Skip to main content

UK Vaccination Strategy

Volume 703: debated on Monday 8 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

After the earlier debate, I think I must make it absolutely clear that I occasionally practise dentistry, and that that is relevant to some of the points I am making today.

The previous Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, some considerable time ago, set out a change of direction for our health service that was based on prevention. Shortly after that, our health services—indeed, the world’s health services—were brutally assaulted by the arrival of covid from China.

I do not wish, in my few words this evening, to run a one-man inquiry into covid or into the way the UK or any other country handled it. I wish to push the Government to jump on the opportunity that I believe now exists because of the attitude of the majority of the population towards the preventive nature of vaccination.

Even detractors of the Government must give considerable credit for their willingness to invest in prospective vaccines and for the fact that there has been and still is a massive programme of preventive vaccination against covid and flu. I believe this is an opportunity for this country to continue to lead by building on the very best practice and collaboration fostered during the covid pandemic, to utilise vaccinations to save lives and to avoid damaging people. That would reduce the demand on our health services and would introduce a reduction in the financial demand on them.

We should be rapidly moving towards a broader and more robust, proactive approach to vaccination. That would protect us against future public health threats and against existing vaccine preventable diseases, especially respiratory diseases. I am looking to Health Ministers for clear leadership on vaccination to ensure that our health services continue to see it as a top priority. We must drive uptake across all ages, setting clear targets for adult vaccination, to bring it into line with our already great achievements on childhood vaccination. Such an approach could and should create an environment where the value of vaccines is recognised for our health and for our socioeconomic progress. It will keep our population out of our health services and keep them in their homes, in work and—dare I say—play, and keep our children safe and in education.

My first personal recognition of vaccination came with the polio epidemic that hit the world from to 1949 to 1952, sweeping through selective population centres and leaving as its most tragic sign children—sometimes permanently and sometimes temporarily—in wheelchairs, on crutches or in leg braces, and with deformed limbs. For children with polio in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the disease caused paralysis in one in 1,000 cases among children aged five to nine. Polio also hit adults, and there were many deaths. Rescue came in the form of vaccination delivered in three doses of injections with stainless steel needles. My early childhood memory of the needles is that they looked like stainless steel 3-inch nails. They had to be thick enough to allow boiling water through them for sterilisation, and they were re-sharpened on leather strops. Subsequent improvements brought about a liquid dose and, ultimately, an impregnated sugar cube.

In Western countries, if not almost worldwide, polio, along with smallpox and yellow fever, has been pushed mostly into history. Ideally, most, if not all, vaccination programmes should be administered to a high percentage —probably more than 95%—of the population. We have a very effective routine immunisation schedule—at least, it is effective, or fairly effective, for children, with vaccinations at eight, 12 and 16 weeks and 12 months. To my dismay, it appears that there has been some slippage in the routine childhood vaccinations for the under-fives. These children should receive 10 vaccines in total, which provide protection against such hideous diseases as tetanus, polio and meningitis, along with many others. I am not sure of the latest figures, but I am sure the Minister can update us on them. The latest I could find were from 2018-19 and they showed that the uptake of the first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine had fallen to 90.3%. I believe that was the fifth year in a row that it had dropped. Although I accept that 90.3% is a high figure and that the percentage changes may seem small, we must recognise that the impact must not be underestimated, particularly if this turns out to be a trend. The UK has lost its World Health Organisation measles-free status, and this comes three years after the virus was eliminated in the United Kingdom. Astonishingly, during 2018 there were nearly 1,0000 cases, which is more than double what the figure was in 2016.

There are a complex number of reasons for that, but one of the biggest factors, as we have seen in the covid battle, has been the appalling misinformation on vaccine dangers on social media. That has certainly affected the uptake of covid vaccines. I still find it incomprehensible that some individuals I know of quite high intelligence are absorbed into believing this appalling misinformation. Some parents think that these childhood infections are trivial. Such a view needs to be vigorously countered at every opportunity; anyone seeing a child deformed by polio or with badly affected eyesight from measles really needs to wake up.

There have been some great successes. Recently data indicated that the HPV vaccination given to girls has bought about a dramatic drop in cervical cancer. Now that it is available to boys, I hope that we will see a similar dramatic drop in years to come in oral and head and neck cancers. Those cancers hit males more than females—I could warn a few fathers on that. HPV types 16 and 18 cause cervical cancer, penal cancer and between 60% and 80% of oral, head and neck cancers. The treatments for head and neck cancers—particularly surgical treatments—which of course I have seen, are debilitating and often leave hideous damage to the patients.

