I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 705) dated 15 June 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15 June, be approved.
With this we shall debate the following motion:
(1) the Order of 2 June 2020 (Proceedings during the pandemic (No. 2)), as amended on 1 July, 2 September and 22 October 2020 and 25 March, the Order of 4 June 2020 (Virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic), as amended on 1 July, 2 September, 22 October and 30 December 2020 and 25 March, and the Orders of 23 September 2020 (Proxy voting during the pandemic), 3 November 2020 (Proxy voting during the pandemic (No. 2)), and 25 February (Sittings in Westminster Hall during the pandemic), as amended on 25 March, shall have effect until 22 July;
(2) the Order of 24 March 2020 (Select Committees (Participation and Reporting) (Temporary Order)) be amended as follows:
leave out paragraph (4) and insert “(4) this Order shall have effect until 22 July 2021.”
I bring to the House these regulations to change the date of implementation of step 4 of the Government’s road map. On 8 December last year, we fired the starting gun on the race between the vaccine and the virus and started delivering a programme that has allowed us to restore so many of the precious freedoms that we cherish. In the space of just six months, we have now given first doses of coronavirus vaccines to almost four in five adults in the UK, and we have given second doses to over 30 million people. We have made such rapid progress through the cohorts that, today, we are able to extend the offer of a vaccine to anyone aged 21 and over.
Thanks to the protection of the vaccination programme, huge advances in treatments like dexamethasone, which was discovered a year ago today, and the resolve of the British people in following the rules that this House has laid down, we have been able to take the first three steps on our road map, removing restrictions and restoring colour to the nation, but we have always said that we would take each step at a time and look at the data and our four tests before deciding whether to proceed. The regulations before the House today put into effect our decision to pause step 4 on our roadmap until 19 July. Before outlining the regulations that will put this into effect, I would like to set out why we made this difficult but essential decision.
Unfortunately, there has been a significant change since we started on our journey down the road map in February. A new variant has given the virus extra legs, both because it spreads more easily and because there is some evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the alpha variant, which was, of course, previously dominant in this country. The delta variant now accounts for 96% of new cases. The number of cases is rising and hospitalisations are starting to rise, too—they are up 48% over the past week. The number of deaths in England is thankfully not rising and remains very low, but, as I told the House on Monday, we do not yet know the extent to which the link between hospitalisations and deaths has been broken, so we propose to give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.
Although we are taking the steps outlined in the regulations today, and I know this is disappointing for many people, we know that science has given us a solution. We must use this time to protect as many people as we can as quickly as we can, because even though the vaccination programme has been going at a blistering pace, there are still people who we must protect.
Can I just ask my right hon. Friend what we expect to achieve in the four weeks? I think I am right in saying that there are 1.3 million people in priority groups one to nine who have yet to have a second dose of the vaccination. The good point is that that means we have vaccinated 96% of people in those groups, but I just wonder—after four weeks, I doubt that we will get to 100%, so there will still be a significant number of people in those groups not vaccinated with two doses, and at that point, there is still going to be some risk. My worry, and the worry of others, is that we are going to get to this point in four weeks’ time and we will just be back here all over again extending the restrictions. That is what we are concerned about.
No—on the contrary, that is our view of how far through the vaccination programme we need to get. We are not aiming to eradicate the virus in this country because that is not possible. Indeed, in the parts of the country where it has been tried, it has been found to be not possible. We are aiming to live with this virus like we do with flu. I can give my right hon. Friend an update: as of midnight last night, 1.2 million over-50s and 4.4 million over-40s have had their first jab, but not their second. We seek to get a second jab into a majority—not all, but a majority—of them by 19 July. The estimate is that by taking that pause in this step, we can save thousands of lives. I can tell my right hon. Friend that taking further time and pausing for longer is not estimated to save many more lives, because of the level of protection especially among the over-50s, who are, as we all know, the most likely to die from this disease.
The Secretary of State knows that I broadly agree with what he is doing today. He referred just now to us having to live with the virus as we do with flu. With flu, we do not require people to self-isolate, and we do not ask them to test and trace. My understanding is that the Government intend to keep test and trace on a mandatory, statutory basis all the way through the rest of this year and possibly until the end of March—or am I wrong?
With flu, of course, if people have symptomatic flu and are ill, they do tend to stay at home. Of course we have not done that on a mandatory basis before, but it is advisable that if people have symptoms of flu, they stay at home. For contacts, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we are already piloting an approach whereby instead of having to isolate as contacts, vaccinated people go into a testing regime. That is an approach that I am very attracted to for the future, especially as more and more people get vaccinated, because we know that the risk once vaccinated is so much lower.
We are accelerating the second doses, and we are reducing from 12 weeks to eight weeks the time from first to second jab for all those aged 40 and above. In fact, since I came to this House on Monday, I have rearranged my second jab to be eight weeks rather than 12 weeks after my first.
Me too—I have rearranged mine for tomorrow morning, in line with my right hon. Friend’s advice.
Further to the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), it is very clear that the regulations will be passed by the House today. Regulation 2(3) talks about substituting 18 July for 30 June, and the Prime Minister talked about 19 July being a “terminus”. The definition of a terminus is the end point—the end of the line. Would the Secretary of State categorise it in exactly those terms? I think our constituents want to know what 19 July means that 21 June did not.
Can my right hon. Friend give us a little more information about the rise in hospitalisations that he mentioned? Of those who are being hospitalised, how many are in the younger age group who were not yet eligible for the vaccine, and how many are above that age—in other words, those who were able to get the vaccine but chose not to?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. The answer is that the majority are in the younger age group who have not yet had the chance to be vaccinated. Just under one fifth of those going into hospital in the last week have had both jabs, about a fifth have had one jab and the majority have not had any. The majority are under the age of 50 and have not yet had the opportunity to have both jabs. I think there is a material difference when it comes to the state’s responsibility to offer the vaccine to all adults. The duty that we have when somebody has not been offered the vaccine is greater than the duty we have when we have offered a vaccine but somebody has chosen not to take it up. There is a material difference between those two situations that I think my right hon. Friend was getting at.
May I just take what our right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) said one step further? If I choose not to have, say, a yellow fever jab when I am going to a place that suffers yellow fever, the Government of the United Kingdom take no interest whatever in my illness status. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says that he has less of a duty, surely what he means is that he has no duty at all. It is for people to take up the vaccine.
Up to a point, and the point is that, should that be taken as an absolute principle, there is a challenge should there be an overwhelming demand on the NHS that would impact on others. Of course, with a communicable disease, there is an impact on others in terms of spreading the disease, so we do have to have an eye to that. That is why I phrased it as I did, but in terms of my right hon. Friend’s argument, I think she and I concur on the broad thrust of the case being made.
My point is slightly niche. The reason why we developed all the vaccines was that thousands of Brits volunteered to trial them. There are now a number who trialled vaccines that are not yet approved, such as the Valneva vaccine, and who therefore cannot use the NHS app and some other things. Should they go for two shots of another vaccine, or will the Health Department take that into account?
Being certified as having had a vaccine includes being on a vaccine clinical trial. The deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has written to participants in vaccine clinical trials, who are doing, as my right hon Friend says, a great service to their country and indeed to the world by offering themselves to have an unlicensed vaccine in order to check that it works. I am very grateful to all of them. We will not put them in a more difficult position because of that.
We will make sure that when it comes to someone proving that they have been certified as vaccinated, being on a clinical trial counts as certified and continues to count as certified during a grace period after they are unblinded, so that if they are in the placebo arm, they can get both jabs and will not be disadvantaged for being on the clinical trial. That is a very important point. I am very glad that right hon. Friend raises it. If anybody from any part of the House gets that question from a constituent, please point them to the comprehensive letter by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam that explains and reassures.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. May I commend him for the efforts he has put in to keeping colleagues informed and responding to their questions along the way? It has been extremely good. Can I press him on this two-week break point that he and the Prime Minister have referred to? What underpins that? Is it simply a desire to get through a certain number of vaccinations—a figure that he presumably already knows? Or is it uncertainty over the data as it currently exists, because if it is, and given that this should be led by the data, there is every likelihood that in the next few days, we will get some indication as to whether the increase in the delta variant incidence is being translated into intensive care unit admissions and deaths? Can he give me and others considering how to vote this evening any comfort on that two-week point? If we have the sense that there may indeed be a genuine break at that point—if those cases do not translate into deaths or ICU admissions—we will be a little more comfortable.
As so often, my right hon. Friend, who is one of the most astute medical practitioners in this House—crikey, I could get myself into trouble there, because all the medical practitioners in this House are astute, but he is also a public health expert. I will start again. My right hon. Friend’s point was a really good one and very astute. He is exactly right about our approach: the two-week review is a data review.
Up to around 10 days to a week before the decision making cut-off for the proposal to take step 4 on 21 June, it looked like hospitalisations were staying flat, despite rising case rates. We did not know whether that was because of a lag or because there was now going to be no cases turning into hospitalisations. That remains the case now for the link to the number of people dying, because the number of people dying each day in England is actually slightly falling at the moment—thank goodness —and there has not been a rise in the number of deaths following the rise in the case rates, which started about three weeks ago. Within a couple of weeks, we will know whether that continues to be flat or whether it rises a little. It has risen a little in Scotland; I just put that warning out there. That is precisely the sort of data that we will be looking at at the two-week point. We have been absolutely clear that the goal on which we hang the decision ahead of 19 July is one of delivering the vaccines, and we have a very high degree of confidence that we can deliver the vaccines that we think are needed in order to be able to take step 4 on 19 July.
I hope that was a clear and comprehensive answer, once I untangled myself from my initial response to my right hon. Friend.
Is not the problem with the two-week checkpoint that it creates another moment of hope for people who still feel even these restrictions very acutely, and that if we create hope and then shift the goalposts again, people will continue to deepen their despair? What will he say to those people?
No, because I think people understand that we are putting forward the moments by which we can and then will make assessments according to the data. We have done that throughout. I think people get that and they understood that ahead of 21 June. I think people are smart enough to understand that distinction.
After this four-week pause, we will be in a stronger position—because of the vaccination rollout that we have been discussing—to keep hospitalisations down, and so to live with this disease and take that final step on the road map.
Let me turn to the regulations themselves, which put the pause into effect by amending the expiry date of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021, so that they expire at midnight on the evening of 18 July. To reflect this change, we also need to align the dates on several other covid regulations that are essential for keeping us safe, including: the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020; the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations, which give powers to manage local outbreaks by cancelling events and closing individual premises; and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement Powers and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, which give local authorities powers to enforce covid-secure measures for businesses. They will all be extended until midnight on 18 July.
We do not want to extend these sets of regulations a day longer than we have to and have always said that we would ease restrictions as soon as we were able to safely to do so. Even though we have put forward these regulations to pause step 4, we are also putting forward regulations to ease restrictions in some areas, allowing us to remove the 30-person gathering limit for weddings, receptions and commemorative events—subject, of course, to social distancing measures—and to run another phase of our pilots for large events at higher capacity, including some, such as the Wimbledon finals, at full capacity. Even though we have not been able to take the full step 4 as we wanted, the regulations will allow us to make some cautious changes that will bring some joy to many people and move us slightly further down the road to recovery.
Although the slight relaxing of things such as weddings is to be welcomed, certain other key life events have not been included. I am thinking of the likes of bar mitzvahs and baptisms, which mean so much to so many. Will my right hon. Friend look at those restrictions again, or even look at them at the two-week point, to see whether life events such as baptisms can be subject to reduced regulations?
I am happy to look at other life events, although not for the regulations that are before the House today, which are not open to amendment. I am happy to discuss other life events with my hon. Friend.
Let me turn to two other points before I close. First, let us look at the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The House has been determined to ensure that, even in the worst clutches of the pandemic, we have found a way that democracy can function and this House can perform its vital functions. Like everyone here, I miss the bustle and clamour of the Chamber when it is full. I cannot wait for the moment when we can all cram once more into our cockpit of democracy.
Just as we have extended other regulations, we propose extending the hybrid arrangements for the House until the House rises for summer recess on 22 July.
Yes, in a moment.
This will allow for proxy voting to continue along with virtual participation. Crucially, the regulations on the hybrid arrangements fall this summer recess, so when we return in September, we are confident that we can return in full, cheek by jowl once more. I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker—nor, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—but I cannot wait.
I would dearly love that, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who, as I well know, is an enthusiast. I would love it if we could make that so—let us see.
Finally, I want to tell the House about the results of our consultation on vaccination as a condition of deployment in care homes. After careful consultation, we have decided to take this proposal forward, to protect residents. The vast majority of staff in care homes are already vaccinated, but not all of them are. We know that the vaccine protects not only you, but those around you. Therefore we will be taking forward the measures to ensure the “mandation” as a condition of deployment for staff in care homes, and we will consult on the same approach in the NHS, in order to save lives and protect patients from disease.
Will the Secretary of State then explain to the House whether visitors to care homes or to hospitals will also require proof of vaccination? Will delivery drivers require it? Will others who provide other services to those care homes and hospitals require the same? Is he not now walking down the road of requiring mandatory vaccination for almost everyone?
The Secretary of State will also be aware that staff who provide domiciliary care in people’s homes—they potentially provide care to many people, going to many homes during the day—are also caring and present a similar challenge. It would be preferable, in the first instance, if we could get those vaccination rates up by education and persuasion. I am prepared, if that is not possible, and following the precedent we have in the NHS for those who perform operations and have to be vaccinated against hepatitis, to agree to this matter, but there is a real issue here with the millions of people who provide domiciliary care, who are often employed directly. How is that going to work and provide the level of protection required?
Yes, we do propose to consult on this point, alongside the consultation on mandatory vaccination as a condition of deployment in the NHS. As my right hon. Friend rightly says, this is a complicated operational matter. The principle of vaccination for those in a caring responsibility is already embedded, as he says; there is a history going back more than a century of vaccination being required in certain circumstances. I think these are reasonable circumstances, so we will go ahead for those who work in care homes and we will consult about those in domiciliary care and those working in the NHS. However, I have no proposals for going, and would not expect us to go, any wider.
I can understand why we would want especially to protect people in those circumstances, of course, but will the Secretary of State explain why it is not possible to maintain their right to choose not to be vaccinated by instead, for example, requiring daily lateral flow tests for workers in those industries?
I will not be joining the Secretary of State in the Lobby later on, partly for civil liberties reasons, but I do agree with what he is saying about vaccination. About four years ago, the Science and Technology Committee looked at the level of flu vaccination in care homes, which at that time was about 20%. Flu, like covid, is a killer of elderly people. Will he be looking to make not only covid vaccination, but flu vaccination a condition of employment?
As somebody who grew up right on the Welsh border, I entirely understand that. I am working with Baroness Morgan, the new Health Minister in the Welsh Government, to ensure that we have the interoperability that the hon. Gentleman calls for. That is a significant piece of work that is under way. We need to sort this for vaccine data flows, and frankly all health data flows, across the border, and use this particularly acute need to change the policy and practices, to sort this out once and for all.
The regulations before the House today are there in order to pursue our goal, as throughout, to work to protect lives and get us out of the pandemic as soon as is safely possible. I commend the motion to the House.
I begin by paying tribute to our much-missed friend and colleague Jo Cox. Jo was an internationalist, and I know that, if she were with us today, she would be rallying support not just across this country but through her international contacts for a campaign to vaccinate the world. She would remind us that we will defeat this virus only through our common endeavour. I think that all of us miss Jo and want to send our best wishes to her family today.
We will support the extension of restrictions in the Lobbies tonight, but we of course do so with a heavy heart. We are guided by data not dates, and we have to recognise the facts before us. The delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the alpha, and even with the current restrictions in place the daily total of positive cases has been rising, with a seven-day rolling average of more than 7,000 per day compared with around 2,000 per day in early May. That is beginning to translate into hospitalisations. With cases doubling every nine days, at the moment it looks like hospitalisations are also doubling. On 4 June, 96 people with covid were admitted; nine days later, 187 people were admitted—almost double. If that continues to double, within four sets of doublings we will be close to the April 2020 peak.
Given that we know that there is always a lag in the figures, we are no doubt likely to see around 250 admissions a day in 10 days’ time. We are seeing a third wave in the NHS. We need to do all that we can to stop hospitalisations rising, because this is a time of huge pressure on the national health service. We have lost a number of beds over the past 10 years, and because of the need for infection control measures we have fewer general and acute beds open today in the NHS as well. We are facing a monumental backlog in care, with 5 million people on the waiting list, more than 385,000 waiting over 12 months for treatment, and nearly 3,000 now waiting over two years for treatment.
Throughout the crisis, we have said that the NHS was not overwhelmed, but it was not overwhelmed only because of some of the terrible choices that had to be made. To be frank, I do not want to see the NHS forced to make choices between providing covid care and cancer care. That is why we should listen to those NHS leaders who have warned us about the increasing pressures on the NHS. Chris Hopson of NHS Providers said:
“The NHS is running hot at the moment dealing with backlog recovery and emergency care pressures.”
The NHS Confederation said:
“Health leaders are very aware of the damaging effects that prolonged social restrictions could have on the nation’s physical health and mental wellbeing…Yet, according to our survey the majority of NHS leaders are concerned about the risks that lifting prematurely could have on the NHS’s ability to cope”.
I know that the official Opposition’s position will be to support the regulations today, but I am keen to explore this with the right hon. Gentleman. Would he be happy to see the terminus on 19 July, or would he like to see it maybe at the end of September, when the entire adult population will be double-jabbed, or at the end of next year, when the G7 thinks that the rest of the world will be vaccinated? What would his instinct be?
