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Covid-19 Update

Volume 705: debated on Monday 6 December 2021

I would like to start by welcoming the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) to his new position and by wishing his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), all the very best in his new role. Throughout this national effort, I have always been grateful for how we have been able to work together across the Floor of the House in a constructive manner, and I look forward to that continuing.

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic. The omicron variant is continuing to spread, here and around the world. According to the latest data, there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336. This includes cases with no links to international travel, so we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England. Beyond our shores, confirmed omicron cases have now been reported in 52 countries, with 11 countries including Romania, Mexico and Chile all reporting their first cases this weekend.

This is a global battle and we are playing a leading role. On Friday I spoke with the director general of the World Health Organisation to share our findings so far and discuss how we can work together to tackle this common threat. We are learning more about this new variant all the time. Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the omicron variant than for the delta variant, but we do not yet have a complete picture of whether omicron causes more severe disease or how it interacts with the vaccines, so we cannot say for certain at this point whether omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.

We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against covid-19. Today, I would like to update the House on some of the latest measures that we are taking. First, we are taking balanced and proportionate measures at the border to slow the incursion of the new variant from abroad. We have seen with previous new variants how strong defences at the border, combined with the capacity we have built for genomic sequencing, can give us the best possible chance of identifying and responding to new variants. This includes our travel red list, which allows us to react quickly through targeted measures when the data shows cause for concern.

Analysis from UKHSA shows that at least 21 omicron cases in England alone are linked to travel from Nigeria, and there is a strong indication that omicron is present there. Nigeria also has very strong travel links with South Africa; it is the second most popular flight destination from Johannesburg. Based on this evidence, we made the decision to add Nigeria to the travel red list, and this came into force at 4 o’clock this morning. This means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish citizen or a UK resident and who has been in Nigeria for the past 10 days will be refused entry. Those who are must isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days, where they will take two PCR tests. I know that there has been a spike in demand for these facilities due to the rapid expansion of the red list and that some people have experienced issues returning home. However, we are ramping up capacity as quickly as possible. We have already brought several new hotels on board in the past few days and we expect to double the number of rooms that are available this week.

When this new variant is appearing in more and more countries every day, we also need to look beyond the red list and strengthen our measures for a wider range of travellers to ensure they give us the protection we need against this potential threat. UKHSA’s finding that omicron may have a shorter window between infection and infectiousness means that pre-departure testing could have a greater role to play in identifying positive cases before travel. As a result of this new data and the greater spread of omicron across the globe, from 4 am tomorrow anyone travelling to the UK from countries that are not on the red list must also show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test. This applies to any traveller, whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated, aged 12 and above. They should take a test as close as possible to their departure, but not earlier than 48 hours before.

Of course these measures will bring disruption, and they will impact on people’s plans to spend time with their loved ones, especially over the festive period, but we are taking this early action now so that we do not have to take tougher action later and so that we can take every opportunity to prevent more cases from arriving in our country.

I reinforce to hon. Members that these are temporary measures while we improve our understanding of this new variant. We will be reviewing the measures, along with the other temporary measures we have announced, and we will update the House next week. I firmly believe that whenever we put in place curbs on people’s freedoms, we must make sure they are absolutely necessary, and I assure the House that we will not keep these measures in place for a day longer than we have to.

Secondly, as well as acting to slow the incursion of the variant from abroad, we are also strengthening our vital defences here at home. Late last week we had the brilliant news that another new treatment has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency after it was found to have reduced hospitalisation and death in high-risk adults with symptomatic covid-19 by 79%.

Another defence, of course, is our vaccination programme. On Saturday we recorded almost 450,000 booster jabs in a single day, and yesterday we announced that we had hit the significant milestone of 20 million booster doses and third doses across the United Kingdom. In the past week the UK booster programme has reached more people than the adult population of Greater Manchester, and we are expanding this life-saving programme even further as part of our target of offering all adults in England a covid-19 booster jab by the end of January. To put this plan into action we will be recruiting 10,000 more paid vaccinators. We are also deploying about 350 military personnel in England this week to support the vaccine booster programme, and there are already more than 100 personnel deployed in Scotland to support their vaccination efforts.

We will have more than 1,500 pharmacy sites putting jabs into arms across England, along with new hospital hubs and new vaccination centres. We are bolstering our booster programme so that we can protect as many people as possible, strengthening our collective defences as the virus goes on the advance this winter.

