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Vaccination Strategy

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 January.

“We have built three lines of defence to give us the best chance of living with Covid-19 and avoiding strict measures: vaccination, testing and treatments. Vaccination is the most important of those three, especially in light of the new omicron variant. Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that unvaccinated people are between three and eight times more likely to be hospitalised with Covid-19, so every jab counts in keeping people out of hospital and saving lives.

Since omicron began making its way around the world, our strategy has been to massively expand vaccination. We set the highly ambitious target of ensuring that everyone eligible for a booster would be offered one by the end of December, and we met that target. Some 80% of eligible adults in England have now had the booster, including 87% of people over 50. That means that, per capita, we are the most boosted large nation on the planet. In addition, more than 1.4 million young people aged 12 to 15 have already had their first dose since the vaccine was rolled out to that age group in September, with thousands still getting jabbed every day. As of 10 January, eligible children aged 12 to 15 are being offered a second dose in their school. The vaccination effort is a vital part of ensuring the safe return of pupils to the classroom after Christmas, and the continuity of in-person education, which we know is so important for their development.

Throughout our vaccine programme, we listened to the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, whose clinical expertise is second to none. As we have done so, our vaccination strategy has been highly successful, allowing us to live with fewer restrictions than many other places around the world and keeping our children in education settings, where they belong. Once again, I underline my thanks to everyone who has made our national vaccination programme possible, including the JCVI, the NHS, our vaccines taskforce, the vaccinators and all volunteers across the country. I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking them for everything that they have achieved.”

My Lords, I pay tribute to the staff of the NHS, volunteers and others, who have made extraordinary efforts during the vaccine rollout to save lives and build a world beyond Covid, while a particular debt of gratitude is owed to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, who is standing down from his role.

To drive up vaccination rates, there is a growing need to tackle anti-vax propaganda and stop intimidation and abuse. Will the Minister commit to a communications campaign to tackle misinformation, particularly focusing on places and people with lower rates of take-up? Following the Labour amendment to the policing Bill that was agreed last night in your Lordships’ House, will the Government now take the opportunity to fast-track buffer zones around schools and vaccination centres?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising these issues. The first issue, that of anti-vaxxers, is really important. In a free society we always have to get the balance right between freedom of speech, making sure that people are free to go about their daily work, and making sure that those who want the vaccine get it as soon as possible. The Government are aware of this and are looking at it, but it is really important that we get the right balance. Whatever we think of the anti-vaxxers’ message, they have a right to say it, but we have to make sure that it does not impinge on the liberty of others to get their vaccine, especially since we are encouraging as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to the Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam. He appears on our daily omicron calls and I have had a number of conversations with him, and I know that there is incredible respect for JVT across the country. Indeed, I know that a number of people tuned in to his Christmas lectures on the virus; as the noble Baroness says, they were an excellent explanation of the virus and how to tackle it.

As for how we reach local communities, particularly those communities that have not come forward, I have had a number of conversations with noble Lords and Baronesses with their own experience of working with local communities in a bottom-up way. We have seen a number of local activities; indeed, my local masjid, or mosque, has a walk-in vaccination centre, and we have seen that in other faith places. A number of faith-based and interfaith networks have worked closely with the local community, because often some communities do not have the trust in authority that they have in priests, vicars, bishops—if I may say so—imams, et cetera. That is really important. We have also recorded promotional films in a number of languages, including Punjabi and Urdu in Birmingham, and got some celebrities to come up. I know I have gone on too long but I am very excited about what we are doing.

My Lords, I too echo the gratitude that this House and this country shows to Jonathan Van-Tam. Four months on, there are still severely clinically extremely vulnerable people eligible for a third primary dose and then a booster who cannot book their booster because the data system still cannot record this. Many CEV young children with underlying conditions are still waiting for their vaccines, as well as for guidance on how they, their families and their schools can keep them safe from Covid. This is important because there are now more children in hospital with Covid in the last three weeks than in the nine months of the first wave. Please can the Minister say how these people, who the Government say need the vaccines right now to keep them safe, can get them?