Of course I want to see terminus day on the 19th, although I am not sure if we are going to see terminus day on the 19th. The hon. Gentleman, who is always well-informed, will no doubt have read the explanatory notes, which indicate that this four-week period is to assess the data, and the four tests will be applied at the end of that four-week period. That is not quite the terminus day that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have indicated.
It is wholly misleading to call it a terminus date anyway. Even if we were to implement cessation of some of the measures on 19 July, there will still be lots of other measures that will exist, including test and trace, maybe for quite proper reasons. To mislead the nation by constantly going on about freedom days and terminus days is just a mistake.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course I want to see terminus day. I want to see freedom; I want to get back to doing the things that I enjoy—although I am quite happy to sit in a group of six in a pub; I am not sure that I have more than six friends, Mr Deputy Speaker, so it has suited me in many ways. But more generally—[Interruption.] I see you have one less friend today, Secretary of State.
I am keen to see terminus day. But interestingly, although the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State have tried to hint that restrictions are coming to an end by using the new phrase, “We have to learn to live with the virus like we live with flu,” the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister have not outlined to us what that means. They are trying to suggest to us that it is all going to go back to normal, but actually we put in place mitigations to deal with flu year by year. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was a Public Health Minister. He was very much involved in the flu vaccination campaign. We vaccinate children to deal with flu. We put infection control measures into care homes when there is a flu outbreak. There will have to be mitigations in place when we go back to living with this virus, but the Secretary of State must explain to us what those mitigations are. Will we continue wearing masks?
Well, the Secretary of State needs to explain whether we should or not. Will we be supporting the installation of proper ventilation systems? We have known about the importance of ventilation in dealing with respiratory viruses since the days of Florence Nightingale. Countries such as Belgium are now providing premises and buildings with CO2 monitors to improve their air quality; will we be doing that?
The other thing about this virus is that, even when we vaccinate people—of course I want to see us meet the various vaccination targets—we know that some people will still be at more severe risk than they would be from flu. There will be people who will develop long covid symptoms. For some people, those symptoms are beyond achiness and tiredness. We have seen people lose hair, lose teeth. In some people it presents as depression, anxiety—even psychosis in some circumstances. So Ministers must explain exactly what “living with this virus like flu” means.
There is something else that they should explain to us. What are we going to do in the winter? It did not come up in the earlier exchanges; I thought that it might. Perhaps the Secretary of State, or the Minister in responding to the debate, can tell us whether the Secretary of State, the Minister or departmental officials are putting together plans for restrictions this winter, and whether the Secretary of State has developed or discussed those plans with any colleagues in Whitehall. I shall be grateful if the Secretary of State or the Minister would tell us about that.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: we had a battle royal with influenza in the first year that I was in the job, but the difference was that we did not have any non-pharmaceutical interventions. Our interventions were about the take-up of the vaccine—yes, for children as well as for adults, especially the vulnerable. One of our chief advisers, the deputy chief medical officer then, one Professor Chris Whitty, never suggested masks, let alone closing schools—just a really good roll-out of the flu vaccine. We lost 22,000 people that year. Never were those numbers rolled on BBC News; never did we know the R number, but there was a point where we accepted an element of risk in society. I guess that was the point of my earlier intervention on the hon. Gentleman: what element of risk is he prepared to accept? Because that is what it comes down to—our own mortality is part of the human condition.
We do accept it but we do not glibly accept it, because year by year we are looking for improvements in vaccinations, therapeutics and medicines to push infection rates down as low as possible. Even though we are grown-up enough to be aware that sadly some people will die from flu and pneumonia, we do all we can to avoid it. That is what we will have to do with this, but I do not want to see it done by some of the wider restrictions and lockdowns that we have heard about. That is why I would be interested to know whether the Department has developed plans for restrictions this winter and whether the Secretary of State has been discussing that with Whitehall colleagues.
On the point about the restrictions, I know that those discussions are going on because I have seen documents from within Government with very detailed suggestions about what measures may continue. I asked the Secretary of State about this when he was in the Commons earlier this week, and he did not rule out bringing in restrictions this winter. That is partly why some Conservative Members are very concerned and why we are not going to vote for these regulations today. However, I want to take the right hon. Gentleman back to his comments on what Chris Hopson said about the fact that the NHS is very busy at the moment. There is a danger here. I am very sympathetic to colleagues who work in the NHS, who have done a fantastic job, but we cannot get to a point where we restrict and manage society in order to manage NHS waiting lists. That is not the right way round. The NHS is there to serve society. If we need to enable it to do that, we have to think of a way of doing it other than putting restrictions on the rest of society. That is not a sustainable or a desirable position, but it is the logical consequence of what Chris Hopson was saying earlier this month.
Even though we will find ourselves in different Lobbies this evening, I think there is more in common between us than perhaps one might expect. I do not want restrictions to remain in place for any longer than they need to. I want to move to a system where we are trying to push down covid infection rates by, yes, rolling out vaccination as far and as fast as possible to everybody, but also putting in place the proper framework so that those who are ill or a contact of someone who has been ill with covid is able to isolate themselves.
We still have a culture in this country of soldiering on; the Secretary of State has referred to it in the past. I dare say that it is true of many of us in this Chamber. I have certainly done it in the past 20 years of my working life. I have gone into work with a sore throat or feeling under the weather, thinking I will just have some paracetamol and get on with it. Things like this have got to change, because although that sore throat may well have been fine for me, we now understand in great detail that it could have been very dangerous for others. We have to change our attitudes. However, there will still be a lot of people who have to go to work because they cannot afford to stay at home, so we need decent sick pay sorted out. One of the things that was revealed in this morning’s Politico email was the leak of a Government document that said that the isolation system is still not effective. That is because we still do not pay people proper sick pay. This is going to become more of an issue because presumably Test and Trace is to stay in place for the next year or so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) indicated. People who have had two jabs and are asked to isolate themselves will ask themselves, not unreasonably, “If I have had two jabs, why do I need to isolate myself?” This is going to become much more of a challenge and we will need proper sick pay in place.
Let me finish dealing with the point made by the hon. Member for Winchester. I want us to control the virus by doing things such as proper sick pay, proper ventilation support, and investing properly in public health systems and local primary care systems. One of the things we know about this virus is that, like flu, it disproportionately hits the poorest and the disadvantaged because they are the people who have to go to work or the people in those communities where significant long-term conditions such as diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease tend to cluster. That often makes those people more vulnerable to these types of respiratory viruses.
On the subject of the poorest and most disadvantaged, what does the right hon. Gentleman then make of the recent observation by the chief medical officer on the annual toll taken by the ill effects of smoking? He said that because he wanted to compare and contrast the number of people that we are losing, sadly, to covid with those we lose every single year to the ill effects of smoking. We have been prepared to countenance some swingeing restrictions on all our liberties for the past 15 months; banning smoking, for example, would be far less restrictive by comparison. It is smoking that is driving up health inequalities, but I have not heard him comment on that yet.
I have not commented on it in my remarks so far, but I have commented on it in the past and I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We need to do more to drive down smoking rates, we need to do more to deal with alcohol abuse and we need to do more with the fact that too many of us eat food that is high in salt and sugar. I am prepared to work with the Government to be more interventionist on these matters. I would look at levies and taxes on tobacco companies, and I would invest more in anti-smoking and public health facilities locally, some of which have been cut back, sadly, because the public health grant has been cut back. So yes, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman.
With respect, the right hon. Gentleman has missed the point. Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough. The chief medical officer was introducing that because he was trying to explain that we are going to have to live with some level of risk. We need to have a discussion about the public’s appetite for risk if we are to live with covid. The reason he cited smoking and the figure of 90,000 a year is that it approximates to the number of people we have lost from covid so far in this pandemic. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that we need to have a discussion about where we are prepared to pitch this? Is it 22,000, which is the figure for a bad flu year? Is it 90,000, which is the number we lose every single year from the ill effects of smoking?
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. It is in some ways similar to the flu point. We do not just glibly accept smoking. We take measures in society to try to push down rates. I do not think the House would want to go as far as to ban smoking outright, despite what any of us might feel as individuals about smoking, but we do what we can to push down smoking rates because we want to reduce the poor health outcomes from smoking. That is what we will have to do with covid. We will have to put measures in place to mitigate the negative effects of covid, which I would argue is about allowing people to isolate themselves with proper sick pay, doing things around ventilation, giving local authorities more responsibility, perhaps to inspect premises without proper ventilation standards in place, and obviously resolving some of the issues around contact tracing that still have not been resolved 15 months on. So I do understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, and he makes it well, as always in this place.
Before I was taken off course, I was quoting some of the health organisations. The point is that, given where we are now in our response to the virus, I believe that we should listen to those health professionals and take into account what they are saying. Delaying the road map by four weeks will hopefully relieve the pressures on hospitals, which is why we are prepared to support the restrictions tonight in the Lobby. I fear that lifting all the restrictions now could be akin to throwing petrol on a fire, so we will support the Government. But, of course, we should not be here. We are only here because over the last eight weeks we have failed to contain the delta variant and have allowed it to become dominant.
I have always tried to keep our dealings with the Secretary of State civil in public and private, but that is not so, it seems, for the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman is now forever branded as “hopeless” Hancock by his own leader. Our constituents watching the news tonight will know that the Government have failed to protect our borders, that they have allowed this variant to take off and that restrictions are being extended, and I have no doubt that many of them will repeat the Prime Minister’s expletive-laden sentiments about the Secretary of State tonight.
We are being asked to endorse these restrictions because the Government failed to prevent this variant from reaching our shores. Rather than red-listing the delta variant when that was needed, they gave it the red carpet instead. Let me remind the House what happened. On 24 March, India’s health ministry warned about a so-called double mutant variant. On 30 March, The BMJ warned that India’s cases had taken a sharp upward turn since March and that India had the third highest number of confirmed cases and deaths from covid-19. On 1 April, the original B1617.1 was designated as under investigation. By 2 April, the Government had put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, but not India. By this time, cases were running at close to 100,000 a day in India and thousands of people were returning to the UK from India. The Secretary of State justifies his position by saying that he did not have the data, but he should have acted on a precautionary basis. When he could see that the virus was raging, with 100,000 cases a day in India, he should have immediately put India on the red list, because the one thing that we know about the virus is that if we do not get ahead of it, it quickly gets ahead of us.
The House is being asked to extend these restrictions, but there are a number of pressing issues. First, many of us have been contacted by business people in our constituencies who are deeply concerned about the extension of these restrictions. For my constituency in Leicester, which has been living under a form of restrictions more severe than other parts of the country, other than perhaps parts of Greater Manchester, this has been particularly devastating. I hope that the Government will be putting in place full support for businesses such as mine in Leicester and Greater Manchester and elsewhere.
The second issue, which we have touched on a little bit, is whether these restrictions will ever end, or whether the Prime Minister has trapped us in Hotel California, where we can never leave. He has talked about 19 July as the terminus date, but the explanatory notes themselves say that the four tests will apply on 19 July, and that these four weeks will be used to gather more data.
Even with the vaccination programme going ahead and going further—I, like the Secretary of State, have had my second jab rearranged and am looking forward to it in a couple of weeks’ time—there will still be a large proportion of the population who have had one jab or no jab and who will still be vulnerable to catching the virus, and the virus can still exploit that opportunity to transmit.
It was the Secretary of State himself who said some weeks ago that
“Delta can spread like wildfire”
among those who have not had a jab. That will mean further disruption to people’s lives, more people needing to isolate and more people suffering from long covid. When I put these points to him on Monday, he said that the logical conclusion of that is that restrictions remain in place forever. On the contrary, the logical conclusion of that is that we put the other measures in place that will allow us to push down infection rates. I am talking about basic infection control measures such as sick pay and isolation support. A total of £38 billion has been allocated to testing and tracing, and yet the numbers using lateral flow tests have gone down six weeks in a row. This is because we do not have proper sick pay for people. Moreover, anecdotally, we are also hearing that more people are deleting the app from their phones.
We will support these restrictions tonight, and we hope that the Secretary of State or the Minister can give us a commitment that they will come to the House in two weeks’ time and give us an update on that data. We hope that the Secretary of State will give us a commitment to put in place the other measures that will help push down infection rates, but the sad truth is that we have to push forward these restrictions again for another four weeks, because the Secretary of State was indeed hopeless and failed to contain the delta variant.
We will have a four-minute limit immediately, but I think that that will be reduced later on. We have had a few withdrawals, so please do not assume that everybody is here on the list. Of everybody contributing, there are only four contributing virtually today, so everybody else is physical, which is very pleasing for the Chair. The four-minute limit is for Back-Bench contributions only.
I never believed that it was proportionate, even from the outset, for Ministers to take such liberties with our liberty. I always thought that it was wrong for them to take our freedoms, even though they believed that they were acting in our best interests in an emergency, but by any measure that emergency has now passed and yet freedoms are still withheld and the Government will not allow us to assess for ourselves the risks that we are prepared to encounter in our ordinary, everyday lives. The Government do not trust the people whom they govern.
Many members of SAGE—a misnomer if ever there was one—have been out busily undermining public morale. One of them even shared her dystopian vision that we must all remain masked and distanced in perpetuity—a shocking, horrible prospect. The fact is that once the consequences of this virus in terms of their financial and health impacts have long been addressed, the moral impact will remain. The Government have set a disastrous precedent in terms of the future of liberty on these islands. I could understand it if we were a communist party, but this is the party that inherited the true wisdom of the Whig tradition. This is the party of Margaret Thatcher, who said that liberty was indivisible. This is the party that only recently elected a leader whom we believed was a libertarian. There is much on which we are going to have to reflect.
I will be relatively brief, recognising that the public health motion relates to English covid public health regulations, and address most of my comments to the second motion. However, I think it is worth noting and picking up on a number of the comments made by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and other Members in relation to the outlook beyond covid.
Next week, the Scottish Government will publish a paper setting out what they hope life after covid will look like as we get back to something like normal and the remaining restrictions begin to be removed. None of us wants to see the restrictions in place any longer than they have to be, but while there is a risk to public health, we need to be very careful. The Scottish Government have been very, very minded to focus on the data, not the dates. I have to say that there seems to be quite a marked difference in the approach between the two Governments, given such a focus on freedom days and terminus dates all having to be attached to a particular date, rather than just looking at what the data actually tells us. As I say, none of us wants to see restrictions any longer than we need them, but while there is still a risk we must continue. The vaccine roll-out has been spectacular —nobody can deny that—but there are still so many people we need to continue to protect.
Turning to the second motion, I very much welcome the inclusion of the motion to extend virtual proceedings. It would have been unreasonable, when there is an extension for the general public, not to have extended such provisions in this place. Many times over the course of the past year and a bit, we have heard how we need to make sure that this place keeps step with the general public. I suggest that keeping step with the general public also means that we continue to look at what steps we can take to enhance that ability in this place as we go forward, as workplaces across the country will be doing. They are looking at different ways of working, and at adopting new and different ways to encourage participation from all. I fear that at some stage we may again be at a place where we are disenfranchising some Members. With this extension, we have perhaps given ourselves the opportunity to re-examine some of the points on medical proxy voting. There are some Members with very particular medical situations that are unique to them where a case could very strongly be made that a proxy vote would be appropriate on a longer-term basis than has been outlined. I am not saying that we should be putting in place something that makes it easier for a Minister to be given a proxy to be able to avoid a vote just because it suits. This is about a very particular set of situations where a specific number of Members have unique circumstances, and we need to take account of them.
I raised this point yesterday when the motions were presented. Given the variability in the virus and the changes of circumstances that can happen, and by the nature of the fact that we have had to have an extension at this point, I fear that having an end date at the start of a recess and effectively coming back in September with no opportunity in advance to consider what may or may not need to be done at that stage puts us in a slightly unusual situation. Should the situation arise in September where we need to do something else, this place will have to return in full numbers to effectively decide whether or not we want to have any further restrictions. I urge caution on that and ask for consideration as to how that could be managed, because I think that would be a particular anomaly. As I say, workplaces across the country are looking at how they can adapt, so why would we not? I think it is appropriate. Given the number of Members looking to speak in the debate, I will restrict my comments to that.
I wish to try to be constructive about how we can improve SAGE. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, SAGE has huge power over our lives. It has power over whom we hug and hold. It has power over which businesses open and which businesses close. In essence, it has power over who keeps their job and who loses their job. We, too, in this place have great power, but our power is matched by accountability.
Accountability is very important in the exercising of power, so I want to suggest some reforms to SAGE—some quite technical reforms. First, there is a need for greater financial transparency from members of SAGE in line with that expected of Members of Parliament. For example, I think when we look at SAGE members, we should be able to see what their annual income is—not only from their substantive job, but from their pensions accrued or the pensions they might well be in receipt of. This is something that is freely available for all Members of Parliament. I think we should also know and constituents should know if they have any significant shareholdings in companies, in the same way that our constituents know if we have significant shareholdings in companies. We could also look at whether they get other forms of income—from rent, for example.
I am not suggesting for a minute that this would include the spouses or partners of members of SAGE in the same way this does not include our spouses and partners, but given that they are making huge decisions that have huge financial consequences for tens of millions of people, it is important that our constituents know whether or not the people making these decisions are sharing the pain or are insulated from the pain. For example, in the case of young people, many SAGE experts say that young people should be working from home. We know that young people are now tied to their small kitchen table or in their bedroom in miserable environments—the new dark satanic mills—and working endless hours in appalling circumstances, because people with nice gardens and comfortable homes think that is what they should be doing.
