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Grand Committee

Volume 820: debated on Monday 14 March 2022

Grand Committee

Monday 14 March 2022

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after a few minutes.

Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 31st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, we are here this afternoon to debate two important statutory instruments which will amend provisions in the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 and support our work to ensure continued access to critical vaccines and medicines across the country. The first SI will maintain vital arrangements which have underpinned our vaccination campaigns against flu and Covid-19. The second SI will support our ambitions to ensure that patients with unmet clinical needs can access the innovative treatments they need. I am grateful to be able to debate such important provisions today.

The purpose of the provisions I have laid in the Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations—which I will refer to as “the regulations”—is to amend the temporary provisions that cease to have effect on 1 April this year. They support the continued deployment of safe and effective Covid-19 and flu vaccinations at the pace and scale required both now and in the future as part of the pandemic response. This SI amends provisions in the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, SI 2012/1916, originally amended by the Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, SI 2020/1125, and the Human Medicines (Coronavirus) (Further Amendments) Regulations 2020, SI 2020/1594, either to make permanent or extend by a further two years these key regulatory flexibilities.

There are five provisions before us today, three of which we are seeking to make permanent. The first will enable injectable prescription-only medicines, which includes vaccines, to be given under a patient group direction commissioned by the NHS or a local authority, which effectively expands the workforce of vaccinators. The second will enable pharmacy-led Covid and flu vaccination services to operate outside their registered premises. This has enabled, for example, “pop-up” vaccination clinics to be run by pharmacists at convenient locations for patients, and these have been very successful. The third will add several additional groups of healthcare professionals to those who can administer vaccines under occupational health schemes, thereby expanding the workforce to vaccinate health and care staff. The final two provisions relate to a further temporary extension of easements to licensing requirements for assembly and preparation of vaccines prior to use and sharing of vaccines between sites.

Why do we need this SI? The success of the mass vaccination rollout on the scale and pace that has been possible to date will not continue if the SI is not approved, and the Covid-19 and flu vaccination programmes will not be able to continue running as they currently do. Nor would they be able to be re-established at the pace and scale which has been so vital to our success—for example, in response to the emergence of a new variant, leading to recommendations for an urgent booster campaign.

Approval has been sought and agreed both in the other place and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I will now provide the rationale in support of these important provisions in this place. We are debating these provisions today against a completely different backdrop to that which was in place when the key regulatory flexibilities were first made in late 2020. We are now in a position that we should welcome, but we should also be aware that vaccines remain our best line of defence against the virus and to help us to live with Covid. This is the very reason why it is vital to make permanent or temporarily extend these provisions.

The provisions have already proved invaluable by enabling mass vaccination against both Covid-19 and flu to be done as quickly as possible while safeguarding patients and limiting disruption to other NHS services. Patient safety has to be at the heart of any vaccination programme, and it is at the forefront of these provisions.

To improve uptake in areas with low vaccination uptake we have used places of worship as vaccination centres, with many more acting as pop-up venues; provided £22.5 million to fund the community vaccine champions scheme, targeting the 60 local authorities with the lowest vaccine uptake and using local networks to promote accurate health advice; established an army of vaccine ambassadors, speaking 33 languages between them, promoting uptake across the country; and taken the vaccines into the hearts of local communities through initiatives such as vaccination buses and taxis. It is vital that we continue to protect and vaccinate those in our society who are hard to reach and it is really important that we continue to reduce health inequality in vaccine uptake. Making these provisions permanent will enable us to achieve this goal. Indeed, the National Audit Office’s recent report on the rollout of the vaccination programme in England highlighted the balance between central command and control structures and wider empowerment locally. It saw this as a success factor in achieving more than 139 million vaccinations in the 15 months since the programme began.

I turn to the second instrument before us today. We are committed to making sure that individuals suffering from life-threatening or serious debilitating conditions and facing unmet clinical need are able to access the therapies they need. The early access to medicines scheme is a vital tool in supporting such patients to receive innovative new medicines. EAMS, as it is commonly referred to, provides a route for patients to be prescribed medicines that either do not yet have a marketing authorisation or licence, or do not have a marketing authorisation for the medicine to be used for that particular illness. Since 2014, the scheme has benefited hundreds of patients across the country. In England alone, over 1,600 patients have received EAMS medicines since the scheme launched. Their lives have been transformed by the chance to receive vital therapeutics for conditions ranging from cancer to sickle cell disease or severe dermatitis. Putting the scheme on a statutory footing allows us to maximise the benefits it offers to patients, as well as supporting the early development of medicines by innovative manufacturers in the UK.

The provisions we are debating today will deliver three key benefits. First, they will reaffirm in legislation the importance of patient safety within the scheme, putting specific provisions on safety monitoring and risk management on a statutory footing. Secondly, they will reduce the regulatory burden on manufacturers supplying EAMS medicines, making the scheme more visible and easier to use. Thirdly, they will help ensure that information on the real-world use of EAMS medicines can be collected. This will help provide more evidence and more data that can support future decisions about patient access to novel medicines. To summarise, we have the opportunity before us to deliver greater access to safe medicines, as well as supporting the innovation of our life sciences industry for the benefits of patients.

I am bringing forward the first instruments using the powers in the Medicines and Medical Devices Act, allowing us to use effective regulation to provide patients and the public with timely access to critical medicines and vaccines. The provisions in these instruments are incredibly important. They will be in force if mass vaccination campaigns against Covid-19 and flu are necessary again to protect the public and our freedoms. They will also ensure that patients with serious conditions and unmet clinical needs can be offered new, life-changing treatment options.

My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity of contributing to this debate. If I may, I shall say something about each of the two regulations we are looking at. Before I go down that path, I should declare an interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vulnerable Groups to Pandemics.

The first regulation is, in a sense, the product of success: we have made a great step forward in the vaccination programme. For the very first time, I tested positive for Covid 10 or 11 days ago—I am negative now, I promise—but it was not remotely worrying and had no serious impact on my health because I had had two vaccinations and a booster. The process in this country, not least the use of pop-up locations, has been rightly envied in many countries around the world. I got my second vaccination in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, a particularly pleasant experience.

The point is, however, that we have now arrived at a position where we are living with Covid, which is a tricky thing to do because the numbers of cases are not small. I was just one of them last week, and not in the least bit surprised when the Office for National Statistics said that there was an increasing number of cases because so many people who I knew of were going down with a case of it. Living with Covid is going to be tricky and I suspect we will, from time to time, find ourselves having to resort to a booster programme—perhaps not for everybody, but certainly among the most vulnerable.

The point I make to the Committee today is that, as we move into this very significant new phase of living with Covid, I do not want us to leave behind—or leave out—the small proportion of people who, by reason of being severely immunocompromised, cannot live with Covid. They cannot access or tolerate the vaccines, as they cannot produce the necessary antibodies. If we do nothing about that we will end up with a very small but significant number of people, maybe somewhere between 100,000 or 150,000, for whom the severity of their lack of immune system means that they literally cannot go out and expose themselves to Covid.

