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Covid-19 Update

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021

With permission, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus.

Even through the warm summer days, we drew up our autumn and winter plan. We used the time to plan and prepare, because we know that covid-19 thrives in colder weather. With winter now around the corner, covid-19 is re-emerging, as expected. It is clear that this pandemic is far from over: new cases of the virus are high; the pressure on our hospitals is steadily growing; and, sadly, we are seeing more than 100 deaths a day. We must therefore be prompt and proportionate in how we enact our plan. We will not be implementing our plan B of contingency measures at this point, but we will stay vigilant and ready for all eventualities, even while pursuing plan A to its full extent.

Vaccines are our first line of defence. Eight-six per cent. of everyone in the UK over the age of 12 has received at least one dose and 79% of people have had at least two doses. Two steps naturally follow from this. The first is to plug any gaps in the wall, by doing all we can to get vaccines into the unvaccinated. There are 4.7 million people over the age of 18 in England who have not accepted the vaccine, so we are working hard to encourage those who can take it to do so. It is never too late to come forward. We are also working with parents and schools to ensure that this life-saving protection is extended to over-12s.

Our vaccines continue to save countless lives, but early evidence shows that their protection can wane over time, especially in older and more vulnerable people. Our second step has therefore been to reinforce our wall of defence still further. That means third doses, not only for the immunosuppressed, but booster shots for all those in phase 1 of our vaccination programme. We have given more than 4 million third doses and boosters in England so far. That is good, but it is not good enough. I want all those eligible to come forward. More than 85% of people have done it twice; there is no good reason not to do it again.

Those who are over 50 or in another priority group, and who had their second jab more than six months ago, will be eligible for a booster. The NHS will send an invite once an individual is eligible. If the invitation has not arrived despite a person becoming eligible, they should contact the national booking service. Boosters can be booked online or by calling 119. There is zero room for complacency when it comes to this deadly disease and we all have our part to play.

Vaccines are not our only line of defence. Antivirals can stop a mild disease from becoming more serious. Our antivirals taskforce has been looking for the most promising new drugs to speed up their development and manufacture. Yesterday, we signed a landmark deal for hundreds of thousands of doses of two new antivirals from Pfizer and Merck Sharp & Dohme. Should the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approve their use, we will work with the NHS to make sure that they quickly get to those who need them.

There are, of course, further lines of defence, which form plan B of our autumn and winter plan. We have always sought to maintain measures that are proportionate to the stage of the pandemic that we are in. We detailed plan B so that people and businesses would know what to expect. It includes face coverings in certain settings, encouragement to work at home where possible, and covid certification. None of us wishes to implement these measures, but they are clearly preferable to having to close businesses or enforce further lockdowns. I recognise that vaccine certification is of particular interest to my colleagues in this House. As set out in our plan, we would seek to provide a vote in Parliament ahead of any regulations coming into force.

But at this time, we remain on plan A, and we will continue to monitor the situation carefully. We are identifying new variants all the time, including a new version of the delta variant, known as AY.4.2, which seems to be growing in prevalence. Equally, we are monitoring the situation in our hospitals. I thank everyone in the NHS and social care for everything they are doing to keep us safe. Today I can confirm to the House that we are making £162.5 million of additional funding available for social care through a workforce retention and recruitment fund to help local authorities to work with providers to boost staffing and support existing care workers through the winter.

In closing, I want to underline just how many things remain within the control of each and every one of us. When we are offered vaccines for covid-19, we can take up that offer. When we are offered a flu jab, we can take that too. When we have symptoms of covid-19, we must isolate and get tested. Even if we are well, we can wear face coverings, meet outdoors, let the air in when we are indoors, regularly wash our hands and make rapid tests part of our weekly routine. Let me be clear: rapid tests are a vital tool. A quarter of the positive cases that we are identifying at the moment come from lateral flow tests. They also help to give people peace of mind when they visit vulnerable people, such as grandparents.

Even before covid, winter was always a tough time for people across our country, for the NHS and for social care. We have another tough winter ahead. But we have a plan; we are prepared. If things have to change, measures will be prompt and proportionate. We all have a part to play in protecting each other and the people we love. I commend this statement to the House.

I often have a sense of déjà vu when responding to these covid statements, but I feel it particularly acutely today. I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. She, of course, has had advance sight of my questions. May I put to her again some of the questions that she did not have—or perhaps did not take—the opportunity to answer earlier? Perhaps she can tell the House the answers now.

