Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend for stepping into the breach unexpectedly. In moving the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Entry to Venues and Events) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 I will speak also to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2021. These regulations are part of the Government’s balanced, proportionate and evidence-led approach to managing the virus.
Test, trace and self-isolation measures remain an important part of our line of defence, but we continue to keep our approach under review as we learn more and gather more data, to ensure that we have an evidence-led response. The self-isolation regulations we are debating today made important changes to the rules from 9 December by helping to align our domestic and international arrivals self-isolation policy on vaccination recognition. This issue has been raised many times and I know these changes are welcomed by many noble Lords. The regulations mean that a person who has been vaccinated outside the UK is exempt from self-isolation if identified as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case, if their vaccine status is recognised for the purpose of international travel rules. Those who have taken part in qualifying clinical trials abroad are also exempt from self-isolation if they are a close contact of a positive case.
The regulations also clarify the process for those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons to provide evidence of this in line with the Covid-19 pass scheme. We hope these changes will benefit visitors to the UK, returning UK nationals who have been vaccinated abroad, international students and families with relatives overseas. This is part of the Government’s approach to ensuring that the regulations are balanced and proportionate to the risks we face from the virus.
Financial support measures continue to be available to people who are required to self-isolate because they have tested positive for Covid-19 or been identified as a close contact and are not in one of the exempt groups. The Government are also continuing to provide funding to enable local authorities to offer support to those who are eligible and require assistance to self-isolate.
Since 15 December, showing evidence of being fully vaccinated, a negative lateral flow test in the past 48 hours, proof of medical exemption or evidence of participation in a clinical trial has been a condition of entry into certain settings in England. This was introduced following parliamentary approval as part of the package of plan B measures in response to the omicron variant. The regulations that we are debating today make small amendments to correct some minor cross-referencing errors and an omission in the original regulations. They correct how venues calculate attendee thresholds and adhere to spot-check criteria, and they provide a designation to a police authority that collects fixed penalty notices. The correcting regulations were made as soon as possible and came into force at 6 am on 15 December, in line with the original regulations.
Perhaps I should stress that the NHS Covid pass was not seen, and is not seen, as a vaccine passport. People have different ways in which to show how they are eligible. An NHS Covid pass can be obtained either through full vaccination or by showing proof of a negative lateral flow test in the last 48 hours, proof of a medical exemption or evidence of participation in a medical trial. We recognise that certification does not on its own eliminate the possibility of infectious people attending or transmitting the virus in those settings but it does help reduce risks in these settings.
As the Government have said, restrictions must be an absolute last resort and we should not keep them in place for a day longer than absolutely necessary. The Prime Minister has announced today that plan B measures introduced to respond to the omicron wave will end. For certification, this means that mandatory vaccination or test certification in night clubs and large events will end when the regulations expire at the end of 26 January. Updated guidance will be published that encourages voluntary use of vaccine or test certification in those settings, supported by continued availability of the NHS Covid pass.
However, we also want to remind people that it is not over yet. While we are relaxing some of the measures, we should continue to be vigilant. We encourage ventilation and masks to be worn in crowded or close spaces, but we want to trust the judgment of the British people. The most important thing that we can do to safeguard lives and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, and for economic recovery, is for everyone to get their vaccines and get boosted now. I remind anyone listening that it is not too late to get your first or second vaccination. We encourage everyone to come forward.
I end by thanking everyone working in our system of health and social care for all their tremendous efforts in again supporting our country in these challenging times. I look forward to hearing the valuable contributions from noble Lords to this debate. I beg to move.
I should make noble Lords aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be taking part remotely in her slot.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his informed and helpful introduction, coming as he does from the cockpit of European politics of yesteryear. I also acknowledge my noble friend Lady Merron. When I was in another place, I always observed how cogent and persuasive she was when debating business from the Front Bench and elsewhere.
The second sentence of these regulations indicates why they should be passed in this formal, low-key manner. In the third sentence, however, we can see that some history is made. In the Explanatory Memorandum, at paragraph 3.1, we can see the status of Parliament writ large. In paragraph 3.2, at line 3, there is the failsafe for Parliament: “cease to have effect”. The Minister has introduced a quite exceptional and very necessary procedure.
These regulations enable one to acknowledge the magnificent way in which our hospital trusts responded throughout to this virus. I still live in what was my constituency of 31 years, and our Deeside Community Hospital manager, Mrs Cheryl Froom, took charge of a new hospital—our leisure centre. The jabbing went like clockwork, despite daily football match-sized crowds. The local GPs and nurses were brilliant; they were so efficient and professional, and the volunteers so co-operative and willing. It all went so well that Mrs Froom also took charge at the seaside resort of Llandudno. Our hospital trust faced up to an exceptional challenge superbly. Arguably, I dare say that the Minister knows of many other trusts that did so very well.
