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Coronavirus Vaccine

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 2 December.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the coronavirus vaccine. Today marks a new chapter in our fight against this virus. Ever since the pandemic hit our shores almost a year ago, we have known that a vaccine would be critical to set us free. So all through this arduous year—it has been an arduous year—while we have been working night and day to fight the virus and keep it under control, we have been striving, too, to develop the vaccines that can give us hope and let us eventually release the curbs on our freedoms that have bound us for so long.

Thanks to the incredible work of the Vaccine Taskforce, the Business Secretary and Kate Bingham, we have already amassed a huge portfolio of different vaccine candidates. We have backed seven vaccines and ordered 357 million doses on behalf of the whole UK, one of the biggest portfolios per capita in the world. We have said from the start that a vaccine must be safe and effective before we would even consider deploying it. Any vaccine must go through a rigorous process of clinical trials, involving thousands of people and extensive independent scrutiny from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, one of the world’s most respected medical regulators.

Today, I am delighted to inform the House that the MHRA has issued the clinical authorisation of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. This is a monumental step forward. It is no longer ‘if’ there is going to be a vaccine, but ‘when’. In our battle against the virus, help is on its way. Today is a triumph for all those who believe in science, a triumph for ingenuity and a triumph for humanity, and I thank everyone who has played their part in this achievement. I thank the team at Pfizer, the team of scientists at BioNTech, the volunteers who stepped up and took part in clinical trials, and the MHRA itself, which made sure that this is a vaccine we can all have faith in. Thanks to their efforts, I can confirm that the UK is the first country in the world to have a clinically approved coronavirus vaccine for supply, and now our task is to make use of the fruits of that scientific endeavour to save lives.

We have spent months preparing for this day, so that as soon as we got the green light, we would be ready to go. We were the first country in the world to pre-order supplies of this successful vaccine, and we have 40 million doses pre-ordered for delivery over the coming months—enough for 20 million people, because two jabs are required for each person. Following authorisation, the next stage is to test each batch of the vaccine for safety. I can confirm that batch testing has been completed this morning for the first deployment of 800,000 doses of vaccine. Those doses are for the whole United Kingdom. This morning, I chaired a meeting of Health Ministers from the devolved Administrations to ensure the rollout is co-ordinated nationwide.

This will be one of the biggest civilian logistical efforts that we have faced as a nation. It will be difficult. There will be challenges and complications, but I know that the NHS is equal to the task. Rolling out the vaccine, free at the point of delivery and according to clinical need, not ability to pay, is in the finest tradition of our National Health Service, and I am delighted to confirm that the NHS will be able to start vaccinating from early next week.

The whole purpose of the vaccine is to protect people from Covid, so that we can get lives back to normal. We will prioritise the groups who are at greatest risk. This morning, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published its advice, setting out the order of priority according to clinical need, and that includes care home residents and their carers, the over-80s and front-line health and social care workers. We will deliver according to clinical prioritisation and operational necessity. The need to hold the vaccine at -70˚C makes it particularly challenging to deploy.

While we begin vaccination next week, the bulk of the vaccinations will be in the new year. I urge anyone called forward for vaccination by the NHS to respond quickly to protect themselves, their loved ones and their community.

Over the next few months, we will see vaccines delivered in three different ways. First, we will begin vaccinations in hospital hubs. Secondly, we will deploy through local community services, including GPs and in due course pharmacies, too. Thirdly, we will stand up vaccination centres in conference centres and sports venues, for example, to vaccinate large numbers of people as more vaccines come on stream. This is an important step, but we are not there yet, so I stress that we must all keep playing our part, keep following the new rules that the House approved overwhelmingly yesterday and remember the basics, such as ‘Hands, face, space’, and, ‘Get a test’, which we know from experience are so important in keeping the virus under control.

Before I finish, may I also update the House on another bit of good news? From today, I am absolutely thrilled to say that we can safely allow visits in care homes for those who test negative for Covid-19.

Coronavirus has denied so many people the simple pleasure of seeing a loved one, which is so precious to so many, especially in our care homes. This is possible only because of the success we have had in building one of the biggest testing capacities in Europe, with local and national teams working together, side by side—something we have often discussed right across this House. We have worked hard on testing. We have worked hard on the vaccine. Our strategy is suppressing the virus until a vaccine can make us safe. That strategy is working, and I am delighted that we will be able to see families and friends come together ahead of Christmas, thanks to this improvement.