I have been asking questions of my noble friend the Minister and I fear there is a bit of confusion here. The Government are in the process of promoting clinical trials for post-exposure prophylaxis as treatments so that, if somebody has the symptoms of Covid, there are antiviral treatments available for them which have significant efficacy. But the trials are all on the basis that their symptoms are detected within three to five days; if they are not, there is a serious risk of severe harm, hospitalisation or even death for this small group of people.

The case I want to put is that the Government should, as other Governments are doing, look at the emergency-use authorisation of pre-exposure prophylaxis. In this instance, it is a drug with the brand name Evusheld. This is an AstraZeneca combination of monoclonal antibodies, the purpose of which is to give protection to people who are severely immunocompromised. I hope it will be apparent to noble Lords that there is the world of difference between pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylactic treatments. The difference is that a sense of confidence is created in the people to whom the pre-exposure prophylaxis has been provided, such that they too stand some chance of living with Covid and of no longer being subject to the isolation and shielding which has otherwise been their unfortunate experience now for two years.

In the data presently available, the efficacy of Evusheld results in an 83% reduced risk of symptomatic disease over a six-month period. That is a very good potential level of efficacy. If we do not do this in the position we are in, many of these people will not feel confident about leaving isolation and not being shielded. They will not rely on the assumption that they would get access to treatments within the time required.

I am hoping that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is just about to produce a positive, emergency-use authorisation assessment for Evusheld. If my noble friend has any information, that would be very welcome. While I entirely accept that the Government need to have that in place, why are they not negotiating with AstraZeneca to get access to it in a contract that depends, of course, on the availability of the authorisation?

Many countries are doing this. For example, the United States has ordered 1.7 million doses. The French have around 150,000, which is broadly comparable to us and the number we would expect to need; indeed, in France, they have administered 15,000 doses of Evusheld. I notice other countries entering into these contracts almost every day. On Friday, it was Switzerland. As we move into living with Covid, which these regulations support, can we have some confidence that we can supply Evusheld and pre-exposure prophylaxis for this very vulnerable group? That is my first point.

My second point concerns the second set of regulations. Again, we are talking about what I regard as a success and the consequences of success. In the past several years, we have gone a long way towards giving additional access to medicines at an early stage in this country. I want to make a small number of points to my noble friend the Minister. I just want to put them on the record; I do not expect him to reply to them all today as it would be tedious for him to have to do so. If my noble friend wants to reply subsequently, I would be grateful.

When we took the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill through the House, we said that a number of things would be important. We are now making progress on some of them. We have the innovative medicines fund; the commitment of resources to it is terrific. I asked for the medtech funding mandate to be expanded, and it is being. I saw that the latest data suggested seven further technologies in the course of this year. They are anticipated to deliver something like £46 million in savings following the four technologies in the previous year, which saved £25 million. These are good steps in the right direction. I hope that we will eventually get to a point where the medtech funding mandate is applied to all medical devices with a positive NICE assessment, in the same way as it is for medicines.

Today’s regulations on the early access to medicines scheme are based on a number of straightforward principles: that manufacturers should not have to work under a specials licence to produce these medicines and make them available; and that we should access the real-world data that is potentially available as these medicines are provided. This is important because the innovative medicines fund is absolutely about getting real-world data from the NHS when new medicines are made available to a population. However, I am slightly surprised that we do not have something a little more wide-ranging in these regulations because we now have a landscape of access to medicines. The time has come for the Government, with the advice of the Accelerated Access Collaborative, to set out more of a strategy about how these various aspects are to be brought together.

For example, those who bring their medicines forward under the early access to medicines scheme are increasingly doing so as part of the Innovative Licensing and Access Pathway—indeed, they are encouraged to do so. When it was a set up last year, a lot of the industry reacted to it. We had 71 applications, probably 40-plus of which have gone forward. Why are we dealing today with just the early access to medicines scheme? Why do we not have regulations that set out how the Innovative Licensing and Access Pathway gives one access to the same kind of regulatory benefits? It is through this that the targeted development profile is set up. It is how the road map is set out. It is what the industry is being encouraged to use as a mechanism for planning access to new medicines in this country.

I also wish to mention Project Orbis. Working with other regulatory jurisdictions, in this instance on cancer and led by the Food and Drug Administration, is absolutely the right way for us to go. It is really important for us to work with them but where is the link in regulatory terms between Project Orbis, the authorisation granted by the FDA and our ability to bring through a new medicine or cancer drug and treat it as something that also has authorisation here and access to the same benefits that the EAMS would deliver? We need these to be put together.

My noble friend might say that this is about the regulatory structure and not about reimbursement, but let us not go too far and assume too much about the ability of the industry to provide medicines free to the NHS in this country in order to demonstrate real-world data, which is essentially what it does under the EAMS. There are inevitable limitations about that. What the industry needs—I always thought that the innovative medicines fund was intended to fill this need—at a relatively early point when the real-world data support it, is for these medicines to be reimbursed.

This problem emerges most obviously for genomic treatments, which may be curative. If you have a relatively small population—these are increasingly treatments for relatively small populations with specific gene characteristics—and you are a company that has produced a gene therapy that can cure this, there will be real limitations in how far you can go to make that available to the NHS for free. The net result is that the patient population is getting smaller and the prospects for reimbursement diminish all the time. Gene-based therapies do not fit into this regulatory structure as readily as some of the other treatments.

All this demonstrates the critical importance of linking the regulatory structure to the reimbursement structure. I am looking for that to be demonstrated to the industry as soon as possible, using the innovative medicines fund and being linked to the NICE assessments and the medicines funding mandate that is derived from them. Even the MHRA, in its response to the consultation leading to this, made it clear that it thought that more streamlining could be done on the scientific opinion and how it leads to authorisation. Through the Accelerated Access Collaborative, we increasingly see that the MHRA, NICE and NHS England should be working together not only at the stage when a medicine is being mainstreamed into NHS use but right at beginning of this process to understand the potential of new medicines and, in NHS England’s case, by using horizon scanning to understand the benefits and implications in financial terms. Through that mechanism, we can give the industry much more confidence about their reimbursement potential.

Why now? There is a possibility—this year and next—for the industry, the Accelerated Access Collaborative and all the organisations that participate in it to work together and devise a scheme that is about not only streamlining regulation but using real-world data to trigger reimbursement. That reimbursement structure can then be put into the negotiation for the new voluntary pricing and access scheme, which starts from the beginning of 2024. My pitch to noble Lords and my noble friend is this: let us see that happen this year. I am taking this opportunity to ask if the Government will make it happen, through the AAC, during the course of this year.

Am I allowed to ask a question before the Minister replies? I notice that one of the SIs has an impact assessment attached to it and the other, related to early access to medicines, does not. When I looked at the explanation, it said that it does not reach the threshold required to undertake a full impact assessment. What is the threshold above which you are required to provide a full impact assessment?

