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Covid-19: Vaccine

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government, following the recent analysis of the effectiveness of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, what arrangements they have put in place to distribute approved Covid-19 vaccines (1) in the United Kingdom, and (2) internationally; and who determines the protocol for priority of access to any such vaccines.

My Lords, the NHS is preparing to be ready to deploy a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as one is safe and effective. Distribution arrangements remain flexible and include the make-up of the workforce needed to rapidly deliver a vaccination programme, training requirements, consumables and supporting infrastructure. The UK continues to work through multilaterals, such as the G7 and the G20, and with the WHO to agree collaborative approaches to supporting global vaccine development and distribution.

The Government anticipate that the vaccination programme will start with the most vulnerable and those living and working in care homes. Vaccination into muscle does not need to be administered by a clinician; any of us could be trained to do it. Which organisations are the Government working with to make this happen? Can the Minister confirm that there will be no need to take out contracts with the private sector, but that the Government will use the military, local resources—such as public health, fire and ambulance services—and trained volunteers?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right that the range of people who can administer this vaccine is extremely wide. The challenge of administering so many vaccines in such a short amount of time will indeed require the involvement of a large range of people. We are putting in the recruitment and training necessary for that to happen. I am particularly grateful to all healthcare workers, particularly those from professions such as the pharmacy industry, who are stepping forward to meet this challenge. We are not allergic, though, to using the private sector in this matter, and we will be explaining the detailed terms of our arrangements at a later date.

I plead with the Minister to ensure that whatever arrangements are being made for rapid result testing and vaccination, absolute priority is given to the vulnerable, itinerant, homeless and occupants of night shelters, for the earliest possible access to testing, when the new rapid testing regime is introduced, and for vaccination. They are very vulnerable people, and that is the least we can do for those in need.

The noble Lord makes a persuasive case for those who are most vulnerable, including the itinerant and the homeless. We have seen for ourselves the impact of the disease on those who live in close quarters with each other, have health vulnerabilities or are exposed to the disease due to the nature of their circumstances. Those who are most vulnerable should surely be at the top of the list. I do not know the precise arrangements for the homeless and itinerant, but he makes an extremely good point, and I would be glad to get back to him with details.

My Lords, as is the case with the ordering of home testing kits, in order to prove one’s identity and access the vaccine, will UK citizens be required to share their credit rating history with US data-mining companies with which the Government have signed contracts?

My Lords, we are taking a four nations approach to the deployment of the vaccine. The Scottish NHS has been involved in all the arrangements we have been putting together and in both the Vaccine Taskforce, to procure the vaccines, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which has been discussing prioritisation. Furthermore, it has a voice at the DHSC, which is responsible for deployment.

My Lords, the announcement of the effectiveness of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine being not only the first vaccine against Covid-19 but the world’s first vaccine against infection developed using messenger RNA is a huge scientific advance. There are challenges in delivering an effective national vaccination programme. As Professor Melinda Mills, in a report from the Royal Society and British Academy, pointed out, not the least is honest, transparent public communication free from hyperbole. Does the Minister agree? If so, who does he think would be best placed to lead the public communication of the programme?

The noble Lord is entirely right that we have to approach the prospect of a vaccine in a measured way. There remain considerable imponderables about the effectiveness, longevity, impact and side-effects of a vaccine. These are things that we do not know yet, and we have to keep our eyes open to the limits of what the vaccine may or may not be able to do. That said, the initial data from Pfizer is incredibly encouraging. We have taken a measured approach in our communications to date. Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, is the face of the vaccine, as it were; he is the member of the Vaccine Taskforce who has brought the clinical perspective to its work, and he will remain an important voice in all this.

It is good news indeed. I would like the Minister to share how the Government are preparing to build public confidence in the vaccine and counter the anti-vax campaigns. Following my noble friend’s question earlier, I would be grateful if the Minister could share with the House the plans for reaching harder-to-reach communities, so they can get the information they need and access to the vaccine when the rollout starts.

The noble Baroness is right that we face a challenge. While there will be millions of people who will come forward emphatically to have the vaccine, there will be some who are either disengaged with the British Government or actively hostile to the thought of a vaccine, and we take seriously the disruption caused by those who seek to profit either financially or politically from the confusion and distress caused by anti-vax campaigns. It is not appropriate for me to discuss at the Dispatch Box the detailed measures we are putting in place to deal with the anti-vax message, but I can reassure the noble Baroness that they are focused, energetic and proving to be effective.

We also take seriously our efforts to reach hard-to-reach communities—those who might not have confidence in the Government or we might not have the right connection with. Those communities are exactly the ones we need to vaccinate, and we are making them an enormous priority in our efforts.

