Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 7:41 pm, 11th November 2020

I would like to thank everybody who has contributed to the debate and to the tone of it. I add my personal thanks to all those who are working on the frontline and in public services. This has been an incredibly difficult year for those individuals, and there is arguably still much work to be done.

I would also like to add my thanks to the armed forces. We heard powerful speeches earlier this afternoon on everything that our armed forces have done, but they have also contributed enormously to our ability to tackle the pandemic so far through the distribution of PPE, rolling out mobile testing centres, building Nightingale hospitals and being involved in the important planning for the roll-out of a vaccine when one is fully approved.

I would like to thank all those who brought to this place today stories of personal loss—in particular, Emma Hardy, who told us of the sad loss of her family member this week, and my hon. Friend Joy Morrissey, who told us so poignantly about Jamie.

From many of the contributions, it is clear that hopes for a vaccine are running high following the encouraging news of the phase 3 trial results from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday, and I share that sense of optimism. Science, academia, life sciences and private and public institutions have worked together. As my hon. Friend Imran Ahmad Khan said, we would not be here without such endeavours of the private sector working with us. It is a promising development, and the UK is ahead of the game in securing an order for 40 million doses.

I would like to thank the head of the vaccine taskforce. Neale Hanvey said that she is “impressive” and on top of her brief. I could not have put it better than my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter). It is under her leadership that this is one of many vaccine candidates that we have secured.

There are six in total, two at phase 3. We have placed orders for a further 300 million doses from the five other candidates, which are yet to report. That also includes the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine; my hon. Friend Anthony Browne highlighted the endeavours of AstraZeneca in Cambridge.

I share the sense of optimism, but I also want to associate myself with the words of caution that many Members have expressed, including my right hon. Friend Dr Fox. It is worth reiterating that the MRHA will not approve a vaccine unless it is clinically safe. There are still many unknowns. Until a vaccine is rolled out, we will not know how long its effects will last or its impact on reducing transmissions, and there are no guarantees.

Nadia Whittome articulated the importance of making sure that people have accurate information to ensure that they take up vaccines. I assure her that the Government are working hard to ensure that people feel confident in the vaccine roll-out. We are working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, cross-Government and with technology companies to ensure that we limit misinformation and promote positive messages to get as much uptake of vaccination as we can. If this or any other vaccine is approved, we will be ready with a large-scale vaccination programme, which is being worked on at the moment.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) and my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom for their optimism in outlining the progress that we have made so far and how hard people have worked.

One point in particular that I would like to pick up on is PPE. When the pandemic started, we produced 1% of our PPE needs in the UK. By December, we will be providing 70% of the amount that we expect to use at the rates anticipated in December for all items except gloves. That is enormous progress. It is an industry that has been built from scratch, and it has been replicated through testing and diagnostics across the country. I would like to thank everyone involved.

But it has been tough, and nowhere has it been tougher—we have heard about how difficult it is—than for families with members of their family in care homes. We heard about that from my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield, for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), and my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. I pay tribute to the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend Helen Whately, who has to perform an incredibly difficult balancing act. It is a terribly hard time for families and residents, but also for care home staff. Their first duty is to keep their residents safe.

Last Thursday, guidance was published to enable care home providers, families and local professionals to find the right balance between the benefits of visiting and the risk of transmission. Care home visits will be allowed to develop further via trials to allow more visits supported by testing. Care homes, like GPs, can access free PPE via the portal until March, so if people are not signed up, I would encourage them to do so.

On testing, the House should also be encouraged by the pilots, and I thank those hon. Members who were grateful for the roll-out of testing. I also thank all those hospitals, such as Warrington, who have run pilots for us. We cannot learn without developing these systems. We have the pilots in Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool in whole-town and city testing,  and we are now in a position to roll out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, something that I am grateful Dr Allin-Khan mentioned. It is essential for the safety of patients and staff alike.

I will move on to international restrictions because, despite the positive developments, the national restrictions for England, which this House voted for last week, are as important as ever. Although I hear the calls of colleagues, we must remember that we are here to protect lives. However, I fully take on board that we are also here to protect livelihoods. I have heard those contributions on how the measures have impacted on businesses, and I recognise the strength of feeling on that.