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Covid-19 Update

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

3.32 pm

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the covid-19 pandemic and the life-saving work of our vaccination programme.

If I may, I would like to start by saying a few words about the incident that took place at Liverpool Women’s hospital yesterday. This is an ongoing investigation into what has now been declared a terrorist incident by police so it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail, but I would like to take a moment to express my thanks to all of the NHS staff and emergency services who responded to the incident. They have shown the utmost professionalism in the most difficult of circumstances and my thoughts—and I know the thoughts of the whole House—are with them and anyone who has been affected.

On covid and our vaccination programme, a year ago today we were in the midst of our second national lockdown, a time when we endured major restrictions on our life and liberty and when we observed a period of Remembrance when we could not come together and pay our respects in person in the way we all would have wanted to. Our country has come so far since then. We have put over 109 million vaccine doses in arms through our world-leading vaccination programme, which means we can approach this winter with the best possible chance of living with the virus because, as the data clearly demonstrates, vaccines work. This month’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that between January and September, the risk of death involving covid-19 was 32 times greater in unvaccinated people than in those who were fully vaccinated.

But although we have built up this huge protection, this is not a time for complacency. Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation’s Europe director said that Europe was

“back at the epicentre of the pandemic,”

and just this weekend, the Netherlands and Austria put in place partial lockdowns after surges in cases.

We also still face the risk of new variants, just as we have seen with the emergence of AY.4.2, the so-called delta-plus variant. The latest data shows that it now accounts for around 15% of cases in the UK. Although delta-plus may be more infectious than the original delta variant, our investigations indicate that our vaccines remain effective against it. But we all know that there will be more variants in the future, and we do not want to go backwards after all the progress we have made, so we must stay focused on the threat that is in front of us and seize every opportunity to bolster our vital defences as the winter moves in.

That includes our vaccination programme, our primary force of defence. Last week, I announced to the House that health and social care providers in England must make sure that all workers, other than those that are medically exempt, are fully vaccinated against covid-19 so that vulnerable patients have the greatest possible protection against infection. Today, I would like to update the House on more measures that we will be taking to keep ourselves on the front foot.

First, we are expanding our booster programme, which is essential so that we can keep upgrading the protection that we have in this country. Our vaccination programme has given us a strong protective wall, but we need to use every opportunity to shore up our defences. Evidence published this month shows how protection against symptomatic disease, hospitalisation and death from covid-19 gradually wanes as time passes, and that is more likely if someone is older or clinically at risk. Even a small drop in immunity can mean a big impact on the NHS; if protection against hospitalisation dropped just from 95% to 90% in those who are double vaccinated, that would mean a doubling of hospital admissions in that group of people, so topping up our immunity through booster doses is essential to our security for the long term.

Today, the UK Health Security Agency has published the first data on booster vaccine effectiveness in the UK. It shows that people who take up the offer of a booster vaccine increase their protection against symptomatic covid-19 infection to over 90%, and protection against more severe disease is expected to be even higher than that, so we are intensifying the booster programme ahead of the winter. Over 12 million people have now had their top-up jab, and over 2 million were given it last week. We have also made changes to the national booking service so people can pre-book their top-up doses a month before they become eligible. Last Monday, we saw almost 800,000 bookings in a single day in England. That is a new record.

Secondly, we are taking another step forward. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended offering all adults aged 40 to 49 a booster dose six months after their second dose, using either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine. I have accepted that advice, and 40 to 49-year-olds will be able to get their top-up jab from next Monday if they are eligible. The JCVI has also said that in due course, it will be considering whether boosters are needed for all 18 to 39-year-olds, along with whether additional booster doses are required for the most vulnerable over the long term. I look forward to receiving that advice in due course.

Just as we extend protection through booster doses, we are also ramping up our efforts to protect younger people. Our programme for 12 to 15-year-olds is progressing at pace, and yesterday we hit the milestone of 1 million 12 to 15-year-olds being vaccinated in England. We are also offering a vaccine to 16 and 17-year-olds. I would like to update the House on some further steps that we are taking.