One of the most dangerous aspects of covid-19 is how quickly it adapts. When the virus adapts, we must adapt, too. We cannot say for certain what omicron means for our response, but we can say that we are doing everything in our power to strengthen our national defences so we will be as prepared as possible for whatever this virus brings.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State both for his kind, warm words of welcome and for advance sight of his statement. I am looking forward to our exchanges.

Last week I paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), and I do so again today. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who did a magnificent job in the shadow Health team.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South took a constructive approach to the Government’s response to the pandemic, and I intend to continue in the same vein. Covid-19 is still with us and, with new variants presenting significant challenges to our lives, livelihoods and liberties, the goal must be to ensure we can live with the virus through effective vaccines, treatments and common-sense public health measures. In that spirit, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcements and join him in his call for everyone who is eligible to come forward to get the booster jab, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition did just this morning.

Vaccination remains the greatest tool we have in our fight against the pandemic. For the Government to achieve their overall target, they need to reach 500,000 booster vaccines a day. Labour called on the Government to set that target; I believe they have, and we support it. We desperately want the booster campaign to be successful, so can the Secretary of State today update us on when he expects to hit that target of half a million booster jabs a day? I also ask when boosters will be rolled out to under-40s, and I should probably declare my interest in that question as I do so.

On the wider vaccine roll-out, hon. Members across the House will have been frustrated and concerned at reports this weekend that too many hospital beds and resources are having to be diverted to those who have chosen not to receive the vaccine. With pressures on the NHS this winter expected to reach unprecedented levels even before the emergence of omicron, what is the Secretary of State’s plan to persuade the one in five people who are eligible but not yet fully vaccinated to get the jab?

The arguments in favour of receiving the vaccine are overwhelmingly strong. It is a safe and effective tool in our defence. What research has the Secretary of State undertaken into the reasons for vaccine hesitancy, and what steps is he taking to put in place effective reassurance measures to encourage take-up, particularly among those groups that are less likely to have taken up the vaccine and are disproportionately suffering with the virus?

Can the Secretary of State update the House on the reasons for the slow progress in vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds? The initial target of offering all 12 to 15-year-olds the vaccine by October half term has been missed, with current trends suggesting some teenagers will not receive the vaccine until February. What is his plan to speed that up? We want everyone to be able to enjoy Christmas this year, but to make that happen the Government need to bring forward those common-sense measures that can limit the spread of the new variant while having a minimal impact on our lives, jobs and businesses, especially in the busy pre-Christmas trading period.

I was pleased to see the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary accept Labour’s call for the reintroduction of pre-departure tests for those travelling to the UK but, given the likelihood of new variants, will the Government now introduce as a standard response to new variants overseas stronger border controls, testing and contact tracing, so that they are not again accused of locking the door after the horse has bolted? Can the Secretary of State explain why the window for pre-departure tests is 48 hours and not less? Can he act with his colleagues in Government to address the racket of soaring testing costs and poor provision of hotel quarantine accommodation?

A year ago, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended ventilation support for schools. The Government’s pilot of air purifiers in schools is not due to publish its full report until October next year. Meanwhile, a primary school in Paisley has today shut for a week following a suspected omicron outbreak. In the past two weeks, the number of students missing school has increased by 62%, meaning disruption to their learning and an impact on parents as they have to stay home with their children. Children have seen their education disrupted enough, so will the Secretary of State now roll out the ventilation support needed to protect our schools?

We have one of the lowest levels of sick pay in Europe. Workers in low-paid and insecure employment who contract covid are still being put in the impossible position of choosing between going to work and feeding their family on the one hand, and staying at home and protecting our public health on the other. Will the Government finally look again at increasing and expanding sick pay?

