With permission, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic.
Today marks an important milestone in our fight against this virus as we take step 4 on our road map. It is a long-awaited moment for the businesses that can now open their doors at long last, the happy couples who can have weddings without curbs on numbers and, of course, the people who can see more of their loved ones in care homes. Although we have made huge advances in our race between the vaccine and the virus, we are not at the finish line yet. Instead, we are entering what I believe to be the next stage—a stage where we continue with caution while doing what it takes to manage the risk of this virus, which is still with us and still possesses a threat. Cases and hospitalisations have risen over the past week, as we predicted, and we know that these numbers will get worse before they get better. Although there is never a perfect time to take this step, making the move today gives us the best chance of success. We are cautiously easing restrictions when we have the natural firebreak of the school holidays and when the warmer weather gives us an advantage, so we will move forward with caution, drawing on the defences we have built, as we set out in our five-point plan two weeks ago.
One of these five defences is the protective wall provided by our vaccination programme, and I would like to start by updating the House on this life-saving work. Our vaccination programme has given us extra legs in our race against this virus. The protection it has built up in people across the United Kingdom means that the ratio between cases and hospitalisation is the lowest it has been during this pandemic. This reinforces the need to protect as many people as we can as quickly as we can, and we made a four-week delay to step 4 so that we could do exactly that, with 8 million more vaccinations in that period. We set the target of giving second doses to two thirds of United Kingdom adults by today, and we hit that target last week with five days to spare. We also pledged to offer a first dose of a vaccine to all adults, and we have met that target too. Now, almost 88% of adults have taken up that offer. Although uptake among 18 to 30-year-olds is much lower and needs to increase, we are in a good place.
Our work is not over yet. As we strive to reach the remaining adults who have not yet had a first or a second dose, we are already making our plans for the next stage, because we do not know how long immunity lasts. Because coronavirus mutates, just like flu, we must stay one step ahead of it, so we are drawing up plans for a potential booster programme, subject to the final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, so that we can protect the most vulnerable ahead of winter.
We are also looking at extending our vaccination programme so we can protect even more people. We asked the JCVI to consider whether children and young adults should be given the offer of a vaccine, and that advice has been published today. Before I continue, allow me to apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for mistakenly referencing that on air this morning before setting out the details in full before the House. The JCVI considered not just the health impacts but the non-health impacts, as we asked it to do, such as how education is disrupted by outbreaks in schools. I reassure the House that the number of children and young people who have had severe outcomes from covid is extremely low: the hospitalisation rate during the second wave was between 100 and 400 for every million. When we look at the small numbers who were hospitalised, most had severe underlying health conditions.
Today’s advice recommends that we continue to vaccinate 16 and 17-year-olds who are in an at-risk group, as we do now. It also recommends expanding the offer of the vaccine to some younger children with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of covid-19. That includes children aged 12 to 15 with severe neuro disabilities, Down’s syndrome, immunosuppression and profound or multiple learning disabilities. The JCVI advice also recommends offering a vaccine to children and young people aged 12 to 17 who live with someone who is immunosuppressed. That means that we can indirectly protect the immunosuppressed, who are at higher risk of serious disease from covid-19 and may not generate a full immune response to vaccination. Finally, the JCVI advises that we should offer the vaccine to all 17-year-olds who are within three months of their 18th birthday so that they are protected as soon as they turn 18.
Together with Health Ministers in all parts of the United Kingdom, the Secretary of State has accepted that advice and has asked the NHS to put it into action as soon as possible. As we do that, we will be using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is the only vaccine in the UK that has been clinically authorised for people between the ages of 12 and 17. I know that people will have questions about what it means for them and their children. I assure them that nobody needs to come forward at this stage. The NHS will get in touch with them at the right time and will ensure that the jabs are delivered in a setting that meets their complex needs.
We also asked the JCVI to consider rolling out vaccines to all children and young people over the age of 12. Although we are not taking that step today, the JCVI is keeping this matter under review and will be looking at more data as it becomes available, especially on children with a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The steps that we are taking today mean that we will be offering even more vulnerable people the protection that a vaccine brings, and we will all be safer as a result.
We know that vaccines are our most important defence against this virus. That is especially the case in adult social care settings, which are home to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, who are vulnerable to a devastating impact from covid-19. Last week, the House passed regulations to make vaccination a condition of deployment in care homes, and the Lords will consider those regulations tomorrow. These regulations are designed to help maximise vaccine uptake and protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, yet I recognise the need for more detail on the Government’s analysis of their expected impact, so today we have published an impact statement, and we will be publishing a full impact assessment as soon as possible.
As we learn to live with covid, we must be pragmatic about how we manage the risks we face. Self-isolation of positive cases and their close contacts remains one of the most effective tools we have for reducing transmission. However, we recognise that there are some very specific circumstances where there would be a serious risk of harm to public welfare if people in critical roles, such as air traffic controllers or train signallers, are unable to go to their workplace. People in such roles who have received two vaccinations, and who are two weeks beyond the second vaccine, will not need to self-isolate to perform those critical tasks. However, they will have to continue to self-isolate at all other times. The people who are eligible for this will receive personalised letters setting out the steps they must follow. This is a sensible and pragmatic step, and one that will be used sparingly and responsibly.