In the Explanatory Memorandum there is reference to fixed penalty notices. Were any served? How many? What amount was charged? Will the Minister give further insight on FPNs? In paragraph 6 of this helpful Explanatory Memorandum—thanks should go to Ms Stockley and Mr Vereker—reference is made to Wales. Does Wales operate the exact FPN as England? My understanding is that Wales can be different and do its own thing legislatively.
I note the reference to small businesses in paragraph 13. Was there consultation with, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses? The Minister might know that the economy of Wales is based largely on small businesses, as well as some very great and considerable businesses.
If I may say so, the Government of Wales have, in my opinion, responded very well to this crisis. We took the people with us in Wales. The Welsh point of view was expressed frequently on the influential Radio 4 programme, “Today”; the nation got to know our First Minister on the “Today” programme—perhaps the Minister did too, and might remember him from his Welsh accent.
What estimate is there from Her Majesty’s Government of the impact so far of decisions by devolved Governments on English Covid policy? Do different Covid policies cut across English ministerial policy in a negative way? Is the department now assessing such impact? Which of the Governments got it right? Have these conclusions been arrived at or not? Who is considering that big issue in governance? Devolved government is now coming up front, after some 20 years—the unforeseen consequences of devolved government.
On these matters, how often did the First Minister of Wales confer with Her Majesty’s Government? When the First Minister embarked on a different Covid path, how was Downing Street informed? Did English officials debate, criticise or confer with Welsh officials? What attempts were made to achieve a unified approach? Were there any? I am talking here of governance—how it affects a great crisis and as a consequence of devolved government. It is only right to pose these questions in a forum such as this; many of the regulations that we consider here, from time to time, impinge hugely on the daily lives of our fellow citizens, but we tend to debate them in this low-key manner, and across the Floor, there is usually friendship and co-operation.
For certain, the consequences of devolved government have manifested themselves in the British state. Health is the current issue: a highly centralised state, some two decades later, has experienced the consequences of its devolution legislation. That is a fact; we have seen it broadcast across the nation, time and again.
Has the Covid crisis signposted the way to a federal Britain? The regulation does not concern the constitution, but there is the question, as a consequence of central government dealing with a crisis in health: has the Covid crisis signposted the way to a federal Britain?
I participated as a Minister in the legislation concerning devolved government as it was put forward, and rejected, in 1979. I remember the campaign, as I do the one that succeeded. I must say that things have moved on, hence my questions. When I entered the other place in 1970, it quickly became apparent that there is a constant battle between the House and the Executive. We may have observed it today—arguably, quite importantly. It often crossed the boundaries of parties. Parliament always needs to be vigilant, but in this instance, for these regulations, there was immediate co-operation in the other place. Throughout, however, that co-operation was shot through by the considerations of devolved government, the consequence of decades-old legislation.
Lastly, having seen the emergency regulations put forward, and now addressed again by the Minister, I was in the Chamber of the House of Commons early in the 1970 Parliament, when that iconic manufacturing company, Rolls-Royce, became bankrupt. Overnight, the British House of Commons—in 24 hours—took into state ownership a dying company. I am not making a specific parallel, but the measures in the other place and here today conjure that up for someone with a long parliamentary memory, such as me, and it seems apposite to dare to remind this Committee of those moments.
My Lords, some of us may remember a propaganda campaign during World War II—if people are old enough, that is; we were not necessarily there. It was called, “Careless Talk Costs Lives”—in this case, livelihoods. I did not support the imposition of plan B before Christmas as I foresaw certain consequences.
It was infuriating that, despite the Prime Minister announcing a balanced approach and that we would monitor events closely, Dr Jenny Harries took to the airwaves to warn everyone to ratchet up precautions. Regrettably, the Chief Medical Officer also contradicted the policy we had, and we watched the hospitality sector once again descend into free fall. Restaurants, pubs and hotels had spent millions on food, drink and recruiting extra staff; reservations were sky-high; at last, they could make some money. But no, tens of thousands of cancellations took place that affected them all. In addition, elective surgery was halted immediately, despite a waiting list of several million people. Some hospitals allowed relatives of dying patients only a one-hour visit per day and the same then occurred in care homes. Many GPs opened their doors for jabs, but not if you needed a face-to-face appointment or a referral for surgery or treatment.
The decisions which also caused those draconian measures were also based on the modelling. It was flawed modelling, yet again: 200,000 cases a day; 25,000 to 75,000 deaths between January and March. That was blasting through the airwaves, too, and it was way out. The media, meanwhile, were back in what I call hysterical overdrive, pressing for tougher measures—just like, I fear, some of the parties opposite, along with Scotland and Wales.
