Monday 15 March 2021
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice—that is an obvious fact—in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, which is why there will be a 15-minute interval, and there will be suspensions between debates.
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To be helpful to colleagues, I have done the maths and am imposing a time limit of three and a half minutes on Back-Bench contributions. Obviously, Front Benchers will get the usual 10 minutes each.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 569957, relating to vaccine passports.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the petitioner, Mr David Nolan, and all the other signatories of the petition, which has reached 295,842 signatures. The wording of the petition is as follows:
“We want the Government to commit to not rolling out any e-vaccination status/immunity passport to the British public. Such passports could be used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a Covid-19 vaccine, which would be unacceptable.”
The petitioner wants me to make it clear that they do not represent themselves as anti-vaccination. In their own words, “We believe anti-vaxx people are in an absolute minority in Britain.”
The petition is not exclusively about those worried about discrimination if they refuse vaccination; it is more about the implementation of vaccine passports and their technology for everyone in society. In comparison with yellow fever, the petitioner wants it to be known that “comparing this certification alongside any proposed covid status certification is not a viable argument, as we are dealing with very different viruses. Yellow fever certification is only required for up to 30 African and 13 Latin countries.”
The petition is not difficult to understand and stems from genuine concerns among many of the petitioners. I state clearly for the record my support for the vaccination programme, and I encourage everyone eligible for their vaccination to take it as soon as they are offered it by our national health service, which is working so hard to deliver the programme on time.
It is easy to understand why a vaccine passport may appear to be a perfect option for the Government, who are trying to ease the lockdown as quickly and safely as possible. The idea that we could allow events to start taking place at which people who have some immunity to the virus could return to some level of normality is attractive. Like everyone else in the country, I look forward to the day when such things can take place again safely, and something that could possibly speed us along to that point is a compelling suggestion.
After almost a year of lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, anything that can help to get people back out into the community, back into their workplaces, back into their businesses and back with their families is something that we cannot discount. However, we must also consider the possible drawbacks that come with such a proposal, and we must consider the concerns with fairness. There are concerns about vaccine passports that go beyond the pseudoscience of anti-vax protesters and Twitter trolls. I therefore urge hon. Members to be mindful of some of these arguments in their contributions.
To date, the Government have not brought forward any concrete plans on vaccine passports or how they could work. However, as some countries and travel companies are beginning to require proof of vaccination as a precondition of entering their territory without the need to quarantine or of booking travel, some form of proof may be necessary at least to relaunch our tourism sector. If British holidaymakers and travellers are required to have proof for international travel, it will be difficult not to have some kind of Government-issued certification to back that up. Even if the UK opts out and opts not to use vaccine passports in the same way as other states, we may be required to provide some proof for those wishing to go abroad if other states require proof prior to entry.
If that were to be the case, how it would work domestically is unknown. I invite the Minister present to shed some light on that in their summary of the debate, as the domestic and international situations are very different and, even if domestic requirements remain low, international requirements may not give us a great deal of choice. The concept of using vaccine passports in domestic settings is of concern to some people as we go forward.
As Members will be aware, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published priority lists, which will work their way through the population from those most vulnerable to covid down to the least vulnerable. Although it is not always the case, often that involves going from the oldest groups in society to the youngest—again, I must stress that that is not always the case. Therefore, introducing vaccine passports at present would exclude those who have not yet had the opportunity to receive their vaccine. There is a genuine fear that younger people who do not have any characteristics that place them on the priority list could be prevented from taking part in events or from taking certain actions, for no reason other than age and lack of pre-existing health conditions. Similarly, many people are concerned about how a vaccine passport would be properly managed, as anything that required a smartphone, as the current covid another place does, could bar many elderly people or people living in poverty from accessing such a system.
I must also stress at this point that although I encourage everyone to get their vaccination when they are offered it, people do have the right to choose not to be vaccinated if they so wish. Nobody can currently be compelled to take the vaccination under the law, despite it being our best hope in this national fight. The number of people currently indicating that they will not take the vaccine when offered it is currently very low, and it is my sincere hope that it remains that way, for the chances of our recovery. Nevertheless, the question that we must ask ourselves is whether such a policy would be fair to people who have the right to make that choice, however we who support the vaccination programme might personally feel about their decision.
If, as much media speculation indicates, proposals about domestic usage of vaccine passports are under consideration, I invite the Minister to clarify any of those proposals in their summary at the end of the debate, in the interests of openness and of the petitioners. I invite Members to consider carefully some of the arguments that I have set out in their consideration of the petitioners’ request. Even those in favour of such a system cannot dismiss counterarguments without proper and fair consideration, especially when it comes to ensuring that everybody in the elderly and vulnerable groups will have access to a vaccine passport, and that those who have not been vaccinated because they are further down the list are not excluded because they have not yet had their turn.
Once again, I thank Mr Nolan and all the petitioners for raising this important issue.
Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that, in line with Mr Speaker’s wishes—I am not being old-fashioned or stuffy—gentlemen, when addressing the House physically or virtually, must be properly attired with a jacket and tie.
I refer Members to the declarations that I have made in relation to the covid recovery group.
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own”—
I quote, of course, from the popular 1967 drama “The Prisoner”. It seems to me that nothing has changed in some people’s desire to treat us as commodities to be managed by the state, yet what has changed is the availability of technology to make it so.
I am very grateful to my constituents who have written to me about this matter. We have had a prior debate on this subject, or at least a debate in which I raised this subject, and I thought that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), had ruled out vaccine passports. I am very grateful, therefore, to have this opportunity to hear from the Minister at this stage in the review through this petition, and I am grateful to the petitioners.
I also thank Big Brother Watch, which has provided a very helpful brief, with nine reasons why covid passes must be stopped. I will briefly race through as many as I can squeeze in. First, they will be unnecessary due to the availability of effective vaccines. Indeed, the Government’s amazing success in rolling out vaccines means that those most vulnerable to covid-19, and soon anyone who wants and is medically eligible for a vaccine, will have a high level of protection from the virus. That means that hospitalisations and deaths associated with covid will fall drastically, and overbearing controls on society will not be justified.
I know that the Government are now looking at covid status certificates, which bring into play the issue of mass testing. Of course, the ground has been sown with salt on the issue of false positives, I am sorry to say, often by some apparently eminent people who lamentably neglected the practical evidence from hospitals of real people with real disease, so I hesitate to bring up the issue. But it has to be said that, as we reach an era of low prevalence of the disease, if we carry out mass testing on asymptomatic people, the issue of false positives will undoubtedly be relevant. We need to hear from the Minister what she is going to do to ensure that people who test falsely positive with lateral flow tests, and indeed PCR—polymerase chain reaction—tests, do not end up deprived of their liberty unnecessarily. We very much need to hear from the Government about that.
Of course, vaccine passports would be discriminatory. They would have the effect of socially and economically excluding people who have not had either a vaccine or a recent test result. It is of course unlawful under equality law to discriminate against people with protected characteristics, including age, disability, pregnancy, religion or belief—I underscore belief. I shall have my vaccine when I am offered it, but there will be various people for various reasons who will choose not to do so.
Effectively making vaccines mandatory by implication through covid status certification could be counter-productive. The evidence from across Europe shows that if people feel compelled to take vaccines, it puts them off. It would implement, of course, a checkpoint society. It would mean passes for the pub—if you want your pint, Sir David, you will have to show your papers. I did not think that is the society that we wished to live in. A surveillance state would be instituted. There would be mission creep. Passes would be irreversible and divisive, and of course they would infringe on the autonomy of the individual. I lament that I do not have time to go through each of those points in detail, but I will certainly provide the brief to the Minister afterwards.
I want to finish with another quote from “The Prisoner”—something that I ask people advocating for these certification regimes to bear in mind. No. 2 says:
“We can treat folly with kindness…knowing that soon his wild spirit will quieten, and the foolishness will fall away to reveal a model citizen.”
No. 6 replies:
“That day you’ll never see.”
The covid-19 pandemic has asked a great deal of our constituents, and for the last year the liberties that we all enjoy and should expect have been restricted. I know that most people I represent want those freedoms returned as soon as possible, and in as safe a way as possible.
The question posed by proposed vaccine passports is whether they are part of enabling all our society to return to normality, and that is complex. Many people look at this through the prism of whether it will work for them, or think that they have had the vaccine and therefore will be okay, but as the last year has shown us, when we pull together as a society and act in the spirit of selflessness, we can achieve so much more for everyone.
We need to consider whether such a scheme would enable some while unfairly restricting others who have, for their own reasons, not taken the vaccine. We cannot penalise people who have exercised their right not to take the vaccine. That may be an expectant mother, for example, who just cannot get peace about taking the vaccine, even with the reassurances given by scientists and health advisers. To restrict that person from public places or services would be wrong. We should also factor into the debate that we have so little evidence of the vaccine’s effectiveness in reducing transmission. It is simply too soon to consider taking such a significant step without evidence of whether it would actually be of real benefit.
In Northern Ireland we have a specific set of circumstances, including a land border with the Irish Republic. While our vaccine programme is well advanced, the roll-out of the vaccine in the Irish Republic is stumbling and slow, not helped by their decision to suspend the use of the Oxford vaccine. How would vaccine passports work on a cross-border basis for those who work in the public sector or who have family who they care for in the Irish Republic, and vice-versa? It simply cannot work.
I know that some industries, such as aviation, and some other countries may choose to administer some form of vaccine passport for those seeking to use their services, but in the public sphere the Government must remain cognisant of the issues around exacerbating inequality, evidence regarding transmission and so on. Let us focus instead on encouraging vaccine uptake first, and supporting the world-leading scientific research happening here in the UK to tackle the issues presented by covid-19.
In closing, I must make it clear that I would be utterly opposed to, and believe that the Government need to avoid, a domestic internal vaccine passport requirement for travel throughout the United Kingdom. We must hold dear to the liberties that we once knew and want to return to.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). I thought that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) set out so many of the issues very well. It is a pleasure to speak in this e-petition debate on electronic vaccine passports, which is incredibly timely.
The starting point is that it is fundamentally up to individual countries to make decisions for themselves, so it ought not to be, in that sense, for the United Kingdom to take a lead with regard to what Brazil, Italy or any other country chooses to do. We have to respect those countries and their decisions; it is not for us to determine what they do. I hope that all countries, including the United Kingdom, if we choose at some point to take this approach of vaccine passports for other countries’ foreign nationals coming here, will themselves consider what they should do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe captured the point about the effectiveness of the vaccination programme. It is remarkable. I had no anticipation that it would be as effective as it seems to be at the moment. We have to recognise that, and the protection that will give to so many people right around the world. Any question over certification for vaccinations or anything else therefore has to be proportionate to the threat of the disease itself, which at the moment is diminishing, so actually the need is diminishing. At the same time, there has been an escalation in concerns and expectation that the passports will be delivered for many countries. I am quite sympathetic to the sense of having vaccinations.
About 20 or so years ago, when I was in the Territorial Army, I went on an expedition to Ecuador—Cordilleran Enterprise—to climb Volcán Sangay. I had a yellow fever vaccination and got a certificate. There are minimal concerns about certification if someone has a piece of paper to demonstrate their vaccination status, and we do not need fancy electronic readers to read a certificate—we just need to be able to speak the language used on the certificate. I am pretty comfortable with vaccination certificates. If there were any questions about forgeries or anything else, companies such as De La Rue, which is based in my constituency, could make remarkable authentication devices to put on certificates and ensure that there were no concerns about authenticity.
If we moved from paper certificates to electronic, however, significant questions of civil liberty would arise. Who in the world would run that database? What data would go into it and who would determine that? Would it be an international body such as the United Nations, the EU or some other organisation? If we could not get an international organisation to take the lead, would a big corporate organisation do so? Would big tech in California have control over the database? In the light of what happened when the Australian national Government confronted a big tech company, giving such a company so much power would be a colossal problem. We need to be proportionate and cautious. We need to look to paper first and foremost, and there would need to be huge justification if we were to take the electronic route, which I would not welcome.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and thank you for that warning about time. I hope not to detain the House that long, but I will make a few brief comments.
I welcome the debate because it is an opportunity for the Government vigorously to reinforce the view that they are not going to introduce vaccine passports. I hope that they use this platform to state that they will not do so, because such passports would be a complete and total overreaction, and they are completely and totally unnecessary.
The vaccine roll-out has been positive—a success for the UK. We had a similar response with respect to the flu vaccine, but no one would say that people must have a passport to prove that they have had that particular vaccine, even though flu takes many lives in the United Kingdom each winter. It would be a complete and total overreaction for Members to stand up and demand such a passport for people who had received the flu vaccine. We do not need such passports, which would become supplementary identity cards.
I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) about the Republic of Ireland’s kneejerk reaction today to stop rolling out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. That is more about the failure of the Republic of Ireland to have its own successful vaccine roll-out programme than it is about anything else. I understand that about 17 million people across Europe have received that vaccine, and from those 17 million vaccines, there have been only about 31 adverse effects. That is a remarkable state of affairs, and what we have seen in the Republic of Ireland is more to do with politics than it is to do with science.
