With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the omicron variant and the steps we are taking to keep our country safe. We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. We are entering the winter in a strong position, thanks to the decisions we made in the summer and the defences we have built. Our vaccination programme has been moving at a blistering pace, and this weekend we reached the milestone of 17 million boosters across the UK. This means that even though cases have been rising, hospital admissions have fallen by a further 11% in the past week and deaths have fallen by 17%.
Just as the vaccination programme has shifted the odds in our favour, a worrying new variant has always had the opportunity to shift them back. Last week, I was alerted to what is now known as the omicron variant, which has now been designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation. We are learning more about this new variant all the time, but the latest indication is that it spreads very rapidly; it may impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments for covid-19, Ronapreve; and, as the chief medical officer said this weekend, there is a reasonable chance that our current vaccines may be impacted.
I can update the House that there have now been five confirmed cases in England and six confirmed cases in Scotland. We expect cases to rise over the coming days. The new variant has been spreading around the world: confirmed cases have been reported in many more countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
In the race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs, so our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat. On Friday, I updated the House on the measures we have put in place, including how, within hours, we had placed six countries in southern Africa on the travel red list. Today, I wish to update the House on more of the balanced and proportionate steps we are taking.
First, we are taking measures at the border to slow the incursion of the variant from abroad. On Saturday, in line with updated advice from the UK Health Security Agency, we acted quickly to add another four countries—Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia—to the travel red list. That means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish national or resident and who has been in any of those countries over the previous 10 days will be refused entry. Those who are allowed entry must isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days.
Beyond the red list, we are going further to put in place a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from all around the world. We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after they arrive and to self-isolate until they have received a negative result. The relevant regulations have been laid before the House today and will come into effect at 4 am tomorrow.
Secondly, we have announced measures to slow the spread of the virus here in the UK. We are making changes to our rules on self-isolation for close contacts in England to reflect the greater threat that may be posed by the new variant. Close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not. Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport in England unless an individual has a medical exemption.
The regulations on self-isolation and face coverings have been laid before the House today and will come into force at 4 am tomorrow. I can confirm to the House that there will be a debate and votes on the two measures, to give the House the opportunity to have its say and to perform valuable scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will set out more details shortly. We will review all the measures I have set out today after three weeks to see whether they are still necessary.
Thirdly, we are strengthening the defences we have built against the virus. We are already in a stronger position than we were in when we faced the delta variant: we have a much greater capacity for testing, an enhanced ability for sequencing and the collective protection offered by 114 million jabs in arms. I wish to update the House on our vaccination programme. Our covid-19 vaccination programme has been a national success story. We have delivered more booster doses than anywhere else in Europe and given top-up jabs to more than one in three people over the age of 18 across the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the NHS, the volunteers, the armed forces and everyone else who has been involved in this life-saving work.
Our vaccines remain our best line of defence against this virus in whatever form it attacks us. There is a lot that we do not know about how our vaccines will respond to this new variant, but, although it is possible that they may be less effective, it is highly unlikely that they will have no effectiveness at all against serious disease, so it is really important that we get as many jabs in arms as possible. Over the next few weeks, we were already planning to do 6 million booster jabs in England alone, but against the backdrop of this new variant we want to go further and faster.
I asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the Government’s independent expert advisers on vaccinations, to urgently review how we could expand the programme, and whether we should reduce the gap between second doses and boosters. The JCVI published its advice in the last hour: first, it advised that the minimum dose interval for booster jabs should be halved from six months to three months; secondly, that the booster programme should be expanded to include all remaining adults aged 18 and above; thirdly, that these boosters should be offered by age group in a descending order to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus—priority will be given to older adults and people over 16 who are at risk; fourthly, that severely immunosuppressed people aged 16 or above who have received three primary doses should now also be offered a booster dose; and finally, that children aged between 12 and 15 should be given a second dose 12 weeks from the first dose. I have accepted this advice in full. With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people more quickly and make us better protected as a nation. It represents a huge step up for our vaccination programme, almost doubling the number of people who will be able to get a booster dose to protect themselves and their loved ones.
I know that we are asking more from NHS colleagues who have already given so much throughout this crisis, but I also know that they will be up to the task. The NHS will be calling people forward at the appropriate time, so that those who are most vulnerable will be prioritised. I will be setting out more details of how we are putting this advice into action in the coming days.
Our fight against this virus is a global effort, so I will update the House on the part that the UK is playing. We currently hold the presidency of the G7, and, earlier today, I convened an urgent meeting of G7 Health Ministers to co-ordinate the international response. We were unanimous in our praise for the leadership shown by South Africa, which was so open and transparent about this new variant. We were resolute in our commitment to working closely with each other, the World Health Organisation and, of course, the wider international community to tackle this common threat.
Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it is best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat, which is why we are building our defences and putting these measures in place without delay. Scientists are working at speed, at home and abroad, to determine whether this variant is more dangerous. I can assure the House that if it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary. Covid-19 is not going away, which means that we will keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to live with the virus for the long-term, we must follow the evidence and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do that, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking at the impact of these measures not just on the virus, but on the economy, on education, and on non-covid health, such as mental health. I am confident that these balanced and responsible steps are proportionate to the threat that we face.
