Amendment 16

Medicines and Medical Devices Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 14th January 2021.

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Baroness Thornton:

Moved by Baroness Thornton

16: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—“Strategy for tackling vaccination disinformation (1) Within one month of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a strategy outlining plans to prevent the promotion of disinformation related to human vaccines.(2) The overarching objective of the strategy must be safe- guarding public health.(3) The strategy must be laid before Parliament.(4) In formulating the strategy under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must include proposals to—(a) build public trust and encourage uptake of vaccines;(b) require social media companies to promptly remove disinformation related to vaccines that has been reported to them by an appropriate authority, employees or other social media users, including financial and criminal penalties if they fail to act; and(c) prohibit social media users or companies from directly profiting from vaccine disinformation through advertising revenue.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling anti-vaccination disinformation within one month of the Bill passing.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, this amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling anti-vax disinformation within one month of the Bill passing, to safeguard public health. The strategy should include proposals to build public trust and encourage uptake of vaccines, require social media platforms and companies to promptly remove anti-vax disinformation, and prevent profiting from vaccine disinformation through advertising revenue. The context to this amendment is the problem that lies designed to erode trust in vaccines and persuade people not to protect themselves and their families are being broadcast to millions of people online every day.

Covid-19 has been a “growth opportunity” for anti-vaxxers, according to research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which estimates that the largest English-language social media accounts promoting vaccine scepticism have increased their followers by nearly a fifth over the past year. Intelligence assessments suggest that while the majority of anti-vax propaganda seen by UK internet users comes from within Britain, a small proportion of it is being amplified or initiated by hostile states, notably Russia.

Whereas the normal vaccine debate is largely limited to the parents of young children and teenagers, the Covid-19 pandemic is a rare instance where the entirety of a society has to choose whether they wish to be vaccinated. The spread of disinformation online presents a “real and present danger” to vaccination efforts. This is why action must urgently be taken to tackle anti-vax campaigns and build public confidence to save lives.

Disinformation is distinct from legitimate scientific questions and scrutiny, although valid concerns can be and often are manipulated. Disinformation encompasses the full spectrum of—

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we appear to have lost the connection to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, so I suggest that we adjourn for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:50 pm, 14th January 2021

My Lords, I think I am back now. I apologise: I have no idea what happened then, but the trusty old iPad is coming in useful. I think that when I lost my link I was talking about media companies, so I will pick up with that.

Despite the Government’s and social media companies’ announcement last week of new measures to tackle the issue, dedicated anti-vaccine groups with hundreds of thousands of members on social media are still churning out disinformation—100,000 Facebook users and 180,000 on TikTok. Although the Government have talked about online harms for a long time, it is unlikely that that legislation will have Royal Assent in time to help with this.

Finally, the situation was made clear in the Question in the House yesterday from my noble friend Lady Lawrence about the BAME community and the vaccine being rolled out. She said:

“I have heard messages from the black community about their mistrust of and lack of confidence in the vaccine. I ask Her Majesty’s Government: what proportion of those taking part in the vaccine trials were black, Asian or from ethnic minorities before the rollout?”—[Official Report, 13/1/21; col. 725.]

That was amplified by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who made the point that, although BAME communities were initially less likely to accept a Covid vaccine than white communities, when they had the opportunity to discuss their concerns with healthcare professionals, they were more likely than white communities to be persuaded to have the vaccine. Is the noble Lord familiar with that polling, and will he follow it up? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, first, I apologise to the House because this is the first time I have spoken on this Bill, so I will not detain the House long. However, I support the aims of the amendment. This is something I have felt strongly about for some years.

Tackling anti-vax disinformation can be life-saving, and continuing to promote anti-vax messaging can be so damaging to public health as well as individual health. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly said in her excellent introduction—I am grateful to her for tabling the amendment—the online anti-vax messaging problem is growing. It is not just from a tiny minority in any one country; there could be systemic efforts to damage public health in our country and others. Given that those minority views can be spread, potentially to the severe detriment of the public and those who perhaps tend to support those views, believe them or be convinced by them, I should be very grateful if my noble friend would explain to the House the Government’s position. What do they believe they can do to combat the anti-vax messaging, not least as we are in the middle of this dreadful pandemic, for which the way out seems to me and many others to be to vaccinate as much of the population as we can, as soon as we can, to enhance their protection? Therefore, this is a very important and live issue, given the dreadful consequences that the pandemic is having not only on health through the virus itself, but on other aspects of public health and the country’s wider ability to support our beloved NHS.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, I am speaking on the telephone, as something went wrong with my iPad.