My Lords, I will speak about some the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, in relation to the current levels of Covid, when we discuss later on the third of the SIs before us today. I welcome the two sets of regulations that we are discussing in this first section. The first, the Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2022, modifies and extends regulations with a large number of measures relating to vaccinations for both Covid and influenza. The previous regulations were due to expire on 1 April. I want to put on record our thanks to Ministers and officials for the fact that, this time, we are considering a Covid SI before it comes into force. I hope that this will become routine again from now on.

This SI makes permanent changes to what medicines a range of registered healthcare professionals can administer to NHS and local authority staff. It could be transformational for the NHS if carefully assessed and if the wider group of staff have training and support built into their professional training. It is important that this is extended. The ability to deliver vaccines for coronavirus, influenza and—heaven help us—any other pandemic without the need for a wholesale dealer’s licence to be in place, and for the final stages of coronavirus vaccine preparation to be completed without those extra licences, is important. It is part of a complex legislative framework. I am glad that we do not need to discuss that today but, arising out of it, perhaps I may ask the Minister some questions.

There has been discussion in public in the past few days about the expansion of the fourth booster for certain groups. Can the Minister explain when, if a person has already had their fourth booster, as the severely clinically extremely vulnerable have already had, they would next expect a booster, which would in fact be their fifth? What is the timescale for those who are expecting a fourth booster, having had their third one in the autumn or more recently?

What are the Government doing to keep reaching out to hard-to-reach groups who are not yet fully vaccinated? On the case numbers going up at the moment, I think we all know that those in hospital with coronavirus are predominantly those who have not had any vaccines or their full vaccinations.

What progress is being made towards the development of nasal spray vaccines for Covid, such as the Fluenz Tetra nasal vaccines for influenza for children? Obviously, delivering nasal vaccines needs considerably less training for staff than do injections, although I note that the current flu nasal spray vaccine is live and therefore not suitable for the immunocompromised or immunosuppressed.

What are the Government doing to encourage pregnant and breastfeeding women to get vaccinated, given the confusion that there was last year and the delay before the JVCI said that they should be vaccinated?

As we lift restrictions, it is very much the unvaccinated who are at risk of serious illness, so what socioeconomic and ethnic divisions are there between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated? What has been the most recent clinical assessment of vaccine uptake for the severely clinically extremely vulnerable or, if the Minister prefers to call them this week, the immunocompromised and the immunosuppressed? That is a slightly naughty question because I know the answer, as does the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. We know that some will never make any antibodies at all, while others will make some but they will wane extremely fast.

I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, discussing post-exposure prophylaxis trials, which are important. I note that, back in June and July last year, the Minister’s predecessor was telling us that pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment would be available very shortly, but in the last two or three meetings that I have been at with scientists and experts, they have said that it is much further away. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, is right and that it is not far off. Can the Minister say whether it is going to happen? There is still a problem for the immunocompromised and the immunosuppressed in making sure that they get access to these antivirals and monoclonal antibody treatments.

I turn now to the human medicines amendments relating to the early access to medicines scheme. The review into EAMS in 2016 highlighted that, often, a medicine will be available to a patient under EAMS but, when it makes the transition to being fully available and is going through the final stages of approval, there can be a lull when patients are not able to access it. This is a very particular problem for those who were on it in the trial and for whom it is making their lives a lot more bearable and their health condition much more under control. Suddenly there is a period when they cannot access that medication. Is it proposed that this arrangement changes so that, if you are on a trial, you can continue on it until it definitely will not be approved, rather than having to wait? How will this legislation make that transition smoother? How are the Government prioritising pharmaceutical innovation for the clinically extremely vulnerable?

Finally, this SI, along with the one that I started with, is very welcome, but it is a key issue. The recommendation from the independent review in 2016 said that it was vital that industry, the NHS and government worked closely together to make this whole transition process much smoother. Can the Minister assure the Committee that this will happen?

My Lords, as we know, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most serious domestic challenge that we have had to face in the post-war era. We know that more than 150,000 people have been lost and we know about the impact on our lives and liberties. It felt to me, having been on these Benches in this position from right at the beginning of it all, that we might never get to this point. A lot has changed in the last few months, however. Thanks to our NHS, our incredible scientists and the British public who have been vaccinated in their millions, we now have several highly effective Covid-19 vaccines and the entire population has been offered the third booster jab. While the virus is still with us—we will discuss that in our next debate—we are without a doubt in a much stronger position than we were back in March 2020. The impact of the vaccination programme cannot be overstated. It has allowed us to reclaim liberties that we were forced to forfeit in 2020, driven down hospitalisations and saved lives.

This statutory instrument continues this good work. It will surprise no one that we do not find it contentious; in fact, it is wholly necessary that the amendments made the human medicines regulations are continued. This SI enables us to continue with mass vaccination campaigns for Covid-19 and influenza, and extends the temporary provisions relating to the manufacturing licences and marketing authorisation. It permanently broadens the healthcare groups that are entitled to administer parenteral vaccines in an NHS or local authority, and enables community pharmacists to deliver flu and Covid vaccines outside their normal premises. These changes are sensible and will ensure that, in any future mass-vaccination rollout, the resources will be available to administer those vaccines.

As I said, Covid has not disappeared. We need to be prepared and ensure that the population remains protected against rising case numbers and possible mutations. We know that one of the issues and challenges we face is how to reduce the health inequalities of vaccine uptake. The under-30s, some of our BAME communities and pregnant women disproportionately make up the 8.5%, I think, of the adult population who remain unvaccinated. I do not think that we can be complacent. I would therefore like the Minister to say what further action the department will take to reduce the inequalities in vaccine uptake, as well as how extending these provisions will enable his department to better tackle vaccine hesitancy. As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, we cannot pass by without reference to the clinically vulnerable, clinically extremely vulnerable and immunosuppressed. They continue to seek clarity on vaccination in this extremely concerning time.

We have discussed these issues in the House on several occasions and continue to do so, because those who come into these categories need access to the full weight of what our science can deliver for them, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said. However, they also continue to need access to free tests and appropriate treatment. So facilitating continued access to vaccination is a key pillar of Labour’s “living well with Covid” plan, but we oppose the short-sighted sell-off of our Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline any further discussions that have taken place with his colleagues on VMIC and whether our vaccine manufacturing capability will be impeded by the ongoing negotiations. However, the message from this side of the Committee is that vaccines are safe and effective, and we must continue to ensure that they are widely and freely available. Only by doing so can we continue to build a world beyond Covid.