We are being similarly pragmatic at our borders. As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Robert Courts, has confirmed, UK residents arriving from amber-list countries who have been fully vaccinated will no longer have to quarantine, although they will still need to comply with necessary testing requirements. This will not apply to France, due to the persistent presence of cases of the beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa.
We are doing everything in our power to restore international travel, and to restore it safely, but new variants pose the greatest threat to our path out of this pandemic. We will not hesitate to act in a similar way with any other country. We will continue to keep a close eye on the data and to be firm and decisive in how we protect the progress we have made, but the enduring message is that getting vaccinated is the best way to ensure that people can travel as freely as possible.
Vaccination also holds the key to doing the things we love here at home. We are supporting the safe reopening of large, crowded settings such as nightclubs, as we saw last night, and music venues through the use of the NHS covid pass as a condition of entry to reduce the risks of transmission. I encourage businesses to draw on this support and to use the NHS covid pass in the weeks ahead. We will be keeping a close watch on how it is used by venues, and we reserve the right to mandate it, if necessary.
By the end of September, everyone aged 18 and over will have had the chance to receive full vaccination and the additional two weeks for that protection to take hold. At that point, we plan to make full vaccination a condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient. Any decision will, of course, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and we will ensure there are appropriate exemptions for those who have genuine medical reasons for not getting vaccinated. I am clear that we will always look at the evidence available and do all we can to ensure that people can continue to do the things they love.
Our vaccination programme has put us on the road to recovery. We should all be proud of how this national effort is helping us to take steps towards a more normal life, but we must keep reinforcing the wall of protection—getting the jab, getting the second jab and getting the booster shot, for those who are asked to come forward. With such a deadly virus and the continued threat of new variants, our wall of protection must be more than just vaccines alone. We must continue to do all the other sensible things that we know can keep the virus at bay: getting tested, considering the advice and continuing to act with caution. Taken together, this will help us all enjoy these new experiences and safely slow the spread of this deadly virus. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.
Of course people have the right to protest against a lockdown that no longer exists, but will he join me in condemning the ugly scenes of harassment, thuggishness, throwing of objects, pushing and intimidation directed at police officers outside on Parliament Square earlier?
The Minister has said that a number of teenagers will be vaccinated. Can he tell us how many and by when? The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has approved the Pfizer jab for all 12 to 18-year-olds. Indeed, countries such as the United States, Canada, Israel, France, Austria, Spain, Hong Kong and others have started vaccinating, or soon will be, 12 to 18-year-olds, so why are we not?
The Minister rightly said that the risk of death to children from covid is mercifully very low, but children can become very sick and they can develop long-term conditions and long covid. Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics, 14.5% of children aged 12 to 16 have symptoms lasting longer than five weeks, so will he spell out in detail the clinical basis for why the JCVI has made this decision? Will he publish all its analysis and documents in the same way that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies publishes its analysis—not just the advice—and can he guarantee that this decision was made on medical grounds and not on grounds of vaccine supply?
The Minister talked about infection among children being disruptive, and we know that infection among children is highly disruptive for learning—we have seen hundreds of thousands of children out of school. If we are not vaccinating all adolescents, can he tell us what the Government’s plan is for September, when children return to school? For example, will he consider using this summer to install air filtration units in every classroom or in every school?
Testing is already stretched, with turnaround times lengthening. Can the Minister guarantee that through the summer—and especially once contacts can be released from isolation on the back of a negative PCR test in August—and into September, when schools return, there will be sufficient PCR testing capacity to meet demand? As we move into autumn and winter, we anticipate more flu and respiratory viruses. Those are illnesses with symptoms that often overlap with covid, so will he also now invest in our testing capacity, so that alongside a covid test we can test for flu and respiratory syncytial virus this winter? We need multi-pathogen testing going forward.
Three weeks ago, the Health Secretary told us that unlocking would make us healthier, and he promised us that it would be irreversible, but today we have some of the highest infection case rates in the world, and the mayor from “Jaws” has decided to reopen the beaches, recklessly throwing off all the restrictions with no safety precautions in place, such as mandatory mask wearing. It risks reimposing new restrictions in the future, and it means that the NHS is facing a summer crisis. Already, admissions for covid are running at around 550 a day, and hospitals are cancelling cancer surgery. Liver transplant operations were cancelled in Birmingham last week.
Throwing off all restrictions like this will see thousands suffer serious long-term illness. The clinically vulnerable and scared are feeling shut out of society, and selection pressure could see a new variant emerging that evades the success of the vaccine programme, setting us back and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It is reckless, and it does not have our support.
More infections means more isolation. The NHS staff who will be released from isolation if double-jabbed will still want protection for themselves and their patients, so will the Minister ensure that the standard of masks worn in NHS settings is upgraded to the FFP3 requirement, as NHS staff have called for? What is his plan for keeping the economy and public services functioning throughout the summer as more and more people are asked to isolate?