Finally—I am sorry to have to end on this note—I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the effectiveness of the Government’s response to the pandemic and public compliance with the rules will depend on public confidence in those setting the rules. Residents in Ilford are this week being prosecuted for holding an indoor gathering of two or more people on 18 December 2020, and rightly so. Is it not time that the Government come clean about the event in Downing Street on that same day, admit they broke the rules and apologise? Or does the Secretary of State believe, as the Prime Minister appears to, that it is one rule for them and another rule for everyone else?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the measures that I talked of in my statement. I am pleased to hear that the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), had his booster jab today, as did, I think, the chief executive of the NHS, along with many thousands of other people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general support for the booster programme and the importance of vaccines and for the call he has made for more people to come forward. The booster programme is steaming ahead at blistering pace: 2.6 million people across the UK were boosted last week and some 3.6 million are already booked in to get their booster—that is probably the highest number we have seen for boosters. I am confident that we are on track to meet our commitment to offer all adults across the UK a booster jab by the end of January. We are already far ahead of any other country in Europe and most certainly still will be when we achieve that by the end of January.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point to the importance of vaccination more generally, especially in respect of those people who have not yet even taken up the offer of a first vaccine jab. We estimate that around 5 million people across the UK have yet to take up the offer of a jab. Our general vaccination rate across the population—more than 88% of those over the age of 12 have had at least one jab—is one of the highest in Europe, but we need to do even more to get to that missing 12%. A huge amount of work has gone into that effort, especially in respect of communications and dealing with misleading information on vaccines, as well as improving access. In the past week, perhaps because of the concerns about the omicron variant, we have seen more and more people coming forward for vaccinations for the first time. That is of course to be welcomed, and we will continue to build on that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about responses to any potential future variants. It is reasonable to think that there will be future variants, but we will reserve judgment on them until we come across such issues. In any case, there will always be a balanced and proportional response based on what we know at the time. I do not think it would make sense to set out that response in advance.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the cost of testing, whether using PCR or lateral flow tests. We have rightly removed more than 100 providers from the Government website in recent weeks, and some 20 were removed this weekend for showing misleading prices. We will continue to take a tough and hard line on that, because of course no one should be misled and the pricing and availability should be absolutely clear.

The hon. Gentleman asked about ventilation in schools. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education gave further information last week on that and the improvements being made.

On sick pay, it is important that we have rightly kept in place access from day one rather than returning to the situation before the pandemic.

In terms of rules, of course they should apply to everyone, regardless of who they are.

I strongly support the balanced and sensible way in which the Secretary of State is buying time until we find out how dangerous this new variant really is. How is he preparing the NHS for the potential worst-case scenario that we might face, particularly in respect of the 10,000 NHS beds that NHS providers think are occupied by people waiting for a social care package? Given that in the first wave many people sadly died at home from stroke and heart attacks because they did not want to go into hospital, what are we doing for emergency care? Also, on cancer care, 45,000 fewer people started cancer treatment in the first wave, so how will the Secretary of State make sure that when we switch the NHS on for omicron we do not switch other services off?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support—he is right to talk about the importance of buying time—and for his comments about the NHS and the need to prepare. I reassure him that ever since we discovered omicron the NHS has been spending a substantial amount of time preparing.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance of discharges; they were important before but, where a patient is ready to be clinically discharged, they have become even more important now in the light of omicron. The recent funding that we provided for discharges—almost £500 million over this winter period—will help.

As the Secretary of State has highlighted, we do not know about omicron’s severity, but its mutations certainly suggest a risk of increased transmissibility and possible immune escape. However, it is expected that vaccines will still provide protection—including, hopefully, against serious disease—so I echo the Secretary of State’s call for people to get vaccinated if they have not already done so.

With S-gene dropout providing an early PCR marker for omicron, can the Secretary of State clarify what proportion of labs in the UK assess the S-gene, and particularly what proportion of all the private labs providing travel testing, which are obviously critical in our defence against seeding cases into the UK?

I welcome the logical reintroduction of a pre-travel PCR, but does the Secretary of State recognise that the average incubation of covid is still five days, and does he not agree with the call from the Scottish and Welsh Governments to have a day 8 test for release?

Will the Government now hold a four-nation Cobra meeting to discuss the response and also commit to providing support for the travel sector and any other businesses that might be impacted by public restrictions going forward?

The Secretary of State described this as a global battle, and he is right, but the establishment of omicron in the UK is a stark reminder of the failure of wealthy nations to take a global response, as they promised last spring. While almost 90% of adults in the UK are doubly vaccinated, fewer than 4% in low-income countries have received at least one dose and less than a quarter of their healthcare staff are protected. The UK Government promised to deliver 100 million doses by next summer, but have so far delivered fewer than 10 million and, shamefully, destroyed 600,000 doses in August. It is estimated that the UK will be left with almost 100 million excess doses, so will this Government not accelerate their donations to COVAX?

Finally, 130 countries support the principle of waiving intellectual property rights and technological transfer to mount a global response to this pandemic, so why are the UK Government blocking the TRIPS waiver when most of these vaccines were developed with millions of pounds of public money?