In August, we decided, in line with JCVI advice, that all 16 and 17-year-olds should be offered a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. That is apart from a small number of those in at-risk groups, who were offered two doses. Now, the JCVI has advised that all 16 and 17-year-olds should also be offered a second dose, and that it is even more confident about the safety and benefits of doses in 16 and 17-year-olds. As Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said this morning:

“As the data has accrued, we’ve become more and more reassured that the safety picture in young people and teenagers is just the same as what we’ve seen in the older population.”

The JCVI has advised that unless a patient is in an at-risk group, second doses should take place 12 weeks after the initial dose, rather than eight weeks. I have accepted that advice. The NHS will be putting that into action. Once again, those jabs will start going into arms from next Monday. This will extend the protection of a vaccine to even more people and strengthen our national defences even further.

Our vaccination programme has paved our path out of the pandemic and given us hope of a winter that is brighter than the last. Today, we are going even further, extending our booster programme and offering greater protection to young people, so we can fortify the defences we have built together and help our nation to stay one step ahead of the virus.

I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I express my sympathies and thoughts to all those affected by the terrorist incident outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital, and to put on record my thanks to the emergency services who responded so professionally.

The Secretary of State is right to warn of covid rates up-ticking. The Prime Minister, at his press conference a few moments ago, has just refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown. Only last week, when he was asked about the over-65s being banned from public places if they had not had a booster, the Secretary of State said:

“I can’t rule that out”.

I have to say that that is quite a remarkable statement from Parliament’s biggest fan of Ayn Rand. The Prime Minister himself has warned of storm clouds over Europe.

Nobody wants to see further restrictions and they need not be inevitable. If the Secretary of State wants to avoid plan B—we understand why—will he at least consider introducing better sick pay and widening isolation support, so that those who are low paid can isolate themselves should they catch the virus? Will he consider better support for public buildings by putting in place high efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filter systems, because we know the virus is airborne and we need to reduce opportunities for us all to be breathing polluted air?

Will the Secretary of State go further to fix the stalling vaccination programme? I have put it to him for a number of weeks now that there are pockets of the country where the level of vaccination at second dose is nowhere near where it ought to be. For example, here in the Borough of Westminster only 52% of residents have had their second dose. In areas where the Prime Minister imposed a local lockdown last year as part of his whack- a-mole strategy, the second dose rate is: 61% in my own area of Leicester, 67% in Burnley, 64% in Sandwell and 69% in Bolton. There is a similar pattern in other areas. What is he doing to drive up vaccination rates in those areas, because nobody wants to see localised lockdowns?

The Secretary of State talks about children’s vaccination rates, but the Government promised that every child would be offered a jab by half-term. Two weeks or so on from that half-term, only about a third of children have been vaccinated. Why are we so far behind on children’s vaccination coverage? Pfizer has been given the sign-off for younger children. Can he update the House on where we are on younger children and vaccination?

The Secretary of State will know that the levels of infection in society continue to put immense pressure on the NHS. With intensive care unit beds filling up, staff are exhausted. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, just said at the press conference that a number of the women in ICUs are unvaccinated pregnant women, so again, what is the Government’s plan to promote the safety of the vaccine for women who have concerns about fertility?

Some hospitals with the most covid patients, such as those in Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester, are those with the most pressured A&Es. We heard from ambulance chiefs today that 160,000 patients come to harm every year because ambulances are backed up outside hospitals. Thousands of patients will suffer serious harm, with some at risk of permanent disability, and others will die because of the pressures on hospitals. Last week, we heard that patients are waiting, on average, close to an hour for an ambulance when suffering a suspected heart attack or stroke, and all 10 ambulance trusts are on high alert. At what point does the Secretary of State accept that the pressures on the NHS are unsustainable?

After years of flat funding, bed closures, understaffing and deep cuts to social care, does the Secretary of State not accept that the NHS across the piece is in crisis? What is he going to do about it? I know that he will get up and tell us about the extra expenditure and the tax rise that he is imposing on working people, but he failed to secure a new funding settlement in the Budget for the long-term recruitment and training of the staff we need. He failed to secure a funding settlement to fix social care now, when we know that one in five beds is occupied by an older person who could be discharged into social care. As we go into the winter—the “brighter” winter than last year’s, as he described it—can he tell us what his plan actually is to get the NHS through this winter without compromising patient care?

