Monday’s Statement, the Minister said that it does not apply in hospitality venues, restaurants and pubs because people eat and drink there, so they are taking their masks on and off. That surely does not apply to cinemas and theatres. I still do not believe we have heard from the Minister the reason why it does not apply to those two places, with their obvious general lack of ventilation and the fact that people sit together for hours. Maybe they are spaced out; I have heard Members of your Lordships’ House make the point that, “It’s all right, I am sitting away from people”. Covid is airborne. It circulates in the air. I would love the Minister to clearly acknowledge that fact, because I do not think the Government are acting as if they do.

Also on these regulations, why do we not have a “work from home if possible” ruling in the current state of considerable uncertainty? Many have been doing it over many months; they are set up for it; it is perfectly possible; it reduces the risk and danger at a point when we really do not know how great it might be.

Finally, there have been many points in this debate I might have liked to respond to, but I will pick up just one. I ask the Minister to acknowledge how much we now rely on medical and social science experts, many of whom have worked for many hours and months above and beyond the call of duty. Will he join me in regretting that Members of your Lordships’ House should choose to attack individual experts who choose to contribute to public life and exercise their right to engage in political debate, and acknowledge that that is not an appropriate way to treat people contributing to public life?

I apologise to noble Lords— I was looking forward to so many more contributions. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for enjoying the debate rather too much. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, who has been waiting for ages, and to my noble friend behind me who says he has to go to the theatre. I hope he will wear his mask when he goes to the theatre.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate. What is really important and what it shows is that we are still debating issues and contesting the science. Clearly there is a range of views across the House on the issues raised. There is no consensus on this. That is really interesting in the way it shows that we can debate these issues and question the statistics. I will turn to some of the points noble Lords made, particularly about some of the statistics but also on the regulations.

I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not answer every single question and refer to every single noble Lord who asked them—unless noble Lords want to stay here a bit longer and my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh can go and have another teacake or something while he is waiting.

Sorry, was that offensive? I apologise for any offence caused to my noble friend. I just assumed that because I like teacakes, my noble friend also does.

I will start with some of the questions. On the question of how many people have been helped by some of these financial services, as of 17 November 2021, local authorities have reported 362,573 successful claims since the start of the scheme, totalling £181 million in test and trace support systems.

Despite the easing of the restrictions at step 4 of the road map, the Government have continued to recommend that face coverings are worn in crowded and enclosed spaces. We accept that there is wide support for reintroducing mandatory face coverings, but we have always tried to balance these issues. As I said in previous debates, we look at a number of factors, not only medical but economic and social. Also, within health itself, many mental health experts are very concerned that we might go for more lockdowns and about some of the measures that a number of noble Lords have mentioned.

As we saw in the debate, there are noble Lords who believe that we have gone too far and noble Lords who feel that we have not gone far enough unless we effectively enter a second lockdown. That shows the range of views here and the difficulty, as my noble friend, Lady Altmann, said, that the Government are damned if they do, damned if they do not, but we accept that.

So, do face masks actually work? This is where there is still a debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Noakes for pointing out the article by Professor Simon Wood, who is professor of statistics at the University of Edinburgh, in which he analysed the BMJ paper. It is in effect a meta-analysis. A number of newspapers have taken a line saying that wearing a mask cuts Covid by 53%. I encourage noble Lords to read the article, in which he takes apart the statistics as a statistician and looks at, as those who have done statistics will understand, whether we have a significant number of samples to make it statistically sound. In addition, Professor Naismith of Oxford University has been quoted as saying that

“the Scottish and English approach to masking, although formally different since July, has made no meaningful difference to delta.”

Once again we see that there is a whole range of views, but we have listened to those views. Because we do not yet know enough about this variant, we will continue to review the data. For example, some say that it is very mild in South Africa so we should not be overly concerned about it, but we also have to remember that South Africa has a different demographic in terms of younger people. We know that when the virus first struck it disproportionately affected older people—as my noble friend Lord Robathan said, people aged over 85. On the balance of the data at the moment, we believe that wearing face masks works but we have always been very careful to make sure that it is proportionate where we do it.

On the expiry of some of these measures, as the Prime Minister said on Saturday, all the provisions that have been voted on will be reviewed in three weeks. They are necessary and proportionate while we learn more. I refer to the economics Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, who talked about humans having limited knowledge. He talked about the conceit of knowledge. The way to understand a lot of complex problems is to allow the discovery process to take hold and to look at what we can learn from that process. We should be very careful not to imagine that we have total knowledge. What we have to do is assess it proportionately.