First, let me thank the hon. Lady for her support for vaccination in general. Right across the UK, it is really making a difference, and I thank her for her comments on that, and especially on the importance of the booster programme.

On testing for this variant, she talked about the proxy measure, which is the S-gene dropout. There are other methods being deployed alongside that, which stop short of sequencing, but they take much longer, and the capability is not universal. Between these two proxy methods, the majority of testing centres can pick up the potential marker for omicron, but we are expanding that so that all testing centres will be able to do it very soon.

The hon. Lady talked about the restrictions. I point her to one of the important points that I made earlier, which is that the restrictions are temporary. As soon as they can be removed, we will remove them, and that is what industry and others want to see—as soon as we do not need them, we will remove them without any delay.

The UK can be proud of its commitment to vaccine donations to the developing world. We have a commitment of 100 million by June 2022. We have already delivered 22 million to COVAX and bilaterally. Another 9 million are on their way in the next couple of weeks, and we will meet our commitment.

The early indications of omicron are that it is more transmissible, but that it potentially leads to less serious illness than other variants. I understand that that would be the normal progress of a virus. Variants will continue to appear year after year. When will the Government accept that learning to live with covid, which we all have to do, means that we will most certainly have an annual vaccine and that we cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy, which leads to businesses going under and jobs being lost?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important set of points. She is right about what the early data suggests about transmissibility. We are certainly seeing that here in the UK, and we are also seeing it in the reports from our friends across the world.

On the severity of the variant, we should not jump to any conclusions. We just do not have enough data. Most of the data that is available at this point in time is coming from South Africa. That is where most of the world’s cases are, but it is important to remember that it has a younger population. South Africa also had the beta wave, and beta as a variant is much closer to the omicron variant. While it is quite possible that there will be a difference in clinical outcomes from infection, it is too early to jump to conclusions.

None the less, my right hon. Friend is right in her final point. Of course we must learn to live with this virus; it is not going away, as she says, for many, many years, and perhaps it will lead to annual vaccinations. We have to find ways to continue with life as normal.

Order. Colleagues will be aware that there is a further statement and quite a lot of business to get through this evening. If I am to get everybody in, I will be looking for brief questions and brief answers.

I refer the Secretary of State to the issue of third doses. I welcome the Government’s policy of giving people with compromised immune systems a third dose, and I declare my own interest in that. I ask him, though, why is there so much confusion around who is responsible for advising people with an entitlement to a third dose. There is a lot of confusion between secondary and primary care providers. Secondly, why is it not possible to go online to book an appointment for a third dose as it is to book one for a first, second or booster dose?

The reason it is not possible to go online to book a third dose is that, often, the GP will need to make a judgment on the particular individual. A lot of cases are different, and often it depends on the reason why that individual is immunosuppressed. It could be for a temporary reason. It could be a long-term issue. It also depends a lot on whether that individual has had any other recent infection. It is a clinical decision. It is right that it is made by a GP, but as soon as that decision is made by the responsible clinician, that person should of course get their third dose as soon as possible.

Many of us have constituents who were caught out when South Africa was added to the red list and are now in compulsory hotel quarantine. Given the information that my right hon. Friend gave us today, if someone has had a negative PCR before travel and a negative day 2 PCR, what is the medical rationale for retaining 10-day quarantines? Is it possible to find ways of having safe early release, so we are not using up the capacity that we have unnecessarily?

The medical rationale is around the incubation period of the virus. Most of the data that we have today is based on previous variants that we have had time to assess. With this particular variant, as my right hon. Friend will know, there has not been enough time so far, but as we learn more, we will change our policies should we need to do so.

Last week, I asked the Vaccines Minister whether the Government would allow immunocompromised people the opportunity to have antibody tests. She helpfully said that she would look into it. Has the Secretary of State discussed that with her, and what are his thoughts on antibody testing for those who do not yet know whether the vaccines work on them?

I believe that, in certain conditions, immunocompromised people can have antibody tests. It is a decision made by their clinicians. I think the hon. Lady is asking whether they can be made available more generally. We are taking expert advice on that. I want to reassure her, on more support for the immunosuppressed, that some of recent treatments that we have recently purchased and that are being authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will also provide a much higher degree of support.