There should also be far greater personal accountability. There should be no more, “Here is Sir Mark Walport—of SAGE, but here in a personal capacity”. Nonsense! He is there because he is a member of SAGE. We should also have elections to SAGE, so we could see Sir Mark Walport, Professor Susan Michie, John Edmunds and regular talking heads in our TV studios challenged by people with a different perspective—people such as Professor Karol Sikora, Professor Paul Dolan, who is an expert on human behaviour and quality of life, and Professor Ellen Townsend, who has a huge interest in the welfare of children and adolescents who are now being plagued by anxiety and eating disorders.
My hon. Friend is making a great case, with which I largely agree, but does he agree with me that experts are only human and to an extent we have been asking the impossible of them? They are risk averse—they do not want to be blamed for a disaster—and they will choose to give advice that is cautious. Would he join me in recommending to the Prime Minister the reform that I have put forward, which is to have competitive multidisciplinary expert advice with red team challenge?
I think that is a fantastic and plausible suggestion. We need a diversity of voices, but of course if we had elections, we could get people elected from Independent SAGE, and we know what they want—harder lockdowns, tighter lockdowns and a permanent end to freedoms.
But there is an alternative to elections and to financial disclosure, which is that the Prime Minister could say to members of SAGE, “Here it is: you can either advise me or you can advise the “Today” programme, Sky and Channel 4, but you can’t do both. You can either be a serious scientist at this moment in time advising your Government or you can be a media talking head building a career outside SAGE, but you can’t do both”. I think that is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. We would not expect our generals to give a running commentary on a war, undermining politicians. It is just not acceptable. It is just not acceptable, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you imagine if the Clerks who advise my Administration Committee were going out and briefing what they would like to see my Committee do and pushing us into a corner all the time? It would not be tolerable. It would not be tolerated in this place, and it should not be tolerated by No. 10.
So here it is: full financial disclosure from members of SAGE and full elections, or they advise the Government, and if they do not want to do that, but want to advise TV studios, they do that, but they do not do both.
As ever, it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker). On his interesting point about SAGE, we could do with full disclosure from the Government about all the facts that they have available to them on covid. In the Science and Technology Committee this morning, we were told that vaccinations have saved 14,000 lives. I have no doubt that that is an accurate figure, but there are many figures that have not been given. As we said the last time we debated this issue, only one side of the equation is given. Let me ask this question: how many lives have been lost in order to save capacity in the NHS? When it comes to looking at people untested and untreated for cancer, heart disease and other diseases, we will find that the figures are of a similar, if not greater, magnitude than the number of people who have died from covid.
We should have transparency and open declarations of what really happened with the 26,000 deaths in care homes, where untested people were sent from hospital. We should have disclosure about all those people who were triaged by age and who were not treated, and all those people in care homes who were not allowed into hospitals because they were not taking people from care homes. There is a great deal more information that we require in order to make a rational decision about whether the lockdown should continue. I agree with the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) that what we have here is the Government asking for emergency powers when there is no longer an emergency.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; we were in the Science and Technology Committee this morning. Does he share my disquiet at the fact that the vaccine effectiveness numbers that Public Health England has published—96% effectiveness against hospitalisation from two doses of Pfizer, and 92% from Oxford-AstraZeneca—are much higher than the numbers that have been plugged into the models used by Imperial and the London School of Hygiene and Medical to underpin the data that the Government are relying on?
I agree completely that those sorts of numbers—the real numbers, as opposed to model numbers—are the numbers that should have been plugged into that model. They would have given a different scenario. The hon. Gentleman makes my point: in order to come to rational decisions about what risks we should take as a country and what risks individuals should take, we should have all the information up to date and available. The Government have refused on a number of occasions to give out that information. They have run a campaign to scare people into accepting their decisions.
To go back to the comments of the hon. Member for Broxbourne, who was talking about elections to SAGE, at least the behavioural psychologists who advise the Government have made a public apology. They say that they have undermined their professional credibility by joining the campaign of fear. I wish that the Government would not only put out more information, but apologise for frightening people. They should not frighten the electorate, and they certainly should not frighten people in this Chamber into taking people’s liberties away.
One of the things that has annoyed me most in the last 15 months is when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care say, “We instruct you”—meaning the population—“to do various things,” when there is nothing in the legislation that would give the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister the ability to instruct individuals. We live in a liberal democracy in which we pass laws that are enforced by the police, and then the courts make a decision if there is a prosecution, not one in which the Secretary of State acts like some kind of uniformed Minister of the Interior.
I will vote against the regulations today. We need a more direct debate on the issue and we need what Members have searched for—a straightforward comparison, with real statistics, of what risks everybody faces.
For over 800 years, this House has been making decisions on risk, be it sending men and women to war, providing financial support or instigating reform in trade or even laws, and tonight’s vote boils down to an assessment of risk. Essentially, there are three options: we open on the 21st, we delay or we close and put more lockdown measures back in.
If we accept the premise that we cannot get rid of covid, we can disregard the reintroduction of lockdown rules on the basis that it is too risky to the economy, non-covid health and education. I do not think that even a tiered approach to deal with regional variation would be stomached by the public. That leaves us with two options: open as planned or delay.
I checked the data on the dashboard this morning, as many Members have, and it shows that the seven-day increase of cases, the average, is 38.8% and hospitalisation is increasing by 22%, but we also know that we have vaccinated 79% of the population with one dose and 57% with two doses. We also know that no measure is 100% effective, that no mask is 100% effective and that no vaccine is 100% effective, but we know that putting those measures together mitigates the risk.
That is all against the backdrop of a delta variant that is 50% to 70% more contagious than the alpha variant at Christmas, which in turn was 50% to 70% more virulent than the original variant. This House is therefore being asked to make a judgment call: carry on opening as we are, risking further spread and increased hospitalisations, or buy time, see the trend, get more people vaccinated and reassess but, of course, at the expense of businesses and freedom.
This is another Sophie’s choice. I know from my constituents that they will not thank this House for a four-week delay, but they will not forgive this House if further lockdowns return. I will vote to support the motions today, but they still leave certain sectors as zombie industries: not officially closed but not open, because there are not enough customers. For the travel, events and wedding industries, and for the night-time economy, I urge the Government to consider sector-specific support.
Some might mistake my words for the sound of a risk-averse man, or a doctor who thinks too much about health. In my day job, my entire career has been spent managing risk, from dealing with people’s cholesterol to working out whether a headache is stress or a brain tumour. I do that openly and frankly with my patients, and now it is what we need from the Government: a debate on the acceptable level of covid risk.
There were 1,500 deaths and 25,000 deaths or serious injuries on UK roads last year. As a society, we accept this risk. We could ban all road travel and stop all deaths, but of course we would lose the economic benefits and our freedoms. During the next month, I urge the Government to bring forward a debate on the risk this House is prepared to accept from covid. After all, as I said at the start of this speech, the House has been deciding this for 800 years. Why should it change now?
I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not in his place, because he is a Chester lad and I was hoping to offer him some Cestrian solidarity after the criticism of him as “totally f****** hopeless”; I give him an assurance that I would never have used “f******” myself. He needs a bit of support here, because he clearly does not have very much on the Conservative side.
The announcement today and the process leading up to it have been typical of the Government’s handling—chaotic and totally lacking in clarity. One Minister says one thing, then the same day another Minister says something slightly different or even wholly contradictory, and the announcements drip out inconsistently in a series of leaks and pre-briefings. I think it was just announced this afternoon that we have the highest number of cases since February, so actually people would understand the Government’s position if they would only level with them and be more honest. The reason they are not being honest is the serried ranks of hon. Members from the libertarian Covid Recovery Group wing on the Back Benches behind them who are putting undue pressure on them. It is understandable, but Ministers need to stand up to that instead and be a lot more open and direct with people.
The other thing that we need is an end to the Prime Minister giving his usual bluff, bluster and bombast, which creates false hope. He uses the phrases such as “terminus day” and “freedom day” that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke about to build people up, when he does not know that he can deliver them—and then conveniently forgets that he said them in the first place. It does not help the process.
In Cheshire west and Chester, we have gone into “enhanced measures”; I am not quite sure exactly what that means, because it can mean anything that people want. Again, that is because of a lack of clarity from the Government: they “request”, “suggest” or “advise” that perhaps people should not meet indoors. What it does mean is that, because there is no instruction, there is no support for businesses, for the night-time economy or for the visitor economy that is so important to Chester.
I was contacted by Jamie Northrop from Alexander’s Live, a brilliant small venue in Chester. He has been working his socks off just to keep afloat during the pandemic. In common with everybody else, as hon. Members will know from their constituents, the hospitality sector and the pubs have been doing everything asked of them to meet restrictions and just try to keep afloat, but often that has not happened. Jamie talked to me about the Music Venue Trust’s six-point plan for support, which includes measures to:
“Extend the moratorium on Commercial eviction”
“Cancel the introduction of Business Rates from 1 July”.
He points out that the delivery of three of the measures in the plan is in the Government’s direct control. I urge Ministers to look very carefully at that.
It is all well and good asking, advising and cajoling, but if we are to extend the restrictions there has to be support, because so many businesses will have planned for the relaxation that will not now take place. We need to give them the extra support to get over that final hurdle. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) talked about the “zombie” sectors that are alive, but not quite alive—a fantastic phrase that absolutely pins the problem down.
Other sectors will not be able to pick up straight away because by their nature they face a time lag. They include aviation, travel and tourism, and aerospace; I chair the all-party parliamentary group on aerospace. There has to be consideration for longer-term support for them, because they will not be able to pick up straight away.
My final point is that Cheshire west and Chester does not seem to be getting enough physical supplies or doses of the vaccine, compared with other areas. Could the Minister please look at that? We do not seem to be getting our fair share.
I refer the House to the declarations that I have made relating to the Covid Recovery Group.
No one can deny the brilliance of the Government’s—the NHS’s—vaccination programme. By mid-April, the over-50s and the vulnerable had had their first vaccination, and overwhelmingly they have now had their second. That is reflected in the Office for National Statistics antibody data, which shows extraordinary levels for anyone over 50. Antibodies are there in that population, which is vulnerable to the disease.
That brings me to the best case that the Government could make for the regulations before the House, which is that the ability of the NHS to provide other healthcare could be compromised by admissions from a younger population, because a small percentage of a big number is still a big number. But the huge problem with that is that it concedes the point that our liberties can be used to manage the capacity of the NHS. I cannot concede that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said, that is not the way in which we should be going as a society. If the restrictions that we are extending had been proposed for that purpose in the past, we would never have accepted them.
In Wycombe, people have of course been dutifully washing their hands, covering their faces and keeping social distancing rules, yet early in this pandemic, I remember one dear, sweet, older lady was beside herself with anxiety at the thought of having to go about her ordinary life with her face covered, and look at us now, taking it for granted. This is not normal. This is the dystopia that I stood here and forecast on the day we went into lockdown.
Thousands of pubs, restaurants and theatres have struggled by—if open at all, then hardly breaking even. We have been told by UKHospitality that they are still making a loss. The truth is that the Government do not have a systematic way of showing us the cost-benefit of the measures that they propose. One of my colleagues earlier mentioned Professor Paul Dolan. I have done a lot of work with him and I will write to Ministers with a paper from him. He shows how to look at not just the splash of policy, but the ripples. We really need to get this sorted out and embedded in a new public health Act, together with reform to modelling and some changes to expert advice, which I raised in an intervention.
One of the most important things that we have learned from Mr Cummings’ leaked WhatsApp messages is that it seems that the Government have been significantly influenced by polling. I fear we have had a real doom loop here between polling and policy making, which has driven us into a disastrous position. We now must not tolerate lockdowns being perpetually on the table. We must not tolerate a situation going on where we and the police are unclear about what the law is and how it should be applied. Imagine that you can hug but not dance—what madness is this? We cannot tolerate a situation any more in which a Government social scientist told the author of the book “A State of Fear” that the Government had used unethical techniques of behavioural science to deliver a policy which he said, in his own words, “smacks of totalitarianism”.
We have transformed this society for the worst. We have it put in place a culture and habits that will take years to shake off and that distance people from one another and diminish their quality of life and the quality of relationships that they have with one another. High streets are in danger of becoming haunted alleyways. We are in danger of hollowing out and destroying the entertainment industry—much of what makes life worth living. Today’s vote will go through—it is a foregone conclusion—but as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) implied, if the Conservative party does not stand for freedom under the rule of law, in my view, it stands for nothing. We have got to have a turning point. We have got to recapture a spirit of freedom.
It feels a little like groundhog day—another month, another debate on covid regulations—yet we really should not be here having this debate today. For people and businesses up and down the country, this four-week delay to fully restoring our freedoms is a huge and very costly blow, yet the sacrifices that continue to be demanded of the British people are not being coupled with the support that they need to do the right thing. That is why Liberal Democrats will not be voting with the Government tonight on the public health provisions. While we support the motion on continuing the hybrid proceedings in this place, I gently ask the Minister why the Government think we as Parliament need to continue meeting in a hybrid way whereas councils up and down the country have been forced to meet in person, often at great cost when they are already under huge pressure.
As my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have been saying for the past six months, the way to restore our freedoms must be three-pronged: vaccination; test, trace and isolate; and robust border controls. The point has already been made countless times that the reason we are here is that Ministers undoubtedly failed completely on the last of those three points by putting India on the red list far too late, for political reasons, allowing the delta variant to be seeded into the community. Even once the Secretary of State recognised it as a variant of concern, we know there was a 17-day delay in designating it as such, which meant that surge testing commenced far too late. That cannot happen again.
The situation we find ourselves in was avoidable. Ministers must take full responsibility for having to delay the lifting of restrictions next week, and part of that responsibility is to support people to do the right thing. With businesses on their knees, jobs are at risk and many of the self-employed have yet to get a penny of support. The hospitality, events, weddings, culture, tourism and travel industries are on their knees. Even after domestic restrictions are lifted, we know that the travel sector will have to continue to bear the brunt of restrictions, given that the biggest threat to our full reopening in the UK will be variants brought back in through international travel, so the complete lack of a bespoke package of support for those industries beggars belief.
If we want to restore our freedoms fully next month, as the Prime Minister has promised us, and allow our economy to thrive again, it will be critical to test every potential case, trace every contact and support self-isolation. Experts have been calling for better financial and practical support for the past year, and finally the penny dropped earlier this month for the former head of Test and Trace that supported self-isolation was the missing piece. Even so, there has still been no comprehensive package announced to pay people their wages to self-isolate, provide accommodation if necessary and support those with caring responsibilities. That is the way to break chains of transmission and stop new outbreaks in their tracks, and it is an awful lot cheaper than blanket restrictions.
Learning to live with this virus, as I believe we absolutely must, requires a proper strategy and an action plan—not hoping for a fair wind. It means bringing together the UK’s world-leading genomic sequencing capability with traditional public health test and trace at a local level, coupled with the right support. Our public health directors up and down the country are crying out for that. They will continue to be our frontline in managing this virus as we learn to live with covid. Let us give them the tools they need and not be back here again in a month’s time asking for a further delay—or, worse still, be asked to reintroduce restrictions months down the line.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Is it not wonderful to see so many colleagues in the Chamber having a proper debate? It is really interesting to hear what colleagues have to say. I have to add my own deep concern about any restrictions on people’s liberty. Frankly, if we were not already in step 3 of lockdown, I cannot imagine that with the current data, anyone in this place would today vote for four weeks of restrictions on businesses, on weddings, on church congregations and, yes, on young people’s end of school year celebrations. Nevertheless, I am going to disappoint some colleagues in this place by saying that I will, with a very heavy heart, support the Government, trusting that the Government are determined—as we have been assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—that, if possible, those restrictions will be lifted after two weeks and not four. I urge them to do that.
I want to use these short remarks to raise a few specific questions on behalf of my constituency and others. First, many businesses in the hospitality sector are open but unable to make a profit because of the social distancing rules. Can those rules be relaxed a bit in these last few weeks? Surely we can do that.
Secondly, many employers in hospitality and other sectors are now desperately trying to recruit staff through jobcentres, yet I am told by businesses in my patch that many people are not responding to offers of interviews. I do not know whether colleagues are also finding that, but businesses in my area are concerned that the long period of enforced lockdown and enforced inactivity is leading to an issue of motivation. Sometimes it is just easier to stay at home rather than getting back out there again. What are we going to do? Many colleagues have talked about the success of frightening people into staying home. Surely we are going to need something to help people feel motivated and want to get back out there to work, to get our economy going again and to help themselves to recover from this difficult period.
Thirdly, my constituency is home to Silverstone and the British grand prix, which is due to take place from 16 to 19 July. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that this iconic, world-famous event—surely, one of the best of British—can go ahead with a capacity crowd, albeit subject to covid testing?
Fourthly, I am pleased that the Government have listened to wedding businesses and the many couples who are looking to tie the knot, and have agreed to let weddings of any size go ahead, subject to social distancing. As colleagues have said and as my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate, for many couples, if they can hug but not dance, if they cannot have a band and they have to socially distance, that will not be the kind of big day they wanted for themselves and their families. Will he reconsider that?
Finally, my hon. Friend will realise that school and university students are now faced, for the second year in a row, with no end-of-year celebrations. No parents’ days, no prize-givings—in other words, none of the rites of passage that mean so much to so many people. Can we look at that again in these last few weeks? It has been such a long haul. As I have said, I will reluctantly support the Government, but I do urge the Front Benchers to show more flexibility during these final few weeks so that some of the joys of summer can light up people’s lives once again.
What a mess: a hopeless border policy, a hopeless promise of “freedom day”, and a hopeless Government left ducking for political cover. We may have grown used to it by now—yet another let down by this hopeless Government during this pandemic, which at times has seemed endless. We have been here before with the Prime Minister, yet it still hurts every time.