The PM made the right decision. The NHS has had billions of pounds of extra investment, yet it still cannot deal with additional capacity in winter. We know it needs probably 20% more beds for respiratory infections at that time—and that was before Covid—so why was that not planned for? Meanwhile, surgeons and medics were unable to carry out their operations and their treatments. Frankly, this is just not good enough. Those responsible for managing and planning the operational structures are clearly out of their depth, and that needs to change. For far too long, too many patients have been treated like second-class citizens.
Mass testing needs to stop. Of course front-line medics and people in care homes and other areas need to be tested frequently, but to test 1 million, sometimes 1.5 million, people per day, 99.9% of whom have no symptoms and are fit and healthy, is financially extortionate. If, for example, a test costs, say, £10 a head to manufacture and process and there are 1 million tests a day, that is £10 million a day of NHS funds—or government funds or taxpayers’ funds, whichever you want to say. That works out at £300 million a month, so in three months we have spent nearly £1 billion testing people who do not need to be tested. No other country tests in this way; you are encouraged to take a test if you have symptoms or if you work in an area where it would clearly be beneficial.
That brings me to my final point, which is the horrendous effect of these restrictions on children. They are the age group least affected by Covid, yet they are subjected to the most awful, cruel treatment. Despite the Royal College of Paediatricians and the JCVI being opposed to children under 16 being vaccinated, that went ahead, and they are now being pushed to have a booster. That is in addition to the imposition, yet again, of wearing face masks for several hours a day. Face masks have little or no benefit because most children—in fact 98% of the population—are immune. We have great immunity. Face masks have also caused unnecessary stress and mental health problems and are particularly difficult for deaf and special needs children. This sort of treatment is now, frankly, inhumane, and it needs to stop.
I believe all restrictions need to be lifted now. Everyone needs to get back to work. We need to manage the situation like responsible adults, and I believe that the British people will do that. Only then can we get back to living our lives in the normal way, which is what we should be doing.
My Lords, here we are, rather surreally, at a debate about regulations that were passed so many weeks ago that we are debating them as they are being abolished. It makes a mockery of the idea of scrutiny before we start. Since I have been in the House, I have not liked the idea of nodding things through—what has felt like rubber-stamping so many important decisions.
As I listened to the announcement of the abolition of plan B in the other place, I reflected that it sometimes feels as though our freedoms are treated as gifts from those on high, to be withdrawn from the public far too easily on the precautionary principle—we are being told even now to be cautious—and then given back to the public as though an act of generosity. None the less, I do not want to be churlish, and the announcement that plan B is consigned to the dustbin of history is great news. Hurrah. Perhaps, then, this discussion is just us going through the motions, and we should be celebrating—with wine and cheese—the end of an awful policy.
I particularly did not like the demand for people to show their vaccine certificates and reveal their private medical information to access or engage in public life. However, there is no room for complacency. I ask the Minister if the vaccine passes—which he says were not vaccine passes—might have set up a dangerous template, still in existence, in which equal treatment for all citizens is jeopardised by access, particularly to certain jobs, being contingent on medical status. That has not changed with the abolition of plan B. Is this not a coercive and discriminatory new normal that divides society into the vaccinated and unvaccinated?
Look at the way that employers such as Morrisons and IKEA are depriving unvaccinated staff of sick leave. They are taking a lead from a government policy that gives the vaccinated privileged access to jobs. I am referring to the Government’s continued retention of VCOD1 and VCOD2—the demand that care workers and NHS staff have to be vaccinated to keep their jobs. In the other place earlier today, MPs across parties noted that getting rid of plan B is incomplete, in spirit at least, when at least 70,000 NHS staff could be sacked from 1 April. As we speak, NHS trusts in England are preparing to send out dismissal letters from 3 February. I agree with Royal College of Nursing CEO, Patricia Marquis, and would like to know whether the Minister does, that the Government need to instigate a major rethink here:
“Mandation is not the answer and sacking valued nursing staff during a workforce crisis is reckless”—
“reckless” is a very strong word.
Despite that, the Prime Minister’s response was to mutter about following the evidence. We know from the evidence that while having vaccines and boosters may be invaluable to protect individuals from serious illness—I am a great supporter of that—the evidence on lessening transmissibility is just not there. Can the Minister comment on the latest ONS estimates on vaccination and reinfection status that showed that there is no significant reduction in the likelihood of testing positive after two vaccinations? Has he any views on the leaked memo from his own department that makes clear that there are those in the department who are saying, privately at least, that this anti-worker mandate is irrational and disproportionate?
