Motion to Take Note
My Lords, we shall also consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2021.
Moving to step 4 of the Government’s road map and easing the vast majority of restrictions in England was a major landmark in our fight against the virus. It is testament to the hard work and sacrifices of many people up and down the country. We are in a better position compared with this time last year and we are all conscious of how hard the pandemic has been for so many people.
On 14 September, we published the COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan, which sets out how we will build on the progress made and prepare the country for future challenges, while ensuring that our system of healthcare does not come under unsustainable pressure. In recent weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of cases, hospitalisations and, very sadly, deaths. The pandemic is far from over. We must continue to stay vigilant and be ready for all eventualities.
The vaccination programme continues to provide a vital line of defence against the virus. We have vaccinated more than 86% of people over 12 years old in the UK with at least one dose. We are carrying out the largest-ever seasonal flu vaccination programme, alongside Covid-19 booster vaccines for priority groups. We have also secured 730,000 patient courses of antivirals for UK patients: 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir from Merck Sharp & Dohme; and 250,000 courses of PF-07321332 from Pfizer. I shall be testing noble Lords on these in future. These antivirals can be taken at home to target early Covid-19 infection. Should these antivirals receive MHRA approval, we will prioritise antivirals to protect the clinically vulnerable most at risk this winter.
As well as the vaccine and the booster programme, we are taking a number of measures to prepare for the months ahead. The NHS will receive an extra £5.4 billion over the next six months to support its response to Covid-19. This includes an extra £1billion to tackle the treatment backlog caused by Covid-19. These are just some of the actions we are taking to protect the public over the coming months, while trying to achieve the appropriate balance for any legislation and restrictions in place.
As part of the autumn and winter plan, the Government reviewed the remaining regulations and decided, subject to agreement from Parliament, to extend the No. 3 regulations and the self-isolation regulations. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2021 extend these regulations to 24 March 2022. The test, trace and self-isolate system continues to be one of the key ways to control the virus and protect the nation. Under the self-isolation regulations, if you are notified that you have tested positive for Covid-19, or that you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, you must self-isolate unless exempt. Information about the legal requirements is available on GOV.UK.
The recently published Canna model concluded that, between August 2020 and April 2021, we saw a reduction of between 10% and 28% in virus transmission as a result of test, trace and self-isolation, and that, at key periods, self-isolation made a significant contribution to bringing down the reproduction number of the virus, also known as the R number. The Canna model estimates that test, trace and self-isolation has prevented 1.2 million to 2 million secondary coronavirus cases.
The technical amendments to the self-isolation regulations that we are debating today mean that, if you are a close contact of a positive case who has received doses of two different types of vaccine in the UK, you are not required to self-isolate. This ensures that those who have received doses of two different vaccines are treated in the same way as those who have received a full course of a single vaccine. The amendments also clarify that if someone in your household tests positive, you do not need to self-isolate if you received your second dose of the vaccine more than 14 days before the positive case in your household first experienced symptoms or tested positive.
In addition, the amendments clarify the requirements for those taking part in workplace daily contact testing schemes. These schemes offer daily lateral flow testing as an alternative to self-isolation for unvaccinated close contacts. If a person on one of those schemes tests positive with an assisted lateral flow test, but subsequently receives a negative result from a confirmatory PCR test, they must continue with daily testing, or self-isolate for the remainder of their original self-isolation period. These amendments, and extending the self-isolation requirements to March next year, are important to protect the public from this virus.
The No. 3 regulations, which we are also discussing today, are another important tool for managing the virus and protecting the public. The regulations equip local authorities with the powers to respond swiftly to local outbreaks. Local authorities have powers through these regulations to restrict, prohibit and close individual premises and outdoor public spaces and cancel events where there is a serious and imminent threat to public health. The powers have been used 330 times since the regulations came into force in July 2020. Local authorities play a critical role in public health protection, emergency response and infectious disease control. Covid-19 has been no different, with local authorities leading the responses in their communities. Extending the No 3 regulations will help ensure they have the tools to do their job.
We are all aware of the monumental challenge that Covid-19 has posed over the last 18 months and more. It was clear at the beginning of the pandemic that additional tools and powers were needed to enable a full-scale and wide-reaching response to save lives and livelihoods. We acted decisively to put in place the legislation needed to achieve this.
As noble Lords are aware, the Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force by Royal Assent in March 2020. It has been critical to our country’s response to this awful and devastating virus, giving the Government powers to take the appropriate action to respond to the challenge. I acknowledge the many concerns about how some of the powers in the Act have been used and assure the Committee that the Government have sought to use them in an appropriate and proportionate way, with arrangements to ensure accountability to Parliament. These include two-monthly reports to Parliament and six-monthly reviews, combined with confirmatory votes, without which the temporary provisions cannot continue. On each occasion, the House of Commons has confirmed that it is content for certain provisions to continue. The Government have also committed to expire provisions as soon as they are no longer needed. I will go into more detail on this shortly.
The Act has given us the temporary powers to ensure that the NHS and social care services have had the capacity to deal with the peak of the virus by allowing the temporary registration of over 28,000 nurses and other healthcare professionals and social workers. It has protected critical societal functions and ensured that they were able to continue—for example, enabling courts to use video technology in a wider range of circumstances. It has helped provide support packages for people and businesses; this includes the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has protected more than 11.7 million unique jobs—equivalent to over a third of the entire workforce—and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme grants, which have supported nearly 3 million self-employed people throughout the pandemic.
The Act has also shone a light on where public services can be improved in the longer term, such as allowing more virtual court hearings, and the Government will aim to secure these useful powers in alternative primary legislation.
The course of the pandemic continues to change, partly because of the strong defences we have built. It is right that we again reassess the legislative powers that are in place to deal with this pandemic and support the country. The third six-month review of the Coronavirus Act, which scrutinised its remaining 27 non-devolved temporary provisions, was published on 22 September 2021.
We have identified a further seven provisions in the Act as suitable for full expiry. Once that happens, Parliament will have been able to expire half of the original 40 temporary, non-devolved powers ahead of schedule. This includes removing some of the more controversial sections of the Coronavirus Act, such as powers to detain infectious people under Schedule 21 and issuing directions in relation to events, gatherings and premises under Schedule 22. These powers were taken at a time when the course and severity of the virus were unclear; we now recognise that they are no longer needed and should be expired.
We also propose suspending the remaining powers in Section 58, which cover provisions to ensure that, in the event of a very significant number of deaths, we can continue to deal with the deceased in a respectful and dignified way. Suspension rather than expiry of these powers is seen to be part of sensible contingency planning, since it allows them to be revived quickly if the public health situation requires it.
We will lay regulations as soon as possible to expire these provisions. Once expired, 20 temporary provisions will remain in the Act, three of which will be suspended. There are good reasons for retaining each of them. They continue to support the NHS, individuals and businesses throughout the potentially challenging winter months by allowing the temporary registration of healthcare professionals and statutory sick pay to be claimed on day 1 of self-isolation, but we hope they will help protect the progress we have made so far in beginning to recover from this awful pandemic. The legislation and regulations we are debating today help ensure that we have proportionate powers to help protect our public services, individuals and businesses.
This virus has presented the greatest public health threat to the United Kingdom in recent history, requiring a heroic response from everyone across the country, including our doctors, nurses, carers and other healthcare staff but also other key workers including transport, postal and delivery workers, who delivered much-needed food and items during lockdown.
We owe it to every person and organisation that has made sacrifices to protect themselves and others during this difficult time not to allow ourselves to fall at the final hurdle and to ensure that we emerge in the spring with the worst of the pandemic well and truly behind us.
Lastly, please allow me to repeat and highlight the simple things each and every one of us can to do to help limit the spread of Covid-19. First and foremost, get vaccinated. There are still around 4.7 million unvaccinated adults in England, and I welcome the advice I have been given by noble Lords across the House about how we can target some of the demographics that have not come forward for vaccines in line with the rest of the population. Let us all urge everyone who can have the vaccine to come forward.
If it has been more than six months and one week since your second jab and your GP has not contacted you, you can register at the NHS booking service online or call 119 to book your booster. Some noble Lords have told me about problems in this area. I am assured that these have been resolved but, if you come across anyone who is still experiencing issues getting through to either of those, please let me know and I will forward it to the appropriate person and make sure that we can target and tackle this.
Let us also urge people to take a flu jab when offered it. Please self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms of Covid-19. Anyone who is told by NHS Test and Trace that they have tested positive or been in close contact with someone who has tested positive should follow the public health advice and self-isolate where required. Even if we are well, we can wear face coverings, meet outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms indoors, regularly wash our hands, and, where possible, makerapid tests part of our weekly routine.
I look forward to noble Lords’ continued scrutiny and valuable contributions to this debate.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive introduction to the debate and the statutory instrument. Of course, Covid has brought unequalled challenge to us—a challenge that we have not seen for decades. It has disrupted our lives and many people have died as a result. Of course, the powers that the Government have taken to themselves have been quite exceptional. I do not agree with everything that Big Brother Watch says, but I think it is right to point to the draconian nature of some of those powers. I was very glad the Minister said what he said in relation to Schedules 21 and 22. My understanding is that every single charge made under those schedules was found to be unlawful. As he read out the powers, I shall not repeat them—but they are draconian. They may have been justified, but they were misused. The Minister said that they will be withdrawn. Can he clarify whether they will be withdrawn through a statutory instrument?