It is our hope that these regulations will no longer be necessary in three weeks’ time and that we can return to the system that we lived under last week, but in the event that we need more time to understand the effect of the variant, or that the data shows that we need to take a different approach that requires new regulations, the House will return to Parliament ahead of the Christmas Recess for a debate and vote on the regulations ahead of their coming into force.

On regulations expiring, the international travel regulations will expire at the end of 16 May 2022. The face covering regulations will expire, unless extended, at the end of 20 December 2021. The self-isolation regulations at the moment expire at the end of 24 March 2022, but we will continue to review the data. Almost daily the data is being reviewed and conversations are going on. We will also continue to review the data on the new variant and we hope to update Parliament on the review in the week commencing 13 December.

A number of noble Lords asked about facilities. We are told that setting up dedicated testing facilities at border entry points such as airports is logistically difficult at the moment, and risks delays to passenger journeys and operations. Given the turnaround for a PCR test, passengers would still have to travel to their home or the place they are staying and isolate there before receiving a result. The Government are taking a measured and proportionate response. We want to try to protect the UK from omicron while allowing continued safe travel.

A number of references were made to points made by Dr Jenny Harries. As the Prime Minster said, the guidance remains the same as the measures that were in place to fight delta. We have now brought in tougher measures, but we continue to take advice from a number of experts. Individual experts are free to give their viewpoint but we look at the balance—some of it medical, some of it clinical, but also economic and social factors—and getting that proportionate.

I need to ask the Minister about the fact that our most senior adviser on these matters gave advice that was then completely denied by No. 10 and the Government. That will at least cause confusion. It is not a question of balancing this and that; Jenny Harries was very clear in her advice about what she thought should happen. It was quite the opposite to what the Prime Minister said should happen. The Minister needs to acknowledge that that will cause confusion.

I thank the noble Baroness for raising the point, but it depends on how it is reported. The real issue here is that a number of different experts are advising. Of course, you can pick and choose which expert you decide to listen to. A few weeks ago, noble Lords were picking up on comments made by the NHS Confederation. That is not a scientific body, but noble Lords claimed that it showed that we need to lock down. It is very easy to pick and choose your experts, but we continue to listen to a wide range of experts.

One of the great things about science that we should remember is that there is no such thing as “the science says”. Science should remain contestable. Can you imagine if science was not contestable? We would still be saying, “You can’t challenge the notion that the solar system revolves around the earth.” Scientists challenged that, and that is how we advance knowledge. It is really important that we continue to contest. Scepticism is one of the most important factors in science to make sure we make progress. We will listen to a range of experts.

I ask those noble Lords who really want to lock down more, and who say that we not only have not done enough but should do more and lock people down, to look at the impact that has on people’s mental health and on our economy. I ask them to think about the wider impact and to remember that we are not in the same place we were a year ago. We have been absolutely clear that vaccines work and that the best thing we can do to get through this is to get vaccinated. It is not too late to get your first or second vaccine. I am grateful to noble Lords who have asked questions—

The Minister is now saying that there is absolutely no doubt about the science behind vaccinations. That is not a matter of opinion; there is no doubt about the need for vaccinations. He is straying into dangerous territory when he says that there is science on this side and science on that, because the Government have rightly said that vaccination is the way forward.

I thank the noble Baroness for agreeing with the Government’s line that vaccination is the most important way forward.

The Minister is being patronising. We have always—always—supported the Government on vaccination; I am sorry that the Minister feels he needs to be sarcastic about that.

I apologise to the noble Baroness if I came across as sarcastic.

In terms of hospitality settings, quite rightly, as a number of noble Lords have said, even though we have mandated it in certain settings, it is being left to settings to decide. This is in line with property rights, but also something that people have been asking for—a number of noble Lords have asked “Why not just let the establishments themselves decide, so people can make a decision whether they go to somewhere where masks are mandated or somewhere where they are not mandated?” We are looking really hard at this and we want to make sure that we are proportionate. It could be that we find out that omicron is not that dangerous, but we have to make sure that we have the data and that we sequence it all. It could be that it affects us more in the UK that it would in South Africa because of the change in demographics. That is a really important point.