This is a day to remember, frankly in a year to forget. We can see the way out of this, but we are not there yet, so let us keep our resolve and keep doing our bit to keep people safe until science can make us free.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. Yesterday’s great news about the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the MHRA’s clinical authorisation was the breakthrough that we all hoped for. We on these Benches join in with the heartfelt thanks to the dedicated scientists and those who have taken part in the trials, testing and validation process. Coming with the absolute assurance from the MHRA that no corners have been cut by it in the speeding-up of the vaccine, and that safety of the public has rightly remained paramount, the news is especially welcome.

Hospital trust staff will receive the vaccine first. This is a massive logistical challenge given the size of the workforce, the temperatures that this vaccine must be stored at and the two doses needed. We understand that 50 hospitals are already set up and waiting to receive the vaccine. How many NHS staff are expected to be vaccinated by January? When will mass-vaccination centres start opening in our communities?

On care homes, today we have the reality of the difficulty of ensuring that the vaccine can be delivered safely and quickly to them, in the light of its low temperature requirements and because of the fragmented social care system, involving thousands of predominantly small providers employing permanent and often frequently changing temporary staff. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s Covid-19 priority lists advises that care homes residents and the staff who treat them should be first in line to be inoculated. We now understand that only care home staff will be among the first to be vaccinated, travelling to an NHS centre. While this and readiness in parts of the NHS to administer the vaccine are welcome, can the Minister update the House on how the Government will ensure that in the rollout of this essential vaccine, that hopefully will help to protect thousands of care home residents, they do not find themselves at the back of the queue once again? Care home managers are demanding clarity over this issue and have warned of confusion and raised expectations among vulnerable people.

Overall, we have historic strengths with vaccination, but in recent years we have lost our measles-free status, and we know that vaccination rates can often be lower in poorer and more vulnerable communities. While Covid-19 has affected everyone, the burden of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the poorest, who are more likely to die than the richest. Can the Minister ensure that there is a health equality strategy, so that black and ethnic-minority groups, and the poorest and most vulnerable, do not miss out on this vaccine?

I also make a special plea for unpaid carers. Carers UK is deeply disappointed that carers are not on the priority list for the vaccine in England. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind this by the JCVI or the Government? They were prioritised for the flu vaccine, as it was recognised that if they get flu, the loved ones they care for are at risk and cannot be properly cared for. As a carer myself, I am in touch with many local carers, who play a vital role in keeping older, disabled and seriously ill people safe during the pandemic.

On the supply of vaccines, the UK has promised 40 million doses by spring, which is estimated as enough to give the required two jabs to health and care workers and everyone over 65. Nevertheless, in the first few weeks of winter, our ability to vaccinate could easily outstrip supply. Current figures are that there will be 800,000 doses in the country within days, with several million more to follow in weeks. I understand that the jabs are being manufactured in Belgium. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of Brexit on importation? Can the Minister reassure the House that supplies will not be disrupted, deal or no deal? We all understand that the restrictions will remain in place for some time but in the meantime, if someone is vaccinated, will they still have to isolate if contacted by test and trace, or are they now released from that obligation?

The Government’s document, Community Testing: A Guide for Local Delivery, suggests that local areas can use mass testing as a freedom pass. What does this mean in practice? How will local areas enforce rules if some people are able to follow different rules based on their testing status? In the Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister suggested that people may want to take advantage of mass testing ahead of visiting their families this Christmas, but what does this mean for people in areas that do not have access to lateral flow testing? Needless to say, despite the approval of a vaccine the restrictions will need to remain in place for some time, and test and trace will be key. Can the Minister confirm that mass testing will therefore be rolled out in all areas in time for Christmas? What are the consequences of the Christmas exemption period if not?

We must not forget that the Minister’s Statement also announced the welcome news that family visits can now take place in care homes, subject to visitors testing negative for Covid-19. However, the increase in staff and resident testing, alongside the introduction of visitor testing, must be backed up by additional resources to make this possible. What extra funding is being made available to care homes to meet the costs of additional testing, cleaning, PPE and visitor administrations that they will incur?