This year, our nation has come so far down the road of recovery, but we always knew that there would be bumps in the road. This is not a time to waver, but a time to be vigilant and to think about what each and every one of us can do to slow the spread of this new variant—things such as getting a jab when the time comes, following the rules that we have put in place, and getting rapid, regular tests. If we all come together once again, then we can keep this virus at bay and protect the progress that we have made. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This variant is a wake-up call: the pandemic is not over. We need to act with speed to bolster our defences and keep the virus at bay. It is also an important reminder that no one is safe until all of us are safe. Ministers have not met the commitments that were made at the G7 this summer to get the vaccine rolled out to other parts of the globe. What update can the Secretary of State give on the Government’s global commitments?
Given that omicron is already here, what we do at home truly matters. There are measures that we can put in place right now to keep infections down and ensure that the country has the best possible protection. Will the Secretary of State set out the rationale for not introducing pre-departure testing? Surely that would be an effective way of preventing people with covid from travelling into our country.
We support the decision to introduce measures on masks on public transport and in shops, but we believe that those requirements should never have been abandoned in the first place. Keeping in place requirements for masks would always have been our plan A. Will the Secretary of State extend measures on the use of masks to hospitality and other settings, or does covid not spread in pubs? Most importantly, what is the plan to enforce mask wearing? Shop workers have given so much during the last 20 months, alongside our emergency services. Asking shop workers to enforce mask wearing is yet another pressure that they do not need and do not deserve.
If masks had been mandatory, it would have been harder for this new variant to spread. A global study published in The BMJ argued that face mask wearing can bring transmission down by as much as 53%. This Government’s flip-flopping on masks has created confusion across schools, colleges and universities, so will the Secretary of State today confirm the new requirements across all education settings? The Prime Minister is not the best person to tell people to wear masks, when he cannot even be bothered to wear one himself when he goes into a hospital full of vulnerable patients—and may I ask the Secretary of State when Conservative Back Benchers will start wearing their masks?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on when he expects there to be a decision on vaccinations for younger children? The Government have fallen far short of their own target to offer all 12 to 15-year-olds the vaccine by October half-term, so can he say what action will be taken to speed up vaccine roll-out?
Our NHS has done us proud, and has done a fantastic job of delivering the vaccine, offering first, second, third and booster jabs, all at the same time as treating patients who are suffering from covid and trying to recover when it comes to elective procedures. I thank everyone who works in our NHS and care sector. We are putting even more demands on them at the moment. Our NHS has stepped up to the challenge; it is a shame that this Government simply have not.
Among those with mental illnesses, vaccine rates are low and mortality rates high. The Government need to stop weaponising mental health, and must instead recognise that good, clear, honest communication, which they have failed to have so far, is so important in a crisis. I know that I have mentioned this time and again, but the Government must acknowledge the trauma for people with severe covid and long covid, and for NHS staff, so where is their plan?
Labour has been clear throughout this pandemic that proper sick pay will help people to isolate. The Government have chosen to ignore us time and again, so I ask again: what support will be available to people who need to self-isolate? Is not this the time to finally fix sick pay? I would appreciate it if the Secretary of State updated the House on the new antivirals and how they will be used. Why are the Government not already giving antibody tests to the immunocompromised? The situation we find ourselves in was entirely predictable. Yet again, this Government have shown that they are incapable of protecting our communities, protecting our NHS and saving lives.
I have to say that I think the hon. Lady has misjudged the tone of the House. This is a very serious matter. The whole country will be looking for all Members of this House to work together and support the nation. Surely she is not blaming the UK Government for the emergence of the new variant. Perhaps she was just auditioning for the reshuffle that is going on in her party right now.
The hon. Lady asked about international donations. The UK is leading the world on international donations—quite rightly. It is absolutely right that that be treated as a priority. We would like to see other countries step up as well. A few months back, the Prime Minister pledged 100 million donations by June 2022, 80% of which will go through COVAX, of which we are a huge supporter; 20% will be made bilaterally. So far, we have donated over 20 million doses—more than many other countries. COVAX, which we helped found, and which we support, has donated, I believe, some 537 million doses to 144 countries.
The hon. Lady asked about the rules on travel and masks, and other rules that I set out. I think I have addressed that. I believe that the measures are proportionate, and that this is a balanced response. We have just set out a huge expansion of the vaccine roll-out programme, and it is a shame that the hon. Lady could not find it in herself to welcome that. As I said, I will set out more details in coming days on exactly how we intend to meet the requirement to vaccinate more.
On antivirals, we are one of few countries in the world to have procured the two leading antivirals. Our independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, was the first in the world to approve one of those antivirals. I am pleased with the over 700,000 courses that we have for citizens across the United Kingdom, but of course, given the emergence of the new variant, we will be reviewing that and seeing if more needs to be done.
