Covid-19: Vaccinations - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:26 pm, 13th January 2021

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the detailed questions from the noble Baronesses. In particular, I endorse the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton: it is indeed a remarkable achievement to have invested in such a broad array of candidates and to have purchased such an enormous quantity of doses—367 million. This is indeed a profoundly important step by the Government and one that we should celebrate and take pride in.

However, I acknowledge the searching questions from the noble Baronesses, so let me try to cover as much ground as I possibly can. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the digital backbone. This is absolutely critical to vaccine delivery. In many ways, injecting it into arms is the simple bit. Capturing the records, getting the invitations out right and the process of establishing identity are absolutely critical; in any project of this scale and complexity, that is where the problems are most likely to happen. That is why I pay tribute to colleagues at NHSX, NHS D, Test and Trace, PHE and elsewhere in the NHS who have done an amazing job of bringing together patient records around the nation to ensure that the invitations are sent out promptly and accurately and that the records are captured correctly. That information will be absolutely essential to both pharmacovigilance and the policy assessment of key issues such as transmissibility and efficacy. It employs the yellow card system to spot adverse incidents, and all data will go straight into the GP record, which is profoundly important when it comes to the research and analysis of the rollout of the vaccine. These may seem like prosaic details, but it is the most enormous digital achievement and one that will have an amazing impact on the health of the nation. I enormously encourage everyone in the country to ensure that they know their GP number, that they are properly registered with their GP and that they respond to any correspondence about the vaccine.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, characterised the vaccine rollout as “traditional”. Can I just push back gently on that suggestion? There is nothing traditional about the sheer scale of this rollout, or about its speed and complexity. Our approach has been to work through the NHS, and from that point of view it might seem traditional, but I reassure noble Lords that not only is the latest technology being used but there is also the complexity of the collaboration between all the different parts of government—the Army, the NHS and PHE. Every single relevant part of government is being employed in this huge task, and it is something we should be enormously proud of.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the supply figures. I am pleased to tell her that AstraZeneca has confirmed that it will be supplying 2 million vaccines a week. That is an enormous sum and it will mean that we can hit some really ambitious targets. Some 14.5 million people will be vaccinated by mid-February. Those are in categories 1 to 4, which includes care home residents and residential care workers, and they represent 88% of the mortalities in hospital. That will be transformational to the resilience of our healthcare system and to our approach to the pandemic. Some 17 million further people from categories 5 to 9 will be vaccinated by the end of spring, and all adults over 18—52 million of them—will be offered the vaccine by the autumn. That is a massive achievement.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, quite rightly emphasised that this does not change absolutely everything overnight. She asked, quite reasonably, about schools and workplaces. I can confirm that there is still a huge amount to do by the entire nation to ensure that we do not have high infection rates, that we still deploy testing in order to break the chains of transmission and that we understand how to keep infection down—because the tragic thing about this awful virus is that it hits the old and infirm, who can be protected by the vaccine, but it also hits the young. It has become very clear from recent hospital admissions and from our growing understanding of long Covid that this disease hits all parts of society, and although we will have the most afflicted vaccinated by the spring, this is still going to be a societal challenge for months to come.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned the letters to those shielding, which suggest that people should still remain shielded. That is a really important point and one we have to resolve, because those who are shielded who may go out into the community can themselves still be vectors of transmission. Those very people who we have done so much to protect may themselves be transmissible. Therefore, people are going from being protected to being potentially dangerous to others, and this is going to be a mind shift that we will all have to go through.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about GP surgeries. I acknowledge her point. There have undoubtedly been stories of GP surgeries which have set up queues of people to be vaccinated and then there has not been a delivery of the vaccine. However, I reassure the Chamber that it has been a very small minority. More than 95% of vaccination deliveries have happened on time, and in the grand scheme of things I take the view that if some GP surgeries have stood people up and asked them to come back another time, that is a small price to pay to ensure that the greatest number of people can be vaccinated as fast as possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about London. It is true that if we look at the infection rate, London has a relatively small distribution of the vaccine, but we are a young city here in London, so it makes sense that we have a lower proportion of vaccination. There are 2.8 million people who are more than 80 years old in the country. Not many of them are found in London, which is why the London figures look as they do.

On pharmacies, I reassure all noble Lords who have asked me about this that my colleague in the other place, Nadhim Zahawi, is incredibly energetic in engaging pharmacy chains and community pharmacies. It is true that we have a pilot with hundreds of pharmacies already running in it, but it is very much our intention to work closely with pharmacies to deploy the vaccine. As noble Lords know, vaccines come in plates of 1,000. It is much easier to deploy those plates in large centres than in small ones. We are working extremely hard to break those packages down into smaller groups and to get those groups into smaller locations but, quite reasonably, in order to get the vaccine into the most arms possible, we are starting with the big centres.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked me about hygiene management in the distribution of the vaccine. She is entirely right: if you have a small room, such as a GP surgery, and you have a large queue of people, it is going to be extremely difficult to keep them all separated. That is why the development of these seven massive distribution centres in such places as the ExCel and Millennium Point in Birmingham is such an important development, because there is the space to be able to move very large numbers of people safely through the process. They will have a huge impact when they are opened next week.

On 24/7 vaccination, I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister has made an announcement on that. I must share with noble Lords that there has not been an overwhelming consumer demand for vaccinations at 4 am, but we are going to try this out as a process, and if there is indeed a big demand for late-night vaccination, then we will step up to the opportunity.

I was asked about rural distribution. Yes, it is incredibly important to get through to rural communities, particularly as many of the elderly and infirm can be found outside the city centres. I reassure noble Lords that, before very long, we will have vaccination centres within 10 miles of all communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is entirely right to say that there will be some people for whom we have to take the vaccination to them; we cannot expect them all to drive to a vaccine centre. Provisions are being made through local health authorities in order to ensure that that is delivered.