There has been a call for all hospital and care home staff to be vaccinated against covid. This is no different from the requirement when I became a dentist in this country: dentists and surgeons were required to have the BCG—Bacillus Calmette–Guérin—injection and vaccination before they were able to work. If I had an elderly relative who was to go into a care home and the choice was between two homes, both being identical except one had all staff vaccinated and the other did not, the choice would be obvious.

Much has to be done to promote vaccinations through hospitals, GPs and pharmacies, and by any other means that the Minister might think up. The promotion of and reminder about vaccines has already been undertaken with covid; this approach could and should be applied to all vaccines. New contact methods through the likes of the NHS app and social media should be used. I believe there are financial encouragements for GPs and pharmacies to promote such vaccinations—please, step that up. That approach could be applied to more than just covid and flu.

It appears to me that there is no promotion of vaccination against shingles among the over-70s. Anyone who has seen a patient who is over 70, 80 or 90 with shingles will know what a ghastly, debilitating condition it is. Perhaps when the Minister replies she can give the House some glimpse of the Government’s thinking, even if at this stage it is speculative. In future, we must use vaccinations extensively, because that is the goal of the original set-up for prevention.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for bringing this important debate to the House and for his kind words about the success of the covid-19 vaccination programme. He speaks with a great deal of knowledge and personal experience, and I thank him for that.

I am going to talk about the covid vaccination programme as a great example of how well the UK has done in putting together a programme in a short time with great success, which I know my hon. Friend will want us to emulate in other areas. Our phenomenal covid vaccination programme continues at pace, with almost nine in 10 people aged 12 and over having now received at least one dose and more than 10 million people throughout the UK having had their booster and third vaccination dose.

I spoke to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and he suggested that I should ask the Minister this question. Those over 50 with a vulnerable disease or who are on a priority list have been told that they can get the booster vaccine; if someone happens to be aged 40 or 35 and is a type 1 diabetic in a vulnerable position, should they not also get the booster injection as a priority?

The criteria for who should receive a third dose are set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. We take its recommendations and roll things out according to that advice.

I thank each and every person who has come forward for their jab, as well as the tens of thousands of NHS staff and volunteers who have made this happen. Vaccines remain our biggest line of defence as we head into a challenging winter period. Vaccinated people are less likely to get seriously ill with covid-19, to be admitted to hospital or to die from it. There is also evidence that they are less likely to pass the virus on to others. Although the vaccine efficacy against severe disease remains high, we know that a small change can generate a major shift in hospital admissions—for example, a change in efficacy from 95% to 90% would lead to the doubling of hospital admissions among those vaccinated.

Early results from Pfizer show that a booster jab restores protection to 95.6% against symptomatic infection. That is why we have launched the booster programme—to top up the immunity for those at increased risk of complications from covid-19 over the winter months, helping to keep people out of hospital, to reduce pressure on our NHS, and, as my hon. Friend has indicated, to ensure that there are fewer patients with covid-19 in need of an expensive hospital bed. The UK already has one of the highest covid-19 vaccine uptake rates in the world and we are working closely with the NHS to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get a vaccine.

There are more than 2,200 vaccination sites in operation across the country, an additional 500 extra vaccination sites now compared with April this year. Hundreds of walk-in sites across the country are now also offering booster vaccines, making it even easier for people who are eligible to get their top-up jab. From Elland Road in Leeds to the Kassam Stadium in Oxford, the NHS is making it as easy as possible for people to get vital protection against the virus ahead of the winter months.

We are working with the NHS to provide advice and information at every opportunity on how to get a vaccine and its benefits as well as combating any misinformation. The NHS is engaging every single day with local authorities, faith leaders and organisations representing ethnic minority communities to provide advice and information about vaccines and about how they will be made available.

Our communications include information and advice via TV, radio and social media, and this has been translated into more than 13 different languages. Print and online material, including interviews and practical advice, has appeared in 600 national, regional, local and specialist titles. We have worked with clinicians and medical influencers to communicate the benefits of the vaccine and deliver content via the media and social media platforms.