Today’s focus is on the vaccine and how it will be distributed. However, for the record, in response to the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, claiming that the process of vaccine approval has been one of the early benefits of leaving the EU, the MHRA has today made it clear that the process for developing and authorising the vaccine has been undertaken under the terms of European law, which remain in force until the completion of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year. In other words, Matt Hancock’s assertion is simply not true.

No one can deny that the news about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is just what we need as the days get shorter and Christmas still seems some way off. The technical achievement is enormous, and I am happy to congratulate all those involved in the creation of the vaccine, in the lightning regulation process and in its manufacture. The logistical challenge is next, and I feel sure that, again, the armed services will figure highly here.

Some time ago, I asked the Minister who might carry out the vaccinations. There are not enough NHS staff free to do it. Is there a plan to train others? The training is very short and needs no clinical background whatever. I seem to remember that student friends, when training to be doctors, would practise their technique by injecting oranges. I understand that it will be at least Easter before all the population has received the first round of the Pfizer vaccine and midsummer before we have all had the two jabs.

Can the Minister clarify what sort of immunity someone would have if they failed to get the second jab? What is the timescale of the availability of the other vaccines that we know are in the pipeline? When do we expect all the population of the UK who are willing to be vaccinated to have received their vaccine, and does he have an indication of how many will refuse it?

Vaccine is not a magic bullet—yet. Those of us who will not get it for some time will have to be careful and adhere to the rules outlined by the Government. We might be surprised that not everyone is aware of the symptoms of the virus—the cough and the loss of taste and smell, along with flu-like symptoms. They have not been part of the messaging but, on prevention, we all know “hands, face, space”. Was there a reason that the messaging did not include symptoms? I appreciate that if you are an avid follower of the PM’s No. 10 virus briefings, all that information is at your fingertips, but for many these are not required viewing. How much is the department using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to get these messages out? If it is not using them, why not? For months to come, people will be testing positive, and anyone who does will still be required to quarantine.

I would like to spend the rest of my time addressing some issues relating to self-isolation that have come from research by King’s College London, based on surveys carried out by the Department of Health and Social Care. Many of us who have been in this situation isolate, as that is doing our bit to prevent the spread of the virus. King’s found that intentions to isolate were high but, when it came to sticking to it, the numbers were low. It found that there were both practical and psychological barriers to an effective isolation system. Practically, there is the issue of finance. The evidence suggests that those of a lower socioeconomic status with dependent children or older relatives struggle financially or lose their pay if they self-isolate, and they choose to ignore the advice.

The £500 grant has not been available since the onset of the lockdowns, and £250 does not cover all the costs for a family for a week if you lose your wage. If a child has to go into quarantine, there is no eligibility for support, yet in all probability a parent will have to take time off work to care for the child. Not all employers continue paying a salary to those isolating or caring for someone who is isolating.

The data that I referred to came from a series of surveys carried out by the department. Is that data in the public domain? It would be really interesting to see the breakdown by geography and demography.

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for that large number of thoughtful and nuanced questions, and I will try to cover as much ground as I possibly can.

I start by supporting the noble Baronesses’ tribute to the MHRA. It has played a complete blinder. It has quietly worked since January for this very moment. It has thrown an enormous amount of expertise, diligence and professionalism at the extremely challenging task of managing this vaccine authorisation, and it is to its massive credit that it has landed with an enormous amount of confidence and has been greeted so well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, asked about EU law and exactly where we stand in terms of Brexit. She is exactly right that this authorisation was done under the terms of European law, and the carve-out that we took was indeed completely within the realms of European law. I pay tribute to the international collaboration that lay behind this vaccine—among the inventors, with their Turkish-German background, with the contributions of the German company that founded the vaccine and of the Americans, who have marketed and distributed it. In fact, the collaboration behind it has been global.

However, there is something British about it as well. In Britain, we have a long-standing commitment to research into infectious diseases, and that has created an enormously strong framework and foundation for the work that we have done. At universities such as Oxford, where the Jenner Institute is based, and Imperial, we have established a terrific international reputation for our work on infectious diseases.

The regulator, the MHRA, has gone about its work with an enormous amount of confidence and expertise. That has meant that it has been able to handle, in parallel, the clinical trials for efficacy and the reviews for safety. It analysed huge amounts of data in parallel in real time, so that it could turn around the authorisation promptly and confidently when presented with the final data.