We know that the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s plan was to dodge isolation, so can the Minister tell us how this “random” clinical trial, which so helpfully selected the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was set up? Will he tell us what exactly happened between 8 am and 10.38 am on Sunday that persuaded the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to withdraw from this presumably valuable and random clinical study? Can he tell us how many other Ministers have participated in the trial? Did he participate? How many Government Departments and officials were involved, and why? If he cannot answer these questions sufficiently, our constituents will rightly conclude that it is one rule for Tory Ministers and another for the rest of us.
The right hon. Gentleman began well but ended with petty politics. However, I will address the issue of the testing trials over a number of days, which began, I think, around December. It was not just the Cabinet Office and No. 10 that participated; organisations such as Transport for London, Heathrow airport and others would have participated as well. The Government make thousands of decisions every day, every week, which is not something that the Opposition are used to doing—certainly not their leader, anyway. Nevertheless, I shall refrain from engaging in petty politics and try to address some of his more substantive questions.
On the harassment and thuggish misbehaviour, I join him in condemning such behaviour outside the Houses of Parliament against our police officers.
On vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the number for England. Approximately 370,000 children will receive that protection. We are currently not following the United States of America, Israel or other countries in vaccinating all children, although the JCVI is continuing to review the data and is waiting for more data on second doses. Millions of children in the US have already received a first dose but there is a time lag for second doses and that is being kept under review. We publish the JCVI advice accordingly.
On testing, the United Kingdom now has the capacity for over 600,000 PCR tests and many millions of lateral flow tests. I myself am not on the trial that the right hon. Gentleman spoke about, but I do take the lateral flow test and I tested negative earlier today, as I did on Thursday and Friday.
I am happy to have the right hon. Gentleman’s support on the JCVI advice on protecting the most vulnerable children, and of course asking it to make sure that it reviews the data on all children. I reassure him that the decision was not in any way made taking into consideration volumes of vaccine. We have plenty of vaccine available for the vaccination of all children that is necessary. We have ordered more of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is the vaccine that was approved. The decision was made by the JCVI based on looking at the data from other countries, and that is the decision that we will implement.
Nearly eight years ago, Mr Speaker, in Central Lobby on Saturday
Turning to the domestic matter of the NHS, can I put to the Government what has been put to me by a community sister? She said that in order to test voluntarily every day before going to other people’s homes, she had been getting three months’ supplies of tests. The system appears to have changed and each member of staff like her now has to apply for a seven days’ supply, which are sent to their home, meaning much more waste and much more work for each member of staff.
Could the Government please get together to see whether it is possible for those who work for the NHS who want to test each day to get bulk supplies from work and cut out some of this unnecessary extra work?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who asks an important question. I certainly take that feedback very seriously and will take it back to the team to ensure that we get the most efficient operational way of delivering lateral flow tests to the frontline.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It is important that we follow the science on this issue, and I welcome clarity from the JCVI on that matter. The Pfizer vaccine is required for young teens, and Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are required for young adults, but the supply of those looks to be the lowest since February. What assurances can the Minister give that delivery will be sufficient? With many younger adults unvaccinated, and with some more complacent about covid, how does the Minister propose to persuade more of them to get vaccinated, and dramatically reduce the risk of serious disease? The UK now has more daily cases than any other state in the world, and as the Health and Social Care Secretary has demonstrated, it is still possible to catch and therefore spread the virus when vaccinated.
Last week, more than 1,200 scientists, doctors and disease experts said that the UK Government and their complete and immediate unlocking of England with only 54% of the population fully vaccinated was a “threat to the world”. Will the UK Government accept responsibility should the concerns of those experts come true? Finally, the Health and Social Care Secretary has spoken, as his predecessor did often, about the need not to politicise the pandemic. Will the Minister explain why his party colleagues in Scotland are attempting to attack the Scottish Government for their vaccine programme, despite the fact that a greater proportion of people in Scotland have been vaccinated than in England? Does he condemn attempts by his party colleagues to politicise the vaccine roll-out in Scotland, or does he consider their untruthful claims to be acceptable?
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important questions. Pfizer supply remains consistent, and we have every confidence that the manufacturer will continue to deliver, as it has done, according to the delivery schedules. Being able to continue to vaccinate the over-18s with their first dose, and of course their second dose by the end of September is not a question of supply. Equally, as we did a few hours ago, jointly with Minister Humza Yousaf and the Ministers from Northern Ireland and Wales, we can take a decision that we will all follow JCVI advice on vaccinating vulnerable children and those who live with vulnerable adults, as I described in my statement.
On our capability in the UK to manage this pandemic, I hope, with the booster campaign in September, to transition from pandemic status to endemic status. With the wall of vaccinated adults—I think 87.9% have had a first dose in the United Kingdom, and 68% of all adults have had two doses—it is the right precautionary pragmatic decision to transition, and return our country to as normal a place as possible. We will get those businesses that were almost first in and now last out of the pandemic, back and up and running.
Thanks to the efforts of the Minister we have one of the best vaccine programmes in the world, so I hope he does not mind me expressing two concerns about our current strategy. First, if we are to introduce covid vaccine passports for nightclubs by the end of September, which I support, why are we waiting until then, and giving more weight to the concerns of people who want to go to nightclubs than to the additional extra cases that waiting two months is likely to cause, at a time when that growth of new cases is such a concern?