Like the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I believe that vaccine passports would lead to a two-tier society and would increase opportunities to discriminate. That would be abundantly wrong. I agree that we cannot legislate for what other countries do. If we want to go to certain countries, we might have to have a vaccine passport, or proof that we have received a vaccine, but that is a matter for those countries. All we can do is implore them to be proportionate and responsible in what they do. We should not pursue vaccine passports domestically, however. If airlines or other countries decide to do this, that is of course a matter for them, but we should implore those countries and organisations to demonstrate proportionality in what they do.
Our civil liberties are something we should cherish, and we should not throw them away so quickly for others to manage for us because they know better. The people know what is best and we should guard our civil liberties with care.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I think the issue needs to be split into two, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) said: we need to look at it from the point of view of foreign trips and activities, and from that of domestic activities.
Let me turn first to the foreign aspect of vaccine passports. It is almost certain that other countries, or indeed travel firms, will require us to have proof of vaccination. As hon. Members will know, I was the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria for a number of years, and my body is still awash with the enormous number of inoculations that I had. When I went to Nigeria for the first time, I was perfectly aware that if I did not have the inoculations I would not be going, or I would be running the risk of being inoculated when I got there, perhaps with a needle of slightly dubious quality. There is a lot of relevance in that comparison, and the issue of people who have not had the vaccine for medical reasons is easy to take into account by ensuring that certificates are given to them.
Domestically, the issue raises a number of ethical questions, and it is right for the Government to review it, although they are not the only organisation to be reviewing the ethical issues around vaccine passports. I lead the British delegation to the Council of Europe, which is also undertaking reviews of things such as vaccine passports. The Council of Europe, too, has come up with a huge number of ethical issues that it has to take into account. That is inevitable with a disease that is so prevalent and that has such enormous effect.
Whether such an approach discriminates against individuals is something that the courts will have to decide, and it is inevitable that if we go down the route of introducing a domestic vaccine passport, the issue will end up in the courts. Given the way society has gone, it is inevitable that this will go that way. That is a great shame, but I do not see any alternative to it.
My last suggestion is to allow the Government to conduct their review and to allow the Council of Europe to conduct its review, and then to allow those to feed into the conclusions that the Government will produce.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for the even and balanced way in which he introduced the debate. We should start with principles. The first is obviously the ethical principle that no one should be subject to any medical procedure without informed consent being given. That is not just the current law; it dates back thousands of years in medical ethics, and we should stand by it.
Secondly, we in this House should speak up loudly and clearly for progress and science. Vaccines and medicines have transformed societies and the lives of millions around the world. Look at the diseases that have been controlled, or in some cases nearly eliminated: diphtheria, whooping cough, polio—owing to our age, Sir David, we knew people who had polio, but it is incredibly rare now—measles, rubella, human papillomavirus and hepatitis. Of course, there has also been the elimination of smallpox. That is a triumph of science, and we should proclaim it loudly against the sceptics. We should also applaud it. Harold Wilson talked about the white heat of the technological revolution, and that is where we should be.
That brings us to practicalities. I agree with the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) that our industry would be perfectly capable of producing secure validated certificates. I would hope, therefore, that the Government are engaging with industry on how it would produce such certificates were they to be introduced. Indeed, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency produces millions of driving licences for us every year. It is perfectly sensible, and actually imperative, for the Government to run those things in parallel. We do not have to wait, quite bluntly, for the Council of Europe, or indeed for Departments here, to decide on the ethics before pursuing the practicalities.
This is inevitable. Other countries will be opening their airports to those who are able to enter with a certificate or passport—however we describe it—and airlines will be eager to carry passengers there. The public will be keen to travel. Therefore, we need to do this in an orderly and practical manner. Also, let us not forget those who work for airlines and at airports, and the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who fear for their job—many of them have lost their job already—as well as those in the travel industry.
If we are able to produce such certificates, we should perhaps also consider domestic settings, in order to be able to get many of our industries back to work sooner rather than later. Many businesses are teetering on the brink and employees in the hospitality industry, at sports venues and in the entertainment industry—which is something we do rather well in this country, and which is one of the attractions—are worried about their job and their future. We should be backing them.
It is an unquantifiable pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
There is no doubt about the prescience apparent in the debate, and the power of the oratory of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) has caused the Cabinet Office to publish—during his speech—the terms of reference for the review and, indeed, the consultation on it, which closes on 29 March. I thank him very much indeed for the power of his oratory, which has made the Cabinet Office announce the publication of those important documents.
There are three matters to consider. The first, which has been alluded to, is international travel, and there is no doubt, as the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) said, that it will resume. We have to get on with that and ensure that we have sensible proposals that chime with those of our international partners.
The more vexed question is that of health workers. There is the precedent of the hepatitis B vaccine, but given the concern in the care sector about a relatively low uptake of the covid vaccine, that is where the issue will arise. I simply say this: after the year that those people have had, is it imaginable that the owner of a care home will say to their care workers, “Unless you take this jab, you’ll be dismissed from your employment.”? This will come down to that consideration.
The third issue, which I am totally opposed to, is that of covid vaccine certification for everyday use by citizens so as to access venues and services. It has become unfashionable in politics to talk about things that we believe in, and things that we used to know as values. I dare say that in this debate I am probably an accidental libertarian. That was never a description that I would have liked to be applied to me before this year, but it is one that I fear I will never be able to escape. However, those are deeply conservative principles, and there is a strange utilitarian, if not Benthamite, tendency coming into aspects of this Conservative Government and their policy.
Absolutely, we must fully encourage uptake of the vaccine—what a tremendous success it is and what foresight the Government showed in that aspect—but it was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who gave, albeit prematurely, the most powerful response to the consultation. When asked by Sky News whether people will need certification to go to the pub, he said no, and I think that is a fair way to begin the consultation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I ask you to imagine the scene a few months from now: I can finally go out to a restaurant to catch up with a friend for a real meal, instead of the dreaded Zoom meals that we have all become accustomed to. At the door we are both asked to show proof of vaccination. One of us is vaccinated, but the other is not. I am allowed entry, but my friend is not. Is that really the sort of country we wish to live in—one in which we have two tiers of rights and discriminate over access to goods and services on the basis of health status?
Too often in the debate on this issue, I am told, “If everyone has the chance to be vaccinated, it is their own fault if they turn it down,” which fundamentally misses several points. There are those who cannot be vaccinated, perhaps for health reasons. As a newly pregnant constituent said to me in an email, she and other pregnant women will not be able to get vaccinated while they are pregnant. If she is able to breastfeed, she will not be able to get vaccinated during the period in which she breastfeeds, either.
Furthermore, at present, none of the vaccines is authorised for adolescents. Are we saying that teenagers should not be able to go to the cinema with their friends or have a family pub lunch? The groups least likely to take up the vaccine are among the most marginalised, and they would become yet more marginalised by vaccine passports. Such passports would be, essentially, a way to make vaccines mandatory, but coercion is never a good way to build trust or to persuade people to do something.
I would also question whether we are offering false and perhaps even dangerous hope. As the Ada Lovelace Institute states,
“the vaccine passport is premised on the assumption that my vaccine status tells you something about the risk I pose to you, not simply the risk I face from COVID-19.”
As yet, we do not have conclusive evidence regarding transmission, and no vaccine will ever be 100% effective. Furthermore, we know that vaccine efficacy might be diminished by new mutations and variants of covid-19. Covid vaccine status would therefore not be of fixed or standard duration applicable to all countries.
I want to end by blowing out of the water the idea that vaccine passports are the key to reopening our economy and society. The relentless focus on vaccination at the cost of everything else has been the hallmark of the Government’s approach to the coronavirus since the pandemic began. We have seen from Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand that it is possible to lift restrictions on liberties with robust public health interventions, both at borders and through an effective test, trace and isolate system. Our focus should be on the 20,000 people a day not self-isolating, not on putting in place a discriminatory system from a Government who have proved time and again that they cannot be trusted with personal data.
As we see today with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, once the Government have encroached on our liberties under the cover of a pandemic, they will not be minded to hand them back easily. Will vaccine technologies be switched off once they are no longer needed? To quote a member of the Ada Lovelace expert group:
“Once a road is built, good luck not using it.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
Many of the arguments relevant to the debate have already been eloquently made, not least by my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and for Bolton West (Chris Green). I shall begin with the concept of international versus domestic. I am far less concerned with vaccine passports focused on opening up borders. It is not unusual to need a host of jabs to travel to certain places, and I have happily proven my vaccination status on, for example, yellow fever when visiting Tanzania. That is right and fair, but domestic covid certificates, whether used by public services or private businesses, would be intrusive, pointless and wrong. I fear they would be tantamount to moving vaccination on to a more mandatory footing.
The World Health Organisation released a statement only a couple of months ago, saying that it was opposed for the time being to the introduction of vaccine passports. That said, there does appear to be a global push towards these restrictions on individual liberty. In my opinion, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), was right when he stated that vaccine certificates would be “discriminatory”.
I want to be clear that, when my turn comes, I will be having my jab, and I encourage everybody to have their covid vaccination when offered it. However, the vaccine passport concept would have a disproportionate impact on groups in our society where vaccine hesitancy is at its highest. We cannot allow a position where significant numbers of Britons are turned away from jobs and services on the basis of their vaccination status.
Moreover, as other hon. Members have said, some people cannot be vaccinated. There are groups that are medically advised to avoid vaccination, from pregnant women, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) mentioned, to people with other health conditions, such as a young woman in my constituency who wrote to me, who suffers from epilepsy but is otherwise healthy. She is desperate to return to her university and continue her education. Should she not also be allowed to take part in our society?
The implication for young people at large would indeed be immense. At present, most young people have not been offered a vaccine. Vaccine certificates would result in young people facing more stringent social restrictions than others, all through no fault of their own.
Importantly, a vaccine certificate scheme may also be counterproductive, with research showing that compelling people to take vaccines does not necessarily result in the higher uptake that we all want to see. Individuals are best placed to make their own choices. I am incredibly proud of the progress the United Kingdom has made in vaccinating the population, but that should be used to set people free, not to restrict their freedoms further.
I close with this view: I fear that, should vaccine certificates become commonplace, they would inevitably expand and endure beyond the immediate challenges of this pandemic. I do not believe that should be allowed to happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I add my voice to those in this debate who have spoken about the importance of us all encouraging our fellow citizens to take up their vaccination. On Wednesday morning, I shall be joining the queues in the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall to have my vaccination, and I very much look forward to the extra freedoms that that may allow me.
However, it is worth remembering that one year ago we all, as a country, surrendered a significant number of important freedoms to the Government. It was a necessary thing to do at the time, because we were facing something where we did not really know how it would pan out. One year on, though, we know an awful lot better how we must deal with this pandemic. We see the great increase in the numbers of our fellow citizens getting vaccinated, and I suggest that the Government’s efforts should be focused on returning our liberties rather than tightening them further. That is why I oppose the idea of a vaccine passport.
I think the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I are the only people on the call list for this debate who were in the House when the Labour party, then in government, passed the Identity Cards Act 2006. I will just remind the House why many of us opposed that particular measure. It was not just the idea of having to carry an identity card; it was because along with that identity card there came the need for a register and a database. It was the considerations of the cost of those, and the security implications of the Government’s holding so much data, that led many of us to oppose the Act, and I would say that, 15 years later, nothing has changed.
Of course, for some occupations it will be sensible for employers or others to ask for evidence of vaccination, but that is a very different proposition from the one being put to us today. To call it a passport is a good analogy. Let us consider this: in theory, we only need our passport if we are going to travel abroad, but in practice, I can tell the House that I have often had to argue that it is not necessary for me to produce my passport to get on a plane at Heathrow to go to Aberdeen.
We are required to produce passports for a whole range of things these days. They are not only needed to travel abroad; a passport needs to be produced to open a bank account or instruct a new solicitor. Once we have said that it is okay to have a passport for covid, where will that argument go when the threat of covid has receded? If it was okay for covid, why not require people to produce a passport for HIV, for example? What we have before us today is the very thin end of a thick and dangerous wedge.
The concept of a vaccine passport is not just a matter of administrative convenience; it is a first step in a major redefinition of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which we should not take so lightly. When freedoms are given up, the state rarely rushes to return them. Remember how it was the last time we had identity cards. It was only going to be for the duration of the second world war, but seven years after the end of that war, it required a citizen to take the Government to court to end it. That is why this matters.
It is difficult to speak at the end of this debate as the last Member on the Government side. Much has already been said in this short debate, which has been full of excellent points, particularly those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
I want to firmly and clearly lay out my position on the issue of vaccine passports. In the media, there are different versions of what they might look like. We have had what one might consider to be a vaccine passport for international travel for a long time, as those visiting Africa or South America have to prove they have had the relevant inoculations, most commonly against malaria but for other diseases, too. People who make those journeys do that routinely as part of their travel plans.
As colleagues have said, those decisions are not made unilaterally by the UK. We do not have the power to tell other countries what to do about immunisations, including the covid vaccine. If Guatemala wants visitors to have inoculations, then that is up to Guatemala. In my view, it makes sense for the UK to have a system by which people can prove their vaccine status, if that is what they want to do. People are highly likely to need to be able to do that if they want to travel extensively, but that is largely up to other countries.
We would therefore be well advised to have something like that available for people to access—importantly—if they choose to do so. If that has to be a database, I see no reason why the existing NHS app—or some other means where such data is already shared—could not be adapted for that function. I hope Ministers will look at that before they try to reinvent the wheel.
