I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 8), dated
The new variant of coronavirus presents us with a renewed challenge, here in Britain and around the world. Our strategy throughout has been to suppress the virus until a vaccine can make us safe, and while our collective efforts were working on the old variant, when faced with a new variant that is between 50% and 70% more transmissible, there has been no choice but to respond. I understand that these regulations have serious consequences, and I regret the huge costs they bring, but I know just as surely that these costs are far outweighed by the costs we would bear without action.
Yes, of course, we have been not only watching for mutations but, indeed, testing for mutations throughout, and it is partly because the UK has the biggest genomic testing capability of any country in the world that we have been able to pick this one up. There may be new mutations in other countries that do not have this scale of genomic testing, and just under 50% of all the sequenced genomes of covid-19 that are deposited with the World Health Organisation are deposited by the UK because of this capability.
That leads to a challenge, which is that it is the countries that have the genomic testing capability that spot the new variant and report it. There are countries that may have variations that are not known about and are not discovered in this way and cannot be reported, but that is the nature of the pandemic. My strong view is that we should be transparent and clear with our international friends when we find a new variant that is difficult to deal with.
When I have previously come to ask for the House’s support for national restrictions, we had to take it on trust that there would be an exit, because it was before a vaccine had been approved. Today I come to the House seeking approval of these regulations knowing, from the huge pressure on the NHS right now, that this action is necessary today, but also with the certain knowledge that we have a way out.
Before turning to the detail of the regulations, I want to set out the plan for how we get out of them, because that is critical. This country was the first in the world to deploy not one but two vaccines, and more than 1.3 million people have been vaccinated already, including a quarter of the over-80s.
I do not like it one bit, but I will support the Health Secretary tonight. The reason I will do it, and I suspect the reason why there is such high public support for these measures, is the position in which the NHS finds itself and the level 5 ruling. If we have, by the middle of February, vaccinated the top four groups, who are the ones likely to overwhelm the NHS, does the logic not follow that at that point we will be able to lift the restrictions on our constituents’ lives?
I will come on precisely to my hon. Friend’s point, because that is a critical question that I know people are rightly asking: if we are going to have these restrictions, how do we get out of them and, frankly, how do we get out of all the restrictions that we have had to put in place?
The Secretary of State mentions the vaccine as one of the crucial routes out of this, and I pay absolute tribute to all the incredible scientists and NHS staff who are preparing to deliver it. However, one of the things my constituents are asking me is how we can be sure that the production of the vaccine will meet the ambitions the Prime Minister and others have set out and that we are building the types of facility we need to continue to ramp up production to the highest levels we can. Can the Secretary of State explain what is going on, because I was concerned to hear about the factory in Wales that is not operating seven days a week? Why is that? Is it because it is not getting enough supply into its system?
Before the Secretary of State answers the question, let me say that we can have interventions of course—this is a debate—but they must not be long interventions. I give notice now that the time limit for Back-Bench speeches will be three minutes from the beginning, and even with three minutes not everyone on the Order Paper will be called, because there is not enough time.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to answer these interventions briefly, but they are important because people want to know what is the way out of these restrictions, and that is absolutely central to the case I am making.
The fill and finish plant in Wrexham is doing a brilliant job, but it can fill and finish vials only at the speed at which the vaccine material, which is a biological material, not a chemical compound, can be produced. It is doing a brilliant job at the pace that it needs to go. AstraZeneca and Pfizer are manufacturing the material itself, and they are also working as fast as they can, and I pay tribute to them and their manufacturing teams, who are doing a terrific job.
Approving these regulations today would allow for lockdown for three months, until the end of March. The Secretary of State will have heard my exchange with the Prime Minister earlier, when the Prime Minister said that he did not think we would have to wait that long for an opportunity to choose whether to end the regulations. Will the Secretary of State go further and give a commitment to a further vote at the end of January and the end of February, so that the House will have control over what is happening?
While these regulations do provide for new restrictions until the end of March, that is not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow the steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a local basis. Those tier changes do require a vote in Parliament. The restrictions will therefore be kept under continuous review; there is a statutory requirement to review them every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus.
First, I thank the Secretary of State; I understand the reasons for the regulations, and I fully support them. Does the Health Department, in conjunction with the Education Secretary, have any intention to ensure that teachers are given priority for a vaccine because of the work that they do, along with nurseries and children’s special needs? If we ensure that they have it, we can continue with some reality.
Of course we are considering who, once we have vaccinated those who are clinically vulnerable, should be the next priority for vaccination. Teachers, of course, have a very strong case, as have those who work in nurseries. Many colleagues on both sides of the House have made that point, and we will consider it.
Just to pick up one point, the Secretary of State cites the certain knowledge that there is a way out. The whole point of the intervention by John Spellar is that there is uncertainty. What contingency plans are there if a mutation proves resistant to either of the vaccines and we have to be in these measures for longer? In particular, will the Secretary of State consider the fact that we have barely drawn on the numerous people in the armed forces to create extra NHS capacity? We could do so much more of that if necessary. Is that part of the plan?
Yes, it is very much part of the plan; it is happening right now. On mutations and the link to the vaccine, as with flu, where mutations mean we have to change the vaccine each year, any vaccine might have to be updated in the future, but that is not our understanding of the situation now. Of course that is being double-checked and tested, both with the scientists at Porton Down and, as we roll out the vaccine in areas where there is a high degree of the new variant, and by the pharmacological surveillance of those who have been vaccinated, which will allow us to see for real the impact of the vaccine on the new variant. The goal, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, is that by the middle of next month we plan to have offered the first dose to everyone in the top four priority groups, and they currently account for four out of five covid fatalities. I am not sure that this point has fully been addressed, but the strong correlation between age and fatality from covid means we will be able to vaccinate those who account for four out of every five fatalities within the top four cohorts. It does then take two to three weeks from the first dose to reach immunity, but the vaccine is therefore the way out of this pandemic and the way to a better year ahead.
I am grateful; it is on the specific point that my right hon. Friend has raised. He knows I understand it, because it is exactly the one I raised with him in this House last week when we were recalled, and I welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to it. To go back to the question from my hon. Friend Steve Brine, my right hon. Friend is clear that once we have vaccinated those four groups and they have got immunity, we have therefore taken care of 80% of the risk of death. So what possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions in place on the rest of our country?
We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope we will see at that point. That is why we will take an evidence-led move down through the tiers when—I hope—we have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths. We will need to see the protection in lived reality on the ground, but we will watch this like a hawk. My aim is to keep these restrictions in place for not a moment longer than they are necessary.
I thank the Secretary of State for everything he is doing, but the logic of his anticipating what is going to happen in two, three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse. That is to say that when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated, we can anticipate how many deaths will have been avoided in two, three or four weeks’ time. As this cuts both ways, that means that he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions, as my right hon. Friend Mr Harper has just suggested.
The logic of the case made by my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison is right, and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground. This hope for the weeks ahead does not, however, take away from the serious and immediate threat posed now, and I wish to turn to what is in the regulations and the actions we need to take.
The Office for National Statistics has reported that one in 50 of the population has the disease, some with symptoms and some without. The latest figures show that we have 30,074 covid patients in UK hospitals and that the NHS is under significant pressure. Admissions are now higher than at any point in the pandemic, and so on Monday all four UK chief medical officers recommended that we move the country to covid-19 alert level 5. In practice, that means that they believe that without action there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed. It is for that reason that we have placed England into a national lockdown, alongside action taken in each of the devolved nations. Every single citizen needs to take steps to control this new variant, and this personal responsibility is important. To give the NHS a fighting chance to do its vital work of saving lives, it is on all of us to support it.
The regulations set out that everyone must stay at home save for a limited number of reasons permitted in law, including: essential shopping; work, if it cannot reasonably be done from home; education or childcare if eligible to attend; medical needs, including getting a covid test or getting vaccinated; exercise; escaping domestic abuse; and for support bubbles where people are eligible. These regulations are based on the existing tier 4 regulations, with some additional measures that reinforce the stay-at-home imperative.
These include: stopping the sale of alcohol through takeaway or click and collect services; and closing sport and leisure facilities, although allowing playgrounds and allotments to remain open. I know that these further restrictions are difficult, but, unfortunately, they are necessary, because we must minimise social interaction to get this virus back under control. These measures came into force first thing this morning under the emergency procedure and will remain in force subject to the approval of this House today.
I have just been talking to my right hon. Friend Dr Fox who is a doctor. He showed me the ridiculous form that he has had to fill in to be able to give this simple jab—all this diversity and equality training. When he is inoculating an old lady, he is not going to ask her whether she has come into contact with jihadis or whatever. The Secretary of State must cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish.
I am a man after my hon. Friend’s heart. I can tell the House that we have removed a series of unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others. I will write to him with the full panoply of training that is not required and that we have been able to remove. We made this change as of this morning, and I am glad to say that it is now in force. I am a fan of busting bureaucracy, and in this case I agree that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject a vaccine.
I notice also a story about not delivering vaccines on Sunday. As I understand it, it is thought that there will be sufficient vaccines to be able to do seven-day inoculations. If somebody runs short, they will get topped up, which is a little different from what The Daily Telegraph said today.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The supply of vaccines can take place on all seven days of the week, but, in a regular way, we do it on six days of the week and then, on the seventh day, people can either rest or deliver further vaccine if that is what is necessary. As a result of this delivery schedule, there has been no point at which any area has been short of vaccine. We have a challenge, which is to increase the amount of vaccine available. The current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine roll-out is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine, and we are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible. They are doing a brilliant job, but that is the current rate-limiting step. As that supply increases, we will need more people to give vaccinations. We will need to get pharmacists involved in the vaccination. I very much hope to get my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, a former doctor, and others involved in vaccinations. We will need more people, but the current rate-limiting factor is the supply of vaccines.
That is not to say that the companies are not supplying on the schedule that was agreed; they are, and they are doing their bit, but we do need to increase that supply and then the NHS will increase its delivery. I hope to make that point crystal clear, because Public Health England work to get the vaccine out is not a rate-limiting factor, the current discussion with pharmacists is not a rate-limiting factor, and the fill and finish is not a rate-limiting factor. What is a rate-limiting factor is the amount of the actual juice—the actual vaccine—that is available, which is not manufactured like a chemical. It is a biological product. I do not know whether you bake your own bread, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I sometimes do and it is a bit like the creation and the growth of yeast. That is probably the best way to think of it. It is a complicated and difficult task and that is the rate-limiting factor. I pay tribute to those who are engaged in the manufacturing process of this critical product.
My right hon. Friend knows that I am obsessed with this point. He mentioned the agreed schedule of delivery. Will he consider publishing that, so that we can see what the agreed schedule is?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the agreed schedule of delivery will enable us to offer vaccinations to everyone in the top four priority groups by the middle of February. That is why the Prime Minister was able to commit us to that schedule.
I want to talk about the support that has been outlined. We are providing an additional £4.6 billion of support to businesses, including those in retail, hospitality and leisure that have been forced to close their doors once again, on top of the £280 billion plan for jobs, which includes the extension of the furlough scheme until April.
I will be brief—I do not want to try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend Steve Brine raised his point because earlier this week we had a fantastic call with our hon. Friend the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, who is responsible for vaccine delivery, in which we asked a number of times about the agreed schedule but did not get a clear answer. If it has been agreed with the companies, why can my right hon. Friend not just publish it, so that we know when the vaccine will arrive? That will give people confidence that we will deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment to the country.
I will happily take that point away, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that that supply allows for delivery on the schedule and the target the Prime Minister set, to which my whole team is working.
We have; we spent the summer working on that. The vaccine has sprung into prominence in the public debate over the past month or so, but we were working on that though the whole of last year, and I am glad to be able to assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is further expansion still to come.
I will end my speech by reiterating that we know that if we do not act now, eventually the NHS will not be able to cope. No Member of this House wants to witness the scenes that have been seen elsewhere in the world of hospitals overrun and doctors forced to choose who to treat and who to turn away. Although the winter weeks will be difficult, we now know what the way out looks like. Accelerating the deployment of covid vaccines, making the most vulnerable groups safe, and everyone playing their part on the way is the route out of this pandemic.
I thank the Secretary of State for everything he has done on this. Will he join me in thanking the residents of Wolverhampton for the community testing that they have done, especially Bilal mosque and Sedgley Street gurdwara, where people have all come together to defeat this virus?
Yes I will. I am glad I took that final intervention. The people of Wolverhampton have come together to deliver community testing in an incredibly impressive way. I have heard about the work of the gurdwara, bringing together leaders of all different faiths to make sure that we get testing out into the community. We need to do the same with the vaccine programme, because both are critical.
In the meantime, we must stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. That eventually will carry us to a brighter future.
We will support the regulations, but like the Secretary of State, I did not come into politics to restrict people’s freedoms in this way. As one who represents Leicester, a city that has effectively been in a form of restrictions since last March, I well understand the devastating impact restrictions can have on our economy, on our way of life and on the mental health and wellbeing of our constituents. Indeed, many of our constituents will feel devastated by the prospect of weeks and weeks, perhaps longer—possibly until the end of March—in isolation, feeling anxious and lonely.
Last year, in the months following the long lockdown, 19.6 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued—a 4% increase on the same period the year before—to more than 6 million people in England, which is the highest number on record. If we are to support lockdown we need assurances from Ministers that mental health services will be fully resourced, will stay open and can respond to people’s needs throughout lockdown.
I know that many people find solace in prayer, so I am grateful that communal prayer can continue during lockdown. With the indulgence of the House, may I take the opportunity to thank Leicester City Council, Peter Soulsby and our councillors, especially those for the wards of Stoneygate, Wycliffe and Spinney Hills, who have worked hard with our many mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and churches across Leicester to ensure covid-secure worship?
I think it is important to have prayer. Does the shadow spokesman agree with the call I have made in the past for a national day of prayer in this country?
I think that that is a very good recommendation. May I extend an invitation to the hon. Gentleman to return to Leicester to watch our great football team, when we are allowed and are out of lockdown? Perhaps I will take him around and show him some of the great inter-faith work that we do in Leicester as well.
The lockdown will have a huge impact on the wellbeing of our children, so a plan to get our children back safely to school is a priority. There are thousands of children out of school in overcrowded, cramped accommodation, unable to access learning properly from home. There are other children at risk of abuse and violence. Members may know that I have spoken of my own experiences growing up in a home with a parent who had a problem with alcohol. Many children face the prospect of being locked in their home with a parent who abuses drink or drugs, so I urge Ministers to work with and fund children’s advocacy and support groups such as the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, with which I have worked closely, that will do so much throughout this lockdown.
Today, I agree with the Secretary of State. We do, unfortunately, have to restrict freedoms further to safeguard freedoms for the future and save lives. As he said, the tragic reality is that the virus is out of control. To be blunt, there is no freedom for our constituents if they are in the graveyard. There is little freedom either for those who suffer the enduring, debilitating effects of long covid. Yesterday, almost 55,000 cases were reported in England—one in 50, as the Secretary of State said, have the virus. The numbers in hospital are higher than in April, with over 1,800 in intensive care. Yesterday, there were over 3,300 hospitalisations—a record—and admissions are going up in every region.
This is a national emergency, and a national lockdown is necessary. Indeed, we should have locked down sooner. We are voting this lockdown through on Twelfth night, yet in the run-up to Christmas the alarm bells should have been ringing. The Secretary of State came to the House on
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 686, c. 23.]
The Prime Minister learned of the rapid spread of the new variant on
“The lesson…you have to learn about this virus…is that it’s important to get ahead of it in terms of actions”.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies met on
“It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November…would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.”
Here we are, two weeks later, with half a million infections and 33,000 hospitalisations since
As the Secretary of State has said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination is how ultimately we are released from these restrictions. I pay tribute to everyone involved in helping to distribute and administer 1.3 million vaccine doses so far. This a great achievement, but we need to go further and faster. The Prime Minister has promised that almost 14 million people will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on about 2 million doses a week, on average. Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have assured us in recent days that that is doable, based on orders, but, in the past, Ministers told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million Pfizer doses by the end of 2020, so I think that people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. How many of the ordered doses have been manufactured, how many of the ordered doses have been delivered to the NHS, and how many batches are awaiting clearance through the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency clearing processes? Two million a week would be fantastic, but it should not be the limit of our ambitions. We should be aiming to scale up to 3 million, to 5 million, to 6 million jabs a week over the coming months. If we can vaccinate 29.6 million people, deaths and hospitalisations will be reduced by 99%. That is what we should be aiming at now.
Obviously the Opposition will support this tonight, but, further to the exchanges that a number of Government Members had with the Secretary of State, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House at what point he and the Leader of the Opposition will be calling for our constituents to be released from the restrictions? Please do not say, “When it becomes obvious it is going to happen.”
The hon. Gentleman asks a perfectly reasonable question. Of course, as we vaccinate more, mortality rates will improve more and we will be able to save people’s lives, but there will be others who remain unvaccinated and exposed to the virus, and will possibly develop debilitating symptoms of long covid as a result of that exposure. I do believe that we can begin to ease restrictions once we increase the proportions of those who are vaccinated, but we will not be able to go back to normal yet, because the virus will still be circulating. Even though they may not end up in hospital and on ventilation, many who have contracted this virus have remained incredibly ill as a result.
I am really pleased by the generally positive way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching this; it does him great credit. Can I perhaps help him out by making a suggestion? Every year, we accept a certain amount of deaths—tragic, sad deaths—from seasonal flu, up to 28,000 in recent years. Would it be reasonable to anticipate the number of deaths that are going to be caused by this virus and try to make a political judgment—for a political judgment is what it is—on what we feel is acceptable, and that will give us our criteria for deciding on when to lift this lockdown?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, like the former Public Health Minister, Steve Brine, but this is not just a simple calculation about the number of deaths that are prevented. The right hon. Gentleman has more clinical experience than I have, obviously, but we know that there are people who suffer long-term, debilitating conditions as a result of this virus, with reports of people developing psychosis, long-term breathing problems, and problems with the rhythm of their heart. It remains an extremely dangerous virus, regardless of whether people end up in hospital and on ventilation. But he is quite right: in the end, this will be a judgment for politicians and a judgment for this House. It is not a judgment for the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, although I would hope that our judgments, in the end, are guided by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.
I, too, commend the hon. Gentleman for the constructive approach he is adopting. He clearly has a very good relationship with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Will he assent to the proposition that public confidence in this vaccination programme is critical if we want people to comply with these lockdown measures, and we must do nothing that creates false expectations or unrealistic expectations about how the vaccination programme will go? We must be modest in what we promise and hopefully we will overachieve. Can he assist my right hon. Friend in that objective?
I think that as a rule in politics it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. Maybe the Whip on the Treasury Bench could send that advice to the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister tends to have the opposite approach to some of these matters, I would say.
Our big target should be to vaccinate more, particularly among NHS staff. Many NHS staff on the frontline, in the face of danger, are scared. They are exhausted. Many have said to me that they feel they were sent out in the initial weeks of the first wave without the protection of personal protective equipment, and now they are exposed again without the protection of inoculation. Will Ministers move heaven and earth to get all frontline NHS staff vaccinated urgently, and can we have a clear date by which NHS staff on the frontline will receive the vaccine? If manufacturers can increase supply, what more can be done to improve distribution? In addition to GPs, our community pharmacists have tremendous links with hard-to-reach communities. We need to make full use of them.