The right hon. Gentleman stated that no one wants to see any further restrictions, and that is absolutely true. As I set out in my statement, one of the best ways that we can all work towards preventing any kind of further restrictions is by making sure that we keep the vaccine wall strong. Although I did not quite hear him say so in his comments, I assume that he welcomes today’s extension of the booster programme, the second doses for 16 and 17-year-olds and the continuing relentless focus on the vaccination programme.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned other things that can help, such as sick pay. That is why we are still offering sick pay from day one; we also have the hardship payments. He is right to point to the importance of ventilation, and there is very clear guidance on other measures, whether that means ventilation or mask wearing in certain circumstances. All of that can help, and guidance is out there to help people and organisations to make sure that they have the very best advice.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of second doses. I think he would welcome the fact that we as a country have got to a place where almost 88% of people who are eligible have had at least one dose and almost 80% have had their second dose. Clearly, there is a gap there, and a huge amount of work by the NHS and others is going into filling that gap. Also, people who have still not even had a single dose remain eligible; our offer of vaccination is evergreen. We are offering the vaccination in vaccination centres, walk-in centres and the temporary vaccination vans, and that is all part of making sure that the vaccines are as accessible as possible. He may well also have noticed the huge communications programme. All the latest data is showing that that is having a huge effect in allowing more people to come forward to access the vaccines if they are eligible.

Vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, which he mentioned, is hugely important, and that is why I referred to it in my statement. One million 12 to 15-year-olds out of a total cohort of around 2.3 million, if I remember correctly, have received the vaccine, as have almost 60% of 16 and 17-year-olds, and we have today’s offer of second doses.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the importance of pregnant women in particular coming forward. The MHRA, our independent regulator, could not be clearer about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for pregnant women. It clearly helps to protect them. We could not make that message clearer but I am glad that he raised it, because it gives us another opportunity to say so in the House.

Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned winter pressures. We can all see that there is significant pressure on the NHS at the moment, especially on A&E and other emergency treatment. Many of the challenges of the winter are still to come. I emphasise the importance of the flu vaccine programme—the largest that this country has ever seen, which is hugely important for getting through the winter—and the extra funding in the second half of this year. There is £5.4 billion in extra funding both for the NHS and for social care, because they are inextricably linked, especially in terms of their funding; for example, hundreds of millions are going into the discharge programme. That is all part of giving the NHS the support that it needs this winter.

I welcome the statement; I absolutely agree with what the Health Secretary has announced.

No one can fault the Government’s political commitment to the vaccine programme, which has had a pretty much unlimited budget and has been a huge priority, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that despite that commitment, we have now fallen behind Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Singapore and other countries in the proportion of adults who have been jabbed twice. I am just worried that our regulators have lost some of their fleetness of foot in decision making. It is great that we are giving boosters to the over-40s, but we must now have the data on the under-40s. It is great that we are giving a second jab to 16 to 17-year-olds, but what about 13 to 15-year-olds?

America has already authorised the Pfizer jab as safe for the over-fives. If we are to have a vaccine-led rather than restrictions-led strategy, we need to be absolutely at the front of the pack with approvals. I fear that we are in the middle of the pack, so what will my right hon. Friend do to turbocharge our regulators and the decisions that they are giving him?

My right hon. Friend will know that our booster programme is one of the most successful in the world, with more than 12 million vaccines already delivered across the UK; 2 million were delivered just last week. I know he will agree that we need to carry on with the programme at pace. Today’s announcement about the extension of the offer will make a huge difference.

My right hon. Friend points to the importance of the independent advice that we receive from the JCVI. It is important that we get that advice in a timely manner and then act on it without delay. I acted on the advice that I referred to in my statement as soon as I could.

My right hon. Friend is also right to ask whether there could be further extensions to the booster programme or the vaccination programme in general. I assure him that the JCVI very much understands the importance of making decisions in the timeliest way possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. He said much today that I can agree with.

Vaccines certainly remain key to our coming out of the pandemic. Research from Scotland shows that vaccines are 90% effective in preventing delta variant deaths and that boosters are 93% effective in reducing the risk of infection, so I am delighted that the Scottish Government will also be following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to offer booster jabs to the over-40s and second doses to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Excellent though the efficacy of boosters is, however, we must remember that there are many who remain unvaccinated, both at home and abroad. We run the risk of allowing this to become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. What measures are Ministers taking to maximise the uptake of second and first doses for those who have not yet had theirs? What more can be done to further share vaccines globally?