Secondly, on the NHS app, people who have been double jabbed know that if they are pinged they are less likely to have the disease. They are therefore starting to ignore the request to self-isolate, and in some cases to delete the app. Before we lose social consent, should we not replace the requirement to isolate for 10 days with a requirement for someone to isolate until they have had a negative PCR test, thus using that testing capacity that the Minister talked about to keep our national show on the road?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his two excellent questions—rather than one—which I shall try to address in reverse. He will have heard the announcement in my statement about the NHS app and frontline social care or healthcare staff, as well as critical workers. Part of the reason we want to do that is that we want to maintain the ability of that workforce to do what it does best. As my right hon. Friend rightly outlined, they will do that with a negative PCR test and seven days of lateral flow testing. The clear clinical advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the expert team is that
On the issue that my right hon. Friend raises on nightclubs, by the end of September 18-year-olds will have received their second dose. We will work with the industry to ensure that we get the covid pass right—now and in September—while we collate the evidence.
Like hundreds of thousands of other school children, my seven-year-old daughter is out of school at home today, self-isolating. I am sure that the Minister will agree that children have paid far too high a price in this pandemic in their mental health and in their education, missing out on school. Yet only last week, Professor Whitty said that we may see new restrictions in five weeks’ time, which is just before schools return. The Department for Education issued new guidance to schools, saying that they must be prepared to deliver remote education in the autumn. Today, the Minister said that we will not vaccinate all teenagers. What guarantees will this Government provide to pupils and parents across the country that schools will reopen in September fully and safely, and will stay open? Will he rule out any further school closures?
We and the devolved Administrations have accepted the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to vaccinate vulnerable children, those children who live with vulnerable adults, and 17-year-olds close to their 18th birthday. The committee is, however, keeping the situation under review and looking at more data emerging from other countries, including the United States of America, on whether we should vaccinate all children. I reassure the hon. Lady that children will have two supervised tests on their return and that testing will continue until the end of September. A combination of that and vaccinating at scale all adults helps us to control transmission. Double-vaccinated people reduce transmission rates by about 50%.
My hon. Friend said at the start of his statement that the disease was still here and that we were not out of the woods yet. The fact is that variants of covid-19 will be with us for many years to come. If we are truly to live with this virus, freedom day must mean what it says; the alternative is utter confusion, with hundreds of thousands of people having to isolate after being pinged by the NHS app. Here in Dorset, the police are beginning to struggle, because of the numbers who have to isolate. Will my hon. Friend tell me that the emergency services to which I think he referred include the police—that if they are double jabbed, they do not have to isolate—before enforcement of law and order becomes a real difficulty here in Dorset, I believe down in Devon and perhaps in other parts of the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we take this step confidently but cautiously. I remind the House that this is probably the most infectious respiratory virus known to humankind, with aerosol transmission, so we need to ensure that we are careful as we head into step 4.[This section has been corrected on
I congratulate the Catch Up with Cancer campaign, which I hope to join tomorrow in delivering a petition to No. 10 Downing Street, and thank them for their tireless work over the last year, pressing, petitioning and lobbying the Government to deliver urgently needed ring-fenced investment for our NHS cancer infrastructure so that cancer patients can get the timely diagnosis and treatment they need. The Minister mentioned the expert advice in his opening remarks. Will he outline his plans to ensure future protection for immunocompromised or immunosuppressed groups, such as those living with cancer, like me, who may still be at risk from covid-19, despite the vaccine roll-out?
The hon. Gentleman attends the Friday briefings that I offer colleagues. He is absolutely right. Last week, Public Health England published some encouraging real-world data that showed that two doses of the vaccines offer around 74% protection for those who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised. That comes with a caveat that that group of people is not homogenous and we need to unpack some of the data. The JCVI has already recommended in its interim advice on the booster campaign in September that that group goes top of the list for the third dose as a boost. Of course, we have a large clinical trial, which will report imminently on the immunosuppressed and the immunocompromised. We will look at that data with the JCVI. The chief medical officer continues to ask the JCVI to look at what else we can do to protect that group, including through the therapeutics taskforce, which is doing some tremendous work.
There is some real concern among my constituents that they might in some way have the wrong batch of AstraZeneca vaccine. My hon. Friend provided a useful update on Friday, but can he give any further reassurance that no British traveller will be turned away at the border because they have been given the wrong vaccine?
My right hon. Friend is right that there is no such thing as a wrong batch of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the United Kingdom. Our independent regulator regulates all manufacturing sites for AstraZeneca, Pfizer and the other vaccines. The AstraZeneca vaccine produced in the Serum Institute is the same vaccine—the Vaxzevria vaccine brand that is approved by the MHRA and the European Medicines Agency. There was some confusion in parts of world such as Malta last week, which the MHRA, the EMA and the Commission helped to clear up. I reassure my right hon. Friend that anyone who has had an Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and has the UK app or the letter to demonstrate their vaccination can travel. I think that 33 countries now recognise our vaccine certification.