In terms of who is responsible for enforcement, the police and Transport for London officers have powers to issue fixed penalty notices for non-compliance with the regulations. They are using the four E’s in a proportionate way: engaging, explaining and encouraging before enforcement, just to remind people, if they can, to make sure that they wear a face mask.

The Health Secretary has also asked the JCVI to consider giving boosters to as wide a range of people as possible. If you are boosted, your response is likely to be stronger, so it is more vital than ever that we get our jabs.

On helping the rest of the world, the UK remains committed to donating 100 million doses by mid-2022. We are also extremely grateful to the South African Government; we have been talking to a number of partners, including South Africa directly, to make sure that we do not disincentivise other countries for doing the right thing by reporting the outbreak in the first place. We are doing all that we can.

I am trying to make sure that I answer all the questions; I apologise if I am not able to. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked about exemptions for children under the age of 11 and those unable to wear a face covering due to health, age, equality or disability reasons. In terms of the impact to the economy, we do not know the extent to which the variant escapes the vaccine, but as soon as we do, we will be able to make a better measure. We do not at the moment expect there to be significant economic disruption. We have said that we believe face coverings are effective at reducing transmission indoors. The recent UKHSA study suggests that all types of face coverings are, to some extent, effective, but we also welcome challenges to that data. The advice remains the same: we believe that, on balance, it is better to wear a face mask. Many noble Lords have agreed and disagreed with that, but we have to balance these things.

Proportionate measures remain in place in schools. Face coverings should now be worn in communal areas by older students and teachers. The Department for Education is looking at how we make sure that there are clear guidelines on that. We advise staff, visitors and pupils to wear face coverings in communal areas.

I turn to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and that very personal case; it highlights—this should sober us up—those very powerful words that this is not over. We have said that consistently. It is not over. If we believed it was over, we would have removed all restrictions. It is highly likely, but not definite, that we may have to continue to get boosters. Just as we have an annual flu vaccine, we may in the future end up with an annual Covid vaccine, including looking at other strains.

We have said who is responsible. In answer to a point made by my noble friend Lord Cormack, may I suggest that he takes his point about continuous committees up with the Lord Speaker? That is not really in my remit as Minister for Health. My initial reaction is that it seems a good idea, but let us see what the Lord Speaker says.

I again thank all noble Lords for their contributions and for continuing to challenge. That is really important. I can assure my noble friend Lord Cormack that today I asked my department for a list of potential or forthcoming regulations so that we can lay them as early as possible, as my noble friend and other noble Lords suggested. I am grateful for the acknowledgement that we laid these regulations as quickly as we could, and I pledge that we will try to improve that as much as we can, I too, believe very strongly in procedure and the Government and the Executive being held to account. It is really important.

Before my noble friend sits down, I thank him for mentioning the economy. His assessment is that the impact on the economy should not be great, but of course there has already been an impact on the economy from this new strain. I think I mentioned in particular the transport industry, which has been affected. Would he be able to come back to me on this business of economic assessment—in fact, not only economic, as I am also worried about the impact of the measures being taken on things like cancer deaths. There is no time to discuss that now, but I would really like to have a further discussion, perhaps bilaterally. We will of course have my noble friend Lady’s Noakes’s regret amendment in due course, but that may be months away. It really is very important to understand the implications of what we are doing. We are doing it for the right reason, but it has a wider impact.

My noble friend raises an important point. We also have to clear about unintended consequences and the costs of what we have been doing. I read an interesting article from the leading behavioural economist Paul Ormerod, who asked where have all the economists been when it came to this debate, as economics is about considering trade-offs.

I again thank the Government of South Africa for their rapid identification of the variant and their transparency in alerting the global community. I commend our scientific and public health experts who continue to monitor the situation closely alongside our scientific and public health partnership organisations across the world. We are continuing to collaborate in order to understand the virus, including the data and the different demographics that our countries have and whether a study in one place is relevant to a study in another place.

I also thank the House for its valuable scrutiny today. The Government hope that the temporary and precautionary measures laid in these regulations will enable us to slow down the spread of the omicron variant while we gather more information on how best to deal with it and how infectious it is. The Secretary of State assured Members in the other place that if it emerges that the omicron variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep these measures in place for a day longer than is necessary. I hope that that is the case, but we must take precautions and act decisively until we have a fuller understanding of the omicron variant. I commend these regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.