Turning to the second statutory instrument in this group, the early access to medicines scheme, managed by the MHRA, has been in place for almost eight years. As we know, it aims to provide patients who have life-threatening or seriously debilitating conditions with access to medicines that are not authorised generally or for the specific clinical use proposed. It provides the necessary regulatory flexibility for medicines that can often be a matter of life and death. As the Minister said, more than 100 medicines have been granted promising innovative medicine status; more than 40 scientific opinions have been awarded in areas with unmet patient need; and 1,600 patients have benefited from EAMS medicine since the scheme’s initial implementation. So we on these Benches absolutely support this SI.

Some pharmaceutical companies have raised the concern that EAMS is not delivering an attractive proposition for industry or the scale of early patient access originally envisaged. Furthermore, concerns have been expressed about a lack of clarity on how to apply for EAMS and how it works in practice. These areas for improvement are outlined in the EAMS independent review, which was published in 2016; I think at least one or two noble Lords have already mentioned it. Although the statutory instrument addresses some of those concerns, there are still a few areas on which we need to seek clarification from the Minister in due course. Placing the scheme on a statutory footing will give pharmaceutical companies and patients the necessary legal clarity. It is good that this SI is clear about the need to continue to protect patient safety and aims to simplify EAMS requirements where feasible. Most notably, this legislation will support the collection of real-world data, which will no doubt incentivise medical innovation. It is also important that the SI makes it clear that patient consent to data collection is not a condition of EAMS supply.

My Labour colleagues in the Commons have been engaging with various charities regarding the antiviral drug Evusheld, which is a preventive antibody treatment for the benefit of people with compromised immune systems who cannot get sufficient antibody boost from vaccines. There seems to have been an awful lot of dither and delay regarding this medication, which has left the previously mentioned CV, CEV and immunocompromised people feeling ignored and very anxious. I would be very grateful if the Minister could clarify this issue, if not now then perhaps in writing. I would also be grateful if he could set out what further actions the DHSC will take to improve knowledge of EAMS within both the health sector and the pharmaceutical industry.

Additionally, there is the wider issue of a complex research to clinical care pathway that the Government need to address. We need to ensure that we remove unnecessary barriers in research and medical innovation. I completely agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, when he talked about Orbis. He and I are veterans of the Brexit discussions of the past five years, which focused on the importance of having the right kind of access to patients, in the right numbers, to develop genetic and other medicine. I would be grateful if the Minister could talk about that.

I also echo the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, which she called a “lull”; I have called it a “black hole”. It has been reported that for some pharmaceutical companies there is a black hole in the system once marketing authorisation is granted and EAMS designation falls away, which can leave a gap of several months when no further patients can access a drug as it goes through the NICE financial assessment. Again, this was recognised in the independent review and by pharmaceutical companies and charities, so I would be grateful if the Minister could provide his assessment of this issue and whether the department is considering means to ensure a smoother transition from EAMS to full HTC and NICE approval.

EAMS is a great illustration of the work that can be done when industry works alongside healthcare agencies with patient interests at heart, but we must not take our foot off the pedal. We need to keep working to ensure that cutting-edge research is properly supported and puts the needs of patients first.

I begin by thanking all noble Lords who took part in the discussions today for their detailed questions. I will try to answer as many as I can, but I hope noble Lords will understand that I will write to them if I do not have the answer to hand.

To start with a few of the general remarks made, I thank all noble Lords for welcoming these SIs as well as some of the innovation that we have seen throughout the pandemic and how we have seen the NHS work closely with the department and industry to make sure that we develop suitable vaccines and therapeutics as quickly as possible. My noble friend Lord Lansley was absolutely right to refer to the living with Covid strategy. The reason we have that is to make sure that we are not complacent: it is to remind people that the pandemic is not over. Sometimes people say that we have returned to life before the pandemic, but it is still there and, as noble Lords have rightly expressed, there are new variants that we are keeping an eye on, such as the BA.2 and deltacron variants. The important thing to note is that, compared with the beginning of the pandemic, we have weakened the links between infection and hospitalisation and between hospitalisation and death. Indeed, a number of noble Lords are testament to this fact: they have survived testing positive for coronavirus.

I will try to address some of the specific issues. My noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, brought up the issue of Evusheld; they are right that it is not currently authorised for use in the United Kingdom. As noble Lords have said, it has been developed as a potential preventive treatment, with AstraZeneca announcing positive interim trial data. However, worldwide, omicron is still the dominant variant, and this trial took place before it emerged, so the therapeutics task force is engaging with AstraZeneca on emerging data and its impact on omicron. This work is ongoing.

A number of people identified previously as clinically extremely vulnerable are well protected after receiving their primary and booster vaccination doses. I am not sure that I have an answer about the fifth dose, but I will find that out and write to noble Lords. Most people who were considered CEV are no longer at substantially greater risk than the general population and are advised to follow the same guidance. In previous meetings that I have had with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I have asked for her to be in direct contact with my officials and others, and I hope that those discussions are helpful. If they are not, I hope that the noble Baroness will let me know so I can intervene to see what more can be done. There remains a small number of people whose immune systems mean that they are at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19, and enhanced protections, such as those offered by some of these treatments, are being looked at.

My noble friend Lord Lansley also asked about other schemes. As he will be aware, we have the innovative medicines fund and the cancer drugs fund—these are other paths we are looking at. NHS England, NHS Improvement and NICE recently consulted on proposals for the innovative medicines fund and we hope to have an announcement soon. On the Accelerated Access Review and the Accelerated Access Collaborative, we are committed to supporting patient access to these drugs. We created it for this reason and we remain committed to it. In fact, it was part of the Life Sciences Vision that we published in July 2021, and we see it as a crucial part. I understand that some medicine products are expensive to manufacture, and this may limit the schemes’ accessibility in some areas. If my noble friend has specific examples, I am very happy to have further discussions.

My noble friend Lord Lansley also mentioned cell and gene therapies. The scheme is open for any company to apply for any product that meets the criteria—that is, an area of unmet medical need where there are no alternative treatment options. This could include a cell or gene therapy. UK patients have been among the first in the world to benefit from access to these therapies, including CAR-T therapies for cancer patients and gene therapies for babies with spinal muscular atrophy. We see the scheme as one of the tools in ILAP, as my noble friend mentioned, but it is also a stand-alone opportunity for patients. We see it as an opportunity to access medicines early, separately to ILAP. The criteria for EAMS is also different from ILAP: the EAMS requires a medicine to demonstrate a major advantage over existing medicines in order to preserve the prescribing hierarchy. This means that prescribers should not prescribe an unlicensed EAMS medicine unless there is a clear clinical advantage in doing so.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, asked about the impact assessment. In line with government guidance, a regulatory triage assessment was undertaken in place of a full impact assessment service, since the impact is below the £5 million threshold. The EAMS has been in operation on a non-statutory basis since 2014, and the legislation will not involve any significant changes to the requirements for businesses that utilise the scheme.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of inequality. We are very much aware of this. In fact, when I talk to my colleague who is responsible, Maggie Throup, we talk about making sure that we reach those communities that have been hesitant so far. We are continuing to work with a number of different schemes, with communities, with faith organisations and local community champions—people who know these communities far better than we ever would if we were trying to do this from afar. We are taking advice from local people and communities and we also have some funding available to increase uptake and to counter some of the negative sentiments expressed about the vaccines. We are also making sure that there is a quality assurance framework to support vaccination centres and pop-up centres. Making sure we have enough people, increasing the vaccination workforce or task force means that these people are sometimes better trusted than others would be. We are very aware of that and are looking at completely different ways of approaching it. When I first got this job as a Minister, I made an appeal to noble Lords for their direct experience or suggestions of ways to reach some of the harder-to-reach communities and I was very grateful to noble Lords at that time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned advice to pregnant women. We have been clear about looking at where pregnant women go—to the doctor’s, the hospital, NCT classes, et cetera—and making sure that information is available at as many places as possible where pregnant women will be going, to inform them of what is appropriate and what is safe.

