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Covid-19

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 19 January.

“Within hours of learning from scientists in South Africa about the emergence of a new Covid variant last November, this Government acted to introduce balanced and proportionate restrictions at our borders to slow the seeding of omicron in our country. As we learned more about this highly transmissible new variant, we implemented the plan B measures that we had prepared precisely in case our situation deteriorated, encouraging people to change their behaviour to slow the spread of the virus and buying crucial time to get boosters into arms.

We made the big call to refocus our National Health Service, necessarily requiring the difficult postponement of many other appointments, so that we could double the speed of the booster programme. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our NHS and its volunteers, we delivered the fastest booster programme in Europe, reaching half our population before any other European country. There are more than 36 million boosters now in arms across the UK, including more than 90% of all over-60s in England.

Taking a balanced approach, we resisted calls from others to shut down our country all over again. Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns, and many have seen hospitality curfews and nightclubs closed, capacity limits at sports stadiums, the return of social distancing and, in some places, Christmas and new year as good as cancelled. But this Government took a different path. We kept England open and we supported those businesses that faced reduced demand because of the response to plan B measures. Although we must continue to remain cautious, the data are showing that, time and again, this Government got the toughest decisions right.

Today’s latest Office for National Statistics data show clearly that infection levels are falling in England and, although there are some places where cases are likely to continue rising, including in primary schools, our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally. There remain, of course, significant pressures on the NHS across our country, especially in the north-east and north-west, but hospital admissions, which were doubling every nine days just two weeks ago, have now stabilised, with admissions in London even falling, and the number of people in intensive care not only remains low but is actually falling.

This morning the Cabinet concluded that because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the plan B measures, we can return to plan A in England and allow plan B regulations to expire. As a result, from the start of Thursday next week, mandatory certification will end. Organisations can of course choose to use the NHS Covid Pass voluntarily, but we will end the compulsory use of Covid status certification in England.

From now on, the Government are no longer asking people to work from home. People should now speak to their employer about arrangements for returning to the office. Having looked at the data carefully, the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse, the Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere. From tomorrow, we will no longer require face masks in classrooms, and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas.

In the country at large, we will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly where people come into contact with people they do not usually meet, but we will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one. The Government will also ease restrictions further on visits to care homes, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will set out plans in the coming days.

As we return to plan A, the House will know that some measures remain, including those on self-isolation. In particular, it is still a legal requirement for those who have tested positive for Covid to self-isolate. On Monday, we reduced the isolation period to five full days with two negative tests, and there will soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether—just as we do not place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu. As Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.

The self-isolation regulations expire on 24 March, at which point I very much expect not to renew them. Indeed, were the data to allow, I would like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forward. In advance of that, we will set out our long-term strategy for living with Covid-19, explaining how we hope and intend to protect our liberty and avoid restrictions in future by relying instead on medical advances, especially the vaccines which have already saved so many lives.

But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter. When there are still over 16,000 people in hospital in England alone, the pandemic is not over—and make no mistake, omicron is not a mild disease for everyone, especially if you are not vaccinated. Just look at the numbers in intensive care in other countries where vaccination rates are far lower. Indeed, from our NHS data, we know that around 90% of people in intensive care are not boosted. So I urge Members across the House to do everything possible to encourage any remaining constituents who have not done so to get boosted now. For the next few weeks, I encourage everyone across the country to continue with the behaviours that we know help to keep everybody safe—washing hands, letting fresh air in, getting tested and self-isolating if positive, and, as I say, thinking about wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings.

Omicron tested us, just as alpha and delta did before, but let us remember some of what we have achieved. We were the first nation in the world to administer a vaccine. We were the fastest in Europe to roll it out, because, outside the European Medicines Agency, this Government made the big call to pursue our own British procurement strategy rather than opting back into the EU scheme, as some people urged. We created a world-beating testing programme, the largest in Europe, and procured the most antivirals of any country in Europe too, because this Government made the big call to invest early in lateral flow tests and in cutting-edge drugs to protect the most vulnerable. We have delivered the fastest booster campaign in Europe, and we are the first to emerge from the omicron wave, because the Government made the big call to focus on our NHS and to refocus our activity by leading the Get Boosted Now campaign.

That is why we have retained the most open economy and society anywhere across the European continent, and the fastest-growing economy in the G7—because we made that tough decision to open up last summer when others said that we should not, and to keep things open in the winter when others wanted them shut. This week the World Health Organization said that while the global situation remains challenging, the United Kingdom can start to see the

“light at the end of the tunnel”.