Many of my former public health colleagues are very concerned about lifting mitigations today in the context of escalating cases—50,000 currently—12 million people who have not been vaccinated and an NHS and care workforce who are frankly on their knees. What estimates have the Government made of the effect of extending the wearing of masks and other mitigations three weeks after 80% of the eligible population have been vaccinated on incidence of long covid, hospitalisations and deaths?
The vaccination programme could in no way have delivered the extraordinary uptake without the backbone being NHS doctors, nurses and pharmacists, working with our armed forces, local government and the private sector to deliver it.
And volunteers and the police. Chris Bryant reminds us all of the role that policemen and women played in ensuring that the vaccination roll-out worked well. The very clear guideline is that we should take both personal and corporate responsibility. It is great to see Transport for London, other transport systems and the M10 of metro Mayors, which I speak to regularly, taking that corporate responsibility. We all have our part to play, as we have done by coming together and vaccinating the country at scale. This is the most infectious respiratory disease that is aerosol-transmitted.[This section has been corrected on
As various hon. Members have noted, the number of coronavirus cases is rising very rapidly, but the great success of the vaccination scheme means that the number of deaths remains very low. That means that the fatality rate of coronavirus is now similar to that of other endemic viruses. Does my hon. Friend agree that with coronavirus now in approximately 200 countries around the world—almost every country in the world—the chance of eliminating it is almost zero, so as a society we have to learn to live with it, as we do with other serious infections such as flu and pneumonia?
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question; I agree. I remember that when I took on the role of vaccines Minister in November, I explained to the House and the country that the reason we began by vaccinating phase 1—the most vulnerable cohorts, as set out to us by the JCVI—was that categories 1 to 9 were where 99% of the virus’s mortality was coming from. That work has gone incredibly well: in all those categories we have uptake of more than 90%, in some of them it is at 95% or 96%, and in one it is even at 100%. There is very high uptake of the second dose as well. I think that it is right that we now take this step, pragmatically but cautiously, as we transition from pandemic to endemic status and help the rest of the world to do the same.
Because of the pandemic, nearly 5 million people in the UK are now waiting for hospital treatment of some kind or other. In many cases, they are waiting for really important operations, from eye operations that could save or improve their eyesight to hip or knee operations. Everybody gets that the NHS has been really stretched, but the problem is that thousands of people are now saying, “You know what? If I pay £3,000, £5,000, £10,000 or £20,000, I can get that new hip or that new knee done with exactly the same doctor that I would see in the NHS, but in the private sector.” Surely that is unfair. Surely we must say that the NHS will buy up every single piece of spare capacity in the UK to get the backlog down as fast as possible, including for cancer care and for things that might seem minor but that make a dramatic difference to quality of life, such as hips and knees.
I thank the hon. Member for that thoughtful question. He is absolutely right: there are about 5.3 million people waiting for treatment. He is also right that we have to make sure that the NHS has the resources to do it, which is why two things have happened: the Secretary of State has made it a priority to deal with the pandemic, and he has made it an equal priority to deal with the backlog. He has made £1 billion available for the NHS to do that work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, but I confess to some disappointment that the daily vaccination rate is not being sustained at a higher level. What is the constraint? Is it supply, is it logistics or is it that the hard-to-reach groups are slower in coming forward? What consideration are the Government giving to what is happening in other countries such as the United States, where people are being offered some kind of reward for coming forward and accepting a vaccination?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have been incredibly high. We are at 88% with the first dose and 68% with double doses. On double doses, we are actually ahead of the United States of America. That does not mean we become complacent, however. We are doing everything we can to ensure that every cohort, and every ethnicity has the ability to access the vaccine.
Let me give him an example of some great work in the London Borough of Newham. Last week it had 23 different vaccination sites in pop-ups, in mosques, in GPs and in community pharmacies across the borough. Young people were literally tripping over a vaccine site. Part of it is access. Part of it is taking the vaccine to those communities. I am working with a number of colleagues to make sure we get into rural communities, for example with vaccine buses, and in community centres where people feel safe and comfortable to have the vaccine. The work does not end today. We continue to double down on our effort to continue vaccination. Again, I want to place on record my thanks to the metro Mayors for the work they do with us to make sure that happens as well.
The Minister has been thanking everybody else, but I think we also need to thank the Minister, his Department, his team and the NHS staff for all they have done for the vaccine programme. Given recent news that those aged 12 to 17 will be offered a covid vaccination to protect them in the colder weather, has the Minister come to an assessment of how effective that will prove to limit the spread of covid-19 in schools? What discussions has he had with Education Ministers to deliver the vaccine roll-out?
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who is always wonderfully complimentary and polite. I am grateful for his compliments and I will take them back to the team. We have conversations all the time. We are making preparations for the co-administration, wherever possible, of the flu vaccine with the covid boost, beginning early September, based on the interim advice from the JCVI. The only caveat is obviously that it is only interim advice and it could change as the JCVI gets more clinical data through. We have a big trial on seven of our vaccines to see which delivers the best boost possible. When it gets that data back, we will firm up that advice, but operationally we aim to begin in September.