The travel sector has been devastated by two years of covid emergency. It will have met with despair new, expensive testing requirements and a collapse in confidence among people who would otherwise be booking their holidays. What will we do to help the travel sector, and when will we get to a stage where we deal with covid without having to damage such significantly important parts of our economy?

My right hon. Friend is right to talk about the particularly acute challenge facing the travel sector. It has been hit hard not just by the measures that have been taken here at home but by the international measures that have been taken by so many countries, so it is not just about the UK-based decisions. The answer really lies in making a quick decision about omicron. She will know, as I have said, that we will update the House and hopefully have much more data on the variant by next week. Hopefully, if that data is helpful, then pressures can be eased in the travel sector. Should it be less helpful for the travel sector, the Government will have time to review what other measures they might be able to take to help.

Current Government guidance in England is that if someone has tested positive for covid, they should not have another PCR or lateral flow test for 90 days, yet the guidance for those wishing to return to the UK is that if they have recently recovered from covid and are no longer infectious, they should have a lateral flow test—apparently because it is less likely to return a positive result. This appears to be contradictory advice, so will the Secretary of State tell the House what advice he can give to UK citizens who have caught and recovered from covid abroad regarding how they can best return to the UK in time for Christmas?

UK citizens who are abroad and wish to return home should comply with the requirements, but the right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, which I will take away and look into further.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you will find it as comforting as I did that the Prime Minister’s official spokesman this morning confirmed that the Government were confident that next week they would have more data than they currently do, and that the Government would update Parliament before the House rises for Christmas; that is very welcome. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman also reserved the right to implement measures, if necessary, during the recess. It is perfectly reasonable that the Government retain that power, but if restrictions are important enough to implement during the recess, the House should be recalled for us to debate and vote on those matters. May I have an assurance from the Secretary of State that that is what will happen?

My right hon. Friend should be assured that there will be a further update next week, as I have also just committed to. As he says, if—and it is a big if—it were necessary for the Government to take important action during the recess, of course people would expect us to take that action. As for whether Parliament should or should not be recalled, that is something that I will take back to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Will the Health Secretary confirm that he expects next week’s update to contain much more information about the threat that the omicron variant poses in terms of seriousness of illness, so that we can have some insight into that issue, and will he tell us if he does not expect that to be the case? Will he also comment on the fact that more than 25% of Government Members who are in the Chamber today are not wearing masks? What does that do for the compliance of people outside who are meant to wear masks on public transport and in shops?

As each day goes by, we are getting a little bit more information, but I do think that by next week we will have more information, given the samples that have arrived at Porton Down and other labs across the world. However, I will caveat that by saying that I cannot give any guarantee about how much information we will have; I am sure that there will still be many unanswered questions at that point. As for masks, our rules are clear.

I welcome the emphasis that the Secretary of State has put on vaccinations and boosters—not on locking down the economy—in his statement today. As a fellow Worcestershire MP, I wonder whether he is aware that in very rural parts of Worcestershire—for example, Tenbury Wells in west Worcestershire—it is on occasion a long way to travel to get a booster jab, and that home visits for people who have care at home can also be difficult to access. Will he suggest to the system that we put more emphasis on the rural delivery of booster jabs?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that we are massively expanding the availability of vaccines. That process has already begun in the last week or so, with more pharmacies coming on board—many in rural areas and in the heart of communities—as well as more hospital hubs and vaccination centres. We are recruiting some 10,000 paid vaccinators to help us to do just that.

Although it will still take another couple of weeks fully to understand the impact of the omicron variant, we do know that this strain of covid-19 is considerably more transmissible. As a result, I am sure that it is reasonable to expect more people to be pinged or asked to self-isolate. In the light of that, will the Government bring forward urgent reforms to increase and extend statutory sick pay so that workers are not forced into poverty as well as self-isolation?

To support people who may have the challenges to which the hon. Gentleman referred, sick pay will begin on day one. We also have the hardship fund, which can help with particular cases.

The travel sector has been devastated by uncertainty and constantly changing rules. I welcome the Secretary of State’s saying that that these measures are temporary, but will he set out in detail the criteria on which he will decide whether they should be lifted and when?

I fully understand my right hon. Friend’s point about the impact on the travel sector; that should not be lost on anyone. We all understand why the action has been taken, but we must not forget that the sector is hugely important to the economy, and that it has been hit hard again and again. Next week’s update—the review point—will be important to provide more certainty. As I said to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), we cannot guarantee that we will have all the answers to our questions, but that information will certainly help to provide more certainty.