The late Donald Rumsfeld coined the phrase, “known unknowns”, and that is what we face with the new omicron virus. The Secretary of State is therefore absolutely right to take sensible and proportionate measures to buy time while we wait to understand how dangerous this new variant can be, but does he not agree that the fact that we face this danger is a symptom of the failure of western countries to make sure that vaccines are distributed adequately around the world? I recognise the enormous contribution that the UK has made through COVAX, the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine and so on, but is it not a moral and practical failure that while richer countries have managed to vaccinate 60% of their populations, for poorer countries the figure is just 3%?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. I agree with his words. It is important that all rich countries do everything they can to support the donation of vaccines to developing countries. I set out earlier what the UK has done, and we can be proud of that, but we need other countries to step up. In the G7 meeting I chaired earlier today with Health Ministers, we all agreed on the importance of this, and about redoubling efforts to make sure that all commitments are met.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and I add my own thanks for the work that the NHS does and continues to do in all parts of these islands to keep us all healthy and safe. The emergence of omicron, including the six cases in Scotland, along with the evidence of community transmission, shows that this is absolutely no time to be complacent. For all the measures being taken at the border, with day two PCR testing, we risk missing a number of cases as they cross the border because of the incubation period. Surely a more effective approach would be to introduce day eight PCR testing, accompanied by eight days of isolation—and surely it would be better to do that now, than to be bounced into doing that by events further down the line.
Secondly, the Secretary of State issues a call for us all to work together, and I am sure we all wish to be able to do that, but does he share my disappointment that when the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales today called for a Cobra meeting to be convened, that possibility appeared to have been dismissed out of hand already? Will the Secretary of State prevail on the Prime Minister to convene and attend an urgent Cobra meeting involving all four nations, so that people might be persuaded that he is on top of this development, as we would all expect him to be?
Finally, does the Secretary of State agree with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the Chair of the Select Committee and me that the emergence of this variant shows that none of us is safe until all of us are safe? However much is being done, and however much the UK has done to date, more still needs to be done to achieve as close to 100% global vaccination as possible, including through the vaccination programmes we are in, and by increasing global vaccine production and overcoming the barriers that patent law might place in the way of our achieving that.
First, on the hon. Gentleman’s question on day two testing, we believe that the day two testing requirement for international travel is the proportionate response. He will know that it applies to all arrivals to the UK, and that the individual would have to self-isolate until they got a negative test result, and I think that is the right response.
In terms of meetings and the UK nations working together, that has been one of the successes of the UK’s response to the pandemic. The way that nations across the UK have worked together, especially on vaccines, testing, surveillance and antivirals, shows that we are stronger together.
Sir Andrew Pollard, who developed the Oxford vaccine, predicted in June to my Select Committee that new variants would escape the vaccines by being more infectious, but said that protection against severe illness should continue. Will my right hon. Friend avoid taking any panic measures if we see a rise in infections in the weeks ahead, as seems inevitable, and concentrate instead on the vaccine’s effectiveness against severe illness and hospitalisation?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my statement, even in the case of the dominant delta variant, we have seen some rises in infections, but also falls in hospitalisation and death rates, thankfully. The reason for that is the power of the vaccines, and especially our booster programme, which is the largest in Europe. He is absolutely right: with the new variant, as we look ahead, what matters more than anything is hospitalisations.
The second line in the Secretary of State’s statement was:
“We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation.”
With that in mind, does he think it was wrong for the Government to abandon mask wearing in public places and confined spaces? Will he listen to the recommendations of Doreen Lawrence’s report and start to issue full-face protection masks to care workers and health workers?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to pay tribute to the South African Government for raising the existence of the omicron variant, which resulted in their having a travel ban imposed. I have constituents—and, in fact, a family member—stuck in South Africa. For how long does he expect cancellations and suspensions of flights to occur? It is a worrying time for anyone stuck overseas.
First, I join my right hon. Friend in again expressing thanks to the South African Government for how they have handled this difficult situation. I understand her point about her constituents. Many of us will have constituents in a similar position. It is hard to say when direct flights might start. We have started our hotel booking programme, which is one part of trying to get our citizens back, but we will do everything we can to support them in that way.
The right hon. Lady asks an important question. One thing that we are doing is updating guidance throughout the NHS, including for primary care.
The Secretary of State said in his statement about the legislation that he has laid before the House—incidentally, it is not yet available on legislation.gov.uk for Members to study—that close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. First, will he confirm that that is in the regulations? Secondly, for the benefit of the House, will he set out what he did yesterday in television studios: the mechanism by which the omicron variant will be identified and communicated to people contacted by Test and Trace, so that we all know how it will work? It is more complicated than the system that we have had to date.
I can confirm that the new regulation on close contact will be anyone who is a close contact of someone with a confirmed positive case of suspected omicron. The UKHSA is working at speed on the best ways to determine a suspected case. One way is the so-called S-gene drop-out test, but there are other quick ways to ascertain that. The tracing work will be carried out by Test and Trace.
It is often said that how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity, yet a quarter of the clinically extremely vulnerable have yet to receive their third primary dose because of confusion that persists about the third primary dose and the booster. One in five of the clinically extremely vulnerable are still shielding without any Government guidance or support. For them, the uncertainty of the new variant is terrifying. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers please meet me and patient groups to discuss our five-point plan on how we can protect the clinically extremely vulnerable this winter?
May I join others in welcoming the well-judged and rapid action this weekend as well as the acceleration of boosters, including the new provision of a mass vaccination this weekend in Newmarket? Existing vaccinations—including boosters—are effective against all known major variants before omicron, but will the Secretary of State set out plans for a variant vaccine, should that be needed in the worst-case scenario?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. The UK has been supporting a new vaccines programme largely thanks to his efforts when he was in my position. That work continues. If it is necessary to procure new vaccines that we believe are safe and effective and will help with the new variant, we will do so.