I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned Orbis. It is really important, as she said, that we continue to have international co-operation and collaboration. We are very pleased with Orbis, and we are talking to Australia, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland and Brazil. As noble Lords will be aware, there are also a number of different research projects where different universities here are co-operating with universities across the world and the life sciences industry. We want to continue to be a global hub for life sciences.

I am trying to see whether I can answer any more questions. I was asked about the nasal spray. I had some details on that, but I am afraid that I have lost them among my papers so, if the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will allow me, I will write to her.

I thank noble Lords for taking part in this discussion. We have to learn to live with Covid in the same way that we have learned to live with the flu. We are in a better place thanks to the vaccination programme, but we are clear that it is not all over. People should still take the appropriate precautions, such as washing their hands and ventilating built-up places, and some transport companies are still asking passengers to wear face masks. Vaccines are the linchpin, however. When appropriate, we will look at the longer term and the best ways to address some of these issues. We hope that the EAMS provisions will give patients safe and timely access to life-changing medicines. This instrument will provide legal clarity. A specific statutory basis for EAMS will improve the visibility of this, we hope, but I take noble Lords’ point that it is important that we make sure that more of the public are aware of these schemes, including the other schemes.

I thank noble Lords for supporting us today by assenting to these SIs to help us keep this going and protect the incredible progress we have made. However, there is still more work to be done. We recognise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, that a number of people still have not been vaccinated yet. The recent statistics show that 82% of eligible adults aged 18 and over in England have had a booster; for those aged 50 and over, it is about 93%. There are now 1,800 sites on the Grab a Jab website and more than 1,000 walk-in sites are open on any given day. We are quite clear that this is not just for boosters; it is also available for people who still have not had their first or second vaccine to come forward. We continue to look at different ways to reach these hard-to-reach communities, such as via community centres and faith organisations.

I thank noble Lords for taking part today.

Motion agreed.

Human Medicines (Amendments Relating to the Early Access to Medicines Scheme) Regulations 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Human Medicines (Amendments Relating to the Early Access to Medicines Scheme) Regulations 2022.

Motion agreed.

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation etc.) (Revocation) (England) Regulations 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation etc.) (Revocation) (England) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 31st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, over the course of this pandemic, we have had to put in place curbs on our liberties. Many of those curbs would at one time have seemed intolerable, but they were part of our national effort to slow the spread of the virus. We have now reached the position that we have been waiting for ever since this national effort began: a time when we can roll back some of the rules that have governed our lives over the past two years.

We are able to take this step because of the incredible progress that we have made; I thank noble Lords for alluding to that in the previous debate. When this virus first arrived, we knew very little about it. People were dying. There was no vaccine. We had to make tough decisions to protect our loved ones, our healthcare staff and the British people while we built up the defences to make us safe.

Since then, our vaccination programme has put more than 140 million doses in arms. That has included a booster programme where we were the first major European nation to boost half our population. It has resulted in more than 70% of adults in England receiving the booster, including 93% of those aged 70 and over. Vaccines have given us greater protection and slowed down the advance of the virus. They have allowed us cautiously to open up the country and attempt some return to normal life. The scientific protection that we have built up, together with our greater understanding of the virus, has shifted the odds.

We must be quite clear that our fight against the virus is not over, but we are now able to take a different approach, moving away from legal curbs towards an approach based on personal responsibility and public health guidance, where we trust people to make the right decision for themselves, for their loved ones and for those around them. I hope that noble Lords will bear with me while I talk through each measure in turn.

First, the legal requirements around self-isolation are being revoked. This includes the duty to self-isolate if you test positive, the duty to provide NHS Test and Trace with details of contacts, the duty to notify an employer that you are self-isolating and the legal duty on employers not knowingly to allow someone who is self-isolating to attend work.

Rather than relying on legal restrictions, we are encouraging people to act responsibly and to follow the guidance that has been set out. If you experience any of the main symptoms of Covid-19, you should take a test. These symptoms are a new continuous cough, a high temperature and a loss of or change in your normal sense of taste or smell. People who test positive should still stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days. They may choose to follow this advice until they have received two negative test results on consecutive days.

Household contacts are also advised to work from home if they can and to avoid contact with individuals who are at greater risk from Covid-19. They should also limit close contact with other people outside their household and wear a well-fitting face covering in enclosed spaces. Following this advice for 10 days after the case’s symptoms started, or the day their test was taken if they did not have symptoms, can help to protect others. Specific guidance for staff, in particular those in vulnerable settings, such as adult social care, healthcare and prisons, is being kept under review and regularly updated.

The other regulations being revoked today are the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020. These gave local authorities powers to issue directions to close, prohibit and restrict premises, events or outdoor places. They also gave the Secretary of State powers to require a local authority to issue a direction for closure. These regulations were vital for a local response to the crisis, allowing us to act with speed in response to local outbreaks, but these powers have not been used since July last year and we are now seeing fewer outbreaks, meaning that they are no longer proportionate or necessary. With these regulations revoked, outbreaks will be managed by local authorities through local planning and pre-existing public health powers, as they would be with other infectious diseases.

Although we are able to take these steps, we must remember that this pandemic is not over. There are simple actions we can all take to limit the spread of Covid-19 to protect those around us: get vaccinated, ventilate shared spaces, wear a face covering in crowded or enclosed spaces, get tested if you have Covid-19 symptoms and stay at home if you are positive. It is important that those who test positive for Covid-19 follow the public health advice to stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five days.

We are taking additional steps to protect the most vulnerable with targeted vaccines and treatments, including offering spring boosters as we announced and the protection offered by antivirals, of which we have a greater supply per head than any other country in Europe.

In our surveillance to build up our resilience to manage and respond to new variants, we will continue to rely on the world-leading ONS survey, allowing us to track the virus in granular detail. We will make sure that we still have the ability to ramp up testing should we need to and will help countries across the world to develop their own capability for surveillance. These defences will be our first port of call in the future, rather than relying on legal restrictions, while we maintain our vigilance.