Are Ministers ruling out a so-called plan C, where household mixing is banned? Are they ruling out lockdowns such as those we saw in Leicester, Bolton and so on? And are they ruling out a return to regional tiers? Is the Department looking at plans to introduce regional tiers? Will she also now tell us the criteria that trigger plan B? We did not get an answer to that question earlier either. Why not just make mask wearing—on public transport, for example—mandatory now? Yesterday, the Secretary of State talked about the importance of mask wearing. Why do we not just get on with it?

I am afraid that the vaccination programme is stalling. On current trends, the booster programme will not be completed until March next year. At one point back in the spring, we were doing about 800,000 vaccines a day. Why does the Minister not now set a target of 500,000 booster jabs a day so that we can complete the programme by Christmas? We are currently only doing about 165,000 jabs a day. Instead of blaming people for not coming forward, will she not only make sure that everyone eligible is invited and has a letter, but allow those who need a booster—or, indeed, the immunosuppressed who need the third dose—to go to a walk-in centre or a pop-up centre, rather than making them book online as they have to at the moment?

Children’s vaccination rates are also low, at only about 17%. Of course, we have seen years of cuts to numbers of school nurses and health visitors, who help with the children’s vaccination programme. The rate of infection among children is running at about 10,000 a day. Will the Minister mobilise retired medics and school nurses to return to schools and carry out vaccinations?

The Minister talked about the importance of the flu jab, but people’s flu jabs are getting cancelled. Will she guarantee a flu jab to all those who need and want one before December?

Let me put a question to the Minister that I did not put to her earlier. About 20% of covid patients in hospital—or one in six, actually, on the latest figures—are unvaccinated pregnant women. Will she guarantee a helpline so that expectant mothers can access proper advice? Will she deal with some of the anti-vax nonsense that we sometimes see spread on social media? Will she establish a target for driving up vaccination rates, including priority access for expectant mothers?

Ministers can have plan A, they can have plan B and they can have plans C, D, E and F, but infectious people cannot afford to isolate and transmission will not be broken until we fix sick pay as well. Indeed, there will be those who will fear that getting their booster or their second or third dose could lead to a couple of days of feeling unwell because of the side effects and will not take it because they will not be able to afford two or three days off work as a consequence. We really need to fix sick pay as we go into this next stage of dealing with covid.

There we have it: those were six straightforward questions for the Minister, and I am looking forward to six straightforward answers—because the wall of defence, I am afraid, is crumbling; vaccination is stalling; and we are heading into a winter of misery. This vaccination programme needs fixing now.

I would like to reassure the House and anybody who is listening that our wall of defence is extremely strong. I am really proud of all the scientists who developed the vaccines that helped to build our wall of defence, and all the NHS workers and volunteers who have helped to deliver it and are continuing to develop it.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about whether people can access booster jabs. Comparing the number of community pharmacies, for example, there were 1,032 in phase 1 and there are now 1,049 taking part in our activities to provide the booster jab. It is a bit disingenuous of him to say that we are not going fast enough, as there are actually plenty of opportunities for people to get their booster jab.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what would trigger plan B. As I said earlier, we are on plan A. There are numerous factors that we could go into about triggering plan B, but we are still on plan A, and we can still go further with plan A.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the importance of pregnant women getting the jab. Only last week there was a big push from the NHS to get the message out that it is extremely safe for pregnant women to get a covid vaccine—encouraging them to do that, because it is protecting them from getting this deadly disease. There has been a high rate of hospitalisation for those who are pregnant and have not been vaccinated, and we need to encourage more pregnant women to get the jab.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions plan C. I saw that story earlier and checked it out, and it does not have any foundation. We are always open to alternatives, and quite rightly so, because as a Government it would be irresponsible of us not to be looking at every alternative. I hope he is reassured that, as I said earlier, we are still on plan A. By encouraging everybody who has not already had their booster jab to come forward, we want plan A to be successful.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned statutory sick pay. I am extremely proud that this Government, through the Coronavirus Act 2020, introduced statutory sick pay throughout this emergency from day one, alongside many other measures that were put in place to support people, whether businesses or individuals, throughout this global pandemic.

I, too, have had the great pleasure of asking a question of the Minister this morning, but there is no shortage of fascinating and important questions to ask on this topic. My second question of the day is really a follow-up to what we discussed earlier. The heart of the issue we face now is the fact that our vaccine immunity is beginning to wear down. That seems to be what people such as Professor Neil Ferguson believe is the reason we have higher case rates and death rates than countries such as France and Germany. I just want to understand this: given that about a third of the over-80s and 40% of the over-50s who are eligible for a booster jab have not taken it up, and that our vaccination rates are lower among teenagers than other European countries, what are we doing, other than encouraging, pleading and exhorting people to take the vaccines, to actually get these rates up? None of us wants to go to plan B, and I understand the Government’s reluctance to do that, but nor am I convinced that just exhorting people will be enough.