The commercial effectiveness of the Vaccine Taskforce has been phenomenal. It has secured contracts for a large number of vaccines, which has meant that manufacturing has been able to take place in advance, and delivery of the vaccine, which is happening as we speak, is able to take place promptly. On the enormous amount of collaboration on the deployment of the vaccine, about which the noble Baroness asked, I pay tribute to colleagues in the NHS, NHSD, the military, and those in social care and logistics. There has been enormous collaboration across the piece.

The noble Baroness asked exactly what figures there are for delivery and when it is scheduled to take place. I am afraid that I cannot give the precise schedule, but I reassure her that, as soon as we know the precise timetable, we will publish it to give the confidence and reassurance to the public that, quite reasonably, they would like.

The noble Baroness is entirely right that social care is our number one priority. The prioritisation list from the JCVI is crystal clear. It also presents a big challenge because, as she knows, the Pfizer vaccine requires cold storage. It comes in units of more than 100 vials. We do not want to waste this extremely valuable vaccine, so we are having to work closely with social care colleagues and the NHS to ensure that workers and those in social care can receive it. That will be difficult, and I do not doubt that there will be problems, particularly, as the noble Baroness pointed out, with getting the vaccine to small units of social care. However, I reassure her that colleagues are working on that night and day and are very focused on delivering a solution.

The noble Baroness asked whether those who take the vaccine will need to isolate. Yes, they will, and that will have to continue for a while. The truth is that we do not know whether taking the vaccine will reduce transmissibility. Our suspicion is that it will, but until we have the clinical evidence that that is the case, we have to be pragmatic and ensure the safety of the public. However, we are working extremely hard on trying to resolve that issue, and I reassure the noble Baroness, care home managers and those who live and work in social care that they are at the top of the priority list.

The noble Baroness also asked me about delivery of the vaccine from Belgium. I reassure her that there are numerous fallback plans for all kinds of scenarios and that the transport arrangements for this valuable cargo have been thought through incredibly carefully.

The intention is not to roll out mass testing or community testing in every single local authority before Christmas. We are working with those local authorities that have stepped forward and that either are the most keen or have the highest infection rates, to ensure that the partnerships that we have in place develop really good best practice and that those directors of public health who are the most energetic have the resources they need to develop new models. That work is happening at pace and we get updates on it every day. It promises to be an extremely effective model for cutting the chain of transmission.

I pay particular tribute to universities, which have worked extremely closely with both the Department for Education and the department of health to ensure that there is community testing on campus, so that the migration home before Christmas is done safely and effectively.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, is entirely right that apparently it is not very difficult to learn how to give an injection. I have been offered a training course, but I am not sure that anyone would actually want an injection from me. However, I reassure her that we have mobilised an enormous army of people to administer the vaccine. That includes those existing in the NHS and social care as well as pharmacists, who have stepped up massively and to whom we are very grateful, and it will include the return to service of many retired healthcare professionals, to whom we are enormously grateful.

As the noble Baroness pointed out, there is a pipeline of vaccines coming through, not least the British one developed at Oxford University in collaboration with AstraZeneca. I cannot give her a schedule on precisely when all of those will be delivered, but it is extremely promising that there are between half a dozen and a dozen vaccines on their way. It serves as an indication of how science has ridden to the rescue to help us out of this awful pandemic.

Regarding those who are either sceptical or refusing a vaccine, we are reassured that concerns about the vaccine are at present relatively low. We are engaging with anyone who has a concern about the vaccine with respect and in a spirit of dialogue to try to present the evidence in a transparent and reassuring way. That approach seems to have paid dividends, and I am encouraged that the British public will be stepping forward for the vaccine in very large numbers.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we have a massive social media campaign to engage the public. I pay tribute to the media teams in the department and the Cabinet Office, who have worked incredibly hard throughout the entire pandemic and have handled literally dozens of campaigns, often at pace, with enormous creativity and diligence—and have got sign-off from Ministers, which is no mean feat at times—under difficult circumstances. They deserve all our thanks and praise.

Lastly, on the noble Baroness’s quite important questions about isolation, she is absolutely right: isolation is key. There is no point in testing and tracing if you do not isolate. However, the surveys that she refers to are fragmented. I am not sure if some of the simple surveys actually tell the whole truth. In honesty, people’s response to isolation is probably more subtle than simple binary questions would suggest. We are beginning to understand that many who are isolating, although they may not have completely obeyed every strict command in the isolation protocols, have massively changed their behaviours, and we are looking at ways of supporting those people through civic and financial support and through our messaging to ensure that the isolation protocols are as effective as possible.