Businesses in Luton North that still cannot reopen are now left without any hope. Families are still separated after months and months, and young people are not able to do the fun things that young people should be doing. It is just like when the Government let us down in December. Yet again, it is all beginning to look a lot like Christmas. An offer of freedom is dangled in front of people by a gung-ho, hopeless Prime Minister, only for it to be pulled away from us at the last minute, when his bumbling and blustering gets the better of him. “We’ll turn the tide on coronavirus in three weeks”, he said, “it will all be over by Christmas…June 21st will be our Freedom Day.”
People in Luton North understand that this delay is necessary to slow the spread of the delta variant, but it is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow for those couples who have to rearrange their wedding plans, for the missed birthday celebrations, and for those with loved ones abroad who will have to wait even longer to see them. All people wanted all along from the Prime Minister was for him to be upfront and honest about the difficult situation our country is in. At times of crisis the country is not looking for a funny best mate; it is looking for a leader. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who is too scared to tell it how it is.
It did not have to be this way. Labour Members have been warning about the hopeless situation at our borders for more than a year. Last week the Health Secretary admitted to the Health and Social Care Committee that a strong border policy has to be part of planning for any future pandemics. It is time for the Government finally to get a grip on the border, and stop new and dangerous variants delaying our freedoms. They must stop over-promising and under-delivering.
Let me finish by returning to that word: hopeless. We now know that the hopeless Prime Minister thinks he has a hopeless Health Secretary. It is now obvious that at points in this pandemic when people were getting sick, families were losing loved ones and businesses were going to the wall, this hopeless Health Secretary, the hopeless Chancellor, and the hopeless Prime Minister were more focused on playing politics in Downing Street, and struggling to contain all those egos in one room, than they were on the priorities of people in Luton North and across the country.
When doctors and nurses were on covid wards in bin bags because there was not enough PPE, and when families had to have Christmases, Eids, and new years separated from the people they love, or when they were grieving the loss of loved ones, Downing Street was in chaos and the Prime Minister was not focused on them. Instead, he was focused on slating the Health Secretary on WhatsApp. I expect that from squabbling teenagers, not from supposed leaders. People in Luton North and across the country deserve better than that. For this to be the final delay on our road back to freedom, the Government must finally get a grip on themselves and on this virus. The British public have done their bit, but this hopeless Government have been found wanting again.
May I join you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on her well-deserved honour? She is a marvellous example of a Dame, and I am pleased to call her my right hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend and I know that the art of government, and the art of being a Minister, is balance. It is about taking conflicting lobby and interest groups, analysing and assessing them, and working out what is the right decision to take in the interests of the country. That includes money that the Government can spend—it is taxpayers’ money, not our money—but it also includes where the resources of the Government must go. It is a difficult job. Competing interests come to explain why their interest is the one that matters; they are not interested in whether someone else’s interests will be affected by their interest. Actually, Ministers are probably doing quite a good job if nobody is terribly happy, because it probably means that they are catering to all interests a little.
I have had a fear throughout the whole sorry saga of the pandemic. I pay tribute to the work that Ministers have done. They have done an incredible amount of work and acted in the best interests of the country, but “follow the science” has become the mantra and sometimes simply following the science is not enough, because the science is looking for one outcome and one single thing. It is really reassuring to have heard Ministers over the past few days say that we will have to accept that this is an endemic virus and learn to live with it, because there was a time when all we heard is that we would eliminate it, which we simply cannot do.
I ask that Ministers think very hard about not just the science but the interests of people. We have been told for so long that we must do just essential activities. For a long time that was merely sleep, eat, drink and possibly go out for an hour for exercise. Well, life is more than that. Life is so much more than the essentials. Life is those weddings, with dancing and greeting loved ones. Life is being able to see loved ones in hospital when they are sick, something that we have been unable to do throughout covid. Life is about attending the British grand prix and many other occasions. Life is about the joy that we can get from such occasions and events. We are constantly being told that we cannot have that joy because it will have an impact on the science.
The Government have to start to celebrate and take advantage of the vaccine programme. We have the most successful vaccine programme in the G7—something that I am sure the Prime Minister reflected on last week. I am very proud that in the north Staffordshire clinical commissioning group, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), we have the highest level of vaccinations anywhere in the country. We need to start to reap the benefits of that vaccine programme.
With a heavy heart, I say to the Minister that I cannot support the Government this evening, because I cannot find a way to explain to my constituents why the things that they are looking forward to getting back to doing have to wait. I understand how it will have been put to the Minister—“If you do not do this, Minister, it will cost lives”—but we have to accept that we cannot save every life. I might have been persuaded if the Government were able to support businesses that are unable to open, but that support is simply not there for the weddings industry, the hospitality sector and nightclubs. With a heavy heart, I will not be able to support the Government, although I will on procedural matters.
Like the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) I will not support the Government this evening, but it will not be with a heavy heart; it will be because I have a real conviction that what is being done and the approach that the Government have taken on this issue is wrong. We have heard again today, as we heard yesterday from the Prime Minister, that the very basis of pushing and promoting the policy is to instil fear into the hearts of people across the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister yesterday said that we have to delay because the new variant could kill people in ways that we cannot foresee, or do not understand. It is the same old message: “If you do not obey the restrictions, you are in danger—either of dying yourself or of your relatives dying. You can’t put your nose out the door. You can’t do the things you want to do in normal life, because there’s a real danger you’ll die.” Of course, the statistics show that of those who contract coronavirus a very small proportion, less than 0.3%, actually die. Even the World Health Organisation has said that many of those deaths may not even be attributable to coronavirus anyway. If someone has been tested for coronavirus 28 days before they die in a car accident they still qualify as a coronavirus death. So the statistics themselves have even been used in a way to try to reinforce the message of fear.
I wish to make two points today. The first is that if we follow the logic of what we have heard from the Minister and the Prime Minister in the past two days, we will never get away from the restrictions we are living with at present, because the Minister has admitted that we will have to live with coronavirus, and we know that it will mutate, so we will get different versions of it. If we get different versions, we will be told, “This version is different from the last version. It is more dangerous. It is more contagious. It leads to more deaths. It leads to higher infection rates.” And so on and so on. We will be told that there is therefore a justification for keeping the restrictions in place.
Indeed, we heard from the Minister today not only about the current restrictions; we know that we are going to have further restrictions in the future. Those who work in the care sector are going to be forced to have a vaccination. He did not answer the question, but I assume that people visiting anybody in a hospital or care home are going to have to prove they have had a vaccination. Are peripheral workers going to have to have the vaccination? We can see already that the Government are thinking that people have accepted these restrictions and there will be other things in the future that are going to be forced on them.
Let me come to my second point. The Minister said he was going to follow the data, so let me tell him about some data: unemployment in my constituency has gone up by more than 100% as a result of restrictions. Businesses are going under. Between now and “terminus day” many people will find their employment terminated, their business terminated, their livelihoods terminated, and for those reasons, I will not be voting for these restrictions.
Throughout, this process has been heartbreaking, debilitating and wearing, so to be here again talking about a further four-week extension is the worst possible outcome for so many of us—it is so, so disheartening. However, I say that knowing that I will be supporting the Government tonight. Unfortunately, my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is no longer in his place, but he made an eloquent speech talking about why he could not support these measures on the grounds of civil liberties and I wanted to remind him that about a quarter of his seat is in the city of Salford, where I was a councillor for a while. The city’s motto is, “Salus populi suprema lex” or, “The welfare of the people is the highest law”. The infection rates in Greater Manchester are some of the highest in the entire country, with Manchester and Salford having the highest rates. His seat straddles those areas, so he cannot say that he is putting the welfare of the people in his constituency at the highest level.
I wish to turn to something that was brought up by the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) when she was talking about getting the politics out of this issue. I completely agree with that, which is why it was so frustrating yesterday that in the Manchester Evening News the lead member for health in Rochdale Borough Council was dismissing the vaccination programme as a gimmick and a slogan, and was hinting that the Government were withholding vaccines from certain areas. Anybody with the slightest idea about how logistics work knows that the programme is rate-limited purely by supply. I say to Members: we have four weeks to nail this down. We cannot have another extension. We cannot keep going through this process. We are going to have to work together. We are going to have stop sniping at each other and trying to make little jibes to score a little point here or there. There are people who are depending on us to do the right thing now.
This extension is, sadly, necessary, so I will vote for it. However, once again, this Government’s failures have meant that longer restrictions have become necessary, just as there has been more economic harm and more human suffering than should have been necessary. Time after time, the Government have got it wrong. Let us think back to last summer, when we had very low case levels. The experts said it was a chance to crush the virus, but the Government did the opposite and cases spiralled out of control. In the autumn, as cases rose again, the Government locked down far too late and released far too early, leading to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. When warned about the risk posed by new variants, the Government refused to close the border, all because the Prime Minister wanted to go to India to pose with Prime Minister Modi.
The Government claim that only hindsight can spot this pattern, but that is simply not true. The Government were warned time and again. They ignored the warnings. In the words seemingly put into writing by the Prime Minister, it has been effing useless, but it is not funny—it is not a joke. So many people have lost their lives and it is now necessary to elongate the misery further because of the Government’s unnecessary failures.
The Government are now saying that we should, and I quote, “live with it”. I do not agree. We should be suppressing the virus. That does not mean more lockdowns. To tackle this virus, the Government should finally put in place the basic public health measures they have refused from day one. Alongside the vaccine, we need decent sick pay for people who need help to isolate. We need to kick out the profiteers from test and trace. We need to invest properly in local health teams to do effective tracing. The failure to sort out these public health measures has led to more than 100,000 needless deaths. It has prolonged economic suffering, and it has prolonged the curtailment of our lives.
If we do not suppress the virus now through test, trace, isolate and support, we risk hundreds of thousands more cases and many thousands more hospitalisations, with huge pressure on our national health service. Many more will suffer from long covid—400,000 already are. It creates conditions for new variants, perhaps even those invulnerable to the vaccine.
I call on the Government today to finally sort out sick pay at real living wage levels. Government Ministers claim—this is very interesting—that the reason they refuse to properly financially support people to isolate when they have covid is that they believe that people would abuse the system. It is no wonder, given how they behave, that they think so little of other people. Just because the Tory party is gaming the system to help its super-rich donors with covid contracts, it does not mean that working people should stoop to their level, and working people would not stoop to their level. The Government’s failure to support people with covid is a moral outrage, and it is creating a public health crisis of which this Government should be ashamed. I am voting for the extension tonight because it is necessary, but without Government failure it would not have needed to happen.
I am afraid that the previous speaker will be very disappointed, because we are going to have to live with covid, like we have to learn to live with every other infectious disease that exists in the world. Yes, we have tried to suppress it. Yes, we tried to deal with it, but we will have to learn to live with it. Viruses, the hon. Member may be surprised to know, have been around for 400 million years—a lot longer than us. Guess which one is winning the Darwinian race.
When we do have to make decisions, I think one thing is very clear. Up to this point, the aims of the medical profession and the Government’s advisers and the aims of the Government have been broadly similar, but they will have to diverge at some point, because the medical profession will always want to see the rate of infection brought down to the smallest level possible at whatever cost, but the Government have different considerations. The Government need to ensure that the rest of the health service is able to operate properly, that the economy is moving and that the social and wellbeing aspects of the population are looked after. That is why the aims are different.
While I am at it, on a private note, I am sick to death of the Government’s so-called advisers coming on TV and giving their individual views, rather than giving advice to the Government on a confidential basis. If they want to be stars of Sky News, let them leave SAGE and carve their own path.
On what basis will we decide when we have this divergence? The first thing to say is that the variant will not be a reason for keeping lockdown. The variant may be more transmissible, but that is irrelevant if it is not causing more hospitalisations or more deaths. We have already heard from Public Health England that the two vaccines—Pfizer and AstraZeneca—can cope as well as with the new Indian variant as they can with the Kent variant. We do not need to hear about the variant argument, because I do not think it holds water.
What matters is who is being hospitalised, and where. Are the hospitalisations young people who have not yet had the vaccine, who may be at risk because of the increased transmissibility of the new variant, or is it people, as we have seen in some parts of the country, who have been offered the vaccine, but for one reason or another have chosen not to get it? We cannot have the country being held to ransom by any groups who have been offered a vaccine but have chosen not to take it; that is utterly unacceptable.
It seems to me that the essence of the Government’s case—if the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), wants to, he can intervene to confirm it—is this: the Government’s strategy was based on a single vaccine strategy, in the belief that, if enough people got it, the efficacy would be high enough that we could unlock at that point. However, the evidence published by Public Health England yesterday showed that the Pfizer vaccine is 94% effective against hospitalisation after one dose, but that AstraZeneca is only 71% after one dose and takes the second dose to get up to 92%.
It seems to me that the Government are telling us— I wish they would be clear about this—that they need a little more time to get people, especially those on AstraZeneca, to the second dose so that there is the level of protection against hospitalisation that we see with the Pfizer vaccine. If the Government presented their case in that way, it would be an awful lot easier for the rest of us to give the Government our support, because that would be a clear rationale.
We also need a clear assurance that the two-week review point is not a ploy to buy support in the House of Commons, but a genuine review of the data, whereby we will see within a couple of weeks whether the hospitalisation rate is increasing or not. If the Government give us a clear assurance that the two-week point is a real review and that we can achieve the full relief of the lockdown at that point, the Minister might be able to buy a little support from his own Benches this evening.
It feels like we have entered yet another episode of “Hancock’s Half Hour”, but unfortunately it is laughable for all the wrong reasons.
The first motion under debate today is indirectly relevant to Scotland and to my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency. Without independence, Scotland will continue to suffer the consequences of the UK Government’s hapless leadership on covid. Travel agencies in my constituency have another month of pouring money down the drain and another month with no tangible support from the Government. The first motion is England only, so Alba Members will abstain on that principle, but to those who have suffered loss of life and bereavement, the Government’s response of repetitious, braggadocious claims at every juncture must be disheartening. It is more indicative, as I said earlier today, of a Del Boy Britain: “Everything will be fine because we’re British.” But it is precisely why we find ourselves in this position.
This Government have put political priorities over public safety. There was a lack of action on border control at the start of pandemic and with the identification of the delta variant. They have allowed new variants to enter and seed, and the weekend’s failure by the UK Prime Minister to lead the G7 to invest in vaccines and cash in line with the World Health Organisation’s identified need is absolutely unforgivable.
There has been an unwillingness to listen, to learn and to respond; chaotic messaging; and the abandonment of testing in March 2020, instead of using that nadir of the pandemic to expand testing. The Secretary of State has continued with his overconfidence in in-the-field lateral flow test devices, and the chaotic education policy has only made things worse. There are continued huge gaps in support, driving poverty and disadvantage in the face of repeated warnings. These are not just my concerns; many have been raised in the prestigious British Medical Journal.
Not every misstep can be mitigated by the effective work of Kate Bingham’s vaccines taskforce. Recently, the Secretary of State supported my calls for surveillance across a range of indicators to beat the virus, but vaccines are not foolproof.
The G7 chair opportunity was an unforgivable moral failure. Vaccines, cash, but also robust international surveillance, are urgently required. The Government’s growing propensity to ignore scrutiny of Parliament is absolutely staggering, and now the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) derides scrutiny of experts in the media. It has been never clearer than with their vote-dodging reduction in overseas aid and that will not be forgiven.
This is a global and dynamic challenge. The completely inadequate response from the G7 summit risks the development of ever more virulent variants. In the light of that failure in leadership from the Prime Minister, can we get some straight answers—probably not? What action is the Secretary of State taking to secure our public health by working to meet those WHO targets for vaccines, cash and surveillance? Any return to normality will happen only when we are all safe.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Would it be possible for you to convey to Mr Speaker that, while we are still operating under the restrictions that we have in Parliament, we need to try to find ways to intervene on contributions that are being made on video? Otherwise, we are unable to challenge the views of the Scottish nationalists, who claim that the problems that they suffer from in the covid pandemic are a result of the United Kingdom Government’s actions, when they themselves have the same powers to deal with them in Scotland, had they chosen to do so differently, but they have not.
The pandemic has been a massive challenge to the British Government. I happen to think that, given the uncertainties that they have faced, the Prime Minister and senior Ministers have done a pretty good job. In terms of the vaccination programme, they have certainly proved to the world that Britain can go alone and do a lot to safeguard its population when it uses its science and its ability to get things done.
When the road map was unveiled, I thought to myself, “At least that stops me voting against the Government again”— until we get to the point when the Government have delayed opening up. I do think that this is a matter of balance and judgment. My view is that most of the senior Ministers who took this decision need a damn good holiday. If we look at the data and at what is happening in the country, the restrictions are totally out of kilter with the sense of the problem.
Let me take the south-west of England. There are 5.6 million people in the south-west of England.
There are 5.6 million people in the south-west of England. There are 23 people in hospital. There are two in ICU. In Dorset, where there are nearly 1 million people, we have one person in hospital. Yet there are hundreds of couples who want to get married, businesses that want to be viable, and people who want to get their lives back in order. I just think that the balance is wrong. Most of the population have now been vaccinated. We may not totally break the link with people going into hospital, but there are more than 100,000 beds in the NHS. One per cent. are taken by covid patients. Now it might go up to 2%. We already have experts on TV saying, “In order for the NHS to catch up, we may well have to keep restrictions for longer.” I think that is unacceptable to the British people. As a Conservative, I am perfectly willing to accept restrictions when hundreds and thousands of people are dying and we are dealing with a virus that we do not understand, but we have sort of got to the point where we have won the battle. There will be variants. There will be challenges, but we have to get on with normal life.