The second area I wanted to raise is parliamentary scrutiny. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised during the Urgent Question repeat in the Chamber the point that the Government now seem to announce everything in the media before coming to Parliament. The way in which Parliament has been dealt with over Covid has been very unsatisfactory. We have had more than 500 pieces of secondary legislation; most were rushed out and considered by Parliament retrospectively. The Justice Select Committee reported on this and stated:
“Parliament plays an important role in making sure that the law and any new criminal offences are so far as is possible intelligible, clear and predictable. It is not satisfactory … that Parliament was not … able to fulfil its function when Members were required to consider statutory instruments already superseded”—
this has happened on a number of occasions.
Although it falls to the Commons to vote on the renewal of powers, while we have simply a Take Note approach, the powers are substantial and I must say that I do not think that they should be debated in Grand Committee; they are important enough to be debated in the Chamber and I find it very disappointing that we are here, having to do it in this way.
It is notable that, since we came back in September, there have been hardly any debates on Covid. Again, I find this very worrying, and I would like the Minister to tell me why there have been no Statements. I think the Statement last week was the first one we have had on Covid since we came back. This really is not satisfactory and hardly counts as parliamentary scrutiny.
I also ask the Minister what has happened to SAGE. There has apparently been a downscaling of SAGE’s role. It seems that it now meets only once a month. Can the Minister confirm that and tell me why it is? A government source has been quoted as saying that there is now a lessened demand for scientific advice. Well, I do question whether that is accurate. We are still in a difficult situation: Covid infections are rising and there is a real risk that the booster jab and school vaccinations are behind where they ought to be—hence the Minister’s comments at the end of his introductory speech. My concern is that the Government’s mistakes and, frankly, dubious exceptionalism at the beginning of Covid look like being repeated time and again.
There was another very good joint Select Committee report, from the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees, which was published on 12 October and looked at what has happened over the past 18 months. The report pointed out that the UK was not alone in having suffered badly because of Covid, but we did significantly worse in terms of deaths than many countries, particularly when compared to those in east Asia, even though they were much closer geographically to where the virus first appeared. The report said the UK’s pandemic planning was too narrow and effectively based on a flu model, which failed to learn the lessons from SARS, MERS and Ebola.
Particularly telling was the report’s comment that the Government’s desire to avoid a lockdown because of the harm to the economy that it would entail had a big impact. In the absence of other strategies such as rigorous case isolation, a meaningful test and trace operation and robust border controls, a full lockdown was inevitable and should have come sooner. We saw history repeat itself last autumn, when the Government’s decision not to have a circuit breaker did not follow the scientific advice and Ministers were clearly optimistic in their assumption that the worst was behind us during those summer months.
The question before us today is whether history is repeating itself. We know that our weekly death rate stands at three times the level of other major European nations. We know hospitalisations are rising, and they are certainly at a higher level than in many countries on the continent. The decision to end compulsory mask wearing and to pause plans for vaccine passports in England has made the Government an outlier in their management of the pandemic. By contrast, western European countries such as France, Italy, and in particular Spain, have brought down infection rates to their lowest level since the summer of 2020.
The Government have not been short of advice. When the latest October minutes from SAGE came out, they pointed to current population behaviours being estimated as being closer to pre-pandemic norms than at any point since March 2020—which I think means that people are not wearing masks very much and are not distancing themselves socially. SAGE pointed to early interventions that may reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive and longer-lasting measures to avoid an unacceptable level of hospitalisations.
We have also heard the NHS Confederation calling for not just plan B to be implemented but plan B-plus: calling on the public to mobilise around the NHS and do whatever they can to support front-line services this winter. On the other hand, it has been reported that modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has suggested that cases will peak soon and fall away steeply in the winter months. So I ask the Minister to set out current ministerial thinking. I see the temptation to wait and see, in the light of the London School’s modelling. On the other hand, every time the Government have waited and seen, they have turned out to be wrong, so I think at the very least we ought to know today the hard thinking behind the Government’s position in relation to plan B.
I am sorry, there is a speakers’ list. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is next.
My Lords, I have so far not had a chance to welcome the Minister to his new role. I wish him well. I think he has already found out that it is going to be a very busy portfolio, and, with the present climate we find ourselves in, quite rightly so.
Before the Minister was in post, many statutory instruments were laid before Parliament after they had come into operation, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, just said. This has continued to be a worrying trend, because it is a way of getting round normal parliamentary scrutiny. It becomes ministerial diktat and law by the scribbling of a Minister’s pen.
The statutory instrument says:
“These Regulations are made in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health”.
Paragraph 6.7 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:
“In accordance with section 45R of the 1984 Act, the Secretary of State is of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
We are talking not about something that puts somebody into isolation to stop the spread of coronavirus but about relaxing when people can come out of self-isolation. It is not an imminent threat; it is not an emergency. The Government knew that 27 September was coming and could have planned for it so that normal legislation could have gone before Parliament, rather than this emergency approach of ministerial diktat, which affects millions of people in this country. It has to stop. There are times when emergency legislation for public health use is appropriate but, like others, this one is not appropriate.
What stopped the department and Ministers knowing that 27 September was coming? This did not have to be emergency legislation if they had planned ahead. This statutory instrument was laid five days before the planned date of extinction of the previous regulation. It is either poor planning or legislation to try to bounce Parliament. Either way, it is not acceptable.
I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, as set out in the register. The other part of this is about the powers to local authorities. I have believed right from beginning, as other noble Lords did, that local authorities should play a large part in this, rather than having national responses. Some national responses were needed, but so was a more local response.
Back in March 2020, I tabled an amendment to the original Bill with a power of general competence for local authorities to be able to act, which would be debated through normal legislation without statutory instruments having to keep coming with powers for local authorities. We were told that that was not required, so why do statutory instruments need to keep coming with powers for local authorities? Why did the department not listen at the time and grant a power of general competence in an amendment to the Bill, which could have been dealt with in the normal way rather than in emergency legislation? It has to stop. I want to talk about some interventions that might be required based on where we are at present as a nation.
I am clear that we will need interventions over and above those in place, but the Government are not listening to public health experts, people who work in the NHS or the epidemiologists who say that further action on Covid is required now, not just to deal with the potential crisis in the NHS but to stop future lockdowns that harm the economy and people’s livelihoods. They are saying it is a step to stop lockdowns, so I would like to understand from the Minister why that advice has not been taken. What assurance do the Government have that if action is not taken now and cases continue to rise, as well as the pressures on the NHS, either local or national lockdowns will not at some point be required? What modelling exists at present to prove that point?
I want to look at the rates per 1,000 population. On a seven-day rolling average from yesterday’s figures, the UK has 488.5 cases. France has 54.9 cases, Portugal has 51.9 and Spain has 28.3. Even taking into account testing variations, the UK is a significant outlier there. I know what the Minister will say: “Oh, there’s a lower death rate—that’s why. It’s not just cases. We have to look at the death rate”. Let us look at the death rates in those countries. On the rolling average for the last seven days, Spain has a death rate per million people from Covid-related disease of 2.87. Portugal has a death rate of 3.12 per million; France has a death rate of 1.88 per million; and the UK has one of 10.7 per million. In terms of both cases and deaths, the UK is an outlier.
I suggest that the reason why the UK is an outlier is that those other countries, rightly, are vaccinating—in some cases, they have now increased their vaccination rate above that of the UK—but have not put all their eggs in one basket. They are taking mitigation and vaccination as a way to deal with a public health crisis, because this is not a political or philosophical discussion. It is not an argument of libertarians versus those who believe in a more restrictive approach to the state. This is about public health and trying to keep people alive and healthy. It is about taking lessons from what is happening abroad and using them as good practice. If experts are not being listened to, I suggest that people look at what is happening abroad and learn the lessons there: mitigation and vaccination combined are a way of dealing with this. It is about having not draconian lockdowns but simple mitigations, so let us look at some of the issues within those mitigations.
Some politicians are worried that the public just will not buy some of the issues. A UK YouGov poll from today clearly shows that the public are becoming worried and starting to get ahead of the Government: 81% support having face coverings on public transport and 76% are for them in shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, 67% support social distancing in pubs and restaurants—but there is no majority for lockdowns. We have become a country obsessed with having plan A or plan B. It does not have to be such a binary choice. We could take steps to deal with the threat to public health as we come into winter. We could look at what happens abroad and bring about the use of mandatory face coverings, which have no economic impact. If you are a libertarian, their use restricts freedoms very little but helps reduce cases, along with other issues. We could ask for face coverings on public transport and in shops.
Some noble Lords opposite are shaking their heads. I am not basing my facts on some theoretical study; I am basing them on what is happening in France, Portugal and Spain. That is the evidence, not an academic study. Mitigation, along with vaccination, works. If not, noble Lords will have to explain when they get up why those countries have fewer cases and deaths. It is because they are not just jabbing but asking for face coverings.
Now, there are other, much wider things in plan B that I do not support. For example, I do not support the use of Covid vaccination certificates—not as a matter of political philosophy but because, although someone may have a certificate saying that they are double-jabbed, we know that 30% of people who are double-jabbed also get the virus and could be asymptomatic. It gives a false sense of security. That person may go out thinking, “I’m jabbed, I’m okay, I’ve got my vaccination certificate”, but they could be one of the 30% of people out there who are asymptomatic and helping to spread the virus. So, the reason why I believe that vaccination certification is not worth introducing is practical, not philosophical.