That is no accident of history. Confronted by the nation’s biggest challenge since the Second World War and the worst pandemic since 1918, any Government would get some things wrong, but this Government got the big things right. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, this pandemic has taken a huge toll on the physical and mental health of the nation, on businesses, on leisure and on our economy. Across the UK, people have made heroic efforts to care for, serve and protect others, from the staff and volunteers who have delivered an amazing vaccination programme to the NHS and to those who have kept schools, shops, hospitality and public services running, as well as all those who have stayed at home—and have not had parties—in order to protect others, and have missed out on special times with friends and family.

So we are all keen to get back to living and working as normal as quickly as possible. We welcome the overall fall in cases, hospitalisations and the death rate. This follows the success of the vaccine and the care that so many have taken in testing and in following the rules.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that plan B measures will lapse throughout the UK. We do not want to see restrictions in place any longer than necessary. In response to a question yesterday from Keir Starmer, Mr Johnson agreed that he would publish the scientific evidence behind the decision. Can the noble Baroness today confirm that this has now been published and is publicly available and will she commit to ensuring that it is available in the Library of the House of Lords as soon as possible? I think she will understand, given the recent scandalous events in Downing Street with varying accounts from the Prime Minister, that public confidence can now be assured only when back-up evidence is available.

Although there are fewer cases and deaths across the country than there were last week and scientists are optimistic that omicron has peaked, does the noble Baroness accept that we still need to be cautious? In some parts of the country, cases are still rising though we hope they will start to fall. The health service, underresourced even before the pandemic, is facing enormous pressures with huge delays. Many appointments for surgery and treatment have been cancelled. The WHO and many scientists predict that there may be further variants into the summer and daily deaths are still over 350. The British Medical Association, representing those in the NHS front line, is concerned that given these factors the Prime Minister

“risks creating a false sense of security”.

I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could respond to this: what advice is now available for those shielding or people who are clinically more vulnerable regarding the move from plan B back to plan A, including on working from home and using public transport?

What is clear with all these factors is that we need a credible plan on how we can live with Covid, including any new variants that may emerge. The Government have to look past the current maelstrom they are experiencing and the focus must be on resilience to any future pandemics or future variants.

I do not know what the Government’s plan is—I hope the noble Baroness does—but we can offer some advice on the way forward that I hope she can respond to. The vaccination programme has proved its worth. We would retain an army of trained volunteers to always be available to support the National Health Service. We also have to work with other countries and international organisations to provide vaccines across the world, if we are to end the cycle of another new variant emerging just as we think we have dealt with the last one.

We know testing works. There has to be a national supply of test kits to avoid shortages so tests can be available when and where they are needed. Ideally, it would be good if the Government could look at the UK manufacturers, which are so keen to provide these.

I do not know how many times we have to say this, but the Government really must increase sick pay and extend it to all workers. It should never be a choice between keeping others safe by staying home or being able to pay the rent and the energy bills.

We cannot just keep talking about ventilation in classrooms, or indeed workplaces. I know the schools’ ventilation programme has eventually started—and that is welcome—but the Government have to move more quickly to ensure that all children can stay in school. Can the noble Baroness say when this programme will be completed and what percentage of classrooms or schools have now been included and seen their ventilation improved?

There are also a number of common-sense measures that, while not ideal or enjoyable, do not impinge too much on our daily lives—such as mask wearing in busy crowded spaces and basic hygiene measures to protect from infection transmission—that we should not be too quick to discard. Will the Government continue with public health messaging to enable this?

Finally, the death toll in the UK from this virus is devastating. It is over 150,000, which is one of the worst rates in the world. Despite the shocking errors in test and trace, the lack of NHS readiness at the start of the pandemic, and the problems that we saw with PPE supplies and contracts—which may be subject to ongoing legal proceedings—the vaccination programme and the adherence of the public, though not Downing Street, to public safety measures have been real game changers. Those two things—the public’s response and having a vaccine—have really made a difference.

At this point all our decisions must be based on moving forward with care, using sensible proportionate measures to learn to live with Covid. We need to do all we can to ensure that we do not again end up playing Covid hokey-cokey in lifting and then reimposing restrictions that none of us wants to see. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness can address some of these points. The key thing is that we welcome this but urge caution as well.

My Lords, we obviously share the relief being felt across the whole country that the peak of the omicron wave seems now to have passed. However, Covid is not over. Yesterday, the ONS reported that one in 20 people in England caught Covid last week and government-reported cases still number over 100,000. The NHS remains pressured, with around 2,000 admissions per day, and last week there were 1,900 deaths.