Vaccination not only saves lives, and is not only the route out of restrictions; it is also urgent, because we are now in a race against time. The B117 strain is fast becoming dominant, and it has done so in just a matter of weeks. The more virus there is circulating, the more opportunities there are for further mutations that could give the virus greater advantage—possibly a variant on which vaccines no longer work, risking another devastating covid wave in winter 2021. Vaccination, both at home and across the globe, is now fiercely urgent, and the race to vaccinate is therefore literally a race against evolution.
We will also support this lockdown tonight because we know we have to reduce transmission. That is why we are asking people to stay at home. But not everyone can work from home on their laptops. There are 10 million key workers in the United Kingdom, of whom only 14% can work from home—key workers, many of whom are low paid and often use public transport to travel to work in jobs that, by necessity, involve greater social mixing, who are more exposed to risk. Often, because of their home circumstances, they end up exposing others to risk as well. We witnessed that in Leicester, where it is suspected that a spike back in the summer was the result of a spillover of infections into the community from those sweatshops that did not adhere to proper health and safety rules.
We need to make sure that our workplaces are covid-secure; otherwise, we will not get on top of transmission. What support are the Government offering to install ventilation systems in workplaces? Will the Government introduce a safety threshold for ventilation of indoor workplaces without outside air? Given that the B117 strain is so much more transmissible, are the Government considering reintroducing the 2-metre rule? Given that fewer than 20% of those who should isolate do so fully, will the Government finally accept that sick workers need proper sick pay and support? Otherwise, those workers will be forced to work, spreading this illness.
The British public have done so much over the last year and have made great sacrifices. We are a great country, and our people can and will rise to the occasion. All anyone asks is that the Government do the right thing at the right time: make all workplaces covid-secure; vaccinate health workers as soon as possible; introduce decent sick pay and support to isolate, and roll out a mass vaccination plan like we have never seen before. This is a race against time—a race against evolution—and we will support this lockdown tonight.
I will now introduce the three-minute limit. I remind hon. and right hon. Members that when a speaking limit is in effect for Back Benchers, a countdown clock will be visible on the screens of hon. and right hon. Members participating virtually and on the screens in the Chamber. For hon. and right hon. Members participating physically in the Chamber, the usual clock in the Chamber will operate.
I begin by thanking the Health Secretary, his Ministers and his advisers for all they are doing, working day and night to try to keep the country safe.
While I understand the Government’s health measures, I really worry about school closures. We need to know whether a risk assessment has been done of the loss of learning, the impact on mental health and the safeguarding hazards for children not in school.
Not so long ago, 1,500 members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health wrote that school closures significantly affect children’s wellbeing. We now know that there has been a huge, fourfold increase in eating disorders among young people, partly due to school closures and social isolation. Children’s groups and charities have warned of a new frontier of vulnerabilities: children out of school exposed to online harms, county lines gangs, and tough situations at home, such as domestic abuse. We also know that school closures put enormous pressure on parents’ livelihoods and wellbeing as they have to juggle their work while looking after their children or reduce their hours.
I urge the Government to consider the following. First, they should ensure that teachers and support workers are given priority for vaccinations alongside NHS workers, solely for the purpose of getting schools open sooner rather than later. Secondly, more resources should be put into mental health, having practitioners in all schools to help with the fallout from closures and isolation so that pupils, parents, teachers and support staff can access mental health support whenever they need it. Thirdly, the Department for Education and Ofsted should partner with schools as candid friends to ensure quality remote education for all pupils. The chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, has said that one day of national school closures equals around 40,000 child years in total. That is a grim statistic.
As a country, we must make a choice: do we value the coming generation of our young children or not? Will we risk their life chances of climbing the educational ladder of opportunity by shutting real schooling from their lives? We need a guarantee that the plan for schools to reopen after the February half-term is signed in blood and not just a guideline. While we absolutely have to be careful of this awful virus, we cannot risk an epidemic of educational poverty and mental ill health affecting our younger generations for years to come.
A year ago, when the SARS-Cov-2 virus emerged, there was no handbook on covid. All Governments had to feel their way, but there is little excuse for repeating the same mistakes a year on. “Go early and go hard” has been public health experts’ consistent advice. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation said at the start of the pandemic:
“The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly”.
Yet just last week, the Health Secretary still refused to put England into tier 4, despite surging case numbers and the devolved nations already being under tight restrictions since Christmas.
After the late lockdown in March and rushed reopening in May, the Government allowed rates of infection in England to run seven times higher than in Scotland or Northern Ireland over the summer, and at the time, chose not to agree a zero-tolerance covid policy to eliminate community spread of the virus on a UK-wide basis. The gains of lockdown were gradually lost, as eat out to help out drove up cases in August and September, thus beginning the second wave.
The UK is one of the few countries that never closed its borders and many new strains of covid were imported by people travelling to Europe on summer holidays. Even now, in the middle of the second wave, the UK does not have strict testing and residential or monitored quarantine for arrivals. On the contrary, the Government have sought to grant further exemptions from quarantine rules.
In September, the Prime Minister ignored the tenfold rise in covid cases and his own advisory group to listen yet again to the proponents of disease-driven rather than vaccine-based herd immunity, leading to a six-week delay in instigating the autumn lockdown. Herd immunity can be safely achieved only through the use of a vaccine, and even then, only if the vaccine prevents transmission of the virus and thus also protects the unvaccinated. That is the hope, but we do not yet know if either of the vaccines used in the UK will achieve that.
It is understandable that Governments are wary about the use of tight covid restrictions and their impact on our economy and society, but it is a false dichotomy to set public health against the economy and lives against livelihoods. People simply choose not to endanger themselves or their families and need to have confidence that the risk of catching the virus is very low. Allowing increased levels of spread—and, therefore, high rates of viral replication—also contributes to more frequent mutations, and increases the risk of generating yet more problematic new variants.
With cases growing exponentially, it simply is not possible to vaccinate our way out of the current surge so I welcome the decision for this lockdown, but it is tough on everyone, and both individuals and businesses will need support to get through it. That is why it is bitterly disappointing to hear that the £375 million of support for businesses in Scotland promised by the Chancellor just yesterday has now been rescinded, leaving Scotland with no new funding to deal with the economic impact of the current shutdown.
The Government must also consider what strategy they will follow at the end of the lockdown. It should be maintained long enough to achieve suppression of community transmission and to establish a more systematic approach to test, trace and isolate. It is critical to provide both financial and practical support to those who need to isolate, as it is only isolation that actually breaks the chains of infection.
Strict controls at external borders would avoid importing more covid cases and new variants. Such a covid-secure approach would allow the domestic UK economy to reopen fully, with the Government then able to target financial support at the industries associated with international travel, such as aviation and aerospace, which have been so badly impacted by the pandemic. Countries such as New Zealand, Singapore and Korea, which have tight travel restrictions and quarantines, have eliminated community transmission and been able fully to open up their economies and societies, including schools, hospitality and domestic tourism. We only have to look at their Christmas and new year celebrations to see what could be on offer to us here if we get things right.
May I preface my remarks by saying that I accept that we are in a serious situation? It is worse in some areas than in others, but hospital admissions are rising across the country, albeit that improved treatments mean that fewer people, as a percentage, are progressing from admission through to intensive care units, and fewer people as a proportion are dying as a result of the virus. Therefore, some of the pressure, I understand, is on general beds more than on ICU.
In this context, restrictions may be necessary. We should certainly all take personal responsibility, and I share my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary’s enthusiasm for an effective and rapid vaccination programme. But that does not absolve this House of its responsibility to protect the liberties of the British people or to hold the Government to account. Neither of those things would be consistent with approving regulations that would allow a full lockdown to be in place for the next three months, to
I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon about getting schools back as soon as realistically possible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows that I have considerable concerns about the fundamental human rights that are being taken away under these measures, including the right to see our children or grandchildren. These really are the most basic rights, and are now to be taken away for up to a year for some people. These points are critical, but I will not repeat them.
Finally, let me say to the Secretary of State that people will tolerate restrictions where they can see a genuine rationale—some common sense—behind them. I return to some of the questions that I was asking back in the spring, during the first lockdown. Why does it make sense that I can buy flowers in a supermarket, but an open-air market cannot sell them? Why is it illegal to go out for a walk on my own twice in the same day? And why, when it is legal for two members of the same household to take a walk across a golf course, is it illegal for them to play golf while they are doing it?
Today, I would like to focus on one particular group who have felt forgotten throughout this pandemic: disabled people. In reading the updated regulations, I can see that no assessment of the impact of lockdown on disabled people has taken place. That must change. Disabled people must be central to our decision making, not an afterthought.
Communication has been poor. Shielding letters have been arriving far too late, leaving many unsure of what guidance they should be following. At Monday’s press conference, shielding was reintroduced, yet the Government website does not have any updated guidance for shielders. The guidance that is there is not in an accessible format. People urgently need this evidence to ensure that they can continue to be paid. The Government’s press conferences, which are communicating extremely important public information, are still taking place without a British Sign Language interpreter. It is unbelievable that this has not been sorted.
At the start of this crisis, disabled people raised with me their concerns about accessing food, medicines, PPE and social care. Many have faced increased costs, yet we still have not seen any uplift to legacy benefits. Ministers originally said that this would take up to eight weeks to sort. Ten months later, no progress has been made. Will this increase ever materialise? The Women and Equalities Committee report “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services” calls for an independent inquiry into the causes of adverse outcomes for disabled people. ONS statistics show that two thirds of those who have died from coronavirus in England and Wales have been disabled. We also need the Scottish Government to collate this data, to enable us to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on disabled people. Sadly, the funding for disabled people’s organisations has been cut.
Being guided by disabled people’s experience is essential. I want to thank everyone who has contacted me about today’s debate; I am only sorry that time restraints mean that I cannot raise everyone’s points. I will end by asking one simple question. As the Government’s Disability Unit looks to recruit 14 disability and access ambassadors, how many of those will be experts by experience? How many will be disabled people? I hope the answer is all of them, but I fear not. The Government must ensure that disabled people’s voices are at the heart of decision making, and that is more crucial than ever during a pandemic.
I am pleased there is more that finds common cause across the political divide in this time of national emergency than divides us. These regulations are retrospective and not amendable. That, sadly, reflects the impotence of Back Benchers, which should be rectified, and I would like to identify myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady. The regulations last until the end of March, but there should be weekly reviews and a debate on the Floor of the House at least every two weeks during this period when such draconian restrictions have been placed on our citizens.
The vaccination effort in this country is remarkable, but we need to do more, particularly when so much fake news is being circulated. Many of my constituents are constantly picking up fake stories about everything from so-called cures and drugs that protect someone from covid to conspiracy theories and priority being given to privileged people. Can we boost the Government communications effort, so that firm rebuttals and accurate information are issued rapidly and widely to prevent more fear and anxiety? Can we have a frequently asked questions section on the Government website, to help combat this fake news? Can we add teaching staff to the priority list, alongside young adults with learning disabilities and autism, as the PHE data has shown their vulnerability? The Prime Minister missed the opportunity to respond to my question earlier today.
Throughout the last year, Heathrow has provided a valued air bridge for repatriation flights and vital cargo, including medicines and PPE. It is facing a proposed reduction of only 7% in its £118 million rates bill, while airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland and even supermarkets have a 100% waiver. We are lagging behind other international countries, so can we have more support for the aviation sector and review it, so that its services are not threatened?
We need more assistance for the excluded, and we need to examine how we can spread the help to that group, who have received nothing for nearly a year. These regulations stop golf and outside activities. This is patently ridiculous and we need some common sense, for goodness’ sake, as this sort of nonsense damages our credibility.
Most of all, we need an exit scenario set out and the goals identified publicly, as the most frequent question is, “When is this going to end?” The Prime Minister has set a
I finish by saying, locally, how fantastic Buckinghamshire Council and Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust have been throughout this terrible period. People will never know the amazing work that they have put in to keep our county functioning and our residents safe. Let us not forget what further burdens these regulations place upon them and our tireless public sector workers, and if we have to face these restrictions on our liberty, let us at least do the frontline staff the courtesy of observing them.
With case rates rising and hospitals under pressure, it is clear that these regulations are necessary and I will be supporting them today. The situation in hospitals is particularly concerning. In London, we are seeing the cancellation of non-covid care, including urgent cancer treatments. This was one of the most damaging consequences of the first wave, when many people had to wait months for urgent treatment and diagnostic tests. This cannot be allowed to happen again. Will the Secretary of State set out exactly what steps they are taking to guarantee that the most urgent cancer treatment can still go ahead over the next six weeks?
This lockdown also comes at a time when health and care staff have been working flat out for almost a year. They have gone above and beyond this year, from working with inadequate PPE last spring to stepping up over Christmas to ensure that patients continued to receive treatment. This week, a constituent who works in the NHS wrote to me and said this:
“I am tired as an NHS employee, I am tired of working beyond my contracted hours because there aren’t enough staff in work. I am tired of covering for colleagues who are shielding or pregnant and cannot have direct patient contact. I am tired of not having enough equipment to do my job because it is stuck in the supply chain. I am tired of having to tell bereaved women that their whole families cannot visit due to social distancing, I am very tired.”
At the start of this crisis, we came together as a nation to thank our health and care staff, but I feel that this sense of unity and support for them has been lost. Whether it is doctors being bombarded with abuse from covid deniers on social media or outside hospitals, or NHS staff not being prioritised for vaccines, we are no longer showing staff the respect and appreciation they deserve for the amazing job they are doing in this pandemic, and we need to change this. Staff are now being asked to work flat out caring for covid patients or on delivering vaccines. The Government must take a lead on showing appreciation for staff, starting with vaccinations for everyone on the frontline.
When we debated the tier 4 regulations a week ago, I said that restrictions work only if people can and do follow them. Throughout this crisis, one of the major barriers to self-isolation has been that people cannot afford to do the right thing. The £500 self-isolation payment is available only to those with no other financial resources, so people with savings are being denied this payment. In Salford, four out of five people who applied for the payment were turned down. We are asking people to spend their savings intended for house deposits or even treatments such as IVF to support themselves and their families while they self-isolate. This is not right. Nobody should be worse off because they are doing the right thing in a pandemic. The Government should extend statutory sick pay at the level of lost wages to everyone asked to self-isolate. Anything less risks people continuing to break self-isolation through financial necessity.
These regulations are necessary, but they may not be sufficient. I hope that the Secretary of State can ensure that everyone is supported to do the right thing and beat this virus.
I certainly will be supporting these regulations tonight, with a heavy heart, but nevertheless, they are clearly required at this particular juncture. I doubt that there is anybody in this country who loathes and detests more the restrictions on liberties and livelihoods that these regulations reiterate than the Prime Minister. I am confident that he would not be recommending them to the House unless they were absolutely necessary in his judgment. However, I think it is important that the House is provided with more granularity on numbers and it needs to have a better idea of what constitutes an exit strategy and the trigger points that would allow for that strategy.
Jabs offered are not the same as jabs put in arms, which is what is crucial. We need to have published—I suggest daily, since Ministers must have this information—what is being contracted for, the factory-gate delivery against that contract, the jabs in arms and the jabs that are awaiting deployment because of the three-week downtime caused by batch and sterility testing. We need to know how many jabs have been applied in the past 24 hours by priority group.
I will add one to that, if I may: jabs given per area. In Hampshire, we are in a good place—I expect to hear so tonight in our briefing call, because we can scale up when the supply is there—but I know, from talking to colleagues across the House, that it is not the same everywhere. We need to know where the weaknesses are—or, rather, the vaccine Minister does, so that he may address that.
The thing that worries me most is the exit strategy. The Secretary of State, perfectly reasonably, said that we have a sort of exit strategy in that we now have a vaccine, which we clearly did not have at the beginning of last year. However, we need to decide—this is a political decision, ultimately—what constitutes the criteria for coming out of this lockdown. Generally, it has been suggested, that will happen when we have vaccinated everyone up to group 4 in the JCVI’s list of priorities—that is perfectly reasonable—so when everyone over the age of 70 has been jabbed, as opposed to everyone over the age of 70 being offered a jab. The two, as I said, are quite different.
We need to challenge and push back on that, however, because notwithstanding the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Opposition, Jonathan Ashworth, long covid, awful though it is for those who are afflicted by it, does not constitute a reason for continued lockdown and the penalty that this country is paying societally, medically and economically for what we are about to vote on this evening. That does not stack up; what stacks up is the awful grisly calculus of lives saved.
We have a benchmark, which is the number of lives that, tragically, we are compelled to accept every year are lost to seasonal flu deaths. That gives a reasonable benchmark of what, politically, in society we might be capable of accepting and, because we can project how many deaths will happen—Ministers are keen to do that in recommending to the House, correctly, that we vote in support this evening—they must have an idea, given the number of people who have been vaccinated in key groups, how many deaths there will be in the ensuing month, or two months or whatever one might choose.
I will just push back, very finally, on one other issue: the people in group 4. It is reasonable, perhaps, for those who can be expected to remain safe through shielding to be considered part of group 5, because that will enable many of people over 65 to be vaccinated, which will enable us potentially to come out of this awful lockdown just a little bit sooner and to meet the challenging targets that have been set by the Prime Minister.
Thanks to the superhuman efforts of our NHS teams, and to the Prime Minister’s forward thinking back in March 2020 in throwing all our UK resources into supporting industry and the global virology scientific networks in search of vaccines to becalm the threat of covid-19, there is light at the end of this lockdown tunnel. That total commitment across Government has proven worthwhile, and from all those across north Northumberland I pass on enormous thanks for the 24/7 dedication to finding a vaccine, alongside delivering that vaccine, now rolling off the production lines into glass vials in their millions, into trucks and to our hospitals, GP surgeries and, in the weeks ahead I hope, to sports centres and pharmacies.
My constituents, while frustrated at having to remain isolated from family and friends once again, are in a better place about supporting the PM’s difficult decision this week, because their vulnerable family members are indeed being vaccinated. However, we are anxious about the challenges of home schooling once again for all but SEND and key workers’ children. There will be many a difficult moment in all those households as students struggle to make the progress they would be able to make in the classroom. We must ensure, please, that the restricted schooling part of the lockdown is as short as possible, and that all pupils from primary to tertiary are back in their classrooms as soon as the R rate decline becomes clear. We know that schools are safe places, thanks to the efforts made by all our headteachers and their teams over many months, so the damage to our next generation must be as limited as possible.
I am particularly concerned that the cancellation of GCSEs and A-levels in their usual form will leave many long-term gaps in learning, created by the loss of a definite deadline to work to. As a mother of two children, both of whom worked only to an immovable deadline, this would have been a disaster in my household. I can only be grateful that they are now both grown up.