We are at a severe crossroads in this public health crisis. If we go one way, the country will go into lockdown and there will be harder economic and social consequences. That road means continuing as we are, putting all our eggs in the vaccination basket and not taking extra action now. Or there is another way we could turn: phasing in some simple mitigation requirements, such as face coverings and potentially looking at social distancing. These are not like the draconian “Stay at home to work” order or lockdowns.
I believe that we need to take a different course. To avoid lockdown and the harm we have seen, we need to do something extra beyond just talking about vaccinations. European countries that have taken those measures show that it can be done. They will not eradicate the virus, but they will mean we manage it better, helping the NHS and the economy and doing something that we need to do: take our advice and approach from public health, not political philosophy.
My Lords, I certainly do not oppose these measures since I believe them to be going the right way. I am pleased with that.
I want to concentrate on face masks. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, mentioned them quite a lot because he believes that everybody wearing them would save lives; they were mentioned in the Minister’s final words as well. They have become a bit of a totem for both sides of the argument on coronavirus restrictions. They divide society, actually. On the one hand—I find myself on this side—I do not believe them to be effective so I do not wear one. It is an act of individuality, if you like; you might even call it an act of rebellion against being told what to do. On the other side of the argument, where the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is, believers in further restrictions believe that wearing a mask shows virtue and solidarity and provides reassurance to others. That is a perfectly reasonable position, I suppose.
Whatever the opinion polls say, I reckon that about 40% of people on the Tube do not wear a mask now—not 13%, as the noble Lord suggested. That 40% has given up, basically. Children are not required to wear them, of course, but they obviously cannot pass on the virus; I will come back to that later.
In the Chamber of the House of Commons, there is a great political divide between the Government on the one hand, wearing hardly any face masks, and the Opposition on the other, where practically everyone wears one. Last month, I went to a packed memorial service in the Brompton Oratory. It is a huge church—perhaps not the biggest Catholic church in London, but huge. One person was wearing a face mask. None of the clergy was. However, last week, I went to David Amess’s memorial service, where probably about 20 masks were being worn in the congregation. All the bishops and clergy, as they processed behind the unmasked choir, were wearing them. We almost have a Reformation divide now, with Catholics versus Anglicans.
My question for the Minister is simple. Are masks effective? We have, I fear, had some mixed messaging from the Government over the past 18 months. Either masks work or they do not. I am certainly not an expert; I do not pretend that they will or will not do good because, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I do not know whether they work.
However, full surgical masks worn in operations presumably work. All the doctors and nurses wear them and have done so for some time—but they are proper surgical masks. Flimsy paper masks are being worn by several people in this Committee, and by the general public. I do not know whether those masks do any good, but I suspect that they do not. What I do know is that Jenny Harries, who is now the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and was the Deputy CMO previously, said in March last year that it was “not a good idea” for the general public to wear them. She also said that they “trap the virus” and cause people to start breathing it in.
I have a series of quotes, if the Committee will bear with me, that show the confusion in this matter. I am not saying that I am right. Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who noble Lords will know, said on April 4 last year that the wearing of face masks by those who are not sick was not recommended by the British Government. He said that there was
“no evidence that the general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.”
That is his view—or it was in April last year. I do not know. Sir Patrick Vallance, who, again, we have got to know well over the past 18 months and is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, told MPs last May:
“The situation with masks … is that the data and the evidence are not straightforward”.
In this House, the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said on 21 April last year that
“the British Government have been sceptical about the efficacy of face masks. We do not want to be in a position of misleading or providing false reassurance for the public when there is not sufficient scientific evidence for the relevance of face masks.”—[Official Report, 21/4/20; col. 22.]
The following month, on 19 May, he said:
“There is an instinctive human belief that face masks make a difference, but the scientific proof that they do so is not crystal clear.”—[Official Report, 19/5/20; col. 1096.]
Then on 11 June he quoted the World Health Organization and said that
“‘the widespread use of masks by healthy people … is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence’”.—[Official Report, 11/6/20; col. 1908.]
On 22 June, 11 days later, he said that the mandatory of wearing of face masks was not recommended by the Government.
Now I genuinely do not know, but the situation is certainly confusing; I think everybody can agree on that. I am willing to accept that I am a bit confused. At the Labour Party conference, everybody wore face masks in the hall—we saw them all on television—but they did not wear them at the karaoke parties or receptions. The Liberal Democrat conference was of course virtual, so that was fine. However, they would not have had to wear them because it would not have been very crowded.
So what is the evidence now? Can the Government publish the evidence that made them change their position of last year, with the quotes I have given, to encouraging people to wear face masks? Perhaps there are studies. If they are conclusive, I will wear a mask. That is a promise—but I warn the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, who has just spoken, that one should not rely and base one’s policies on opinion polls.
All the calls that we hear for a return to restrictions should, again, be based on evidence. Are things getting worse? The vaccines certainly seem to work. Indeed, I had a message today to get my booster jab. Deaths are actually right down on what they were a year ago. Can the Minister tell us the percentage of deaths from the virus among those who are over 85? I understand that the average age of death is 85, which is actually higher than average life expectancy.
The Office for National Statistics shows that about half of all new infections are among school-age children—in other words, the unvaccinated young—with few lasting ill-effects. Is that true? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on that. Is it the case that there are now studies predicting that cases are likely to fall sharply in the winter? That was in a study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which was covered in the press yesterday. Is that the case?
We have now heard one or two doctors panicking about flu and calling for the wearing of face masks because there will be flu around. Wear face masks for ever. Every year, on average—it varies dramatically—about 11,000 people die from flu. That is about the same number who are dying every week. So will the Minister reassure me that the Government will not be panicked into reintroducing any dramatic restrictions, or plan B, without basing the decision on very serious evidence?
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, is not with us, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Foster.
My Lords, I will begin by reflecting on how we arrived at this point today: a gentle reminder of the course of this pandemic might be useful. In September 2019, four months before the rest of the world was alerted to Covid-19, the Chinese authorities were temperature-testing passengers at Wuhan and other airports across China. I spent more than 20 years in the aviation sector prior to my 20 years’ travelling to Brussels and Strasbourg, so you could say that I have landed at quite a few airports. However, I had never seen, in my entire career and in my life, such a measure ever taking place. However, it was not until the end of December 2019 that they let it be known that there was a problem. In the run-up to Chinese new year, thousands of nationals and others, living and working across Italy and the rest of Europe, flew to Wuhan and elsewhere to celebrate new year—only to find that it was cancelled. So they flew back. They were none the wiser. Europe was on holiday—skiing in Italy, France, Spain and Austria—and oblivious to the situation, quite rightly. And so it unfolded.
But it was not the first time. In 2002, SARS broke out in China and, yet again, the World Health Organization was not notified for six months. Fortunately, by comparison, it was not as lethal; nevertheless, it is known that Covid-19—or SARS-CoV-2—is closely related. Sadly, this virus has killed millions. The World Health Organization has not been allowed to investigate thoroughly, but the thinking is that it must have come from a lab. So I just wonder when the Chinese authorities will be held to account, as they continue to propagate the source as a wet market—which, ironically, they are again operating across China.
As we look at the consequences, we should also put the situation in context. Fear of the unknown caused all Governments across the globe to react quickly, and the first lockdown was supported, I would say, by the vast majority of the country. We did everything that we were asked to do: hands, face, space; isolated, stayed at home, did not mix; and practically washed our hands raw to save the NHS. The silver bullet would be the vaccine—and they were right. It was a phenomenal success, which I wholly support. But these measures have continued, off and on, and the consequences have been horrific.
Under the Act, citizens were arrested for sitting on a park bench. People were followed by drones just for going for a walk. Police were going into private premises to check whether people were there. And it got worse: locking up students on campus; closing schools and businesses across the UK; the Government telling people whom they could talk to and sleep with; and locked-away, vulnerable elderly people, many of whom never recovered. Daily mainstream media, particularly the BBC and Sky News, were always frightening the life out of most of us—and the £300 million budget will continue until next year.
So the vaccine was a godsend. They said once the over-50s were vaxed, we could open up—but it did not happen. We waited, with the population becoming more anxious and ill by the day. Yet, despite the success of the vaccine programme, the sword of Damocles still hangs over our heads. Some scientists, medics and politicians want to bring back restrictions now—which I vehemently oppose, along with any imposition of a domestic vaccine passport.
That brings me to the context. In 2020, according to the ONS, 680,000 people died in the UK. Approximately 70,000 had Covid on their death certificate. The average number of deaths ran at 1,800 a day. The major causes were dementia, cancer, heart disease, strokes et cetera. About 10% of those had Covid on their death certificates, and I understand that around 5% died directly from that awful virus. That averaged about 90 people a day—and that is 90 too many, because we want to eliminate this, hopefully, at some stage in the future. But it is not easy.
Fortunately, the vaccines are effective and the medicines now available are truly ground-breaking, with the majority fully recovering. Although the elderly are still at risk, the over-65s are now back to normal for this time of year. Positive tests are predominantly among older teenagers, who are not at risk. For those keen to impose plans B, C and anything else, the fact is that 200,000 teenagers have been referred for mental health treatment in the last three months—that does not even come into the elderly and the vulnerable—alongside the millions of patients waiting for diagnosis and treatment on the NHS. Front-line medics are waiting to operate but patients are not being referred, because of Covid restrictions, by GPs and others. Along with the Nightingales, the NHS spent £400 million a month requisitioning 8,000 private beds and 20,000 staff, and managed to refer eight patients a day.