I support Amendment 16, which is tackles anti-vaccination disinformation. For some years, this has created a problem. For example, there has been an epidemic of measles in many countries because many people, including the growing number of vegans, mistrust vaccines. Clear messages should go out about the benefits of vaccines and how they work. Some vaccines are very complicated and difficult to develop, but they are desperately needed for diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria.

Regarding these important coronavirus vaccines, I hope that the Government will be very careful that disinformation is not going out to the public about the Pfizer vaccine. Many health workers and elderly vulnerable people have had one dose, and the second dose should be given in three weeks’ time. People have signed up to that, as there are written instructions to do so, but the Government are trying to delay the second dose by up to three months, which is not recommended by Pfizer-BioNTech or the regulator.

There is a risk that with only one dose, people may become carriers and the virus may become resistant to the vaccine. The Doctors’ Association is not happy about the Government’s idea of a three-month delay. More careful monitoring and research is needed, but these mixed messages are extremely unhelpful. I hope that the Government will realise that people need to trust the information they receive.

Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on her comprehensive introduction, expressing the urgency of the situation, which was also stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, in another interesting contribution for which I thank her. This is a difficult and hugely important issue, and it needs serious consideration on two counts. We have to look beyond the present situation with anti-vaccine campaigners and decide very carefully what is information and how we should combat damaging information being spread. Secondly, how do we reserve the right of the individual to use social media to express their personal views?

I spent six years on the Press Council, dealing with complaints. It was taxing, but today the print media is regulated to a greater extent. Even then, accountability for what should be published and what should not lay with not only the journalist who had written the article but with the editor and, in some newspapers, the owner.

However, social media is not regulated. A Private Member’s Bill by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was introduced and had its First Reading exactly a year ago today, 14 January 2020. It never received a Second Reading or reached further stages in either the Lords or Commons. He was prescient. Perhaps if we had enacted that Bill we would be in a better place than we are today.

Not all is lost, however. As I understand it, a government Bill is to be introduced in the next Session of Parliament. There is an ongoing debate as to whether there should be pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that there will be. The Government have also produced their response to the consultation carried out on the dilemmas we face. They clearly understand how difficult it is to get this right.

Social media has democratised communication, and that is a good thing. News and opinions are not the sole province of those who are well educated or articulate but are for any individual who wishes to express views or opinions. Some are, of course, deeply harmful—for example, children who are bullied by others and so on. Some are simply irritating. Others express views of great value. What do we do about social media?

It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised the issue of measles. I was a Health Minister and responsible for infectious diseases. When I left that post in 1997, there were no cases of home-grown measles. That was before Andrew Wakefield started his anti-vax campaign, which was hugely damaging. Today, not only do we have many cases of measles but in 2019 there were 810 cases. We also have had deaths.

I therefore share the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, but we are into the debate we had on Tuesday. This is about benefits versus risks and whether we should uphold the freedom of the press in all its different forms, or whether it should be controlled. That needs a lot of thought. We need legislation and that will take time. The problem is urgent and I accept that but, much as I would like to support the amendment, it is difficult to find a quick solution. The risk of agreeing to it in the Bill is that we are in danger of doing more harm than good because this is a big issue that needs a lot of clever minds and thought in deciding how we go forward.

We should not rush on this. We have to get it right. However, I am disappointed, not only not to be able to support the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, because she has been so generous in supporting my amendments, but because this subject is truly difficult. We need to concentrate minds and the amendment is a way to do that. It is a good initiative but we have to be careful to ensure that the Government give their proposed Bill priority, which they say they will do in the next Session. We should do all we can to ensure that that happens.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:00 pm, 14th January 2021

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and I join her and other speakers in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for tabling the amendment, which I think is largely intended to start a debate and get some focus on this terribly important issue.

My approach to the whole issue of disinformation about harmful content on the internet is slightly different from those of some of the other speakers. We need to take the same approach as we do with the vaccine, which is to think about vaccination being better than treatment—prevention being better than cure. Ensuring good public communication, information and education about Covid and many other issues is the best possible way in which to take on misinformation, rather than after the fact—after the infection—and then trying to treat it. As soon as one starts trying to combat such messages, it is difficult to avoid repeating them. As any communications professional will tell you, you are then trapped in a difficult cycle of raising the issue up the agenda and raising it up the hashtags.

When we are talking about problems on the internet more generally, we need much broader education on media literacy and critical thinking throughout our education system. That will not help us in the immediate future but, when we are talking about Covid, we can think about the nature of the Government’s communications and public information campaigns that will, in effect, inoculate people against the disinformation so prevalent in cyberspace. We need calm, factual, often quite detailed information that will educate the public about what is going on.