We clearly need to learn to live with Covid, but that is not necessarily the same as going back to life exactly as it was before Covid. We need to remember that continuing levels of Covid, even at reduced numbers, will continue to fill some hospital beds. This delays treatment of everybody else, which is particularly significant given the 6 million people on the NHS waiting list.

This is the backdrop against which we have to judge yesterday’s announcement. The exact timing clearly has more to do with Conservative Party management and saving the Prime Minister’s premiership than concerns about public health or boosting the economy. While ending some of the restrictions, such as Covid passports, is to be welcomed, we have some reservations elsewhere, particularly on masks.

As everybody knows, masks are a cost-effective precaution that help reduce transmission of the virus and consequently reduce the pressure on the NHS and its staff. People have been asked to make tough sacrifices throughout the pandemic but, in our view, requiring people to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops a little longer to protect others is a small price worth paying. There are many, especially the clinically extremely vulnerable, who are concerned about travelling on crowded public transport or using the shops. Keeping masks in those crowded places will allow them to get on with their day-to-day lives with confidence in a way that they have not been able to do for virtually two years.

The Prime Minister said that

“we will trust the judgment of the British people”

on whether to wear masks. Given his own complete lack of judgment and moral authority, I suspect the consequence will be that mask wearing on the Tube and on trains will collapse. Before the latest restrictions, mask wearing on the Tube was under 50%. Today it is about 90%. Next week, I bet it will be back to 50% or less. In our view, to have permitted this at this point is a mistake.

As for masks in schools, we all want to keep schools open but with huge numbers of pupils still out of school, it remains hard to do so in some cases. As long as the evidence shows that masks are helping reduce these absences, we support heads who want to retain masks in their schools. If individual heads decide to do this beyond the end of this week, will the Government support them?

The real issue in schools is, of course, the Government’s failure to provide air purifiers in classrooms. I echo the noble Baroness’s question: how far have the Government got in their admittedly inadequate plans to improve the number of classrooms that have such air purifiers?

On ending the requirement to work from home, while going back to the office will be good and right for many, we would encourage employers to consider the wishes of their employees—as many of them are already doing. Can the noble Baroness say what policy the Government are adopting towards their own employees? Will they require all civil servants to return to their former work patterns or will they, like many private sector employers, show more flexibility?

More generally, this Statement—which unfortunately we did not have the benefit of hearing—is suffused with the kind of hyperbole and exceptionalism that we have come to expect from this Prime Minister. Given his abject failure to stick to the rules himself or to ensure that his own staff behave responsibly, to many ears this tone sounds more than usually ill-judged. It is too much to expect sincere humility from this Prime Minister. He should go.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments on the positive news in this Statement that we have been able to move forward. I will attempt to address some of their questions.

I will ensure that the scientific evidence is placed in the Library. I am afraid I am not sure whether it has been published yet; it was said that this would happen this week, but I will check and make sure that it is available for noble Lords. I can say that we considered a range of data in making this decision, including data on infections, the effectiveness of vaccination, Covid pressures on the NHS, workforce absences, public behaviours and international comparisons, alongside the views from the scientific community. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the data is showing that Covid cases are falling and that the high levels of vaccination and booster uptake have helped reduce the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, which, in turn, has helped reduce the pressure.

However, I completely accept what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said and we continue to urge caution, because there are still around 1,600 Covid patients in England. They are both absolutely right: while we are very pleased to have been able to take this step forward, we all have to be cautious. I think we can all accept that the British people have shown that they can make judgments about what they are doing and how they can feel safe, and will continue to do so. It is thanks to their willingness to get vaccinated and the way they have thought of others as much as themselves that we have been able to get to this position. I would also say that hospital admissions have stabilised and the number of patients in ICU is falling, so the data is showing that we are moving in the right direction.

The noble Baroness asked about advice for people who have previously been shielding. There is now no specific advice and, as the noble Lord said, people will need to make their own judgments about how they feel and what they want to do.

The noble Lord asked about public transport. Operators of public transport can still require passengers to wear face coverings as a condition of carriage. I might be wrong, but I thought the Mayor of London, for instance, said that about the Tube yesterday, notwithstanding some of his comments. That option is still available; I believe the mayor has introduced it and obviously he did previously.