That brings us to the true cost; this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Coronavirus Act 2020 is past its sell-by date. Notwithstanding the urgency to legislate speedily, it is blindingly obvious that the Act has major flaws. There was no parliamentary scrutiny, and even now it is a take-it-or-leave-it approach every six months. This legislation affects people’s everyday lives and criminalises ordinary behaviour. It continues to use delegated rather than primary legislation to implement changes in policy. New laws come into effect at very short notice; there are no impact assessments—or very few—and little debate. They continue to portray public health advice as having the force of law, which is wrong. This is unacceptable and highly dangerous, and results in police forces acting beyond their powers by enforcing government guidance rather than law.
I have outlined my thoughts on some of the actions taken so far. As mentioned, it has been difficult to debate, as anyone challenging the status quo is seen as some sort of anti-vaxxer or troublemaker. It is about listening to all sides of opinion, so I conclude by noting that many scientists and medics do not agree with some of the decisions that have been made. As mentioned, the mainstream media is still bringing messages of doom and gloom on a daily basis, nearly two years on. The time has come to manage where we are.
Other countries have been mentioned but let us look at Scandinavia. A month ago, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway lifted all restrictions. They stated that we need to get back to normal. I agree. Living in fear is not living at all. I therefore urge my noble friend to actively address the lack of scrutiny and parliamentary debate as we move forward.
My Lords, whether we approve of these restrictions or not, and despite the relaxations of last summer, we should be honest with ourselves and admit that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, this remains one of the most illiberal pieces of legislation the House has had to consider since the days of Oliver Cromwell. Actually, Oliver Cromwell abolished this House, so that might not be true.
That it will extend into 2022, two years after the rules first came into force, is alarming. It surely reminds us that the Government made a mistake when they declared an emergency under health legislation rather than the Civil Contingencies Act. Under that Act, we would be able to revisit these regulations much more frequently—monthly rather than six-monthly. When he winds up, will my noble friend express the strongest possible commitment—and hopefully promise—that this is the last time we will extend these regulations?
I am the first to admit that we are not out of the woods. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths remain higher than we would like, although far lower than even the most optimistic of SPI-M-O’s models published in early September—yet another failure of modelling, I am afraid. Already, the recent mini-wave, which is mainly happening among children, seems to have peaked. I urge the Government to resist the increasingly noisy calls for another mandatory lockdown, vaccine passports and mandatory mask-wearing. We can get through this winter with faster vaccinations, especially boosters, and sensible voluntary measures. Remember that, thanks to vaccines, the overall mortality rate for people who get Covid-19 is now down to about 0.1%, as low as flu.
Of all the measures taken, by far the most effective has been vaccination. Lockdowns have undoubtedly also helped but at a brutally painful cost. All other interventions have, as far as I can read from the evidence, proved either surprisingly ineffective, such as handwashing, or ambiguous at best, such as face masks. I want to focus on face masks and the argument for making them mandatory.
I am completely open-minded as to whether face masks help; they might or they might not. I have been willing to wear them. I favour them on precautionary grounds and if anybody can present me with a decent study on their effectiveness, I will read it and shout it from the rooftops. However, in preparing for today’s debate, I read a lot of scientific papers and I came up empty. The papers that purport to vindicate masks tend to be flimsy or flawed: they ignore the effect of other measures; they confuse correlation with causation; they compare apples with oranges; they rely on modelling rather than data.
For example, a meta-analysis commissioned by the WHO claimed that masks could lead to a reduction in the risk of infection, but the studies considered mainly N95 respirators in a hospital setting and not cloth masks in a community setting. Another study in the PNAS claimed that the correlation between declining infections and mask mandates was due to causation, ignoring similar declines elsewhere, and 40 scientists recommended that the study be withdrawn. Early in the pandemic, the advocacy group, #Masks4All, argued that Czechia had fewer infections thanks to the early use of masks. In reality, the pandemic simply had not reached eastern Europe by that stage. A few months later, Czechia had one of the highest infection rates in the world despite an early and strong mask mandate. A study in the US and another in Bangladesh were eventually withdrawn; a German study claiming to vindicate masks actually found no net change overall; a Canadian study claimed that countries with mandated masks had fewer deaths, but it compared very different countries and only the first few weeks of the pandemic. A review by Oxford University claimed that face masks are effective, but it looked at healthcare settings and not community settings—and so on and so on.
Meanwhile, the studies that are well designed and carefully executed have all reached the opposite conclusion: that they cannot find evidence that masks help. An April 2020 review by the University of Illinois, a May 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a May 2020 US CDC meta-study on pandemic influenza, a July 2020 review by the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, an October 2020 randomised control trial with close to 8,000 participants, a November 2020 Danish randomised control trial with 6,000 participants, a November 2020 gold standard Cochrane review—sorry about this; I am nearly at the end—
A February 2021 review by the European CDC, a July 2021 experimental study published by the American Institute of Physics and an August 2021 study published by the International Research Journal of Public Health all failed to find causation. It might be there; they are not saying it is impossible, but they have not found it. If somebody can produce a study showing a strong and significant effect of masks on transmission then I will change my mind, but it has to be a decent bit of work.
Talking of experts, Gary Lineker said of mask wearing on Twitter that
“the evidence is clear that it reduces your chances of catching Covid”.
Well, which studies is he referring to? He did not cite a particular study.
Yet surely it is common sense that covering your face must help. To some extent, I am convinced myself that it probably does. It certainly stops large droplets. However, one thing that we have learned in this pandemic is that decades of advice about how such a virus is spread has turned out to be wrong. We now know that the way that this kind of virus spreads is generally not through droplets, which masks stop, but through much smaller aerosols, which are essentially evaporated droplets. They go straight through or out the side of most masks. Catching aerosols with masks is like catching midges with a tennis net.
Masks can give false reassurance. Like my noble friend Lord Robathan, I went to a memorial service yesterday, albeit a different one. There were hundreds of people in the church. The organisers suggested taking a lateral flow test before coming, which was a good idea, and I did. They also said that mask wearing was a condition of coming and I did that too. So did anybody else. But did that give me and the others there just slightly too much reassurance? Risk compensation behaviour is a real phenomenon: motorcyclists drive faster with helmets on. Do people take slightly more social risks when wearing masks? I fear it is possible that they do, so it is not necessarily the right policy.
Masks signal that you care and that you are being careful. That is worth something, I admit, but is it enough to justify making them compulsory? I do not think it is. Again, I say this not because I want masks to be ineffective—I would much rather they were useful; I do not find them particularly enjoyable to wear, but I do not particularly mind wearing them—but I try to think with my head and not my gut. It is data that should guide us, not feelings.
I have one final point. I declare an interest in that I am about to publish a book about the origin of Covid—I might have mentioned it before. The fact we still do not know and that we most certainly cannot rule out that it was a lab accident, as my noble friend Lady Foster said, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology means that another such pandemic is possible and could happen any day. That fact alone will have encouraged rogue states and terrorist organisations to investigate the possibility of deliberately causing a pandemic. The UK Government have shown surprisingly little interest in this issue so far, leaving it to the American Government, the Chinese Government and the WHO, but as one of the leaders in scientific research in the world the UK Government should give it their attention. I ask my noble friend to put it in his no doubt very thick in-tray.
My Lords, I want first to register that the no-vote on the Coronavirus Act in the other House last week, with the seemingly glib statement that the House was not in the mood to vote, was unsettling. Although a majority of the most illiberal and worrying uses and abuses of the law over the last 18 months have been acted through public health legislation, none the less the Coronavirus Act remains as a legislative symbol of the state accruing enormous and unprecedented powers to deal with the public health emergency.
To be clear, when the Act was brought in there was an emergency. Whatever my own reservations or those of fellow civil libertarians, we could see that a worldwide pandemic gave an excuse to the Government in having to act quickly and respond in the way they did, and it explains some of the extreme measures. But that was then, and whatever possible excuses there were for little parliamentary scrutiny when the Act was initially passed, since then there is no excuse for the lack of post-legislative scrutiny and for accountability being so woeful. I echo the thoughts and concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
When, every six months, the House of Commons is asked to vote for or against, there is no option to amend or expire individual provisions. Sufficient time is never allocated to renewal debates to allow detailed scrutiny. It becomes more or less a fait accompli. By the time the renewals arrive here in this House, it feels, like now, that we are going through the motions and making speeches for the sake of it, which is why I assume many of us are trying to make speeches that might say something beyond nodding something through.
Let me say this: the urgency of the initial stages of the pandemic has passed. There is no longer a public health emergency. Of course Covid is still a serious challenge and needs to be managed carefully. I do not underestimate it; a family member sadly died of Covid only recently. However, the crisis stage of the pandemic has passed, and this legislation is just not needed. Its continued existence and the Government’s reluctance to revoke it represents another kind of crisis: the undermining of the rule of law in democratic decision-making under the auspices of Covid.
It really does feel as though Ministers have grown rather too accustomed to the Covid-related ease with which laws can be made, now that the Government have enhanced legislative control and seem reluctant to relinquish newly accrued powers. To quote Big Brother Watch,
“the emergency mode and its perks—rapid law-making without scrutiny and a ratcheting of executive powers—has persisted”.
Perhaps most galling for me is that the Government seem reluctant to provide impact assessment statements for legislation, which means that Parliament has often not had the information it needs to properly scrutinise measures that have profound social, economic and health impacts—let alone assaults on our liberties.