I know that compliance with the regulations in Northumberland will be high, because we appreciate the risk of our NHS being unable to deliver on the needs of all our patients if our excellent Northumbria NHS is overwhelmed. I want to end on an optimistic note. Last week I had the privilege of dropping into the Well Close surgery in Berwick to see for myself our primary care network’s roll-out of the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. I can only say it was like going into a Christmas party, with the sound of bubbling, excitable voices as my wonderful over-80s queued patiently. They were given a timer because they had to sit and wait for 15 minutes to make sure they did not have a bad reaction, and then there was a ping as they were allowed to go home again, as if they had been fully cooked in their baking oven. It was simply the most extraordinary and encouraging afternoon that I have spent in many months. I thank Hilary Brown, who runs the service, as well as Dr Ben Burville in Amble and the whole team in the Alnwick cricket club for making sure that so many of my over-80s are now protected.
Government of the people by the people means little if it cannot persuade, yet surely lacking here is the consistency that is vital to achieve that. Repeatedly, this Government have simply offered chaos in its place. No wonder the public are fed up.
Millions still have not had any financial support. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs in hospitality or retail, with little alternative in sight. Clarity Products in my borough employs residents who are disabled, but despite money being claimed from the taxman for them to be furloughed by their boss, Nicholas Marks, many still have not been paid. People cannot get a new job because they were furloughed before the regulations were less restrictive. People will not go and test because they cannot afford to self-isolate. In my own community, 75% of claims for isolation payments are being reviewed.
Parents of children over the age of one but under five cannot form a support bubble, as if a 14-month-old is no trouble at all compared with an 11-month-old. Nursery staff are terrified because nobody can explain why primaries are being closed to reduce the number of community interactions but nurseries are not. This legislation removes the school run as a legitimate reason to leave the house. Ministers tell us that that is to reduce virus transmission, but they cannot explain that to a family that has one child in pre-school and one in primary. Ministers cannot explain that to the kids in special schools, whose needs seem to be simply an afterthought at best; or to those who still do not have access to the internet, and whose teachers now have to tell them that they still do not have laptops. I pay tribute to the headteachers in Walthamstow, who told us today that their first task has been to buy sandwiches for the kids who are hungry and vulnerable but whose families do not qualify for free school meals.
Care homes are ignored in the regulations, so it is not clear whether visits are still possible. The shielded have been told again to lock down, but nobody can explain why they are not a priority within the priority groups for vaccination. The homeless are now being left out again on our streets this winter.
This Government have been consistent only in avoiding scrutiny, whether by shutting this place down or ignoring questions. Ministers have finally admitted today that they will not tell us what performance standards they are holding Serco to for the test and trace scheme, but apparently they do know that Serco has not broken them. What a kick in the teeth it is to all in the NHS who are working flat out to save lives when they see these private companies make millions from the NHS but fail to deliver. Meanwhile, NHS staff struggle for oxygen supplies, turn ambulances away and do not know when they will get the vaccine themselves.
We will vote for these regulations. We want them to work, but if we want to persuade the public to support them, Ministers owe it to the public to own up to what has gone wrong—to say, “Sorry it is so confusing. Sorry it is so chaotic. Sorry you can’t hug your grandparents right now.” Every family making sacrifices deserves that apology, and they deserve to have the Government do better.
It would be an understatement to say that people have restriction fatigue. I, like others, hate having to have the sorts of curtailments on people’s freedoms that a lockdown means. It is right—indeed, it is essential—that these regulations be time-limited, and I welcome the stipulations on regular reviews. I support the regulations because the contrast and choice before us is not between having curtailments or not; it is about the very difficult things that we do now as a country and a society, against even harder things that we would have to do in the future.
The data are startling in Hampshire, as elsewhere, with a dramatic growth in case rates since the start of December. Without truly stringent measures, there is a real risk of overwhelming the NHS. “Overwhelming” and “overtopping” have become commonplace phrases, but we need to stop, pause and reflect on their true meaning and implications far beyond covid.
The difference now, of course, as the Secretary of State has said, is vaccination. We can see, ultimately, a way through. It has been impressive to see the speed with which the Hampshire vaccination programme has got off the ground. Clearly, all hands now have to be put to the programme. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said about the removal of red-tape barriers to volunteering. Clearly, close attention needs to be given to every stage of the vaccine’s production, distribution and administration.
As well as business support during lockdown, we are clearly going to need a sector by sector plan for how to come out of this, including for pubs, hotels and so-called non-essential retail, which are essential to our high streets and to the events business. We are going to need a national effort and mission on the return to school—preparing ahead of it, repairing the impact that this period will have again on children’s lives, and trying to get them back on track. It will need different approaches for different age groups and different individual children. Some will have fallen back in some subjects, not others. Some, of course, will have had truly terrible experiences in this time, and that will also put a strain on children’s services departments, which we need to recognise. More generally, more attention than ever before will need to be given to the mental health of children and young people, and to a return to physical exercise in some cases.
There will need to be specific interventions in schools. The tragedy, of course, is that some of those had already started. The £1 billion fund is in place and, obviously, needs to be kept under review. I very much welcome what the Prime Minister said earlier about one-to-one tuition, but we also need to think about what needs to be done to overcome the constraints on that. In some places it is already hard to find supply teachers, let alone one-to-one tutors. There will be a more important role than ever before for volunteer readers, mentoring programmes and strengthening links with business. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can assure me that that is being considered across Government.
Just over a month ago, this House voted on the tier system. I voted against. It was clearly inadequate to get the virus under control. I warned that a lockdown would be needed in the new year if the Government took their foot of the brake, but they ploughed on, recklessly ignoring their own scientists, adding to our shameful death toll.
I voted against the tier system also because of the lack of economic support. This lockdown is now necessary because Government failures let the virus run out of control, but lockdown alone will not be enough to drive the virus down and keep it down. A wider public health package must be in place alongside the vaccine. That must be driven by the principles of a zero-covid suppression strategy, which has seen the virus virtually eliminated in many east Asian and Pacific countries, and which, if followed here, would have saved thousands of lives and allowed us to reopen the economy.
The lockdown must also go hand in hand with an emergency financial package for our communities. This out-of-touch Government can tell people to stay at home, but too many simply cannot afford to do so. Poverty and destitution should not be the price our communities pay for Government failures to tackle the virus. Just as the banks were once bailed out, we need a people’s bail-out for our communities if we are to defeat this virus.
That means all non-essential workers who cannot work from home being furloughed on full pay. All parents who cannot work because they are dealing with childcare should be guaranteed furlough on full pay. Sick pay should be introduced at real living wage levels so that people can afford to isolate. It means a minimum income guarantee, including for all self-employed people, and rent relief as well as an evictions ban so that no one loses their home. Every child should be guaranteed a laptop and internet access to learn at home, and with universities moved online, tuition fees should be scrapped and accommodation costs reimbursed.
This Government’s actions, inactions, delays and negligence have unnecessarily condemned tens of thousands of people in our communities to early graves. I hope that justice is one day done. Their lack of financial support for people is causing wider social harm. It is shameful that that has not been addressed today.
I am glad to be able to take part in this debate. There is no doubt that this lockdown was needed and required, and quite rightly it has now been enacted. However, my constituency covers the vast rural area of the Exmoor and the levels in Somerset, and one of the things I would ask the Government to consider is the roll-out of the vaccine. As in many rural constituencies, a lot of my area is a long way from next door, and it is very difficult for people to get to vaccine centres. At the moment, unless we have more places doing vaccines, it is very hard to see what we can do to quicken them up, especially in areas such as mine. There is no doubt that we need to do more.
I will praise, if I may, the four district councils in Somerset—not all of my persuasion. Not only have they done a remarkable job in getting information out across the districts and the county to make sure we are kept apprised of what is available, they have made sure that where hospitals are being used and where they can use healthcare, those services are being put forward very nicely indeed. However, I cannot say that about the county council. People have heard me talk about Somerset County Council in this Chamber: quite simply, it is to be left wanting at the very highest level. I am ashamed to say that it is of the Government’s persuasion, but it is not doing the job.
There is one area that I want to concentrate on, which is of course the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station. We must keep it going, not only to fulfil our commitment but because, due to the way Hinckley works and the continuous pour of cement, it is crucial. It is a national and international infrastructure project, and it is of enormous importance locally and nationally to make sure that we keep the workers there safe, but also keep them working.
This means that a lot of the people who live in the area, who are of an age where they tend to have children, are finding it very hard to get childcare while ensuring they can continue their work. Those people are crucially needed on site, so my conclusion is that when it comes to schools, we need to think about this very carefully. I am very grateful for what the Government have done and for the way in which the BBC, for once, has actually stepped up to the mark, but we need to look at what we do with those children whose parents are working. I have enormous distribution warehouses in my constituency that need people there all the time to keep the system going and keep the supply chain alive and well. I urge the Government to make sure we keep on vaccinating those who need to be vaccinated to keep the economy going, and keep the vaccines local. That is crucial. If we can achieve those things, I believe we will have done our job, not only as a Government but as parliamentarians.
I will support these measures, but I regret the need to implement them. The public are weary of the Government’s U-turns, dither and delay at crucial moments throughout this pandemic, when what we needed was decisive leadership. Nothing highlights the Government’s incompetence more than their approach to education, and to schools in particular.
At the end of last term, the Government threatened legal action to keep schools open in Greenwich, while at the same time planning to keep all schools closed in January. All the time, the Government were aware that a new variant was ripping through Kent and the south-east, and today, the Government recognised that this new variant was rapidly causing schools to be a vector in our communities. It has been obvious from the start of this pandemic that education was going to be severely disrupted due to school bubbles having to regularly isolate, and that online learning was going to be a regular part of children’s education, but the Secretary of State is yet again way behind the curve. He failed to get devices out to children during the first lockdown, and according to Ofqual, 1.8 million children in this country face lockdown without access to digital devices. A report in July warned the Government of a second spike this winter and also warned there was a possibility of a new variant, yet there has been too little urgency from the Government to get devices out to those who need them. Too many children are going to suffer due to the inability of the Government to read the facts before them.
Now our schools are closed, and confidence in the Government is shot through. Teachers have seen how the virus has ripped through their schools, and parents are worried for their families. To create confidence in the safety of schools, staff will need to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Teachers do not need scientists or experts to tell them the risk to which they are exposed when they are in school. Figures published today in TES show that the infection rate among staff in Greenwich schools was almost three times the rate of the local community. Teachers see these figures, and they need to be confident that they are safe when they return to their classrooms. They have seen at first hand the number of colleagues and pupils forced to isolate and those who have tested positive. The Government must not wait to be forced into yet another U-turn. Teachers need to be tested alongside other essential workers, and the Government should accept that now.
I want to make a few short points about the impact of covid on babies and young people, but first can I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his excellent support for the early years review that I am chairing, which will soon announce its recommendations? My review has heard from many families what a tough time they have had in lockdown. Many struggle at the best of times with a new baby. Add to that being in lockdown with other children who also need attention, and even the simplest of tasks can feel like a massive challenge.
First, I sincerely urge my right hon. Friend to send an instruction to all our superb perinatal workers—from health visitors to mental health and breastfeeding advisers —to keep providing the support and advice that new parents need, not just for reasons of safeguarding but for the many who are really struggling to cope right now.
Secondly, I heartily commend the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, and others in Government for their determination to keep early years settings open at this time. It is not just to help parents work from home, but, crucially, so that infants and young children do not lose out on their future development through this lockdown.
Finally, I am really concerned, as so many colleagues are, about any loss of schooling for our young people. While, like many, I applaud the BBC for introducing an element of curriculum-based teaching, I would urge my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and Social Care, for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and for Education to join forces, and press the BBC to fulfil its role as our public service broadcaster and to take on the job of committing to teaching the whole curriculum.
It is great that the Beeb will deliver reading, writing and maths to primary school children, but at secondary school the challenges are different. Students are studying a variety of subjects at different points, so the BBC should build a pick and mix package of lessons for students to choose what they need, and then teachers, who have done such a superb job under such difficult circumstances, could use those resources as a core to build from. Exercise, nutrition and even support for mental health could form a part of each day’s televised curriculum, giving a bit of a boost to young people.
Our national broadcaster benefits from £157 a year from each licence. This is a chance to provide public service broadcasting at its finest, and it could remove at a stroke the twin challenges of a lack of reliable broadband and a lack of laptop access. Nothing can replace a strong family, good schooling and sound teaching, but our babies and our children and young people deserve the very best that we can provide.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this most important debate on the public health crisis facing this country.
I believe that it is right to go into lockdown and stay at home as much as possible to protect ourselves and others, and I will be supporting the measures today. However, these actions should have come much sooner. This is sadly the result of a long line of Government failures, from the lockdown coming too late in March last year, through the fiasco of test and trace, to the chopping and changing of tiers and relaxations in the lead-up to the latest lockdown. I have many concerns about the lockdown, not least economic ones, particularly in respect of people who are not supported at all by Government programmes or the Chancellor’s support packages, but today I will concentrate on just one: the situation in our schools and the impact on public health.
At the eleventh hour, schools were instructed to close. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on digital skills, I have raised the lack of data and devices for school-age children throughout the pandemic—for the past 10 months—often working with my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh. Ten months on, it is still not sorted. Even with today’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Education, about 1 million school-age children will lack adequate data and devices to learn effectively. That is a disgrace.
Children in that position have now been classified as vulnerable, compounding the situation in our schools. Schools have been given no guidance on which children are to be in school and which are not. Do they have to impose limits? Should they include spacing? There is no guidance. I have spoken to many headteachers in my area today.
Alternative education hardly gets a mention. It has a frequently changing school population and the devices to do not follow the pupils.
What is the prioritisation for vulnerable children and for children with two key worker parents, one key worker with another parent working full time or a key worker with another parent not in work? Social care and hospitals will come to a standstill if this is not sorted. Teachers cannot be in two places at once: they cannot teach what is potentially more than half the school population in lessons and teach online.
All of those issues need to be addressed for the lockdown to be effective, for our frontline healthcare and social care system to cope, and for all our children and young people to receive an equitable and fair level of education.
None of us wishes to pass such restrictions on all our freedoms. We are a parliamentary democracy that cherishes freedom, but here we are about to pass draconian restrictions on our personal liberties.
Our job must be to encourage, cajole and demand of the Government that they do everything in their power for the vaccines to be manufactured, distributed and offered to our fellow citizens as soon as possible. Ministers are working at breakneck speed. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, his fellow Ministers, senior civil servants in central Government who are managing the vaccination programme, and all the other public stakeholders—the NHS, doctors, nurses—organisations and individuals who are helping to distribute the vaccines as quickly as possible. The more vaccination centres we have properly staffed and resourced with vaccines, the quicker we can vaccinate our constituents, and thus the quicker we can consider lifting these draconian regulations.
Turning to South Leicestershire, yesterday I met the chief executive officer of the local clinical commissioning group, Andy Williams, along with his colleagues from the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust and Lutterworth GPs. I thank him for meeting me at such short notice. I have been reassured by him and his team that they are working to ensure that my constituents are offered the opportunity of receiving the vaccine in Lutterworth, Blaby and across South Leicestershire.
I know that the House will want to pay tribute to NHS stakeholders such as Andy Williams and the CCG for all the work they are doing to open vaccination centres wherever possible in each of our constituencies across the country. I impressed on Andy Williams that the decision we are about to take today as legislators of the sovereign British Parliament in restricting freedoms and, in effect, closing down large parts of our economy and our education centres can be lifted only when he and his NHS colleagues succeed in their logistical organisation of opening and operating vaccination centres. It is right that we scrutinise the work of the CCGs across our country and all related NHS and other stakeholders involved in this mammoth task. I will be supporting the Government today, but only under the clear understanding that they are doing all they can to obtain vaccines and distribute them quickly to all our constituents.
Millions of citizens will be watching helplessly as the Government plod towards another damaging lockdown and respond to the pied piper advisers in SAGE and their mournful dirge of fear and terror. That is where we are going with these restrictions today. Unlike the poor children of the town of Hamelin, at least we know what the destination is, because we have been there before. We have seen the economic damage that lockdowns do. We have seen the damage they do to people’s mental health. We have seen the damage they do to education. We know what lockdown is doing to our country’s finances, yet, despite what the Government tell us, we are doing this lockdown to achieve the aims we were told would be achieved by the first lockdown. We had suppressed the virus. We had put our foot on its neck. That was the term the Prime Minister used, yet once, twice and now for the third time we are doing exactly the same thing.
I understand that the Government have tried to support industry and people who have been affected, and that is to be welcomed. Coming from Northern Ireland as a Unionist, I know that the support measures introduced by the Assembly in Northern Ireland could not have been done had we not been part of the Union and not had the resources that the Union makes available to devolved Administrations. Those who cry after a break-up of the Union ought to remember that. It is only by being part of a bigger unit that we can ensure we at least have the support measures.
We have this lockdown, and I am fairly sure that the
Does my right hon. Friend share the concern that I and many others have about the mental health of children? It has been strained like never before. Does he feel it is time for there to be online counselling services in every school, to ensure that young people have the help they need as a matter of urgency?
That is one of the points I was going to come on to. If we are in for this long lockdown, the Government first of all cannot continue to abandon the self-employed who have been affected by previous lockdowns and still find themselves penniless and without any support.
Secondly, the Government cannot allow children’s education to be disrupted for that length of time. As a former teacher, I know how long periods—even summer holidays—can disrupt children’s education, and it is the poorest people who are affected by that, because very often they do not have the resources and the children do not have the space. The parents do not have the ability to help their children through the time off school. It is important that schools get back. Despite the impression given by some trade unions, I know that most teachers do want to get teaching their children in school. Indeed, some of them have been on to me this weekend, saying, “We want to get back to school, but we fear for our safety”—because there is an atmosphere of fear. Some priority must be given to ensuring that teachers are treated as frontline workers and are vaccinated quickly, so that they can continue to have face-to-face education with children.
Northern Ireland depends very much on aviation, because of the sea barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There needs to be a package of support for the aviation industry. There is no strategy there, and a package of support needs to be made available.
The one thing I would say is that these restrictions, if they are going to be in place until
May I begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the task faced by Health Ministers and the Prime Minister in this crisis? We have a proportion of the public who want a full lockdown, irrespective of the consequences to the economy, and we have another proportion of the population who want no lockdown whatever, irrespective of the consequences to public health. However, even those who reluctantly accept the need for further restrictions must be mindful of the balance between the authority of Government and the responsibility of citizens, and I agree with my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady that we need to have sufficient parliamentary oversight during the period for which these restrictions are in place. I hope to hear from the Minister a Government commitment to more debate and regular votes during this period so that Parliament can express its view on behalf of the public.
I would like to say a few words about the vaccine programme. First, I congratulate the Government on having a world-leading immunisation programme, with two very difficult elements that have to be kept in balance—the supply of the vaccine and an adequate number of vaccinators. Of course, those two elements of the logistics have to go hand in hand and at the same speed—not an easy task for Ministers.
We will have to have a surge capacity in vaccinators to be able to deal with demographic and regional differences across the country and to avoid rate-limiting steps in the process. I made a point to the Prime Minister this morning about how difficult it has been for former GPs such as myself to get back into the vaccinating process and about the number of courses we have been asked to complete. I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State announce this afternoon that there will be some changes to that, and I think that is the fastest action I have ever known from a Government in 28 years—raise the issue with the Prime Minister in the morning, and get an answer from the Secretary of State in the afternoon. Incidentally, I think there is an easy fix to this problem. We can get those who want to come into the programme to fulfil two of the better modules—Core Knowledge for COVID-19 Vaccinators and Minimum Requirements for Staff Returning to the NHS.