Gordon Brown said yesterday that the chief medical officer urgently needs to teach the Prime Minister “some basic medical facts”, and I would say that that could probably be extended to some of those on the Government Back Benches as well, meaning that we are not going to stop the threat of variants—
Order. Mr Shelbrooke, I thought you might have been going on the NATO delegation, and I do not want to hear that you have missed out on it.
We are not going to stop the threat of variants derailing our progress until we vaccinate the world. Our country has enough vaccine to give at least three doses to everybody, yet of the 100 million doses that were pledged by the Prime Minister to the world’s poorest, less than 10% have actually been delivered. Can the Secretary of State tell us if the PM will meet his ambition to help vaccinate the world by the end of 2021, or is that yet another broken promise with catastrophic consequences?
I said earlier that, out of the 100 million commitment that the UK has made to international donations, over 20 million have already gone and been delivered, and another 10 million are about to go.
The return of PCR testing will be met with some apprehension by the international travel sector, which has just been getting back on its feet, but it will at least be cheered by the Secretary of State’s statement that we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than is necessary. Can I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the providers of PCR tests are those that will actually give accurate, good-value testing back to the public, and that we will not see some of the issues that arose over the summer repeat themselves?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I know he rightly takes a close interest in this; we do want to minimise any impact on our excellent transport and travel sector. He is right to raise the importance of making sure that PCR tests are available, the pricing is correct and the Government website where providers are listed is properly monitored so that anyone who breaks the rules is delisted.
Although the measures taken so far are welcome, now that we have community transmission of omicron in Brentwood and in Scotland, we need more protective interventions. Mask wearing can obviously play an important part, so can the Secretary of State say whether he agrees with the call from the British Medical Association to extend it to all indoor and enclosed settings? Will he also consider measures to increase ventilation in enclosed settings, encourage working from home and give proper sick pay to those who need to isolate?
I think we have been clear about why we have set out the new rules on masks, and I think our response is the proportionate one. The hon. Lady is right to raise the importance of ventilation. That is why it is very clear in the guidelines, and many places are following that. When it comes to sick pay, it is right that we have kept the rules in place that allow people, should they test positive or have to self-isolate, to claim sick pay from day one.
If the situation deteriorates—we all hope it will not, but if it does—please can the Government do everything possible not to shut down the hospitality and events sector again? The livelihoods of millions of people depend on it, and they are just getting back on their feet. Please, let us not knock them down again.
The emergence of omicron is not really much of a surprise; it is more a case of when, not if. Anecdotal evidence from South Africa suggests that, while it may be more infectious, the potency seems to be more limited. Of particular concern are the mutations to the spike protein in two specific areas, so what action are the Government taking to put in additional resources to adjuvant therapy development, especially given the impact on monoclonal antibody therapies and the vaccine, and what is the status of genomic surveillance in the UK at present?
First, I think it is fair to say that our genomics surveillance has never been so strong. It was getting stronger even before the pandemic, but because of the pandemic, there has been a huge amount of investment, and it has paid off UK-wide. On the treatments, there is some concern about this new variant and Ronapreve, which is one of the key monoclonal antibodies that we use for treatment, but it is just concern at this point; there is no particular evidence. However, part of the reason for taking these measures is to buy the time we need—two to three weeks—to give our scientists time to assess the risk of this variant properly.
First, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the early reports from South Africa that the variant may actually lead to less severe illness than the previous variants? Secondly, I welcome the fact that we will have both a debate and vote tomorrow on these regulations, but would it not be better if we had the debate and the vote before the restrictions come into force, rather than after?
I believe that right after my statement the Leader of the House will be making a statement about the debate and vote tomorrow.
On the severity, there are reports, as my hon. Friend has said, but it is early days and we are looking into them, talking with our South African friends and getting more details. It is worth pointing out the difference in age profile and demographics: in South Africa, people with covid are on average younger, and we are taking that into account as well.
The Secretary of State set out the booster programme for the vaccines in his statement but has not mentioned what steps he will be taking to support those areas where take-up of the vaccine is still very low: what additional resources will be provided to those areas?
That is an important point and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. We estimate that 5 million people across the UK have not even taken up the offer of their first dose of the vaccine, putting themselves and their loved ones at great risk. A lot of work has been done over the past few months and it is bearing results: we are seeing ever more people coming forward, especially in the past few weeks. Indeed, many came forward this weekend, perhaps out of concern about the new variant. A lot of work is being done with community leaders, and there is an existing communications campaign but a new one will start imminently.
If my right hon. Friend is suggesting that there are mixed views on the efficacy of face coverings in helping to fight the pandemic he would be right, but I would point him to UK work by Public Health England—published, if I remember correctly, last month—referring to a number of reports setting out how in certain settings face coverings could help.
For those who are bed-bound, home-bound or vulnerable for other reasons and who cannot make it to vaccination centres, vaccinations are primarily carried out by GPs. I do not have the numbers of how many have been done, but recently to encourage more people to be vaccinated more quickly we changed the GP payment system, which seems to have helped as well.