This lack of transparency also blindsides public debate. Too often, citizens are left to speculate as to why certain laws are being introduced when there seems so little evidence of their efficacy. Undoubtedly this has fuelled conspiracy-mongering and undermined trust in politics and institutions. Look at the egregious way in which proposals to mandate vaccines for care home workers was dealt with. There was a rushed 90-minute debate in the other place and a cavalier use of secondary legislation to interfere with workers’ hard-won employment rights that is likely to create a huge staff shortage crisis in care homes. All this was done in the face of a wide range of opponents pointing out the shortcomings of the proposals—I am thinking here of everyone from trades unions to Tory Back-Bench MPs agreeing—and despite a lack of evidence that this policy will lead to any extra protection for vulnerable residents, as alleged.
Now the Government are doubling down and targeting NHS staff. Just when we are told that one reason why the Government might bring in further restrictions is if the NHS cannot cope this winter, the Department of Health and Social Care has the brilliant idea of implementing a policy that will mean effectively sacking thousands of front-line health workers, creating a staff shortage crisis that could have—guess what?—catastrophic implications for healthcare and make matters worse.
Here is my great dilemma for the Minister. We have all—or almost all—welcomed the shift from legal restrictions to public health guidelines and trusting the public to take personal responsibility for weighing up risks. That was, and is, it seemed to me, the message from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet—or that was what I thought. So it is unfortunate that, despite assurances and even promises that 19 July was the terminus date and the pledges that relaxing restrictions would be irreversible, and despite the good news of extremely high vaccine take-up and levels of antibodies, and evidence, as we have heard, of the virus being under control, Ministers keep threatening the public with really quite draconian measures again. It is totally demoralising and disorientating.
What we really need to hear from the Minister today is that the Government will no longer use the criminal law to manage public health. Instead, what we have is another attack on freedoms hanging over us in the form of vaccine passports. Despite a range of U-turns and contradictory ministerial public pronouncements on vaccine passes, despite the findings of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that Covid passes have no basis “in science or logic”, despite leaked but not publicly available cost-benefit analysis from the DCMS that passes will decimate hospitality, arts and sports event venues, which I read about in a newspaper rather than in anything produced by Ministers, despite the fact that the Prime Minister inadvertently admitted that immunity from vaccination was not the same as a guarantee that you cannot contract the virus or pass it on, hence rendering vaccine passes irrelevant in containing the social spread of the virus, as was well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, despite the fact that the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s vaccine confidence project has found that the introduction of vaccine passports will most likely reduce vaccine take-up among the already hesitant and will more likely consolidate a loss of trust in pharmacological interventions in general, as well as in political institutions—despite all this, we still hear the misinformation from the Government that vaccine passports as a policy will protect others. They just will not.
Where is the opportunity for Parliament, never mind the public, to debate all this fully, without fear of being demonised or silenced by big tech, and discuss the implications of an illiberal, divisive, show-your-papers culture? As we talk here today about the renewal of the Coronavirus Act—the emergency, allegedly temporary Coronavirus Act—my dread is that we are signalling the permanence of a state of emergency embedded in law by even contemplating a two-tier checkpoint society. When Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, smirked as she stressed that vaccine passes would mean two classes in her country, I was chilled—and I realise that such open discrimination is also the new normal much closer to home, in Wales and Scotland.
The truth is that our Health Ministers need to move away from vaccine passes because they have enough on their plate. Rather than getting embroiled in these politicised rows over Covid-related laws, surely it is time to move on; goodness knows they now have some real public health emergencies to sort out. From the now-understood catastrophic impact that lockdown measures have had on the late diagnosis of everything from cancer to dementia, to backlogs, waiting lists for treatment and the unhelpful actions of GPs—not only are they seemingly hesitant to resume face-to-face contact; there is also the BMA’s truculent behaviour in instructing surgeries to close their lists to new patients and threatening industrial action—Ministers have a lot on their plate.
There are also reports in primary schools that the lack of social interaction during the pandemic will affect young children’s speech, language and general development, and that those problems are likely to persist for several years. Then there is the ongoing and frankly inhumane treatment of care home residents, who are still being deprived of normal social contact with loved ones by risk-averse, short-staffed residential homes, leading to entirely preventable extra health issues.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister because he has a lot on his plate. In this context, the now-diminishing threat of Covid as an emergency should be low down on the priority list. All legal sanctions brought into being to deal with Covid now need to be revoked for the sake of the health of the body politic and so that the noble Lord can get on with being a Health Minister for non-Covid health emergencies.
My Lords, I start with a quote from the front page of the regulations which I find quite over the top:
“These Regulations are made in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus”.
Presumably this threat arose in the week between Parliament rising for the Conference Recess—
My Lords, there is a Division in the Chamber. The Committee will adjourn temporarily.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I shall go back to the beginning because I cannot remember where I stopped.
I start with a quote from the regulations, which
“are made in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus”.
This could not have occurred in the week between the session we had in September and the Minister making this instrument on 22 September. The text carries on,
“the Secretary of State is of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
The first thing I ask the Minister is to get an agreement to discontinue this way of making legislation. It may be some time before the Government repeal all the Acts but they could certainly give an undertaking. I realise that the Minister cannot do that today, because he has to consult the department, but the department could give an undertaking that future regulations will be made after consultation with Parliament.
This pandemic has shown me something. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, referred to her travels around the world. I have done a lot of lecturing on history, particularly the history of western Europe. I will not castigate any country in particular, but all countries have an undertow of authoritarianism in their public dimension. The pandemic has brought that out in this country. We have seen a level of authoritarianism in the way that people have used their power which is totally unacceptable. It can be seen in the way that the doctors have rewritten national health protocols, and the way that the police decided that they would or would not enforce parts of the law. Let me stress that “would not”; I sometimes wonder why we are here, when I look around and see how much of the law the police decide is not worth enforcing.
So we have an authoritarianism problem in this country but, as we move forward, we will have to learn to live with this. It will perhaps decline, as Spanish flu did in 1920-21, but it will not go away, and the possibility of further viral attacks is on the horizon. I echo the call made to the Minister that the Government should look at viral—and electronic—warfare and attacks as part of their defence capacity, because we could be liable to those sorts of attacks. It is important that we move forward from thinking that our defence consists of sailing a battleship round the Black Sea to a point where we accept that there is a much wider area in which public good can be interrupted for malicious reasons.
We have heard a fair bit about the number of people who have been vaccinated and the various plans that have come forward. I am an occasional subscriber to and regular reader of the Daily Sceptic, which I receive by email. It has put another view on some of the material that has been released about Covid. For instance, we hear very little about the Oxford group and a group of people who have looked carefully at all the evidence and concluded very similarly to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, on matters such as face masks. Not all the evidence is being presented; indeed, some outlets take great pride in saying that they are Covid-friendly and, basically, supply you only with government propaganda.
So I welcome the new Minister and the new Secretary of State, because they have an opportunity to move us forward towards a better situation. I have mentioned the problem of GPs in the past, but that situation also covers the rest of the National Health Service. I live in Cambridge, which could probably claim to be the medical capital of Britain. I live in a street that is packed full of doctors, because only doctors and former MEPs can afford the houses there. Some of my best friends are doctors, as they say, and some of their stories about what has been going on are, shall we say, not in line with what we have been led to believe is going on. One of them said to me, “I don’t know what the GPs are doing. We haven’t seen any of them in our hospital, I can tell you that”.
So we must get the health service and private hospitals back to work. Our local private hospital was bought out by the NHS and basically stood empty for the best part of a year, with the consultants doing their consultations at home. It was absolutely ridiculous. The way to get a consultation with your specialist relied on knowing their home phone number and getting on to them and going to see them at home. So they were finding a way round the regulations, and the hospitals were closed but still earning large amounts of money from the NHS.
So the Minister is going to find that there are a lot of themes to unravel. On the subject of vaccination, I counsel the Government not to take on battles that they are probably going to lose. If they take on this battle of trying to get vaccination certificates and vaccination approvals before people can do certain things, they will end up in a morass of bureaucracy and in the end they will lose. Leave it to the market. If a venue wishes to say it requires proof of vaccination to enter—as, for instance, some restaurants in France require—let it administer it and look at the certificate. All I would do is say, “Please put a notice on the door”. Do not get involved in what could turn out to be a terribly authoritarian effort.
There is one question I would like to ask the Minister. We are constantly urged to get lateral flow tests. How much do these cost? I was asked to get a lateral flow test before I went to David Amess’s memorial service. Why? I also question whether they should be free and whether it is our priority as a health service to carry on spending this amount of money. How much does it cost and, more importantly, what plans does the Minister have to wind it down or at least make it a paid-for service, which seems a quite reasonable thing to do?
My final words are that I am pleased that we are moving forward. I hope this will be the last SI we have to debate that is laid in this way, and I hope we will move forward, end this image of a terrified country and continue getting back to normal, so that we can start to get back to where we were some years ago, as normal human beings in a normal society.
My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, joins us remotely, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, will speak briefly in the gap.
I am most grateful. I will make three points about communication. Last Saturday, I queued up at Chicksands centre—two hours’ queueing, with no appointment. Fine—I make no criticism of what was done there. But I then found out that Biggleswade, a town of 30,000-plus which previously did jabs, has no provision. So my advice to my noble friend is to double-check in all the substantial towns to make sure that there is jabbing going on.
Secondly, I mentioned my wife earlier. I declare an interest in that she is a doctor. She was very ill with Covid; she came out six months ago. There was no GP contact and nothing from the hospital. We will monitor it and make sure she is all right, but we are waiting to see whether she gets any communication from anybody—for a woman aged 83.