Finally, in the light of the compulsion to have NHS staff in England double-vaccinated, I am concerned that mandating vaccination may increase distrust and harden views, potentially turning those who are vaccine hesitant into vaccine refuseniks. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that issue? What does he plan to do to overcome it?

First, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the biggest successes of our national vaccination programme is the UK-wide approach, which has really helped to build confidence? The way that Scotland, England and other parts of the UK have moved together to accept advice is really important. I hope it stays that way.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the unvaccinated and what is being done. I know that Scotland will have an approach as well, but certainly in England it has been very much about making sure that access is as easy as possible, with multiple sources, from vaccination centres to grab-a-jab offers and walk-in centres. It is also about communications to remind people not only of the vaccine’s importance, but of its safety and effectiveness.

I think that in his question about mandating, the hon. Gentleman was referring to the requirement in England for NHS and social care workers to be vaccinated. That whole issue was looked into very carefully. There was a consultation, which received more than 30,000 responses, and I have explained in detail how the Government reached the decision. I think it is vital for patient safety, and I hope that Scotland is able to take a similar approach and protect its patients in hospitals and care homes in the same way as England has.

It is excellent that the new vaccines are effective and safe, and I welcome this announcement. On the theme of fleetness of foot, however, will the Secretary of State address two important practical matters? First, when will the NHS certification app be updated to record third doses, given that some countries require that for admission purposes? Secondly, when will it be possible for third primary doses to be booked via the NHS website, rather than, as at present, having to be booked through GPs? We are all aware of some of the pressures that GPs face.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the reason that third doses, or boosters—however they are classified—are not currently shown on the app is that they are not required for domestic purposes to demonstrate someone’s vaccine status. However, I fully understand the significance of my right hon. Friend’s point. I recognise that this is now a requirement in some countries, and I think it important that we respond. I want to reassure my right hon. Friend, and other Members, that we are considering how best to make such information available, and I will have more to say about that shortly.

The booster programme is critical to ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are protected this winter, and to driving down covid infection rates. In Salford, however, partners receive just £12.58 per vaccination for the programme, which they tell me is not enough to cover the costs of the infrastructure needed to run it, such as venue hire, call and recall, logistics, transport and security. Will the Secretary of State look again at that funding, and ensure that local areas are funded adequately to run the vaccination programme and increase the pace of the delivery of booster vaccines?

I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said and I will take that away, but let me give her some reassurances. We work very carefully on the vaccination programme with GPs, local authorities and others. Obviously it is vital to ensure that costs and payments are covered, and we keep that constantly under review.

Pandemics are by definition international, and the UK—along with France, Germany and the World Health Organisation—has rightly called for an international pandemic treaty. Can my right hon. Friend say what form that treaty will take, and within what sort of timeframe? Will it cover, for instance, the availability of personal protective equipment in a timely fashion to those who need it, and the avoidance of the use of vaccines to exert diplomatic leverage, which we have seen in the case of AstraZeneca and the threatened use of article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol?

We do support the proposal for an international pandemic treaty, but it is not yet fully supported by many countries, and some actually object to such a move. Many agree on the need for better international co-operation, but not all agree on the form in which it can be achieved. I would love to give my right hon. Friend more detail in response to the questions he has just asked, but I am afraid that the process, which is inevitably an international process, is not as mature as I would like it to be at this point. However, we keep working hard on it.

Like the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), my constituents are concerned about the fact that the third primary vaccinations and boosters are not appearing on the NHS covid pass. GPs in my area are saying that they still cannot record the third primary jab for the clinically extremely vulnerable on the Pinnacle database, and despite my asking twice, patient groups are still waiting to hear whether the Vaccines Minister will reinstate monthly meetings with them. With less than six weeks to go until Christmas, when will the Government fix these bugs in the system and start listening to patient groups?

I hope I have understood the hon. Lady correctly. She mentioned “bugs in the system”. She made two separate points there. If someone has been given a third jab, whether a third part of their primary dose, a booster or otherwise, it is recorded in the NHS system. The hon. Lady referred to the Pinnacle system, but it is recorded. I am not aware of any problem with recording it or with the NHS making a record of it; if she is, she should please bring it to my attention. The second, separate point she made was the one my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) made, about when those doses can appear in the app. I refer her to the answer I gave a moment ago.