The Opposition often call for more restrictions, but it was the relaxation of restrictions this summer, which the Government took under scientific advice, that has put Britain in a good position prior to the emergence of this variant. While I welcome the statement and the proportionate precautionary measures the Secretary of State has taken today, will he assure me and the House that this is a temporary measure, and that when we get more information and have bought more time, we will get new measures to react to that information?
Yes, I am very happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that this is all about buying a bit of time that our scientists need to assess this variant properly and to determine what it really is and whether we should really be worried about it or not. He is also right to point out that we took measures in the summer removing almost all domestic rules and controls and that they turned out to be absolutely the right measures. Many of my counterparts in Europe now believe they should have taken a similar route, but I remember that all those measures were opposed by the Labour party.
Immuno-compromised people continue to be worried: many still do not know whether the vaccination works on them. The OCTAVE—Observational Cohort Trial-T-cells Antibodies and Vaccine Efficacy in SARS-CoV-2—study showed that around 150,000 people potentially have reduced or no antibody response, but OCTAVE-DUO is not due to report until early next year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the immunocompromised population has access to antibody tests, thus allowing them to know their level of protection? Will he ensure that those with little or no protection have the support they need to stay safe?
Yes, of course. We want to make sure that we are helping people who are immunosuppressed in every way possible, including with access to any tests that might be clinically required. The hon. Lady may have noted that in the JCVI advice that I referred to, there is a recommendation, which we have accepted, that those who are immunosuppressed and are able to benefit from the vaccine to some extent should be offered a booster dose on top of the third primary dose. The antivirals are also very important for that group of vulnerable people, and it is good that the UK has procured them.
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have been working closely with colleagues in the Foreign Office, and that will remain vital work so that we can help people—UK citizens or Irish citizens—who might be stuck abroad to come back.
Given the change to the rules for booster vaccinations announced by the JCVI this afternoon, how long does the Secretary of State think it will be before all the people between 18 and 40 who have had their first and second jabs can come forward and receive the booster jab, so that as much of the population as possible is protected?
First, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have already done 17 million, which is almost one third of the adult population. That is more than any other country in Europe. However, he is right to ask how quickly we can do those who will become newly eligible. I will have to come back to the House and set out details about how we intend to meet this advice. The advice was received very quickly from the JCVI over the weekend; it did stellar work to turn it around so quickly. I have already asked the NHS about operationalising it. We are not quite there yet, but we will be very shortly, and I will set that out.
None of us underplayed the threat of any new variant. As my right hon. Friend has said today, covid is not going to go away. It is not; it is here for the rest of our lives. The country is learning to live with the disease, which is the only way forward. Will he please reassure me, the House and the country that he will never, ever go back to locking this country down?
No one wants to see those kinds of measures. I agree with my hon. Friend that covid is with us to stay and we need to learn to live with it. I think the best way we can do that is with the primary form of defence that we have, which is our vaccination programme. I hope he agrees that we are absolutely right to basically put the booster programme on steroids, because that will really help us.
One of the most covid-vulnerable settings in the country is school classrooms. Children have a much lower vaccination rate than adults, and children come from all over communities to one place and then return to families in the afternoon. Masks are being returned to corridors, but they are not being returned to classrooms. I take no pleasure in advising the Secretary of State to make children wear masks in classrooms. However, it is absolutely clear what the stakes will be if we get this wrong. Students have already been absent from schools in their hundreds of thousands this term, and we are approaching the exam season. If we just act cautiously in the next few days, exams will be able to be sat as normal; if we get this wrong, exams will be wrecked for the third year running. That will play havoc with students’ futures, and it will play havoc with teachers and their ability to get the job done on behalf of our country.
Not in classrooms. I think what the Government have set out is the right approach. In terms of protecting children from the pandemic, the vaccination programme for children—especially secondary school children—is important. I think over 40% of 12 to 15-year-olds have been vaccinated. That has certainly increased since we opened up the national booking system to that cohort. I think the figure for 16 and 17-year-olds is almost 60% now, but we continue to work on it.
My right hon. Friend has outlined the Government response to the emergence of the omicron variant and the restrictions he wishes to place on the public. This House will quite rightly have a vote on those measures. He has also stated that the measures will be reviewed in three weeks’ time. He knows that in three weeks’ time this House will be in recess. How will there be parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s review measures, or will we be having Government by diktat?
The review should take place as soon as possible. That is how the Government determined the three weeks. Unless Parliament was called back from recess or the Government took longer than three weeks, I think the approach the Government have set out is the right one.
The Secretary of State says that rich countries must do everything they can to ensure more vaccines reach the global south. Judging by his actions, he means doing everything except the main thing those countries are actually asking for: waiving intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organisation so they can manufacture vaccines themselves. This is about justice, not charity. Will he admit that his Government’s failure to work with the vast majority of countries in the world, including the United States which does support a TRIPS—trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights agreement—waiver, is endangering us all? When will he start putting the need to end the pandemic in front of the financial interests of big pharma?
I heard what the hon. Lady had to say, but the UK does not believe that waiving patent rights and intellectual property rights on these vaccines would be helpful. It would certainly mean that in the future there would be a huge disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to come forward and help the world with their technology.