Beyond pragmatism about unnecessarily losing vital health and social care staff in the face of weak evidence, the constant official line that such policies are necessary to protect vulnerable patients and care home residents fuels a climate in which the unvaccinated are accused of being selfish and dangerous. That is a dangerous, divisive message when you think that it is aimed at care workers, who have worked their guts out for months looking after the elderly but have decided, for whatever personal reason, that they do not want a vaccination and have now been dumped. It sets up a terrible template for society, dividing citizens into safe and unsafe categories, with the unvaccinated demonised as unclean, disease carriers and so on. This divisive and misanthropic message can only undermine social cohesion. That narrative comes from the very regulation we are discussing of vaccine accreditation and could cause us real problems in the future.
I say good riddance to vaccine passports. I am loath to pat the Government on the back too much for rescinding the policy, because I think it should never have been brought into law, but I want to credit grass-roots campaigners, such as the tireless Together coalition, which has kept up extra-parliamentary pressure. The worst thing about that—which should have been an inspiring example of civil society—is that, for their trouble, those campaigners have been dubbed anti-vaxxers. That term is now too often promiscuously thrown about to close down debate on vaccine-related policies and to discredit individuals and campaigns, rather than engage in open-ended arguments.
It is good that plan B has gone, but there is still a lot of animosity and tension in society around vaccines. Of course, we all know that there is a small fringe group with nihilistic views who are preoccupied with conspiratorial theories about Bill Gates and big pharma. I think that society can live with that small group existing, but I worry about the positive case for the vaccine—which I consider to be a fantastic medical intervention and a great tribute to human ingenuity—being jeopardised if we lose all nuance and lump all views together.
I was shocked when the Opposition, arguing for a ban on people gathering outside schools to protest against vaccines to be part of the police and crime Bill, labelled such people as anti-vaxxers. I know parents who have organised some of those events; they were concerned about young children being pressurised into having vaccines, even though they were vaccinated themselves. They also quoted the JCVI; how can we call its members anti-vaxxers? I worry that young people who are healthy and full of antibodies, who may have had Covid or had one vaccine or two, but who do not want the booster, for whatever reason, are called anti-vaxxers. I worry about pregnant women who are nervous about the vaccine being called anti-vaxxers. I worry about the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities who, for all sorts of reasons, seem reluctant to have the vaccine being lumped in with anti- vaxxers. Those supporting the NHS100K campaign, which comprises health workers, doctors, nurses, midwives and anaesthetists across the board, all of whom oppose the mandating of vaccines, have been labelled anti-vaxxers. It should be noted that many are fully vaccinated but believe in the medical ethics of bodily autonomy and choice.
Will the Minister go back to the department and say that, while the vaccine certification regulations that we are discussing are being abolished, the differential treatment of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, as institutionalised in the regulations, with the unvaccinated treated as lesser citizens, is very dangerous? I shall not celebrate freedom being restored until that has been abolished as well.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations and welcome the opportunity to debate the important issues they concern. However, in common, I am sure, with other noble Lords, I feel that our timing is not exactly right. I must confess that I am struggling with the tense that I am going to use, about whether things were, are or will be, but I am sure that noble Lords will bear with me.
The measures that we are discussing have been necessary to keep the public safe and to get the country back on track, and we certainly give them our support today, albeit that they came into force last month. The first instrument relates to entry to venues and events. In the face of a rapidly spreading omicron variant, people certainly needed to feel confident about going out in public, knowing that the Government were taking action to reduce the risk of superspreader events. The Government’s decision to take up our suggestion of a recent negative lateral flow being accepted as an alternative to vaccination status was a good one. It enabled struggling hospitality venues to continue to operate while keeping those using them as safe as possible.
There are a few points on which I would appreciate clarity from the Minister—as I say, I can speak only for the moment which we are in. At present, full vaccination is defined as two doses of the vaccine at least 14 days before permitted entry into an event. Given that research has highlighted the efficacy of the booster vaccination in tackling omicron, what discussions have been had about updating the definition of full vaccination to three doses? Is that something the Government are considering? I make that point because, if the Government are to go down that road, it would take time to adapt to.
It would also be helpful to know about progress on the booster rollout for immunocompromised, clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable people, which has stalled recently. I take the opportunity to ask the Minister: how is progress going to get this incredibly important aspect absolutely right? I understand that the Minister in the other place recently said that letters were going to those in that group, so perhaps he can say what will be in these letters and what further measures are being planned.
We of course know that these restrictions are to be reviewed—if we look at the current restrictions, there is an expiry date of 26 January. Again, it would be helpful to have an update from the Minister on how discussions are progressing.