I am obviously pleased that we have reached step 4a of the road map, but I am keen to understand what lies behind the month-long gap between
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question, as always. Most restrictions have been lifted and many people have now been vaccinated, but it is still possible to catch and spread covid even if you are fully vaccinated. Introducing the exemption in August will allow more people to be fully vaccinated, as I mentioned earlier. Unlike in previous waves, the rise in cases driven by the delta variant is not translating into significant increases in hospitalisation and death. This is due to the effectiveness of the vaccine in reducing the risk of transition into severe illness.
As Ministers recklessly lift almost all restrictions in England, despite the UK now having the third-highest number of cases of any country in the world—only Indonesia and Brazil have more—the efforts of public health leaders to keep cases down are being hampered by delays in accessing and processing PCR tests, with reports that the national booking system is being regularly switched off for hours at a time and that turnaround times for tests are lengthening. And that is before the even greater surge in case numbers that Ministers freely admit we face now that they have offloaded responsibility for managing the pandemic on to individuals and businesses. Can the Minister clarify whether the 600,000 PCR test capacity he referred to earlier is per day? How many tests will we need per day if we get to 200,000 daily cases? Can he really guarantee that we have sufficient capacity, in terms of PCR tests, to cope with the rising tide of covid infections that this Government are responsible for?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. On the PCR testing capacity, it is 600,000 per day. I looked at the data this morning for yesterday, and I think just about half of that was being utilised—300,000-odd tests. Of course, that does not include the millions of lateral flow tests that we are also capable of delivering.
Last Tuesday, the House passed a statutory instrument making it compulsory for care home staff to be vaccinated. The last time compulsory vaccination occurred was in the 19th century. I was slightly confused by what the excellent Minister said in his statement, so could he confirm that a full impact assessment was completed before this contentious legislation came to the Floor of the House and that he saw that assessment before signing off on the policy? After all, this was a major change in Government policy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. As I mentioned in my statement, an impact statement has been published today, and a full impact assessment will be made. Just to bring it to life for him, to reassure him and the House, I can say that Barchester Healthcare, one of the providers, has about 16,000 employees, so it is quite a large sample to look at, and it has implemented this policy early. When it consulted its workforce on the duty of deployment, it managed successfully to get the workforce to be vaccinated —they were on a priority list in phase 1 of the vaccination programme—and only 78 out of the workforce of 16,000, or about 0.5%, actually chose not to and no longer work for Barchester Healthcare. I hope that gives him some reassurance that we look at this data very carefully.
I would like to pay tribute to the Minister for his work on probably the only functioning part of the Government’s response to covid, but all of that work is at risk because of the Prime Minister’s surrender strategy.
In my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency, I have one case—I will give it as an example—of a young girl who had eight negative lateral flow test results, but as she was symptomatic her parents insisted on a PCR test, and that was positive. A cluster has grown up around the young person and her family, and they are obviously in great distress not just because of her infection, but because of the consequences. So why do the Government, both here and in the devolved countries, persist in using discredited lateral flow devices that are not designed for use in asymptomatic subjects—they are designed for use in symptomatic subjects—and that are designed for use in the professional setting, not for self-administering that test? We have domestic tests that excel in both and that beat the current tests hands down, but they are not being contracted. Can the Minister please advise the House why the Government are blind to the domestic diagnostics industry?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. I would just respectfully say that, on the contrary, the Government work with the diagnostics industry. Indeed, we were able to scale up. When we entered this pandemic, we were only capable of doing about 2,000 tests a day, but we now have a PCR testing capacity of 600,000, as he will have heard earlier, and millions of lateral flow tests. I think it is the combination of both those things that works, but if there are other companies in his constituency or indeed elsewhere in the country that he thinks are worth looking at, I will certainly put them through to the relevant team in the Department.
Can I thank my hon. Friend for his unfailing courtesy and diligence in responding to MPs week after week in respect of his duties, and also ask him if he could share with the House the results of the test to release experiment? Like many businesses in my constituency, the Dine Yard restaurant in Leighton Buzzard had to close for a week, and I have been told that GObowling in Dunstable may have to close as well, because of a lack of staff, so anything the Minister can share with the House on that issue would be very welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We are, as he rightly outlines, incredibly aware of the stress of self-isolation and the effect of the policy on various workforces. Subject to the results of the clinical trials, which are expected within the next one to two weeks, we hope to be able to extend the use of daily contact testing for some workplaces, although the initial focus will need to be on workplaces with established asymptomatic testing sites, or possibly those that can rapidly stand up ATSs, given that the first clinical trial is for assisted rather than home-based testing.
We all want to see the back of this pandemic and life return to normality. History will no doubt judge the wisdom or otherwise of “freedom day” at this point in time. I wish to focus on long covid, because it is a fact that the more covid there is, the more long covid there will be. At its worst, it is debilitating. It is just awful, and I know that because I am still suffering with it, after 16 months. If the balance of risk is more long covid, may I ask the Minister what more his Government will do to help those with it in their health recovery, to help employers impacted by an ill workforce and in providing social security for those on the long-term sick with long covid?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his excellent question and I wish him a continued recovery. I know from the work that I have seen that it is not easy. I believe there are just over 900,000 people suffering from different forms of long covid. We have made an additional £150 million available for the NHS, both in terms of looking at long covid, and having an infrastructure to be able to deal with it and help support GPs to diagnose it.