I have a constituent whose mother has been fast-tracked for end-of-life nursing care in a local care home. However, my constituent was told that she would not be able to visit her mother at Christmas, despite this being her last Christmas. The reason that the care home gave for suspending visits on Christmas day was to make it easier for the staff, because the covid

“testing would be too time consuming”.

That flies in the face of Government guidance, which says:

“Visits at the end of life should always be supported…in the final months and weeks of life…not just the final days or hours”.

Will the Secretary of State issue guidance to care homes, emphasising the importance of visits at Christmas, particularly for people at end of life?

Yes, I most certainly would like to help with that. I am sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. As she says, visits at end of life should always be made available; there should be no excuses. I would be happy to look into the case that she has mentioned, if she provides me with more details. I will also check the general guidance.

Why has some of the substantial extra money for the health service not been used to expand bed and associated staff capacity in hospitals, and why were the anti-covid Nightingale hospitals not used for the pandemic to prevent the virus from spreading to the district generals?

The NHS and social care has £5.4 billion of extra funding over the second half of this financial year. A lot of that funding is being deployed to create extra capacity, especially with work on discharges between the NHS and the social care sector, because people can be clinically ready to be discharged, but the care packages have not always been easily available.

The number of confirmed cases in the UK is 336. By definition, they are all infected. Some may be asymptomatic and others will be feeling ill. As far as I am aware, none of them has so far been hospitalised.

The Secretary of State will know that early detection and isolation is fundamental for the new omicron strain, but does he realise that Rochdale, for example, was receiving some hundreds of PCR tests until August and that this has now been ceased? Some of the national testing centres in my constituency are also being downgraded. Will he look at this matter, because it is clearly taking us in the wrong direction?

I believe that the UKHSA is carrying out some half a million tests, approximately, a day. In the light of some of the concerns around the omicron variant, with the need for greater testing, that testing capacity is being increased.

The Nigerian high commissioner to London has called the inclusion on the red list of African countries, especially Nigeria, nothing short of “travel apartheid”. Omicron is classified as a mild variant, with no deaths and no hospitalisation, unlike the delta variant, so when will the European countries that have the delta variant be added to the red list? It is time for an international approach and not a discriminatory approach.

The only way our approach discriminates is in terms of the risk of the virus. The hon. Lady will know from the information that I have shared today and the Government have shared previously that the epicentre of this variant is southern Africa at the moment. The reason Nigeria has been included is that at least 21 cases in England are clearly linked to Nigeria, but we have also taken into account further reports such as Ghana having reported 25 cases linked to Nigeria. She will also understand that some countries do not have the same ability to test or sequence, and so we, with other countries, provide them with that support. It is right that whenever we have the data, we must act to protect British public health.

As of last week, as feared, my constituency—like many others, I am sure—is seeing Christmas events cancelled and moved online, including all manner of festive performances in schools. Local authority guidance is often what is cited. Given that last week national Government went out of their way to ask schools to go ahead with Christmas performances such as nativity plays, I am keen to understand who head teachers and other event organisers should follow—the town hall or this place.

I would encourage everyone to look seriously at the national Government guidance. Our guidance is clear. Even before the emergence of the new variant, we all knew that covid-19 likes the colder, darker days that winter brings. There is plenty of guidance. I would encourage people to go ahead whether with nativity plays or Christmas parties, but to continue to follow the guidance that was always there.

Recent, quite staggering, figures from the respected charity Macmillan Cancer Support show that nearly 50,000 people in the UK are still missing a cancer diagnosis compared with the pre-pandemic period. I know the Secretary of State is new to his post, but there is a whole weight of evidence, including petitions and letters from MPs. Will he commit to address the severe capacity pressures within cancer services in the imminent elective recovery plan?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best Christmas present anyone can get this year is to go and get their booster jab?

Will the Health Secretary update the House on whether we should expect an economic support package not just for the aviation sector but for tourism and other sectors that might be affected if further restrictions apply? Will he also say more about how we can ensure that provision of the covid vaccine, which is a global public good, can be accelerated so that countries that are at risk get the support they need? If we had acted faster, earlier, this particular variant might have been prevented. We need much more international leadership, led by our Government.

On vaccine donations, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave to a similar question. In terms of transport, I also refer her to an answer I gave previously.