It is telling that we have seen a great deal of hunger among the public for briefings involving senior scientific officers and advisers. Some of them now have their own fan clubs and T-shirts. There is a real hunger for that kind of quality of information with clear scientific facts. That needs to come from all levels of the Government, including the politicians, not just the technical people. Let us trust the public with more information, data and facts, and with more of the difficulties and uncertainties, than we do now.

If one looks at the messaging in countries such as New Zealand and Germany, one can see that the level of detail and facts, and the quality of the information, given to their publics is much better than ours. Nearly every time there is a major government announcement or bit of advice, I see good technical people, senior professors and consultants on social media screaming in frustration about the quality of the presentation, data and messaging. I am talking not just about the shape of the graphs being wrong or whatever; we need to get the whole of government communications much better. That is the best way in which to tackle all these issues.

We all, even those of us with a scientific background, have learned a great deal more about IgG versus IgM versus IgA antibodies. A huge amount of information is out there, as is a hunger among people to find it. We must make sure that the good sources are there. That is the best way to tackle this problem when it comes to Covid and, indeed, much more broadly.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, this is an interesting debate and I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Thornton. We know that there is a problem with vaccine uptake, which is linked to anti-vaccine sentiment—though not necessarily always.

Looking back over the past few months, I note that there was in November a survey by Savanta ComRes on behalf of ITV News that found that almost 70% of people in the UK would like to receive a vaccination. More recently, in December, the Royal Society for Public Health published a poll showing that 76% of people would take the vaccine but, significantly, that only 57% of people from BAME backgrounds would do so. There was also a lower response among lower-income groups.

No doubt the Minister will give us figures, but my understanding is that the initial results on vaccine uptake are encouraging. However, we cannot be complacent in the face of the pernicious anti-vaccine sentiment around. Even before the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy was described by the WHO as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

We are interested in what the Government are doing. Last month, we debated this issue and the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, the Leader of the House, referred to the work of a central government unit on it. I should like to hear from the Minister about what is happening. We clearly need strong pro-vaccination campaigns, and the majority of people who may be described as vaccine hesitant are not necessarily anti-vaccine. Most people who are hesitant can be persuaded by good public health messages.

However, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have said, there has been a huge amount of misinformation across social media in the past few months. This is obviously cited by survey respondents as an area of concern when it comes to levels of trust in those delivering public health messages. As Scientists for Labour pointed out, since the recovery from the false findings around the MMR vaccine and autism from Mr Andrew Wakefield, the UK overall now ought to be in a good place when it comes to routine vaccine uptake. For example, the HPV vaccine has a consistent uptake of between 80% and 85%, which is an excellent return for a vaccine that is not part of early childhood schedules.

We do not have too much in the way of well-organised anti-vaccine groups, unlike the USA or, indeed, even the Republic of Ireland, so the likelihood is that the UK population will show less hesitancy about recently introduced vaccines compared with other countries. But the level of misinformation out there is high and we have to learn lessons from other recent vaccine scares. Clearly the Government have a huge challenge in making sure that the uptake of the vaccine is as high as possible—which is why I welcome this debate and the amendment, and very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am married to a retired general practitioner.

I congratulate the noble Baroness on her proposed new clause. Whether the detail is correct is another matter, but the principle that she is promoting is absolutely right. I make my observations as someone who, before he came into politics, was a senior director in the fifth-largest advertising agency in the world. I was actually handling the UK Government’s COI account—that is, the general one for specific purposes.

I have four observations. First, all misinformation must be refuted immediately, wherever it occurs—whether it is in the main media or other media. That is not just social media; it includes radio, TV, print, posters, et cetera. Secondly, every medical professional body must make it unequivocally clear that disinformation must be refuted. Thirdly, I suggest that all medical outlets should provide a clear statement, in poster format, for hospitals, surgeries, clinics and pharmacies. Fourthly, consideration should be given to how best to communicate with schools, universities and colleges.

In conclusion, we must all remember the terrible harm that was done to the MMR—measles, mumps and rubella—programme, largely by one pioneering rogue doctor. Against that background, I plead with the Minister to ensure that we have a robust new clause and a plan, worked on now so that it can be communicated instantly, if possible.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I support this amendment to require

“the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for tackling antivaccination disinformation within one month of the Bill passing.”

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has picked a fascinating, current topic, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, posed some pointed questions about the quality and effectiveness of the messages. I look forward to the Minister summing up on these points.

Misinformation is not new. I remember websites being used many years ago to persuade parents to ensure that their children had their childhood vaccinations at the appropriate time, and it is paramount that the Government take a robust stance against anti-vaccination disinformation. Research from Oxford University suggests that 12% of the UK population is “strongly hesitant” about taking the vaccine, with a further 16% unsure. Together, that makes 28%, a very significant proportion of the population—over a quarter. We are putting all our efforts into stopping the spread of this virus. This means that if the 28% avoid vaccination, they will run the real and severe risk of catching the virus; not only that, we will run the risk of catching it from them, so undoing all the benefits of the programme.