My Lords, we come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, as we embark on a mass vaccination programme, it is important that we follow up all those who are vaccinated, or at least a cohort of them, with whatever vaccines are used, in a scientific way. It is important that structured scientific data collection is implemented. Do the Government plan to do that, and who will be doing it? I hope that it will be UK academic institutions, because there is much more science to learn post vaccination about the effectiveness of different vaccines and the science of the new way of developing these vaccines.

As ever, the noble Lord is extremely wise in his observation. He is entirely right to hold us to account. There is no point in enjoying this fine moment too much when you have the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on your case reminding you about the next big challenge around the corner. He is right that pharmacovigilance is essential. We need to make sure that this and other vaccines work and that we learn from the behaviours of all of them. That is precisely why we put the deployment of this vaccine through the NHS. There was a temptation to set up an alternative agency and focus on the actual injection of the vaccine over all other matters. Instead we have run it through the NHS digital process, which means that all the information around the vaccine is put very firmly into the GP record. That means that we can do population-wide analysis of the results of the vaccine. We have a very large research community in the UK both in the companies such as Pfizer, which, as he knows, are responsible for pharmacovigilance, and in the university sector. We will have all those records available for them to do the follow-up work that he rightly emphasises.

My noble friend will know that I have reservations about some aspects of government policy, but the news about the vaccine is wholly good news. It is a triumph for all concerned and I join in with his praise for them, although my noble friend himself should not be shy about taking his own share of the credit. He mentioned that other vaccines are coming down the road—in the pipeline, I think he said—including the Oxford vaccine. These vaccines have different characteristics and require different handling. How do the Government plan to distribute and discriminate between the different vaccines? Will one get priority over another? While I understand that he cannot be precise, can he offer any further guidance about how soon we can hope that everyone who wants one will have a vaccination available?

I thank my noble friend for his kind words. I reassure him that everyone in Britain who wants a vaccine will get one. In fact, we are going to do everything that we can to encourage everyone in Britain to have a vaccine. We believe that prevention is better than cure, and that vaccines such as the ones coming down the pipeline offer the best possible fightback against this horrible disease. With regard to the different properties of the vaccine, his observation is entirely right: it is likely that the different vaccines have different properties, not least that some are much easier to transport than others, but some might work better, for example, with children or with those susceptible to other conditions. We do not have full data on the other vaccines so it is impossible to make those comparisons at this stage, but I assure him that when we have the data we will make sensible decisions along those lines.

I thank the Minister for being so frank and admitting that the initial rollout will not be uniform throughout the country this year. I want to ask him about those individuals prioritised for the vaccine on the grounds of age or having weaker immune systems—specifically, who will identify those individuals? Initially the role of GP surgeries was highlighted for that task. Is that still the case? What will happen in those GP surgeries—there are quite a number of them—that have no GPs? Will the nurse practitioners be able to perform the role of identifying those individuals? I would like a specific answer to that because it is important in the longer term for a great many people.

I remind the noble Lord that the criteria sent out by the JCVI is extremely simple and mainly driven by age, so the selection procedure is very straightforward. He is right that the distribution of the vaccine is limited by both the size of the vials and the need for cold storage. That is why there will be an emphasis on hospitals over GP surgeries. That represents a challenge in places such as rural areas that may be distant from hospitals, but I reassure him that the deployment team is doing all that it can to ensure that no one is left behind.

Does the Minister agree with the JCVI’s decision not to prioritise unpaid carers—most of whom are caring for clinically, or extremely clinically, vulnerable people—when unpaid carers are not just prioritised but encouraged and chased by the NHS to have the flu vaccine in order to help protect the person they are caring for?