However, we will also require more scrutiny of the vaccine process itself if we are to be confident in endorsing the public health policy that we have. We need to look better at the modelling and the data that is out there about the effectiveness of a single dose in creating sufficient population immunity, if that is to take place rather than the two doses, and we need to look at an assessment of the Pfizer vaccine in producing continued immune response in the three weeks after the first dose, as was originally envisaged, and in the extended extend 12-week period. It is essential that we know that these things are based on proper scientific data. The key to the success of the strategy will be our ability to understand the data and to unlock the lockdown and get back to normal.
This has been a very difficult time for everyone. We must at least learn the lessons for the future, because the pandemic will not be a once-in-a-generation event.
The recent sharp rise in covid-19 cases across the UK makes it imperative that we have a national lockdown. One in 50 people in England has the virus. In Wirral, there were 606 cases per 100,000 in the week to
We all have to do everything we can to halt the spread of the virus, to save lives and to protect the NHS. As people right across the country play their part by staying at home, the Government must do their job and deliver the vaccine. As part of that, they must make it easier for retired NHS staff to help with the vaccination programme. One retired clinician has written to me to say that he is trying to register as a vaccinator but found the NHS Professionals website unusable. The Government must take immediate action to address that and to make it easier for those with valuable medical expertise to volunteer at this time of national crisis. He also asked whether vaccinators will receive priority for the vaccine as frontline NHS staff. That is something that the Government must do to protect these people and to encourage others to come forward.
With these national restrictions in force, the Government must step up and provide real support to the businesses and workers who will be affected up and down the country. Will the Minister impress on the Chancellor the importance of extending statutory sick pay to all workers, including the self-employed, and raising its level?
In December, Sir Michael Marmot reported:
“England entered the pandemic with its public services in a depleted state and its tax and benefit system regeared to the disadvantage of lower income groups… The levels of social, environmental and economic inequality in society are damaging health and wellbeing.”
Will the Minister take action on the social inequalities that are driving health inequalities, and join me and others on both sides of the House in calling on the Chancellor to stop the £20 a week cut to universal credit?
Last month, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stood at the Dispatch Box and assured me that his Government are increasing the public health grant next year, but a junior Minister subsequently told me that local authority spending on the public health grant will merely be maintained, so will the Secretary of State clear up the confusion in his Department, commit clearly to increasing the public health grant and set out how much that increase will be?
We all have a part to play in tackling this virus, and the Government must ensure they deliver on the vaccine, provide businesses and workers with the support they need, invest in public health departments and protect the NHS as a public service.
I will try to be brief. The two areas I want to focus on are getting out of the position in which we find ourselves, and how we live with this virus for a long time to come.
I think people generally accept that we are where we are because of the new strain of the virus, and that the Prime Minister had a difficult choice—lock down again or risk the capacity of the NHS—but people want to get out of these restrictions as soon as possible. The cost of this virus is written on the nation’s finances and on people’s livelihoods, their mental health and their children’s future.
We now have a clear path out of the lockdown with the vaccine, but we need to see what the road map to recovery looks like and start delivering on it. This is a small boats moment. I very much hope that the Government will actively engage with and mobilise community pharmacies, growing the base of locations where vaccinations can take place and enabling vaccine delivery 24/7.
With every person vaccinated, we get closer to the end of the tunnel that we keep talking about. But freedom is not just about the ability to leave our house; it is about life chances and opportunities. Areas like the north, which have effectively been in lockdown for months, need a clear road map for economic recovery, too. The pandemic cannot lead to further deprivation and more closed opportunities for communities like mine in Barrow and Furness. We need to roll out stimulus packages so that we are able to build back from this.
We also need to take people with us, and I applaud the Government’s efforts at transparency on the data they are sharing, but we need to go further by sharing daily vaccination levels by area and by being clear about the point on the journey when we start easing restrictions and what the journey back down the tier system will look like.
Finally, it appears that we will be living with this virus for some time. Through incredible endeavour, we have a vaccine that works against the strain that is currently in circulation in the UK. There is already disquiet about the South African strain, so we need a clear plan for how we live with this virus and its children. There is an opportunity to strengthen the bioscience and biomanufacturing industries in the UK. The vaccines taskforce has made huge strides in this area already, but we should be looking to expand the tools on our belt, not just vaccines but monoclonal antibodies, to help those who have suppressed immune responses and for whom a vaccine may not be the answer.
We cannot afford any more delays. Every £1 spent on prevention will save many more pounds in the future, save lives and get life back to normal sooner rather than later.
Even before Christmas, anxiety was building and building as scientists warned about what was ahead. The public could see what was coming, and it seemed that the only person who did not want to face up to the scale of the current covid-19 situation was the Prime Minister. At one of the MP briefings with the Secretary of State, the Public Health England lead clearly stated that the change point for London came at the end of November, yet no action was taken by Ministers until it was far too late, again.
At every point in this crisis, the Government have been reactive, not proactive, waiting until we are at a crisis point to do anything. We have over 76,000 people dead, families pushed to the edge, and hard-working healthcare workers and hospitals at breaking point. This is not the situation in other countries, yet it is here, and it is not all down to the new variant. The failure of this Government to plan more than a few days ahead means that people, organisations and businesses are given days’—sometimes hours’—notice of changes to rules. People cannot live like that and should not have to. This anxiety is perhaps most acutely seen with young people. Today, I spoke to the head of our fantastic Luton sixth form. There are 752 BTEC students, many of whom are taking exams this month. Again, they are left out of guidance, left waiting for confirmation of their futures. It is time that this Government stopped treating BTEC students as an afterthought and give them the certainty that they deserve. If, as we all want to see, we are to be ready to get back into classrooms in Luton North and across the country at the end of February, nursery staff, teachers, school-support staff and school cleaners must be included as part of a vaccination strategy.
Will a vaccination strategy be published any time soon? Ramping up is not a coherent strategy. We should know by now how long it will take to manufacture the necessary vaccines. What measures will be put in place to make sure that they are disseminated and delivered? Why not publish a schedule of delivery? Will people who cannot be vaccinated be protected with ongoing shielding measures? What is the estimated critical mass needed to be vaccinated before we can start to relax restrictions? What measures will need to be introduced or be continued while vaccinations are rolled out, or, if vaccinations fail, to combat any new variants? These are just the very basics of any vaccination programme, yet we have heard very few answers from this Government. To provide hope and a route out of the restrictions before us, we need to see an exit strategy. The public needs to be informed at every step of the way, not only when it is too late.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House staff for ensuring that we were able to be recalled today for the second time in a week to debate these important matters. It is important that this House is at the centre of this debate.
I recognise that the new variant, the significant growth in cases and the resulting pressure on the NHS means that we are in a different position than the one that we faced in November. For that reason, I will not be opposing these regulations, as I did when the Government brought them forward in November. None the less, I do agree with what my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady said, which is that running the regulations all the way to the end of March is too far a distance in the future. It seems that the obvious checkpoint for the Government to come back to this House to seek the authority to proceed is the middle of February, when the Prime Minister set a very clear goal to have vaccinated the four first groups that the JCVI set out and when the Government will have to make a decision about whether schools return after the February half-term. It seems to me that that would be the point when the Government should bring that information to the House, set out their proposals hopefully to relax restrictions and to get children back to school, and seek the House’s authority to do so. I suggest that Ministers go away and reflect on that and come back to us next week when the House returns after the recess. I think that that would be welcomed by colleagues.
On the point about schools, I just wonder what my right hon. Friend’s view is on the vaccination of teachers. If keeping schools open is such a priority for the Government, as it is and as it should be, then surely however difficult it is to move that group up the vaccination list, it has to be something that we consider. To open up schools after half-term, it has to be something that we do pretty much pronto.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, and it has been made by others, but I have to say that, for me—obviously, I am not a clinical expert—the JCVI has got it right. No matter how important schools are, the priority must be focused on reducing the number of people who are going to die and the pressure on the health service. Those are the right choices to make. The risk to many teachers—those who are much younger and those who do not have underlying health conditions—is very low. If they are in the high-risk groups with, for example, a serious underlying health condition, they will already be on the list to be vaccinated earlier according to what has been set out. That is the right approach. As soon as we move away from that, every group of frontline workers potentially exposed to the virus will make an argument that they should be higher up the list, and that would not be a sensible way for the Government to proceed, so they should stick to the process set out by the JCVI.
I have two final points. On the vaccination schedule, maximum transparency, as the Prime Minister said, is welcome. In reporting daily vaccination numbers—by daily I assume that we mean seven days a week, not just five—I urge the Government to publish as much information as possible, including by region and by cohort, so that we can see how this is going and which regions of the country are going well. Potentially, we could have some positive competition where people are trying to do better. My own region in Gloucestershire is making good progress, and I would be pleased to see that information in the public domain. The agreed delivery schedule for suppliers ought to be published, as that would give people confidence and we could all focus, putting it in terms that the Prime Minister would use, on getting vaccination done. That should be the nation’s No. 1 goal in the next few weeks.
Finally—and I know that this has been discussed outside the House—vaccinating priority groups does not just reduce the risk of death by a huge amount, by about 80%, but reduces hospitalisations by almost 60%, which reduces the pressure on the national health service. Both those factors mean that once we have vaccinated the first four groups we can be bold about looking forward to relaxing restrictions, and I hope that the Government can come forward at the earliest possible opportunity.
I am immensely proud of the people of Hartlepool for the way in which they have faced up to this crisis and the spirit of determination that they have shown in overcoming the barriers of the pandemic. I especially thank all the volunteers in Hartlepool for the work that they have done. They have done so much and kept our communities together, and I would like to record my gratitude for the work that they have done.
On lockdown, there are many unresolved issues, particularly on work. There is a distinct lack of clarity regarding the rules about who should or should not work, and who should stay at home. On the recent example of schools, why did the Secretaries of State for Education and for Health and Social Care persist on Monday with their line that schools should go back, only for the Prime Minister on Tuesday to say that schools should be shut? The implications for health and safety and for work are enormous, and the lack of clarity does not help my constituents in matters like that.
On health provision, I would like more from the Government on inputs into health commitments in my constituency, particularly on mental health. The ramping up of vaccine provision is essential, and is important for my constituents’ wellbeing. Like everyone else in the country, the people of Hartlepool just want to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is always being mentioned. They want the roll-out of the vaccine to be ratcheted up so that the nightmare can end for them and order can be re-established sooner, rather than later. They understand the need for the lockdown, and the majority support it, but they also want clear leadership and direction from the Government—no more dithering and delay. Given the current R rate in Hartlepool, it would be irresponsible not to support the position adopted by the Government or to disobey the rules, but I say to the Minister, please, please do not test our patience. The people of Hartlepool have survived two lockdowns. They will survive a third lockdown. They have the stamina and community spirit to do it, but I urge the Minister not to let them down: get those vaccines out there and get our people and businesses supported here in Hartlepool and the north-east.
I am in total agreement with the Government that the emergence of the new, more transmissible strain of the virus has, once again, changed the logic of where we stand and how we should act. This week, we have effectively ended the difficult balancing act of trying to split the difference between containing the virus and keeping as much of our economy and society open as we can. A combination of having two safe and effective vaccines and the emergence of the new covid variant means that our focus is now overwhelmingly on containment. That is the right choice and, indeed, probably the only choice that any Government could make at this moment in time. For Ministers to acknowledge this is not to show weakness, nor was it wrong to try to do everything in our power to retain some semblance of normality, especially in our schools. Let us not for a moment pretend that there are not very serious trade-offs in re-entering lockdown: the pain felt by the lonely; the struggling business owners; children unable to attend class and parents trying to raise them at home while working. This is all real and deep and miserable. None the less, the data is impossible to argue with. One in 50 people in our country is ill with this virus, and the numbers are rising. I therefore warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that we will vaccinate all those in tiers 1 to 4 of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s strategy by the middle of next month.
It is great news that 1.3 million people have now been vaccinated—more than in the rest of Europe combined—but we have no time to waste in accelerating the roll-out. Every week that we are in this situation costs thousands of lives and billions of pounds. I have the highest regard for the vaccines Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi, and wish him every success in mobilising every deployable resource to combat this monster. Any business that can fight weak links in the supply chain should be enlisted to help. Any building that can sensibly be turned into a vaccination hub should be requisitioned. Administering the vaccine should include the full use of the armed forces, dentists, community pharmacists, vets and retired medical professionals. We must not be encumbered by needless bureaucracy, and we must not be constrained by normal working hours. I welcome the new daily vaccine statistics that we will receive from Monday. To help monitor progress, it would also be helpful to know our projected weekly trajectory for getting priority groups vaccinated.
I want to focus quickly on one other issue: maintaining the highest quality education offer this winter. Our schools must not hesitate in accepting the children of key workers, and, if a school has an unusually high proportion of key workers’ children, options should be looked at with neighbouring schools to provide support. We need to focus on ensuring rigorous attendance by children in remote learning, and to ensure that no child misses out because of a lack of internet or appropriate devices in their home. I warmly welcome today’s announcement from the Education Secretary on that point.
This is a national crisis and I am absolutely confident that we will overcome it together.
So here we are again: another month, another late lockdown, and all the harm that lockdown brings with it—lost learning, lost livelihoods and loneliness. Yet once again, this drastic and painful action has tragically become our only option, given the alarming rate at which the virus is tearing through our country and the immense pressure on the NHS.
A clear exit strategy from lockdown, to which vaccines are central, is critical so my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I reiterate once again our request to Ministers to publish a clear plan as to how they will meet their initial target of vaccinating the most vulnerable, but also all adults beyond that. This plan needs to involve not just the NHS, but the military, the private sector, the voluntary sector, local government and community pharmacies, whether they are big chains or independents. We need a 24/7 vaccination programme brought to every high street in the country, so that those who are in hard-to-reach groups or those who find the hubs hard to reach can access these life-saving jabs. If the Prime Minister is serious when he says that every needle in every arm makes a difference, why is a physiotherapist in my constituency who has completed all the paperwork and training yet to be called upon? We cannot afford to lose a single day.
Alongside vaccination, we have to continue finding, testing, tracing and isolating every case, and, importantly, supporting every individual with the virus and their contacts. Although we will be better protected from serious illness through vaccination, we must stop transmission, not least given the emergence of ever more variants. That is why it is utterly astonishing that none of the announcements in recent days has mentioned test, trace, isolate. Have Ministers given up on this vital and basic public health tool? People need to be paid to stay at home for 10 days if they have been told to self-isolate, and that is on full pay—not sick pay and not £500 after lots of red tape. It is far cheaper than endless lockdowns. It must come with practical support too.
Finally, compliance and trust is built through transparent communication. What are we all working towards? In particular, what do the numbers need to look like before Ministers will reopen schools? We must not underestimate the impact on children’s learning and wellbeing, and the pressures and stresses that parents, who feel like they have been constantly forgotten about, are under. That is why a robust exit strategy is key, and it is about much more than just vaccination. We cannot keep blaming mutants and variants, we cannot keep blaming the public, and we cannot afford any more deadly delays and incompetence. Responsibility lies squarely at the Government’s door to deliver an efficient vaccination plan, to improve test, trace and isolate, and to communicate openly with the public.
All Governments have to make difficult decisions, but no other in peacetime has had to restrict our freedom so profoundly, and our role as MPs is to scrutinise that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team for the briefings with medical experts provided to all Members to give professional interpretation of the data. However, every person we represent wants to know that the action that is being taken today is absolutely necessary and that there is a clear way out so that people can get their lives back as soon as possible.
The clear way out that my right hon. Friend has identified is the vaccine roll-out. The fact that the UK has led the way in getting two vaccines approved and has already had more people vaccinated than all the countries in Europe put together is a significant achievement. Paragraph 3(2) of the regulations therefore needs some clarification, because it changes the end date of the regulations to
With regard to the sequencing of the vaccination programme, the Government need to look again at the priority given to vaccinating teachers in our communities. We know the damage done to our children’s education through this disruption and the pressure on family life when schools are closed so, in order to protect the ability of schools to reopen and continue to be open in the coming months, and to protect children’s futures from more disruption, we need to think about putting teachers into the priority group.
I wholeheartedly thank the whole of our North Hampshire NHS team, our local trust, Hampshire County Council and our amazing local borough council for the incredible work that they have done to help to keep my community safe in the recent months. It is with a heavy heart that I support these measures, but we can be in no doubt at all that they are essential today.
Cases in the Wakefield district have gone up by over a third in a week. They are still lower at the moment than in November, when Pinderfields Hospital was pushed into crisis, but they are rising fast, and none of us wants to go through that crisis again. That is why measures are clearly needed, but this is a really difficult time for everyone. I want to thank the staff of Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, the NHS healthcare staff and the key workers working non-stop to get us through this difficult time, to whom we owe so much. The community hubs we set up in Normanton, Pontefract, Castleford and Knottingley, supported by Wakefield Council, are working hard again, with volunteers and neighbours helping each other, but we urgently need more support from Government for businesses and families, especially those excluded from economic support from the start.
We need rapid action to roll out the vaccine, and we need the programme to work. That is why I want to raise concerns about the potential threat to the vaccine programme from the new South African variant. Senior scientists have said that this may be less susceptible to the vaccines because of the additional mutations. I know the Government are worried about it, but I do not understand why they are not taking urgent action to prevent it from being brought into and spreading across the UK. Rightly, the Government have stopped direct flights from South Africa, but the first wave shows that that is not enough. Genomic evidence quoted in our Home Affairs Committee report in August showed that 34% of imported covid cases came into the UK from Spain and 29% came from France. Less than 1% came directly from China. So when the Prime Minister says that we have taken strong action by stopping direct flights, he is kidding himself. The South African variant has already been identified in France, Austria, Norway, Japan and Australia. Currently, our border checks are weak and not taken seriously. Travellers are not tested before or on arrival. Untested, they get public transport from the airport and pop into the shops to get milk before going home, and the checks on self-isolation arrangements are minimal.
The Financial Times says that the Government’s plans to introduce pre-travel testing have been delayed because the Department for Transport wants UK residents to be exempt. If true, that is ridiculous and dangerous, because covid does not discriminate, and we cannot afford delay. Other countries have strict rules including quarantine hotels, regular tests, airport testing, repeated testing and quarantine taxis with screens—look at New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Italy or South Korea. The UK has to get serious about this too. We failed to do that the first time round and, as a result, we face our third difficult lockdown. We cannot afford further waves of this virus. We have to make sure we do not make those mistakes again.
I again congratulate the Government on their amazing foresight and on getting so far ahead of the game with the vaccination programme. A few minutes ago, I spoke to a prominent Gravesend GP, Dr Rubin Minhas. For the last couple of weeks, he and his team have been busy contacting local over-80s to book them in for their inoculations at the surgery. In order to do that, he has had to get all his staff on the phones—all the receptionists, and husbands, wives and partners. That is having a real effect on the day-to-day work of the surgery. We should be giving GPs more help with bookings, especially since this will ramp up as more vaccine becomes available and it is given to different groups.