When I was doing my research, I was astounded by the volume of anti-vax propaganda undermining public trust. Social media of course carries a large amount of the extreme views. While not the majority, the minority is not insignificant, and with the Government putting their efforts into the rollout of the vaccine as their strategy for exiting the crisis, strong action is needed to counter the threat of anti-vax disinformation. The Government were quick to adopt our mobile phones as a tool to fight the virus. Are they as willing to counter this misinformation via those phones that have the Covid-19 app installed? In summing up, will the Minister tell us whether there is a plan to do this?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 2:15 pm, 14th January 2021

My Lords, what a helpful and instructive debate, and I thank all noble Lords who were involved.

In December 2020, we witnessed a landmark moment in our battle against Covid: the launch of an effective and safe vaccination programme, which has yielded great results. Thankfully, confidence in vaccines remains very high across the UK. None the less, some citizens have questions and there is a prevalence of misinformation. It is therefore absolutely and entirely right that we should answer those questions in the spirit of constructive dialogue, which is exactly what we seek to do.

I completely share the aspiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for Covid to be an inflection point in a business model moving away from late-stage acute medicine toward prevention. Vaccines play an absolutely critical role in that, and this could be a profound legacy of this awful disease.

Despite all this, I completely recognise that we have also seen a range of baseless and sometimes absurd narratives being shared, particularly through social media platforms. It is completely unacceptable that a minority of people seek to exploit legitimate questions about vaccines and spread dangerous lies about vaccines for their own malicious reasons and profit.

Noble Lords will agree that it is vital that both misinformation and disinformation about vaccines are tackled. Before I address the Government’s response on how we will handle these two challenges, I pay tribute to the cross-party alignment on this issue and the spirit in which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, moved her amendment. Noble Lords from all sides of the House have shown a strong commitment to tackling anti-vax conspiracies and I express profound thanks for this tremendous collective effort, of which we can all be proud.

Throughout this pandemic, we have remained committed to transparency around the vaccine and to ensuring that people have access to accurate information about the virus and vaccines. DHSC is leading extensive cross-government communications activity, providing advice and information to anyone who has questions about the vaccine.

I do not think it would be helpful for me to run through our efforts in this area in detail, but I reassure noble Lords that we have worked, and continue to work, extremely hard to rebut false information online. In March 2020, we stood up the Counter Disinformation Unit, bringing together cross-government monitoring and analysis capabilities to tackle misinformation and disinformation. The Government have worked tirelessly to act wherever false and harmful content appears on social media platforms, either by flagging the content to the platforms or through direct rebuttal on social media via our Rapid Response Unit.

We are particularly committed to dialogue with and the protection of communities that might be particularly susceptible to disinformation and which, coincidentally, are particularly vulnerable to the virus. I thank all those involved in those efforts, including ministerial colleagues and noble Lords. I note the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to my noble friend Lady Warsi’s optimistic update in this area.

I turn to the point the noble Baroness’s amendment makes about requiring social media platforms to remove and demonetise anti-vaccination content. My noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s points on this are extremely valid. The Government have already secured commitments from platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to the principle that no company should profit from or promote anti-vaccine misinformation and disinformation, and to respond to that content much more swiftly. We are holding platforms to these commitments and have set a series of policy forums in motion, bringing together platforms, academia and civil society organisations to better develop responses to online misinformation and disinformation. These forums are chaired by my ministerial colleagues in DCMS, to whom I give thanks. I attend them and can report back that they have a constructive and thorough approach.

I understand the concern that noble Lords have about anti-vaccination content and the harm it causes. I stress that the Government are totally committed to working with the platforms and other key stakeholders to combat that content and to build public trust in our vaccination programme. I point noble Lords to the continued high rates of Covid-19 vaccine uptake that we see, which have been achieved in part by our effective approach to tackling vaccine misinformation and disinformation. We are not complacent; we are on the case. Therefore, for that reason, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, sees the Government’s efforts in this area and feels able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. I particularly thank what I can describe only as a bouquet of Baronesses—the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann, Lady Bennett, Lady Masham and Lady Cumberlege—for their support. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, fear not: if I had intended to have a Division on this I would have given her pre-warning, do not worry. I also thank my noble friend Lord Hunt for his pertinent questions and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for his four action points, which were instructive and useful.

This has been a useful debate that has been worth having, because we have so few opportunities to knock around issues that we all agree on and really want to support the Government to get right. That is why I tabled the amendment. I am very happy with the response to it and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 16 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 17. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear in debate.

Clause 7: Disclosure of information in accordance with international agreements