The regulations we are debating today restore some freedoms to our nation, but we have to make sure we maintain our vigilance and continue to rely on a scientific evidence approach to keep us safe. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend, both for his Answer to my Question earlier, which I would like to pursue in more depth here, and for moving the regulations today. I also pay tribute to the work that he, the ministerial team and the department have done. They have worked exceptionally hard in challenging circumstances. I declare my interest as an adviser to the board of the Dispensing Doctors’ Association.

I understand, as my noble friend said in response to my Question earlier, that the department and the Government are reaching a balance in living with Covid. The context of these regulations must be set against that background. My concern is that we are still relying on the vaccination programme. I pause and say how welcome the vaccination and booster programme has been. I particularly welcome the fourth jab being rolled out to the most vulnerable. It seems slightly patchy: we heard earlier that some in London have a date for their vaccination, but hearsay and anecdotal evidence are that people are being told that they will have a vaccination but have no date yet.

My main concern is simply this. The Secretary of State has said publicly, and my noble friend has repeated it in the House and in Committee today, that the Government hope to respond and keep the development of the pandemic under review. I welcome that but my concern is very simple: that we are removing all the tools to enable the Government to do so.

I was sent a helpful briefing by the BMA in preparation for my Question earlier, which is also helpful in responding to the regulations before us. The changes already undertaken include that testing in schools was, apparently, removed on 21 February and, on 24 February, that the legal requirements to self-isolate following a positive test were removed. I presume that also applies to employers ensuring that they act responsibly in allowing someone who has tested positive to refrain from working. On 24 March, there will be a removal of provisions of support: the Covid-19 provisions within the statutory sick pay and employment support allowance regulations will be removed then, while 1 April sees the removal of guidance and free testing. My noble friend referred to the new guidance and it would be extremely helpful if the Committee could be told this afternoon when that guidance will be published. Perhaps we could have sight of it if it is available.

If we remove the free testing, doctors are extremely concerned that we are going to have a two-tier type of system. There will be those who feel they can afford the testing and, if they test positive, that they would not present themselves at work but could stay at home—I think all of us in this place would fall into that category. However, there are those already finding the cost of living very difficult, including the cost of energy and the high level of inflation, quite before we had the hostilities with Russia invading Ukraine.

Does the Minister honestly believe, in his heart of hearts, that people are going to test in those circumstances if they feel they cannot afford either to do so or, more importantly, to stay away from work because that would put themselves and their families at some risk? We have to accept that in many households now, there might be only one breadwinner as a result of Covid. I can see that the Government are caught in this trap between trying to get people back to work and trying to learn to live with Covid.

I would like to put another question to the Minister. The level of infections may spiral; we are seeing 220,000-plus infections a day. While I realise it is not as dangerous as before, that is down to the excellent work of the vaccinations and those who delivered them, including the Government who paid for those vaccinations. It has been a public health programme and that has been very welcome. I cannot remember whether it was the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, or the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who said earlier that there are about 2 million infections in total at the moment. That is a quite staggering amount.

I will admit that my family have probably done 100 years’ service between them in the health service. I am quite pleased that none of them is still in practice at the moment, because the BMA and practitioners are concerned that free tests are going to go, along with the responsibility for employers to ensure that their staff are not coming in with Covid. Also, there is no legal obligation to self-isolate—I think that is from now on—while, from 1 April, the self-isolation support payments will go.

We seem to be facing a potential storm. In Denmark where I have family, I have watched exactly the same thing happen. They lifted all the restrictions at once, and there was a veritable storm. There was then a new mutation, a new variant. Thankfully it was not a very dangerous one, but it has helped to fill the hospitals. For someone such as my aunt, who feels particularly vulnerable because she is now in her mid-80s—I do not think she has been offered a second booster or a fourth jab—this is obviously very worrying.

I shall stop speaking, because otherwise I risk repeating myself. Those are my concerns: that the Government are saying, “We’re going to respond to a sudden upsurge, but we’re going to take away the tools for doing so.” As we lift the restrictions in the regulations before us today, I ask my noble friend the Minister to look at the situation in July last year, when, with the schools still sitting, there was an uptick.

My noble friend referred to the responsibilities of local authorities, which will have powers taken away from them under these regulations but will rely on the existing regulations. He did not say what resources would be made available to local authorities. I follow developments in North Yorkshire as closely as I can. I know that there is real concern there about looking after particularly vulnerable people, both in hospitals and in care homes. Will he say whether any extra resources are being given? In local authorities such as North Yorkshire and others across the country, London included, if it transpires that the big uptick in Covid cases leads to a surge, will he confirm that healthcare workers delivering care in hospital settings, homes and care homes will be alerted if a close relative has Covid, in the sense of their potentially needing to self-isolate in those circumstances?

My Lords, I have another brief question for the Minister. I preface it by paying tribute to the wonderful work of the NHS, the department and the Minister, and in particular to the scientists who have been involved in producing the vaccines, on whom we all depend.

This little debate is part of the business of living with Covid. I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has recovered from his brief infection. That is a hopeful lesson for us all, as a number of members of my family, despite being vaccinated, have also recently got it, including my pregnant daughter-in-law, so we hope all turns out well.

As the Explanatory Memorandum to the statutory instrument says:

“The Self-Isolation Regulations played a vital and necessary role in breaking the chains of transmission.”

How will this SI be translated into the official advice on travel to and from the UK? I know that it is not his department; nevertheless, I presume that the regulations will change the nature of the advice given by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

My Lords, just before the Grand Committee started, I heard a bit of a discussion about why this Motion was in Grand Committee today while I had a regret Motion tabled for the Chamber on Thursday. I had wanted to do just the regret Motion in the Chamber, but the Government Whips’ Office said that was not possible given the timing, so the only offer available was, essentially, for this statutory instrument to be heard twice. I apologise for that, but unfortunately it was the only possibility.

The lifting of the self-isolation regulations in England at the end of this month seems extraordinary and way too early. Only a couple of days ago, the World Health Organization reminded nations like the United Kingdom that, even when a virus becomes endemic, it needs managing, including by testing, self-isolation and mask wearing. Even if they are not required by regulation and law, the World Health Organization said that the message and communications from a Government are vital in ensuring that people take personal care in what they do.

We are still learning about the long-term effects of Covid. Recent research studies, published in the last two or three weeks, into long Covid are showing cardiac, respiratory and neurological problems that are already having consequences. In the future, it will be absolutely vital to watch for the currently not visible long-term consequences of Covid-19. There is an excellent book by Laura Spinney called Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, which has a good chapter near the end on the early deaths of Spanish flu survivors in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Such early deaths went on for two to three decades—interestingly, often with heart, stroke and respiratory problems. Without surveillance and self-isolation, we risk living with Covid at a very high level, and the consequences for the population may become apparent only when it is too late.