The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) are perfectly right. If it is simply that we need to get second doses in—if that had been explained—we might be a little more relaxed. If we look at the explanatory notes, though, we will see that we have a review of data in two or four weeks’ time, and not necessarily a release date. We need to get people’s freedoms back. We cannot save everybody, but what we have done is save thousands and thousands of lives. Now we need to safeguard employment, safeguard businesses and safeguard people’s personal relationships.
I began by saying that the Government have done a pretty good job and that the vaccine programme is outstanding, but we have to now take the dividend from that to get people back to normal life. When they queued up with their enthusiasm to get that jab in their arm, they thought that that meant that things would get back to normal. They did not expect that they would be in further restrictions which would go on and on and on. I think we should have lifted all restrictions on 21 June. I hope and I pray that, in two weeks’ time, the Government will look at the data again and set people free.
Like many areas with some of the highest infection rates during this pandemic, my constituency of Stockport has been in a lockdown of some form for more than a year, along with the vast majority of Greater Manchester. Although the people of Stockport have worked tirelessly to keep our community safe, they have been repeatedly let down by the Government. As a result, thousands of workers risk losing their jobs as businesses struggle to survive, with insufficient financial support packages and an endless cycle of lockdowns and restrictions that has pushed our high streets to breaking point.
I want to hear the Minister tell the House why, 15 months into this pandemic, the Government have failed to take any meaningful action to help businesses, schools and leisure facilities improve ventilation, when we have long known that covid is an airborne virus. He will no doubt tell me that the Treasury has spent billions on furlough payments and support schemes, but businesses know the reality—namely, that measures such as furlough payments are little more than a drop in the ocean when it comes to their bottom line and ability to plan for the long term in order to survive this pandemic. Far more needs to be done if we are to avoid our economy nosediving and millions of people across the UK ending up unemployed. I have heard today that the Government have also repeatedly failed my constituents, and millions of others around the country, on the issue of healthcare. Indeed, we have already heard what the Prime Minister really thinks of the Health Secretary—perhaps it will be the only time in the House that I admit to agreeing with him.
We are witnessing a crisis in our healthcare system, and the Government cannot simply blame the pandemic. Indeed, in the months before the covid crisis began, a source at Stepping Hill Hospital in my town told the Manchester Evening News that patients were “stuck outside in ambulances” and that:
“Every corridor is full of patients on trolleys.”
Many were forced to wait up to 24 hours to be seen for treatment. That is not the fault of NHS workers, who have performed heroically throughout this pandemic. The blame must be laid squarely at the Government’s door, following a decade of chronic underfunding of our health service.
The latest set of official NHS figures has revealed that record numbers of people are on hospital waiting lists across Greater Manchester. Stockport clinical commissioning group, which covers my constituency, has more than 37,000 people waiting for vital hospital treatment. That is the highest level in the region, which is completely unacceptable, and it is compounded by the fact that most people have to wait at least 18 weeks for treatment.
My constituents are not alone. Across the country, more than 5 million people are now waiting for routine treatment such as hip and knee operations, which is the highest level on record. Covid is of course a factor, but the reality is that this crisis has followed years of chronic underfunding by this Conservative Government, and we are now unfortunately having to reap what they have sown. A further contributory factor to the rising number of infections is the scandalous lack of sick pay for workers who are forced to self-isolate, who feel unwell or who take time off to look after loved ones who are ill. They are being punished for following Government guidance, and in many cases they are left with no alternative but to continue to work while potentially infectious due to the lack of available support.
A Unison North West survey recently revealed that 80% of care workers will continue to receive just £95 per week as statutory sick pay if they are ill or following the Government’s advice to self-isolate or shield themselves or loved ones. The right thing to do would be to give them full pay. Does the Minister accept that his Government’s failure to introduce proper financial support for people to self-isolate, and proper sick pay, has contributed to our failure to keep on top of the delta variant and has led to the delay in lifting lockdown restrictions?
As the Prime Minister’s former senior adviser recently said:
“Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy, because the Prime Minister never wanted a proper border policy.”
Our workers, businesses and most vulnerable in society are now paying the price for this wanton disregard for our nation’s health.
I do not think anyone envies the tasks and decisions that this Government and this Prime Minister have to make. We have a vaccination programme that is the envy of much of the world, with 30 million adults now having had two jabs, which offer 90%-plus protection against hospitalisation from the delta variant. We also have a road map that is clear and is linked to the success of that same vaccination programme, but against that backdrop, we are being asked to approve a further delay today.
I spoke to local health leaders in Cumbria and in Barrow and Furness over the past few days, and the message from them was clear: they support this delay. Our director of public health was stark: because we are trying to cover and backfill 5 million people on an NHS waiting list, even a small fraction of covid-19 patients going into hospital risks the NHS being overwhelmed. On that basis, and on the basis of the rationale advanced by the Secretary of State, I support these measures as one final push—one last heave—before we return our freedoms.
However, we need to be absolutely clear about what this delay means. It extends impositions on our liberty, our livelihoods, people’s health and the future of young people. While the state has a duty to protect its citizens, our objective cannot be zero deaths. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) so eloquently wrote this week—I apologise for bastardising her words—“We don’t live to avoid death; we live to enjoy life,” and it has to be on that basis that we make the final judgment to unlock next month.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am making the judgment based on my local knowledge and that of my director of public health, but we all have to make that decision in this place today.
We cannot afford for schools to close again, for young people to miss any more of their lives, or for any of our businesses to close as a result of further impositions, so it has to be one more heave, to protect more people, and then we have to accept that, in the face of a virus that we are not going to get rid of, and which will continue to mutate and challenge us while we are on this Earth, we must vaccinate as many people as possible and then give people back their freedom.
There is a more fundamental issue at play here—public acceptance. We made a delicate compact with people over the last year. We restricted their liberties to keep them safe, and already we are seeing compliance with that law beginning to fray. We must accept that people expected their liberty to return as vaccinations were rolled out, but as we vaccinate more, acceptance of that compromise falls. If we cannot maintain that compact, our response to it has to change.
So I hope and expect that after this final surge of vaccinations, we will return on 19 July to a society where people are able to make their own choices. It is easy to sloganise about freedom. I, for one, am deeply uncomfortable about living in a country where we dictate to newly married couples whether they can cut their wedding cake or not.
I believe that this Government have acted honourably and with good intentions throughout this horrible pandemic, so I am giving them my support tonight for one last heave to finish the job, and then we must return all of our freedoms on 19 July.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you could help me in regard to social distancing. There is not a single Labour Member on the Opposition Benches. There are no SNP; there are no Liberal Democrats; there are no Plaid Cymru. Of course there are the DUP. Would it be appropriate, because the Conservative Benches are packed, for half of us to move over to the other side of the House to improve social distancing?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I would be very happy for the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) to come over here and join us on our side if he wishes to do so. I know that we are together in many things anyway.
I believe that we have to live with covid-19. Just as I get a flu jab every September or October because I am a diabetic and that is the way it is, in the same way we will get a covid-19 jab come that time as well. It has been a long, hard road to recovery and I want to place on the record very clearly my thanks to the Government, and to the Health Minister Matt Hancock, and to the Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann, for all that they have done to keep us safe over this period of time. It is important to put that on the record.
I understand that weddings are an issue for many; they certainly are for me, and for my constituents in the hospitality sector. Wedding attendance is calculated based on the risk assessment of the said venue. Self-distancing is absolutely critical to making that happen. So many wedding venues can accommodate extra numbers because of their scope for self-distancing. Weddings are the most significant day for couples and there is nothing more heartwarming than seeing one’s guests smile with joy. Self-distancing has made that happen.
May I make a plea to the Minister for churches? I do that because I am a regular church attender, but also for everybody else who attends church or would like to do so. We know that we must self-distance and wear a mask in church, and we understand that. However, are we getting to the stage where we can attend church and do not have to wear a mask, while adhering to social distancing? When we go to a restaurant, we do not have to wear a mask, and perhaps the same rules should apply for churches. I request easement for weddings in churches as well. I understand that not every church has the capacity for self-distancing to have a wedding, but there are many that would, and I believe there is a way forward to do that.
Tourism is a crucial sector for our economy where the restrictions are blurred and many are left confused. I again request the Government to address the issue of tests and passenger location forms discouraging people from booking holidays, not to mention the fact that Portugal was taken off the green list. I do not say that as a criticism, but just to make the point that perhaps we need more clarity in relation to that. The focus needs to be on making travel more accessible and efficient to encourage those who travel, even if it is within the United Kingdom.
A constituent of mine recently left for work in the EU, where he was charged £85 for a PCR test, not to mention the test requirements when he comes home. Is it possible to review this approach to allow the lateral flow tests that are acceptable in our schools to be acceptable for travellers? This would instil more efficient travel where travellers can save money and travel with less hassle. I also make a plea for tour operators and buses. We know all the problems with buses. People cannot self-distance on a bus and so these services cannot be viable. If we are going to have this for another few weeks, as we are, can we make sure that those businesses are protected and that jobs are secured?
Live music is crucial to many aspects of life for us personally but also for venues, for the hospitality sector, for weddings and for concerts. I appreciate that there is always a risk in singing. When I sing, the rain usually comes on. The Bible says, “Sing, make a joyful noise”. When I make a joyful noise, it is never melodious but it is always joyful. It is always loud as well. I would love to able to sing in church again, but it is not happening and it is not likely to happen in the near future. I understand that for those who are involved in this, there is a real need to have it.
I make the plea that as we move forward together over the next four weeks, we can ensure that these businesses can be protected and have the support that is needed through the furlough. I understand that the vaccine roll-out is a part of any moving forward, and I support that. I welcome younger people getting the vaccine. To me, this signals being able to move forward safely, which is what we need to do.
I fully appreciate that the Prime Minister and the Government are being careful and cautious, and I support that. To use a saying that we often use in Northern Ireland, it is better to be safe than sorry, and it is better to be safe than sorry today. I will support the Government in both votes on what they are putting forward because I believe that it is right: we can do this for another four weeks and that will be the end of it. As there are more people with the vaccine, confidence will be restored, and if confidence is restored, then we must all be in a better place. I know that is not the opinion of some, but it is certainly my opinion and that of others in my party as well. I want to ensure that the Government are supported and I will support them tonight.
I want to discuss two sides of the science—science as the liberator and science as the captor. We have seen through this process that new vaccines have been created using messenger RNA of a completely new type that will, I am sure, serve us well globally into the future. We have rapidly created them, tested them and rolled them out, and that is all to the good. We have repurposed existing drugs such as the very cheap steroid, dexamethasone. We have used antivirals that were used before, remdesivir being just one, and we have discovered new treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. We have created a testing regime that enables us to rapidly test vast numbers of the population for their covid status.
These were the new tools that I had hoped would prove science as the liberator, and the results are extremely good. Let us look at those facts again. We have heard them many times, but I think they are worth putting on record once more. With just one dose of any of these vaccines, protection is good. With two doses, it is truly exceptional at over 90% protection against hospitalisation. Even those who do find themselves in hospital after vaccination are generally not finding themselves dreadfully unwell. We have seen hospitalisations reduced. We have less than 1,000 people in hospital, or 1,000 or thereabouts, which is just 1% of NHS capacity.
I am sure Ministers would respond to that by saying that this is the way they want to keep it, but I am afraid that argument will never end. We have a death rate of about 10 deaths per day out of a background death rate in the country of 1,100 per day, which is currently under the usual average. However, let us look at those 10 deaths per day within 28 days of a positive covid test. They are husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents and friends. Each is a tragedy, each is a family loss and each is a dreadful event. But surely with such low levels we should now be provided with the data as to why: what were the deeper underlying reasons behind those deaths? I certainly hope that Ministers have been provided with that information. There is a world of difference, and a difference of interpretation that this place would make, between the death of a young, fit person and that of somebody with comorbidities, perhaps in a hospice with life-threatening conditions.
Let us examine science as the captor. Our ability to sequence the genome is incredible. The UK is a world leader. Hundreds of variants have been discovered, and doubtless once the delta variant has passed through, just as the alpha Kent variant has been and gone, we will discover more. Will it be a Californian one, a Buenos Aires one, or the epsilon or the zeta? I am sure we will simply run out of Greek alphabet over the coming months. However, each one causes hysteria, and the media go berserk. With the scientists, it is like having the decorator in your house: you get sucking of teeth and shaking of head, and you know there is bad news around the corner. We have seen the modelling. The five key modellers have come up with a road map, published in February, which the Government understood, and it led to the road map we are on, but every one of our figures are better than that, and that makes this statutory instrument so unintelligible.
I would rather trust the people. What if we were to go for freedom on 21 June? What would I do, because I think I am pretty normal? Would I be throwing away my mask in the supermarket? I very much doubt it. I carry sterilising gel in my pocket, and I can say to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that more alcohol goes through my hands on a daily basis than on a night out with George Best and Oliver Reed. Would that stop? No, it will not. The public outside this bubble have already moved on. They have broadly given up on these pettifogging rules. We should trust the public, and I will not be supporting the Government this evening.
The Government assert that they do not have a zero covid policy or a zero covid strategy. If I accept that that is the case, it does seem as though it is a 0.1 covid strategy: it is almost zero, but not quite. At the same time, the Government accept that the disease is endemic. This is a very curious position, in which it is endemic, but the Government are still trying to get the disease as close to zero as possible. I would suggest that that requires pretty robust action from the Government for the long term.
The original lockdown was to flatten the curve and protect the national health service. Even though the Nightingale hospitals were soon mothballed and then closed, that was not enough. Lockdown was then intended to enable test, track, trace and isolate to get up to speed, and it must surely be there by now, but again, that was not enough. Then it was to vaccinate the most vulnerable—the over-50s or the most frail in our society. This was when the narrative was that the first dose would provide the vast majority of the protection required—far better than the influenza jab—and the second jab, at that point, was only really to give longevity to the resistance to covid that would be required. The expectation, at that stage, was that this would cut the overwhelming majority of deaths and hospitalisations, and this is the case, but still that was not enough. Then it was to have everyone then given the second dose. That has almost been achieved, but as the Secretary of State announced a short while ago, the roll-out of vaccinations has now extended so that 21-year-olds can sign up to get them. Again, that seems not to be enough.
In Bolton, we have been through a very difficult time—there has been an amazing amount of good work and hard work from so many locally—but with this new Indian variant, or variant of concern, we have coped. The impact on our health service was far less than during the peak in January. The NHS held up, and I believe that it is quite clear now that the link between transmission, hospitalisation and death has been severed. Again, that is not enough to find our lockdown terminus.
The narrative seems to have shifted in recent weeks. It was initially about dealing with the Indian variant and seeing how risky and dangerous it was to the country. I think that the evidence available at the moment shows that we can cope with it, but the position now seems to have shifted from dealing with the Indian variant and trying to understand it to offering the first dose to every adult of 18 and over. As night follows day, that will still not be enough.
Earlier this week, the Health Secretary was to some extent downplaying the value of the first dose and promoting that of the second. Should we now anticipate a shift later in the year to every adult being offered the second dose as well? That would take us well into September and perhaps a little beyond. We can see the rolling of the pitch for child vaccinations and for compulsory vaccination of certain care workers and perhaps others.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point, Transmission in Bolton is clearly on the way down. That demonstrates the actions taken and the effect of the particular variant of concern, which had more impact in Bolton than almost anywhere else in the country. It should give reassurance to the country that we can cope without a further extension of measures that are having such an impact on so many people. For example, the waiting list of 5 million for hospital treatment would be far longer if people had better access to GPs to get those referrals.
The G7 is suggesting a global vaccine programme. Would we have to wait until that has been delivered, because until everyone is safe, no one is safe? When the Prime Minister refers to a terminus, I fear that he does not mean the end, but that he is thinking more of a bus terminus where we end one journey to start another—and that there will be another vehicle to impose another lockdown extension.
When I have confronted these votes over the past nine months, I have done my best to look at the entire health needs and entire health case of all the nation, not just of those who have unfortunately been struck down with covid. When it came to the 10 pm curfew last year, I felt that it did not make sense from a health perspective for everyone to be leaving the pub at the same time, so I voted against, whereas when it came to the decisions towards the end of last year and into January, I could see the hospitalisation cases and the need to get the vaccine rolled out, so I supported the Government.
Where are we now? Let us look at the hospitalisation cases. We were at 35,000 covid in-patients, and clearly the NHS was struggling to cope. When academics at Imperial College modelled what a freedom day on 5 July would look like in hospitalisation numbers, it came up with a figure of 7,000; Warwick University came up with 1,750. The figure for covid in-patients is currently under 1,000—better than expected. In the combined county of Sussex, with 1.6 million residents, there are six covid in-patients, and in my own county of East Sussex there are two of the six. Interestingly, they did not present with covid or get admitted because of it; they were just tested while being admitted, found to have covid and included in the numbers. The hospitalisation numbers are looking much better, and the NHS now has resilience. What is striking to me is the number of people who are waiting to have their lives enhanced by elective treatment. In England alone, 5 million people are waiting for surgery. Over 400,000 of them have been waiting for more than a year; prior to covid, that figure was 1,600. That demonstrates the wider health impact of restrictions. Those people deserve a life, too, and they deserve to be looked after. There should not be an apartheid system when it comes to our health service.