In my mind, there is no reason why this should not simply be done on paper, rather than requiring all this data sharing and the minefield that comes with it. People already get a certificate or an email when they get their covid test result, which could be used as proof. I am yet to find anyone who had a problem with the idea of proving a negative test, at least in the short term.
Obviously, we hope all this goes away and we do not have to do it for long, but in the interest of getting events and businesses up and running faster, it might make sense for people to show a result to attend a mass event, such as a football match or a concert. I think businesses would welcome that if it helped them to get up and running faster. That is something we could and should look at. Importantly, that is the line for me, and for many others.
I believe in the vaccine; it is a great feat of science and innovation to be able to deliver it. I believe everyone should have it, and I will have it when my turn comes, but we are asking people to inject something into their bodies, through a medical procedure, and that requires consent. That is a basic idea that we subscribe to. No Government should be in the business of mandating or coercing people to do that.
As much as we may feel that getting vaccinated is the right thing to do, people have rights and responsibilities over their own bodies. I draw the line firmly at coercing people to get vaccinated. That seems to be discriminatory and there would certainly be a legal challenge. We have to win the argument, recognising that some people will not want the vaccine or be able to have it, for whatever reason. That is their free choice.
Somebody described the vaccine passport as a requirement to prove vaccine status before being able to go to the pub or an event, or, as someone suggested, to get a job. I think that is truly abhorrent. That would be coercion on a level that I have never seen in any democratic country, and not something I could ever support. The idea that any Government, never mind a Conservative one, could say “no jab, no job” is entirely morally wrong. I assume, therefore, that there are no plans to do this. I hope the Minister will reaffirm that. I have been told by other Ministers in the past that there are no plans to do it.
No matter how much I may personally believe that it is important and the right thing to have the vaccine, it will fundamentally impact on people’s basic rights if we require vaccination status to be shown in our daily lives, for our very basic rights, and be a huge backwards step for our liberty and freedom.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak on this issue. I have had many people contacting me. To make it clear from the outset, I have come back to my office today after having gone for my vaccine shot. That is the first one done, and I look forward to the second.
I annually take a flu shot due to my diabetes, and I booked in as soon as I was able to get the covid vaccine on the list as prepared. I am not a medical person, and I do not understand the in-depth biology and virology that is needed for a discussion of the vaccine. I made the decision in the same way as I trusted the doctor when he put me on my diabetes medication—I did not research the clinical trials. I am happy to take the vaccine, and have done so today. However, the key part of this statement is that I have chosen to do so. I was advised to do so and I followed the advice, but ultimately it was my choice. I am happy to encourage people to take the vaccine. I have often pressed Ministers in this House for greater availability for teachers, for instance. However, I will never instruct anyone to take it; that is not my place. It is my reasoned opinion.
The message that is coming through loud and clear to me is that there are many who are pleased to be able to access the vaccine. They see it as the first step towards regaining normality. I have repeatedly had correspondence and emails from people asking when they will be able to get the vaccine. Just as a GP will not force anyone to take medication they are not happy with, even if they sincerely believe it to be in the person’s best interests, neither can or should this Government play a part in forcing vaccination by introducing a vaccine passport.
It is absolutely right and proper that the Government investigate the pros and cons, and follow other nations in doing so. However, the most recent report I read made it clear that the vaccine programme had been incredibly successful without the threat of the removal of freedoms. More than 24 million people so far have had a first vaccine, and about 1.5 million have had a second. Let us hope that the number of doses rises over the next few days.
People want this. Eight in 10 people stated that they would take a vaccine if one was available for them in the week that the survey was taken. That is up from 55% in November, shortly before the first covid-19 vaccine was approved. To achieve herd immunity, it is understood that we should have about 80% take-up. We must understand that there are those who are unsure whether to take the vaccine, such as those with serious underlying health conditions. They should never be isolated because they cannot provide a copy of their up-to-date vaccination card.
Whenever I went away with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme to Kenya, we had to have vaccinations. It was required, and it was for our better health. That was some time ago. However, the right not to be isolated or, as one constituent said to me, ostracised for a personal medical choice can never be something that the Government enforce on our constituents.
I will end where I began. I got the vaccination and was very happy to do so, but it was my choice, and it must remain so without enforcement through covid passports. I urge the Government to hold fast to what their mantra has been throughout—that they are
“deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any of these impositions, or infringe anyone’s freedom”.
Throughout covid, the public have permitted the curtailment of personal freedom for the greater good, but I believe that this vaccine passport takes us a step further than many will be comfortable going. Again, I urge people to take the vaccine when they have the opportunity, but I will certainly not prevent them from accessing my advice centre, office and staff if their health or another reason forbids them from doing so.
It is a pleasure to participate virtually in today’s debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I commend my Petitions Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), for his opening speech on behalf of the Committee. The impressive manner in which he spoke set the scene for the rest of the debate.
This is one of the more interesting debates to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. It has implications for health and business, and there are serious ethical questions. This is not some theoretical or abstract debate; it has considerable real-world implications for us now. As part of their reviews of easing lockdown restrictions, the UK Government have declared that they will review the ethics and legality of vaccine passports—domestic covid certificates for UK businesses, venues and hospitality.
Saga, which specialises in holidays for the over-50s, says that passengers on its 2021 holidays or cruises must be fully vaccinated. Australian airline Qantas says that travellers will eventually need to prove that they have had a vaccination to board its flights. Some UK businesses have declared that all employees must be vaccinated or face a review of their contracts. However, the legality of that has been disputed by employment lawyers and trade unions. The Justice Secretary has said it may be legal if it were written into contracts.
Israel has developed the Green Pass mobile app to show that a person has received a covid vaccine. It can be used to access indoor seating and restaurants and to attend events in stadiums, among other things. In the US, President Biden announced an assessment of the feasibility of linking covid-19 vaccination to international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis—ICVPs—and producing electronic versions.
I have asked numerous parliamentary questions over the past year about vaccine passports, as it is an issue that I know interests many constituents, with views both in favour and against. There are many ethical considerations, with arguments that passports are discriminatory. Vaccine hesitancy is more likely in black and minority ethnic communities, and cultural uncertainty exists. Poorer communities are also less likely to be vaccinated. Some people are medically excluded from vaccination. Issues such as whether a child is vaccinated might also be influenced by wealth, parental education or even just the place of residence. Then we have issues around data protection of any scheme, the security of it and the risk of fraudulent or fake certificates, which could undermine the process. There are questions as to how long certificates would be valid.
Taking every step to eliminate the virus needs to be our priority. However, the top priority right now must remain the successful continuation of the vaccine roll-out. While agreeing on 15 January 2021 to further investigate the efficacy and utility of vaccine passports, the World Health Organisation’s Emergency Committee on Covid-19 made the following recommendation to states:
“At the present time, do not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines. Proof of vaccination should not exempt international travellers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures.”
That is sound advice in my opinion.
In their response to the petition, the UK Government have said:
“The Government is reviewing whether COVID-status certificates could play a role in reopening parts of our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety.”
The Scottish Government are also considering the role that a vaccination certificate might have. However, it is too soon to introduce any form of certification. Experts and Ministers still need to know more about the efficacy of the vaccines, their impact on transmission and the length of immunity before it is safe or sensible to introduce a vaccine certificate. To this end, the Scottish Government continue to engage with international developments in relation to covid-19, including on the subject of vaccine certification. This includes consideration of technical details, ethical and equality issues, and of course privacy standards. The outcome of those discussions will guide the Scottish Government’s work in this area. A vaccine certificate could play a valuable role, but there are various issues to work through, not least the significant equalities issues with allowing freedoms only for people who are vaccinated.
It is worth remembering that vaccine passports are really a new name for something that is not a new idea. Indeed, they have been almost universally adopted or supported at various points in history. The first international certificate of vaccination was introduced in 1944 as proof of vaccination against smallpox. Throughout the following decades, it led to a significant reduction in the international spread of the disease, as ever more travellers were required to be vaccinated. After the declared eradication of smallpox in 1980, the smallpox-specific certificate was cancelled, but the precedent has been established and countries have continued to adopt vaccine regulations when a significant risk is posed to public health.
Several countries already have some form of vaccine passports in place, requiring proof of vaccination documented on an international certificate of vaccine or prophylaxis before people enter or leave the country. Indeed, like many others, I already have such a certificate. Polio vaccinations are still mandatory for travellers to and from countries that are still afflicted by this terrible disease, and many countries require proof of vaccination for yellow fever for all arriving travellers. This applies even to those travelling from somewhere not designated by the World Health Organisation as a yellow fever risk country, so we have plenty of examples on which to draw.
With regard to covid, a number of other countries require all international travellers to stay in designated hotel on arrival, generally at their own expense, which has proved effective in minimising the risk of importing new cases. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has reportedly advised that only a universally applied policy will be effective in reducing the risk of importation, and the joint biosecurity centre has made it clear that a blanket approach to managed isolation is required, as it cannot confidently assess the risk of new variants appearing in other countries.
Unfortunately, the UK Government continue to rely on a targeted approach for international arrivals. As a result, the Scottish Government’s approach goes further than England’s and requires all international arrivals to enter hotel quarantine. This has been managed as part of a four-nations approach, with the UK Government managing the online booking system and the hotel contracts. The Scottish Government continue to press the UK Government to adopt a more comprehensive approach and to quarantine all international rivals. The SNP’s preference is for a consistent quarantine rule across the UK to effectively prevent new variants from entering Scotland and undermining the vaccination programme.
One of the challenges of the certification approach is that experts around the world are still learning about the vaccine’s effect on things such as the transmission of the virus—a challenge that has been recognised by the World Health Organisation and SAGE. The Scottish Government continue to engage in international developments in relation to covid-19, including vaccination certification. These discussions are led globally by the World Health Organisation and will include consideration of technical details, ethical and equality issues, and privacy standards. As I said earlier, it is too early yet to assess whether this is viable, but it is appropriate for Governments to continue to keep the vaccine certification under review, as further evidence around vaccines and immunity emerges.
In conclusion, there may be some merit to certification in areas such as international travel, but we need to be wary of creating some dystopian future where those with a recent vaccination can lead a full and normal life while those without become second-class citizens, with severe restrictions on their freedoms. Of course, neither the Scottish nor the UK Government will have the authority or power to stop other countries from requiring travellers to take the coronavirus vaccine before going to those countries, but what we do here is up to us. Keeping the matter under review is probably the correct position for the time being, so let us stay focused on getting people vaccinated and eliminating the spread of the virus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for further sharing the petitioners’ concerns with us all. As he said, over 290,000 people have signed this e-petition, which shows the strength of feeling across the country, and that includes 700 people in my constituency of Putney. The question of vaccine passports is crucial and complex, but it needs an answer soon, so such debates are welcome. There are so many issues and considerations at play, so I am pleased to be able to contribute on behalf of the Opposition.
We have heard some interesting contributions this afternoon, raising many questions that need to be heard. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend spoke about the concerns of younger people, who have not been offered the vaccine yet, so the timing will be important. We also heard about the concerns of those who might not have the tech needed, such as smartphones, and about the technology of any passport or certificate, especially if it is digital. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) talked about the important principle of no medical treatment without consent, about the need to be led by the science and about whether contingency plans are being made for the roll-out of certificates, in parallel with discussions about the ethics in this debate.
Airlines are rolling this out already, so it will be happening—we heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) about Saga Holidays requiring vaccination. How will it be possible to meet this requirement? What documentation will be asked for? There will need to be some answers. Importantly, we also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley about the impact of getting business back to work and saving jobs. That needs to be a top consideration in this debate.
As Members have said, the success of the vaccine roll-out has been an absolute delight, and I commend all people who worked so hard in creating and distributing the vaccine. They are all heroes. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who made clear in a similar debate back in December that the root of a lot of these discussions is vaccine hesitancy. Vaccines are the most effective public health intervention in relation to coronavirus or health in general, and are the ultimate ticket out of this crisis; I think we all agree on that. It is therefore hugely important that a significant proportion of people take up the vaccination, especially those with the greatest vulnerabilities. Like many other Members, I will take up the vaccine as soon as I am offered it.
Those hesitant to take the vaccine should not be mischaracterised as anti-vaxxers. That is not fair or true. Those who spout anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are a very small group of people indeed. A much more significant and noticeable number of people, though far from the majority, are vaccine-hesitant. I have spoken to local GPs in my constituency about this. There may be a number of reasons why people do not want the vaccine, and we need to respect those reasons. Others may not want to do so owing to safety concerns—something I have heard from some of my constituents. They want to be sure that any vaccine, be it for covid-19 or anything else, is safe. We all have a role to play in giving them that confidence.
There are some serious practical matters that the Government should address to help improve the vaccine take-up. For example, the GMB union highlighted that the Government’s adult social care infection control fund provides full sick pay for sickness in social care, yet it does not financially cover the immediate after-effects of having the vaccine, which makes some people poorly for 24 hours. We do not want any low-paid social care workers to be hesitant because they might lose a day’s pay if they have the vaccine, so if that reason can be taken away, that will increase vaccine take-up.
We have seen through these developments and through our experiences in this country that the best method of countering those views is through proactive, positive health-promoting campaigns. I know that is something the Government are doing; I am following it closely. It is welcome, and we will support the Government in this. If they decide to introduce vaccine passports or certificates in any way, I hope that they continue with those health-promoting campaigns as a priority.