The problem with the living with Covid plan, which was announced on 24 February, was that the Prime Minister called it yet another freedom day and public behaviour has already changed. One doctor said on Twitter today that they are abused on the Tube for wearing a mask on their way to work. That is because there is not a strong clear message to people that living with Covid means that we still have to be careful about it. Can I ask the Minister—as I have asked him on many occasions before—whether the Government plan to have a strong communications message about these changes and about people taking personal care?

I would also like briefly to return to the question that I asked the Minister as a supplementary to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, earlier today. Given that members of SAGE are now confirming publicly that Ministers did not ask for any modelling to be done for the living with Covid plan, how does that square with his answer to me that Ministers have to take modelling into account along with the wider needs of society? Everyone understands that dilemma for Ministers, but that was not my question. If Ministers did not ask for modelling, how on earth can they balance that risk? The Minister referred to the BA.2 variant, saying that they were watching it, but it is now the dominant variant. The one that we are watching is deltacron, and there may be others in the future.

I am grateful for the earlier comments from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the worries that those who are immunocompromised face. The Minister knows that I am one of those severely immunosuppressed people; I have had my fourth vaccination, although I have been warned that, because of my medication, it is probably already waning. There are people with blood cancer, for example, who cannot make antibodies or for whom the vaccine is contraindicated. Lifting self-isolation for them is a real risk. Under the current guidance to the clinically vulnerable—a number of people somewhere between 500,000 and 3.7 million—they will have to risk assess what they want to do. They are keen to do that, but they need the data.

The NHS daily dashboard used to be a good starting point for the public alongside the ONS data and the ZOE study, but the dashboard is now unreliable and the ZOE study is about to lose its funding along with others. That means that the vulnerable and their families, friends and work colleagues cannot see where Covid is. They will have to pay for tests—and let us be clear: offering free tests only to a small number of the most severely clinically extremely vulnerable is not helpful; it is the people who visit them and work with them who need to test before they see them. Many of the surveillance projects are, as I have said, also under risk. The REACT study is ending at the end of March and funding has been withdrawn—remarkably—from the ZOE study, the SIREN and VIVALDI studies and the CoMix social contacts survey. How do the Government plan to monitor the ongoing management of the pandemic—as WHO says they should—and assess the impact of ending restrictions with our vital surveillance systems down?

On what scientific and clinical evidence was the decision made to recommend that the CEV

“follow the same general guidance as everyone else”

in the living with covid plan? That is, frankly, a fantasy and has condemned the millions of CEV to self-imposed lockdown with no support. It is, by the way, also completely contradicted by the advice to them on the specific guidance page for the clinically extremely vulnerable and the NHS page on what to do if you have Covid, where people are told that if they have a positive test for Covid they should stay at home.

On Thursday, a large number of tracing staff were told that they were being made redundant at the end of March, which was a surprise to them as they had been told only a week earlier that they would be contracted until the end of July at the earliest. If local test and trace will be doing this work, has there been an uplift in local budgets to cover the main central test and trace centres closing down?

The price of LFTs is high and even without all the other increased living costs, many families will find the cost too much. Current estimates are that it may be as much as £600 per annum per person. For those working with immunocompromised people or for those with immunocompromised family members, that is a large amount of money if you are on a low income.

Finally, this will be the only notifiable highly infectious disease listed under the Public Health Act—with numbers still up in the millions—that people will have to pay for tests for, other than for international travel. Why on earth are we not ensuring that there is some strong guidance about self-isolation and, certainly, why are tests not going to remain free?

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has raised very many relevant questions, as did the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Those questions come from the anxiety that people are feeling about what the future of living with Covid means, with what looks like not having all the instruments to identify it or the recommendations about what to do if you have it. There is also the support that people may or may not be able to get from their workplace; and the support that may or may not be available to local authorities, for example, which are going to pick up some responsibility for this.

Almost exactly two years ago, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I faced the Minister and his Whip, two Liberal Democrat colleagues, a couple of people who were chairing the sessions and a skeleton staff as we put on to the statute book the restrictions we are lifting today. Everybody else had already gone into lockdown; we put the legislation on to the statute book about three days after the rest of the country had gone into lockdown. It was a bizarre experience and actually felt quite risky. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will not mind me saying that he went home and told us the day after that he had got Covid. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I were absolutely convinced that we were going to get it, because we had been sat very close together, but neither of us did at that point.

In a way, I am very pleased to see that we are rescinding these restrictions now, but the Minister needs to put some answers to what has already been put to him on the record. The first thing I want to ask about is the support for local government. If local government and public health authorities are to be picking up how to identify what to do about the pandemic if things get worse, I would like to know whether support is available to them to do that.

The second thing I want to raise is to do with monitoring and research. I excuse the Minister for not answering my question in the Chamber earlier, because it is quite hard to answer such questions in detail in the 30 seconds that might be available, but I will repeat the fact that the ZOE Covid study app is no longer going to receive its funding. The app was launched in March 2020, having been developed by King’s College London and the technology company ZOE to help discover new symptoms of Covid. It reported on the effects of vaccines and has provided up-to-date predictions about the spread of the pandemic. It has 4.7 million users, of which I declare myself as one, and 850,000 people contribute daily to its recording of more than 480 million health reports. The app was part of one of the largest studies of its kind in the world and has led to 40 peer-reviewed scientific papers, based on its findings.

Many noble Lords will have heard of Professor Spector. He has been doing weekly YouTube broadcasts that I have watched from time to time as part of my information gathering to do my job from these Benches more effectively. He has developed the study further to look at things such as heart disease, cancer and dementia. It is extremely disappointing and very short-sighted that the UK Health Security Agency is going to withdraw its funding for this programme. It has been an important tool in protecting the UK and could protect the UK from the next pandemic.

I want to hear from the Minister what he and the Government are going to do to replace the kind of surveillance that the ZOE app has provided to this country in a very cost-effective way. The Minister’s earlier answer to me in the Chamber said this and that, but he did not specify. We need to know why the Government have allowed this to happen and what they are going to do to replace this effective surveillance and reporting.

Thirdly, I would like the Minister’s view on the BA.2 variant. His honourable friend said that it is of no significance but that is not what the chief executive of the UKHSA said. She acknowledged it and said that we do not yet know whether it is significant. How do the Government propose to monitor this?

Finally, I want to talk about the problem of inequality that the Government’s withdrawal of free testing brings. I think it will mean us having two tiers of Covid in this country. Those of us who can afford to will continue to test because we believe that it is important to protect other people, particularly the vulnerable, when we go out and about. I do not want to come into the House of Lords without having a test in the morning because I would hate to bring an infection into the workplace, because of the young people and pregnant colleagues who are here. That would be irresponsible. But there will be those who cannot afford to buy tests; what do they do? Our part-time staff here, for example, might not be able to afford to test. The Minister needs to address the problem of the inequalities that the Government’s policy will bring about for those who may get Covid but cannot afford to test.

I thank all noble Lords for their questions today. I will try to answer as many as possible but, if I do not answer some, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to write to them in more detail.