Masks will no longer be required, but the guidance suggests that individuals continue to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where they may come into contact with people they do not usually meet. Again, it will be up to individual businesses and organisations whether they wish to ask their customers to wear face coverings. We think that, as we move towards an endemic scenario—we hope that this is becoming endemic, rather than a pandemic—we need to move towards guidance rather than mandated rules.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about our international efforts. She will know that we have been a world leader in ensuring that developing countries can access vaccines. Last month, we pledged £105 million of emergency aid to help support vulnerable countries and we met our goal of sharing 30 million doses by the end of last year. That benefited over 30 countries as part of our G7 pledge to donate 100 million doses by June.

In relation to support for individuals, we have committed over £344 million to ensure there are no financial barriers to isolating in England. The noble Baroness asked about statutory sick pay. We have made Covid-related statutory sick pay payable from day 1, meaning that it can be up to 75% more generous for full-time employees who need to self-isolate. We have also reintroduced the statutory sick pay rebate scheme which reimburses eligible businesses for the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences. Sick pay is one part of the support available, but people may also be eligible for the £500 support payment as well.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about schools. We have removed the requirement for face masks in the classroom, but directors of public health will be able to propose temporary recommendations for face coverings in communal areas across their area, or parts of it, in the event of a Covid outbreak and if the public health situation justifies it. On ventilation in schools, I can say that over 350,000 CO2 monitors have been rolled out across the school estate and the country to help in identifying poorly ventilated areas, backed by a £25 million investment. I am happy to say—I hope this provides some reassurance—that feedback following this shows that, in most settings, existing ventilation measures were sufficient. For the cases where maintaining good ventilation is not possible, 8,000 air-cleaning units are being rolled out across schools. That figure has gone up quite significantly and I am sure it will continue to do so if needed.

The noble Lord also asked about working from home. It will be up to departments to decide their own arrangements with their staff, but we are encouraging people to return to the office as a cross-government message, not least because I think quite a lot of people would like to come back and see friends and colleagues who they perhaps have not seen for a very long time.

My Lords, the Leader of the House just said that there is no advice for people who were formerly shielding, the clinically extremely vulnerable, but there is; the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, confirmed this to me last night. It says that this group should still consider meeting people only 14 days after they have been fully vaccinated, social distancing, asking friends and family to have rapid lateral flow antigen tests, asking any visitors to their homes to wear face coverings and not going into enclosed crowded spaces. Putting this guidance on a website is not the same as telling this group of people, or the wider public, especially their employers, directly that this group still need to take care. Will the Leader take this back and ensure that communications go to this vulnerable group of just under 4 million people?

I apologise to the noble Baroness and will certainly take that back to government colleagues. I recognise what she says.

My Lords, there does not seem to be anything about future plans for boosters. We all acknowledge that the vaccination campaign has been a triumph, but we still do not know for how long the vaccine is efficacious. Are there plans for booster doses to be given annually or at other intervals?

My noble friend puts his finger on it when he says that at this stage we do not know. However, I can reassure him that this will continue to be monitored. If it becomes necessary to deliver further boosters, we will of course do so. We will also need to be alive to the potential for different variants, which may involve other actions. I can assure him that we now have a wealth of evidence and experience and know, as in this very announcement today, how important vaccines and boosters are. That will certainly be at the forefront of our mind as we continue moving forward.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her update. I believe that NHS staff who have not received two doses of the vaccine face dismissal from 1 April onwards. It is estimated that this will result in London losing something like 12.5% of its midwives, putting at risk the lives of pregnant women and their babies. Such a loss of staff may be thought to be justified were it not for the case that two doses of the vaccine are not understood to protect against the omicron variant of Covid-19. We shall lose precious midwives to implement a policy that has been superseded by the evolution of the virus. Will Her Majesty’s Government put the implementation of existing legislation on hold, given that it may now lead only to harm and not the good that it was designed to promote?

I am sure the right reverend Prelate would also accept that unvaccinated healthcare workers increase the risk to themselves, their colleagues and the very vulnerable people in their care. It is our responsibility to help give everyone the best possible protection. I can say that the vast majority of NHS staff have been vaccinated: nine in 10 have already had their second jabs. The NHS will continue to support and encourage staff who have not yet been vaccinated to take up the offer. Since we first consulted on this proposal, the proportion of NHS trust healthcare workers who have been vaccinated with a first dose has increased from 92% to 94%, an increase of 75,000.