I thank the noble Baroness for making me aware of the issues. She will recall that we had a meeting on how we can address the concerns of the clinically extremely vulnerable, and I had hoped that a number of action points had flowed from that. If those have not been acted upon, I hope she will write to me and I can chase up the department and the NHS. I had assumed that that meeting, where we gave them some action points, was effective. I am sure she remembers that we requested a letter with action points, but if those have not been followed up, I will endeavour to chase that up.

My Lords, how much research is being done on persons who may have developed Guillain Barré syndrome after the coronavirus vaccine booster? Is the noble Lord aware that there have been several cases of this serious condition recently?

Can the Minister update us on global statistics on vaccination? This is not only about justice, equality and dignity; it is also about the fact that new variants will arise unless we address the issue of international vaccination. What are the Government doing to ensure that everyone across our world is offered full vaccination? What focus is being given to the international situation, beyond ourselves?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for raising this incredibly important issue. I know a number of noble Lords across the House feel very strongly about this. Indeed, many of us are part of diaspora communities and understand that many communities across the world are very concerned. From the start of the pandemic, the UK has worked to support access to Covid-19 vaccines. We helped to establish the international joint procurement initiative, COVAX. At the end of 2021, the Government confirmed that they had delivered more than 30 million Covid-19 vaccines to other countries, benefiting more than 30 countries. We have invested £71 million to help COVAX secure early supply deals. The UK is one of the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment, which supports access to Covid-19 vaccines for up to 92 low and middle-income countries. I have a list of a number of other initiatives that we have taken part in. In addition, in bilateral, G7 and G10 discussions, we have put this issue on the agenda, making sure that we are working in a multilateral way across the world to help those countries.

My Lords, first, in relation to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, very few cases of Guillain Barré syndrome have been reported following vaccination with Covid vaccines. That is not so surprising because it occurs with any vaccination, so it is not a reason at all for anybody to be denied vaccination. Secondly, and much more importantly, social media is full of worries that young women are particularly affected, because of the nonsense perpetrated that it will make them infertile. There is no scientific reason behind this. Does the Minister agree that all young women should take the vaccine? Thirdly, there are many pregnant women now in hospital because they were not vaccinated because of wrong advice that pregnant women should not be vaccinated. Again, there is no reason why pregnant women should not be vaccinated, and the recent data which suggests that mothers who breastfeed will transfer their antibodies to the newborn is good news too.

One of the wonderful things about your Lordships’ House is its range of expertise. I thank the noble Lord for enlightening us on the earlier question. However, as I committed to the noble Baroness, I will check the department’s reply and hope it corresponds with the noble Lord’s response; otherwise, I am sure we will have more discussions.

On young women, the noble Lord is absolutely right that we should be encouraging as many people as possible to take the vaccine, even—I know this is being broadcast publicly—those who have not had their first or second vaccine. It is not too late. We urge everyone to have their first and second vaccine, but also to have the booster. It is the best protection, even for those who have previously had Covid. We know that almost all pregnant women who are hospitalised or admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 are unvaccinated. The latest data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that Covid-19 vaccinations provide strong protection for pregnant women against the virus. It shows that the vaccines are safe for pregnant women, with similar birth outcomes for those who have had the vaccine and those who have not. We have launched a new campaign that urges pregnant women not to wait to take the vaccine; it highlights the risks of Covid-19 to mother and baby and the benefits of vaccination.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, I want to pick up the issue of pregnant women. The Government have belatedly—very belatedly—announced a campaign to persuade pregnant women to get vaccinated. Had they done it earlier, some deaths would have been avoided. Is the Minister aware of the particularly low levels of vaccination among pregnant women from ethnic minorities? What are the Government doing to reach out to them in particular, to persuade them to get vaccinated and save their own lives and those of their unborn children?

The noble Baroness makes an incredibly important point that I am sure we all agree with. This is a combination of two issues. One is reaching those communities that generally, pregnant or otherwise, are not being vaccinated. The other is making sure that pregnant women are receiving the message that it is safe to have the vaccine. We are doing this through a number of channels, including through medical staff and the NHS, but we also have a number of targeted campaigns, looking at those communities to make sure we build trust, break those gaps down and give them the confidence to come forward and be vaccinated.