It is good to be asked a further question by my right hon. Friend. I would like to reassure the House that vaccines continue to be effective in preventing serious illness. Current evidence suggests that the AstraZeneca vaccine is at just under 80% effectiveness at five months, and that is brilliant. Even though effectiveness is waning, it is not dropping off a cliff. That is why, before levels get lower, we are encouraging people to come forward for their boosters. He asks what more we are doing to get more people to do that. For 12 to 15-year-olds, until now they have been able to claim their first jab through the School Age Immunisation Service. We are now opening up the national booking service for 12 to 15-year-olds so that they can go along with their parents and get their jabs at the centres throughout England. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is pleased that we are providing more choice.

I thank the Minister for her statement. I do, however, fear that the Government are being too reliant on their plan A and not sufficiently heeding the warnings from the health community over the pressures faced or the urgency to act. However, we rehearsed those arguments earlier. On the issue of getting the unvaccinated vaccinated, the Government have my full support. It is incumbent on every one of us, as MPs, to show leadership in encouraging our constituents to take up their vaccinations.

Scotland leads the UK both in first and second dose vaccination rates, with 90% of those aged 12 and over vaccinated with at least one dose, while England sits at 85%. For second doses, this amounts to 81% versus 79%, with booster roll-outs now taking place across these lands as we speak. How do the UK Government plan to match Scotland and encourage greater uptake of vaccinations among those who are so far unvaccinated? Vaccinations among 12 to 15-year-olds are 3:1 times higher in Scotland than in England, with more than 46.5% of eligible Scottish students having got the vaccination compared with just some 15% of eligible English students. English headteachers have called for the Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and have drop-in vaccination centres at GP clinics, pharmacies and community centres. Will the Minister listen to English headteachers and seek to follow the Scottish Government’s lead with vaccination drop-in centres?

I would like to reiterate the data I gave earlier that across the UK 86% of people have taken up the opportunity of a first dose and 78.9% their second dose. That is a really great achievement. To me, it is inappropriate to try to draw divisions between our Union; we need to work together on this. As I mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), we are opening up more opportunities for 12 to 15-year-olds to take their vaccines, and that is only right. However, we have to be really aware of safeguarding issues when it comes to 12 to 15-year olds getting their jabs and the importance of having their parents with them at that time.

I thank the Minister for her statement and all the work that she and her Department are doing. During recess I visited one of my local secondary schools, Swanmore College, where people are anxiously waiting for the vaccinations to come to the school. How can we speed up vaccinations in schools so that they can continue with their education?

The school age immunisation service has done a good job in getting through lots and lots of students in different schools. My hon. Friend asks about how we can speed it up, and that is why we are providing opportunities for parents to take their children to the vaccination centres by booking through the national booking service, which will provide further choice over the coming days, weeks and months.

I think it is very unfair of the Health Secretary to put the Minister in the position of having to deliver this statement on his behalf, but we are where we are. Given that the British Medical Association, the NHS Confederation and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges have all expressed concern about where we are, can she give an update on the Health Secretary’s response to me on Tuesday, which was woeful, regarding what we are going to do about public health, given that the public health budget is 24% lower than in 2015 and given the demands that will be placed on public health, for example in outbreak areas, such as Suffolk? If she can provide me with an update, I would be very grateful.

I reassure the hon. Lady that we look regularly at all the data, particularly the covid data. If we feel it is necessary, we put enhanced measures in place. A number of colleagues in the House will have experienced that. It works really well. Obviously, we have the Budget and the spending review coming up shortly, and I am sure she eagerly awaits what will be in them.

On the devolution point, let us remember it is a two-way street. There may well be things that we can learn from the Scottish Government that they have done better and differently from the United Kingdom Government, and we should not be shy about that, but we should also point out that Scotland would not have had many vaccines had they not been part of the United Kingdom.

I just point out to my hon. Friend—I hope she will take this back to the Department—that it is dead easy to get the public engaged on this subject: the Prime Minister holds a press conference with the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser and starts to explain in harsh terms what will happen if people do not carry on being vaccinated. That is the way to communicate, and we should do that. Can she also explain why we have given the booster vaccine to the GPs? They have enough to do. My integrated care system area is taking it away from the GPs and reopening the vaccine centres so that the GPs can get on with treating their patients, because there are not enough of them to do that job as it is. The pharmacies and the vaccine centres will take over the booster jabs.

I reassure my hon. Friend that there are numerous ways in which people can get a jab; it is not just at general practices.