Vaccine passports, certificates or any other name they might be given are one of several possible responses to vaccine hesitancy. They may well play an important role in reopening the economy and society and keeping residents of care homes safe, for example, but they may be unnecessary and impossible to implement fairly. This is a highly complex area and there are no easy answers to this issue, so we will need to have a national conversation about this, and the Labour party will play its part. Our principle is that the Government must not abdicate their responsibility and simply leave this to the private sector to do any way and haphazardly, which will only lead to confusion and unfairness. Any decisions on vaccine passports must be based on firm evidence, such as the effect of vaccinations on transmission and international best practice from countries that have implemented vaccine certification schemes. There are currently several country-based examples for us to observe, such as Israel.
We all want lockdown to end and we all want as many people as possible to take the vaccine. Vaccine passports could provide an extra layer of protection for the vulnerable, they could be effective in protecting workers and they could give businesses in certain sectors the confidence they need to go forward. There are, however, legitimate concerns about the implications of vaccine passports for civil liberties and for discrimination. We cannot ignore either. We do not want a two-tier system in which those who are not vaccinated, especially the marginalised, are blocked from essential public services, work or housing; we do not want the passport abused and extended beyond what is legally required, or want it extended in time. These are all hugely important considerations for the Government to reflect on in making this decision, so we welcome this debate.
I end with a few questions for the Minister. I understand that the Government are reviewing whether covid status certificates could play a role in reopening parts of our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. Can she share with us the progress on this review, and what it has found so far? What external advice are the Government drawing on to inform the review’s recommendations? Is there research on the impact of a certificate on vaccine hesitancy? Finally, if the Government do proceed, how will they navigate the questions posed by civil liberties groups and ensure that the passport does not create a two-tier system?
This is a hugely important discussion that navigates new territory, but we need answers sooner rather than later. It is vital that the Government listen to all voices, for and against, including the voices of those who signed the petition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate all Members who spoke in the debate and who helped to secure it, particularly the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill). I also congratulate the petitioner and everyone who signed the petition that has led to the debate, which is timely for a number of reasons. First, it is a pre-emptive strike, because the covid status certification review has yet to commence—indeed, as was alluded to, its terms of reference and the detail of what it will consider were published today; that information can be looked at on the Government website. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will lead on this and will primarily look at the domestic-facing issues that many Members referred to. The review goes wider than vaccinations, taking in testing and an array of other issues. To be helpful to hon. Members, let me say that, in parallel, a cross-Government group chaired by the Secretary of State for Transport is working on the international-facing and travel issues that Members have spoken about. That feeds into the work of the covid team in the Cabinet Office, and CDL has ultimate responsibility for that.
The review will report in advance of step 4 on the road map, which, as hon. Members will know, will be reached no earlier than 21 June. The review has come about in part because in spring, the Government committed in their covid-19 response to reviewing the potential role of certification in our handling of covid-19 from summer onwards. The review will assess whether certification could play a role in opening up the economy and society, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. I reassure hon. Members that we very much want to return to our normal way of life, which means not just lifting restrictions, but having all the other things that we previously enjoyed and have missed over the last 12 months.
The review will consider the extent to which certification would be effective in reducing risk and helping to open up parts of the economy. It will look at the ethical, privacy, legal and operational aspects of certification and their implications for those who are unwilling or unable to be vaccinated, the equalities implications, to which hon. Members have referred, and the impact of certification on groups who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
There are many questions that I would love to ask, but I will ask one in particular. Can the Minister confirm that, if people choose not to get vaccinated, they will bear their own responsibility and the rest of us will not be held back because some people have made a personal choice not to have the vaccine? If they do not want the vaccine, that is fine, but they should not hold the rest of us back.
I cannot give my hon. Friend many answers today, as the review has just started, but what I would say to him is that, in all of this, we have to remember that the reason why we are charting our way out of this situation is, yes, in part due to fantastic science and the success of the vaccine programme, but also that members of the public have taken care of and taken responsibility for themselves and other people. We have not legislated for that to happen; it has happened because people feel motivated to take responsibility. We have to remember in all of this that, even though we are very used to passing laws talking about enforcement and all those other things, ultimately this has been about the British public taking responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities.
I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool for setting out at the start of the debate why this is not a call from anti-vaxxers or covid sceptics. It is not. Legitimate questions are being raised about our freedoms and the practicalities and the implications of this for people who are disproportionately affected by covid. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the degree of control we have over decisions that may be taken in international forums. As I understand it, any international agreement would be years off; an initiative spearheaded, for example, by the World Health Organisation, would be many years down the line. We are in control of what we decide about our own borders and our own systems, but clearly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and others are talking to international counterparts to get something that makes sense and also to learn from good practice.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about those who are not able to have the vaccine. People have spoken about physical health conditions, but there are also mental health conditions. I have been speaking to people who have a severe phobia of needles and could not in any way be injected. I know that vaccine companies are looking at alternatives, but at the moment we do not have those alternatives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spoke very powerfully, as he always does, about our freedoms. As an aside, I will say that I looked up the powerful Patrick McGoohan quote that he gave from “The Prisoner”. I have to say that my hon. Friend did not say the preceding two lines, which were:
“I will not make any deals with you”,
although he has used those in other debates. But he does make a very powerful case about the practicalities. Would this actually have a practical effect if we were to bring it in? He raised very important points about equality. I can confirm that those are in the terms of reference for the review. Also, I hope he will take some comfort from what Ministers have said in the past about papers for having a pint. I think that that is the approach that people want to take, but it is right that we look at these issues and look at them in a transparent way. Again, this debate will help to inform and steer the review.
Is not one of the fundamental rights the ability to work? Huge numbers of our citizens are not able to work. Many have been made unemployed. Many are teetering on the edge because their businesses are on the edge. Surely the vaccine taskforce has shown us how we can move prudently and at pace, and perhaps we need to be getting a bit of urgency into this.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those comments and, indeed, for his contribution in the debate. He is right. I think that everyone in the House, no matter which side of the argument they are on, wants people to be able to get back to those freedoms that we had perhaps taken for granted—the freedoms not just to be with our loved ones and to have a social life, but to earn a living. The cost of the last 12 months to individuals in not being able to do that has been devastating. We all understand that. That is why we want to look at all the practical measures we can to give people as much certainty as possible in future. We need to ensure that the review looks at the practicalities: what would be the upside if this were to come to pass?
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) spoke about the importance of evidence, particularly of the effect of the vaccine on transmission rates. Like other hon. Members, she also discussed pregnant women. In a week when we have been looking at how women are short-changed in a variety of ways and while many women going to job interviews still complain about questions about whether they are pregnant or planning a family, anything that put further weight on someone’s having to demonstrate why they did not have a certificate would be very disappointing indeed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) focused on the importance of trust and the fact that, ultimately, trust is how we are going to get through this—we have to rely on that, rather than having so much focus on Government action. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) spoke eloquently about the absolute issues of civil liberties and certain individuals who may be missing out—particularly those who will be vaccinated later in the programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) emphasised that we have to listen to others’ experiences and ideas. The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) raised the issue of international travel, which I have addressed, and the fact that people are more likely to be open to data being shared if there is a benefit to them from doing so. That is what we need to come back to in this review: what is the benefit to our citizens of doing this?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, asked about employees. Again, the matter would be for individual employees. My understanding is that contracts would have to be rewritten if vaccination were to be made compulsory. On the back of his comments, I pay tribute to all healthcare professionals who are doing an incredible job in phoning up individuals who have concerns about taking the vaccine to reassure them. That is the way to do this, and a huge effort is being made to give people confidence that they can take it.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) raised the issues of evidence and transmission and of those who are highly marginalised. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) also spoke about those issues, and he and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) both spoke about the dangers of creep: if such things happen, where will it all stop? Those points have been well made and will have been heard by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke about the dangers of people being coerced into taking the vaccine; I point him to the very clear statements that the Prime Minister has made on that subject—that no one should be coerced or forced to take the vaccine; it is a personal choice. Enormous numbers of people are taking it, of course, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whom I congratulate on getting his. I hope it was a positive experience. He will, I am sure, have been very moved by the work that not just healthcare professionals but volunteers are doing. Good luck with the second jab!
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), the spokesman for the SNP, rightly said that the main effort needs to be the vaccine roll-out. I agree and hope that we can take a four-nation approach on these other matters. We want simplicity and consistency for all our citizens.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) raised a number of questions, some of which I think are answered by the terms of reference and the publication put out today. She is right that we want to have all efforts behind the vaccine programme. People are taking the vaccine because it is good for them and it is good for other people. We need to remember that that is why we are winning this battle against covid: it is personal action by our citizens, doing the right thing. I assure her that we will not let up on our public health campaigns either.
The vaccine programme continues to be successful, and I thank all who are contributing to it. We look forward to the economy’s unlocking and to getting back to what we remember as normal—whether that is being able to see loved ones, to attend a protest if we wish to, or simply to enjoy a pint in a beer garden with roses in bloom—but if we are to get back to that, we must also focus on the practical things that must happen. Hon. Members have touched on those practical and ethical issues, but I think they have also summed up the public mood: people want to get back to normal and they do not want to be told what to do. If we are going to do anything in this space, it must be of practical benefit and it must be something that the public would wish to be done.
I thank all hon. Members for contributing to the debate, which I am sure will help to shape the review. It will not be long before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be back to report on the findings.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their excellent contributions. Let us simply hope that the review, the terms of reference for which have been published today, progresses sensibly and in a non-discriminatory fashion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 569957, relating to vaccine passports.
Covid-19: Impact on Education
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 564696, 548778, 573621 and 564209, relating to the impact of covid-19 on education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The first petition is to do with cancelling GCSEs and A-levels in 2021 and replacing them with coursework and teacher assessment, and was created on 29 December; the second is about allowing teacher-predicted grades for BTEC students; the third is about keeping schools closed until May; and the fourth is about closing schools in all tier 4 areas.
Clearly, over the last four or five months, the situation has been incredibly fluid, so for some of those petitions—two in particular—circumstances and events have moved ahead of them slightly. However, I do think this a valuable opportunity to have a discussion about the impact of covid-19 on our children’s education in a more general sense. We could not get a much broader debate, and I imagine that colleagues and I will find it very difficult to keep our points concise, because this is such a multifaceted issue, and our children have been impacted in so many different ways by covid-19, but I will attempt to do so. I will just cover four or five key lessons that I think we need to take away and some of the thoughts that I have.
My first point is to do with the danger of making generalisations and assumptions about how a child may or may not have found schools being closed, particularly based on, say, the socioeconomic background that they may come from. There is some evidence, produced by the Sutton Trust, that suggests that children from more deprived backgrounds have been particularly badly impacted by the closure of schools compared with children from other areas, but we should not necessarily assume that, and we should not assume that a child in a different situation found it any easier. I have spoken to a number of families whose children have come from a variety of backgrounds and who, for whatever reason, have found it particularly difficult, and their mental health has been particularly impacted. In coming to those sorts of generalisations, we should not lose those individuals’ stories, because, in some senses, no one child’s experience of the past year has been the same. We need a response that, as far as possible, caters for that individual child. That is the first point I wanted to make.
Secondly, on mental health, research published by MIND showed that 73% of those at school feel as though their mental health has deteriorated over the past year. There is a massive challenge in front of the Government; there is a massive challenge in front of schools; and there is a massive challenge in front of young people, to try to make up for some of the learning loss that has clearly happened over the last year. Another point that I would make is that I think we should be careful in the language that we use. There is a big challenge in front of us, but we should be aware that the anxiety that many young people feel at the moment is already very significant. Sometimes the words that I see in the media, such as “lost generation” and so on, can fuel those anxieties to an even greater extent. Yes, there is a significant challenge in front of us, but we can overcome it, so in a sense, we need a degree of positivity and a can-do spirit. My concern is that a daunting situation may become even more daunting if we are not careful about the language that we use.
The Minister will be aware from my position on the Education Committee that I speak very frequently about special educational needs. The national special educational needs and disabilities review has been delayed, but if there can be an advantage from that delay, it is that it allows us to properly look at the way in which the pandemic has had a different impact on different children, including those with special educational needs.
That must include not only those with education, health and care plans, but those who might not have one of those plans but still have learning disabilities. Dyslexic and dyspraxic pupils would be two examples. They have not been eligible to come into school most recently, and some of those individuals have struggled with online learning because of the unique way in which many of them learn. Not having that personal engagement has often made it much more difficult for them to learn and some, I fear, have fallen behind more as a result.
When we talk about those with perhaps more complex and significant needs and disabilities, something else that we need to bear in mind is their mental state, and how they often struggle with transitions. The movement from working online to back into school, to online and then back into school again can have a profound impact on their mental state. Many of them have been eligible to keep on coming into school, but many have not, and there has often been good reason for that. A therapeutic approach to help them with the transition from what might seem like quite an unsettling period for them is also very important.
I am encouraged by what I have heard about the tutoring programme, and how, when we think about the ways in which our young people can catch up from any learning loss, there have been some SEND specialists feeding into that. That was encouraging, but it would be brilliant if I could hear more today about how that is working in practice.
