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Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what lessons they have learned from the high uptake of Covid-19 vaccinations in the United Kingdom; and what plans they have, if any, to apply similar strategies to increase vaccination rates for other conditions, such as shingles or influenza.

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

We have seen high levels of Covid-19 vaccine uptake by being flexible and innovative in how we get vaccinations into patients’ arms and being supported by strong national and targeted communications and community-led initiatives. We have sought to learn lessons from the rollout and the NHS is working collaboratively with partners to design future NHS vaccination services for Covid-19 vaccines and other vaccination and immunisation programmes, considering how we can better use data to improve access to information.

I am grateful to the Minister. One of lessons of the pandemic was that flu vaccines were given free to people aged between 50 and 64. The Government have said that from next autumn people will have to pay. The Minister will be aware that vaccination rates around the world, particularly in Australia, have increased dramatically. Will he reconsider this policy, given that we need to encourage that age group to have the vaccine?

The noble Lord is absolutely right; we have received advice on the flu vaccine and at the moment it is free to those aged 65 and over. The issue, frankly, is balancing resources. A number of people in the system are saying that if you keep mandating vaccines, it means they cannot get on with tackling the elective backlog. On balance, at the moment it seems better to focus on the elective backlog, but UKHSA and others are monitoring the situation very closely.

My Lords, the whole House will know that the great success of the Covid vaccine’s development was not built during the pandemic but over many years of visionary research and investment. What steps are the Government taking to invest in a similar amount of research in next-generation vaccines for things such as cancer and universal flu?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. She will know that we are investing in a number of different areas via NIHR and other research bodies. Those research bodies also welcome applications for research funds in specific areas. We do not necessarily ring-fence that funding, but we ask for applications. One issue we learned about is that there is the potential for future vaccines to cure, or be used as therapeutics for, a wider range of issues. In addition, we are looking at blood tests which can identify far more conditions.

My Lords, the shingles vaccine is available in the UK only to those aged between 70 and 79, whereas in the USA it is automatically available to everyone over 50. NICE data says that shingles is much more prevalent in those with a weakened immune system, yet they are not offered it until they are 70, resulting in severe cases of shingles, possible sight loss and other serious consequences which could have been mitigated by an early vaccine. Can the Minister say when Shingrix, the shingles vaccine suitable for the immunocompromised will be automatically offered to this group of patients?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I am afraid I will have to write to her with the details.

My Lords, the country deserves credit for the high level of people coming forward to get vaccinated. As we move forward to the spring booster kicking in on 30 June, will the Government ensure that we maintain the high level of vaccinations? Will every individual who has received a vaccination then receive a letter informing them of their spring booster, either from their GP or the NHS?

The noble Lord makes a very important observation about the programme and it is very important that we learn from that. One of the difficult issues was that, quite often, when you publicise the fact that there is a vaccine, a certain number of people come forward but, after that, there is hesitancy in different communities. Sometimes we have to show a bit of humility in Westminster or Whitehall; we are not always the best people to connect with some of those communities—so we have worked with various local community and civil society organisations. There is also innovation: certain places have a jab cab, a bus goes around Merseyside encouraging people to get vaccinated and there is often encouragement to get vaccinated at music festivals, local community festivals, mosques, gurdwaras, temples et cetera.

My Lords, there is wide- spread and growing concern that vaccinations against Covid-19 may be having a damaging effect on our natural immunity, leading to an increase in diseases such as shingles. Is the Minister aware of this? If he is not, perhaps he ought to make himself so. Could we have a government comment on this?

I am afraid I am not aware of the details to which my noble friend refers, but I would be happy if he wrote to me. I will then take that back to my department.

My Lords, more than one in 10 children are not fully protected against measles by the time they start school, and research shows that many parents are unaware that it can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and brain inflammation —or, indeed, that it can be fatal. With the major focus on Covid vaccinations over recent years, what assessment has been made of the effect on the uptake of routine vaccinations, including MMR? What steps are being taken to restore any affected vaccination levels?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. We have to recognise that the UK has one of the most comprehensive childhood and adolescent immunisation programmes in the world. We have seven national childhood immunisation programmes, three adolescent programmes and two elderly programmes. Vaccine uptake in the UK remains high overall, but there has been some decline in routine childhood vaccines—so we have been looking at school-based immunisation programmes, some of which were clearly interrupted due to Covid. At the same time, from October to December 2021, the coverage of childhood vaccination programmes actually increased.

My Lords, it is vital that primary carers help increase the delivery of a structured mass vaccination programme to deal with conditions such as shingles and influenza. Are the Government going to act promptly, given that the fundamentals are in place since Covid-19 has been dealt with?

I thank my noble friend for that question. There is a lot of innovation in vaccines. Over the years, we have seen combined vaccinations, and some places have moved away from vaccinations to orals or to not necessarily needing vaccinations at all. I am aware of that, and I would be very happy to write to my noble friend with more details.

My Lords, after having a coronavirus vaccine, for how long will a person remain protected? Do the Government propose a vaccine campaign next winter, and would it be possible to give the coronavirus and flu vaccines alongside each other to save administration and protect communities?

This year, what the officials call the “delivery model” is likely to be broadly similar to previous rollouts, with a similar mix of vaccination sites—mass vaccination centres, GP surgeries, pharmacies, hospital hubs, pop-ups et cetera—as well as NHS services. NHS England and NHS Improvement try to emphasise co-administration of Covid-19 vaccines with flu vaccines and other vaccines. At the same time, NHS England, NHS Improvement and MHRA are looking at current guidance to see how we can ensure that we encourage this more.

My Lords, my understanding is that uptake of the Covid vaccine has been much lower among some of the most marginalised communities, reflecting that hesitancy to which the Minister referred. In part, it would appear that this is because of a lack of trust in state institutions. I very much welcome what he said about the deployment of other agencies, but what are the Government doing to build that trust for the future?

Indeed, this is a really important point: the essential issue must be trust. As politicians in Westminster or officials in Whitehall, we must all have enough humility to recognise that we may not be able to cut through that. We have been looking at working with a number of different people in those communities and working out what the best message and channels will be. For example, we have spoken to faith leaders in some places. Even though some people may not be of a certain faith—they may be agonistic or atheist—they still respect faith leaders. In other places, we are looking at where people who are vaccine-hesitant go, and whether we can get the message—or even the vaccines—across to them.

My Lords, much of the success of our own vaccine development programme was based on investment in global health over many years. Is the Minister confident that, given the possibility of future pandemics, the research capacity in this country, and our contribution to international agencies such as the Global Fund, will not be prejudiced by the cut in our ODA spending?

How we work together globally, learn from each other and co-operate are really important. One of the bits in my portfolio is international relations and, particularly, co-operation on health issues. I have been in G7 and G20 meetings on this. One of the big issues we must all look at is AMR—antimicrobial resistance—and how we can, first, stop the use of antibiotics in both human and animal health and, at the same time, help those countries that use quite a lot to build capacity.