I say to the Secretary of State that injecting people, not just in this country but around the world, is a huge logistical undertaking. I believe that in India nasal vaccines are used for the administration of the flu vaccine. Please can the Government bring forward nasal vaccines? We did it in nine months for an injectable vaccine—March 2020 to December 2020. It is now nearly December 2021 and there is still no nasal vaccine, despite high levels of efficacy being proven in trials.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of vaccine delivery mechanisms. If there was an approved nasal vaccine delivery mechanism, it would be helpful. He will understand that we have to allow the regulators the time to assess new delivery mechanisms, but we do take this very seriously.
I wholeheartedly agree that no one is safe until we are all safe, and the UK and other G7 countries need to take some responsibility for the emergence of this variant. I just wanted to touch on the fact that we already have community spread of this variant. If we are to contain it, we must ensure that contact tracing is relevant and as widespread as possible. Can the Secretary of State confirm—I have asked him about this in the last few weeks—that the contain outbreak management fund will be extended beyond March; that those places that do not have it will have it; and that those that have already spent it will be properly resourced?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about contact tracing. On the contain outbreak management fund, especially given the emergence of this variant, we are actively reviewing it.
I welcome the widening of the booster programme that the Secretary of State announced, but my constituents still have no walk-in access in Winchester. I would therefore really appreciate his help with that, on behalf of the increasing number of constituents who are contacting me.
The measures we will be asked to approve tomorrow night will likely appear rather small in and of themselves, but the Secretary of State knows that the wider impact of the past few days is absolutely huge. Nativity plays have been cancelled or moved online—these are moments that we just do not get back—and community events are being cancelled just in case. The Prime Minister said this lunchtime that if you are boosted, we know your response to this variant is strong. What evidence base is that drawn from, and when might we reasonably expect data from the scientists on how, if at all, the variant hits vaccine efficacy?
First, I noted what my hon. Friend said about walk-in access in Hampshire, so I will take that away and get back to him. Secondly, he is right to talk about the impact of these measures. Although I believe that they are right, proportionate and balanced, we must never forget the impact that they have on individuals and their daily lives. That is why they must be removed the moment it is safe to remove them. In terms of when we will have more data, we have set a three-week review point because that is the time when we believe that we will have more information—not just the information that we will have come up with, but information through our international counterparts.
I thank the Secretary of State and his team for all they do to combat covid-19 in the UK. This has an effect on Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Health Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland will follow the guidance that comes from Westminster. With that in mind, having heard a leading Northern Ireland scientist say this week that he believes that the current vaccination and booster roll-out will have an effect on the new variant, will the Secretary of State assure us that any and all curtailments, such as those faced by the travel industry, will be proportionate and scientific, taking into account transmission and the seriousness of the new covid variant?
As someone who, very thankfully, received his booster jab last Thursday at the outstanding St Thomas’ Hospital, may I ask the Secretary of State why certain groups and communities seem to fear vaccination? Which are those groups and communities, and what can be done to persuade them that they are wrong?
There are many communities where vaccine take-up is lower than others. That has particularly been the case in the black African community in Britain and in some other black and minority ethnic communities—that has improved significantly over the past two to three months. The same is also the case in many other European countries and the US. A huge amount of work is being done through community leaders and communication campaigns, and by offering access to the vaccine in as many different ways as possible to encourage take-up.
Will the Secretary of State talk a bit more about the transmissibility of the omicron variant and the efficacy of vaccines on it, given that Australia has some of the toughest entry requirements of any country in the world, yet the variant has basically got through a concrete wall?
That is an important point. It is fair to say that we do not know enough yet—I do not think Australia or any other country does, for that matter—but we know enough to justify the action that has been taken. From that, there is emerging evidence that this variant is more transmissible, but I do not think we can describe that as conclusive at this point. On vaccine efficacy, I point to what I said earlier about taking the time to determine that.
I welcome the speedy and decisive action taken by the Government over the weekend in response to the new variant. I also welcome the delivery of 17.5 million boosters. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking not only my pharmacy-led vaccination centres, where I had my first and second doses of AZ, but my GP-led clinics, where I had my Pfizer booster? Is he confident that the infrastructure and the robust supply of vaccines are in place as we try to deliver 6 million more booster vaccines over the next three weeks?
We are very confident about the supply that we have, including accommodating the new advice that I have accepted from the JCVI. I join my hon. Friend in thanking the many thousands of GPs across the country who have been crucial to our vaccine programme.
May I take a moment to address the question that my right hon. Friend Mr Harper asked about the timing of laying the regulations? I want to clarify that the regulations setting out the new measures have been made by the Minister for public health and vaccines—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Maggie Throup—and are in the process of being registered with the National Archives. They will then be laid before Parliament and should be available to review online at around 5 pm.
It does not feel as if the pandemic will be over any time soon; we have only got to omicron so far, not omega. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at two things? The first is the deliberate campaign of disinformation that is going on around the country. Some of these people are dangerous—their views are certainly dangerous. I hope that the Secretary of State will work with the Home Secretary to make sure that we check on all these campaigns about “new Nuremberg laws” and that nobody does damage to people working in the health service.
Secondly, will the Secretary of State tackle the problem of profiteering? Frankly, some companies are now charging completely disproportionate prices for PCR tests. There should surely be a fixed price across the whole UK.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about how the danger of disinformation is costing lives, not just here in the UK, but across the world. Rightly, we have talked a lot about South Africa today. He will know that there is very low take-up of vaccines in South Africa even when they are available; that is partly due to disinformation campaigns. I assure him that we are working across Government with the Home Office, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other Departments to counter such disinformation as best we can.