Throughout all this, many people have been really quite heroic, especially all the people who go to work day after day knowing that they have an underlying health condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus. One headteacher in my constituency has shown what can only be described as extraordinary bravery, going into school every day and risking his life. We all know of people in our constituencies—there are perhaps tens of thousands of them around the country—who knowingly put their lives at risk every single day in the public sector and the private sector, in schools, supermarkets, hospitals and food packaging plants. I am glad that such people will soon be inoculated, but I do not think it is right that there should be any acceleration for those working in particular settings such as schools who are not in vulnerable groups. That would delay what the Prime Minister describes as the firebreak, whereby we deal with the people who are most likely to die and stop deaths going off the cliff.
We need a can-do attitude. In rolling out this massive programme of vaccination, it is critical that everyone in the public service shows the can-do attitude that we have witnessed from all the staff at Darent Valley Hospital who have been looking after my constituents over all these months. All of us in public service should be following their example to do everything we can do to get these first four groups vaccinated. This is not the time for bureaucracy or for finding reasons why something cannot be done or why it is too difficult. I was horrified to hear that one hospital received 3,000 doses of vaccine on the Wednesday before Christmas but did not start using it until nearly five days later. Everyone in this country —especially those of us paid from the public purse—must treat this vaccination programme with the greatest urgency. This is a national emergency, and there should be no room for anyone who is not on a war footing to get these early groups vaccinated.
I am going to vote for this legislation; it is sadly necessary, as today’s awful covid figures demonstrate. I want to speak briefly about how we help people get through the difficult period ahead as we vote today to lock down the country. If we are going to affect so many lives and livelihoods, and if we are going to ask our citizens to help the nation by doing the right thing and making sacrifices, then we as a nation have to do the right thing by them. We need to provide the support that people need to enable us all to work together to get through this.
In the short time available, I will mention three specific areas where we need to do more. The first is businesses, especially small businesses and the hospitality sector. Business rates relief and additional grants are welcome, but for many businesses, their premises costs are the biggest burden. They still have to pay rent, and for many it is unrealistic to think that they can keep building up debt without some additional support. I urge the Government to consider a scheme of shared rental burden, where the renter and the landlord, as well as the Government and the bank or mortgage lender, all take part of the responsibility. The country bailed out the banks during the financial crisis; they should step up and be part of the solution now. There are models elsewhere, such as Australia, that we can look at as a basis for that.
Secondly, as I said to the Prime Minister today, so many people still are not being helped by the self-employment income support scheme. We have now had nine months to come up with a plan to support those workers—people who have worked hard, paid their taxes and now are not getting a fair deal. There are potential solutions out there, and I urge Ministers once again to look at the proposals from the Federation of Small Businesses, among others, to find creative ways to help people who are really struggling.
Many of my constituents are self-employed, and many Mancunians work in our world-leading creative industries. Our festival industry alone is worth £1.7 billion to the UK economy and supports 85,000 jobs. Festival organisers are struggling to get insurance, and they are asking for a Government-backed insurance scheme to enable festivals to be planned with confidence. If we do not help out, many will be cancelled in the ongoing uncertainty, and we will miss out not just on an important cultural part of our summer but on the economic benefit that helps communities and supply chains across the nation, so please; I hope the Government will look positively on that.
Finally, our councils have been at the forefront of this crisis, supporting people and co-ordinating services. The Government said that they would give our councils everything they needed to do that, but the overall impact of covid-19 in Greater Manchester is £802 million this year alone and Government funding for the pressures is £404 million, leaving a gap of £398 million. As a result, Manchester City Council faces cuts in the region of £50 million this year. That is not sustainable, so I ask the Government to fulfil their promises and give our local authorities the support they need to help us all get through this.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I have not always been able to follow the Government line in the Division Lobby when it has come to further restrictions, because I have felt that, in parts, they have not been proportionate when looking at the wider public health concerns, the operational state of hospitals, or concerns about our loss of liberties and making things worse.
That changed when it came to the vote on introducing tier 4 measures in my county and other parts of the country, because I could see two things. First, the vaccine is in sight, so we do not have this perpetual lockdown situation; the end is in sight. Secondly, hospital operational capacity is incredibly tight; it is on the edge. I have just heard from my chief executive, who tells me that 50% of her beds are occupied by covid patients and all the intensive care units are full. Things have changed, but I believe that we are in the final chapter if we can deliver the vaccine programme. That is why I will vote with the Government this evening.
I never thought that I would see the day when I voted in the Division Lobby to deny pupils their right to attend school, but I feel that is vital. I just want to make one point about the cohort of those being vaccinated. It makes no sense at all to give a vaccination to a 40-year-old teacher rather than that teacher’s 80-year-old mother. If we do so, we may be in a situation where that 40-year-old teacher, although they have been vaccinated, can still transmit the virus to their 80-year-old mother. With the vaccine in short supply, it is the 80-year-old mother who is in danger of losing her life, and that is what keeps us in lockdown. We will never reopen schools if we end up vaccinating teachers rather than that cohort. I really wish hon. Members on both sides of the House would see that that is the best way to get the schools open again.
The other message that I want to send is to young people. Members have rightly talked about their concern about the challenges for young people and their mental health. I feel that too, but I want to make sure that young people are not seen as victims—that we do not make them become victims. This could be their defining moment, when they give something back to the generations that went before them. It will be the sacrifices that they make that save lives.
We must make sure that we put something back. To the older generation for whom sacrifices are being made by the younger generation, I say: ask yourself what can you do to counsel and pass on wisdom to help young people to catch up in school? What can you do to offer an apprenticeship to a school leaver? What can you do to make sure that young people have the confidence to feel that they have achieved great things by making that sacrifice, like those who did during the blitz years? To all those young people, I say: you will come through this stronger. We will make sure that you are rewarded. Just as we will not let older people be killed by this pandemic, please, do not be defeated by it.
This new lockdown is a position that none of us wanted to be in, and I begin by paying tribute to all our key workers.
Although there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of the vaccine, this Government’s inability to react quickly and with clear leadership has meant that people have lost their lives and their livelihoods. The Conservative former Chancellor, George Osborne, was right when he wrote yesterday, “In hoping for the best, we have failed to prepare for the worst.” The Government must not waste the time given to them in this third lockdown. The vaccine programme must be delivered with the speed and efficiency that people have been promised, alongside an effective Test and Trace system.
The economic impact of the crisis has been catastrophic. In Barnsley East, over 3,500 people are now recorded as being on universal credit, unemployment has risen, and the local food bank has seen demand increase by 300%. This is unacceptable and avoidable. Statutory sick pay in this country is completely inadequate. The UK falls behind the standards set by some of our European neighbours. A higher earner whose wage is cut due to sickness is more likely to be able to absorb the financial blow. Statutory sick pay is currently set at a flat rate of £95.85 a week. How is someone on the minimum wage or a lower income supposed to cope with such a reduction? They cannot choose to pay less of their rent, mortgage or bills.
The UK is one of the very few European countries that still pays sick pay in this way. I acknowledge that the Government introduced a one-off payment for people on low incomes who are isolating, but there is a lot of evidence to show that it is not working and that too many people are falling through the gaps. Take for example the man in Barnsley who, when asked if he would isolate if he was contacted by Test and Trace, said, “No, probably not.” When asked why, he explained, “If I don’t work, my family don’t eat.” People want to do the right thing, but simply cannot afford to. Proper statutory sick pay would make it much easier for people to take a test and isolate, which is crucial to stopping the spread of this deadly virus.
I cannot support this legislation. I cannot support criminalising a parent for seeing their child in the park over the coming months. It is not within my DNA to do that.
Of course I will follow the law and respect the law. We have the argument in the House of Commons; the House divides and one is on the winning side or the losing side. I will be on the losing side, no doubt, but I do not wear the fact that I will support the law with great virtue, because it is easy for me to comply with the law. It is easy for most people in this House to comply with the law. We are comfortably off, we live in nice houses, we have gardens and outdoor spaces, and we have access to family. The same is true of the journalists who fill our TV screens every night with their wisdom and wit about how people should comply with these regulations, and they sneer at those who cannot. But the next three months are going to be really hard for a lot of people—people who do not have my advantages of a monthly salary and a monthly pension payment. They will be worrying about their job, their future, their mental health and their family relationships, because they will miss people terribly. They will be living in small environs that apparently they can leave only to exercise once a day. Sadly, some of those people will break. It will be too much for them. That is when we in this place—and the journalists up there in the Gallery with all their privileges—instead of sneering and dismissing them and calling them “covidiots” should show some compassion and understanding. We should wear our advantages and privileges with great humility.
I do not want to hear from another constituent who is having a good lockdown. I am really pleased that they are, but my voice is for those who are not: for those of my friends, neighbours and constituents who are struggling day in, day out, whose mental health is not in a healthy state, but has deteriorated, and who are wondering how, in the next few months, in the middle of winter, they will cope.
I ask colleagues and people out there who are so fortunate to show some compassion and understanding for those who are not so fortunate.
It has been nearly a year since we began to be aware and to deal with the pandemic. We accept that no one could have predicted it, but the Government, after a whole year, keep getting it wrong. In the sixth largest economy in the world, we have no excuse for one of the worst per capita death tolls and one of the worst economic outcomes.
We need a national lockdown, but we have to lock down yet again only because every other lockdown has started too late and been lifted too early. So of course we have not been able to get control of the virus and of course the lockdowns have had the minimum effect. We have not gone far enough.
We know what needs to be done and before we can get back to normal, we need to focus on getting the infection rate down. Unfortunately, so far, the Government do not seem to have committed to doing that. We need a strong elimination strategy that drives cases down. One in 50 people in this country and one in 30 people in London, where the House of Commons is, are infected with the coronavirus. That makes me ask how many people on the estate at the moment could have the virus.
We have spent far too long looking at how successful people in other countries have been without thinking that we should also adopt a zero covid strategy. That strategy needs to be complete if the R rate is to go down. Yes, we need the lockdown, but the Government cannot keep asking people to give up their freedoms and livelihoods and not stand by them.
The support measures have never fully met this country’s needs. Yet again, they do not do so. Again, after a whole year, the Government have failed to provide for the 3 million excluded from all Government schemes. We need an effective track and trace system, but we simply do not have it. We need more funding for charities and local authorities, which have been dealing with the brunt of the virus. We need rent relief for tenants and a ban on evictions. We need an increase in statutory sick pay, and laptops and broadband for every child who needs them.
Although the vaccine is welcome news, the success of the lockdown cannot be measured by the vaccination programme alone, especially given how long it will take to reach the entire population. We need to focus on bringing the R rate down and look at the measures properly before we begin to lift restrictions. We cannot, after an entire year, keep making these mistakes. It is costing lives and livelihoods and is a complete and utter shambles, for which the Government have no reasonable excuse.
I strongly support the Government’s policies and the new public health regulations, which have been brought in to help defeat this dreadful coronavirus. They are regrettable, but absolutely necessary and require compliance by us all.
I commend the Secretary of State for all his hard work and determination during the past 10 months and for his briefings on the issues. I know that the Prime Minister regrets the need for the lockdown measures, but he had no choice because of the seriousness of the situation.
I pay tribute to Bexley Council for all its tremendous work, to all NHS staff across south-east London, who have worked for so long and so hard during the national crisis, and to the community workers who have done such great service across my borough in helping the most vulnerable.
I am extremely concerned about the rising infection rates in London, and particularly in my borough of Bexley. The new strain of the virus has had real and detrimental consequences for my Bexleyheath and Crayford constituency. I am thinking of not just the spread of the virus, but the curbing of liberties, the closure of clubs, businesses and shops, and, of course, those who have tragically lost their lives to the virus. To prevent the spread of the virus and further deaths, these measures are essential. I also highlight the growing concern over mental health issues in my area, particularly for those living in overcrowded homes and in small houses, and for those living alone, the elderly and the disabled. The closing of schools is regrettable, and there will be educational consequences. However, this crisis needs strong action and restrictions are necessary to safeguard the vulnerable, and, with the vaccination, to help beat the coronavirus.
My third point is about vaccinations and the opportunity for retired GPs, nurses and pharmacists to assist in the delivery of this massive project of mass vaccination. I have been given examples of people who have offered their services but have either been given a plethora of forms to fill in or have not received any response to their offer of help. This has been disappointing, but today, I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s actions to cut the bureaucracy and increase the vaccine roll-out. I also welcome his comments about Sunday vaccinations. Those comments need to be widely publicised to increase public confidence. These facts need to be known, and my constituents are looking for regular updates on the progress of vaccination and, hopefully, when the lockdown will end—an exit strategy.
In conclusion, I share my right hon. Friend’s determination to have a vaccination roll-out, and I support these new public health measures. My constituents will also support them, and they are necessary to save lives and defeat covid-19. We need to get the vaccination done.
I am grateful to be able to speak in today’s debate. I start by extending my deepest sympathy to my staff member, Ruzina, who today lost her mother to coronavirus. Words cannot describe the devastation that this virus has caused to so many.
There are so many concerns that I have about the impact of the Government’s handling of this pandemic, and there are too many pressing issues in Lewisham East to mention, but today, I would like to raise the crisis facing our ambulance services. I have been speaking with a constituent of mine, Mr Clive Tombs, who is a technician in the London ambulance service. Mr Tombs told me of the sheer stress levels that he and his colleagues are experiencing. As the secretary of his branch of the GMB union, Mr Tombs speaks not just for himself, but for thousands of members serving the capital.
Staff sickness in the ambulance service is at an all-time high. Mr Tombs estimates that around 6,000 staff across the service are off sick, the majority with covid-19. He has lost colleagues to the virus and other colleagues are hospitalised. Many others are understandably suffering from declining mental health after seeing the very worst of the impact of this virus and the impact which it is having on our people. Post-traumatic stress disorder is also becoming commonplace.
Phone operators are having to play God in choosing who among the hundreds of callers will get an ambulance. Mr Tombs also speaks of the relentless shifts that those in the ambulance profession are working. Those on the frontline are working 12, 13 and sometimes 14-hour-long shifts, and all too often, they do not get a rest or a break before starting their next demanding shift. We cannot expect our ambulance service to work all hours of the day and night, providing high-quality care, thinking quickly, making smart decisions and putting themselves in danger, without having enough time to rest. I would be grateful to hear from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on this issue.
Many of us have been distressed by images over the Christmas period of ambulances piling up outside hospitals, particularly in London. Every one of those ambulances has someone who is in urgent need of medical care and, for some of them, their lives depend on it. A&E departments are not able to keep up with the level of demand, so ambulances, with patients in them, have to wait for hours upon hours—up to 11 hours, Mr Tombs says. They wait on trolleys that provide them with little comfort and are meant only for short use. Staff sit with them in vehicles but struggle to provide safe ventilation in the cold weather. There is no access to a toilet or a washbasin in an ambulance. None of us would like to imagine our parents, partners, elderly neighbours or loved ones suffering on an ambulance trolley waiting to be admitted. What is more—
There are a hundred things about Stroud that I could rise to stand up for today, but given the shortness of time, I will focus on education, exercise and entrepreneurs. First, I want to say that I will be supporting the Government tonight. From speaking to the Gloucestershire NHS and health teams, I am clear that our hospitals and key workers are under extraordinary pressure. Life would not be normal, and local businesses would not flourish, if ambulances were queuing around the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital or if, worse still, images of body bags were filling the news, as we have seen in other countries. I accept that drastic action is needed right now, and it is for all of us to work together to get out of this lockdown with the can-do attitude and compassion shown by my hon. Friends on either side of me, the hon. Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker).
However, I thought that we had reached an under-standing that education needed to continue. In the first lockdown, 55% of teachers in the most deprived areas suggested that students were learning for less than one hour a day. Eating disorders are now on the rise, and mental health issues are rife. We have to be honest: there is simply no replacement for face-to-face teaching. No amount of money, whizzy technology or free devices will bridge the education gap that the covid pandemic has created. Children need time in school, and they need their families to not be fraught from juggling home working, home schooling and worse. Stroud teachers are also phenomenal, and have already jumped through extensive logistical hoops to get our schools covid safe. I ask that the Government help to reopen schools without delay, and do not let children get caught in political games.
On exercise, I want to see gyms, parkruns, fishing, and clubs such as golf, tennis, archery and swimming open as soon as possible. Living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from covid-19. Government guidance says:
“Look after your physical wellbeing: Your physical health has a big impact on how you are feeling emotionally and mentally”, so why cut off businesses that effectively help us fight covid and protect our mental health? Do not get me wrong: the rise of walking, running, cycling and online classes is positive. However, please do not underestimate the benefits of gyms and sports clubs. The professionals who work in these places know their health and mental health onions, and we need them to survive in order to produce the healthy society we know is necessary to cope with covid now and prosper in the future.
On entrepreneurs, please will the Government look urgently at the Campaign for Real Ale’s campaign regarding the sale of takeaway alcohol? As the Prince Albert pub in my patch brilliantly pointed out, it is not fair to stop this activity when supermarkets and off-licences can sell regardless. I have been relentless on the plight of the wedding and events industry, and we need a road map and pilot studies in Stroud. It was wrong to not give support to our fantastic limited companies that reside in Stroud when the virus was going to be gone in a few months, and it is wrong now.
Infection levels in Liverpool are now higher than during the second peak in October. This was why local leaders called for an urgent national lockdown to try to control the spread of the virus and prevent pressure on our hospitals, which I fully support, along with a rapid increase in vaccinations. I have just been on a call with headteachers from special educational needs and disability schools in my constituency, and I say to the Secretary of State at the outset—I cannot stress this enough—that teachers and teaching staff should be offered vaccinations as a matter of urgency. They are still out working on the frontline, and they need these vaccinations now.
The Government must address inequality at the same time as implementing the third lockdown, and I will now turn to some of the many other issues that my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby have written to me about, which must be urgently tackled. The first is access to food: there are 10 million people in the UK living in food insecurity, many of whom are queuing up at food banks—we have seen pictures of that on Christmas Day in Newcastle. The Government must step in to provide support. They must cancel their planned £20 a week cut to universal credit, and bring in the right to food.
The next issue is that of financial support. One of my constituents, Martina, who was self-employed, has now gone 13 months without any pay. Where is the Chancellor today, and where is his financial plan to support people in Liverpool? On top of this, there have been many punishing job losses from rogue employers. Howling examples include the pernicious use of fire and rehire by British Airways and British Gas, and the treatment of a loyal workforce by Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick. The Government must step in to fight for them and outlaw this pernicious practice, which drives people into destitution.
I must also mention support for renters and the homeless. Many renters are faced with huge arrears and have been forgotten by the Government. They must now support renters and, at the very least, extend the eviction ban beyond
Even before the pandemic, our communities were facing a crisis of low pay, insecure work, food and fuel insecurity, unaffordable rents, and cuts to welfare and services. So many people are already at a tipping point, and the pandemic has pushed more into unimaginable levels of hardship. Inequality and poverty are not inevitable. They are a result of political choices made by this Government, and can be solved by a Government with the will and the moral fortitude.
