Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:19 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 3:19 pm, 12th January 2021

I am incredibly grateful to my—if I recollect correctly—hon. and gallant Friend, who has served in the past with distinction. He is absolutely right to highlight the amazing work of our armed forces, which was highlighted in the Chamber earlier this afternoon. He is also right to highlight the spirit of getting things done. He will have seen that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been very clear that, while making no compromises on safety for patients and for those receiving the vaccine, he is working very hard to make sure that any bureaucratic barriers that do not support patient safety are removed to ensure the speedy and effective roll-out of the vaccine. So I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point.

We have vaccinated more people than the rest of Europe put together—well over 2 million individuals, including more than a quarter of the over-80s in this country. I think that is a record to be proud of, but there is no room for complacency. We continue to work hard to get more injections in more people’s arms.

In that context, I pay tribute not just to the Secretary of State and to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, but to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce, who have done so much to make sure that this country was at the forefront of being able to purchase and deploy vaccines to help save lives. Yet, just as we accelerate the deployment of the vaccine further and faster, we must also recognise that the new variant of the coronavirus does present us with a renewed challenge.

Our strategy has always been, and continues to be, to suppress the virus to protect the NHS and save lives until a vaccine can make us safe, but with a new variant that is more than twice as transmissible, we must be clear that that task becomes considerably harder. The figures from the Office for National Statistics are stark: more than one in 50 of the UK population has the virus and an even higher proportion than that in places such as London. So, just as the virus has evolved, so must our response. We find ourselves once again in a difficult and challenging national lockdown, taking steps that I do not think anyone could have imagined in January last year—steps that, understandably, are truly testing the patience and forbearance of every person in this country but that are essential to relieve the pressure on our NHS, allow for the vaccine to be effectively deployed and, ultimately, set us free from the need for these restrictions.

Before I turn to those steps in a little more detail and the deployment of our vaccines, I am sure the whole House will, as always, join me in paying tribute to the heroic responses we continue to see from people in every walk of life. The return of the clap for carers initiative last Thursday, under the new guise of clap for heroes, is a reflection of the shift in our collective understanding of just what heroism and service look like and a tribute to everyone who is helping us push through this difficult time.

I know that my constituency neighbour, Liz Kendall, will join me in paying tribute to and thanking everyone who works in our NHS in this country and all those who support not just the NHS but social care, in care homes, social care settings and domiciliary care—people in a range of roles up and down our country who, day in, day out, selflessly care for those who need it. In a past life, I was a local councillor, and I had the privilege of being the cabinet member for adult social care, health and public health for the council on which I served. I saw at first hand the amazing work that our social care workforce do, and it is right that we recognise that at every opportunity in this Chamber.

It is also important to highlight the great British scientists who are at the forefront of humanity’s fight against this virus, developing not only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine but life-saving treatments for those who become infected with covid, first in the form of dexamethasone and now tocilizumab and sarilumab—I have considerable sympathy with the Prime Minister in his attempts to pronounce those—both of which have been found to reduce the risk of death for critically ill patients by almost a quarter and cut time spent in intensive care by as much as 10 days. Those life-saving drugs are now available through the NHS, and it is an example of the huge debt of gratitude we owe people from all walks of life—not just those on the health and social care frontline, but people who are working under very different but no less considerable pressures for our country. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, who is the Minister for prevention, public health and primary care, will no doubt reflect on that when she winds up the debate.

In terms of the context, I must first turn to the pressures in our acute hospital settings. Across the UK, there are more than 32,000 patients in our hospitals with covid. That is over a third of the NHS’s available beds of all types. On 31 December last year, the total reported admission to hospital and diagnosis of covid in English hospitals was 2,536—on one day. That increased by 46% in the week that followed, so on 9 January, we were seeing 3,718 people admitted. The pressures on our acute hospitals and those who work in them are intense. Patients are therefore currently being treated in Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Exeter, Bristol and Harrogate to cope with these numbers, and NHS England has confirmed that the Nightingale in London is also open for patients.

Last Monday, all four UK chief medical officers recommended that we move the country to covid-19 alert level 5, meaning that in their expert view, there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed. In this place, we have often talked about the most frightening of possibilities, but frankly, we have never been this close to seeing it happen, although we are all doing everything we can to ensure that the NHS continues to be able to cope during this time. Quite rightly, we have thanked our NHS staff, and people in this country have expressed gratitude and clapped them, but I think it is fair to say—echoing some of the intensive care doctors and nurses I have seen in the media recently—that the best way we can all say thank you to our NHS is to follow the rules and stay home in line with those rules, to ease the pressure on them.

That is why the choice that this House took last Wednesday to vote overwhelmingly for new regulations, placing England into a national lockdown alongside the action taken in each of the devolved nations, was the right choice. The key message is and must be as it was in the spring, as I have just enunciated: you must stay home. We have always said, and I have always been clear, that it is right that schools should be the last thing to close, and we deeply regret that we have had to close them, but as we begin to move out of lockdown, when we can safely do so—and, as the Prime Minister has promised, through the gradual loosening of restrictions when we can—schools will be the first thing to reopen.

Our regulations provide for these new restrictions until 31 March 2021. I hope that they may not be needed for as long as that, but that time allows us to take steady, controlled and evidence-led decisions, including moving places down through tiers on a local basis—again, when it is safe to do so. As you would expect, Mr Deputy Speaker, we will of course keep these restrictions under continuous review, with a statutory requirement to look at them every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are deemed no longer necessary to limit transmission of the virus.