I start with some of the questions from my noble friend Lady McIntosh. We have taken this step because of the success of the vaccination programme but the guidance states that, if you have Covid, you should stay at home and avoid contact with other people. On 21 February, we will continue to make tests available for a small number of at-risk groups. We are considering which groups will be eligible for tests after provision for the general public ends. We have also sent out 1.3 million PCR tests to clinically extremely vulnerable individuals. This will allow them to take an immediate PCR test, should they develop symptoms, and give priority to them to be prescribed antivirals.

UKHSA will continue to maintain what it calls critical surveillance capabilities. That includes the Covid-19 infection population-level survey, genomic sequencing and additional data. These will continue to be augmented by the SARS-CoV-2 immunity and reinfection evaluation, SIREN, along with the continuation of the VIVALDI studies. As for the assertion of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that the VIVALDI studies are coming to an end, I do not have that information—I am, in fact, informed that they are continuing. So, the UK Health Security Agency still has a number of tools available, including surveillance. Positive cases should stay at home, as we said, and avoid contact with other people for at least five full days. They should continue to follow this advice until they have received two negative test results on consecutive days.

A number of noble Lords expressed concerns about the communication of this guidance. If they will allow me, I will go back to the department and ask more questions about the comms strategy to make sure that the public are clearly informed. As for the cost of LFTs, the Government are looking at how to make them freely available in particular settings, such as health settings, and for social care staff.

We are also looking very hard, as noble Lords have rightly said, at potential inequalities. These are issues that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I believe very strongly in—we have actually asked questions on this issue. How do we make sure that we do not end up with a two-tier system? How do we target this more effectively? Are there proxies, for example, to allow people to be given free tests? We are also looking at engaging with retailers to develop a strong private market for tests and make sure, I hope, that they are affordable. At the same time, we are in discussions with employers, et cetera. Some have said they will make testing available for their staff and we are looking at a number of different programmes. We are very aware of the inequalities issue and the Secretary of State and I have been asking questions about that.

On the number of cases, as indicated by the ONS infections survey and reported case rates, they have started rising after a period of sustained falls throughout February. Evidence indicates that the link between Covid-19 infections and progression to severe disease is substantially weaker than in earlier phases of the pandemic but, as I said, we are continuing to keep an eye on all the variants of concern with the tools that I explained.

People who are severely immunosuppressed are eligible, as many noble Lords will know, for a third dose of the Covid vaccine as part of their primary course and a booster fourth dose. I am also very aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked me about a potential fifth dose and I promise to write to her. The NHS is now offering new antibody and antiviral treatments to people with Covid-19 who are at the highest risk of becoming ill.

I was asked about local authorities. Local authorities will now be required to manage outbreaks through their local planning and pre-existing public health powers, such as those under the public health Act of 1984, as they would with any other infectious disease. The Department of Health and Social Care is also conducting work looking at the health powers framework for the future. We see that local authorities still have an important role in supporting businesses and public spaces to be Covid-safe—for example, by improving knowledge of infection prevention and control, ensuring that spaces are well ventilated and explaining the relevant best practice guidance.

A number of noble Lords wondered whether movement from mandating to guidance is sufficient. When I was travelling in today, for example, I noticed that some transport companies are still asking their passengers to wear masks in crowded places. Noble Lords made fair points about the communication of this guidance. As I said, I will find out from the comms team what we are proposing to do. The Government will retain the capability to stand up a national trace response if it is needed. Local health teams will also continue to use contact tracing and provide context-specific advice where they assess this to be necessary as part of their role in managing local outbreaks of Covid-19, as they do with other infectious diseases.

A number of noble Lords asked about the number of people who have yet to be vaccinated. Was that the previous debate? I am sorry; they kind of flow into one another at the moment. However, we are spending £22.5 million on a community vaccine champions scheme, following a £23 million investment in the initial scheme. We will continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.

People with Covid-19 will still be able to claim statutory sick pay for the first day of absence due to an infection, until 24 March. Employment and support allowance also remains available for those unable to work due to Covid, until 24 March. After this point, people with Covid may still be eligible for statutory sick pay and employment and support allowance if they meet the pre-pandemic criteria for entitlement. Where an individual’s income is reduced while off work sick or due to staying at home, they may be able to claim universal credit, depending on their personal circumstances.

Regarding modelling, the Government have taken account of some of the models. Noble Lords have referred to SAGE and its sub-groups. Recent advice from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, or the SPI-M sub-group, included medium-term projections of the trajectory of the pandemic, assuming no future policy or behavioural changes, and estimates of the extent to which all measures and behavioural change are currently reducing transmission. That is one of the issues we looked at when coming up with the living with Covid strategy. We will continue to take a data-led approach to future outbreaks. As I said earlier, there are various ways that we will maintain that and we are very cognisant of potential inequalities.

I am most grateful to my noble friend for repeating the responsibilities of the local authorities. Were they allocated special funds to do this or are they just relying on their existing public health budgets? In other words, are they not getting any new money for this role?

I am afraid I do not have a detailed answer, and I do not want to give an inaccurate one. I think I know the answer but I just want to double-check it. I will write to all noble Lords, as more than one Member raised that issue.

We see the importance of continuing to be vigilant, and of surveillance. We continue to monitor the virus and want to make sure that we have informed decisions and that everything is data-led. A number of noble Lords mentioned the ZOE app. Again, I will have to go back to the department to find out more information, if noble Lords will allow me.

In closing the debate, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I apologise for the questions I have not answered; I will check Hansard and write to noble Lords. We should also thank the scientists, the health and social care workers, the volunteers, the life sciences industry, the postal, courier and transport workers and everyone who has helped us to get to this point. They have helped us to get through what has been a very difficult period in our lives.

We believe that the regulations before the Committee mark an essential step on our journey to living with Covid, away from legal restrictions and towards guidance and personal responsibility. Once again, I am grateful to noble Lords for raising their concerns, some of which I will have to go back to the department and check on, especially concerning the guidance and its communication. I have taken that point on board.

Throughout the pandemic we have sought to strike the right balance between the safety of the public and keeping the country open. We saw restrictions as a vital weapon in the armoury, but now we have the defences of the vaccination programme and the antivirals, along with a better scientific understanding of the virus, and can take a different approach. However, I repeat: we will keep monitoring the data, drawing on the latest scientific advice, and protecting the country through the defences we have built.

It is important that we follow public health advice should we display Covid-19 symptoms or receive a positive test result. We can all help each other in limiting the spread of the virus by getting vaccinated, ventilating shared spaces, wearing a face covering in crowded or enclosed spaces, getting tested if we have Covid-19 symptoms and staying at home if positive. Lifting these restrictions does not mean that we are ignoring the virus; it means managing the virus through the best possible guidance, as we do for other infectious diseases. I urge noble Lords to agree to these historic measures and commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.19 pm.