This is a difficult crisis for the Government, and no doubt the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health must each have the constitution of an ox to deal with the very difficult decisions they have to deal with every day, but I am afraid that I cannot support this legislation today. The principal reason is that, at the end of last year, I thought we had got to the point where Parliament would be consulted on a regular basis. We have regulations today set out to
If the legislation said there would be a month and then a review or two months and then a review, I might even be tempted to vote for it, but the three-month nature of the regulations seems to me too long, and I do not think it is proportionate to where we are. Parliament is sitting—the reality is that we are here—so we need to be involved in these decisions. I notice that regulations have been passed saying that if someone sits by a river with a fishing rod, they are breaking the law under the current lockdown regulations. People will follow sensible regulations if they feel it saves lives, but the bureaucratic nature of this essential lockdown is such that I think people will get frustrated and they may well actually break the regulations because they cannot understand why they are there. So we need this reviewed, we need Parliament involved and we need the Government to listen.
I was somewhat concerned earlier when the Secretary of State was talking about when this would be lifted. We need a programme, and we need the criteria for lifting it. Is it hospitals, is it infection rates or is it deaths? Is it all the vulnerable people actually being inoculated, because we heard earlier that, once they are inoculated, the Government will think about it?
I have businesses in my constituency, I have people who work and I have people trying to pay a mortgage. People have worked for generations sometimes, and certainly for decades, building up businesses, and they are being closed down and they may not survive. Taking away the freedom of people to trade is a very substantial thing to do, and there are some people who will not survive the regulations and the way in which we are locking them down. That is one reason why I will call a vote tonight. If we are going to take away people’s liberties and freedom, let us do it with our eyes open and a vote of this Chamber, because I feel very queasy about destroying people’s livings in my constituency when people work so hard. The people who make these decisions are superannuated, pensioned and public sector: they are safe and they can retire. In my constituency, there are people who do not have these advantages.
Sadly, the new restrictions are as inevitable as they are necessary. The Government say that it is the new variant that is to blame for the problems, but frankly it has been obvious for months that the NHS was going to come under huge stress during the winter. It is time for less flowery language from the Prime Minister. Too much bluster, too much over-optimism—frankly, we are all tired of it, just as we are tired of the lockdown itself.
The chaotic way in which the latest measures have been introduced has caused particular and understandable fury, because it was all so unnecessary. Leaders in educational establishments in Cambridge have been left in an impossible position, on Monday trying desperately to set up testing measures demanded by Government, and trying to reassure pupils and parents that they would be open the following day, only to get texts and emails late in the evening completely contradicting the previous advice. Now they are suddenly expected to switch to delivering teaching remotely. BTEC exams in further education colleges have had to be cancelled at the last minute.
On schools, the front page of today’s Cambridge Independent tells the story: “a disgrace”, say teachers. The headteacher at St Matthew’s in Cambridge, Tony Davies, describes a day of chaos and observes:
“So much heartache could have been saved if they had made this decision in a timely manner.”
Niamh Sweeney of the National Education Union rightly observes that, because of the chaos,
“the Government has jeopardised public health.”
The problems in education go further still. While local education authorities such as Cambridgeshire have stepped up, they are hampered by the patchwork of competing Government arrangements now in place. They can advise, but for multi-academy trusts the decisions in some cases are made far from Cambridgeshire—out of sight, beyond local scrutiny or influence.
The diminished powers of local authorities, particularly second-tier districts, are brought into stark focus when councils such as Cambridge City Council find that they do not have the powers necessary to deal with public health hazards. The temporary closure of Cambridge market is a case in point, where the lack of the precise powers needed has led to an overall closure that no one wanted.
I will support the legislation today, but I also want to highlight another Government failure. We have heard a lot about testing and vaccination, but precious little about isolating. Behavioural scientists advise that people do what they are asked when they are motivated and have the opportunity and capability to do so. Sadly, the Government have failed to motivate. They have not celebrated those who isolate, and they have not provided accommodation or the right financial support to ensure that people have the opportunity to do so. That is why it has not worked.
I drew the Secretary of State’s attention to that weeks ago, when I learned that just 14 people in Cambridge had taken up the offer of financial help to isolate. The Secretary of State kind of shrugged. It is that kind of failure from Government that means that the situation we are in today was not inevitable. It could have been different, but this is a Government unwilling to acknowledge mistakes or learn from experience, and we are all at risk because of it.
Well, covid has outwitted us again. It has come back with a vengeance and it is hitting many people. It is affecting the hospitals to such a degree that the tired nurses and the tired doctors, who have been working relentlessly, are struggling. We have to do something about it, but is lockdown the answer? We have locked down before and the figures have gone up.
The answer is vaccinations, as we have been told by many people. Vaccinations are the cavalry, but this cavalry needs to come fast and with great ambition. We need people to be out there vaccinating. I am delighted to say that one of the volunteers who could not get through the form has now been accepted because she is a recently retired nurse. She, like many other people, wants to help the vaccination programme. We can ramp up those vaccinations once we have the vaccine in place. I accept that it will take a while with a new vaccine, but it needs to be ramped up. We need big ambition. We need not 2 million a week, but at least 4 million a week.
I am worried, however, that the Secretary of State and his opposite number on the Labour Front Bench both seem to think that, even though we will be vaccinated, we might not be able to go out. I asked a question yesterday about an 82-year-old couple who have not seen a brother for at least nine months and want to go to see him. They are going to be vaccinated on Saturday. They want to wait the requisite three weeks and then visit the brother, who is also in his 80s and will also have had the vaccine and will have waited the requisite time. I am told, however, that they cannot do that.
If we are told that we have to lockdown and the cavalry is coming in the form of the vaccine, we have to have some hope that we will able to go out and resume some sort of normality, that schools can go back and that businesses can operate normally; otherwise, we are just going to be in lockdown for months and months. That might be what some people want, but it is not what I want and it is not what my constituents want. They want some freedoms, and we have to have those.
Let us get vaccinations out, let us use every community pharmacy we have, every single St John Ambulance person there is and everyone qualified and able to give that vaccine, and let us get those vaccines out fast. Let us get people moving so that we can make the most vulnerable safe, so that they will not block up the hospitals and we can relieve the health service for what it needs to do, which is routine work.
I will support the proposals, because of the pressure on our NHS and the briefings that I have had from the hospital trust in Sheffield that not only should we protect health service workers, but patients who need cancer and other treatments will not get that treatment unless we deal with this matter urgently.
The clinical commissioning group and GP practices in Sheffield are enthusiastic, ready and willing to get the vaccine delivered. They tell me that within a couple of weeks they can be delivering up to 30,000 to 40,000 vaccinations a week in Sheffield, so that by Easter a majority of the population will have been vaccinated. There are two caveats. First, they need the vaccine to be delivered. Already, we have had problems. This week, some of the primary care networks were told that the vaccine would be delivered on Friday; it arrived yesterday, so the practices had to scramble around to get people to come in at very short notice in order to deal with the vaccinations within the three days. Other practices were told that they would have the vaccine this week and then that it would not arrive until next week, having made the appointments for people to come in this week. That is not acceptable and it needs to be sorted out.
Secondly, there is the bureaucracy. I was pleased that the Secretary of State said earlier that he was going to strip out the training requirements for people giving the vaccine—absolutely right, and those should not have been there in the first place. I am told that it will take about eight minutes to do one of the covid vaccinations, compared with two minutes for a flu vaccine. Why the difference? There should not be one.
The guidelines sent out with the rules even explain how GP practices should cut up the waste packaging once the vaccine has been delivered. That is the sort of bureaucracy and nonsense that we need to sort out. This week, when I asked for information about which GP practices would be giving the vaccine for the first time, I was told that I could not have that information unless someone higher up in the NHS approved it. Sorry, but I am entitled to that information; more importantly, the public of Sheffield are entitled to that information. We need to stop that bureaucracy as well.
Also, can we stop passing regulations that cannot be enforced? Wearing a face mask is very important, but I saw a group of young people walking along in Meadowhall shopping centre the other day, and they simply said, “Oh, we just tell them we have asthma, if anyone asks us.” We need the police to have powers to make people wear face masks and be required to produce evidence of an exemption, if they have one.
Finally, recently Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were in tier 4, and Sheffield was in tier 3. People were driving over the border to Meadowhall and Drakehouse to do their shopping. The police had no powers under the rules to enforce the requirement that people should not travel over the border for such a purpose. We need to sort out that type of situation as well.
We should vote to pass legislation that severely restricts the freedom of our fellow citizens and the legitimate activities of lawful business only if there is the most compelling necessity, the measures are proportionate and there is proper parliamentary scrutiny and oversight. On balance, and having seen in my constituency data on the exponential growth in infections caused by the new variant of the virus, I am persuaded that there is a compelling necessity for the regulations. As for proportionality, again, on balance there is evidence to support the bulk of the measures—even, regrettably, the closure of schools.
Inevitably, however, because the measures were produced in haste, some elements frankly fly against evidence and reason. They need to be reviewed, and swiftly. The obvious example is the prohibition on two people in the open air playing golf or tennis. There is no rational basis or evidence for that, and it is a mistake to include those things. It is very clear that it is not necessary in Scotland—they have not done that in Scotland—and I do not think that those activities are safe north of the border and unsafe south of it. The decision also creates a problem for many local authority leisure centres that are struggling for income, and it ought to be revisited. Similarly, the disproportionate effect of the ban on alcohol off-sales on micropubs and small, independent public houses, as opposed to the off-licence chains, ought to be revisited.
That brings me to the point about parliamentary scrutiny. I will live with those flaws in the regulations for the broader good if there is timely scrutiny and review. Leaving it until
We cannot use the gravity of the situation as a reason to overrule the normal requirements of proper parliamentary scrutiny. That is necessary in the interests of democracy and the rule of law. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me those assurances as she winds up the debate.
Let me start by saying that I will support these measures today, but I simply regret that the Government are acting too late again. Clearly, the measures are necessary, and so is support for those whose lives are being affected by them. Ministers will know that too many have fallen through the gaps in the support schemes provided by the Chancellor, particularly in small businesses and among the self-employed. In my constituency, that is especially true in the hospitality and creative sectors.
We have not got time today to discuss all the ill-considered rules and deadlines, but I would ask Ministers to agree to meet representatives of the excluded, along with those hon. Members who have taken up their cause. As so often in a crisis, those who have the least have been hardest hit by covid. The Government could begin to address the unfairness by making a commitment today that the temporary £20 a week increase to universal credit and working tax credit will be made permanent from April. They could also commit to extending that to the legacy benefits: employment and support allowance, income support and jobseeker’s allowance.
This is a moment to pay tribute to the workers who have kept the country going, and who will do so in the weeks and months ahead. Let us remember them as we move forward by tackling the low pay and fragile employment faced by too many in the private sector, and let us give those in the public sector the pay increase that they deserve, not the pay freeze that they do not.
So much now depends on the vaccine. Let us remember that the first vaccine to enter British arms, and which we should celebrate, was developed by scientists of Turkish origin in Germany with an American company and manufactured in Belgium—an international response to an international crisis. I hope that that will be reflected in our country’s wider response, and I hope Ministers will confirm that, as we roll out the vaccine in the UK, they will work with our partners around the world to ensure it also reaches those who desperately need it in low-income countries. In agreeing to these measures today, let us also resolve to tackle the injustices that have been highlighted by this crisis.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute. We have heard a great deal of consensus across the House. We know that there is a terrible toll on people—on our constituents—and every Member who votes in favour of these regulations does so with a heavy heart, balancing the impacts carefully and with the recognition that the measures must be for a minimum period of time, reviewed frequently and carefully monitored.
We have heard from many speakers about the impact on children. My right hon. Friend Robert Halfon highlighted the terrible impact that the loss of social interaction during lockdown is having on young people and their mental health. I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister today that getting schools back is an absolute priority. It must be. Teachers, parents and schoolchildren themselves have reached out to me, asking that I highlight their worries, as have those in the early years sector, who feel that they have not been taken with the Government and have been neglected in the announcements over the past few days.
Equally, there must be vaccination for domiciliary care workers who are employed by charities or are working independently. This afternoon, Age Concern Hampshire has highlighted to me its worry that those workers will go unvaccinated.
The death toll among those with learning difficulties has been horrific. Vicky Foxcroft highlighted the work that the Women and Equalities Committee did on that issue in our report on the impact of covid on those with disabilities. The commitment to rolling out information in a manner that can be easily understood, whether it is Easy Read, large print, Braille or British Sign Language, has been inadequate. As a result, the people who need the most help have had an information gap. That is not good enough. Gov.uk still does not have a BSL translation, when there are apps that could do it quickly, easily and relatively cheaply.
It is not just those with learning difficulties who have not been given enough information. Members of Parliament have this afternoon asked for additional details about the agreed schedule of vaccine delivery and the approach to the equation between numbers vaccinated and the consequential lifting of restrictions. People have shown a willingness to comply with massive restrictions, but they want to understand the exit strategy. Early years providers want to know that they are as valued as primary schools. Golfers want a clear explanation of why a walk with their partner with no clubs is fine, but one with their clubs is not.
People are not fools. The science is difficult and graphs can be bewildering, but Ministers need to give us transparency and honesty—that is the key.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Retail, hospitality, care, building and trades are the biggest employers in Bristol South. There have been many job losses, but many people are working in those industries and they are keeping our city going. They have done everything the Government have asked of them and we now need to make sure that they are safe, that we get this vaccine delivered and that we open our economy.
I have worked for many years with local GPs and the NHS in the city, and I know them well. I have worked very closely with the team at Ashton Gate stadium, who are on standby to deliver the vaccine. We have a good standard of general practice in south Bristol and good collaboration. They have already started and the Ashton Gate team have been ready for weeks. However, they are all being kept rather in the dark about the expectations upon them and what is happening nationally with the roll-out.
We therefore have some basic questions that we would like the Minister to answer. They are basic project planning “why” questions. We know why we are doing this, but providers locally need to know what vaccine is coming. They need to know who is going to the GP. They need to know how far down the JCVI list we want GPs to go. They need to know how we want them to be called. I think that it is sensible to do the over-75s, care homes and perhaps the clinically vulnerable, but if GPs are going beyond that list, they need to know because, basically, they need to get back to their day job.
We need to know where people are going to be vaccinated. Are the rest of us going to our GP or to Ashton Gate? We need to know when we are going. I understand the reluctance of Ministers to commit to dates—this is a complex manufacturing, distribution and delivery process—but I agree with Mr Harper and my hon. Friend Mr Betts about transparency. Crucially, those who are delivering the service need to know and we, as MPs on behalf of our constituencies, need to know when it is happening.
I have done a back-of-a-fag-packet estimation. South Bristol has about 16,000 over-65s, and GP practices can do roughly 500 to 600 vaccinations a day, so in roughly 30 days we could vaccinate all those over-65s in south Bristol. However, that depends on knowing when we are going to get the vaccine delivered and what the expectations are on the deliverers.
I will support these draconian measures tonight, but I do not want the Government to again impose on us here in Bristol the disaster of the national one-size-fits-all, crony-backed, whack-a-mole nonsense that we have had from them. Our local CCG is doing a good job. We have good collaboration on the ground in south Bristol with GPs and with the people at Ashton Gate stadium. They know what to do; they need support and clarity to get on with it and to make our city safe so that we can resume our normal working lives.
This is a situation of state capture. The Government are completely in thrall to a lobby driving a policy that has manifestly failed—it has failed, or we would not be here yet again. It is a complete failure, yet we go through increasing iterations of it, with ever-tighter controls and restrictions, in the hope that it might finally work. And, then, when there is a possibility of change, as a consequence of the arrival of the vaccines, the crazed lobby has already begun to signal that the social control will not be over and that some restrictions will remain; indeed, the chiefs have pointed out that they might have to be reimposed all over again next winter.
To those colleagues who are contemplating voting for these measures this evening, buoyed up by opinion pollsters telling them that, actually, the voters are in favour of them and, indeed, that they crave even tighter restraints on their liberty, I would point out that when the devastating economic consequences of this policy come home to roost, and we see double-dip recession and years of slow growth as firms cannot take up new opportunities because they are saddled with debt, those same voters, who were so enthusiastic, will abandon them, and those colleagues will be back to point a finger of blame—and, on that occasion at least, they will be right.
I have consistently voted against these restrictions because I will not be dragged behind the banner wavers into this cul-de-sac we are being marched into. At the beginning of tonight’s debate, the Health Secretary said that he has “certain knowledge that we have a way out”. Oh, if that were so, I would follow him gladly, but I do not actually believe that he does have certainty that can be relied on in terms of this virus. Will this virus mutate into something worse? Who knows? Will the current vaccines work on mutated strains? Who knows? Can the virus be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers? Who knows? How effective will the current vaccines be? Who knows? What are we left with? Well, we are certainly not left with certainty about the way out of the lockdown.
I have now lost count of the number of lockdowns I have been asked to support by this Government. The problem for the Government is this: when this lockdown drags on through February and into March and it still has not worked, what are they going to do for their encore? What is next?
I fear that this is a massive mixed message. On the one hand, we have the wonderful news being declared that we have a vaccine—indeed, we have two vaccines. And then, instead of committing to rolling that vaccine out in a very strict and fast way, we have a declaration that we need to go into lockdown. It is hardly a vote of confidence in the vaccine if, on the one hand, we are saying we have a vaccine, and, on the other hand, we are saying we need to have a lockdown. We need to offer the vaccine urgently and quickly to key workers, whether in the health service or the education sector. We need to give it to the vulnerable and the elderly, who are the target of this disease. We should also be using the Army to roll out this vaccine in a consistent way.
Finally, I am appalled at the way in which our health service has been managed throughout all of this. It receives vast resources, yet my heart goes out tonight to the 1,300 or so people in Northern Ireland who will not be diagnosed this year with cancer because they are too frightened to go to the hospital. There are also all the misdiagnoses of coronary heart disease and stroke disease because of the total absorption of the management in the health service with covid.
I agree with my hon. Friend Jim Shannon: we should have a national day of prayer, and I welcome the fact that the Labour Front Bench supported that. Let us put this rather embarrassing episode of unending lockdowns behind us, and get on with ensuring that the health of the nation comes first.
I am very worried about the loss of liberty. I am very worried about the economic damage. I am very concerned about all those small businesses that have been shut down, and their livelihoods undermined. I want the Government to introduce a more urgent, convincing exit strategy from these measures, and I think that we are owed more debates and more votes long before the end of March. We need to keep this under constant review, and keep up the pressure to take away those measures that are not strictly necessary or which can be superseded by something better.
I hope that the roll-out of the vaccine will go well and will be speeded up. I would like more information from the Government about why they are not currently using pharmacies, why it has taken so long to welcome back to the health service recently retired people who would like to help out, and whether there is going to be a plan to train suitable volunteers so that we can greatly extend the numbers of people administering the vaccine. It would also be helpful to know more about supplies.
We need to get smarter at dealing with the virus because, unfortunately, we will have to live with it for some months to come, however successful vaccination is. Will Ministers provide more information on medical progress with treatments? We had a great breakthrough in Britain with a steroid helping to reduce the death rate. There are many more things in trial—can we know more about that? Are there supplements that people can take to buttress their immune system and make it less likely that they get the virus, or is that a fiction?