On PCR tests, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks that I made a moment ago.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking swift and efficient action in relation to the additional protections that are necessary, but when he reviews, as more data becomes available, the wearing of face masks and the additional restrictions that he has introduced, will he consider real-life scenarios? He has heard the calls from Opposition Members for mask wearing and working from home. Is he aware that in Wales those measures have been in place since the summer, yet infection rates are still much higher?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the difference between Wales and England in the approach taken. I feel—like him, I think—that we have taken the right approach to face masks. I welcome his support today.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the role of South Africa’s excellent testing and analysis system in identifying omicron. It would be perverse if South Africa were treated less favourably as a result of the resources that it has put into such analyses. Will he look at neighbouring red list countries that have much lower testing and analysis levels, to see whether travel restrictions for some of those countries might be appropriate to keep people in this country safe?
We will keep that issue under review. My hon. Friend is right to speak, as hon. Members across the House have done, about the importance of South Africa’s handling the matter in such a professional and exemplary way. It might reassure him to know that in the G7 meeting that I chaired earlier, we agreed unanimously about that issue and about the importance of continuing to work with and support South Africa.
We know that if the Government just sit back and wait for the development of new vaccines for new variants, we will be left at the back of the queue, because the industry will always go to the highest bidder, such as the EU or the US. Back in April, Clive Dix, the outgoing head of the vaccine taskforce, sent the Government a specific proposal about setting up a new taskforce to fast-track the development of new vaccines for new variants. Yesterday, Mr Dix revealed that the Government completely failed to respond to his proposal. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have chosen to ignore Mr Dix’s expert advice?
I do not think it would be correct to say that the Government have ignored the advice that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I also think it would be incorrect to say that when it comes to vaccines, the Government are somehow going to sit back and wait. I mentioned earlier the huge expansion of the vaccine programme, on the back of advice from the JCVI, and the fact that the UK already has the supply to meet it. The reason we have that is that we have a fantastic vaccine taskforce—better than in any other country in the world.
Most countries in Africa missed the World Health Organisation target for a mere 10% of their populations to be vaccinated by the end of last month as they struggled to secure supplies of vaccine. As the Secretary of State has heard today, no one is safe until everyone is safe. What more will his Government do, with international partners, to ramp up the sharing of vaccines with developing countries to lessen the risk of further variant emergence, and what support can be given to those countries to tackle the mistrust of the vaccine among some sections of their populations?
In the call that I had today with G7 members, we all agreed about the importance of working with developing countries, looking into not just how to provide the vaccine but also—I hope the hon. Lady agrees that this is important—what more can be done, once the country has the vaccine, to deliver it locally, through local logistics or through other delivery mechanisms. We will be working hard to see what more we can do together.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing, but I understand that children are at very little risk from the new variant, so can he confirm that schools will not be closed any earlier than the run-up to the Christmas holidays? May I also ask him about the mask policy? Given that masks are not required in offices, can he explain the scientific evidence on which the decision to ask students to wear them in corridors was based?
The risk to children from covid in general is, thankfully, much less than the risk to adults, but we do not know enough about the new variant to talk specifically about its potential impact on children. There are no plans of which I am aware that would require us to close schools early, and I think that that would be very detrimental to children’s education. As for the rules on masks, my right hon. Friend will know that the rules set out today by the Department for Education are guidance for schools in relation to communal areas, and the DOE will be able to give him more evidence and information.
If we are to win the fight against the omicron variant, it is essential that people comply with public health guidance, but with the UK’s statutory sick pay ranking among the lowest in Europe, far too many people in this country simply cannot afford to self-isolate. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to working with colleagues in the Cabinet to raise the rate of sick pay to at least the equivalent of a week’s living wage, so that no one is forced to choose between doing the right thing and heating their home this Christmas?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have kept rules in place that will allow people to claim sick pay from day one. As for the question of whether further support is needed, we keep that under review and provide further support if it is necessary.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has been doing and the speed with which he has been doing it. Can he confirm to my constituents that as soon as more is known about the new variant and if it is deemed to be less of a threat than first thought—as is starting to emerge from the evidence in South Africa and the people who first identified it—he will act swiftly to remove restrictions, particularly the one on self-isolation, regardless of vaccine status, especially in the run-up to Christmas?
Like many other Members, I welcome today’s statement, and I agree that further measures and restrictions would only be a necessary evil. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the many millions of people and businesses throughout the UK who are clawing back jobs, livelihoods and freedoms after a difficult two years, and does he agree that these further restrictions should only be an absolute last resort?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. We all know from our experience of the pandemic thus far that while many of the restrictions may well be necessary to fight covid, they have other impacts, especially on the economy, on people’s life chances and on children’s education and social lives. I am very much aware of the impact that they have had on non-covid outcomes, so I very much agree with my hon. Friend.
I welcome the Government’s plans to extend the vaccination programme. However, with our NHS under severe pressure after two very difficult years, what extra resources is he willing to put forward to support our frontline NHS, particularly our GPs and our A&E and ambulance services?