I thank my noble friend Lord Jones for his kind words and his introduction of what we might call the Welsh angle, which is always helpful in these discussions. Close working with the devolved Administrations, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, is absolutely crucial when faced with a pandemic.
I have great pleasure in acknowledging that—where else could such an innovator and leader have come from?
It is important to make reference to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about those who take action around schools and vaccination centres. Noble Lords will remember that we had a vote very recently on this matter; an amendment was brought forward by these Benches, and I am glad to say that your Lordships’ House agreed that the Government should speed up the use of exclusion zones around schools and vaccination centres, so that people should not feel unfairly and unreasonably abused and pressured and are able to seek the healthcare that they need. I ask the Minister—I raised this in the Chamber this week—how are discussions going to progress that matter?
In more general terms, last month the Government faced an extraordinary rebellion from their own Benches. It is thanks to the support of the Opposition that these proportionate and sensible measures to protect the health of the nation passed. Can the Minister give assurance that public health decisions will be based on evidence and not influenced by pressures such as this—nor influenced by any need to provide cover for any activities, parties or events that were not permitted under the regulations to which the rest of the country was adhering? We remain, in the words of the Prime Minister today in the other place, in a situation where the pandemic is not over. People want reassurance that their lives and liberties are not being impacted other than because of facts as they emerge—they do not want it to be because of political manoeuvring. I am sure that the Minister will have much reassurance to give us as to how decisions are made.
My Lords, the next speaker is taking part remotely; I call the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the NHS—not just to our hospitals but to GPs, upon whom a very large burden has fallen with the good news about the reduction in hospital cases with the omicron variant. There has been a surge of requests for help from people who are ill at home, even if they are not ill enough to go to hospital. I also pay tribute to the continuing work of the vaccination teams, and to those working in social care; we know there has been a rise in cases in social care, whether in homes or among people being looked after at home. I particularly pay tribute to school staff, who have had to try to manage surges and the large numbers of cases since children returned after the Christmas holidays.
It is important to note that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee noted that this SI, No. 1416, was implemented with immediate effect in December, but the following day, after errors were found, No. 1435 was laid to correct it—the Minister referred to this. However, it was not debated in December. I assume, although it is not listed so on the Order Paper, that we are actually debating both versions of this regulation. As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said very clearly and in bold, leaving nothing to the imagination:
“This is not an efficient way of handling legislation.”
We are beyond the time when, as in early 2020, we genuinely had to make regulations on the hoof as things about the pandemic became clear. As other speakers have already said, we knew that the omicron variant was building up, and these arrangements should have been clear. I want to ask the Minister about one of my concerns. Are officials in his department under considerable pressure because of the Health and Care Bill, as well as other legislation, meaning that things like this are just getting missed? It really is not an efficient way of handling legislation.
Given the Prime Minister’s Statement earlier today, which we will debate in your Lordships’ House tomorrow, and assuming that things are going to change, I presume that both of these regulations will be very short-lived. However, I want to make the point from these Benches that one of the key things that seems to be missing, again, is the difference between formal regulation—that is, rules—and strong messaging and guidance with strong communications messages, so that everybody can consider the broader picture, rather than thinking, “Phew, all the regulations are gone”. Instead, as others have said, we appear to be back to yet another freedom day, rather than understanding the level of Covid currently in our community.
Even if regulations were not renewed, and even with the encouraging drop in cases, the ONS says today that early estimates show that just under 3 million people in England, or 1 in 20 people, have had Covid in the last seven days. With omicron, reinfections are nearly double those of previous variants, even among those who are vaccinated. Despite it being milder and despite 60% of the public having had three vaccines, we still have these high figures. The Government’s own Covid dashboard confirms that data: yesterday, over 94,000 people tested positive and there were 438 deaths, with just under 2,000 over the last week. Hospital admissions are plateauing at just under 2,000 a day. Be in no doubt that our NHS, social care sector and schools are still very much in the eye of this storm.
The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, says that plan B should never have been introduced, but without those protections, our NHS and other public services would have fallen over. I note that in France, yesterday, they had well over 400,000 cases of omicron. The noble Baroness says the modelling numbers were way out. That is an appalling distortion of the truth. The whole point of modelling and having a range of models from different scientists is to plan for a range of numbers for cases, hospitalisations and deaths, as well as staff being off sick or self-isolating. The figures we have had have definitely fallen within that range—that has been well publicised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, also proposed that all testing should stop, right now. How on earth would we have any idea how many cases there are in our community? Perhaps more importantly, how would we pick up new variants without testing? How on earth would people know when it is safe to visit elderly relatives in care homes or in hospitals, when we know that Covid spreads very quickly in hospital, with severe consequences for the vulnerable and immuno- compromised?