Can we get better at isolating patients and protecting staff in isolation units or hospitals? Why do we not use the Nightingales as covid-19 secure specialist units to take away some of the cross-infection dangers from district general hospitals, and so they do not have the intensity of covid-19 treatment? Can we know more about the capacity of the health service, because there are differing views on how many beds could be made available should the covid-19 wave continue to deteriorate? Can we hear more on improving infection control? What use are we making of intensive UV under suitably controlled conditions? What have we done to try to improve the cleaning of air recycling or air extraction promptly so that we reduce exposure of people in hospitals and other locations that we might wish to use to dirty air that could spread the disease? Above all, we need much more knowledge and information about the energy that is undoubtedly going into alternative treatments and better infection control. I would like to thank all those in Wokingham and the area who have done so much to help us during this difficult period.
I must respectfully disagree with a number of previous speakers. These lockdown measures are necessary—they were necessary when they were introduced in Wales by the Welsh Government on
Nobody wants lockdowns or restrictions, but they are absolutely necessary. If we need any more evidence, we know that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Jo Stevens, is in hospital at the moment. This weekend, I had some heartbreaking conversations with people working in the health service, including in Cardiff. I spoke to someone who worked in the intensive care unit at the Heath Hospital, and the stories they told me were utterly, utterly heartbreaking. My thoughts, solidarity and support are very much with all those in NHS in Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and across the country who are on the front line, and are dealing with the reality of this, rather than the fantasies that we have heard from some corners of the House.
I want to discuss two issues briefly. We have to offer people hope on a way out of this situation, and that is why the vaccines are so crucial. I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care earlier on to give us some guarantees on scaling up production and distribution of the vaccines. In 1915, we faced what was called the shell crisis in world war one. I know about it because my great-grandmother was one of 12,000 women recruited from the cotton mills of the north-west to work in emergency factories, mixing nitroglycerine for munitions for the western front. It was a dangerous, complex and difficult manufacturing task, but one that this country turned itself to 105 years ago. We need to engage in that kind of effort and investment in expanding and adapting facilities for the production, bottling and distribution of the vaccine. We need greater assurances from the Government on that in the weeks ahead, not least so that we know they are doing everything they can at the UK level to get that vaccine produced and give hope to our people suffering under these lockdowns and suffering with the effects of this virus.
Secondly, we must not make the mistakes we made in previous lockdowns, one of which is about our borders, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and others have rightly raised. In January, February, March, April and May last year, we let in people who spread different strains of covid-19 around the country. We now need measures in place at our borders, because there will be more variants and more cases coming from around the world. We need to have the best systems in place. We were told we were taking back control of our borders. We have to have health protections at our borders, and we need those measures now.
Supporting businesses as they endeavour to cope with covid and its multiple challenges has rightly been among the Government’s primary priorities. A comprehensive package of support, including the job retention scheme, loans, rate holidays, cash grants and a temporary cut in VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, has provided a means of survival, but no more than that. This lifeline for livelihoods must not be cut now. Firms that depend on advertising revenue are particularly vulnerable.
Some 99% of firms in our nation are SMEs. They have a central role, whether it is pubs, family-run hotels, cafés or restaurants, manufacturers or independent local shops. They are at the heart of our economy, and they provide the lifeblood that flows through our communities. We must ensure that covid does not further widen existing disparities, advantaging the big at the expense of the small, advancing the national at the expense of the local and the urban to the detriment of the rural. In that respect, I repeat what I said earlier to the Prime Minister. We need the vaccine in rural communities. It needs to be delivered locally and accessibly for those who live a long way from large towns and cities.
SMEs, particularly those in remote areas, face a daily struggle and need continuing support. Contrast for a moment independent, family-run shops, passed down through generations and struggling to cope, with a Tesco executive rejoicing as profits continue to soar. Contrast an Amazon director celebrating a 37% increase in their earnings with the owner of a much loved bookshop dutifully distilling and distributing the wisdom of ages and struggling with the strain of debt.
Schumacher argued that small is beautiful, and small is indeed beautiful, because people are the things that matter most. The Government must try out a new orientation, in which the needs of small, independent family businesses come above the interests of faceless corporations. A new challenge brings new chances for cathartic change. At present, the Government are preoccupied with responding to covid and are defined by that to some degree, but we can chart a new normal that is fairer, freer and fraternal—a different kind of social order where social capital matters as much as economic prosperity and where the wellbeing of communities is at the heart of all that Government do. As our Prime Minister rightly reiterated, only through determination, perseverance and togetherness will the clouds of this storm clear. We must build a new nation—one nation—based on fraternity at Westminster.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir John Hayes. This morning, I and other local MPs met our local NHS leaders, and it is very clear from the pressures on the NHS in my community and up and down the country that these measures are needed for one reason and one reason alone: to prevent NHS services from being overwhelmed, with catastrophic consequences for people’s lives, people’s families and people’s communities. No one takes the imposition of these kinds of measure lightly. We do so in the national interest, and that is why we are voting with the Government this evening.
There are three lessons that the Government needed to learn from the last nine months. The first is the importance of acting quickly and decisively. Being too slow to act, as the Government were in the first lockdown, the second lockdown and now the third lockdown, has had serious consequences for people’s lives, people’s livelihoods and people’s learning. Had the Government acted more quickly, we would not have seen the excess death rate in this country, the rising levels of infection and the disproportionate amount of lost learning among children and young people, not to mention the enormous economic consequences that have followed. Quick and decisive action means a more manageable set of restrictions that allow businesses to carry on trading. We are all paying a heavy price in lives, livelihoods and learning.
The second lesson that the Government needed to learn from this period is that public health and the economic health of our country go hand in hand. It is simply unacceptable that we have not seen the Chancellor in this House since well before Christmas. There is a new set of national restrictions in place that are wreaking havoc with people’s livelihoods. Before Christmas, businesses literally closed overnight at a time when they were looking forward to big Christmas trading. Where is the Chancellor? Where is the support for businesses and for the millions of people who have been excluded since March?
Thirdly, the impact on children and young people has been devastating. Schools should absolutely be the last to close and the first to reopen, but where is the national plan for laptops and internet connections, to support children and young people to get online? The Government have had months to prepare. We urged them to act, and they failed to do so. Where is the plan for exams? We heard warm words from the Education Secretary today but precious little for teachers, children and young people to prepare for.
As we look to a brighter future and a post-vaccination future for our country, let us make sure that we have a position where families can get together, businesses can bounce back and we provide opportunities for young people, rather than allow an entire generation to be consigned to a lost generation of widening educational inequality.
In 2017, the World Health Organisation’s pandemic influenza risk management guidance emphasised that any emergency measures should be necessary, reasonable and proportional. I fear that the measures we are being asked to vote for today are none of those. I was elected to represent my constituents in Romford, and I pay tribute to them for their resilience throughout this pandemic, but I cannot justify such a fundamental assault on their liberties and livelihoods. Removing people’s most fundamental rights and freedoms and confining them to their homes is a political decision. Those of us who are elected must judge not just the impact of the virus but the impact on our constituents’ livelihoods, businesses, jobs, education, homes and physical and mental health.
We are constantly told by the governing, scientific and media class that we must shut down our country and that people must surrender their most basic rights and freedoms in order to save lives, yet those countries that have followed strict lockdown strategies have not all been successful in achieving that aim. There is no Member of this House who does not want to save lives. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the NHS personnel at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, who have done a magnificent job in saving lives and caring for the sick. But there has to be a balance and proportionality to these decisions, considering the long-term consequences for the lives of the people we represent. I fear the impact of these shutdowns on those who run small businesses; on the 50,000 Britons with undiagnosed cancer, as estimated by Macmillan Cancer Support; on the elderly who have been cut off from their loved ones in the last years of their lives; on children from the poorest backgrounds who will fall behind as a result of schools closing; and on the victims of increased domestic violence and suicide.
The scientific advisers will never need to account for the effects of lockdown on our constituents, but we will. The shutdown that we are voting on today and the effects of these measures, while well intended, may, I fear, do more damage to the lives of the British people in the long term than the pandemic itself. I believe a complete rethink of this policy must now take place. Our country cannot go on like this.
I want us to learn from what has happened since March, rather than saying no, because if this lockdown is to be effective, we have to look at the gaps that have not been plugged so far. I want to talk particularly about the up to 3 million self-employed people: freelancers, people who run their own businesses and people who changed jobs at the wrong time who have had little or no financial support. It has been a burning injustice since March that they have gone without, and it continues to be. The Chancellor should be coming to the House of Commons to describe how he is going to support these people who have been left behind. It is not fair to them and it is an injustice, but it is damaging economically too. They all have a contribution to make as the economy eventually recovers, and the stronger and healthier their finances are now, the better placed they and many other businesses will be to play their part when the time comes.
There are also health consequences. One characteristic of this crisis has been that people have not been able to afford to self-isolate—individual low-paid workers and the 3 million excluded people—because they have not had the support, whether that is sick pay for people who are employed, or a lack of access to furlough, to the self-employed scheme or often even to universal credit. People have not been able to afford to self-isolate when they have been contacted, and that is a big part of the reason that less than 20% of people who were supposed to self-isolate have so far done so. That must be fixed; to get the health benefits of the lockdown right, the financial side must be fixed at the same time.
It is therefore right that the expectations of the large retailers in returning £2 billion in unneeded business rates relief are that that money is used to support those who have so far gone without. The Chancellor should come here, and tell the House and those excluded people that that money will be used to support them through the coming weeks—and, if necessary, months. He should be providing greater business support for those areas where business has had to go without for longer because lockdown came earlier and deeper, and he must put these things right soon. If we do not do so, the ongoing crisis will be worse in the long run, the cost will be greater and those people who have gone without will continue to suffer.
I want to start by praising the Prime Minister for the way in which he has taken the decisions. I would rather have a Prime Minister who leaves no stone unturned before restricting our liberties and who makes closing schools the very last thing that he wants to do. Ultimately, these measures have a real effect on people’s lives, and the decisions that we make today are a heavy burden. I also thank the BBC for what it is going to do to help with education; that is a real public service broadcaster.
I welcome the £4.6 billion that is being made available. This week I spoke to the landlord of a pub who told me that this is a vital injection of resources for him to use. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider a slight extension to the rates holiday, because the hospitality sector will be one of the vital tools in our recovery. People are desperate to go out and every time they go out, the Government will get revenue because every drink sold has a duty on it. It is a golden goose of the economy, so please do not cut its head off. Let us see whether we can do more to help that industry.
I have concerns about teacher assessment for examinations. A top grade can be given to a child for what they have been taught, but there will be a lot of stuff that they have not been taught and I fear that they will suffer the consequences of that later on by having that lack in their knowledge. Personally, I would like to see exams moved to Christmas this year. That is a radical solution, but this is an unprecedented situation. Curriculum delivery is absolutely vital, as is examination. Exams are not just an academic test, but a pressure experience and part of our human development that prepares us for later life.
I am concerned about nurseries and feel that they will need more financial support. Many parents will not send their child to nursery if they are at home. Why would they spend the money on that? That means that nurseries could well go bankrupt, so I urge my hon. Friends in the Treasury to look at that matter very quickly.
I want to finish on the issue of reporting. Many people have asked to be shown the number of injections that have been carried out each day. I am not sure whether that in itself is helpful. What would be helpful is a tracking graph of what happens three weeks later when people are immune. A series of levels would show the restrictions that could be undone when so many people have been immunised in the demographic that they represent. In that way, the public will be able to see how we are progressing towards the target of being able to come out of these restrictions. That will give a clearer roadmap and a clearer way of getting the proper buy-in that we need to get out of this situation as quickly as we can. It gives people hope and shows a real timeline in what it means to people.
Finally, on businesses that have put money aside for tax returns that they cannot access, I urge the Government to establish a furlough scheme so that they can access that money and not have to pay tax on it.
In my experience, the Tories have never won elections because the public thought they cared but rather because they believed them to be competent. Black Wednesday did for John Major and I suspect that the covid crisis will deal with the Johnson regime.
No one believes that Governments get it right first time or indeed all of the time, but that does not excuse the criminal negligence of not dealing with pandemic planning, which seems to have gone by the board. It is the speed of reaction and the lessons learned that are important. The question is why do this Government keep making the same mistakes time and again. Who is in charge? Who is minding the shop? Who is dealing with the detail?
Ministers are surprised by predictable events. The Prime Minister seemed to be astonished to find out that viruses mutate. There is a timescale to when they mutate, but they very certainly do mutate. Every year, for example we have a different variant of influenza. We had already experienced a lack of capacity with personal protective equipment. At the time the crisis started, 1% of PPE used in the British health service came from this country. Stock handling was also appalling. When the crisis hit, British firms tried to make contact with the Department of Health and Social Care, but they just ran into a brick wall. They got no response and no help and yet the Government then poured money into grossly overpaid management consultants, middle men and pals at a huge cost to the public purse, causing a real crisis in the health service.
The vaccine programme has seen a magnificent effort from the scientists and their international partners, but, once again, we seem to be short of capacity. The Prime Minister’s response is to act almost like a Soviet planning Minister, setting a target of 13.5 million people to be vaccinated by Valentine’s day, but with no clear indication of how that will be achieved. The Secretary of State very helpfully told us today that filling the glass vials was not the problem, so is it manufacturing capacity? If it is, why have we not dealt with that in the past 12 months? We may ask whether it is MHRA testing, but the MHRA has a great record in validating the vaccines and of moving things along. Where is the problem in the system? What happens when we get a flow, as we will with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because that will be much easier to handle as it does not require the same degree of refrigeration? Why are we not talking to pharmacists and to retired doctors and nurses and getting them lined up now? Why force folk, especially older folk, to travel so far? What the public are asking is whether this lot really know what they are doing.
There have been more than 2 million confirmed covid cases in the UK, 71,000 people have tragically died, and a staggering one in 50 are now diagnosed with covid—another record high for this country. Liverpool has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. The total number of confirmed cases in Liverpool for the last seven days is over 3,500, an increase of over 2,300 on the previous week.
The new variant poses more of a threat going forward, and we clearly need to take action to halt the increase, save lives and protect the NHS, but this was not inevitable. Time and again, we have seen this Government refuse to take the necessary steps to save lives and protect livelihoods. We have the second highest death rate in Europe, surpassed only by Italy. On top of that, we are currently suffering the deepest recession of any G7 country. The Government have failed to rise to the challenge of the pandemic since last year, and future generations will look back on them as having done too little, too late.
I repeat that this was not inevitable. This is what happens when those in charge disregard calls by frontline workers, teachers, scientists, unions and experts for schools to be closed and for a national lockdown to slow the spread of the pandemic. Doctors at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in my constituency describe the situation as hanging by a thread, with major staff shortages and staff suffering exhaustion, the additional winter pressures and delayed medical demand still overdue from the first covid wave all adding to that pressure.
With hospitals at risk of being overwhelmed by the new variant and already facing this huge spike in infections with fewer staff than in the first wave, can the Minister outline what funding will be made available to bring extra support and staff into the NHS over the coming weeks? With the vaccines being rolled out as we speak, and the welcome news that the AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved to begin distribution next week, when will the Government produce a national plan for vaccinations? What steps will be taken to ensure that agency and outsourced workers in frontline jobs, such as hospital porters, cleaners and teaching support staff, will be given equal access to vaccines alongside everyone else in their workplaces, especially given that those staff are more likely to be at greater risk of contracting the virus?
Let me conclude by paying tribute to our valiant NHS, all the workers who have continued to work to keep my city safe: the council, public health, the community and voluntary sector, and the army of amazing volunteers.
Before Christmas, I visited Gotham Primary School in Rushcliffe to see what the children had been doing in Parliament Week. Like us today, they had discussed rules and presented their ideas. I heard passionate arguments against school uniforms. I learned about the rules in Beech class designed, like the regulations we are debating today, to stop the spread of coronavirus. There were excellent campaigns for a nature reserve and a bug hotel, and a multimedia campaign for more litter bins involving leaflets, posters, speeches and a video. I am thinking of trying to make some new recruits there for my next election campaign.
I left with a strong sense of how happy and engaged the children were at school with their friends and teachers. The headteacher, Janette Allen, and her teaching team had done an amazing job to give children back the normality that lockdown last spring had taken from them. I know that they and schools across Rushcliffe will be working hard to provide remote learning and support to children and their families. I also know that it cannot possibly be the same, so it is with a heavy heart that I support these regulations today. I do not believe we have any other choice given the sky-rocketing rates of infection we are seeing from the new covid variant and the pressure our hospitals are under.
I congratulate the Vaccine Taskforce on the amazing work it has done to develop one of the largest and most diverse vaccination portfolios in the world. Thanks to it, and the incredible Oxford-AstraZeneca team, the vaccine is already being rolled out at pace. I urge the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to continue to explore every option available, enlisting both civilian and military help, for getting the vaccine out quickly, and to continue to get rid of any bureaucracy like the ridiculous training modules on anti-terrorism for volunteer vaccinators.
I am very proud of the communities in Rushcliffe who have given their all to battling this virus, but it is taking its toll. People are tired and weary. They need clarity on the conditions that must be met for the restrictions to be eased and on how they will be eased as we emerge from lockdown. They also need to see a clear plan of how schools will be opened up again. I urge my right hon. Friends across Government to make this available sooner rather than later, to give people the morale boost they need to get through this final lockdown.
As we have just heard from Ruth Edwards, lockdown does indeed take its toll on us all, but it affects some people more than others. It shifts huge risk to key workers in social care, the food and retail sector and, of course, the NHS, and to those living in deprived areas, overcrowded housing or poverty. If we do not provide additional support to key workers and disadvantaged communities, transmission will continue and we will not make the most effective use of this lockdown.
We must make it easier for people to do the right thing and stay at home, so we need to raise statutory sick pay to a level that covers the cost of living and makes it possible for people to stay at home and keep themselves, their families and others safe. Many thousands of staff working for private contractors in the NHS, such as cleaners, porters and caterers, are currently only entitled to receive SSP in case of illness. The Government must commit to supporting these vital NHS workers to stay at home, protect the NHS, and continue to save lives. Those working in social care take care of some of the most vulnerable in our society. They too must be able to isolate when they are ill in order to prevent spread of the virus, and must be properly funded to do so. Too many people are excluded from the current self-isolation payment. Too many low-paid people are not eligible because they are not low-paid enough, but the loss of one income in a family, even for 10 days of self-isolation, can really undermine a family’s economic stability and may even lead some to just keep quiet about being unwell.
Vaccines are the way out of this terrible situation, but we have to make sure that, unlike the virus, which has had a disproportionate effect on the poorest and our most vulnerable, our vaccine strategy is fair and equitable. Vaccine programmes, when delivered through a call system, do not have an equal uptake across socioeconomic groups, often leaving behind the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, so it is crucial that the strategy takes this into account by monitoring uptake and engaging with those groups.
We know that covid-19 does not hit us all in the same way, and we know the devastating impact of poverty on children. The recent covid-19 Marmot review found that the pandemic has already widened, and continues to widen, existing quality. The Government must therefore continue the universal credit and working tax credit uplift of £20 per week, commit to ending the benefit cap, and extend the free school meals entitlement to those whose families receive universal credit or have no recourse to public funds. This lockdown is necessary but it is hard.