The Minister is aware of my reservations about asking children to be vaccinated where it may provide only very marginal benefit to them, but this relies on the importance of informed consent and people being given all the right information. Can he confirm, first, that where children with medical conditions are being offered the vaccine, the risk posed to that child from a serious effect from covid is greater than the risk to that child posed by any vaccine? Can he also confirm that, where children are being asked to be vaccinated to protect an adult who may be vulnerable for whatever reason, those parents, carers and the child will be provided with the absolute—not relative—risk reduction for those individuals they are being asked to be vaccinated for?
My hon. Friend’s question is an excellent one. She has participated in the vaccination programme—she is one of the heroes I stand on the shoulders of—and she has done work in Sleaford and North Hykeham. I absolutely confirm to her that the JCVI advice is very specific on the conditions of young people who will be eligible to receive the vaccine to protect them from covid and, of course, those adults who are also vulnerable to it. That is why I talked in my statement about the NHS being in contact with those families to be able to advise them and then facilitate vaccination in a place and at a time convenient for them.
The Health Secretary was double jabbed and got infected. In Swansea Bay, 18% of those infected in June were double jabbed and 31% were single jabbed. So does the Minister accept that freedom day is not the freedom to infect others, that masks and social distancing remain vital and that jabs are stopping people from dying? Will he confirm that he is not pursuing a policy of herd immunity, which would overwhelm the NHS and leave a massive legacy of long covid, disabling our economy?
I can certainly confirm that, and the guidelines are very clear that we are both supporting people and recommending that they continue to be careful when in indoor spaces and crowded places, to wear masks and to take personal and corporate responsibility, rather than having government by diktat.
I have to say that I do not welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly his announcement of compulsory vaccine passports for crowded venues, which is effectively moving to compulsory vaccination. However, I look forward to the debate and the vote in Parliament in September when he will bring forward the evidence, because I do not think that that policy is supported by the events pilots that have taken place.
I want to ask the Minister about the self-isolation regime. It is important for public confidence that it is supported by evidence. It is the same regime that we had before we had any vaccination or before we had any lateral flow tests, and the Government seem to accept that logic because they are going to move to a new, more sensible model on
My right hon. Friend always makes thoughtful and important interventions and I take his words incredibly seriously on both questions. One was about sharing with the House the evidence and working with the industry, whether it is the nightclub industry or at-risk large-scale indoor events. As I mentioned in my statement, we will come back to the House with that evidence. On the self-isolation issue, I hope he agrees that this was the right thing to do for frontline health and social care staff and for critical workers. The important thing is the clinical evidence. The chief medical officer’s very clear advice is that, as we go through step 4, we should have that additional buffer, if I can call it that, and continue to double vaccinate to allow us a bit more time to ensure that people who are double vaccinated can then come out of self-isolation because we can move to a PCR-negative or daily testing regime. That is the right thing to do. We will keep it under review, and I take his words very seriously.
Come September, the settings that will be most vulnerable to covid will be schools. School classrooms are going to have a higher percentage of non-vaccinated people than anywhere else. The Government have scrapped the need for face masks and the bubbling system, and they have now forbidden schools and nurseries from doing in-house track and trace and forced them on to the failing nationwide track and trace system. I understand why we need to be really sensitive and cautious about vaccinating young people aged 12-plus, and I am cognisant of the comments made by Dr Johnson. However, in other areas, the JCVI has ensured that we are at the forefront of the global vaccination programme.
Could the Minister explain the conversations he has been having with the JCVI as to why the Government are being so cautious in this regard? Will he explain to the House when the JCVI will give updated advice, because really those young people should be vaccinated over the summer if it is safe? To be very clear, I am not asking for a forced programme for children. I am asking for this to become available when the JCVI says it is safe, and for parents and families to have all the information they need so that they can make the decision on behalf of the interests of the child, the family and the community, and take into account educational scarring as well.
The hon. Member asks a really important question; it is one that we have asked the JCVI. There will be two supervised tests on return to school, but the other advantage will be the wall of vaccinated adults that will continue to increase.
I hear the hon. Member and I absolutely understand. That is why the JCVI will continue to review the data on the vaccination of children. Specifically on his question, it has a concern. It has received data from around the world; from countries that are already vaccinating. We are with those countries at the forefront, but at the moment we are an outlier as they have chosen to move forward on children’s vaccination and we have not fully; we are moving forward for children who are vulnerable and those who live with vulnerable adults. It wants to look at second-dose data; at the moment it has first-dose data. There is a very rare signal of myocarditis that it is concerned about and it wants to see second-dose data from places such as the United States before it makes its decision. That decision, however, is under review.
It is good to see the Minister still standing on this freedom day, when it feels like half the Cabinet has been struck down, knocked out or whatever it is. Does he agree that, at a time when worryingly we hear of increased threats to vaccination centres, be they from the vile anti-vax propagandists outside this building right now or even people so keen to get jabbed that they leave vaccinators feeling vulnerable, nobody should feel intimidated when seeking perfectly legal healthcare? Does he also agree that there is scope for investigating an offence of violence towards NHS professionals, whether verbal or physical, in such a setting? It would bring the law into line with the “protect the protectors” legislation we already have for ambulance staff and the police. That was suggested to me by the Florence Nightingale nursing trainees I met last week. If he did that, he would be a hero among them—even though they did not get their pay rise. What does he think?