This is just some of the huge amount of activity that has taken place, and that continues to take place, to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the vaccine, but we are not resting on our laurels. We have been continually learning throughout the roll-out of the vaccine. We look at research from trusted and reputable sources and we have identified some of the most effective interventions. I am sure that we can learn from this for other vaccination programmes, too. For example, we have learned that engagement with local communities, targeting specific gaps in vaccine uptake and getting local, trusted community leaders involved—people who know their communities well—is a very effective approach.

There are countless, brilliant examples of local activity around the country, but I shall mention Salford where they worked specifically with people experiencing homelessness, and were able to vaccinate 653 people. Every jab helps to save lives, and these are some of the hardest to reach people in our society, and also those who would have been most vulnerable to the virus. We have also increased the amount of information publicly available on vaccines, including more transparency about its benefits, safety, and potential side effects.

I can fully assure my hon. Friend that this Government are committed to tackling covid-19 vaccine misinformation, and I agree with every word that he has said so passionately on this: vaccine misinformation is dangerous and costs lives. That is why we stood up the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit, specifically to tackle online misinformation and disinformation, and to hold social media companies to their public commitments to combat covid misinformation. We have also produced a wide variety of communications and toolkits to share case stories, build confidence, and provide trusted information about the safety of the vaccine.

Throughout the pandemic, the Government have been guided by the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and the four UK chief medical officers, and we have consulted a wide range of experts and ensured that their advice is embraced and actioned. Trusted experts such as our deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam and so many others have all helped to build confidence in the vaccine in our communities where uptake is traditionally low. That has made a big difference. YouGov polling indicates that vaccine hesitancy in ethnic minority groups reduced from 63% to 14% from October 2020 to August 2021.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we do not have an ounce of complacency, and will continue to do whatever we can to stamp out dangerous misinformation. He is keen that we translate the successes of the covid vaccination programme into all our immunisation programmes. I fully agree that there is so much learning from our response to the pandemic that can inform and strengthen our wider vaccination programme.

The UK already has world-leading childhood immunisation programmes, and vaccine coverage from most of our childhood programmes is generally high. My hon. Friend was quite correct when he indicated that uptake had fallen slightly due to school closures and social distancing. I reassure him that the mitigation measures are in place to ensure that no child misses out on those vaccinations. However, we know that uptake rates must improve to fully protect the public from preventable diseases. We made a manifesto commitment to maintain and improve the routine childhood vaccination programme, and we recognise that there is still more that can be done to improve uptake in all programmes.

The publication of England’s national vaccine strategy has been delayed as a result of our ongoing focus on responding to the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic, but rest assured the strategy has been kept under constant review and is in the process of being refreshed to reflect the changed landscape that the pandemic has brought, including new developments from the covid-19 vaccine and the extended NHS flu programme.

I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in the use of data and technology. Both offer immense benefits to every individual who seeks vaccination and to the health system that supports them. Our ambition is to make vaccination records easily available digitally so that each individual, and anyone treating them, can easily access their vaccination records, know which vaccines they have had, which they still need, and when they are due to receive them. The covid-19 pandemic has reinforced both the importance of vaccines—as they offer the best way out of the pandemic and the return to normal life—and our certainty that we can do even better and create even stronger, more effective vaccination programmes in the future.

Flu is another winter virus that can be serious, especially when combined with covid-19. That is why we are running the largest ever flu vaccination programme in UK history. A record 35 million people in England can book a free flu jab this year—the most ambitious effort ever to protect individuals and their loved ones from what can be a very nasty illness. It is vital that we build on the learning from the successes of the covid-19 vaccine programme, and use it to improve all vaccine programmes.

The covid-19 vaccine roll-out continues to be a success through every single vaccine given. I ask those people who peddle untruths and misinformation about the benefits of the vaccine to look at the evidence: more than 130,000 lives saved; and more than 24 million infections and 230,000 hospitalisations prevented. The facts are clear. That is 130,000 families who continue to have a mother, father, husband, wife, daughter, son, brother or sister still with them—and that is powerful. It is for that reason that we will continue to tackle vaccine misinformation head-on, and to promote the benefits of the vaccine to as many people as possible.

Finally, and as I have been grateful to have the opportunity to say many times at this Dispatch Box over the last few weeks, I urge everyone to get their booster jab as soon as they are eligible. To those who have not had their first jab yet: it is never too late.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.