The proposed restrictions are right. There is no greater freedom than the right to life and we are willing to suspend many freedoms to protect especially those who are vulnerable, and those who work night and day in the NHS and our care settings to protect us. They deserve and require us to abide by the regulations and rules—we owe it to them—not least because we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Given that the vaccination programme is beginning, it is all the more urgent that the Government recognise the importance of supporting the economy and everybody within it throughout the coming months. We know that it is not an ill-defined and possibly indefinite period, but that this will be over at some point in the coming months. That is a source of great joy and should focus the Chancellor’s mind on the support that he needs to give those who are missing out. There are many of them: people who have been self-employed for less than two years; directors of very small limited companies, such as taxi drivers; people who have been on maternity leave. They have been excluded from support. It is an outrage that those people have been left to get into deeper and deeper debt because the Government have yet to devise a mechanism for supporting them. They must do so now. We need those people to build our economy back once we are out of this situation. To let them flounder in poverty now is outrageous and unacceptable.
I would also like the Government to pay attention to the needs and the plight of our outdoor education centres, which are in serious danger of closure. Many have already lost more than a third of their workforce in the past few months. There needs to be a Scotland-style direct grant support payment for those centres so that we can keep them going and they can contribute for years to come.
I also want the Government to come up with a specific and properly funded strategy for dealing with the backlog in cancer treatment. We estimate that 60,000 years of life will be lost to cancer due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it could get worse.
The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. It is wonderful and I pay tribute to everyone involved in making that come to be and in administering the vaccines as we speak. However, the Government are making that tunnel a little bit longer than they need to. It is clear that supply of vaccine to places in South Cumbria is not as good as it might be. Places such as Sedbergh and Windermere have not yet got vaccination centres. Those sites need to be approved.
Finally, given that our teachers are teaching the children of key workers, they should also be vaccinated as a priority.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for saving me up till last. It is difficult to say something new at No. 67 on the list.
Let me say at the outset that I recognise the seriousness of the situation, particularly given the new strain of the virus. I recognise the huge pressures on hospitals and I pay tribute to them. However, I am not convinced that another hurriedly announced national lockdown is the right solution. That is why I am loth to vote for the regulations, especially when we have had just three hours to debate the biggest infringement of our constituents’ civil liberties that I have ever had to vote on as an MP, and given that Parliament could have sat all this week, and we would then have considered the regulations before they came into force.
The sunset expiry date of the regulations has been surreptitiously moved to the end of March rather than the end of January as we were earlier led to believe. The regulations have no impact assessment, and there are measures in them that were brought into law in the first lockdown, but later removed or relaxed.
I have said all along that the Government have a difficult job to balance advice about risk from the medical experts with the economic impact and the public’s confidence in abiding by the regulations. After 10 months, that confidence has been sorely tested and there is a high level of lockdown fatigue. It is therefore even more important that what we ask our constituents is logical, consistent and fair. Banning golf, tennis, angling and other outside pursuits was not considered logical previously and was relaxed in earlier regulations. Banning people from buying beer from outside closed pubs rather than crowding into supermarkets and off-licences was also inconsistent and relaxed in earlier regulations. It is therefore frustrating and regressive to see those and many other unnecessary and illogical restrictions creeping back in again. I ask the Secretary of State to be sensible and sensitive to the lobbying to remove them before they undermine confidence further.
My main point concerns the vaccine. It must be the Government’s single biggest imperative. We need a national effort—a “little ships” effort—to deliver, buoyed up by the sea of vaccine the Government wisely bought up early. So when Ministers and clinicians proudly claim that we will be vaccinating 12 hours a day, seven days a week, my reaction is to ask: what about the other 12 hours—the other 50% of the day? We should be vaccinating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until everyone who qualifies is jabbed. Many volunteers have come forward to work shifts in the middle of the night—many little old ladies in Worthing who would readily bring tea and biscuits round at 4 o’clock in the morning, with others to run the technology. If they are offered a jab at 4 am rather than four weeks hence, people will turn up.
We should be getting more juice, as the Secretary of State put it earlier, including by approving the Moderna vaccine already given the go-ahead in the US, for example. Create drive-through jab centres, develop online booking of slots, allow walk-in services for spare appointments, allow diabetics to self-jab when they get their insulin. Only when we are vaccinating full-time can the Government claim to be doing absolutely everything they can, at pace, to get us out of this revolving pandemic lockdown door.
First, I thank our dedicated and brilliant scientists who have given us the hope of a way out of this extremely difficult period.
At the start of the first lockdown, the Prime Minister stated that the virus would be under control within 12 weeks, yet 10 months on, we are rerunning the devastation caused at the inception of the crisis. The virus is spreading exponentially, many people are in hospital and thousands of lives are at risk. This lockdown is necessary to restrict the spread of the virus and to protect our NHS, and yet again the public—my constituents in Luton South—at very short notice are doing their bit to tackle the spread of covid-19. But lockdown is a blunt tool. Being able to move out of it is contingent on the success of the vaccination programme across the country, so the Government must ensure that they carry out their side of the deal effectively, by acting quickly to make sure the programme is a success.
Meeting the target of vaccinating those in the top four priority groups by mid-February will require the vaccination of 2 million people a week and a total of 14 million vaccinations. Although we all want the vaccine to be rolled out as quickly as possible, I am concerned about the capacity of the UK’s vaccine manufacturers to meet that target, given that the sustained lack of investment in vaccine manufacturing has left the UK acutely underprepared. The chief medical officer has stated that the vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away, and the Government recognise that, having already dropped the 30 million dose vaccine target set in May.
At the beginning of 2020, the UK did not have the capacity to produce vaccines to meet the demand created by a pandemic, so, shockingly, we are seeing the UK relying on repurposed infrastructure to make the Oxford vaccine. Sir John Bell has stated:
“The government has been completely disinterested in building onshore manufacturing capacity for any of the life-sciences products”.
In addition, one of the companies manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine in bulk is transporting vaccine doses to Germany to be put in vials. A decade of Government austerity has hampered our ability to tackle this pandemic, and after the Government’s failures in PPE procurement and the outsourced test and trace system, and their failure to provide sufficient economic support, particularly to those who have been excluded, they must now not fail in the roll-out of the vaccine programme. I hope the Minister will explain to the House how the Government intend to address the frailty of the vaccine manufacturing supply chain and to rapidly increase the number of doses available.
I am also concerned that the Government have not published a detailed strategy for the vaccination of all key workers. As we go into another lockdown, we will once again see the real value of key workers, who keep our country going. There have not been sufficient assurances that teachers, posties, firefighters, police officers—all frontline key workers—will be prioritised in the vaccination process. Will the Minister outline—
Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Deputy Speaker. I can think of few things I would prefer more not to do than again restrict the lives of my constituents in Gloucester, but until we have immunised those who are most likely to need hospital help, the responsible action today is to support the Government. In this third lockdown, it is incredibly important that we help as much as we can all those involved in distributing the vaccine, to get us to the exit as soon as possible.
I know that the process of sharing information locally has been a real problem for some colleagues, but that has not been the case in Gloucestershire, where for nine months now all six county MPs have met regularly with our NHS primary care, public health and county council heads. I pay tribute to them all, not just for the leadership they have given to their organisations, but for the hard work of so many of their staff in healthcare, social care and care homes. However, we are often told that the basic facts that we are being given are confidential. Therefore, I ask the Health Secretary to agree today that the number of those in the top four categories in every area, the number vaccinated, the daily rate required to meet the
Secondly, I would highlight that although we all agree how important it is to get children back to school, confidence in when pupils will be able to go back is fairly low at the moment. One way of being able to get around this problem, even though I know it contradicts the principles of how the JCVI organises its categories, would be to vaccinate the teachers, so that heads would know that all their staff would be there and would not be at risk from pupils spreading the virus inadvertently. I ask the Health Secretary to consider that, as he considers all the other important issues about supply and distribution of vaccines as soon as possible.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am glad to be speaking in such an important debate. First, I thank all the staff at St George’s Hospital and Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, who are working so hard at the moment to deliver much of the life-saving care that we are talking about in today’s debate. I also offer my condolences to the families of the over 1,000 people who have died in the last 24 hours, which really brings home why we need these measures, hard though they are. As such, I will be voting for them and supporting them. Our hospitals are under stress; we need to have these measures to save lives and protect the NHS.
I am highly disappointed about the failure of the track and trace system up to now, which I think is part of the reason why we are having to see these continuing lockdowns. We are not overcoming this disease, as they have done in other countries, so we have to get to grips with real tracking and real tracing, getting back to 100 contacts each. I welcome the roll-out of vaccines, and look forward to a “community first” way of rolling these out, in which local GPs—those who are trusted to provide and administer the vaccine—will be leading the way. I especially hope to see a vaccination centre in Roehampton in my constituency. I am disappointed that many people are still left out of economic support: a business rate holiday would make all the difference to my constituents and businesses.
Finally, there is still a failure to contract for scrubs. There are still volunteers making scrubs for our NHS providers, and this needs to be sorted out. I would really welcome hearing from the Minister whether I can meet with those who are involved with contracting on scrubs, along with experts in my community, who are still doing this on a voluntary basis when it should be done nationally. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I put on record my thanks to you and your staff for what is now the second recall of Parliament for important business. I know that a lot of work goes into making that possible, and we really appreciate that, but it is important that we are here today. The daily figures that colleagues will have read while sat in this debate are sobering: 1,041 more of our countrymen and women have lost their lives to this horrible virus. It is a sobering moment, and with that in mind, we will support these regulations today. We do not think it is inevitable that we are in this situation, but it is clear that we are in a very challenging moment indeed, and in these dangerous times, with our NHS working at such high capacity, it is in the national interest to protect it and make these difficult decisions.
I say to people watching: if you are one of the very many people who have been excluded from Government support so far, or if you have missed out on self-isolation support, or if you are concerned about business support or reductions in welfare support going forward, I hope that you will have seen the support from our Benches, from my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson), all giving you voice. Similarly, I hope that those very many clinically extremely vulnerable, who have so often felt ignored, saw in the contribution from my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft that they are not. The same goes for contributions on frontline staff made by my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson).
Many points were made earlier today about schools, which I will not emphasise any further, other than to mention the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Sheffield Central, for Luton North (Sarah Owen) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Important points were made about the border by my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, which I will reflect on shortly.
Many Opposition colleagues—including my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), my right hon. Friend John Spellar and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth—referred to the vaccine, as did many Government Members, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan and the hon. Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke). In particular, Steve Brine and Mr Harper made contributions about the Government committing to publish a schedule of precisely what vaccine is going to be received and when, and how that will be rolled out, and I think the Government ought to do that.
Important contributions were made by Government Members about the exit plans and support for business, as well as children and early years. Contributions were made by the right hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and John Redwood about oversight, and we as an Opposition would support a further review, in shorter order, of these regulations and further debate to make sure that they are as effective as possible.
The right hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and Andrew Rosindell all made points about the scientists. I would perhaps fall on Margaret Thatcher’s maxim, “Advisers advise, Ministers decide”. Ultimately, if those colleagues are dissatisfied with the actions of the Government, it is for Ministers alone to account for them rather than the scientists, who are giving their best endeavours, even if we do not agree with them.
I thought it was interesting that not a single colleague mentioned that we are exactly where we were one week ago. I was in this place, the Minister was in her place and you were in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker, as we were discussing regulations. That failed. That seems funny, but actually, it is not funny at all when we think about it. I asked the Minister three times to say that the Government thought that their final attempt to salvage the tier system would work. I had no such commitment made, so perhaps it is not a surprise that it fell over, even if it is a surprise that it fell over as quickly as it did. That is a characterisation of a failure to grip this virus, as my hon. Friend Wes Streeting said. The Government have been just so slow and always short, trying to do the bare minimum and never, frankly, doing enough.
In a similar vein, it was quite disappointing that the Secretary of State’s contribution—his 23 minutes—could have been an intro to a general debate on vaccines, because that was all he spoke about. Of course, the vaccine is important and is our way through this, but actually, it is a failure to grasp at ministerial level that there are many things other than the vaccine, that they have control and say over and that they simply have not done well enough on.
This lockdown, which we will no doubt support tonight, will not make our problems go away. Lockdowns do not solve anything. They buy us time to solve things, so in the limited time remaining, I will highlight some of those that I think that the Secretary of State ought to have referred to, and I hope that the Minister will in her winding-up speech.
On economic support, again, there was not a word for those many millions excluded from support so far. They have gone a long time now without support. They deserve more than the glib comment that they had from the Prime Minister this morning. I hope the Minister might do a little bit better. The Chancellor should be here giving us a chance to scrutinise those plans. He was very keen to at the beginning, but we have not seen him now for a very long time.
Test, trace and isolate remains a significant gap in our fence. What fools we all look now given that, when the virus was at its lowest ebb in the summer, that system was not sorted out. Instead, while the testing number at the beginning of the system remains a very good one, turnaround time does not hit its targets, tracing never hits its targets and we know that not enough people isolate because the support for them is not good enough. The fact that we have failed to fix those problems reflects very poorly on the Government.
On the border, I am always loth to make international comparisons, certainly beyond Europe, but our daily death total today is more than the entire death total during the pandemic in Australia. There are ways in which we are similar and ways in which we are different from them, but I think we should reflect on the fact that on
To finish, I will make a couple of points on vaccination. The development and procurement of vaccine has been a success of this Government—I have said that multiple times in this place, and will continue to do so—but whether they have a successful vaccination programme remains to be seen. There is frustration on both sides of the House that we do not yet have the sense that this will be a 24/7 service, or that we are unleashing all those people who have volunteered to contribute. It is surprising to see pharmacies on the front page of national newspapers—that is the length that pharmacies feel that they have to go to get the attention of the Government. If the Government are sure they do not need that extra support and will still deliver on time, they should be clear about that.
May I have some particular clarity from the Minister? We have been hearing the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister now saying—they have changed their form of words in the past three or four days—that everyone in categories 1 to 4 will be “offered” the vaccine by the middle of February. What does that mean? What does it mean for the modelling? Before, we thought that by the middle of February we wanted everyone in those categories to be vaccinated—within, of course, the limits of people choosing not to take it up. What this cannot be is a paper exercise; it has to be the fullest—
The Minister seems to dispute that, so I hope that she will take the time in her contribution to do so.
The vaccination programme represents a deal with the British people. We are asking the British people to ensure significant hardship for a significant period—that is the British people’s side of the bargain. The Government’s side of the bargain is an effective, safe and timely vaccination programme. They have to deliver on that.
I will finish in that spirit, with a simple message to my constituents and constituents across the country: stay at home, protect the NHS and vaccinate Britain.
The regulations before us set out measures that none of us wants to take, yet we must take them if we are to control this new and aggressively infectious variant of coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly across the country. As we heard from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health, we are up against it, in a race of vaccine versus virus. We are vaccinating faster than any comparable country but, even as we do so, each day we have a relentless rise in the number of new infections, hospital admissions and, sadly, deaths. We now have more than 30,000 people in our hospitals with covid.
Earlier this week, the UK’s chief medical officer’s advice was that we should move to alert level 5, meaning that if action is not taken, NHS capacity might be overwhelmed within 21 days. The consequences of that and the decisions that it could lead to are not decisions that we want our doctors to have to take. Therefore, I say to hon. Members, that is why we must adopt the measures before us. Just as we do not want to impose the restrictions on people, we must of course be ready to lift them too, as soon as we are in a position to do so. Lockdowns come at huge cost, economic and social, and in particular to the many thousands of children who are no longer going to school.
The regulations can continue until
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Many other hon. Members have also asked about the duration of the restrictions and ongoing parliamentary scrutiny. I can say that the regulations provide for the restrictions until
I also reassure my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady, my right hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and others that we absolutely do not want to continue the restrictions longer than necessary. Most particularly, we do not want to keep children at home and being home-schooled. I say that as a parent with three children who have spent the day, I hope, being home schooled—my husband has been in charge of that today. We do not want that to be the situation any longer than it has to be. Schools were the last to close, and the Prime Minister has said that we want them to be the first to open. Of course, they are still open for the children of critical workers, and that should include—to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger—those involved in the construction of critical national infrastructure, such as the Hinkley Point power station.
While with great reluctance we have had to keep most children out of school, we have also had to require outdoor sports facilities, such as golf courses, to close. Several hon. Members have challenged that, and I want to tackle it head on. I say to hon. Members who have raised this issue that if we made an exemption for golf, we would also have to make an exemption for other outdoor activities, such as tennis, outdoor bowling, climbing walls, riding centres, dry ski slopes and go-karting—I could go on. People would then say, “I’m being told to stay at home but I can go and do all those things, so you don’t really mean that I should stay at home.” Quite apart from the fact that people congregate in those outdoor settings, we need to be really clear that the message now is, “Stay at home.”
I am pretty thick when it comes to logic. A person can go on their bicycle and that counts as exercise, but they cannot sit on their own, in a solitary way, on a riverbank. What is the problem with that?
I do not believe that my hon. Friend is as he describes himself, but what I do think is quite clear. We are saying that people should stay at home, unless their reason for leaving home is on the very clear list of essential reasons for doing so. That covers the eligibility of the children of critical workers to be in school, healthcare appointments and, indeed, exercise. We really need to make sure that it is absolutely clear that, other than for those specific reasons, people should stay at home. That is what we need to do in order to control this raging virus. That is the message that all of us need to convey to our constituents.
I have very little time and want to cover more of the points that have been raised, including by my hon. Friend.
As hon. Members have said, this national lockdown is different from previous lockdowns because we have the vaccine and the end is in sight. We have already vaccinated more than 1.3 million people. That includes the nearly one in four of those over 80 who have had their first jab. By the middle of February, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the top four priority group identified by JCVI—namely, care home residents and staff; people over 70; all frontline NHS and care staff; and the clinically extremely vulnerable. That answers the question posed by the shadow Health Secretary as to when NHS frontline staff will have the opportunity to be vaccinated, as they, together with social care staff, are in the group to be offered the vaccination by mid-February.
The Opposition spokesman, Alex Norris, asked how the vaccine will be offered. He will know that vaccination is not mandatory. We are educating, encouraging and informing people of the important reasons why they should step forward and have the vaccine. That is the way in which we are going about it.
My hon. Friend Mr Clarke rightly said that we should stop at nothing to get people vaccinated, and I could not agree more. That is why my hon. Friend the vaccination deployment Minister is working with the NHS on getting millions of people vaccinated in just a matter of weeks, involving hospitals, GPs, community pharmacies and a workforce that includes thousands of volunteers, including health professionals returning to the frontline to play their part. As the Health Secretary confirmed earlier, we have already acted to reduce some of the bureaucracy and, in particular, some of the training models required for those NHS returners, so that we are ready to vaccinate as fast as the vaccine can be supplied.
I have heard several hon. Members call for more data on the vaccination roll-out. I assure them that weekly data will be published tomorrow, and the publication of daily data will start next week. That data will show our accelerating vaccination programme protecting more people day by day, so that in time we will be able to lift many of the restrictions before the House today.
In conclusion, there are difficult weeks ahead for all of us—especially for those working on the frontline in health and social care, whom we cannot thank enough—but we are on the final stretch with the end in sight, so we must keep our resolve and get behind these restrictions, which are needed to control the virus until the vaccine has reached those that it needs to. I commend the regulations to the House.
The House divided: Ayes 524, Noes 16.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 8), dated
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.