What about the vaccine? What a great success! We should be basking in the vaccine dividend that this Government have delivered. In East Sussex as a whole, we have double dosed 85% of cohorts 1 to 9, which account for 99% of mortality. We know that the vaccine is effective against all known strains. We are there, but the difficulty is that we are not willing to confront the concept of living with covid. Ministers say that we have to live with covid, and yet we are given another month on top. The arguments that Ministers use as to why we need that extra month will still be there in a month’s time, and at that point we will have to decide where we are going to jump.
I have spoken to a very senior NHS lead, who has university-age children. He said to me—I wrote it down:
“Too many of us making decisions have forgotten what it feels like to be a 20-year-old or how miserable it is to be a 20-year-old right now.”
Those young people have made great sacrifices to help cohorts 1 to 9, and they need to see the return of their lives this summer.
Although Ministers say that just a few restrictions remain, we will not start tackling the backlog in NHS waiting times on elective surgery and we will not start tackling the mental health crisis that young people in particular are suffering, with such great detriment. We need to tell the people of this country that we have turned the corner thanks to them and thanks to this vaccine dividend, and we are now ready to accept the risk and move on. It is about everyone’s lives, not just certain lives.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). Like him, I have followed a journey of sometimes voting with the Government on these restrictions and sometimes voting against. It is unusual to be able to say that I agree with the previous speaker, because the previous speaker is nearly always from the Opposition, but, of the 51 speakers in this debate, only five are Labour Back Benchers. This is one of our most important debates. It is about the freedom and liberty of the British people.
Does the hon. Gentleman find rather odd not only the absence of Opposition Members, but the fact that the Government are comfortable about getting the restrictions through only because they have the support of the Labour party, and yet most Labour Members who have spoken today have condemned the Government for their actions?
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman—may I call him my right hon. Friend from across the aisle? He has, of course, been here for the whole debate.
This debate is about the liberty of the British people. We are taking away something that is our right. For instance, I am due to go to a wedding, but I cannot have a group of friends round to my house beforehand because there would be too many of us. When I get to church, I cannot sing. I cannot sing anyway, but I am not allowed to sing. Then I cannot dance at the wedding—[Interruption.] I cannot dance, either. More importantly, as the evening drags out, I cannot then go to a nightclub to boogie the night away in celebration. The following day, I cannot go for a park run to run all these problems off, so I might need to call a doctor, but I cannot go and see a doctor because they will not do face-to-face appointments. This is withdrawing our very liberty.
I am a great fan of the Prime Minister, and I think most Conservative Members are. He came to lead the Conservative party at the end of the Bercow Parliament, when Parliament was in chaos. He took us through a general election, he won a mandate, he delivered Brexit, he dealt with the awful covid pandemic and he has led the world with the vaccine programme, yet tonight, unfortunately, I cannot support him. I think every Member has to put their country first, their constituency second and their party third. On very many—indeed, most—occasions, all those three are in line, but this time I do not think the Government have made the case for putting off unlocking.
With apologies to Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies and covid statistics, and the Government have been using an extraordinary propaganda machine to take certain statistics to try to prove their case, but if we look at other statistics, we can see that the total number of deaths at the moment is running below the five-year average. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said that he had very few cases in his area. In Northamptonshire, thankfully, our two hospitals have zero covid patients and we have not had a death due to covid for five weeks. The Government made their own original forecasts for what would happen on 17 May when we did the major unlocking, but we have done better than their best prediction of the situation, so why have we now gone into this doom and gloom?
I have no doubt that if we were in opposition, our Benches would now be packed and there would be this blond guy, fairly chubby and a bit scruffy—well, as scruffy as me—jumping up and down and making the case for getting rid of these restrictions. I know it is a balance and I know people have to make a choice, but we, as Conservatives, believe in personal responsibility and common sense. Going back to my original example, of course I would not go into a busy nightclub, and of course I would not have 100 friends round, but that would be my decision, not the decision of the state. So unfortunately, as much as I like the Prime Minister, I think he has got this wrong, and I will vote against the regulations tonight.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as chair of the Covid Recovery Group.
Before I turn to the matters before us, I would like to put on record my thoughts about the loss of Jo Cox five years ago. Sadly, I remember that day very well. Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I were both in different roles at that time, and it was our joint responsibility—in my case as the Government Chief Whip and in yours as the Opposition Chief Whip—to ensure that the House was able to be recalled for appropriate tributes to the paid to Jo Cox and her memory. I know that, in your position, you are unable to speak often in the House, but it was a great pleasure working with you on that very sad occasion to make sure that a fitting tribute was paid. Sadly, I remember that day very well.
On a happier note, in one sense, I would like to put on record my thanks to Sir Roy Stone for his 44 years of service in the civil service, which will shortly come to an end, although I am told he is not retiring; he is going to turn his attention to other things. He was a fantastic principal private secretary to me when I was Government Chief Whip, and I know that his loss will be felt across Government.
May I take this moment to put on record my apologies to my right hon. Friend, who was Chief Whip during a period when I was leading various rebellions? I also want to offer a great apology to Roy Stone, who will have had to put up with the trouble that I caused my right hon. Friend. I am very grateful for the things that my right hon. Friend has said.
My hon. Friend reminds us all how we can have different roles in this House. It is worth noting that, as a former Government Chief Whip, I do not find not supporting the Government a particularly comfortable place to be. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, sometimes we have to put what we believe to be the interests of our country first, and that is what I feel I am doing.
I want to draw attention to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said, because he is right. There are documents with Government—I am not saying that these have been agreed by Ministers, but certainly this advice is being given to Ministers—that Government should aim to have a very low prevalence of covid. That is not zero covid, but it is not a great distance away. If Ministers were to agree to that strategy, it would mean restrictions going on for the foreseeable future, and that is one of the things that we are very concerned about.
I note, at this point, what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said: the Labour Benches are somewhat empty—the Back Benches are completely empty— and it is colleagues on the Government side of the House who are holding the Government to account. I accept that the Government may occasionally find that uncomfortable, but it is our role as Members of Parliament.
I always find it helpful to draw attention to the documents actually before us. For those who do not know, we have an explanatory memorandum, which explains what it is we are voting on today. It has been prepared by the Department of Health and Social Care and it will have been approved by a Minister of the Crown. It is very clear, and it is worth reading. Paragraph 7.3, bullet two, makes it clear that the Government will
“likely be able to offer a first dose”
“to all adults…by July, but the vaccinations”
themselves will probably not take place until August “due to supply constraints.” We know that it takes two or three weeks until those vaccinations are effective, so those adults will not actually be protected until later in August, so that means that this delay is therefore pointless, or alternatively, that we are not going to cease these restrictions on 19 July if vaccinating all adults is the goal.
If we then turn to the review dates and whether this is indeed a terminus, paragraphs 7.4 to 7.7 are very interesting. There is a review required by the Secretary of State every 35 days. The first review, according to this, is not due until Monday 19 July. There is no mention here of an earlier review after two weeks—
“the first review due by Monday 19th July 2021.”
It says that
“England will remain at Step 3 for a further 4 weeks (subject to further review).”
It also says that the primary purpose of extending these regulations is
“to gather more evidence that the…tests can be met”—
not that these rules will expire after four weeks never to be reintroduced, but to gather evidence for tests to be met and then for a decision to be taken about whether these restrictions are to continue. The second reason given is to
“allow more people to receive vaccinations…further reducing these risks”,
as Ministers have said, but as I just pointed out, the first doses are not going to be delivered until August, so that makes no sense. Something does not add up here, and we are concerned that these regulations are not going to end on 19 July.
In the context of timetables and how things are going to pan out in the near future, it is now the Government’s intention to ensure the vaccination of a very large number of care workers. That is presumably going to take legislation and a period of time for them to have a vaccination, and perhaps a second vaccination, and to deal with all the other problems. If this is a requirement for the Government to be able to deliver an exit from lockdown, how long will that take?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it is part of the reason why we are concerned. If this was genuinely going to be the end of it, that would be one thing. I have listened carefully to the Members who have spoken and a number have said that they will support the Government on this occasion, but this is it. I am afraid that we have heard that before and it has turned out not to be true, and I am afraid, just from reading the documents in front of us, that that is why I have some scepticism.
The final thing I will say—I hope the Minister who will be winding up the debate, who I have a great deal of respect for, can clarify this—is that I am not quite sure what is going to happen at the end. The review of the evidence that has been gathered about whether the tests are met is not due to be done until 19 July, so I am not clear about when Ministers are going to come to Parliament to set out whether those four tests have been met. Is it going to be on 19 July, or is it going to be before 19 July? I am not clear whether they are going to give that one week’s notice—all the way through the road map so far, we have had four weeks, then a week’s notice. I am not quite clear about the timetable, and this is important, because, as has been said, people’s lives will now be reoriented around that new date, including weddings, family events and people’s plans. It is important that our constituents know what to expect. When can they expect a decision? When can they expect to know what their life will look like? It is because of concerns about whether the regulations really are the end that I will, I am afraid, vote against them this evening.
My final point is on the motion about proceedings in this House. It is my strong view that, although it has been welcome that we have been able to have Parliament meet through a pandemic, and thanks should go to all the parliamentary staff who have made that possible, it is, I think, indisputable that this Parliament, in its current form, is not as effective in holding the Government to account and enabling us to do our job as Parliament should be. I think that we should get back to as normal as possible in this House as fast as we can. For that reason I will also vote against the motion to continue these proceedings effectively until we return in September.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words about how closely we worked together after the tragic murder of Jo Cox. I much appreciated the work that we did together at that terrible time. I also echo his words about Sir Roy Stone, who I saw this afternoon to say how much I had always valued the advice that he gave to me when I was Opposition Chief Whip.
We now go to Sir John Redwood.
It is time to trust people more. It is time to control people less. I would like to praise Ministers and officials, and particularly all the scientists, medics and researchers, who have worked so hard to ensure that the UK is a leader in vaccines—supplying one of the best vaccines to the world, getting it out early and making it available for all of us, and ensuring that we had bought in other vaccines that became available so that we were in a position to protect our population well and relatively early compared with other countries. I pay tribute to all the work by the NHS and the medics to understand how to treat the disease better and how it is transmitted so that we can take better actions to give people greater security.
I say now to all those experts, the NHS and the Government, “Share what is relevant with the rest of us—the public—and let us make more of our own risk assessments.” We are now saying to people that there are two major ways in which we can all protect ourselves against the possibility of getting this disease, or a bad version of it. First, we are making two jabs available to all adults who want them, and the figures so far show that that gives them a much better probability of not catching the disease at all and very strong protection against a serious case of it, which is what we are mainly worried about, as we are trying to stop people dying or struggling in intensive care, and to stop that pressure on the NHS and all the suffering that it produces.
We are also saying to people, “If you’re still worried about the residual risk or if you really don’t like vaccines, you can self-isolate.” I hope that the Government will continue, as an employer and as the Government, guiding others in the economy to say that we should be generous and supportive of anyone who really does feel that they need to protect themselves against the virus by self-isolation, but I think that we are now well beyond the stage where we have to isolate practically everybody else to some extent when so many people now have protection, are making their own risk judgments, and want to get on with their lives.
In the room, when assessing the data, it is important that we look at all the data about jobs, livelihoods, incomes, family stress and mental health pressures, because this policy is creating all of those. The Government can do more. They should be helping the private sector to manage air flows, air extraction, ultraviolet cleaning and so forth to make it safer for many more social contact businesses to reopen and have a reasonable number of people enjoying their services. I think that more could be done on ensuring that all our health settings have really great infection control, because we do not want any more slippages from health settings themselves.
I urge the Government to think again about an idea they looked at early on but did not develop, which is in the large populated areas, particularly the conurbations, to have isolation hospitals that deal with covid and other variant infectious diseases well away from general hospitals. We add to the pressures and the likelihood of cross-infection if we have a general hospital taking in a very infectious disease.
There is now huge scope to get a really good economic recovery to save jobs, create new jobs and get pay up, to have many more transactions in the economy. To do that, however, we need to relax and to trust the people more. I think my constituents are ready to make decisions about their own lives again and many are very frustrated that they are not allowed to. We have all this great advice and knowledge. Let us not get too gloomy and let us not lock everybody up again.
I will be supporting the Government this evening, but on this occasion my support is heavily qualified. Like many of my constituents, I am disappointed that stage 4 of the Government’s road map for reopening has been pushed back to 19 July. However, like—I believe—the majority of my constituents, I understand the reasoning for the four-week delay. The Government have consistently stated that the road map marks 21 June as the earliest opportunity to end restrictions, not a date set in stone. It is clear, however, that the delta variant has changed the race between the virus and the vaccine. If we faced only the alpha variant, then the extraordinary level of first doses that the NHS has delivered would undoubtedly have been enough for us to be fully reopening next week, but two jabs are needed for the highest level of protection against the dominant delta variant. Understandably, I believe, this means that the NHS needs more time to vaccinate more people fully before ending restrictions.
However, I share concerns that one more short delay may in fact lead to many more. There is a risk that the Government’s decision-making process is becoming too cautious in the face of the next wave of coronavirus. If that happens, we may miss our chance to fully reopen in the summer before the trickier autumn and winter months. I believe my constituents can stomach a short delay, but the Government must provide assurances that this delay will be the final hurdle. Coronavirus is not going anywhere. We will have to learn to live with it and the risk it poses to public health, just as we do with the flu.
The Government must hold their nerve and let the vaccines do their job. They should not be afraid of their own success. The NHS vaccination programme has been a resounding triumph. In my constituency of Orpington, nearly 100,000 people have been vaccinated thanks to the tremendous effort of the local NHS staff and volunteers. Almost 60,000 of those jabs have been administered in the Orpington Health and Wellbeing Centre, which marks six months as a vaccination centre this week. Data shows clearly that the vaccines we have available are successful in combating all known variations of the virus. As vaccine numbers continue to increase, it will therefore be impossible to explain any further delay.
This delay has serious economic ramifications, especially for small businesses. For example, the 100% business rate relief for retail, hospitality and the leisure sector is due to end on 30 June. Employer contribution changes to the coronavirus job retention scheme are due to take effect on 1 July. Many businesses that are not able to reopen fully are now faced with paying their bounce back loans. The Government therefore need to set out what support businesses can expect as a result of this delay. We also need to know what proportion of people need to be vaccinated to sever the ties between cases and hospitalisations. How many more adults, therefore, need to be fully vaccinated? The Government need to plan to deliver those vaccines in time, so that we can reopen on 19 July.
If the Government can provide that detail, it will go a long way to calm worries that restrictions will go on and on, and never be lifted. That is why I hope the Government will now set out in detail what needs to happen in the next five weeks so that we can, finally and fully, reopen on 19 July.
As has been noted by my colleagues, there are very few Labour Back Benchers taking part in this debate, a point made in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Our Labour colleagues are not bad people; they are not lazy; but they are not as interested as we are in freedom. This whole debate is a mortal threat—a mortal threat—to the Conservative party. This is proven by history. When we had wartime regulation and a controlled economy between 1939 and 1945, it led to a Labour landslide. People get used to controls and at the end of July—the motion will go through today, obviously—there must be an entire re-set of the Conservative Government. We must be talking about freedom, civil liberties, trusting business not subsidising business, and low taxes. That is what the Conservative party is about.
Let us look at the data. In Lincolnshire, sadly, we have had one death in the past month. We have a population of 651,000 adults, 504,000 of whom have had their first jab, and of those, 400,000 have had their second jab. Some 95% of over-70s in Lincolnshire have had two jabs, as have 75% of the over-50s. There is no reason for Lincolnshire to be under any restrictions at all. I accept that we are one country, but if we must have controls I do not know why we cannot have regionalised controls.
The Government must act according to reasonable proportionality. Our job as Back Benchers is to scrutinise the Executive, but how can we do that if we do not know what the Executive’s goal is? There has been too much shifting of goal posts, and too many fatuous rules based not on science but on populism. Our society should be free and open, and there is a real danger that the public will increasingly ignore the restrictions. The Government will be a Government of the emperor without clothes. Of course the public in large part support the further controls, but what about business? Business is being driven into the ground. We do not support businesses with endless subsidies; we let business get on with business.
This will never end: at the end of this month there will be another variant. It will come from darkest Peru—the Peruvian variant—and Paddington Bear will be arrested at Paddington station and put in quarantine. It will go on and on and on. It is a bit of a cliché, but we are never going to eradicate this disease. It is like no other disease. It will constantly vary and constantly attack us, and we have to learn to live with it. We must not base our policy on the number of infections, which will rise and fall, and probably keep rising with every new variant. Our policy is to save the NHS. Our policy is to protect the NHS and stop it falling over. Only one policy makes sense at the end of July: is the NHS in danger, and are hospitals in danger of becoming over-full? That should be our policy.
Happy Sussex day, Madam Deputy Speaker. Like every good, horny-handed son and daughter of Sussex, I am afraid I “wunt be druv” into the Government Lobby this evening.
The hashtag #i’mdone was the overwhelming message on social media on Monday when independence day, so tantalisingly close, was again cruelly whipped away from my constituents. Madam Deputy Speaker, I’m done with making excuses to my constituents about when their lives might get back to some degree of normality.
We are constantly told that these decisions are about data, not dates—quite right—but we have the imminent dates by which the vaccination programme will have achieved effective herd immunity, which is well ahead of what was imagined when the lockdown road map was designed. Now, 80% of adults have had their first dose. We have data showing that the Pfizer vaccine is 96% effective against the delta variant after two doses, and that the AstraZeneca vaccine is 92% effective. We have data showing an average of nine deaths a day at the moment, and 136 hospitalisations—a world away from where we were at the start of the road map. We have data from Public Health England that only 3% of the delta variant cases have received two vaccinations.