Thirdly and finally, I was in charge of the communication for the three-day week for an advertising agency. I met daily with the department involved, and the Minister, and we ensured that we had mass communication. Frankly, I see very little in the nationals or in the local papers. I see nothing in the ethnic newspapers and I do not see anything on television. If you want to get this hard core to have vaccinations, you have to swamp the media. I was a professional advertising man before; you do tell them once, you do not tell them twice—you tell them 10 times and then they might hear. I thank noble Lords again for allowing me to take part in the gap.
I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I start by echoing the comments of my noble friend Lord Scriven and many other noble Lords. Regardless of where your Lordships stand on wearing masks, for example, we are all agreed that the way this Government have brought forward far too much Covid legislation as emergency items—
My Lords, the Committee will resume. I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to continue her speech.
My Lords, regardless of where your Lordships stand on mask wearing, I believe that we are all agreed that this Government have brought forward far too much emergency Covid legislation, much of which has not even been presented to Parliament before being brought into use. Why, once again, are regulations coming to the Lords for which the expiry date was well known in advance and is not an emergency at all? The Minister’s predecessor heard time after time over the last 20 months many noble Lords complaining that too many statutory instruments were being brought to us as emergency procedures, making a mockery of the scrutiny of your Lordships’ House.
The regulations talk about self-isolation. It remains vital for those who have Covid-19, but can the Minister confirm the rumours that many people are not taking lateral flow tests, even if they are symptomatic, in order not to have to report the results and to avoid self-isolation? I am also hearing that there has been a resurgence of the old problem we had last year of late pinging, presumably because of delays in a struggling test and trace system as case numbers rise dramatically.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised concerns about whether lateral flow tests are necessary and should be paid for from the public purse. Lateral flow tests are now proving extremely reliable. Actually, we are advised as Members of Parliament to have two lateral flow tests during any week in which we are present in Parliament. Many other workplaces demand even more tests per week than that. It is one of the safest ways we can catch Covid early in people, particularly if they are not yet symptomatic. If we are asking many people to have two, three or five lateral flow tests a week—as I know happens in some places—while the pandemic is still around, it should be paid for from the public purse.
I echo the Minister’s thanks to directors of public health, our local resilience forums and local authorities. Can he confirm that the funding for their work on Covid, including test and trace, is guaranteed for the next financial year and will not end, as is currently planned, in March 2022?
Once again, I ask why the messages from government Ministers repeatedly encourage us to believe that face masks are totally a matter of personal choice. Many noble Lords have expressed their concern about them and said why they do not want to wear them. Even the Secretary of State for Health, when pressed over the weekend, reluctantly said that he would use a mask. However, he refused to say that he would recommend it to his colleagues on the green Benches—although he thought that they should perhaps consider it—whereas the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, has completely eschewed the scientific advice and said that Tory MPs do not need to wear masks because they all know each other and get along so well. The new Minister for Vaccines was of a similar mind on the radio yesterday.
However, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, vaccination on its own is not the sole answer to Covid. A third of cases at the moment are among people who have already had their vaccinations. With a seven-day rolling average of around 1,000 admissions to hospital per day and with more than 8,000 beds occupied—and with those numbers increasing—I asked the Minister just now, in the Urgent Question in the Chamber, about accident and emergency departments and ambulance services. Conversations with GPs show that they, too, are hard-pressed at the moment in dealing with the increased number of Covid patients calling them for help.
One of the advantages of vaccination is that many people do not get Covid so seriously, but anyone who listened to the “Today” programme from Lancashire this morning will have heard many people say that, even though they had Covid mildly, it was the most unpleasant thing they had had to deal with and that catching their breath all the time was very difficult. GPs are much in demand in offering advice, hopefully to turn people away from hospital and give them the help they need.
Case rates in unvaccinated children remain very high, and despite being told many times in 2020 that children do not get Covid, they clearly do.
On 17 September, Sajid Javid wrote to the 3.7 million people who are clinically extremely vulnerable; that is 5% of our population, though not as large as the 22 million of the over-50s, the clinically extremely vulnerable and NHS staff having booster shots. This group comprises those who have serious problems making antibodies and are at high risk of getting very strong Covid. I declare my interest as being within the severely clinically extremely vulnerable group. Its numbers have expanded from 500,000 to 800,000 over the last two to three months following the publication of a number of clinical trials which were able to show that more categories of people were taking immunosuppressants, which moved them into this group. The news of the antivirals is vital for the clinically extremely vulnerable, and I welcome that. However, as my consultant said to me, “We don’t want you in hospital at all; we absolutely do not want you to end up on many of the drugs coming through yet. You need to keep safe.”
For those of us who have low or no antibodies and were told on 17 September by the Secretary of State that our doctors would now tell us what we needed to do, the outside world is a worrying place. The letter from Sajid Javid said that I should ensure that I did not go into any environment where there were people who were not double vaccinated. I have joked before whether, before entering my local greengrocers, I should stand at the door and shout, “Everyone double vaccinated in here?” I do say that.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, can make his own decision about wearing a face mask, but 5% of the population, a mere 3.7 million people, remain at high risk even if they have had their booster jabs. They do not have the choice. I ask him please to reconsider; even when you think you are safe, you may be protecting someone as you may not know that you have Covid and are likely to pass it on.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, quoted our scientists in March and April 2020 as saying they did not see the evidence for face masks being helpful. He clearly missed the screeching U-turn in the summer of 2020 after our experts, both in the UK and at the World Health Organization, realised that Covid was much more airborne than they had understood. The noble Lord asked for evidence. This is from the World Health Organization in December 2020, and it is still current advice:
“Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.
If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue. Check local advice where you live and work. Do it all!
Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people. The appropriate use, storage and cleaning or disposal of masks are essential to make them as effective as possible.”
SAGE told Ministers in May that schoolchildren should wear masks. SAGE did not get rid of masks on freedom day; it was the Government. They decided against the advice. Frankly, it has not been a freedom day for the many people who have caught Covid since mid-July and been in hospital, or for the many who have died.
Sky News reported on 6 July on a report in the Lancet that showed why masks were effective. If noble Lords doubt me, they should just put “Sky News” and
“COVID-19: Do face masks work? Here is what scientific studies say”
into their browser. The evidence is there for the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. It includes that the American CDC reported an incident where two hairstylists with minor Covid symptoms
“were found to have interacted with 139 people during an eight-day period. The stylists and the clients all wore masks”
and a not a single one became infected. Sky News said that, on the USS “Theodore Roosevelt”,
“where living quarters and working environments leave little room for social distancing, a study found there was a 70% reduced risk of infection among those who used a face covering.”
The article also said:
“In Thailand, a retrospective case-control study found that among 1,000 people interviewed as part of contact tracing investigations”—
real people and real cases—
“those who reported always having worn a mask during high-risk exposures again experienced a 70% reduced risk of becoming infected compared with others.”
A quick search of the internet will produce many other examples.
The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said that many masks do not contain the aerosol droplets as well as the hospital-grade masks do. That is right, but too many people wear their masks insecurely—not pinching the nose frame or pulling back the ties properly. That is the point the World Health Organization was making. Worse, I am sorry to say that too many think they are protected when they wear their masks under their chins. That does not provide for any protection at all.
As before, the problem of recording third doses versus boosters remains. This is vital. The Minister’s predecessor said that this would be dealt with by the end of July. Because third-dose people need a booster in a few months, it has to be listed separately from ordinary boosters. When will the online system be able to record third doses? Those who took part in vaccine clinical trials or have had their vaccines abroad still cannot get them logged on to the systems. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, promised that this would be sorted before the summer break.
Since 19 July, when we released all mitigation measures here in the UK, why is it that France, Portugal, Spain and other countries have seen a rapid drop in case rates, while the UK has seen a rapid increase: from 320 cases per 100,000 to 488.5 per 100,000? It is very simple. Our plan B is, in fact, those countries’ plan A across western Europe. Those countries have mandates for masks, social distancing and ventilation. These are not studies but real-life examples.
The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, cited Denmark in her contribution. In Denmark, a country that has been particularly successful, there is not even a mandate but the public choose to wear masks and socially distance. They have accepted this because of the strong messaging right from the start by their Government and local government about taking personal responsibility for their friends, neighbours and community. By comparison, the UK stands alone in saying that a daily case rate of up to 100,000 and, from the Prime Minister’s own mouth, 50,000 deaths a year are acceptable. We are creeping towards those numbers right now. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to Ministers appearing to believe in UK exceptionalism. Perhaps this is exceptionalism of exactly the wrong kind.
I ask the Minister: why has SAGE been meeting only monthly since July? Who calls those meetings and, if SAGE members feel that they need to advise Ministers, do they have to wait for Ministers to seek that advice? That would be helpful to know.
I believe that every single noble Lord who has taken part in this debate would not want to see plan C having to be enacted, especially if it means that the Prime Minister will have to cancel another Christmas. Experts across our country, and even in the World Health Organization, have expressed real concern that if we do not take at least some of the mitigating measures in plan B right now, the Government will have to move to plan C. We do not want that, so please can the Ministers listen to SAGE and put in the mitigations that most of our neighbouring countries accept as normal and good behaviour, to prevent us ever having to retreat into draconian shutdowns again?