It is good that the numbers are beginning to fall, but it is not a total freedom day. So the cheers from the Benches—I was going to say Conservative Benches but they are also from the noble Baroness, Lady Fox —ring slightly hollow for me. I ask the Minister what advice will be given to venues, schools and people? Will it be the tone of the PM today to forget it all, as it is freedom day, or will there be a stronger message about taking responsibility for keeping people safe and encouraging them to consider continuing with masks?
I turn to the self-isolation regulation. Self-isolation has been absolutely vital over the last month. Can the Minister say what will happen if, as a result of stopping plan B, numbers start to increase again? Will we have to meet in Grand Committee again to look at reintroducing this regulation?
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, raised the vaccination of NHS staff. I want to raise an issue the Health Service Journal picked up in the last couple of days about problems with the data for NHS staff. HSJ says it has talked to several trust chief executives and directors, who have all expressed concerns about the National Immunisation Management System and the National Immunisation and Vaccination System, which support the management of flu and Covid vaccination programmes across England. The functionality of these two bodies includes helping to identify priority patients and record vaccinations given.
NHS England said that a small number of designated members of staff have been given access to this data to see whether NHS staff had been vaccinated or not, but some chief executives of NHS trusts say that almost one-third of staff members identified as unvaccinated have since come back with proof of vaccination. Many of them are outraged because, clearly, the database was wrong and they had been vaccinated a long time ago. Can the Minister say what will be done to sort out this data and make sure that people are providing the right information and, more importantly, that the NHS has the right information?
Finally, I turn to a topic that the Minister knows I raise whenever I can: issues relating to the clinically extremely vulnerable. In the light of the abolition of plan B, the clinically extremely vulnerable and the severely clinically extremely vulnerable continue to remain so. What advice will be given to them if everybody else stops wearing masks? What will happen to those still waiting for their third primary dose and their fourth booster? What will happen to those still waiting to hear whether they are eligible for treatment because they come into this category? From my postbag and from social media, it is clear that a large number of people who should be in that group have not yet been notified.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate and for the continued scrutiny to which they subject the Government. It is important—I am sure all agree—that any Government of the day should be held to account. It is our responsibility to come here and be held to account, but also to answer as many questions as we can. Can I perhaps ask if there is a time limit on how long I have?
The Government believe that the measures we are debating today are balanced and proportionate responses to the virus. Mandatory vaccine or test certification was brought in as part of the plan B measures to control the transmission of the omicron variant. Test, trace and self-isolation remains an important line of defence, but we will continue to keep our approach under review as we learn more about the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccine. In the department and in government, I always ask my officials and others what the evidence is. It is incredibly important that we are evidence-led.
Sometimes we opened up and then we closed down and so on, but we did not go back into lockdown. What it was about for us was making sure that the evidence was robust enough, challenging it and the models that we were given, but considering the wider responses. It was far more than a matter of considering just one model in our daily omicron meetings over the Christmas break. We were shown the models and the data. The models were scenarios, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said; they did not have to consider the wider impact and looked purely at the data. We politicians and others had to consider the wider impact on health—let us not forget the impact that further measures would have had on mental health, people with eating disorders and those with obesity and other issues. We also had to balance those carefully with the wider societal issues such as the impact on businesses and so on.
When the data showed that there was a potential risk of overwhelming the NHS, we had to act and bring in some measures. However, compared to many other countries, we were still relatively open. Believe me, I am a civil libertarian, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, whom I have known from years ago, will, I am sure, know. I am always sceptical when government tells us to do things, but these measures were evidence and data led. The latest data shows that Covid-19 cases are falling, and the high levels of vaccination and booster uptake have helped to reduce the risk of severe disease and hospitalisations. That, in turn, is helping to reduce the pressure on the NHS.
Let me turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords—first, those of the noble Lord, Lord Jones, who is the original noble Lord, Lord Jones, as he reminded me. I thank him for his kind words. He rightly said that these regulations are necessary, and I echo his thanks to all those in health and social care who have worked so hard throughout the pandemic and helped deliver an extremely successful vaccine rollout.
While I have the floor, I also thank the wider workforce. I was once told that lockdown was when the wealthy, white middle class stayed at home to be served by immigrant workers. Let us not forget all those delivery drivers, including those from Uber, Deliveroo, Just Eat, Amazon and others, who brought stuff to people in lockdown and made sure that they could continue with their lives. We should always remember the wider workforce—the postmen and women who carried on delivering and the public transport workers who carried on despite the risks. We owe them all a great deal of gratitude. However, we also have to thank those in health and social care for enabling the vaccine rollout, as well as the volunteers. One of the great things about this country is our great history, going back many years, of civil society, local society and volunteers. They worked to make sure that those in need and those working in the NHS got some support.