My Lords, difficult decisions have to be made by everyone in this. The JCVI has looked very carefully indeed at the challenge of how to prioritise this vaccine, taking representations from a large number of groups. Ultimately, its priority is to protect life and the NHS, and its clear decision has been to have a prioritisation based on age because this is the greatest driver of mortality.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend, the MHRA and everyone associated with producing this vaccine in such record time; it is a great tribute to our health service. I will focus on the fact that the flu jabs for the over-50s are still being distributed, and there is a reluctance among some—perhaps as many as two-thirds of the over-50s—to take up the flu vaccine, as they would like to wait for the Covid vaccine, which, of course, defeats the purpose of offering them the flu vaccine. Is this something that my noble friend is aware of, and is it something that he could address? I echo the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and ask that specific regard be had to the challenges of administering the vaccine in rural areas. Will my noble friend use, as far as possible, the dispensing doctors in this regard? I pay tribute to them and the work I do with them.

My Lords, as few will be surprised to know, the rollout of the flu vaccine has been hugely successful this year; the take-up has been massive. I am not aware, from the stats that I have seen, of any slowdown in the take-up of the flu vaccine, but the point my noble friend Lady McIntosh makes is understandable—I am happy to check it out. I also encourage anyone who is thinking about deferring the flu vaccine until they get the Covid vaccine to think again because it is a massive priority to get vaccinated for both.

The noble Baroness and I have talked before about dispensing doctors, whose role is very important. There is a challenge with the distribution of the Pfizer vaccine because of cold storage and the large number of shots in each vial. I am not sure whether that means that rural dispensing doctors can play the important role that they might do at this stage of the distribution, but I reassure the noble Baroness that they will play a role in the national distribution as it pans out over the next few months.

My Lords, I note that many unknowns exist in differing vaccine effectiveness cycles. Are the Government planning to combine the careful management of linking certified testing to identity data, particularly given that the technologies and solutions are available? As regards the urgent rollout of vaccines globally, I propose that a commandeering exercise of wide-bodied aircraft, laid-up due to Covid, be considered to lessen the global logistical nightmare.

My Lords, in relation to the logistical nightmare, one of the nice things about vaccines is that they do not take up much space: they are relatively compact, so I am not sure that wide-bodied aircraft will be needed, but I thank the noble Viscount for the wise suggestion. In relation to certification, he raises an interesting prospect that we have not fully bottomed out yet. As I said in response to earlier questions, we do not know whether vaccination will reduce transmissibility. Our hope and expectation are that it will, but until that is proven, any thoughts of certification will be premature.

I congratulate the Minister on his generous attribution of credit for this remarkable achievement, which was in very sharp contrast to the two Cabinet Ministers who sought to make cheap and inaccurate nationalist points about it yesterday—that is to his credit. Speaking as a Cumbria county councillor, I say again that his honesty about the constraints on the rollout is commendable, and I ask whether he agrees that, in rural areas, it is still very important that we concentrate on remedying the defects in our tracking and tracing system that our Cumbria public health director has identified? There is still a lack of proper liaison between the national and local systems, and this deficiency has to be addressed in this period, as people may become more relaxed as a result of the wider availability of a vaccine.

I welcome the noble Lord’s challenge and completely endorse his point that tracing will remain important. Not everyone will take the vaccine initially; it will not be available to everyone for months, as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer made plain in his briefing earlier today. Tracing remains a really important feature of our fight against this disease. However, I respectfully suggest that his information is a little out of date: the amount of collaboration on tracing between the national and local efforts, particularly with DPHs such as the one in Cumbria, has come on in leaps and bounds, even in the last few weeks. From my briefings and meetings with DPHs, I know that they have been provided with an enormous amount of data, support and access to tracing resources in order both to bring their local intelligence and insight to bear and to support the national tracing effort. I applaud all those DPHs who have stepped forward in this way, and I am very hopeful that the local-national combination on tracing will pay massive dividends.

My Lords, in the first priority group, there are over 3.2 million people aged 80 or over. As the UK will get doses for 400,000 people initially, what access framework is in place to ensure an ethical approach to the vaccine rollout for these first 400,000 people that is not based on having the sharpest elbows or the chance of having a hospital appointment?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important challenge there; fairness and equity are important in this important time. However, I will try to assess the situation: we have 800,000 doses of a vaccine that is incredibly difficult to transport, requires cold storage and is in vials containing more than 100 doses each. Therefore, practical considerations are pre-eminent at the moment, rather than sharp elbows.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the gracious way he has introduced this discussion, and I welcome his assurance of dialogue. I hope he will agree, as he has assured us, that the vaccine will not be the only effective means of preventing infections and further deaths and that the Government will continue their heartening improvement of the test and trace programmes and ensure that those in tiers 2 and 3 have the required financial measures. Can he assure me and the House that his department will urgently scale up communication with particularly vulnerable and poorer communities, where concerns around vaccination are significant? Can he assure me that any proposed government use of the police and army will be done with consent and after consultation with local authority leadership?