My next point is to do with exams. One of the petitions called for a cancellation of exams. Bearing in mind the circumstances, I do not think that there was any alternative. It was the right decision to cancel those exams, but I also believe that it was a regrettable decision. I think we were left with no choice, but it comes with its own negatives. I believe that exams should be here to stay. I do not think that this should be used as an opportunity to question the role of exams in the medium to long term. I believe that they continue to be the fairest way, often, of assessing pupils.
We should also think about those young people who actually quite like exams, and find that exams work for them. A lot of those children have learning disabilities. I talk as somebody who has dyspraxia and dyslexia. When I was a 12-year-old, I had the reading and writing age of an eight-year-old. I ended up catching up, and did have my struggles at school, but I actually used to quite like exams because I was an unconventional learner. I did not do well in the classroom. I did not go at the same pace as everybody else. That revision gave me time to consolidate my knowledge and surprise in my exams. I really would not have wanted to have been at school over the last year, so we should think about how those children could feel as though their chance to flourish has been taken away.
On the teacher assessment that we will have this year, some schools will have these tests that will feed into the overall assessment, but these tests are not mandatory. Perhaps they should have been mandatory. Having spoken to the Minister about this before, my understanding is that the teachers at a school will have a degree of flexibility over this, and the approach will not necessarily have to be the same for all children. It might be that some children in a school can take a test while others do not.
I would also like to think that pupils could feed into the process. If they felt that having a test would mean that their teachers were in a better place to make an accurate assessment about their progress, I think their views should be taken into account. I go back to the point that I made about dyslexic pupils. I have spoken to two headteachers at dyslexic schools, where all the pupils are dyslexic, and it is interesting that both of those schools have taken a decision to have tests for all pupils. That is useful in providing a sense as to how it may be that all those children could be negatively impacted by this.
Another point I would like to make is about children who have English as a second language. I know that in my own constituency, there are many pupils who come under that bracket. I have spoken to headteachers in my constituency who are concerned that the level of participation in some of the online learning has been lower in those communities, and also that pupils’ English has actually gone backwards throughout the time that schools have been closed. When we are thinking about catch-up, that aspect needs to be there also.
I was encouraged by a meeting that the Education Committee had recently with the catch-up commissioner. I have had a number of conversations with headteachers in my constituency recently who have said that when we are thinking about catch-up, flexibility needs to be at the heart of it, and that teachers and headteachers, who know their children better than anybody else, should be able to take decisions that they believe to be in the best interests of each individual child. The catch-up commissioner made it very clear that that will be the case.
There are lots of things that we will have to work out, particularly with catch-up schools over the summer, such as how they will interrelate with the holiday food and activity programmes, and how that will work. It is about having that flexibility with catch-up, so that teachers and headteachers can make those decisions. That goes back to what I said earlier: we should not make assumptions about how each child has found lockdown. There is an element of truth in the idea that clearly some home environments are more conducive to online learning than other environments. There is a reality there. Some children do not have their own bedroom or a quiet place to work, and they might have parents who want to help with their learning but, frankly, cannot help as much as they would like to. Some children have a different background and have their own space and parents who are able to help them, but we should not assume that. Sometimes parents might be able to help but cannot, because they are working round the clock. We do not know what their circumstances will be.
In a nutshell, and in summary, my key points are these. First, we should not generalise or make assumptions and, as far as possible, we should approach each individual young person and try to cater to their needs. My second point, unsurprisingly, is about children with special educational needs and the different ways in which this has impacted them. As I said, it is so important that we get SEND right. It is right morally, it is right for them, and it is also necessary for our country, because we do not want to lose their talents. This pandemic has in some ways made the situation harder for them. We should also think about those children who the way we have been assessing has perhaps worked against; they have been losers in that.
When we are thinking about how covid has impacted our young people, we need to be sensitive in the language that we use and conscious of the way in which their learning, but also their mental health, has suffered. It will be difficult to catch up, but they are our children, and we will do whatever it takes to support them, so there needs to be a degree of positivity there as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I really value the opportunity to contribute on all the issues raised by these petitions, and also the wider issues for our education sector as a result of covid-19.
I start by paying tribute to all the teaching staff, school staff, parents and especially children attending schools across my constituency in Kingston and Richmond for the successful way that they all returned to school last week. I was speaking just this morning to the head of the education service for both boroughs, and he was telling me that it has all gone extremely smoothly. I have also had an opportunity to speak to teachers from all sorts of schools across the constituency. The testing in our secondary schools has gone very well. Most children —my own included—are absolutely thrilled to be back at school and back with their friends. It has all gone extremely well, and I pay huge tribute to staff, parents and children across the constituency. I also want to say a huge thank you to all the parents who have been home schooling over the past few incredibly difficult months. They have done a wonderful job and can all pat themselves on the back, having successfully delivered their children back to school, which is where we all want them to be.
I would like to start by asking the Minister for clarity on the use of face masks in secondary school. In particular, what does the science say about their benefits for reducing transmission versus the disadvantages they create for communication? I was very lucky to have a Zoom chat last Wednesday with some year 11 students at Christ’s School in Richmond. It was wonderful to see them in their classroom but strange to see them wearing face masks. I would appreciate clarity from the Department for Education about the value of wearing face masks.
I also want to ask about exams, which the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) raised, with a great deal of interesting insight based on his own experience. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how qualifications are going to be awarded this year. I am very concerned that the lack of standardisation across exam centres will negatively affect some students who may well have achieved better results if they had been able to sit their exams. I would welcome more clarification on that. It is a pity that it has taken until now for any kind of guidance to be issued, given that the probable need to cancel exams was identified some time ago.
The schools I have spoken to are very concerned about the appeals process and the extent to which it is going to create an additional burden for them. I have no doubt that many parents and students will want to appeal the mark they are given, and I am very concerned that that will create a big burden for schools at the end of August, just as they are preparing for the new school year. I would welcome further guidance from the DFE about how it plans to address that particular topic.
The biggest issue faced by most schools in my area is that of funding. Covid has increased massively the pressure on school budgets. Obviously, there are increased costs due to all the covid-secure measures our schools have had to take, both now and in September, in order to welcome children back. Many of them are reporting a hit to their income as a result of being unable to hire out their facilities or host sports clubs, for example. School budgets have not increased to meet costs and they are not being compensated for any additional expense. That is a real worry for some of them. Other hits to their income include the unavailability of grants that they would usually get. In addition, local authorities have not been given guidance or clarity on the extent to which they can use funds to assist schools in financial difficulty.
I will end by echoing a point made by the hon. Member for Ipswich in his opening remarks. It is important that schools are able to respond to their pupils’ individual needs at this time. He is absolutely right about some of the language being used. From my own experience as a parent, but also from speaking to schools in my constituency, I know that what children have really missed is their usual group activities. On catch-up, I want extra funding to go to schools directly, rather than to outsourced private practitioners, so that they can address the problems that lockdown has caused schoolchildren. That would really help our students as they go back to school, which we are all so happy to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to speak in this debate, covering a number of petitions about both the return to school and this year’s assessments.
Obviously, the impact of covid on our schools, and therefore on our children and young people, has been huge. I would argue that it is perhaps still being underestimated. As I have said before in this place, personally I would not have closed schools. Being out of school for months has had a huge impact on the more than 1,000 vulnerable children in Nottinghamshire—that is just the county, excluding the city, so the number might be twice as high—who are known to children’s services for one reason or another. There was a spike in the number of abuse referrals to children’s services following last summer’s lockdown, and I have no doubt that that will happen again now. We owe it to those children in particular to put them at the heart of our plans for recovery.
This is not just about vulnerable children; the issue has affected all children. I am lucky enough to be the father of two primary aged boys—
I will hold the microphone closer to my face.
It is not only vulnerable children who have been impacted by the lockdowns. I am lucky enough to be the father of two primary age boys, and they have been lucky enough mostly to continue to attend school, as my wife has worked on a supermarket shop floor throughout, but even they have missed their social lives and have missed out on a lot of experiences. They have seen both their education and development impacted. This time in the lives of our children and young people is hugely important, whether it is early development as a primary school student mastering the academic basics, learning to make friends, understanding the school environment and how to act around other people, or whether it is a teenager studying for major qualifications while also coming out of their shell and becoming an adult and finding themselves. How much more difficult must it be for them to begin to find their independence and their own self separate from their parents when they are forced to spend every day at home with them and they do not get to go and do anything else?
In terms of what we do about it—this is the key going forward—the Government have talked a lot about academic catch-up and tutoring, which is welcome, but the biggest challenge that parents and teachers have raised with me is a social one, not an academic one. Teachers have told me that children have forgotten what it means to be in school—how to act and behave—and having to relearn all of that after having changed those behaviours as they are not used to being around groups of people, seeing their friends or being in the classroom. They have shrunk back into their shells after having spent so much time on their own, and it is a challenge now to draw them out again. That means we need to focus not only on academia but on the social side of things.
We should offer more support to extracurricular activities, including sport. Let us not forget the health and fitness impact, too, and the inequalities that will have grown as a result of lockdown and the inactivity that came with it. We could start by looking seriously at how we can open up our sports facilities. Some 40% of our nation’s sports facilities remain locked behind school gates at evenings and weekends.
We have to focus on transitioning children back into the classroom when they need it, and supporting teachers to do that. Children moving to secondary school this year, for example, will have missed so much of the transitional process that they normally would get. The Government could promote and support things such as nurture provision at both primary and secondary level to help children adapt and ease into school life at their own pace, rather than being chucked in at the deep end. I hope the Government will be able to support schools to deliver some year 7 transition as much as possible for the end of this year.
A few years ago, the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), launched a programme of introducing and expanding mental health support in schools. I spoke to the Schools Minister recently about that. Will he update the House on any discussions about whether that plan, which at the time seemed wide ranging and positive, is considered still to be adequate, or can we speed it up and extend it in the light of the struggles that many will face as a result of the pandemic?
On the issue of academia, the Prime Minister’s idea of one-to-one tutoring could be great if it could be done as an addition to the social support that is needed. It will be important to work across schools, colleges and universities to ensure that there is a recognition of the challenges that young people have faced and of the difference between grades given this year compared with other years, because clearly nobody should be disadvantaged as they seek to move on to the next stage of their lives.
All of that calls into question some of what we do around our assessment. I am no detractor from testing at all—I think it is important—but we saw the major challenges faced as a result of so much of our assessment being built only on exams at the end of the year. In the absence of those, there have been all sorts of problems. Obviously, other countries have different systems. Some have an ongoing system of teacher-led assessment as a matter of course. I wonder how the Minister feels those countries might have compared in terms of the challenges of assessment through this period.
I particularly question whether there is really a need to formally assess year 2 students, for example. Also, in the light of covid, perhaps we should be more willing to trust our teachers and to rely on their ongoing assessment as to what children in their care need. They are better placed to assess the ability and the support needed by children at a young age than an exam paper is, particularly if the needs of those children at four, five or six years old are more social as opposed to academic. Perhaps that is something we could look at. Teachers’ knowledge of what their students need will be more important than ever as we seek to recover from the pandemic. Both teachers and students would benefit from having that trust in their relationship within schools to help support children.
There are lessons to take from online learning, too. Although some have struggled, others have loved it and have excelled. They have attended, whereas they might not have done before. There may be a role for using remote learning permanently in some instances. My local college reported excellent attendance among some of the students who had not been engaged or showing up before; it reported excellent work and excellent progress by, for example, many students with autism, who might have struggled in a classroom environment but found online learning really positive. Across the board, but perhaps particularly for post-16 and with SEND pupils, we should review how remote learning could benefit young people. I know that is part of the Prime Minister’s plan for independent and individual tutoring.
Finally, I will touch on skills. I welcome the Government’s further education White Paper, which has some excellent proposals for boosting and supporting further education. The Minister knows my view that many children would benefit from more access to technical and vocational education as part of their curriculum within school or from being allowed out to college earlier in their school life. I have always felt that is an opportunity for the 18% who currently leave school with no qualifications at all to do something different, and to fall in love with education through learning in a way that is directly linked to the world of work or to things they enjoy.
Given the impact on so many children who have been out of education for so long and the challenge of getting them back into the classroom and comfortable in the classroom again, I hope the Minister will give consideration to how that might work, not only as a chance to get young people back into learning after covid, but to complement the FE reforms that have been brought forward by the Government and to help all our young people to get the most out of education in the long term, including that 18% who previously have not managed to get those qualifications through traditional schooling.
With that, I will wrap up. I finish by saying that this is hugely important and, as I said at the start of my speech, we owe it to all our young people and our children to put them at the heart of our recovery plans. Ultimately, they are the ones who will have to deal with this for the longest, for the future of our country, our economy and all of us, and they should be front and centre of every decision we make as we look to recover from this pandemic.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue and to discuss education and covid-19.
The long-term damage to our children’s education and social skills is something I have been incredibly concerned about. In February, I was able to highlight to the Minister, during the debate in the main Chamber on the roadmap to education, the work of the Northern Ireland Education Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive in providing funding for summer schools throughout the Province to help children catch up if needed. This is a devolved matter, but it was such a good scheme that I wanted to give the Minister in Northern Ireland some credit here.
The idea is that there will be funding for schools to run summer programmes of two to three weeks for children who have fallen behind. Teachers can choose to run the classes, or they can liaise with substitute teachers to provide the additional help, which will also allow those who depend on substituting to earn their money and help to fill the breach with education for children.