Will my noble friend the Minister ensure that among the priority groups for vaccination will be the sportsmen, sportswomen and their entourages who are seeking to represent GB in international events during 2021, in particular the Olympic and Paralympic athletes who aim to qualify for and participate in the Olympic Games in Tokyo? Will the Government urgently consult with the World Anti-Doping Agency to ensure that all approved vaccines are exempt from any possible breach of the current regulations on doping?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that question, which is incredibly important because we all take our preparation for the Olympics extremely seriously. I am also grateful to him for giving me advance notice of it. There is a desire for all the UK population to be vaccinated, including those who represent the UK. Prioritisation decisions will be based on vaccine availability and scientific clinical evidence on the safety and efficacy within different population groups. The JVCI is the independent expert on this and will make the decision he refers to. The World Anti-Doping Agency is actively responding to the coronavirus outbreak as it relates to the global anti-doping programme and the regulations are evolving rapidly.

Acknowledging the possibility of a vaccine being made available before Christmas, can the Minister assure me that a Northern Ireland supply is part of the UK’s order, and will the Northern Ireland Executive be involved in discussions over its distribution? Can the Minister also tell us when he expects news concerning the vaccine being developed by Oxford University?

We are working extremely closely with the Northern Ireland Administration to ensure deployment of the vaccine; as I said earlier, this will be done on a four-nations approach. The Oxford vaccine is going through the final stages of phase 3. We are very much looking forward to hearing how it is going but I am afraid to say that I do not have a precise date for when that will be.

My Lords, what specific arrangements have the Government put in place at our borders to ensure that the vaccine can pass speedily, without hindrance, from Belgium after 31 December?

My Lords, we have extremely detailed and thorough arrangements for our borders on 31 December. No problems are envisaged with regard to the vaccine.

My Lords, I draw attention to the bit of the Question that says:

“distribute approved coronavirus vaccines in the UK and internationally”.

There is a great danger in the international distribution that corruption will creep into the system. Can the Minister assure me that the Government will co-ordinate with the EU and like-minded international aid agencies to ensure that corruption is avoided and the vaccine that we donate is delivered for free to vulnerable groups in countries overseas?

My noble friend makes a very reasonable point. The marketplace for vaccines is extremely competitive. The British Government have been emphatic in our commitment to CEPI, Gavi and the other vaccine organisations. The COVAX advance market commitment aims to produce 1 billion doses for high-risk populations in 92 developing countries in 2021. We support that initiative enormously and work with other partners to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.

[Inaudible]—about the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and full credit to the vaccine taskforce. Given that other vaccines, such as the Oxford AstraZeneca one, will, I hope, be available soon, what will the Government do to ensure the rapid rollout of the inoculations of these vaccines? Can business help in any way? As president of the CBI, we stand by to help in any way we can. Secondly, I offer my congratulations on the rapid mass-testing pilot starting in Liverpool. Can the Minister confirm that these pilots will now be rolled out to another 67 regions, and how soon will that happen?

I am grateful for the noble Lord’s remarks. Business can play an important role. Distribution of the vaccine will employ a large workforce and the supply chain is incredibly important. There will be a dimension for business to provide thought leadership and behavioural leadership to encourage and make space for employees and to be advocates for the principle of vaccination in every way. In terms of mass testing, we have sent lateral flow devices to 67 directors of public health and we will be learning from the Liverpool experiment to see whether we can apply citywide mass testing of the kind he describes to other cities in the future.

My Lords, I commend the Government on the leadership they have shown in committing £548 million to the COVAX advance market commitment to which my noble friend referred a few moments ago. That is essential if we are to ensure that poorer countries are to get access to these vaccines. However, with some $2 billion of seed corn funding required by the end of this year, what are the Government doing to ensure that other first-world countries follow our lead in this area?

I am grateful to my noble friend for the question on international vaccines. He is right that no single country holds the keys to victory against this invisible enemy and we must work together. I point out in particular the work of the ACT Accelerator, which estimates that $38 billion is needed by the end of next year for equitable access to vaccines. This will be an important part of our chairmanship of the G7, which starts at the beginning of next year, and which will be a helpful platform for Britain’s advocacy of fair and equitable distribution of vaccines.

I thank all involved for the achievement of a successful vaccine. What, if any, is the effect of the vaccine if taken when the recipient is already testing positive for coronavirus?

My Lords, my understanding at the moment is that it is not necessary to take a coronavirus test before having the vaccine. This has been one of the subjects of the trials that have taken place so far. I do not believe that there is any effect at all but I am happy to check that, seeing as it is a detailed clinical point that is beyond my personal experience, and revert to my noble friend with confirmation of it.