My Lords, we do not oppose the renewal of the Coronavirus Act. As the Minister himself acknowledged, the pandemic is not over and many of these measures remain necessary. These provisions include: powers around the emergency registration of healthcare workers, which is important in ensuring that we can get workers who have retired from the healthcare system back into it, and participating in the vaccination programme; provisions for sick pay from day one, rather than day four, to help those required to self-isolate; and derogations that make it possible for remote participation in court proceedings to take place.
Not opposing the extension has been made easier, I should say, given that some of the more concerning and draconian measures have been removed from the Act. This includes Schedule 21, which contained the power to detain potentially infectious persons and has been used for a number of prosecutions, every one of which was found to be unlawful by the Crown Prosecution Service. A year ago, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that these powers “ought to be repealed”. We, too, have long called for those powers to be removed from the Act and it is right and proper that they have been. However, we would question whether some sections which are also set to be removed should be.
We are disappointed, for example, that the powers in Section 78 to enable local authority meetings to take place remotely have been removed from the Act. Surely it should be the case that local authorities should decide for themselves if they would like to continue online meetings, especially as we approach a challenging winter, with the Health Secretary warning that cases could well rise to 100,000 a day. I look forward to the comments of the Minister as to why that intervention on the organisational arrangements of councils is being made.
Nevertheless, the Coronavirus Act itself is not the legislation that put us into three national lockdowns and imposed the regime of local lockdowns, the three-tier system, travel restrictions or mask-wearing mandates. Indeed, I am sure from this debate that I am not the only one who has lost count of the number of SIs laid under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the legal basis for coronavirus restrictions in England. I note that no changes to the public health Act are planned. Over the past 18 months, the House has repeatedly expressed its concern, as we have heard today, about the myriad regulations that have been introduced with limited scrutiny, bypassing Parliament and leading to executive dominance. These concerns have been further exacerbated by the Government’s reliance on the “made affirmative” procedure, meaning that, all too often, Parliament has not been given the opportunity to debate or scrutinise regulations before they became law.
That includes the health protection regulations that we are also debating. They were laid on 22 September and came into effect on 27 September. We fully support the provisions to amend the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include those who have received doses of two different approved vaccines or clinical trials. We also support the extension of the requirements for those who test positive for coronavirus and who are unvaccinated to self-isolate, and the extension of local authorities’ enforcement powers to 24 March 2022. However, I do not understand why this legislation was laid under the “made affirmative” procedure. I should be grateful for the comments of the Minister when he responds. After all, the department knew that the original expiration deadline was approaching and has long acknowledged that cases could rise to 100,000 this autumn or winter, thus necessitating continued self-isolation and enforcement powers.
While this is of course a rather straightforward SI, the Minister’s predecessor—the noble Lord, Lord Bethell —failed to make the case when introducing far more onerous Covid regulations that were laid using the emergency “made affirmative” procedure to implement coronavirus policies. Many of these regulations were laid at the 11th hour—a point made by my noble friend—despite being in press releases days, even weeks, in advance. They included mask-wearing requirements and the system of mandatory quarantine backed by criminal sanction, which gave the police the power to enter people’s homes; it also allowed individuals to be detained and searched, and have their belongings seized. These are not minor changes to the law.
Although we understood the need for the Government to respond quickly in the initial phases of the pandemic because of the emergency, it is unjustifiable to continue doing so without scrutiny where pandemic management has moved from reaction to control. I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that the Government will do much better if, or when, they reintroduce some restrictions in respect of the management and control of the spread of coronavirus.
We all know that the pandemic is not over. We see tens of hundreds of new recorded Covid infections every day. We know that there are hundreds of people in hospital, many of whom are in the ICU. We also know that, on average, over 100 people are sadly dying of this dreadful disease every single day. The Minister will be well aware that the NHS Confederation, the BMA and local councils have called on the Government to implement plan B immediately. It contains the measures that we already support and are familiar with, such as mask wearing and allowing working from home. The Prime Minister should never have abandoned these measures; it is extremely concerning to hear that he is not following the advice of SAGE. My noble friend Lord Hunt expressed concern about the downgrading of SAGE’s role. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
It appears that there has been little learning in government of the lessons from the early stages of the pandemic when delays undoubtedly, regrettably and tragically cost thousands of lives. Indeed, we know that plan B will not be enough to prevent another lockdown. Let us look at some of the current practices. I refer the Minister to one particular aspect of test and trace: the messages sent to people who have been in contact with somebody who has tested positive for Covid. Can he tell the Committee what impact those messages and their wording, which I would suggest is not carefully constructed, have had on compliance? Also, what assessment has been made of the user experience of the people receiving those messages? How often is the messaging reviewed?
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, talked about the power of communication. I suggest to the Minister that, for any of us who are in receipt of these messages, the advice on what to do is, at a minimum, confusing. It is overly directive on the matter of self-isolation and takes a considerable time to establish that self-isolation is not necessary if one has been double-vaccinated. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.
Furthermore, the Government must get a grip on the stalling vaccination programme: it has left almost 5 million people at a greater risk of catching Covid, as they are yet to receive their booster jabs and are at the mercy of waning efficacy. The Government have said that the vaccination programme will continue to be our first line of defence; yet on current trends, we will not see completion of the booster programme until spring 2022. This seems rather slow.
We note also that the rate of vaccination for children is shamefully low as well. Vaccines for 12 to 15 year-olds in the UK started on 20 September and, to date, only 15% of 12 to 15 year-olds in England have received one shot. With hardly any protective measures and delayed vaccination, the return to school last month has seen record numbers of children becoming infected. For the last three weeks, we have seen an average of 10,000 new five to 14 year-olds testing positive for Covid every single day. Thousands are missing school, and this cannot continue.
As we approach a difficult winter, it seems that Ministers have failed to put in place the necessary measures to improve ventilation in businesses, public spaces and schools, despite better ventilation having been proven to reduce transmission of Covid. They have also failed to provide for proper sick pay and to fully resource local contact tracing teams, which would also help reduce the spread of the virus. This is no time for complacency. We urge the Government to act on vaccines, ventilation, sick pay and masks.
My Lords—apologies while I remove my mask—I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this important debate, and for the range of views expressed in the best tradition of our debates. The Government see extending the No. 3 and self-isolation regulations until 24 March next year as vital to allow local authorities to respond to serious and imminent threats from Covid-19, but also to ensure that the self-isolation system continues to protect the public during the challenging winter ahead. I have listened to and have taken on board—and will take on board—many of the concerns raised here today.
The Government believe that the Coronavirus Act continues to be a critical part of our country’s response to this awful virus, which has touched every corner of our society. In terms of parliamentary scrutiny, I understand the points that have been made by many civil libertarians here today. The Government believe that the Coronavirus Act has enabled them to provide help and support to people, businesses and our public services, and to boost the healthcare workforce at a critical time of need. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to review every aspect of coronavirus legislation, but we are now able to expire seven provisions and part of a further power in the Coronavirus Act. I hope this demonstrates the Government’s commitment to, and progress towards, winding down the emergency powers.
The Government see themselves as taking only those powers that are critical to our response and recovery—for example, powers that help make sure that the NHS is properly resourced and that statutory sick pay is available to those who are self-isolating. It is always a very difficult balance; we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, that she would have preferred us to keep some of the other emergency provisions. The Government’s autumn and winter plan sets out how we hope to sustain and bolster the progress that we have made thus far.
I turn to some of the specific points made by noble Lords; I hope I will have the time to respond to as many as possible. If I do not respond to every point, I will make sure that I write to noble Lords in answer to their specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked when an SI would be laid. He also talked about unlawful convictions and incorrect charges, as many other noble Lords spoke eloquently about. I thank them for their contributions about the incorrect charging decisions under Schedule 21 to the Act. Of course it is regrettable that 295 incorrect charging decisions have been made under the Coronavirus Act. The primary issue that the Crown Prosecution Service has identified is that individuals were erroneously charged under Schedule 21 rather than under other legislation such as various health protection regulations. Since April 2020, the CPS has agreed to review all prosecutions made under the Coronavirus Act and it continues to do so. I hope, in some ways, that that reassures the noble Lord.
The noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Scriven, my noble friend Lady Foster, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Brinton, asked about parliamentary scrutiny. I know that this is an issue of concern to many noble Lords. The Government are confident that they have upheld their promise to allow for proper scrutiny and accountability of the powers in the Act. Many criticisms were levelled, which I understand, and I hope that noble Lords will continue to hold us to account on accountability. Maybe I can have some conversations offline with some noble Lords to make sure we do this as much as possible.
My noble friend Lord Balfe talked about living in the same street as former MEPs and doctors. He then went on to say that the doctors were his friends, but he did not say anything about whether the former MEPs were also his friends. I hope so, but I assure him that he still remains my noble friend.
On occasion, it has been necessary to introduce urgent measures to protect the NHS and save lives. The Government have committed to debates in advance of regulations coming into force wherever possible for measures of national significance. This included Parliament being recalled to debate the national lockdown in January, and debates and votes on regulations covering the tiers system; the steps regulations in March, which set the path for implementing the Government’s road map out of lockdown; and, in June, pausing the move to the next step of the road map.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, talked about impact assessments. On the evidence for decision-making, a full regulatory impact assessment was not prepared for many coronavirus regulations, as they fell under the civil contingencies exclusions of the better regulation framework. The Better Regulation Executive will not seek to enforce the current administrative requirement for validating impacts for temporary coronavirus legislation in advance of the wider reform of the better regulation framework.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Scriven, accused us of ignoring the scientific advice by not implementing plan B now and asked who is advising us and what the trigger points are. Our approach has always been informed by scientific and medical evidence, and by the latest data. We take evidence from the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, SAGE, of course, as part of that, the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS and others. They remain valuable when we balance the evidence of scientific opinion. Scientific experts have contributed directly to ministerial discussions.