It is clear to me that covid has had a massive impact on education and I fully support the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. Just today, the Minister in Northern Ireland set out a timetable for children’s sporting activities to return to normal. I know that is something the Prime Minister and central Government in Westminster have been working towards as well, as indeed have all the devolved Administrations.
For some parents, home schooling has simply been unworkable due to work issues, internet connectivity or other concerns, and their children need additional support to pull them through. I know that sometimes the grandparents feel under incredible pressure. I have met some of them, and they just could not wait to get their grandchildren back to school, back to normality and back to a routine. I suppose grandparents have reared their children. As I have often said—this probably applies to you, too, Mr Robertson—it is great being a grandparent, because at 7 o’clock we can give them back, but if they are living with us and schooling with us, that opportunity is not there.
The home schooling and internet connectivity programme that I have referred to was run in some schools last summer and was incredibly successful, so I thank the Northern Ireland Minister for making it possible again this summer. It is imperative that we do all we can to help children achieve their potential, despite this dreadful past year, and I believe summer schools are a step forward in doing just that.
It is further notable that the Education Minister in Northern Ireland has put aside £5 million especially for schools to determine how they can provide mental health support for pupils or staff as necessary. That could be in the form of outdoor equipment or individual counselling. I believe that must be replicated UK-wide, as our young people’s mental health, along with that of the elderly, has suffered and needs dedicated support.
I do not think there has been a debate on covid-19 in which we have not spoken about the detrimental mental health conditions of our children of all ages, even those of primary school age, and especially those of secondary school and college age. I have heard of so many young children in Northern Ireland who are allowed to return to school and who have been so joyful since they were allowed back. On the other hand, I have also had several parents tell me how starting back at school in P1 has been a nightmare, with children screaming and hanging on to the streetlights because they are unwilling to go to school. Their wee minds are so full of fear and confusion.
It is clear that it is not just the little ones who are suffering. I have also heard parents talk of how their 14-year-olds have anxiety about returning to school. The routine, which is essential for stability, has been turned around, and they are finding themselves on very shaky ground. We need to take steps to steady that ground for them and to invest in additional pastoral care, outdoor equipment or even, when safety measures allow, trips in order to rebuild bonds and confidence. That is absolutely critical.
I truly believe that only time will tell the impact of lockdown, and the fear that it has brought, on our vulnerable children. We must be prepared to help effectively and swiftly when teachers pick up on those issues and problems, and they must have access to professional help for that child. We have lost so many, and we cannot afford to lose a new generation to fear and anxiety.
It has long been clear that it is the desire of the Democratic Unionist party and many others to see that children are brought safely back to school. Particularly with Northern Ireland’s hugely successful vaccination programme having vaccinated the most vulnerable with one vaccine, which gives a good level of protection, the opening of schools is in a different position from ever before. Today I received my first vaccination for covid-19. It was almost painless and I was very pleased to get it. I give credit to the staff and volunteers who made the conveyor belt of vaccination so easy to endure, and I thank them for it.
I believe that we can open schools and still protect our vulnerable, as well as improve educational outcomes and address mental health concerns in our young people. That is an absolute priority for me, and I believe it is a priority for the Government as well. We must look to allow team games and after-school clubs for music, dance and theatre practices—all those normal experiences that have been lost to our young people for an entire year. I believe we must do what we can to enhance their opportunities in school and after school to the best of our ability, and we must trust God to restore mentally the year that the locusts have taken. Education is a priority; we have all said it, we all know it and we all believe it. Now we need to see that priority being actioned and also financed appropriately.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am delighted to be present for what is an extremely important debate about the future of education, and particularly the impact of covid. As a member of the Education Committee, and following the almost weekly appearance that the Minister makes before us, I feel as though he and I are seeing each other much more than we are seeing our respective partners. I am delighted to be with him once again today. I am sure he will hear some repeats of the moans and groans at the last meeting of the Education Committee regarding this issue.
On the petitions about GCSEs and A-levels, I appreciate that the Government were in a very tricky situation. I fully respect that a decision was made more quickly than some would have the public believe, but the process was also laid out clearly for pupil, parents and teachers. I must say that my inbox has not seen a deluge of emails, unlike during the algorithm debacle that I am sure we are all desperate to forget.
However, I would like to stress some of my concerns—the Minister will be aware of these—about the fact that exam papers from exam boards are voluntary and not mandatory. I am aware that 100,000 people responded to the consultation and that the overwhelming majority of students were keen for the tests to be voluntary, but even if it is 41%—the Minister might have quoted the Education Committee, and I apologise if I have got that figure wrong—the overwhelming majority of teachers supported the fact that there should be some mandatory testing with the exam papers from exam boards. That is something that would have been very helpful to the evidence base.
Ultimately, the one thing that schools that I am speaking to are concerned about—I am particularly thinking about St Margaret Ward Catholic Academy in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I visited recently—is that there a very tight window in which to get assessments done. The angst comes from the fact that the Government announcement has come, yet it is a month until the guidance will follow. That has caused a lot of strain for teachers as they wonder what the exam boards will and will not allow and what they can and cannot do within this period of time.
I appreciate that the situation with testing is difficult for the Minister, but if kids are in school and get a positive lateral flow test, even if they then go home and get a negative polymerase chain reaction test, they are not allowed back into school. The school that I mentioned has seen 38 year 11s stay away for 10 days, which will ultimately have an impact on the evidence gathering that will need to take place.
I also have concerns about grade inflation and the impact on future years, and I have really pushed the issue of grade suppression with the Education Committee. Ultimately, grade inflation has taken place; we have seen it on quite a large scale. The summer of 2020 was more generous than previous years. At A-level, the proportion of candidates awarded an A* or A went up an unprecedented 12.9 percentage points from 25.2% in 2019 to 38.1% in 2020. At GCSE, the proportion awarded grade 4 and above went up 8.8 percentage points from 67.1% to 75.9%.
My worry, as the Chair of the Education Committee regularly says, is that that grade inflation will end up being baked into the system. Ultimately, there has to come a point where we draw a line in the sand. I hope to hear from the Minister, if not today then in the future, that when it comes to the 2020 cohort, the grade inflation of the past two years will be ring-fenced and blacked out, as it were, as an anomaly because we are in a global pandemic—these are unprecedented times—and that we will go back to 2019, pre-pandemic and before the summer grade inflation, in order to have a better gauge of where students are at.
My issue with the suppression is that ultimately there will be kids—particularly children from deprived backgrounds in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—who are outperforming their peers in their schools and their schools’ historical performance. I fear that teachers, out of fear of having a mass investigation, will ultimately keep grades lower because they do not want other pupils or the wider school to be impacted by Ofqual coming in to investigate. I fear that there will be kids who do not get the grades they deserve, particularly those in deprived communities such as the ones I am proud to serve, for that very reason.
I will say this to the Minister: well done. For the National Education Union to admit that it was wrong was a feat of excellence. I thoroughly enjoyed it and almost had it printed and put on my wall to celebrate. It admitted that it was wrong that the testing would not work. Well, it has worked really well. I saw it at first hand, both in the local primary schools that I visited—Whitfield Valley Primary Academy and St Margaret—which had form groups coming down and having the tests. It worked really smoothly and has given confidence to staff and students. It has meant that those who are asymptomatic are able to go home and therefore stop any spread. That is really positive.
Another issue is the national tutoring programme. The Minister is aware of my concerns about that. Although I absolutely support the aims and fully support the Minister—Teach First and the Education Endowment Foundation are very good providers and groups that have my full backing—my concern when we run big, central Government-style interventions such as that is whether they really get to the kids who need them. In my city, more than 30% of students are eligible for free school meals, and I wonder whether we will reach every single child who has a right to that tuition and support and deserves to have it. When I hear that, so far, only 125,000 out of 1.5 million kids have been reached, that raises concerns.
I want to pass on to the Minister the comments of Dominic McKenna, the headteacher at St Margaret Ward Catholic Academy, about Teach First. He has emailed it and engaged with it, and he has simply had an email back saying, “We’ll get back to you.” I appreciate that the Minister will not think that is good enough; he will want that follow-up to take place. Ultimately, he knows and understands the pressures that headteachers are under. On the one occasion that Dominic McKenna did hear back when he was asking for maths and English tutors, he was told that they were not available but was asked whether he wanted modern foreign languages. Those are still important, but if a school is asking for something and the service is not available, that raises questions about whether the national tutoring programme is going to work as well as it should.
We are talking about two years. I am sure that hon. Members will have concerns about the kids who drop out of education in a school setting, maybe going into colleges or apprenticeships. If they missed out in this academic year, will they get the opportunity to catch up in following years in different educational settings? That is my concern with the programme: its aims are noble and its impact will be big, but will we actually get to every single child in those areas?
I will talk about some of my other pet peeves, which the Minister knows I am a fan of doing. If we are really going to sort out education, we need a standardised national written test in every school for all year groups—from reception to year 11—so that everyone does the same. At primary, it would be literacy and numeracy, and at secondary, it would be English, maths and science, so that we would have some actual data on the full impact of loss of learning. That would help schools to understand what they need to do to help their students catch up in the long term. I believe that a lot of kids will catch up much quicker than we think. Children are remarkably resilient, which I know, having been a balding head of year. I have just seen a shot of the back of my head on the screens here, and the balding is quite concerning. I think the kids might have accelerated that, and the receding hairline that my father has at 65 but which I have managed to achieve at 31.
I believe that kids are remarkably resilient. Being back in a school setting, in a routine, back among their peers and friends, and with their teachers, whom they trust and respect, will go a long way to rebalancing children overall, and mental health support can go where it is most needed. There is a huge pot of money in the sugar tax. I know that it has been put into school sports, but mental health and CAMHS is where that money should go, particularly in the short-term, but perhaps we could look at that in the longer-term, because there will be some mental health challenges. That does not necessarily mean that every children will need one-to-one support, but that sugar tax money could certainly unlock some small group work that could be really positive. The standardised test, as I said, is really important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who is a fine speaker on issues of education, talked about sports facilities and the use of the school building. Those buildings are huge community assets, but in the summer the gates are closed, and unless the school is able to rent out any of its space, it goes unused. That is a crying shame. We should be doing so much more with schools in the local area, using them as part of the summer catch-up programme and beyond, to allow youth groups and external agencies to save themselves the overhead costs from their own buildings and to fund revenue schemes for those kids.
My final plug is for the Challenger Trust, whose chief executive officer is Charlie Rigby. I will declare an interest: I was a councillor for him in the ward of Shipston-on-Stour a long time ago, in 2011. The Challenger Trust does amazing work in Gateshead and Birmingham. It costs a 17th of the National Citizen Service and one seventh of OnSide Youth Zones. Rather than directly running programmes, the Challenger Trust works with local partnerships to support school leaders to choose programmes that have the maximum impact in extra-curricular opportunities. It takes children out of their schools and local areas to experience the things that people like me, who went to private school, were privileged enough to experience. I want every child, in every part of this country, to be able to access those same extra-curricular opportunities. That can be achieved only if we find more sustainable long-term funding solutions. Although the NCS is an admirable project, it is very much a short-term project for the summer, and it tends to attract, in my opinion, a lot of middle-class and upper-class children, and does not get into the deprived communities that desperately need it.
Overall, the petitioners—bless them—have done some really good work. Obviously, the Government have well and truly answered their questions well in advance. All I can say is that the teaching profession is an amazing profession—I loved being part of it for eight years—but it has been reputationally damaged. That is not the fault of teachers; the Department for Education needs to bear some responsibility for the fact that it has not always communicated in a timely fashion, which has put school leaders in a difficult situation because they are getting last-minute mixed messages, which causes difficulty with parents.
My biggest criticism, however, is of the National Education Union, which has been an absolute disgrace throughout this crisis, to be quite frank. It has been more interested in playing petty party politics than in getting schools reopen and actually helping the people it is meant to serve, who are children and teachers, all of whom wanted to be back in school.
Dr Mary Bousted is on £180,000-plus a year. Kevin Courtney is on over £200,000 a year—well above what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom earns. I have said it on my social media, I have said it on radio interviews with Talk Radio, and I will say it in this Westminster Hall debate so that it is a matter of record in Hansard: they must resign with immediate effect. They have failed the teaching profession. They have failed the children whom those teachers are serving. They have damaged the reputation of the profession and led to the impression that teachers somehow went missing in this crisis, which could not be further from the truth.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, and it is great to be back in a Westminster Hall debate, even if we are not back in Westminster Hall. These are great opportunities not just to discuss in usually a more collegial and convivial way some of the big challenges facing our country but, as we are seeing now, for members of the public to get their voice heard on issues that concern them.
Clearly, lots of water has gone under the bridge since the petitions reached the threshold for debate. Some of the issues that I will touch briefly on before focusing my remarks mainly on exams will be familiar to Members right across the House, but I will repeat them none the less for the benefit of the petitioners. Obviously, lots of people were concerned about the safety of schools and the safe opening of schools. We saw in a number of petitions, not least these, a clamour for schools to be closed. I have to say, particularly in the light of the lived experience of children and young people during the course of lockdown, closing schools ought to be the very last resort, and they should be the last thing to close and the first to reopen. We know that any time out of school, let alone the significant time out of school that children and young people have had, can have a detrimental impact in terms of both learning and their mental health and wellbeing.