My constituents Mike and Carol Parkin are paying £2,700 for the privilege of being imprisoned in a Delta hotel in Milton Keynes and my constituent David Brayshaw £3,700 for being in a 3-star hotel in downtown Hounslow. The highlight of the day is meals in boxes, with plastic cutlery, that are inedible, cold or both. Can we go back to a proper quarantine where people can go home? What they are getting is very poor value indeed.

I think my hon. Friend will understand the difference in terms of public health between a managed quarantine facility and home quarantine, but he is right to point to an important issue. Of course no one is going to enjoy being quarantined in this way—why would anyone? I think everyone understands the issues, but it is really important that the quality of care provided there is equally decent and of good quality. If my hon. Friend can share with me some of the information he has about his constituents, I would like to look into that.

As chair of the all-party disability group, I have been hearing from people right across the United Kingdom saying that some of the individuals who have not yet been vaccinated have learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders. They have a fear of going to large-scale vaccination centres but do not yet have adapted vaccination regimes with specialist learning disabilities nurses who can attend to them. Could the Secretary of State assure the House that this will be taken forward and that the most clinically vulnerable will not be left behind?

It is important that there is easy access for everyone to get vaccinated. The hon. Lady has given a really good demonstration of why that is so critical for every part of our community. If it is helpful, the Vaccines Minister will be pleased to meet her, as chair of the APPG, to see what more we can do.

Vaccines are clearly our way out of this, but does the Secretary of State agree that treatments are also important, and they have come on in leaps and bounds? Sotrovimab reduces the incidence of death or hospitalisation by 80% and molnupiravir got its approval last week. Does he agree that while we are very good at R&D we are less good at rolling out these extraordinary therapeutics? Will he do everything in his power to make sure that the NHS has access to those drugs as soon as possible since they reduce considerably the problem that covid and its associates will pose in terms of mortality and serious illness?

If we are going to have to live with covid and given the high infection rates among young children, what possible justification can there be for delaying funding to schools to improve ventilation to reduce transmission?

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary said something about the importance of ventilation last week.

Many, many of my constituents in Scunthorpe have come forward and had their jabs and boosters, and I hope my right hon. Friend will thank them, as I do. But I still speak to a very small number of particularly younger people who are sincerely worried about having the vaccine. What can he do to reassure them that it is safe and effective and that they should come forward and take the opportunity to have theirs?

It is important that we do whatever we can through using the right communication channels. It is also important that we provide the easiest access possible. For example, some of the mobile vaccination units have had a disproportionately high success rate with younger people.

Luckily, the omicron variant was picked up quite quickly in South Africa due to its genome sequencing capability; otherwise we could be in a worse position. What are the British Government doing to support international efforts to enhance genome sequencing capability across the world so that the next variant of concern is identified as quickly as possible, wherever it comes?

I think we can say that we are leading the way on this. The UK Health Security Agency has established a database that is open for all countries to access to post their data. Even the discovery of the omicron variant and its potential risks was done here in the UK.

I echo concerns about the travel and aviation sectors. This is a real blow for them. The Secretary of State will remember that back in June or July he took a decision to remove restrictions, in the face of heavy scientific advice that he needed to carry on with restrictions. That decision was the right one. Will he give an undertaking that this time round he will also face down the more conservative elements of the scientific community, do the right thing and keep the restrictions as minimal as possible?

Yes, I am happy to give that commitment to my right hon. Friend, for all the excellent reasons he gives. We were absolutely right, back at the start of the summer, to open up our country, including removing travel restrictions. That is one of the reasons, with regard to the dominant delta variant, why the UK is in a much better position than many other European countries today.

When it comes to public health compliance, consistency and clarity of message is important. The variant does not understand the difference between an indoor setting on transport or another indoor sitting, so why can the Secretary of State not ensure that all indoor sittings have the same rules applied to them?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who is no longer in her place, has already confirmed and reminded the House that the normal evolution of a virus is to increase in transmissibility, but reduce in pathogenicity over time. The Secretary of State has already informed the House that none of the 336 cases of omicron confirmed in the UK has yet resulted in hospitalisation. Does he agree that that is tremendously good news and that we should look forward next week to hopefully having all restrictions lifted?

Several of my constituents have met difficulties in booking hotel quarantine for their return from South Africa due to problems with Corporate Travel Management being unable to verify certain card payments or with getting bookings, despite the website showing availability. As a result, they have missed flights and had to book others in their stead, which have had to be paid for. Will the Minister therefore commit to reimbursing such constituents for the failures of the system?