We also have dodgy data from three modelling studies by the University of Warwick, Imperial College, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They show widely different scenarios, with the most pessimistic warning that the UK could experience a further 203,000 deaths by next June, which is around 50,000 more than the first and second waves combined. Yet how can that be when we know the vaccine works, and the data show a likely 90% take-up rate?
Those doomsday models by largely anonymous wonks with no remit for considering the impact of further lockdown on life at large seem to trump all the other data, and the Government put them on a pedestal above all others. They are confusing modelling for scientific forecasts.
The trouble is that there are lots of different scientists and they do not agree with each other, yet only certain scientists seem to have an impact on the Government. Usually, it is the most doomsday of those scenarios.
Where is the data that shows that allowing six people inside a pub has increased infection rates, and by how much? Where is the data that shows how much faster an infection has spread because up to 30 people have been able to meet outside since the original journey out of lockdown? Where is the data showing that the NHS is being overwhelmed, not by covid patients, but by a huge increase in children and families suffering mental illness, including many worrying episodes that we have seen as constituency MPs, or by the surge in advanced cancer cases that could not be diagnosed and treated early? Where is the data showing how many businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, cannot wait a further four weeks to be profitable and are likely now to fail, with the accompanying impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and wellbeing? Where is the data showing the impact on the wellbeing of children now denied sports days for another year and school proms? Students are again being denied graduation ceremonies for a second year, having missed out on so much of their university experience. Where is the data on the impact of domestic abuse, which has risen so much, as we have seen? Where is the data showing the continued impact on babies? The problem is that the only data considered seems exclusively to be the worst-case scenarios about the spread of covid, regardless of the current single-figure average death rates.
No covid strategy is risk-free, but a further delay is by no means a victimless decision. It is time that we trusted people to live with covid just, as the Prime Minister announced in February, in the same way that we “live with flu”: we do not let flu get in the way of living our lives. The Government promised at that stage that we would move to personal responsibility. My fear is that if the Government continue to try to nanny people, they will just not take any notice and no amount of retained rules will make any difference. People are already increasingly making their own risk assessments. As somebody tweeted the other day:
“I had Covid. I have antibodies. I have had both jabs. I’ve worn a mask. I’ve sanitised to within an inch of my life… But now, #ImDone no more. It's over.”
My fear is that this will become a much more widely held view if the Government just keep delaying freedom day, without the evidence to back it up.
I really do not mind interventions taking place, but we have 13 people to get in before I start the wind-ups, so every intervention means that somebody is not going to get in. I urge people to speak for fewer than three minutes if they can.
In all the difficult judgments the House has had to make during the pandemic, this is perhaps one of the most difficult, and I entirely respect the argument of those who have spoken in this debate and come to a different conclusion from me. As ever, this is about a balance of risks: between the delta variant and the risks of ongoing restrictions, which are not insignificant. We have to ask ourselves: what has changed since the last time we looked at the road map and at its end point? The Government’s strategy has not changed; it remains to vaccinate, prioritising the most vulnerable. That cannot require everyone to be vaccinated. That is neither scientifically necessary, nor practically achievable. The significant change is what an effective response to the delta variant now seems to require: two doses of vaccine, not just one. I see the significance in that of the difference between the 57% of the adult population with two doses now and the 76% we should reach by 19 July. That argument allows me, just, to support the Government tonight, but I wish to make two other points.
The first is that the logic of this extension is to protect the NHS from a significant increase in hospitalisations from covid-19, and this protection comes at a high cost to the economy and to the rest of society. So we need to take full advantage of it, whether in reducing the backlog of treatments for other medical conditions or in giving NHS staff a break before what may be another difficult winter. It would help if Ministers could explain what we are doing with the time and space this extension is buying us. The second point is that I am extremely concerned, as others have been, about what our recent decision making tells us about our collective tolerance of risk. Scientists and Ministers alike have told us that we are going to have to live with covid indefinitely, but we do not know what that means, if not the acceptance of ongoing risk of illness or even death. We do not understand what tolerable risk looks like. The road map had four stages, no more, and if the logic of this extension to the last stage is to allow greater vaccination, when that is achieved we must be able to say that the restrictions will be lifted, so that businesses and individuals can, at long last, start to plan with certainty. Anything else will move us from risk management to risk aversion, and risk aversion has consequences broader than the management of the pandemic. Appetite for risk, for example, is a crucial ingredient of innovation and invention—ironically, the things that have delivered the vaccines and the progress we have made against covid so far.
Despite my reservations, I will support the Government tonight, but I want a commitment to use that period of extra restrictions wisely and a firmer commitment to end restrictions on 19 July.
This great country is the cradle of freedom. For over eight centuries, at least since the time of Magna Carta, this mother of Parliaments has protected the rights and liberties of the British people. I, together with many others in this place, have been deeply troubled by the temporary restrictions that we have asked the British people to observe and the sacrifices we have asked them to make. I have supported every covid decision to date with a clear sight of the need to tackle the virus that was rampaging through Gloucestershire and the UK, when hospitalisations and covid deaths were a serious daily threat. My heart continues to go out to everybody who has lost loved ones.
However, we are in a very different situation now, and I cannot support a confused further delay of the road map in these circumstances. Now is the time to trust the British people, and we have heard that a lot tonight. We must trust them to continue acting with caution, and we must trust them to make choices to protect the health of their friends, family and loved ones.
I am proud of how the people and businesses of Stroud, the valleys and vale have supported their neighbours. They have volunteered in their thousands and put themselves forward for vaccinations, all to regain their historic freedoms, to stay well and to get back to some form of normal. In Stroud, we have 87% of people vaccinated for the first time and 55% fully vaccinated. Thankfully, only three people are in hospital in Gloucestershire with covid, and I pray for their swift recovery.
At a time when our hospitals are nowhere near overwhelmed by covid and we are told we need to learn to live with the virus, it is only right that we now look to protect the others from the impact of restrictions. To dismiss this delay as only being four weeks is disrespectful. These weeks are crucial for many, but not least for businesses that invested money and hope in being able to trade viably next week. For those in the hospitality, entertainment, weddings, exercise and travel sectors, these summer weeks follow a lost summer last year, and they cannot be made up over the autumn and winter months.
Being involved in the negotiations for the wedding industry has also led me to this position. Months of work, evidence gathering and sensible suggestions were swept aside by health officials at the last minute without explanation and against a backdrop of thousands of people hugging at the football and the cricket, which I loved by the way. Why reject testing, like we have in sporting events, and then make a father wear a mask walking his daughter down the aisle? He will eat a maskless dinner with her later that day. What have we come to when the Government are banning dance floors? I am equally confuzzled by banning singing in churches. Our predominantly double-jabbed congregations just want to sing to God—let them sing.
These are not easy decisions. The difficulties facing our Government are extraordinary, and I sincerely respect those on both sides of the House who have different views. I have the utmost respect for the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, and I do not mind saying out loud that this was a difficult decision, but with the welfare of Stroud firmly in my mind, I praise the courage and sacrifice that the people of this great nation have shown, and I say that now is the time for us to trust the people and give them their freedom day.
What on earth is happening to our country? Muzzled, acquiescent and fearful. Having fought and defeated one Project Fear, I never thought we would experience another. Sadly, unlike the first, the polls suggest that the majority of the population has succumbed to the second. Armed with that information, the decision makers feel they can creep out with their shovels and move the goalposts at will. Personally I am not surprised that the nation has been beaten into submission when, day after day and hour after hour, we are deluged with dire warnings of doom and gloom by Government advisers of one kind or another.
A section of the press and media must take responsibility for their role in creating this near Orwellian nightmare. Do not get me wrong; I have never underestimated the threat that this pandemic poses. Every death and illness is deeply regrettable, but surely there comes a time when, for the greater good of the majority, a sense of proportion must be adopted. This is not easy to do when graphs and statistics are presented to support this one-month extension, despite those far better qualified than I questioning their methodology, presentation and even accuracy.
So much that was predicted has not come to pass, and the so-called third wave is not killing or hospitalising anywhere near the numbers affected in waves 1 or 2. Why? Well, it is due to the remarkable vaccine rollout, for which the Government Front-Bench team and the NHS must take huge credit. From the initial promise of regaining our freedom when the vulnerable had been inoculated, I can understand the Government’s reluctance to give it back. First, it is easier to say no. Secondly, let us not forget that there is a public inquiry hanging over the Government like the sword of Damocles. The revelations from Dominic Cummings and the accusations that followed them were no doubt a sobering taster to Ministers of what is to come. However, fearing an inquiry and variants are not reasons for delaying freedom day.
Mistakes have been made. That was inevitable given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, but it does not mean being risk averse now. We desperately need a confident Government to take a proportionate stand in the face of the evidence. For months, the Government’s cry was, “Protect the NHS”. On Tuesday, the organisation’s chief executive said that only 1% of hospital beds are occupied by covid patients. We know that admissions are rising in the north-west, but not on the scale seen during the second wave. Yes, totally unlocking is a risk, but it is a proportionate one when considering the appalling damage being done to the risk takers—those who create our prosperity and jobs—and the continued successful rollout of the vaccines.
As for this place, I have been here long enough to know that, when there is agreement across the majority of the House, something is fundamentally wrong.
Over the past few months, I have repeatedly called for an end to restrictions at the earliest opportunity and I believe that the success of our vaccination programme gives us that opportunity. We are all aware of the pain that has been inflicted on so many: leisure, tourism, hospitality, aviation—the list goes on. This has manifested itself in the loss of jobs and livelihoods, and although the Government have done much to mitigate the fallout through their generous support schemes, they have just scratched the surface when what people really want to do is to return to normal.
When we walk down the voting Lobby, it is never a binary choice; no decision is clear-cut and there are bits of every motion that we agree with and bits that we do not like. Any self-respecting politician with the best interests of constituency, country and party at heart just hopes that the stars do align. I have mixed feelings about the extension to the current lockdown rules. On the one hand, creating a wall of immunity among all in the adult demographics seems sensible so that we can move forward, but by the same token the ongoing restrictions on how we live our lives is killing businesses and people all over the UK. Not only is the cost to the taxpayer immense; there is also a cost to our hopes, dreams and mental health. The sooner that we can smash through lockdown, the better.
However, I have also been unequivocal that any policy decision needs to be driven by the science and it remains a fact that the delta variant is causing real concern, with infections, hospitalisations and deaths spiking alarmingly. Aside from all the disappointment, the Prime Minister could not have been clearer in his stated position at the weekend.
It may just be that our younger generation have an expectation of being vaccinated against the killer disease before all restrictions are lifted. It may be that cases are growing by 65% a week, and that hospitalisations are increasing by 50% a week across the UK. It may be that the NHS needs and deserves four more weeks to complete its job. Therefore, in the light of the evidence presented to me and the decisions that have been made in good faith, I will be supporting all Government motions this evening.
I would like to raise two final points. First, my central plea is that, when the list of authorised pilots is released, it must include flagship global events such as the Euros, Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix, the Chelsea Flower Show and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I am afraid that the alternative would be cataclysmic.
Lastly, I am increasingly concerned by the dichotomy between the unprecedented success of our vaccination programme and the ongoing risk aversion of the Government. As a military man, I am comfortable with risk and feel that we all now need to live with covid in a way that has not been achieved so far. Using military parlance, given that we cannot transfer or terminate it—and lord knows we have tried to treat it—it is now time to robustly tolerate covid. I have a feeling that all good will will be exhausted if the Government do not honour their promise of 19 July.
Following the science is an attractive and even comforting idea in a time of uncertainty. But—I say this as a scientist —we can no more follow science than we can follow history. Science gives us knowledge and understanding, but it cannot give us wisdom, and it is wisdom that we need to make what are essentially moral and political decisions about how we balance the short and long- term best interests of our whole society. I am saddened that we have lost—I hope only temporarily—that sense of balance.
Preventing death from covid seems to have become the principal purpose of our national endeavour, no matter the cost to our way of life. We have placed insufficient emphasis on the terrible long-term consequences of lockdown—poverty, unemployment, lost education, debt, undiagnosed cancer, loneliness, hopelessness and fear—and focused far too narrowly on just one set of metrics: the daily covid data. Even the most hardened libertarian would accept that, in a national emergency and in the face of significant threat to life, restrictions on our freedoms have been necessary and right, but with all vulnerable people having now been offered vaccination, the balance of risk has shifted.
Covid is no longer a substantial threat. The average covid mortality so far in June is seven deaths a day—seven out of around 1,500 daily deaths that we could expect in normal times. The number of people in hospital now stands at 1,177—some 37,000 fewer than at the peak in January. Thanks to the incredible efficacy of our vaccination programme, it is hard to comprehend how our hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed. The idea that we are still in a state of emergency is not supported by the evidence, yet significant legal restrictions on our basic freedoms are to remain, even dictating how many of our family and friends can visit us in our private homes. The restrictions we face are now out of proportion to the threat, so extending the measures sets a dangerous precedent.
We must learn to live with covid in the way that we live with so many other risks. Vaccines will never be 100% effective, just like seatbelts, smoke alarms or contraception, but it is vital to our autonomy and our identity as human beings that we are able to make our own choices and evaluations of everyday risks, as has been the norm in our country for generations. I have the greatest respect for Ministers, who have had to make unimaginably difficult decisions over the past year, but now is the time to restore a sense of balance, proportion and fairness, and to make a return to life in all its fullness.
In my final seconds, I want to say this: childhood should be a time that is care-free. Testing our children twice a week, making them wear masks when they are not at risk, and constantly reminding them that they may be a danger to people whom they love, is damaging them psychologically, and we have to stop.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully to the contributions this afternoon and we have done a good job at articulating the challenge we face. Basically, what is reasonable to do to stop coronavirus spreading, infecting and killing enormous numbers of people and overwhelming the NHS? The answer to that asks us to consider what the costs are for doing something, and what the costs are for doing nothing.
There has been a cost to freedom from lockdowns, but freedom is complex. What freedom would people aged 50 years and up have had to venture out of their homes when coronavirus ran rampant and left them with at least a one-in-200 chance, or worse, of dying if they caught it?
There has been a cost to businesses, particularly those in hospitality and other businesses that people have been prevented from visiting. I am certain that had our NHS been overwhelmed, had one in 200 people aged 50 started dying en masse, and had the news shown patients being turned away from intensive therapy units, the impact on those businesses would have been similar to, if not the same as, that of lockdown.
There has been a cost to children’s welfare. Which parent would really have carried on sending their children to school, knowing that there would be no help if there was an outbreak of meningitis or measles? How traumatised would the nation’s children have been when one in 200, or more, of their grandparents died in the space of a year or two?
There has been a cost from lockdown to people with illnesses such as cancer. Where exactly would cancer patients have gone after their operations when ITUs were full? Which immunocompromised patients having chemo would have risked visiting their local hospital for treatment and catching covid? It is wrong for critics of lockdown to think that they alone care about freedom, hospitality businesses, children and those suffering from other illnesses; we all do. I do, but I just took what I thought was a rational choice in weighing up the costs across the board. I must take issue with people today who have talked about our freedoms not being used to support the NHS, as if that were some kind of abstract concept. What we are talking about is supporting the patients, their friends and their family who would have been prevented from accessing the NHS if the restrictions had not prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.
It was always inevitable that, over time, these judgments would have become more finely balanced, as they have done, but I will not be told that I am not capable of continuing to make these finely balanced judgments. It is right that the next phase means a new discussion. Like others, I find these types of restrictions—restrictions that stop us living out our fundamental desires to mix, socialise and spend time with each other—a heavy, heavy price to pay. I have no doubt that the public will be willing to pay a similarly heavy price to remove most, if not all, of them. That is not to say that people will not mind wearing a mask on the tube, for example.
We have some tough decisions ahead of us, and I welcome the recognition of that from the Government. It is now time for the Government to state more clearly and starkly what these choices are, so that the British public can decide together what sacrifices we are and we are not willing to make.
As MPs, we are asked to take fundamentally political decisions, balancing the certainty of harm done to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing, which is caused by restrictions, with the imminent risk to people’s lives and the ability of our health services to cope if the pandemic were to spiral out of control. We can only do so on the basis of the very best medical and scientific advice that is available.
Two weeks ago, I was sure that there was no reason why step 4 should not go ahead on 21 June. Within days, that certainty looked foolish. The advice now is clear that pressing ahead on Monday would lead to massive increases in admissions that would leave our hospitals with more covid patients than at any of the worst points of last year. Given that and given the clear guidance from our local NHS leaders of the impact that this would have on their ability to treat people in need, the only responsible course of action is to pause. However, that does not mean that we should not question and test that advice.
Unlike some, I do not believe that the advice has been manipulated to secure a specific outcome. This is not another 45-minute dossier. None the less, some of the modelling does look strange. Some of the assumptions could be questionable. The effectiveness of the vaccines are estimated at 89% and 90% in the modelling, whereas Public Health England data put it at 92% and 96%. The difference between 89% and 96% might not sound huge, but, if we flip it around, the difference in the ineffectiveness rate between 4% and 11% is enormous and clearly would have significant policy implications.
The models project 2,500 hospital admissions a day within eight weeks. That suggests a rate of increase of 40% a week, which is much higher than we are currently experiencing. If that increase was actually 30%, the admissions would be closer to 1,400 a day. If the current rate of 22%, which was seen in the past week, were to continue, then it would reach just 800 after eight weeks. Surely those differences would lead to different policy choices. That is why this two-week break point is important and why it is vital that Ministers take it seriously.
I will back the motions tonight, but if, over the next two weeks, the data do not bear out the hypotheses in the models, we must rethink.