The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked a number of sensible questions. I am not flattering him in order to avoid answering on vaccine or test certification. The number of fixed penalty notices is not known at this stage, but I will endeavour to get the information that he asked for. I make this commitment: I will write to him once I get that data. I also assure him that there has been extensive consultation with business groups on vaccine or test certification, including the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI, as well as with the public via a call for evidence. We have also engaged closely with all the devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Government on, for example, sharing the NHS Covid pass with Wales and on the level of fixed penalty notices, which broadly align. However, as a general concept or principle, one thing that this Government are clear about is that we respect the constitutional settlement and the devolved Administrations. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have been in meetings with the Health Ministers of the devolved Administrations. Only last week, I chaired a meeting with their relevant Ministers on the UK life sciences strategy, for example, and how we can all work together. Public health is a devolved matter, but we have tried to have a co-ordinated approach wherever it is sensible and appropriate. However, what we cannot do is mandate that just because we can do something in England we expect the devolved Administrations to do the same. That would be disrespectful to them.
My noble friend Lady Foster raised some important issues about additional support for the NHS. Having sceptics is one of things that is very important in politics. In fact, it is how we make progress. If there are no sceptics who challenge the existing wisdom, we do not make progress. I thank my noble friend for her scepticism, even if we do not always agree. The Government have provided the NHS with a six-month cash boost of £5.5 billion to help manage winter Covid pressures and tackle backlogs, which takes our total extra Covid-19 funding to health and social care services to more than £34 billion this year.
My noble friend asked about the Government’s policy of large-scale testing. We believe that testing remains crucial to help protect the people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 by identifying those who may unknowingly have the virus. Enabling those who test positive to self-isolate helps to break the chain of transmission. For example, one of my team notified us only yesterday that she had tested positive. I felt it was my responsibility, even if it were not required, to take a test to make sure that when I came into the House today I was not positive—if I had been, I would not have come here—to ensure that I did not irresponsibly spread Covid-19. It is important that we continue to test when we are in contact with someone who has tested positive. Testing also helps to build up a strategic understanding of the prevalence of the virus. One of the great things about PCR tests and the link to individual patients has been the data it provides so that we can understand the spread of the virus and the variants.
My noble friend also raised concerns about the vaccination of children, which are understandable. Only the other day in the Chamber, the Government were criticised for not rolling out vaccinations for children early enough. My answer then was that we had to make sure that before we moved to children we had sufficient data about the most appropriate vaccination for children because their behaviour is clearly different from that of adults. We believe that the vaccination of school pupils helps to reduce the need for young people to have time off school and the risk of spreading Covid-19 within schools. The vaccine will protect young people from Covid-19 and reduce disruption to education, not only if they catch the virus but for their welfare and mental health. I have spoken to a number of parents—indeed, I am a parent myself. One of the things they say is that during lockdown they were very concerned about the mental health of their children and they are pleased that their children are able to go to school safely because those who are isolated having tested positive will not spread it to them.
I accept my noble friend’s criticism of the restrictions that we have put in place. She called for them to be lifted. We do not think that is appropriate, given the data and evidence that we have at this stage.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, asked about vaccination as a condition of deployment. This was first put forward to combat the delta variant. Vaccine effectiveness against that variant has been estimated at around 65% with the AstraZeneca vaccine and 80% with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. As the pandemic has evolved, and with the emergence of omicron, the latest data show that after three months a full primary course of an approved vaccine no longer provides the longer-term public health protection against the spread of Covid and severe disease that it was intended to provide. The safest way to develop resistance to the virus is through the Covid-19 vaccine, as it does not come with the risk of severe illness or death, unlike natural infection. As such, we are looking carefully at the evidence and the clinical advice on whether the requirements need to be strengthened to include further doses. As I have said before, the Covid-19 pass is not a vaccine passport. Vaccine status, a recent test or a medical exemption are the ways to gain access.
On the wider point about civil liberties, it is a difficult balance, but it is important that people are allowed to express their criticism. In a free society, whatever we think and no matter how much I may disagree with my noble friend Lady Foster or the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, it is important that they are able to express their views freely so we can have a fair debate in a free society.
However, if anyone goes beyond the bounds of acceptability, if anyone threatens violence or engages in acts of violence—I am not saying that people have done, but a couple of centres have been attacked in this country—that is unacceptable. However, people should be free to say what they believe in a free society, and it is about getting that balance right. I may disagree with someone, but the noble Baroness has a right to disagree with me.
