My Lords, I welcome this Statement on the on the vaccine strategy and rollout, which we have been asking for from these Benches, in both Houses, since before the first lockdown. The Government have rightly set themselves stretching targets and we agree with them, especially in the light of the new variant’s high levels of transmission. The news this week of the severe problems that our NHS is facing across the country shows how out of control the virus is at the moment. Individuals must comply with the spirit and the rules of lockdown to help to reduce cases as soon as possible.
The Prime Minister has talked repeatedly about a vaccine signalling the end of the pandemic. I fear that lax messaging about the hope that vaccines bring is hampering the message about lockdown. It is a relief to hear in this Statement a more measured tone about this being a staging post in a long journey. Please can somebody tell the Prime Minister? The Minister will know that epidemiologists repeatedly make the point that we are a long way from life returning to normal. I note, for example, that in the debate about the vaccination priority list, the advice to clinically vulnerable people from government is that, even after their vaccine, they must remain shielding until told that it is safe for them not to shield.
On supply, we remain concerned that the Government will struggle to reach 2 million a week by next week—mid-January—given the numbers of vaccines being delivered this week. We are also receiving reports from GP surgeries of fewer doses arriving than ordered or, worse, short-notice cancellation of orders causing administrative chaos for already hard-pressed administrative surgery staff. While the opening of super vaccine hubs is welcome, can the Minister say why the hubs are vaccinating only during the day? If it is truly a priority to vaccinate as many people as possible, arrangements should be made for close to 24/7 delivery. I hear that, in the last hour, the Prime Minister has announced that the Government will try to start a pilot of some 24/7 hubs as soon as supplies permit—but how soon is soon? What are the vaccine supply pinch points? It is clear that targets are already slipping. This week, the target of 2 million a week has moved from mid-January to the end of January, and it is now the end of March instead of the end of February for the top five priority groups. Is this for the supply of all three approved vaccines, or just the AZ vaccine, where there is a much larger order to be rolled out with more substantial delays if there are supply pinch points? Also, it is because of a shortage of glass vials, or vaccine manufacture and regulation checks?
What are the Government doing to ensure that vaccine hubs are not superspreader locations? There have been worrying reports about people being asked to change masks and sit and wait less than two metres away from other people in the vaccine hubs. Given that the first five priority groups are all high-risk people, the last thing the NHS should be doing is encouraging them to go to areas that do not follow the government guidance on “hands, face, space”. Inevitably, there are glitches with any new process. We are still hearing of problems with the Pinnacle IT system that is being used for vaccinations. Some hubs were resorting to pen and paper in despair, and there are further problems reported with patients being asked to give the same detailed answers to a group of questions about Covid symptoms and allergies as they arrived, as they were registered and then as they were being given their jab. Any effective IT system should enter that information once. IT delays are reported as causing major delays, queues outside centres and daily targets missed at hubs. Can the Minister say what is being done to remedy these problems?
Can the Minister also say whether the vaccine dashboard will separate out the number of care home residents vaccinated? I see that care home cases are increasing again, which we deplore. As earlier this year, we strongly object to Covid patients being sent from hospitals into care homes, unless they are specialist Covid-designated units separated from other non-Covid residents. Even better would be to follow the example of Southampton hospital, which is using local hotels as step-down facilities. Will the Government endorse this and ensure that care home patients are kept safe through this surge until they are vaccinated?
The Government have announced that fewer than 1,300 surgeries and pharmacies are approved to deliver vaccines. The large hubs are all in urban areas. What will the Government do in rural areas, where elderly people do not have access to transport and may have to travel considerably further than the 90-minute journey for vaccinations announced this week? Are there plans as yet unannounced to increase substantially truly local-level provision, at a high-street level, in every rural village and small town—whether at a local surgery, pharmacy or visiting mobile vaccination unit—to ensure that vulnerable people who cannot travel or take the risk of infection will get access to the vaccine? It is not good enough for the Government to say that vaccines have been offered if the patients concerned cannot get to the vaccination delivery point.