I am not aware of the details of the individual cases that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but a variety of credit cards and payment systems can be used. If he believes there has been a failure of the system, I would be happy to take a closer look at that.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what he is doing to promote the availability of the vaccine damage payment scheme, and does he recognise that that could be a good counter against vaccine hesitancy? When, however, will the scheme be made fit for purpose?

We are reviewing that scheme, for reasons that my hon. Friend has brought up in the past in the House. I agree that it is important to have confidence in vaccines, and that scheme has a role to play.

Throughout this pandemic, while we have all made sacrifices, we have been watching those imposing the rules repeatedly breaking them. The final straw is that last Christmas, as families spent time apart and their loved ones died alone, No. 10 was in full party mode. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that the upcoming covid inquiry will include a thorough examination of any misconduct in public office?

For what reason is the Department of Health and Social Care making an announcement on extensions to the red list, rather than the Department for Transport, as has been the case previously?

Departments across Government work together on the pandemic, and that means that my Department works very closely with the Department for Transport.

Not all, but most Members of this House and the general public would support the Secretary of State when he says that he has to impose further curbs on people’s freedoms, but does he not accept that people would perhaps be a bit more enthusiastic if when he comes back to the Dispatch Box, he fesses up, accepts that there was a knees-up in No. 10 last year when people were dying without family members there present with them, and apologises on behalf of the Prime Minister?

I have a constituent who is stuck in South Africa and due to come back on Thursday. He has been given a medical exemption from hotel quarantine, so he has to have managed quarantine at home for 10 days, but there is a problem with Corporate Travel Management, because it will not let him book his PCR test for day two and day eight unless he also books a hotel quarantine package. Will the Secretary of State help to unblock the problem with Corporate Travel Management?

Yes, there are in certain cases, as my hon. Friend points out, medical exemptions to the hotel quarantine system. The problem that he points out should not be happening, so I will be happy to look at that case with some urgency.

I very much welcome the measures taken to accelerate the booster programme. Will my right hon. Friend look at what more can be done to support our excellent vaccinators and volunteers in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to fully roll out as quickly as possible the increased capacity of vaccinations that we need to see?

Yes, there has been an excellent roll-out of the vaccine throughout Staffordshire. Alongside the rest of the UK, there is going to be a real step-up in the number of vaccination access points available.

Different variants will keep coming at us in the years ahead. In that regard, I heard a very eminent physician on Radio 4 saying that one area of concern was our reaction to the new variants. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House and the country that we are absolutely on the ball when it comes to a new variant appearing and are ready to do all that is needed to keep us safe and safeguard our liberties?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. When it comes to genome sequencing, which is crucial to identifying new variants and any of the risks they may or may not bring, the UK is second only to the United States in our capability.

Many of my constituents have been in touch to express concern that they cannot register the vaccination status of 12 to 15-year-olds on the NHS app. Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on when they will be able to do that?

Yes. That facility may not be in the app—it may be through a letter or a process—but it will still provide what is needed in terms of travel for that age group. That hopefully will start next week.

I fully understand that my right hon. Friend is treading water until we know more about the omicron variant, its response to the vaccines and its virulence, but can I press him on the nature of any likely Government response if those answers are poor? We know what lockdowns mean: damage to youngsters, damage to businesses, damage to lives and damage to liberties—not least the £400 billion while we waited for the vaccine and got it rolled out over a seven-month cycle. Can he please assure me that under no circumstance will we do the same all over again and hope for a different outcome? He knows as well as I that there will be yet another variant some time down the line.

I do not want to pre-judge the review, but I know that my hon. Friend would agree that our best form of defence is our vaccine programme, and the fact that we are doing better than any other country in Europe in our booster programme gives us a really strong level of defence.

Over 90% of the people getting the most serious care for covid are unvaccinated. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if people are not getting a vaccine without good reason, they do not just endanger themselves, but put a strain on the NHS that it does not need when trying to treat people for other conditions?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Taking a vaccine should be a positive decision. With the exception of NHS settings or social care settings, no one should be forced to take a vaccine, but people who have not yet taken a vaccine should know, as my hon. Friend said, that they are not only endangering themselves, but wider society. That hospital place that they might take perhaps would have been taken by someone else with a different illness. I urge them to please think of others.