I have been contacted by many constituents who are concerned about the extension of these restrictions, especially when cases and hospitalisations are still at an absolutely low level. I also represent a central London constituency, and central London is suffering badly, as a result of people still being encouraged to work from home and our having very few international business visitors and residents, with the result that unemployment in central London is looking very bad.
However, I acknowledge that, clearly, with two shots of the vaccines, there is no question but that there is better resistance to hospitalisation. I will support the Government tonight for one final heave over the line, but I urge them to make sure that we do not lose the benefit of two vaccines. For instance, why are we still encouraging people to work from home when they are double vaccinated, and why are we asking people to quarantine at home if they have been in contact with a case when they are double vaccinated? We need to refine and perfect all these features, because this is having a meaningful impact on people’s lives. I will support the Government, but we have work to do and we need to get out of these restrictions.
I have supported the Government throughout on coronavirus measures, but today we have come very close to the point, for me personally, at which the line has been breached. I have listened to some very persuasive speeches from colleagues who have come to that point today, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). I myself am sticking with the Government on this occasion for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) gave— the same reasons, in fact, that the Health Secretary gave me in the Lobby earlier—including the need to get those second jabs into people who are still at risk of hospitalisation.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) recently said, we must take the two-week review seriously, because there is evidence even today that we are starting to bend the curve of exponential growth and that the R rate is starting to fall on cases in England. We know there is a 10-day lag to hospitalisations, but we have also seen the hospitalisation percentage falling. It was 8% of cases turning into hospitalisations in the autumn, and it is down to 4% now. If that continues to drop, the case that the Government are making will get weaker and weaker.
I would like briefly to pay tribute to the Health Secretary not only for all his work on this and his assiduousness in coming to the House, but for helping me with a major public health issue in Newcastle-under-Lyme—a landfill—which he has been incredibly engaged with. I think the Health Secretary has done a fantastic job throughout this pandemic, and I welcome what he said today. He himself obviously has his reservations, but this is the right decision for the country at this time.
As I serve on the Procedure Committee with my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley)—its Chair, who spoke earlier—let me say very briefly that I will be supporting the other motion as well. As we have said in the Committee, I think it is absolutely fundamental that we align what we do in this House with what we are asked in the country to do.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate—one that I know is of huge importance both to this House and to the country. In West Dorset, we have had one of the lowest numbers of cases and of deaths across the whole country. As it stands today, in the whole of Dorset we have just one person poorly in hospital. We have not lost anybody from this virus for around two months, so it is with great regret that I have to tell the Government that I find it very difficult to support their line and will not be doing so in the Lobby this evening.
The vaccination scheme—which has been a source of national pride and I think many if not all of us have now received a vaccination—has brought great reassurance to many people across this country. But we now have to help everybody in the nation, particularly those who, as in my constituency, where 97% of our businesses are small or micro-sized, are feeling this so painfully. We need to be able to give them the summer as the opportunity to get their business back not just for the short term, but for the long term. That is why, as the Member for West Dorset, I must make it clear to the Government that I am afraid I am unable to support them in the Lobby this evening.
None of us wants these restrictions to go on for a moment longer than they have to. All of us are proud of our world-leading vaccination effort, and I pay tribute to everyone involved in delivering it in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston. However, when we see that cases are doubling roughly every 10 days and that within a week or two we will be back to the same number of cases every day that we had at the start of the November lockdown, we can see why there is real cause for concern. That is why it is right to go for the delay that we will vote for this evening. We know that getting a second vaccination dose gives people a lot more protection against this dangerous new variant. We know that many more people will be fully vaccinated as a result of this delay and that will potentially save thousands of lives, so it is the right thing to do.
My pleas to Ministers are as follows. The first is that we use the time that we are buying tonight to really drive vaccination rates among that last 4%—perhaps 1 million people—among the most clinically vulnerable groups. As the number of cases accelerates, those people have a target on their back, and it would be a tragedy for them to die of fear, ignorance or simple lack of knowledge at this stage, at the very end of the pandemic.
My second plea to Ministers is to continue to improve our ability to detect at an early stage and close our borders against dangerous new strains. While the Indian variant is very dangerous, as this thing bounces around the world, one day there will potentially be something worse, and we need to be ready for that. Last but not least, we must improve our ability to nip future pandemics in the bud. I believe that involves reappraising our attitudes to things like challenge trials, so that we never have to go through this again.
It is the right thing to do to delay ending the restrictions for a few more weeks. It is a difficult decision but it is the right one. We need to put in place all the right measures to ensure that we are never in this position again, and that when we abolish these restrictions, we abolish them forever.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always a little bit trepidatious coming in at this stage of the debate.
The debate has been very finely balanced, and the difficulty is that after so many great contributions, one feels as though one is repeating oneself a bit. This is a difficult decision, and I do not envy the Government in the position that they find themselves in. We must tread a nuanced, balanced path, ensuring that we protect the most vulnerable while safeguarding those liberties that I am sure all of us in this House want to ensure that we and our constituents can enjoy.
The pandemic in my communities, in Sandwell, has been different, because we have not been able to work from home. The majority of my constituents have had to go out to work in the factories or in other places. They have had to be there. I want to dispel the notion that we can all carry on as normal—that we can all work from home. It just does not happen, I am afraid; it is just not reality. An important point that was raised by many hon. Members from both sides of the House this evening is that we must use the time that we will now have as a result of the regulations—because they will pass this evening—to ensure that we plan properly, to tackle the issues and the challenges that we are faced with in our NHS.
I want to talk about primary care, because that is a big thing for my constituents—no more so, at the moment, than in one of my communities, in Tividale, where my constituents struggle to get a GP appointment. One constituent who contacted me today had had to call the surgery 150 times to try and get in to see someone. It is not acceptable; it cannot carry on. I have had really positive discussions with the Minister and his team in the Department of Health, but we must find a solution. And we must use this time, not just on short-term matters, but to flesh out a long-term plan to deal with these issues, going forward. Because our NHS has done a fantastic job during this pandemic, now we must be sure that the issues that have come to light as a result of the situation we find ourselves in, are dealt with for the long term, so that the legacy of the pandemic is that we ensure that we pay back those NHS heroes who have saved so many people.
May I start by associating myself with the many Members who have paid tribute to Jo Cox? As we have heard from the tributes, she transcended intake and party in bringing people together, and my thoughts are with her family at this time.
There have been many excellent speeches from both sides of the Chamber. People who will be voting different ways often made many similar points. I believe that shows the disappointment that we all feel that we are here once again, grappling with many overlapping and multiple considerations.
There were some particularly thought-provoking Opposition speeches, by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra). I particularly enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North and her repeated use of the word hopeless—a word that I am sure is on many people’s lips at the moment. She was right that we have been here before—at Christmas, with the Prime Minister dangling the carrot of freedom before pulling it away at the last minute. It is the hallmark of a Prime Minister who struggles to deliver bad news to the public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East made the similar point that there is a pattern here of the Government making the same mistakes over and over again. He also rightly highlighted the continuing failure to provide adequate financial support for those who self-isolate—a point that was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport and is particularly apposite today, when a Government report has reached the news which states that the current self-isolation policy has “low to medium” effectiveness and that there are “barriers” to self-isolation. That is a point that we have been making since the start of the pandemic, so it is about time the Government listened to us and to their own advisers and fixed it.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the fantastic contribution from my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, who drew attention to how the announcement came out, once again, via the media. He also raised an important point about the enhanced measures that a number of areas, including our own county of Cheshire, have been put into this week. Unfortunately, we have seen a surge in cases, but there is apparently no prospect of our getting a rise in vaccines.
When I spoke to my fellow healthcare professionals in my local hospital vaccination centre weeks ago, many expressed their concerns about the delta variant and its possible impact on the local NHS and on delaying lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to do more to prevent workplace burnout by providing more workplace support to our fellow healthcare professionals, who have spent the past 18 months supporting the Government through their incompetency?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We owe a great debt to those in the NHS and to those who have worked on the frontline during the past 18 months. Last week, the Health and Social Care Committee released a very important report on burnout; I really hope that the Government address it, because without the workforce, the NHS is nothing.
To return to the issues in Cheshire, we have not had the increase in vaccines that the surge in cases requires and that the Government’s own scientific advisers say is the best way to deal with such an outbreak. Our constituents are being sent far and wide to get their first jabs. We have fantastic volunteers and NHS workers ready, willing and able to deliver those jabs, but we need the Government to match that ambition by increasing supply. That will be where we can make the most difference.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester also made a very important point about how we are now in the worst of all worlds with the new guidance that was issued at the same time that the regulations came into force. We are now advised not to meet indoors: again, that diverts people away from the hospitality sector, which was just opening up again, but without a penny more in financial support for it. As he mentioned, other sectors have also been affected by the regulations and are still not getting any additional financial support in recognition of the change in policy.
On the issue of guidance and law, I hope that the Minister will look at last week’s report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, which stated that the use of guidance had
“in some instances undermined legal certainty by laying claim to legal requirements that do not exist. The Government does not have, and must not assume, authority to mandate public behaviour other than as required by law. The consequence has been a lack of clarity on which rules are legally enforceable, posing challenges for the police and local government…and potentially undermining public compliance and confidence.”
If living with covid means living with guidance rather than laws, I really do urge the Government to read that report before they proceed down that road.
Will the Minister clarify whether the Government are still making decisions based on data rather than dates? As the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), pointed out, the Prime Minister was pretty clear that the 19 July was the “terminus date” for restrictions, yet paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory memorandum accompanying the regulations states that the delay is
“to gather more evidence that the…tests can be met”
under the road map in the light of the delta variant. There would be little point in gathering that data if it were not used to inform future decisions, so that rather implies that 19 July might not be the end date after all.
As the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) pointed out, there is no mention in the explanatory memorandum or the regulations of the two-week point at which things will be reconsidered. Of course, we all hope that 19 July is the end date, but we have been down the road of false promises many times in the past 18 months, and I do not think it unreasonable to be a little sceptical about what the Prime Minister says and what actually materialises, given his record to date. Any clarity that the Minister can shed on the precise reason for the delay would be much appreciated.
Of course, it did not have to be this way. The delays to our unlocking that we are debating were not inevitable; in fact, they were totally avoidable. The British public have been magnificent throughout the crisis—they have followed the rules and played their part. Yet when they see world leaders ignoring social distancing at a barbecue but are told that the rules cannot yet be relaxed for them, and when they see thousands of people attending football matches but are told that they cannot attend their own children’s school sports day, they grow frustrated at what they see as a lack of consistency from those who make the rules. That frustration grows into anger when they see a Prime Minister who has thrown it all away by keeping the borders open and letting the delta variant run wild through the country. As a result, the delta variant now makes up 96% of new infections. That did not happen by accident, and, as the chief medical officer said on Monday, we would be lifting restrictions now if it were not for the delta variant. All that good work and all the benefits of the vaccine have been blown because the Prime Minister was once again too slow, just as he was too slow with the first lockdown, the second lockdown and the third.
I know that the Government will say that they acted as soon as they could on the information that they had, but the explanation for why they did not act sooner on the delta variant has changed in the last few days. We were initially told on multiple occasions that the data did not support putting India on the red list earlier because the positivity rates of the new variant were three times higher for Pakistan, but now we are told that India was not put on earlier because the variant had not been identified as one of interest or concern.
Neither explanation stands up to scrutiny. The only published data on the Indian variant does not show a positivity rate three times as high for Pakistan, and the idea that action was taken shortly before it was designated as a variant of concern does not explain why Pakistan and Bangladesh were red listed weeks earlier. The only credible explanation I can therefore find for treating India differently is that the Prime Minister did not want to scupper his trade visit and photo opportunity with the Indian Prime Minister.
Instead of excuses, we should be getting an apology. It is beyond doubt that the Prime Minister’s incompetence, dithering and vanity have cost this country dear, and that is the only reason why the full unlocking of this country is not going ahead next week. Having heard today via WhatsApp from Dominic Cummings what the Prime Minister thinks of the Health Secretary, I wonder whether the Health Secretary has at any point in the last few weeks had similar feelings towards the Prime Minister. If he has, at least that is something we can both agree on.
At the outset, I associate myself with the shadow Minister’s remarks in respect of our late colleague, Jo Cox. As we stand at this Dispatch Box, we can see the coat of arms above the Opposition Benches. I pay tribute to her and to all the work that she did while she was in this place, and before.
I would much rather I were not standing here today urging and encouraging colleagues to vote for this motion. I know that colleagues would wish that it were not necessary, but I regret to say that it is. We have made huge progress—progress that has been made possible by our phenomenal vaccine roll-out programme. The tribute for that goes to the scientists who developed the vaccine, those who procured it, the NHS, all the volunteers, the charities, the military, The Sun’s jabs army and everyone who has played their part in helping to deliver this programme. That progress has also been made possible by the incredible efforts of the British people, and by the dedication of everyone who works in our health and care system. I know the shadow Minister will join me in expressing our joint gratitude to them all.
As the Prime Minister set out on Monday, this vaccine remains our route out of the pandemic. With every day that goes by, we are better protected by our vaccines, but the delta variant has made the race between virus and vaccine much tighter. Cases continue to grow rapidly each week in the worst-affected areas. The number of people being admitted to hospital in England has begun to rise, and the number of people in ICUs is also rising, but the vaccine remains our way out.
Data published this week shows that two doses of the jab are just as effective against hospital admission with the delta variant, compared with the alpha variant, and indeed they may even be more effective against the delta variant. That underlines the importance of that second jab and the need for more of us to have the chance to get its life-saving protection.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) put it far more effectively than I dare say I will be able to do. He was absolutely right to highlight the crucial importance, over the next few weeks, of getting those second jabs—particularly the AstraZeneca vaccine—into people’s arms. He is right to highlight that after one jab, the Pfizer vaccine is highly effective, but we need two jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine to provide that level of protection. It is important, in that context, to remember that the AZ vaccine is the workhorse of our vaccination programme. More than 30 million people have now received their second jab, and in one month’s time that number could stand as high as 40 million. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State highlighted in his remarks an important factor in getting those second doses into people’s arms. There are still 1.2 million over-50s who have had their first dose—they are not declining the vaccine; they have had the first dose—but who need the second dose to provide that high level of protection. Similarly, there are 4.4 million over-40s who need their second dose. With the delta variant now making up nine in 10 of the cases across the UK, it is vital we bridge the gap and get many more people that life-saving second jab.
This extra time will allow us to get more needles into more arms, getting us the protection that we need and enabling us to see restrictions fall away on 19 July. In that vein, I would remind colleagues of the quote from the Prime Minister on Monday, when he was very clear:
“As things stand, and on the evidence that I can see right now, I am confident that we will not need more than four weeks and that we won’t need to go beyond 19 July.”
The short answer is that the British people do believe the Prime Minister now.
We face a difficult choice, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) set it out extremely clearly. It reflects the underlying debate about risk. I am clear that we must learn to live with this disease, without the sort of restrictions we have seen. We cannot eradicate it. I have to say that, rather than relying on the views of the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), I am inclined to rely on the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset, who made that point very clear. Those who advocate zero covid must realise that that is impractical and unachievable, and I consistently do not subscribe to the logic of those who argue for that course.
I am sure the House will agree that, to get to the point where we can learn to live with this disease, an extra few weeks are a price worth paying. I therefore urge the House to support these regulations today. No one can fail to be sympathetic to those who will be affected by this delay, including those couples who want to start their married lives together but have had to change or delay their plans. This weighs on me greatly, as it will on all hon. Members, and in this case I was pleased that we could ease the restrictions on weddings. Equally, I am mindful of those whose livelihoods will be affected by any delay in our road map. I urge the House to support this motion. It provides a short-term delay that significantly strengthens our position for the longer term.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) raised a couple of specific points which I will try to answer here; they relate to each other. He mentioned paragraph 7.7 of the explanatory memorandum and his concern that the first review date was on 19 July. I can clarify that the first review date is due by Monday 19 July and will be in advance of that point. That is a legal end point. I would anticipate an announcement coming probably a week before that on the decision and the data. I hope that gives him some reassurance about people having notice of what is coming.
In closing, I wish to express my sincere thanks to all those who have contributed to today’s debate. I am sorry that so few on the Opposition Benches chose to take part, but I pay tribute to those who did and to those on this side of the House for the sincerity, the strength of feeling and the integrity that they have shown. I hope the House recognises that I have a deep-seated respect for all the views I have heard this afternoon. Hon. Members all want the same thing, which is to save lives and to see us exit these restrictions and return to normality as soon as possible. Difficult as it may be, I urge hon. Members across the House to vote for these measures to give ourselves that short extra time to vaccinate more people—crucially, with that second dose—and take us forward to the stronger, more confident future that we all seek, which I know is just around the corner and which I am confident the Prime Minister will take us to. I commend the motion to the House.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 705) dated 15 June 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15 June, be approved.
Proceedings During the Pandemic
Motion made, and Question put,
(1) the Order of 2 June 2020 (Proceedings during the pandemic (No. 2)), as amended on 1 July, 2 September and 22 October 2020 and 25 March, the Order of 4 June 2020 (Virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic), as amended on 1 July, 2 September, 22 October and 30 December 2020 and 25 March, and the Orders of 23 September 2020 (Proxy voting during the pandemic), 3 November 2020 (Proxy voting during the pandemic (No. 2)), and 25 February (Sittings in Westminster Hall during the pandemic), as amended on 25 March, shall have effect until 22 July;
(2) the Order of 24 March 2020 (Select Committees (Participation and Reporting) (Temporary Order)) be amended as follows: leave out paragraph (4) and insert “(4) this Order shall have effect until 22 July 2021.”.—(David T.C. Davies.)
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.