I have been part of the Bristol health and care system for some two decades, and I have never quite seen it like this, and neither has anyone else. I want to ask the Minister about the secret criteria for plan B. We have over 90% occupancy, waiting times at record levels, waiting lists at record levels, appointments with GPs are difficult, ambulance back-up at record levels, social care discharge at problematically high levels and social care vacancies. What measure does the Government think we need, other than more deaths and more infections? Will she be talking, perhaps with the committees of Back-Bench Conservative MPs, to decide which measure they think is sufficient to allow us to move to plan B, because it is a complete mystery to the rest of us?

The Government have clearly laid out our autumn and winter plan, and that is what we are sticking with.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement today and her confirmation of the Government’s plans. I particularly welcome the £162.5 million for social care. Can she confirm that that will also have a package for discharge, as well as extra staff, because that will then allow the NHS to concentrate on fighting the backlog and this disease, rather than having the beds blocked?

There will be further details of this additional funding shortly, but it will be to encourage more people to become care workers and to support those in place already, so I am sure it will achieve exactly what my hon. Friend has requested.

Many of my constituents are desperate to get their third jabs and their boosters. The Minister said that if their invitation has not arrived, they can book on the national booking service or 119, but that is simply not working. When they get on to the national booking service, it says they are not eligible if they have not received an invitation letter. If they call 119, it is telling them it cannot override the system. Will the Minister please urgently look into that and fix the system, so that my constituents and many others can get those jabs, because they want them now?

Yes, I will definitely look into that. If there is a problem in the system, we will get it fixed.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement and for highlighting just how many people have been vaccinated in this country. Vaccine take-up has been very high in Harrogate and Knaresborough, reflecting that. I visited a large secondary school recently, and the headteacher told me that 250 pupils and 19 staff were off. It was emphasised that by no means was all of that a covid issue, but it was impacting on the operational capacity of the school and children’s education. What additional incentives are being utilised to encourage vaccine take-up, particularly among younger people?

As I have said previously, we are opening up opportunities for children to get their vaccine, but I reassure the House that the school age immunisation service will not pay just one visit to schools; it will go back, because it realises it does not capture everyone the first time round.

In her statement, the Minister twice used the phrase “prompt and proportionate”. It does not feel like the Government are acting very promptly, and there are surely proportionate measures that we can take now—we do not have to wait for the whole of plan B to be implemented. What would be disproportionate about making mask wearing compulsory in enclosed private spaces now?

As I said earlier, we are still on plan A, and there is still more we can do with plan A. There is guidance about wearing face coverings. I ask everybody to look at that guidance and make their own decisions and their personal choice.

Our vaccination programme has been fantastic, and I put on record my thanks to everybody in Hyndburn and Haslingden involved in that. Can the Minister tell the House what is in place to alleviate people’s concerns, such as things they have seen on social media or other platforms?

There is absolutely no place for some of the disinformation on social media, and I request that that is looked at by the companies. A lot is taken down straightaway, but more can be done, because the message is that vaccines save lives.

The Minister will know that today the UN declared that we are on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, and it singled out the UK as one of those taking a “me first” approach, on which it states:

“Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering.”

The Health Secretary risked undermining confidence in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency when he incorrectly told the House that Valneva and Livingston’s covid-19 vaccine would not get approval from the MHRA. Thankfully, he corrected the record, but it led his former vaccine taskforce chair to call on him to resign with the publication of positive phase 3 data from Valneva. Will the Minister welcome this news and apologise for the uncertainty and distress that her colleague caused? If approved, the Valneva vaccine should be ideal for transportation in all countries. There is still an opportunity for her Government to step up and stop the pandemic running out of control.

We have a mature vaccines programme with a lot of supply. The MHRA is globally recognised as a good regulator. We need to take reference from that and from what we are doing elsewhere with other vaccine companies.

I thank my hon. Friend for seeing me on Monday to discuss my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill. I thank her for telling me that responsibility for vaccine damage is being transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions to her Department with effect from 1 November and that there will be an eightfold increase in the staff dealing with those claims for vaccine damage payments, which shows that the Government are taking this issue seriously. Does she also accept that one way of reducing the number of 4.7 million people who have not had a vaccine is to increase vaccine confidence—this is what has happened in other jurisdictions, such as Australia—by ensuring that vaccine damage payments are available on a no-fault liability basis?

As my hon. Friend said, we had constructive discussions on Monday. I am taking the issue seriously and looking into it further.