Despite the best efforts of schools to keep children learning from home, we know that none the less some children from certain backgrounds and with certain challenges have faced a much more difficult time in accessing online learning, not least because even as schools returned last week the Department for Education was just about scraping in with its own target of getting laptops and devices out to children and young people. Tens of thousands of children are still without the devices they needed, and hundreds of thousands of children are receiving the devices far later than they should have.
None the less, there have been some concerns about safety in the classroom, both from children and young people and from staff working in schools. We believe that the Government really should have done a lot more a lot sooner on that front. I am delighted to see mass testing being rolled out and I hope that it continues to be a success in the way that we have heard described in this debate. Indeed, we called for mass testing to be rolled out late last year, so it is disappointing that it took until this point in 2021 for mass testing to be rolled out.
We also think that the Government missed a significant opportunity to vaccinate all school staff during the half-term. President Biden’s Administration are currently in the process of vaccinating teachers. We were pushing for that not simply on the grounds of safety but because, as I think we are already beginning to see, there is still a challenge of keeping children in school learning. One of the biggest challenges that headteachers had, particularly when schools returned in September, was staff shortages, with teachers going off sick themselves. We think that the Government ought to have vaccinated all staff, and we regret that that has not happened.
I am afraid to say that we still see too many examples of schools being short-changed when it comes to safety measures. Indeed, schools in my constituency have written to me because the funding that they have shelled out for personal protective equipment and other safety measures is not being reimbursed by the Department for Education. What does that mean? It means headteachers robbing Peter to pay Paul—taking funding from one area of the school budget and putting it into these extraordinary safety measures. That is a source of deep regret.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the schools that were in sound financial places pre-pandemic have been hit hardest when it comes to the financial support that they have received, which has been very little. That has meant that a lot of them have ended up eating into their reserves and their positive bank balances. Does he agree that those schools, which will now be judged by Ofsted and could potentially receive an inadequate rating for their finances, need to be reimbursed, particularly when cleaning costs in some schools are up to £4,000 a month?
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact that these are cross-party concerns should tell the Minister that there is a problem here that still needs to be addressed. These are extraordinary, one-off costs. I want to see every penny of schools’ budgets being directed to learning and teaching, and providing the support that pupils need, not least given the disruption to their education over the last year. It is regrettable if headteachers are having to raid budgets that would normally be going towards pupils’ education to fund safety measures. I hope the Minister will take that point away and reconsider.
I want to address the points about exams. Before I do that, I am afraid I have to start disagreeing with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). He made a number of partisan attacks on the National Education Union, which was not helpful. We are in the middle of a national crisis and education unions, whether they are representing teaching staff, support staff or staff in leadership positions, have a responsibility to speak up for the concerns of their members.
Whether it is the National Education Union, the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, the Voice section of Community, Unite, Unison or the GMB, all of whom represent staff in schools, they have tried to convey the concerns of their members in a responsible way, to which we, as policy makers, should pay attention. That does not mean that we always agree with them; indeed, there have been points during the pandemic when we have not been on the same page as the National Education Union and where the unions have not been on the same page as each other. That is the nature of representative trade unions representing the concerns of their members.
Given the extraordinary challenges we have seen and the level of stress and anxiety faced by staff, what we have had from the education unions during the pandemic has been measured—sometimes robust, but none the less measured—reflections of their members’ concerns. I do not think it is helpful to attack them in the way we have just seen.
I turn to the issue of exams and what needs to be done. The overarching message is that the Minister and the Department have to learn lessons from the mistakes that they have been making throughout the pandemic. First and foremost, we want to avoid a repeat of last year’s shambles. The Government’s grading algorithm was an unmitigated disaster. About 40% of teacher A-level predictions in England were downgraded by the algorithm. Pupils from working-class backgrounds were more likely to have seen a bigger downward adjustment from the algorithm than those from more affluent backgrounds, and the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and those who were not got significantly higher in terms of the number of A grades received.
There is something to learn from that whole miserable experience in terms of how the Secretary of State for Education himself handled it. He put alternatives to the algorithm in place at the very last minute and announced that the system would be switched to a triple lock before Ofqual had signed it off. Indeed, Ofqual was told about the plan only on 11 August, two days before results day— talk about lastminute.com. Through his triple lock, the Education Secretary said students could use a valid mock, but he did not direct Ofqual to consider what might constitute a valid mock until results day itself. Again, that is not just last minute, but after the event. Only after several days of chaos did the Education Secretary relent and revert to using unstandardised centre assessed grades.
Having had that awful experience and put young people and their teachers through real chaos and anxiety after A-level results day, the Government have been slow again to plan for this year’s exams, even after last year’s shambles. It was not until October last year that the Government announced a three-week delay for exams in 2021. We said then that the Government ought to have a plan B in place just in case exams could not take place—if the spread of the virus was such that exams as usual could not happen—but the Government did not act. Even when the Government cancelled exams in January, they still did not have a plan B. That should have been done months before, as we had called for.
There was also the BTEC fiasco. We had just an appalling situation in which, even as the Education Secretary announced that all schools were to close at the beginning of January—having just summoned millions of children back into school for the day—he caused additional stress and confusion by insisting that BTEC exams to be taken that month, and indeed some that week, ought to go ahead.
With regard to BTECs, will the hon. Gentleman not agree that even though students were brought in for those exams, they were actually for courses and subjects in which exams are required to have been taken in order for them to get the qualification and therefore give employers the confidence that they have the necessary skills to carry out their duties? It is something that they legally have to do. A subject such as English or maths is obviously a very different thing altogether.
The problem with the BTEC handling back in January was that the Department was saying two things at the same time. It was saying that these BTEC exams were going ahead, but then, following an outcry and concerns about whether that would be safe, it said:
“In light of the evolving public health measures”—
I am quoting from the DFE statement—
“schools and colleges can continue with the vocational and technical exams that are due to take place in January, where they judge it right to do so.”
That just added to the confusion and chaos. The issue was not just pupils sitting at home, trying to prepare for exams that were taking place literally the next day or in the coming days; it was also that their teachers were unable to give clear answers. This goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North raised about the invidious position that school leaders and teachers have been put in by the chaos and confusion and dither and delay that have come out of the DFE. They were not clear on what was going on—the communication was poor for them—so the very people to whom students usually look to provide clear answers and strong advice and leadership simply were not able to provide it, through no fault of their own.
That left us in the absurd situation in which, according to the Education Secretary, about a third of colleges chose to continue with exams in January, while the rest did not. He then backtracked and cancelled BTEC exams in February and March. Again, he eventually got to the right decision, but why did he not see it coming and why could he not take decisive action in a way that told all students and all staff exactly where they stood and what he planned to do about it?
Let me turn now to some of the other challenges facing us ahead of assessments this summer. The first is on private candidates. There has been concern, throughout the changes to examinations, that about 20,000 private candidates not affiliated with schools and colleges this year will be disadvantaged. Many students have been told that they have to pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds for local exam centres and schools to assess them, and schools do not necessarily have the resources to do that. Again, more for the benefit of people watching the debate than people in the Chamber, I point out that we are not talking about privately educated students; we are talking about private candidates, who are entering themselves privately for examinations. Many of these private candidates are students who were not happy with their centre assessed grades last year. They feel that they are being denied the opportunity to take exams and prove that they deserve better grades. They are worried about whether they are even going to get a centre to take them on.
I acknowledge that today there has been an announcement from the Department that schools will receive a subsidy for every private candidate who is entered for a qualification. I think that that will go some way to incentivising centres to take these students on. I am concerned that, in relation to a very small number of subjects but none the less a number of subjects, the fees to enter students for these exams are more than the £200 that I think the Department is offering. Could the Minister speak to that point in particular?
I wonder, because this is the question that we are getting from students, what consideration the Department and Ofqual gave to allowing private candidates to sit some form of exams. The Minister will understand that the concern of these students is that a system that relies on teacher assessment will be inherently disadvantageous or, perhaps, practically impossible if the centre does not have a relationship with the private candidates.
These are just some of the quotes that I have from private candidates expressing their concerns. One told PoliticsHome:
“With the promise of 2021 exams, I was hopeful that I could redeem myself in my other two A Levels…It’s clear that the government thinks of us as afterthoughts…We’re not just going to sit back whilst they toy with our futures. We want a solution that works for everybody.”
Another student who was downgraded last year said:
“I decided to put my life on hold for another year and resit my exams this summer as the university kindly reinstated my offer. I made the decision not to give up on my dreams and not settle for a grade I strongly believed was too low. I put an extreme amount of effort into revising everyday so that I am able to move on…I am absolutely devastated for private and resit candidates that exams have been cancelled again this year as they are, in vast majority of cases, not able to get a [teacher-assigned] grade.”
Will the Minister explain to those students the practical challenges of their being able to sit an exam? What reassurance can he provide that they will be able to sign up with another school, college or assessment centre and receive a properly validated grade that reflects their abilities and efforts in the way that they hope, as students who are resitting?
My final point about this year’s exams is about the immense pressure that we are already beginning to see inflicted on teachers and headteachers as a result of the appeals system that seems to have been outlined in the guidance. One of my own secondary schools wrote to me quoting the guidance, which says:
“To reduce the number of errors made and, in turn the volume of appeals, centres will be expected to tell their students the evidence on which their grades will be based, before the grades are submitted to exam boards. This will allow issues associated with, for example, absence, illness or reasonable adjustments to be identified and resolved before grades are submitted.”
There is something to commend in the approach that students must understand the basis on which they are being judged—of course, that is absolutely right. It is also absolutely right that mitigating factors ought to be taken into account, and in a transparent way. However, I think we are all concerned about the implication that pupils or pushy parents with sharp elbows will be able to—picking up on reasonable adjustments in particular—effectively demand from teachers and headteachers different grades from the ones the teacher has judged to be right. That puts schools in a really invidious position.
By the way, this should be regarded as a gentle warning to those who regularly make demands for a whole series of exams to be scrapped that the grass is not always greener on the other side. This is not to say that teacher judgment cannot play a role, but leaving a system significantly to teacher judgment in the way that this has been puts enormous pressure on teachers. My concern is that it will also bake in deeper disadvantage because sharp-elbowed middle-class parents will be in there demanding adjustments to grades, and other parents will not. I wonder what the Minister might say in response to that, in terms of the approach to this year’s exams.
Finally, on next year’s exams, if the Education Secretary has not learned from the absolute fiasco last summer and the absolute fiasco in January, and the completely last-minute way in which he made a decision about exams in 2021, please, for the love of God, I hope he has made some judgments about exams in 2022. We already have students on GCSE, A-level and BTEC courses expecting to sit exams in 2022. There is simply no good reason why the Department for Education and Ofqual should not be able to tell those students what exams in 2022 will look like.
Indeed, Ofqual’s acting chief regulator, Simon Lebus, told the Education Committee last week:
“So far as 2022 is concerned, the thinking at the moment is about adaptations along the line that had originally been contemplated for this year, when exams were still to go ahead.”
Furthermore, the Minister for School Standards said:
“We are working now on what decisions we will take for 2022, because we know there has been disruption, but we will have more to say on that later in the year.”
I am afraid that “later in the year” is really not good enough. It is really inexplicable—these issues and the choices available to exam boards and Ministers about mitigations and adjustments to exams are well known and were debated and discussed ahead of exams potentially taking place in 2021. Why are these decisions not ready to go? Why are we not providing clarity and certainty to schools, teachers and students, who are crying out for them? I find it unfathomable that we are not providing clear instruction and guidance to students who are on these courses right now, wondering what they should be studying for and towards, and what their exams will look like.
Of course, adjustments are necessary. Looking at the Department’s own data, we estimated that year 10 pupils have missed one in eight days of GCSE teaching. The situation may not be quite so severe at A-level because we always expect there to be a greater degree of independent learning, but none the less there will be some degree of learning loss, and we know that the challenges faced by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be greater.
Last week, I met school leaders from Newham sixth forms. Both the principals present were very clear that scant information is coming from the Government and that they need certainty now. Uncertainty is piling on the pressure facing pupils and their teachers. The longer Ministers dither and delay, the harder it will be to make meaningful adjustments for exams to go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils.
Ministers need to learn from their mistakes and act sooner, rather than later. If the Education Secretary did not feel battered and bruised from his previous encounters with exams, and motivated to do something different, something earlier and something decisive, there really is no hope for him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Robertson.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on how he opened the debate. I am sure he will join me in recognising the enormous professionalism and commitment of school staff working in our schools and with their students throughout the lockdown to continue education and progress towards assessments, whether students were being taught on site or remotely.
Today we are debating four petitions and it is worth noting that the context has changed significantly since they were first submitted. Two of them are about school reopening for the majority of pupils and students. One requests a delay to full opening until May and the other requests that schools in what were previously tier 4 areas remain closed to the majority of pupils.