My Lords, in the period since the pandemic began, we have learned that the protections we have all been routinely using, such as the wearing of masks, handwashing and so forth, protect not only against Covid but against a number of other common infections which themselves have an impact on workforces and absentee rates, and therefore economic outcomes. I want to take the Minister back to my noble friend Lady Smith’s point about public messaging. Rather than encourage people to see this as a moment of freedom from restrictions, is it the Government’s intention to remind them that, in certain respects—which as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, are not particularly onerous—if they continue to observe certain precautions, they will be protecting not only against Covid but against other diseases and infections that cause pressure on the NHS?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. We will of course continue to do that and make sure we are getting the message out. As she rightly says, people can wash their hands and have better ventilation. We will absolutely continue to pass those messages on, nationally and, I am sure, within schools and other settings and in individual businesses. We are all used to the signs now, as we go around various places, and I am sure that will continue.

My Lords, the Health Secretary claimed in the media this morning that the Government are actively considering removing the mandatory isolation period at some point in the near future. Presumably, if that goes ahead, it will place greater responsibility on lateral flow testing to show that you are negative, and so that would be an even more difficult moment to introduce charges for those tests, as the Government are also apparently considering.

The noble Lord is right. As he says, the self-isolation regulations expire on 24 March. In the other place, the Prime Minister said yesterday that he expects them not to be renewed. Obviously, a final decision will be made nearer the time, but that is the intention. We will continue to provide free lateral flow tests for as long as is necessary. As the noble Lord rightly said, testing has been one of our most important lines of defence, and we continue to issue record numbers. At a later stage in our response, free tests will end, but there will have to be a balance; it is not something that will be happening imminently. We completely understand the value of lateral flow tests—all of us have seen it—but, as I said, as we start to move towards treating this as an endemic, things will need to change. That is something we will have to consider further down the line.

My Lords, ventilation remains a distinct problem in very many schools up and down the country. So concerned have some teacher friends of mine been that they have bought their own air purifiers, given that the Government have not filled the gap. The Minister said that 8,000 cleaning units will be rolled out—that seems to me to be an extremely small number—but can she also say over what period these will be rolled out?

They are being rolled out currently and will continue to be so. As I said in response to a previous question, 350,000 CO2 monitors have been rolled out. Notwithstanding the comments the noble Baroness made, feedback has shown that, in most settings, existing ventilation measures are sufficient.

My Lords, if we accept that we are going to be living with this virus for many years to come, we have to start being proactive rather than reactive. Ventilation affects more than schools; it affects public buildings and business buildings, where many people congregate. What is the Government’s view on changing building regulations, so that new builds start to deal with the endemic, rather than cause problems by not keeping people safe, and so help the economy to keep going?

I am afraid I do not have an answer to that question, so I will go back to the department to try to find out, and will provide that information to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. Could she confirm that we will still continue with the vaccination of 12 to 15 year-olds? The JCVI recommends that the over-5s are also vaccinated. Now that the MHRA has approved the drug Paxlovid, which has been found to be highly effective in trials at reducing serious illness by 89%, do the Government have plans to purchase such drugs for those who might catch Covid in future?

As the noble Lord will be aware, we have already purchased more antivirals than anywhere else in Europe, so we are on the front foot on this and will continue to be so. As new drugs become available, I am sure we will continue to do that. The noble Lord is absolutely right: we will be continuing to vaccinate those aged between 12 and 15. In England alone, we have already delivered over 1.7 million doses to that age group, and we are continuing to work on increasing take-up—for example, through repeat offers, ensuring information is translated into appropriate languages, and collaborating with leading social media platforms to direct young people and their parents to trusted sources of information.

My Lords, one of the interesting things about the Statement is the complete absence of any reference to advice from the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Chief Medical Officer or the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which is the Government’s chief advisory committee in the pandemic. Although the Minister says that the advice will be put in the Library of the House, can she assure us now that the advice received from the scientists accords with and supports the decision that the Government have taken?

As I said in response to the first question from the noble Baroness, we considered a range of data in the decision-making and, of course, the views of the scientific community.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their brave decision to relax the restrictions. I think many people who have been suffering severe mental health impacts from the pandemic will be relieved that perhaps we can start on a road to recovery and, as the noble Lord said, living with this virus. I go back to the question of the right reverend Prelate regarding mandatory vaccinations for NHS health staff. We are perhaps in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot if we get rid of loyal staff, and indeed many staff who are not even patient-facing, at a time when we face such a crisis in the NHS. There has already been a significant impact, as I understand it, in care homes and the social care sector.

As I said in response to the right reverend Prelate, we are continuing to support and encourage staff who have not yet been vaccinated, and we are seeing more and more staff coming forward to get their jabs.