The noble Baroness will probably have noticed earlier today the recent publication of test and trace figures, which showed a dramatic improvement in both the tracing numbers and the testing turnaround numbers. We still have far to go, and improvements are needed, but this is an extremely encouraging set of figures, which demonstrate that our focus on getting this important service right is undiminished.

In relation to getting the vaccine to poorer communities, the noble Baroness is entirely right: there are communities where the Government are not trusted as much as they are elsewhere and where there is suspicion of the vaccine. We are working extremely hard at the department, in the NHS and with Cabinet Office colleagues to reach out to community leaders and think of thoughtful and creative ways of ensuring that the vaccine penetration among these communities is strong and that we have built the confidence and belief necessary for people to step up and take the vaccine as they should.

My Lords, I echo my noble friend Lord Liddle in applauding the Minister on his approach and attitude. Is it not worth celebrating the involvement and success of Turkey, Germany and Belgium in getting this vaccine to the UK? We did not order all the vaccines so early. During the next few weeks, the Health Secretary has to be the most trusted voice of Government as he rightly seeks to persuade people to take the vaccine. How can he perform this role when he has uttered a string of untruths? The latest is that the medicines regulator could only work fast because of Brexit. This is untrue and everybody knows it. I hope this problem of trust can be restored because the advice given by the Secretary of State will be crucial to the take-up of the vaccine.

I am slightly surprised by the tone of the noble Lord’s question. If there were ever a moment when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health deserved a bit of praise and a thank you, today would be that day. That ad hominem attack was beside the point. On his serious point about trust in the vaccine, it would not be helpful for politicians to lead the charge. Our approach is to put science and the NHS at the forefront of our communications. They are truly engaged with both the expertise and the communities that need to take the vaccine.

My Lords, the rollout will require many people, in addition to those giving the injection. Are there any plans to use the thousands of NHS volunteers who signed up during the first lockdown to act as marshals, drivers, identity checkers, or whatever else is required? In planning the appropriate use of the military, have the Government recognised the concerns of certain community leaders that their presence at testing sites would not reassure members of their communities who are hesitant about taking the vaccine because they do not trust authority?

The noble Baroness is right about the NHS volunteers. We would very much like to work with those who stepped forward. Their move was extremely welcome and kindly meant. However, the deployment of the vaccine is a precise affair. We are relying on people having to put in long hours—often not at their own discretion or convenience. Volunteers may well play a role, but the backbone and functional aspect of the deployment will rely on professional staff.

I appreciate her conundrum about the military. It is a delicate dilemma. I do not want to live in the kind of country where we turn our back on the military because some people might feel uncomfortable at the sight of uniforms on the streets. We need to build trust with communities. I want to use this moment of the vaccine to build a bridge of trust between those whom the noble Baroness reasonably described and the military. We must not make the mistake of disrespecting the military by turning them away from this important task.

My Lords, as the Minister who established the MHRA, I strongly endorse the Minister’s congratulations. I pay particular tribute to the outstanding leadership of Dr June Raine. I note what the Minister said about unpaid carers and the justification for not giving them priority but would the Government be prepared at least to discuss this with Carers UK? On care homes and visitor testing, which are mentioned in the Statement, is the Minister aware of calculations by Care England that the infection control fund will not cover the cost of implementing the new testing regime, let alone all the other areas for which the fund is intended? Will the Government consider increasing the fund?

My Lords, the support we are giving to social care throughout this period is incredibly important. I should be happy to meet with Care UK to discuss this. I cannot duck the issue. The JCVI has made its prioritisation clear. It is based on thoughtful science, infection rates and the calculation of how best to save life. While I feel compassion for carers, including some in this Chamber, we have to live with this tough decision. I cannot pretend I am going to try to change it. The inspection control fund is generous; we have put a large amount of money into it. If it proves not to be enough, we will be happy to revisit it. Protecting social care through these final few months is a big priority. I should be happy to discuss how we can do this better with the noble Lord at his convenience.

Sitting suspended.