Secondly, there are two petitions focusing on exams. One requests that BTECs be assessed by teacher-predicted grades, while the other requests cancellation of the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams. Finally, I want to outline higher education recovery plans, to demonstrate the further work being developed to help pupils and students to recover any lost learning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich is right that we need to be cautious about over-generalising about how children have fared during lockdown. He is also right to raise the issue of special educational needs and the impact of covid on the most vulnerable children. Special schools, of course, have mostly been open to pupils during lockdown. We have consistently prioritised specialist settings in our recovery premiums. Both special schools and alternative provision will be funded to provide summer schools and the national tutoring programme. We have also announced a £42 million package of continued support for children with SEND and their families during this difficult period.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) raised the issue of pupil mental health. We know that the pandemic is impacting children’s mental health and that, for most pupils, time out of school will have limited their social interaction. That is why the Government are continuing to prioritise mental health and wellbeing support for children and staff as they return to school. The Department has convened a mental health in education action group to consider how to support children and young people’s mental health as they return to school. That will build on the support provided through the Wellbeing for Education Return training programme.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) asked about face coverings. We have published a summary of the evidence as schools opened. They are one more measure in a system of controls designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. SAGE has advised that face coverings can be effective in reducing transmission in public and community settings. Their effectiveness stems mostly from reducing the emission of virus-carrying particles when worn by an infected person.
Although some have been anxious about the return to school from 8 March, returning to face-to-face education in schools and colleges is a national priority. The return to school last week was a huge success, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) celebrated in his remarks. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the teachers and support staff who have worked so hard in preparing schools, as well as in providing remote education while most pupils were at home.
I saw first-hand, on the Friday before the schools opened on 8 March, a school in Portsmouth preparing for that return—getting children tested, even in the week before schools opened, in a systematic and organised way. On Monday, I visited a primary school in Streatham and saw the joy on the children’s faces as they returned to school and to being with their friends.
There is clear evidence that time out of education can be detrimental to children’s future prospects and earning potential, with implications also for the long-term productivity of the economy. By February half-term, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that the total loss in face-to-face education time was half a normal school year for children right across the UK. Despite huge efforts across industry and the Government to ensure that all pupils had appropriate technology for remote teaching, such as the 1.2 million laptops and tablets that have been delivered to date to schools, trusts and local authorities, pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected by the lack of digital equipment and study space to participate effectively.
Younger pupils have also found it more challenging to engage in remote education. Schools, teachers and parents have worked tirelessly to continue the education of their pupils and students, but there is no substitute for time with a qualified teacher. The negative effects are also likely to extend beyond educational attainment, with NHS research suggesting that one in six young people may now have a mental health problem, up from one in nine in 2017.
The vaccination roll-out has been successful: 24 million people in this country have been vaccinated and, as Sam Freedman has pointed out, in countries of over 10 million people we are the world’s leader by a margin in having such a successful roll-out. That success means that infections and hospitalisations are falling, paving the way for the safe and gradual lifting of restrictions. We are also heading into the spring, when we would expect the prevalence of respiratory diseases to fall.
Although restrictions on attendance in schools have been removed, other restrictions remain in place to ensure that transmission rates remain low across the country. It is hugely important, of course, that we all continue to obey those restrictions. In addition, schools will continue to implement protective measures as set out in the system of controls. Regular testing of children further reduces the risk of transmission in schools.
In relation to remaining open in areas previously categorised as tier 4, as mentioned in one of the petitions, I note that we are seeing significant decreases in cases across almost all parts of the country and all age groups. In the absence of significant regional disparity, the Government decided to ease restrictions at the same time across the whole of England. Due to the current, relatively uniform spread of the virus across the country, the four steps out of lockdown set out in the road map are designed to apply to all regions.
We have been clear, however, that the return is dependent on the data against the four tests, as set out in the road map. The road map therefore gives indicative “no earlier than” dates for the steps, which are five weeks apart. Those dates are wholly contingent on the data and are subject to change if those four tests are not met.
I turn to exams. We did not want to cancel exams in either 2020 or 2021. We believe that exams are the best and fairest form of assessment for students to show what they know and what they can do. It was only in the unprecedented circumstances of the outbreak of covid that we had to make the very difficult decision to cancel exams as part of the wider measures to protect public health. This year, under different circumstances, the decision that exams could no longer go ahead as planned was made to ensure fairness among an exam cohort who had received differing amounts of face-to-face education, given the further disruption to students’ education in January and the varying need in different parts of the country to self-isolate during the autumn term. This summer, we will trust teachers’ professional judgment to award grades based on a range of evidence.
We worked on the contingency for exams being cancelled during the autumn term, which is why Ofqual and the DFE were able to consult on the details of the alternative to exams on 15 January, just 11 days after the announcement of the lockdown. Ofqual launched a joint consultation with the DFE on 15 January, with details of how grades would be awarded, the quality assurance approaches that we would be taking and details of the appeals process. We have received more than 100,000 responses to the consultation, over half of which were from students. Students will now receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught, not what they missed. Teachers have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare with other students this year and in previous years.
We have given teachers the flexibility to use a range of evidence, including through the use of optional questions by exam boards, mock exams, non-exam assessment for coursework and in-class tests. My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich and for Stoke-on-Trent North asked for the exam material to be a mandatory part of the range of evidence that teachers will use to support the grade that they submit. We asked in the consultation whether such materials should be compulsory, and the optionality option was the overwhelming response. As I said last week to the Select Committee, we did not want to introduce a mini-exam by the back door, having just cancelled exams because they were not a fair way to assess people’s qualifications.
We want teachers to feel supported while making their decisions and will provide guidance to enable them to make assessments fairly and consistently. There will be internal and external quality assurance processes to identify errors and make consistent judgments. To support students who believe that their final grade is wrong, there will be a right to appeal. We also want to be fair to all students, regardless of the type of qualification they are taking.
We announced on 25 February the arrangements this summer for awarding vocational and technical qualifications that are similar to GCSEs and A-levels and that use progression to further or higher education. External exams for those qualifications are not viable; instead, results will be awarded through similar arrangements to those for GCSEs and A-levels. There will be teacher-assessed grades, and many BTECs will therefore receive teacher-assessed grades as well. Functional skills qualifications are unlike GCSEs and VTQs in their qualification and assessment structure. They are taken by a wide range of pupils and students, including adults. Some VTQ courses are much smaller than those for GCSE and can be taken on demand when the students are ready. Therefore, all efforts should be made to allow pupils and students to take an assessment in line with public health measures or remotely. Where that is not possible, teacher-assessed grades will be made available for awarding.
Where students are taking vocational qualifications to enter employment directly and where technical competence needs to be demonstrated, exams and assessments will continue in line with public health measures. That is so that students can demonstrate the necessary occupational or professional standard and start work in a safe way.
The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) raised the issue of private candidates. We are determined to ensure that private candidates can receive a grade this year. We are capping the fees that centres can charge and subsidising the extra costs that schools will face in assembling the evidence to support a grade. The Joint Council for Qualifications will shortly publish a list of schools and colleges that will provide support to private candidates in being awarded a qualification.
We recognise that extended school and college restrictions have had a substantial impact on children and young people’s education, and we are committed to helping pupils to make up any education lost as a result of the pandemic. No pupil’s long-term prospects should suffer as a consequence of what has happened over the last year. In January 2021, the Prime Minister committed to working with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to support schools and pupils to make up that lost education. As part of this, in February we appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner, to advise on the approach to education recovery and the development of a long-term plan to help pupils make up lost education.
As an immediate step, we have made available funding of £1.7 billion to support education recovery. In June 2020, we announced, as part of that £1.7 billion, a £1 billion catch-up package, including a national tutoring programme and a catch-up premium for this academic year. In February, we committed a further £702 million to fund summer schools, expand our tutoring programme and fund a recovery premium for the next academic year. That £702 million is also part of the £1.7 billion. Over this Parliament, as we continue to learn and understand what more is needed to help students to recover lost education, we will ensure that support is delivered in a way that works for young people and for the sector.
The return to school on 8 March was, rightly, the first step in our road map to recovery and it has been successfully delivered, thanks to education staff across the country, with primary attendance high and secondary school attendance rising steadily throughout the week. We will continue to be led by the data when taking each step in the road map, and there are contingencies in place if any actions need to be taken in the event of extremely high prevalence of coronavirus over the coming months. GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels have been cancelled for summer 2021, along with many BTECs and other VTQs, with students instead being awarded grades based on assessment by their teachers.
Education recovery is a firm focus of the Government, with the appointment of the education recovery commissioner and the announcement of increased funding to enable a variety of activities to help with refreshing the academic and social lives of pupils and students. School and college staff have been asked rapidly to become IT experts, health and safety experts, test facilitators and examiners this year. I would like to finish by once again thanking them wholeheartedly for all their work, their commitment and their professionalism.
It is still a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, as it was at the start. I thank the Minister for his response, which was comprehensive and certainly addressed many of the points that I raised. There is a problem with some petitions in particular, in that there has been a lot of water under the bridge, but a lot of hon. Members dwelled on the petition on exams and assessment. I hope that many of their concerns have been alleviated.
I appreciate that there was a consultation and that a decision was made that tests should not be mandatory, but I hope that means that any children who could benefit from a test do not feel that they are being shut out. If a child and/or their parents go to a teacher and say, “Look, we really do think that our child could benefit from having a test,” I hope that the teacher will be responsive and listen. I understand why it is not compulsory, but I hope there will be flexibility.
I hope that teachers exercise flexibility as well and are sensitive to the fact that not all children are the same, not all of them learn in the same way and some benefit more than others from exams. I am encouraged by a lot of what I have heard from the Minister, and from the recovery commissioner when he came to the Education Committee, about giving teachers flexibility and respecting that they often know best for their children and that the individual child needs to be at the heart of all this.
In terms of the teaching profession, the issues of recruitment and retention, which were issues before the pandemic, are obviously even greater now. I have been encouraged by some of the stats I have seen. The number of applications has gone up. In many senses we could say that the behaviour of certain unions has not helped, but in other respects we have often seen teachers acting heroically, in terms of the work they have put in to get their schools ready. Certainly, schools and teachers in my own constituency have worked to provide support beyond the academic. I mentioned Copleston High School in east Ipswich, which has set up a community pop-up shop to help children at the school, and some of the work that has been done is exceptional. In some senses, I think the way that people perceive the teaching profession has gone up, but those issues around teacher recruitment and retention are obviously very important and need to be looked at.
I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to be an education Minister over the last year. No Government have been in this position before, and of course it is very easy to criticise. It is very easy to say, “Well, in hindsight, you should have done this and you should have done that.” That is not to say that the Government have not made mistakes. It is not to say that, on occasion, they could have been better with the comms. It is just to say that I think it is important that we recognise the huge challenge of what it must be to be an education Minister during this pandemic.
When I talk to parents and teachers, there have been occasions when we have had difficult conversations. They have criticised the Government, and they have criticised various things that have happened—January being one case, the algorithm being another—but I have to say that in the last couple of weeks I have had two conversations with two headteachers who have been incredibly complimentary about many of the things that have happened.
When we talk about the laptops getting out, bearing in mind the scale of the operational logistics, sadly there will be examples when not all that equipment got to where it needed to be, but I would also say that more often than not it has, and I have spoken to headteachers in my constituency who have been incredibly grateful for that, including the headteacher of Stoke High School, which probably has the most deprived catchment in Ipswich. He has had hundreds of laptops delivered, which have benefited children at that school. That is something that I also think needs to be recognised.
I know that there is a bit of a debate about the National Education Union, and I have to say that I probably sympathise with the interpretation of that particular issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). This has been an incredibly difficult situation for pupils, for teachers, for schools and for the Government, and I think that at various times the National Education Union could have acted in a much more constructive way, but unfortunately it has not. Because of that, I think it has made a difficult situation even more difficult, and I think it has been motivated by political point-scoring far too much. I sometimes question whether schools would have been open at all over the last year if it had had its way. They probably would have been closed, and they would still be closed now.
When it comes to teachers being prioritised for a vaccine, I have to say that I was sympathetic to the arguments, particularly before it became clear what a huge success our vaccination programme is. I thought we just needed to get the schools open. If doing that helps the situation, let us go down that route. Publicly, I have sympathy for that view. I had one school in my constituency approach me to say, “Look, logistically, we think we can do it. We’ve got all the resources. If we can get the vaccine, we think we can vaccinate all teaching staff in Suffolk within two weeks.” I was open to working with that school. What was really interesting is that this all ended up in the Mail on Sunday, and there were some quotes in there from the NEU, totally dismissing it.
Here is an example of people in the education sector wanting to roll their sleeves up and say, “Right, let’s do this,” and just being shot down by the NEU, which effectively said that all teaching staff need both doses. That was my interpretation of what it was saying. If it had had its way, there would not be any schools open until every single member of the teaching staff had had two doses—how long would that take?
There has been anxiety from teachers in my constituency about the fact that they have not been prioritised for the vaccine. They have made it clear to me that, heading up to 8 March, that was one of their key concerns, but I think that with each day and each week that goes by, and given the remarkable progress that we are making as a country in the number of people we are vaccinating, those concerns are being alleviated. As we vaccinate more people in their 50s, and soon those in their 40s, most teaching staff who would have been more vulnerable to the virus have been vaccinated as part of the general process anyway. I think that is to be recognised, as is the fact that we are doing so much better than almost any other country in the world.
On the whole, we need consistency and clarity going forward, particularly on next year’s assessments, as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) mentioned. We should provide clarity and consistency as early as possible. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said about having a national test to get a much better understanding of the extent to which there has been learning loss, and for each child, because we cannot make assumptions about what their particular experience has been.
We have a huge challenge ahead of us, but I am confident that the Government are very aware of that. I hope that the petitioners who signed these petitions, though perhaps not looking at this debate and thinking—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).