This year alone, we have provided an additional £34 billion of support to the NHS and the social care system. All the extra funding is in place in each of the areas that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned—whether it is the winter access fund for GPs or the support for the ambulance trusts, which I think have had more than £55 million for the winter pressures—and it is making a real difference.
Having received my booster vaccination yesterday, I would like to thank the Leicestershire and Rutland vaccination service, and particularly Rachel and Abbie, for their excellent work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that constituents take up their vaccinations, including their booster, to help us all through the winter period?
Yes, I do. The vaccines remain our primary line of defence and I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting her booster shot yesterday. I wholeheartedly agree that everyone who is eligible should come forward, to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Without in-country manufacturing of the vaccine in the global south, we will never get the protection that we need against this pandemic, and no matter how many donations the Government make, supplies will never meet the demand. Will the Secretary of State therefore look again at the issue of in-country manufacturing, whether that involves release of the patent or other mechanisms, so that we can see a proper scaling up of the delivery of the vaccine in the global south?
The hon. Lady is right to talk about the importance of in-country manufacturing in the developing world. She will know that India, for example, is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines, including the covid-19 vaccine, but she rightly points out that this capacity needs to grow and become available in other countries, and it is right to look to see how we can support that.
I welcome the acceleration of the booster programme, but may I ask the Secretary of State to do all he can accelerate the approval by the JCVI of the vaccine for the under-12s, particularly those who are clinically extremely vulnerable? I have a constituent who is seven and who is desperate to go to school without fear, and all his parents want is to be able to give him the jab.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that, and I hope she will agree that the JCVI has acted very quickly since the emergence of this new variant. If there are other things that can be taken forward to help to vaccinate the population, we will certainly be looking at that with great interest.
I think that the Secretary of State briefly mentioned hotel bookings in answer to an earlier question. He will be aware that over the weekend there have been reports of a shortage of quarantine hotel spaces. How will he ensure that this does not undermine his reasonable attempts at a rapid response to the new variant, and where can someone currently find reliable information about the capacity and availability of such accommodation?
The Department already had contingency plans in place for countries being rapidly added to the red list. I believe that more than 600 rooms were made available on Sunday morning, and that will rapidly increase during the next few days. I think it has already increased since then. I believe that most of the information is available on the Government website.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Clearly the problem here is uncertainty. I welcome the analysis, along with the three-week review and the ambition to do it sooner, but following on from the question from my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen, does he agree that if the review takes place after the House has risen, we should be recalled to debate its findings?
Shop workers and transport workers will bear the brunt of asking people to comply with these new restrictions. What measures do the Government propose to ensure those workers get the protection they deserve?
These new rules on face coverings will be enforceable by law, and the police and other law enforcement authorities will be able to issue penalty notices—I think the penalty starts at £200. That should be a last resort but, if necessary, it should be enforced.
My North Devon constituents are keen to get boosted, with a big queue last night at the Barnstaple leisure centre vaccination drop-in. Although I am delighted that the booster programme is being extended, will my right hon. Friend please reassure me that more help will be given to rural constituencies like mine where residents are struggling to get local appointments, despite the hard work of the clinical commissioning group and vaccination team?
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s constituents are so keen, and I assure her of that support, especially as we expand the booster programme on the back of the latest JCVI advice.
The Secretary of State will know very well that the omicron variant has alarmed people who are immunocompromised, particularly those who are uncertain about whether their third jab was a booster or a specific jab for immunocompromised people. There are also people in anomalous positions with respect to the vaccination programme. As Members of Parliament, how can we get fast-track information from the Department about what is right for individual anomalous constituents?
Most people in that situation will be contacted either by letter or directly by their GP, but I understand the importance of the question. The hon. Gentleman may have heard earlier that one piece of advice from the JCVI that I have accepted is that the severely immunocompromised who have received three doses as part of their primary course will now be offered a booster dose—a fourth dose—so long as there has been a three-month gap since their third dose. In many cases, if an individual is unsure, the best place for advice is their GP. If the hon. Gentleman would find it helpful to meet the vaccine Minister to get more information, I can set that up.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. He mentioned reviewing the evidence as quickly as possible. Will that include evidence from countries that had the variant before it got here?
Many health academics have said that the virulence of flu is growing with social distancing, the wearing of masks and so on, and that our immunity is not what it was because we are not mixing. With attention rightly being given to covid, are we looking at other viruses such as flu? What plans will be put in place if a very virulent strain takes hold?
Work is being done on this variant not just in the UK but by our friends across the world. At the G7 meeting I attended earlier today, we all agreed to co-operate and share whatever information we get. My right hon. Friend is right to mention the importance of the flu vaccine, and I am glad he has reminded the House that, although we have understandably been talking about the importance of the covid vaccine, and of the booster vaccine in particular, the flu vaccine remains vitally important this winter. That is one reason why we have the largest flu vaccination programme this country has ever seen.
I am pleased to hear there are no plans to close schools, but what assessment have the Government made of the potential for new self-isolation requirements that could keep children out of school? What steps will be taken to mitigate time out of education, because our children and young people cannot afford to spend any more time away from their educational settings?
We will keep the new self-isolation requirements under review. At this point in time, I think very few children will be affected because, as the hon. Lady knows, the new requirements apply only to close contacts of those who have tested positive with a suspected case of the new variant. We will keep it under review, and the education of children will always be a huge priority.