I thank the hon. Lady, who made an excellent video about the vaccination centre in Acton—she had a bit of a go at me for not delivering it within a few weeks, but we finally got it delivered in Acton. She has done a tremendous job in leading the vaccination communication in her community.
I agree that it is abhorrent and completely wrong for anyone to intimidate people looking to get their vaccination, the incredible NHS staff delivering it, the volunteers or anyone else in the extraordinary mobilisation we have experienced of the nation coming together and delivering the largest vaccination programme in history. I will look at anything we can do to continue to protect our frontline staff. A senior responsible officer embedded in the vaccination deployment team looks seriously at security every single day, and we will not hesitate to take action against anyone who threatens any member of staff or volunteer taking part in the vaccination programme.
We cannot ignore the slight reduction in vaccine uptake in the past couple of weeks, which is in spite of the fantastic work being done across Keighley and Ilkley to deal with this, including at the Silsden medical practice, Keighley’s central mosque and Airedale Hospital, which this week are providing walk-in services for young people to get their vaccine. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging all those who have not yet taken up the offer of the vaccine to do so to prevent transmission and to help protect themselves and others?
I commend my hon. Friend for his exemplary work in taking the message out to his constituents that vaccines protect people, families and communities. He is right to continue to double down on his efforts. I assure him that we will do the same across the system, whether through pop-ups, mobile sites or opening for longer hours. The Eid festival begins tomorrow and we have a whole programme around that. I wish the Muslim community a happy Eid Mubarak, but I also encourage them to come forward and get vaccinated.
As the Minister will know, I have long campaigned for a vaccine passport to enable individuals, society and the economy to speed up the return to normality, so I very much welcome the long-overdue and realistic NHS covid pass, but how will the Minister ensure take-up? Will he tell us which venues will be included and—equally importantly—whether any sporting, hospitality or leisure venues will be excluded?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. We are looking at high-risk, large capacity indoor venues. My colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Paul Scully and others—are currently working with the industry to take advantage of step 4, to get those businesses back on their feet and then, of course, to take all that learning so that I can be back here at the Dispatch Box in September to share with the House how we can sustain the industry going forward while we live with covid, because we will have to transition this virus from pandemic to endemic status.
The now famous test and release pilot was first announced on
In answer to an earlier question I informed the House that the test and release pilot results will be available in one to two weeks’ time. When they are, we will come to the House and share them with Members.
The Minister has proved himself to be helpful and thoughtful in the way he has handled his brief, but will he tell us what research there has been into the impact of long covid on younger people? If in the end long covid is an issue not simply for adults but for children as well, will that affect the way we assess the need for a vaccination programme for young children?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent question and for his support on the weekly MPs’ briefing that we deliver on a Friday. Long covid is a serious issue among adults and children, and the JCVI of course looks at the available evidence. I caveat what I say by reminding the House that obviously this virus has been with us for only 17 months and we have had vaccines for only the past eight of those months, so we are learning all the time. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have made money available to the health service so that it can look at how to support, for example, GPs in diagnosing long covid.
In addition to holidaymakers, hundreds of UK citizens want to go to France, a country with a much lower infection rate than the United Kingdom, to visit family, and there are also hundreds of UK citizens—expats—who wish to visit families in the United Kingdom. As a result of the decision taken by the Department of Health and Social Care, all those people now face exorbitant test costs and isolation when they come into the United Kingdom. The House of Commons has an excellent test system that generates a result within around 30 minutes and is reliable. Will my hon. Friend, who is the most effective of Ministers, use his influence to make sure that at the very least people who come back into the United Kingdom and have to be tested can do so at a reasonable and not disproportionate cost?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is always diligent in his questioning, including on the Friday calls, on behalf of his constituents. He raises a really important point about the beta variant, which as a precautionary measure is clearly a variant of concern to us. It is the one that would give us the greatest headache, in terms of vaccine escape—hence why we took those precautionary measures. We keep that under review, and the biosecurity team does that very effectively.
My right hon. Friend also raises a really important point about the cost of testing. I will certainly take away his comments and discuss them within Government, including with the Secretary of State for Transport, who has looked at this and talked to those involved in the testing process to ensure that people are not penalised by exorbitant PCR test costs.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in response to the excellent question from my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, who chairs the Science and Technology Committee. The Minister said that when the information is available from the test and release pilot in the next couple of weeks, he will come back to the House straightaway.
You will have noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I am sure all Members will, that the House will be in recess at that point, and Ministers are unable therefore to answer written questions, lay written ministerial statements or make oral statements. I therefore ask those on the Treasury Bench, through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether the Minister will ensure that the House is recalled to hear that evidence. Of course, the decision point is on
The Minister is smiling at me. I do not think he wishes to speak. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the House goes into recess on Thursday and does not come back until
I thank the Minister for his statement and for answering 29 questions in well over an hour. We will now suspend for three minutes in order to sanitise the Dispatch Boxes.