When the Secretary of State made his statement last week about mandatory vaccination for NHS staff, he also published an impact assessment, which says that the Department’s best guess is that 35,000 social care staff will leave as a result of being unwilling to get vaccinated. Its own assessment states that that presents a serious workforce capacity risk and says that the Department

“cannot be confident that the system—even with additional funding—will be able to absorb the loss of capacity”,

resulting from the policy. That matters, because the number of patients in my local acute hospital who cannot be discharged because there is no adequate social care is three times more than the number in hospital with covid. If the NHS is going to be under enormous pressure this winter, it looks to me as though it will be, not from covid, but from inadequate social care. What can the Secretary of State say to put at rest the concerns of my constituents, and indeed of my local authority, which has to deliver social care in Gloucestershire?

As always, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I will not go through the arguments why vaccination, whether of social care or NHS workers, is so important, although of course patient safety is central to that. However, he is right to ask what can be done about the pressures on the social care system, and to point to the important question of discharge from hospitals, among other issues. We are giving record amounts of support to the adult social care sector. The funding is a huge part of that—not only funding going into the sector to build capacity, but funding going to the NHS through the discharge fund, which is hundreds of millions of pounds it can use to support early discharge into care homes.

When the Secretary of State was appointed, he talked about tackling the “disease of disparity” and the inequalities in healthcare that had been exposed by the covid pandemic. Today, the sickle cell and thalassaemia all-party parliamentary group, which I chair, has published a major report on the care of people with sickle cell. The report exposes major inequalities and disparities, leading to people having to fight for the pain relief to which they are entitled, constantly having to explain their condition and developing a degree of mistrust in the healthcare system that is there to help them. We will send the Secretary of State a copy. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the Sickle Cell Society to discuss the report’s findings?

Yes; I would be very happy to have that meeting with the right hon. Gentleman, because this is an important issue. While I have not yet read the entire report, I read the summary this morning, and it raises some important issues. If we are to properly tackle the disparities we see in this country, it is important that we look at all the proper research that has been done on them.

My right hon. Friend will recognise that the take-up of the covid vaccine, or any vaccine, depends in part on the public’s confidence that, in the tiny number of cases where people are damaged by the taking of the vaccine, they will be properly and swiftly compensated for their injury. As he knows, the vaccine damage payments scheme is useful, but does not cover all the cases of which I speak. Will he agree to a further discussion to talk about how those cases, which may well lead to good legal claims for further compensation, likely from the Government, can be settled as quickly as possible?

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the vaccines are safe and effective, as set out by our world-beating regulator, the MHRA. He makes an important point and I would be happy to discuss it with him further.

Given the importance of the booster programme and the Prime Minister’s comments of a few moments ago, saying that the booster is just as important as the first and second jabs, why did he not foresee the problem with the app? Why was it so complicated to add the booster jab to the app automatically?

While the Secretary of State is resolving that problem, will he also address the problem of under-16-year-olds? They cannot access their vaccine records at all. Many families will be booking trips to visit loved ones over Christmas and those plans could be ruined by these two shortcomings in his covid policy.

I know the right hon. Gentleman likes to create problems where they do not exist, but we should not always let him get away with it. There is no problem with the app. If he had listened to me carefully, he would know as well as anyone that proof of a third jab, whether a booster or as part of a person’s primary dose, is not necessary for UK domestic purposes. As I said earlier, we fully understand and recognise that it might be needed for international travel or other international purposes, which is why we will do something about it.

The right hon. Gentleman should not undermine confidence in the app. He called it a problem with the app, but there is no such thing.

If a member of NHS staff has previously had an episode of myocarditis and is anxious about its recurrence, would that be sufficient ground for an exemption from vaccination?

I refer back to the question posed by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on the crisis of vacancies in the social care sector, which I think is currently at 100,000. Will the Secretary of State say something practical about how we will make sure that we have staff in the social care sector for the coming winter, as we know about the knock-on effects for the NHS and the real worry for families across the country?

One practical example is the record funding going into the sector, which I mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). Part of that funding is being used for the largest recruitment campaign the sector has ever seen, and it is already showing results.