That is so important. The point that I made was about lumping everybody together. That is what I was really saying about schools. It is one thing to invade a vaccine centre, which is one reason to introduce public spaces protection orders—the super-fast ones, which I think are illiberal anyway—but it is important constantly to emphasise that everybody is not the same. Even if they do not like vaccines, they will not all be invading places and beating people up or threatening anyone and being violent.
I take the noble Baroness’s point that not everyone who is against vaccines is unvaccinated or an anti-vaxxer. It is a very difficult balance to get in a free society. It is important that people are allowed to criticise, but they also need to be challenged robustly. That is what we need in a healthy society.
On the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, about the importance of evidence-based decision-making, let me assure her that it is one of the things that I take very seriously. My officials probably get bored of me saying, “Where is the evidence? Is it evidence-led?” It is really important that this is evidence-led. The Government’s approach has always been informed by the scientific and medical advice, the latest data and advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer, members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—SAGE—experts from the UK Health Security Agency as well as many others considering the wider factors within health and society.
I also agree with the noble Baroness that vaccination is a key part of our defence against Covid-19, and the latest data show that boosters are even more important. In answer to her question, we have said that once all adults have had a reasonable chance to get their booster jab—as the Secretary of State said in the other place—we intend the booster dose to be regarded as being fully vaccinated for vaccine or test certification, which can continue to be used voluntarily for venues and events using the NHS Covid pass. We will consider whether and if any changes are needed to other policies that rely on people being fully vaccinated. Once again, we urge everyone to get boosted now. We have delivered the fastest booster programme in Europe, with more than 36 million boosters now in arms across the UK.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the timing of this debate. I agree with noble Lords—in some ways, it has embarrassed me—that we seem to be in a time warp. In fact, it was funny that, in preparation for this, I was wondering which tense to use. I agree that parliamentary scrutiny is incredibly important. That is why the certification regulations were considered and approved in the other House before coming to this House very shortly after coming into force. The amending statutory instrument that we are debating today on certification corrects minor errors of omission in the original certification regulations. The issues were identified and corrected promptly and came into force at 6 am on 15 December 2021. The amending SI does not affect the sunset of the regulations on 26 January.
The noble Baroness also asked why plan B is expiring. Plan B measures are being removed because we believe, led by the evidence, that it is safe and proportionate to do so. We believe that we have made good progress, but it is important that we remain vigilant. As the Prime Minister said in the other place, it is important that we do not give the impression that this is over. We have to remain vigilant. We have to let fresh air in if we meet indoors, but meeting outdoors is safer. The Government suggest continuing to wear a face covering in crowded or enclosed settings where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet. Please get tested and self-isolate if required, try to stay at home if you are feeling unwell and wash your hands.
I do not have a specific answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about the immuno- suppressed, so I will make sure that I get that. I am sorry that I do not have that answer here; I really should have had that. I will get that to the noble Baroness as soon as possible and lay a copy in the Library so that others can see it.
Covid is not over, and it is important that people continue to follow safe behaviours. Please let fresh air in if you meet indoors, and meet outdoors if it is safer, although I know that can be difficult in this weather unless you are one of those people who likes to jump in the Serpentine on a cold morning. The Government suggest that you continue to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet. Get tested and self-isolate if required. Try to stay at home if you are feeling unwell. Wash your hands. Download and use the NHS Covid-19 app for contact tracing.
The Minister rightly emphasised the continued need to get tested, as did the Prime Minister in the other place, but we hear that free lateral flow tests are to come to an end. What assessment has been made of the impact of that cessation when we are still being encouraged to be tested?
All I can say to the noble Baroness at this stage is that I, too, heard the rumour today that some paper had been leaked. I have not had a chance to have it verified that there is any truth to the story. As soon as I do, I will write to the noble Baroness and inform others in the usual way. As far as I understand the situation at the moment, there has been a rumour, a leaked paper or a story. I have not caught up with the news.
On a point of clarification, I did not say that we should not continue testing; I said that there are clearly circumstances where we must and that there are sections of society that need to be tested. My point was that the tests are not free; they have a cost to the economy and to the NHS budget.
I thank my noble friend for the clarification, but I suspect that the debate will continue, and that is what we expect in a free society.
I end by continuing to urge everyone to get vaccinated and have their booster dose. We are looking at how we can get to communities which are sometimes distrustful of authority and at how we can work with people in those communities who have trust, for example, with faith groups, on a number of different initiatives. Let us continue to urge them to get vaccinated. Let us help to manage Covid-19 and keep ourselves and those around us safe.
I end by thanking noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and previous debates on other Covid-19 legislation. I apologise to noble Lords whose questions I have been unable to answer in full, but I will look through Hansard and make sure that I get answers to noble Lords who took part. I commend the regulations to the Committee.