I want to begin by thanking all our wonderful health and care staff - and I know you have a personal involvement in this area and members of your family - who have continued to work tirelessly throughout this pandemic, and to all Londoners who have made huge sacrifices to protect themselves, their loved ones, their communities and our frontline services.
I know how angry they are about the behaviour of Shaun Bailey [AM] that we saw in the newspapers very recently and his failure to apologise even today when offered the chance to do so by Len Duvall [AM] and by Caroline Russell [AM].
Omicron has hit London hard, spreading rapidly. We saw the highest case rates in England in the initial phases. The NHS and social care have never been under greater pressure with increased demand for services and staff absences due to sickness or isolation on top of existing vacancy rates and long-term chronic underfunding. There are encouraging signs that COVID case rates are now plateauing. However, rates remain high following a peak at New Year and are anticipated to reduce only slowly. I continue to meet regularly with London’s senior NHS and public health leaders and receive comprehensive briefings on the progression of the pandemic, the vaccination programme and the impact of COVID and Omicron on the health and care system. The NHS is closely monitoring the situation.
The most important thing Londoners can do to protect themselves and their communities is to get vaccinated, whether it is a first, second or third dose.
Thank you, Mr Mayor, for that answer and thank you for all the nice words you said about me and also about the NHS workers. I am sorry I could not join you personally at the new City Hall because I have to go to a funeral at midday. I wanted to explain this to you. Otherwise, I would love to have joined you in the new City Hall.
Yesterday we saw the Prime Minister say that the wearing of masks is not required by law in closed spaces and on TfL. You had to put out a press statement saying that it is still a requirement of carriage on TfL to wear a mask. Do you think the Prime Minister’s decision was made on a scientific basis or simply the fact that he may have been knocked senseless by the knockabout he got in the House of Commons in Prime Minister’s Questions?
Yes, it is a really important issue you raise. Look, all the evidence now is there in relation to the difference facemask-wearing makes. I recently read an article - I am sure you did - in the British Medical Journal that had a comprehensive analysis of studies done in relation to facemask-wearing. What it showed was a 53% less chance of catching the virus by wearing a facemask. This was international analysis. Actually, one of the most effective - I think the most effective – non-pharmaceutical intervention is wearing a facemask when you cannot keep your social distance like on public transport.
It is astonishing. We have had a Conservative Member today talking about being packed like sardines on the Tube, yet no mention of his Prime Minister saying it is OK not to wear a facemask on public transport. The reason for this can only be because we know for ideological reasons there are members of the Conservative Party who sit in Parliament and who have a role in deciding whether this Prime Minister stays in work whilst being against facemask wearing. Rather than choosing the advice and experience of people like Dr Susan Hopkins [Chief Medical Advisor Transition Lead, UK Health Security Agency], people he employees to chair the relevant agencies and other medical experts, he has chosen to side with his backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) whose support he needs to stay in his job.
I worry about people who may now catch the virus because people next to them are not wearing a facemask - they may have the virus and pass it on and not be symptomatic - or they, because they are not wearing a facemask, may be more susceptible to catching it.
We know that of course having the backing of legislation does increase the compliance of mask wearing by 10% to 15%. I hope that everyone in the Assembly can use their influence, either in the Labour Party or otherwise in the Conservative Party, to get the Prime Minister to realise that the pandemic still is not over.
The second issue of course is our schoolchildren, who have really paid the price of missing out on education and educational experiences due to COVID. We want the schools to be functioning. Is the Government doing enough to get the right ventilation and the right appliances for cleaning the air in schools or can we do more to make sure that schools do not shut down as a result of the pandemic not being over at the moment?
Can I just say, I had a meeting last week with the new Education Secretary and I was incredibly impressed with [the Rt Hon] Nadhim Zahawi’s [MP] understanding. Also, he is making sure there is delivery of the monitors and the ventilators across our schools. What he has agreed to do is -- we are in regular contact now and, if we hear reports from schools that are lacking the ventilators or the right monitors, he will rapidly respond to those particular schools. We are in contact with the trade union and the schools across the city. Deputy Mayor [for Children and Families] Joanne McCartney [AM] is making sure we have close contact with those schools.
You will know as a parent and also as a Member of the Assembly of the impact on a child’s education by a child missing school. We want to minimise schools closing down, children being excluded and so forth. That is why it is so important to encourage children to take up the vaccine and to wear a face mask when they cannot keep their distance, but also to make sure any concerns around ventilation, extractor fans and so forth are addressed.
I am far more confident with this Education Secretary than I was with the previous one. He really does seem to get it. His experience working on a cross-party basis as the Vaccines Minister [Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment] is a good sign for our city and, more importantly, for our children who need a decent education safe from this virus.