The Secretary of State knows I am a firm believer in the vaccination programme, and I support everything he has announced today. That programme includes the booster, of course, but I am increasingly hearing from constituents that they are struggling to get the booster in Winchester itself. Will he help me to get a walk-in centre or a pop-up facility in the city—we have a number of empty shops, so we will find the space if he can provide the jabs—especially given the over-40 cohort, which includes me, that he has accepted into the booster programme today?

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of access, whether through vaccination centres, walk-in centres, pop-up centres or pharmacies. A record number of pharmacies are working on our vaccination campaign. I would be more than happy to speak to him to see what more we can do.

The London Ambulance Service has had to call on volunteers for support in recent months, and it has nearly 90 drivers from the fire service and the Metropolitan police. Is the Secretary of State aware of that? If not, why not? What is he doing to ensure we have an ambulance service that can cope if we have a spike in covid or additional demands due to severe weather, or both?

I am fully aware of the pressure on the ambulance service, A&E departments and the other emergency work done in our fantastic hospitals. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that my Department and the NHS discuss this on a very regular basis and take action wherever needed. He will know there is a lot of pressure on hospitals and ambulance trusts, but the funding support and other measures we have taken are undoubtedly helping.

I also welcome today’s statement, which is another important step forward. I will be booking my booster as soon as I can.

It is encouraging news that we have now vaccinated more than 1 million 12 to 15-year-olds against covid-19. As those figures continue to rise, will my right hon. Friend speak to his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education to review the current regime of asymptomatic testing in our schools, which is extremely burdensome, expensive and intrusive, to make sure it does not last longer than needed?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that we work very closely with our colleagues in the Department for Education, especially with regard to that particular age group. The issue on asymptomatic testing is something we keep under review and, as soon as we can remove that, we will.

I want to pass on my thanks to the NHS and all its staff for all that they are doing on the covid vaccination programme. I particularly want to thank my local public health team, who called me after I contracted covid 10 days ago. They were incredibly supportive and thorough, which contrasted with the national team, who put the phone down on me; they expected me to pick up after one ring, which I did, but they put the phone down on me. Is the Health Secretary aware that the national Test and Trace team are expecting the local public health department to pick up the slack during the Christmas holidays as that team go on holiday—the public health department is going to have to pick up the slack when they are not doing their job?

The hon. Lady, like so many in this House, is right to point out the phenomenal work the NHS has been doing, particularly on the vaccination programme, the work NHS Test and Trace does and the work of the UK Health Security Agency on the testing programme.

In West Dorset, we were very fortunate to lead the way with the vaccinations in the first and second tiers, and I should say that that was mainly thanks to our many GPs across the county who worked tirelessly. But of course our GPs do not just have to do vaccinations; they have to do many other things as well, and currently my constituents, particularly the older ones, are struggling to get the booster jab. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to support me in getting action to make sure we can get that booster jab to my constituents who are not currently able to get it?

First, my hon. Friend is right to talk about the demand on GP services, which is one reason why I announced, just a few weeks ago, the winter access programme, with a record amount of support, which will undoubtedly help. On the vaccination programme, GPs across the country are doing phenomenal work, but I want to make sure it is working in every part of the country. If there is more we can do in his area, we will, and I would be happy to meet him.

I am delighted to say that I have been boosted, so I am grateful. I am not sure everybody is grateful, but I want to ask about long covid, because there is lots of evidence now that people who suffer from it have had long-term neurological changes and that is sapping the provision of services for other people with neurological conditions. Is it not time we had a strategy for brain injury across the whole of government, including every Department, not just his own?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience on this issue and has talked about it many times in this House. He is right to link this to long covid. I hope I can reassure him. Work is going on in the NHS, in the Department and in some of the research institutes on long covid, which the Government are supporting with millions of pounds, and the NHS is working with people who are suffering from long covid, listening to them about what more we can do.

Last week, while I was on a school visit, I was shocked to hear about the extraordinary abuse a headteacher had experienced from parents opposed to in-school vaccination clinics. I am glad to hear that we are making progress on getting 12 to 15-year-olds vaccinated, but will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging schools to continue to do this and thank them for all the work they have been doing? Can he also tell me what more we can do to reassure parents and students alike that the vaccine is safe, effective and to all our benefit?