I declare that I have diabetes. One in three people who have died from covid had diabetes, yet it has been unclear to those with diabetes whether they are eligible for a third vaccine. Can the Minister clarify whether all groups, including group 6, will be offered a booster? Will that be urgently communicated to people suffering from diabetes?

People in Wantage and Didcot, and across Oxfordshire, have been doing a great job of administering the vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds, as they did for the older age groups, but unfortunately a small minority of people have been giving them abuse for that. Will my hon. Friend join me in saying that that is completely unacceptable and in thanking them for doing what is a vital task to keep us all safer?

I completely agree; there is no room for intimidation. I thank everybody who has taken part in delivering the amazing vaccine programme.

The Minister says that 79% of people in the UK are fully vaccinated and boosters are being rolled out, yet this terrible virus is taking a desperately heavy toll on human lives, so can she imagine what it is like in most low-income countries where just 1% or 2% of people have been vaccinated? Can she tell us why the UK continues to be one of only a handful of countries blocking the demand for a waiver on the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—TRIPS—agreement? Why has the UK so far delivered less than 10% of the doses it promised to poorer countries? That is an obscene moral failure, and also harms us here at home.

The UK is a global leader in delivering covid vaccines to the most vulnerable countries around the world, including through the Prime Minister’s pledge to donate 100 million vaccine doses overseas by June next year. As of the middle of September, we had donated 10.3 million doses. Some 4.1 million were donated bilaterally to 16 countries and 6.2 million were distributed via COVAX.

My GP has been excellent at promoting vaccinations. I had my second vaccination on 17 April. Five weeks ago, I got covid and I was pretty poorly, but thank God I had had the vaccinations. Last week, the GP chased me up to get my booster injection, which I had on 15 October, followed by the flu vaccination the next day. Other people who would like to have the booster have not yet got to the six-month limit. Does the Minister have a view about reducing that limit so that more people could get vaccinated more quickly?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The data shows that although there is a drop-off in immunity, it does not drop off a cliff, so people who had their second vaccine five months ago still have plenty of immunity. I am delighted that he got his booster and his flu jab, and I encourage everyone else to get theirs too.

Can we have particular strategies for areas in our communities that have very low uptake? We need to counter the mythology and misinformation that have a disproportionate detrimental impact on those low-uptake communities. Such communities tend to be poorer and more impoverished with multiple levels of need and deprivation. We need particular strategies for those areas otherwise covid, which is already at a high level, will let rip.

We also need particular strategies for getting our secondary school pupils vaccinated. In secondary schools in Gateshead, even among those who indicated that they wanted a vaccine, only about a third of people in those age groups have so far been able to get one. Can we do something about the misinformation on the 119 helpline too, which is actually preventing constituents from getting accurate information about what they need to do to help themselves and their families?

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman about hard-to-reach groups, which are in some of the most deprived and vulnerable parts. We have done a lot of work with community leaders to identify how we can get to those groups because, as he rightly says, it is important to achieve that. With regards to teenagers, we need to tackle disinformation. It is completely wrong that people feel intimidated. We also need to get the right messaging out. As I said, we are looking at opportunities for vaccinations other than through the school network.

Mask wearing has been shown to reduce the spread of covid in confined spaces. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that MPs should “set an example” over mask wearing. The Minister this morning said that MPs should make their own decisions about mask wearing, which flies in the face of the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The confusion over mask wearing is reminiscent of the unfortunate great confusion about mask wearing in June 2020, which the Minister will no doubt recall. What will she do to encourage her colleagues on the Government Benches to set that good example in the House of Commons by wearing a mask?

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, we are in plan A. There is guidance for wearing face coverings as part of that plan.

I am sorry, but this is just not good enough. In my constituency, hundreds of children are off school, hundreds of people are not in work today, and, sadly, people are dying. As a result of that, rather than have a politically led strategy, will the Minister meet with the Association of Directors of Public Health to ensure that they take a lead on how we will manage the crisis in the coming months?

We are in a pandemic. The hon. Lady says that children are getting infections, which is why we have opened up the opportunity for 12 to 15-year-olds, as well as those 16 and above, to get their vaccine. That is important. They are protecting themselves and protecting other people.

The Government’s vaccine roll-out has been a success story, but it is important that we continue that success story. I had the flu jab three weeks ago and I will have my covid booster in about four weeks. All sorts of constituents have contacted me to ask why they have been called for a third primary dose of the vaccine along with their flu jab. Are the Government considering a wider publicity campaign to clarify the reason behind the third jab, the criteria for the booster and the need for the flu jab as well at the same time?

A communications programme has been rolled out this week to encourage people to get their booster and their flu jab, and to get whichever comes first and then the other as soon as it is available.