As we have heard in this debate, many noble Lords have contested the science or referenced certain reports. It shows that, even around this area, science is contestable. That has been revealed in the way the Government assess all these trade-offs. What is also interesting is that many people in other parts of the health sector are concerned about some of the provisions, such as the impact on mental health and other unintended consequences. All these have to be balanced. The Government have benefited from the expertise of their science and medical advisers through the pandemic and remain deeply grateful for the role they have played in saving lives and protecting the NHS.
In our debate on Thursday last, I mentioned the work of Professor Mark Pennington, professor of political economy at King’s College London, who talked about the response to the pandemic via decision-making. He talked about the situation being almost a Hayekian, complex system, with many individuals having incomplete knowledge or, as Hayek said, the conceit of knowledge. That expresses and shows the difference of opinion. This is a case where we have to weigh up many different views, particularly among the scientific community, and, in addition, some of the papers referenced today by many noble Lords.
Noble Lords have asked what the set threshold is. The Government and our scientific advisers monitor a wide range of Covid-19 health data, including on cases, immunity, the ratio of cases to hospitalisations, the proportion of admissions due to infection, the rate of growth in cases and hospital admissions in the over-65s, vaccine efficacy and the global distribution and characteristics of variants of concern. In assessing the risks to the NHS, the key metrics include: hospital occupancy for Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients; intensive care unit capacity; admissions of vaccinated individuals; and the rate of growth of admissions. The Government also track the economic and societal impacts of the virus to ensure that any response takes those wider effects—that is, socioeconomic effects as well as those in the medical and scientific professions—into account and assesses that range of views. It is not necessarily a binary decision but a range of views that must be considered and weighed up. Noble Lords have expressed eloquently in this debate the range of scientific views and papers on Covid.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton —forgive me if I do not remember the others—asked how regularly SAGE meets. Throughout the pandemic, SAGE has been a vital source of co-ordinated scientific advice and technical support to help guide the Government’s response. However, as I have said previously, we also consider other bits of scientific advice. Committee members utilise the latest scientific research, insight and analysis from across government, academia and industry. As new evidence or data emerges, SAGE updates its advice accordingly. As Covid-19 was completely unknown to us less than two years ago, this means that some of the guidance provided in the earlier stages of the pandemic has now been superseded or amended to reflect our ever-evolving understanding of the virus.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about face coverings—
I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the Government’s approach to SAGE, but I have to say that it is rather confusing since SAGE clearly encompasses a wide range of scientific views. The Minister seems to be saying that it has been given a subordinated role, meeting only monthly, and, in essence, the Government are looking for other bits of scientific advice. I would like clarification on this because, for me at least, this is clearly a significant change in policy and practice.
I thank the noble Lord for that question. As I laid out earlier and have said formerly, the Government listen to a range of scientific advice, including from SAGE but also from the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, the NHS and a range of other views.
I am sorry to pursue this but it seems to me that the Minister has made a very significant statement because all those people are on SAGE, as far as I am aware from looking at the minutes. I do not think that the Government can get away with simply saying, “We listen to a whole range of advice, including from SAGE”. Surely SAGE is the primary place from which the Government get advice.
I can only repeat what I have said previously but I will look at this in more detail and respond to the noble Lord if he is not satisfied with my response. I will try to make sure that I send a satisfactory response.
A number of noble Lords talked about the evidence around face coverings. Some noble Lords said that they definitely work. Others said, “No, there is no evidence that they work”. Others said, “Actually, they are useful as part of an overall package of other measures”. If the data suggests that the NHS is likely to come under unsustainable pressure, the Government will implement their prepared plan B. That is why we have explained it in advance: so that we cannot be accused of doing things at the last minute. Plan B would include legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, but we are not yet at that stage. The continued efforts of the public in practising safe behaviours and getting fully vaccinated will be critical to ensuring that the NHS does not come under unsustainable pressure.
This is an important issue that goes back to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said. We keep hearing the phrase “when the time is right, we will implement plan B, if required”. Who will the Government take that advice from? Will it be SAGE, which, until now, has given the Government clear scientific advice that the Government have acted on—sometimes belatedly but they have done so? What are the criteria and who will give the advice on determining when the time is right within normal government business, if SAGE is no longer seen as having the primary role in advising, since its remit is during times of emergency?
Before I answer that in more detail, perhaps I may say that we are not putting SAGE into a subordinate role. It is independent and we rely on its advice. However, as I mentioned, we also rely on the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS and others, and balance up views within the scientific and medical professions. I hope I have also laid out the range of data that is examined. The decisions are data-led. We look at immunity, the ratio of cases to hospitalisations, proportional admissions and so on to see whether the data suggests that the NHS will be overwhelmed. That is what leads to the difficult decision-making and balancing up whether the time is right.
One noble Lord—I think my noble friend Lord Ridley —and many others referred to the research of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine showing the range of views. Some scientists are saying that the virus will grow while others are saying that if we keep doing what we are doing and rely on the booster vaccines, the numbers will drop off. As one can imagine, there is a range of views but I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we have not relegated SAGE. It is independent and we listen to its advice, as we listen to the advice of others.
On face coverings, the point made by my noble friend Lord Robathan was interesting regarding people who say they are in favour of face coverings but, as he sees when he travels on public transport, a smaller percentage wear them. That shows some of the difficulties in polling, whereby there are stated preferences but also revealed preferences. Although many people say that they will do things, one should judge them by their behaviour. I note that my noble friends Lady Foster and Lord Ridley also raised concerns about the efficacy of wearing face masks.
SAGE evidence states that face coverings, if they are worn correctly and of suitable quality, are likely to be most effective, at least in the short to medium term, in reducing transmission indoors where social distancing is not feasible. Reviews by the UK Health Security Agency in June 2020 and January 2021 found evidence that the use of face coverings in the community helped to reduce transmission. Once again, we have a range of views on the efficacy of face masks.
My noble friend Lord Robathan talked about schools, universities and transmission. In universities, there have been low case numbers among students since the end of the 2020-21 academic year, although there have been slight increases in recent weeks.
My noble friends Lady Foster and Lord Ridley asked why the Act was not being repealed. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, also asked that. Throughout the pandemic, the Government have been clear that the measures will not be in place any longer than absolutely necessary. That is why we are expiring a number of powers in the Act and intend to expire even more when, we hope, there will be a significant landmark in our progress. The two-year lifespan of the temporary provisions of the Act was chosen to ensure that powers remain available for an appropriate length of time and can be extended by the relevant national authority.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about test and trace, and the cost. We have released £280 million in funding thus far, which is broken down as follows: £114 million to cover the costs of the main test and trace support system, £116 million for discretionary payments, and £50 million for administrative costs.
My noble friend Lord Naseby asked about minority vaccine uptake. He asked what the Government were doing to drive uptake among ethnic minority communities. We are well aware of this issue and a lot of work is being done with a number of local community associations to work out the best way to reach them. Only yesterday, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, about how we could tackle particular demographics and got some very valuable advice from her on how we could focus. I fed that into the department, so hopefully that will be part of our strategy. What we have seen is pop-up temporary vaccination sites at many places of worship and community locations. One of the things we have been advised is to go to where the unvaccinated are and to see how we can pursue a targeted campaign.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked whether there would be a charge for lateral flow tests. Anyone in England can continue to order free lateral flow tests. I am afraid that I am going to run out of time, so I will write to noble Lords.
May I just make a point? My noble friend obviously spent a lot of time on certain aspects of this debate, but he tended to skip a little bit past the issue of whether plan B would be introduced. My question is—because I think it is very key—what exactly the benchmark would be to introduce something such as plan B. The NHS has been overwhelmed every year that I can remember during the winter for the last however many decades. At the moment, fewer than 5% of hospital beds are currently occupied by patients with Covid. I appreciate it is under pressure—we might have more flu cases, et cetera—but I would like a little bit of clarification on what the Government would see as that benchmark, because this is a big decision that I would not actually support.
I thank my noble friend for that question. One of the difficult things about answering it—believe me, it frustrates me as much as it does the noble Baroness—is that there is no set indicator, no one silver bullet or trigger point. There is a range of indicators that we will balance up to measure how they will affect the NHS and whether the NHS will be overwhelmed.
I know it has been a difficult 18 months, and people across the UK have risen to the challenge of Covid-19. We hope that the Government’s support package has helped to safeguard jobs, businesses and public services. With continued perseverance during the autumn and winter months, supported by only those essential powers remaining in place, subject to the scrutiny of noble Lords, I hope that we will get through this. I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and previous debates: their expertise and the range of views expressed are hugely appreciated. I also thank everyone across the UK for the sacrifices that they have made over the period.
I end by repeating my earlier plea to everyone to do their bit. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care made clear, quite small changes can make a big difference. Both my noble friend Lord Naseby and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, mentioned messaging. We all have a role to play in combating this virus, especially during winter, which we know will be a challenging period. We can all do our bit by washing our hands regularly, continuing to wear masks in crowds and on public transport, testing regularly where appropriate, staying at home when we feel unwell, and, most importantly, getting fully vaccinated against both coronavirus and flu—and urging friends and family to do so. By remaining vigilant together, we can help limit the spread of the virus in the months ahead. I commend the regulations to the Committee.