That is such an important issue in respect of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. One of the strongest reassurances we can give to everyone is that the decision about whether this vaccine, or any vaccine, is safe and effective is made independently of the Government and Ministers by world-leading clinicians in our independent regulator, the MHRA. They look at the very best evidence available and continue to monitor the data and information. As I mentioned in my statement, when it comes to the vaccination of, for example, 16 and 17-year-olds, one reason why the JCVI was very comfortable in recommending to me that we offer a second dose to that cohort was the continuing close working together of clinicians and the MHRA. I hope that helps to reassure my hon. Friend.

I note that when the Government were trying to extend their vaccine delivery programme earlier this year, they were keen to promote the benefit of mobile units, but they did not figure at all in today’s statement. How many mobile units are currently deployed?

It is all about making access as easy as possible. As well as the national vaccination centres and the grab-a-jab offers, we do have mobile units. I am afraid I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman exactly how many are out at any one time—the number changes day to day and depending on location—but they remain an important part of making access as easy as possible for people.

We have a walk-in vaccination clinic at Longton fire station on Friday, so will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging everybody in Stoke-on-Trent South who has yet to have their vaccination, or who needs their booster, to come forward and come to the walk-in clinic on Friday or book an appointment as soon as possible?

Yes, I happily join my hon. Friend in that. If you live in Stoke-on-Trent South, there is a great new walk-in centre, so please go on Friday, because the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get vaccinated.

John Fagan from the Runcorn part of my constituency did the right thing and went for his booster jab last week, but when he arrived he was told they had run out of supplies. What reassurance can the Secretary of State and the Department give to me, my constituents and the country more broadly that there will be sufficient supplies for the booster roll-out?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not know the details of that particular situation, but I reassure him and the House that, whether for our boosters offer or the evergreen offer of vaccination, the country—the vaccines taskforce—has more than enough supply.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, the roll-out of boosters to 40 to 49-year-olds and the fact that people will be able to book a booster five months after their jab rather than six months. I declare my interest on both counts and thank the Secretary of State very much. Does he agree that given that the booster increases protection against symptomatic covid up to 90%, it is in my and everybody else’s interest to get it as soon as possible, to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the NHS?

Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: the facts and figures now speak for themselves. He referred to the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency today that shows there is more than 90% protection when someone has had their booster dose; as he says, that is protection not just for that individual but for their loved ones.

The NHS is under severe pressure. Too many people, including those who are vaccinated, are sick and too many people are still dying. Why will the Secretary of State not meet directors of public health, who are tearing their hair out because although the Government have rightly put so much investment into the vaccine programme, they are not investing in other public health measures that would stop covid becoming a disease of inequality?

The hon. Lady will know that, as I said in my statement, the vaccines are absolutely central to protecting us against this virus, but it would be wrong for anyone to suggest that they are the only thing the Government are focusing on. There is of course a lot more; for example, I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to our recent announcements on antivirals.

The enthusiasm of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Aylesbury constituency for having the jab has been extremely impressive. Given that they are a particularly key age group in our fight against covid, will my right hon. Friend thank them for their contribution to tackling the pandemic and can he let them know how soon they can expect to get the second jabs in their arms?

The second doses for 16 and 17-year-olds will be available from Monday next week. I also join my hon. Friend in thanking, in particular, the local schools for all the work that they have done in Aylesbury to help with that.

I thank the Secretary of State for his clear commitment to protecting all citizens in the United Kingdom where the control is. I am a type 2 diabetic. This Saturday, between 2 pm and 3 pm, through my local surgery, I will receive my covid booster, as will other priority cases as well. Can the Secretary of State outline what discussions have taken place to ensure that, before over-40s are able to access their booster jabs, the vulnerable groups of all ages, including diabetics, can access theirs in a timely manner throughout the UK? Decisions taken in this House set the marker for other regions to follow, including Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, one reason why our vaccination programme has been such a huge success is that it is a truly UK-wide programme. We are able to do that because of the strength of our Union. I work closely with my colleague in Northern Ireland: we co-ordinate together and share resources. When it comes to supply, that supply is for the whole United Kingdom. In terms of making sure that particularly vulnerable people have access, each of the devolved Administrations has a slightly different approach, but we do work closely together to make sure that the supply is there.