Covid-19 Update - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:55 pm on 13 May 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 May.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on our response to Covid.

The patience and hard work of the British people have combined with the success of the vaccination programme to reduce deaths and hospitalisations to their lowest levels since last July and, from Monday, England will ease lockdown restrictions in line with step 3 of our road map. This will amount to the single biggest step of our journey back towards normality. But after everything we have endured, we must be vigilant, because the threat of this virus remains real and new variants—including the one first identified in India, which is of increasing concern here in the UK—pose a potentially lethal danger. Caution has to be our watchword.

Our country, like every country, has found itself in the teeth of the gravest pandemic for a century, which has imposed heartbreaking sorrow on families around the world, with more than 127,000 lives lost in the United Kingdom alone. Our grief would have been still greater without the daily heroism of the men and women of our National Health Service, the protection of our vaccines—already in the arms of more than two thirds of adults across the UK—and the dedication of everyone who has followed the rules and sacrificed so much that we cherish.

Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that, when the time is right, there should be a full and independent inquiry. I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.

In establishing the inquiry, we will work closely with the devolved Administrations, as we have done throughout our pandemic response. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, to begin those conversations.

Every part of our United Kingdom has suffered the ravages of this virus, and every part of the state has pulled together to do battle against it. If we are to recover as one Team UK, as we must, then we should also learn lessons together in the same spirit. We will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope and detailed arrangements, so that this inquiry can consider all key aspects of the UK response.

This process will place the state’s actions under the microscope, and we should be mindful of the scale of that undertaking and the resources required to do it properly. The exercise of identifying and disclosing all relevant information, the months of preparation and retrospective analysis, and the time that people will have to spend testifying in public—in some cases for days—will place a significant burden on our NHS, on the whole of Government, on our scientific advisers, and on many others. We must not inadvertently divert or distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease. The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic. The World Health Organization has said that the pandemic has now reached its global peak and will last throughout this year. Our own scientific advisers judge that, although more positive data is coming in and the outlook is improving, there could still be another resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths.

We also face the persistent threat of new variants, and should those prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January. In any case, there is a high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and the pressure on our NHS is most acute.

I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period, in spring 2022. I know that some in this Chamber and many bereaved families will be anxious for this inquiry to begin sooner, so let me reassure the House that we are fully committed to learning lessons at every stage of this crisis. We have already subjected our response to independent scrutiny, including 17 reports by the independent National Audit Office and 50 parliamentary inquiries, and we will continue to do so—we will continue to learn lessons, as we have done throughout the pandemic. None the less, no public inquiry could take place fast enough to assist in the very difficult judgments that will remain necessary throughout the rest of this year and the remainder of the pandemic. We must not weigh down the efforts of those engaged in protecting us every day and thereby risk endangering further lives.

Instead, this inquiry must be able to look at the events of the past year in the cold light of day and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future. It will be free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players, and to analyse and learn from the breadth of our response. That is the right way, I think, to get the answers that the people of this country deserve, and to ensure that our United Kingdom is better prepared for any future pandemic.

Entirely separately from the inquiry, there is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and cherish the memories of those who have been lost. Like many across the Chamber, I was deeply moved when I visited the Covid memorial wall opposite Parliament, and I wholeheartedly support the plan for a memorial in St Paul’s cathedral, which will provide a fitting place of reflection in the heart of our capital.

I also know that communities across the whole country will want to find ways of commemorating what we have all been through, so the Government will support their efforts by establishing a UK commission on Covid commemoration. This national endeavour, above party politics, will remember the loved ones we have lost, honour the heroism of those who have saved lives and the courage of front-line workers who have kept our country going, celebrate the genius of those who created the vaccines, and commemorate the small acts of kindness and the daily sacrifice of millions who stayed at home, buying time for our scientists to come to our rescue. We will set out the commission membership and terms of reference in due course.

In telling the whole story of this era in our history, we will work, again, across our United Kingdom, together with the devolved Administrations, to preserve the spirit that has sustained us in the gravest crisis since the Second World War, resolving to go forwards together and to build back better. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 6:56, 13 May 2021

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s confirmation of a statutory inquiry into the Government’s initial and ongoing handling of the pandemic is welcome. I think that all of us, especially the bereaved families of the almost 130,000 people who have died and those suffering physical and mental health consequences, need answers, as well as assurances that, where there have been mistakes, everything that can be done will be done to ensure they are not repeated.

Yet the language in the Statement about when this process will even start could have come straight from the mouth of Sir Humphrey Appleby in a “Yes Minister” script. I quote: “when the time is right”, “in due course”. All that is missing is “in the fullness of time”. I appreciate that the terms of reference need to be agreed and the appointments made to conduct the inquiry and support its work, but why on earth would there be such a long delay even to start the process? I do not understand the logic in delaying for at least a year until—a very imprecise timescale—“spring 2022”. We have all watched Ministers squirm at the Dispatch Box as they try to explain what they really meant when they said that something would be ready by spring and it is not ready even though it is August.

The Prime Minister embraced a new watchword in his Statement. He said “caution”—which we do not often hear in statements from him and which we know is not a word that comes easily to him, but he is clearly very aware of the dangers of new variants mutating and of a third wave of infections next winter. Given that, why not start the inquiry process as soon as possible in order to learn the lessons as soon as possible? If it is the case that delays in implementing lockdowns or other measures meant that the virus spread or mutated more quickly, leading to more lives being lost and more restrictions being imposed for longer, including lockdowns, and if that will help avoid a third wave this autumn or at least help us understand how better to respond, surely the work of the inquiry must be undertaken as quickly as possible. The last thing we need now is a further pause in learning from any mistakes.

I hope that the noble Baroness does not repeat the reasons given in the Statement for this delay. The Prime Minister basically says that it because of the burdens that the inquiry would place on the National Health Service. I can understand that, but surely it applies more accurately to the wholesale NHS and public health reorganisation that the Government are about to embark on than to an inquiry which so many in the National Health Service support.

I hope that I am wrong on this—I have said that I want to be proved wrong—but can she give me an assurance that there is no attempt to delay the report beyond a general election, given that, at the same time, plans have been announced to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act? If the noble Baroness is able to give an assurance on that, that would be really helpful and would give a lot of reassurance to colleagues.

The noble Baroness knows that there is increasing concern about a rise in cases of the so-called Indian variant of Covid within the UK, including the highly transmissible B.1.617.2, which has now spread rapidly in areas of the north-west of England and elsewhere. Can she tell the House something about the impact that this is likely to have on the Government’s road map out of lockdown, including the national restrictions that are due to be lifted next Monday?

Are Ministers considering a return to tiers and maintaining or increasing restrictions in Covid hotspots? She will understand why I am asking—it is deeply concerning to people living in these communities, many of whom, in the north-west at least, have remained subject to restrictions throughout most of the past 14 months.

Will she also say something tonight about the latest increases in surge testing and surge vaccinations? Are there now plans to extend this further than Bolton and, more recently, Blackburn? Until now, we have seen vaccines rolled out at the same pace across the whole of England, on the advice of the JCVI, but extra doses of the vaccines have now been given to Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire to extend the vaccine rollout to all over-18s in the area. Is this part of a new surge vaccination programme to deal with the rise of the Indian variant, and will that be rolled out in other areas where the variant may crop up?

Could she also tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the impact that not adding India to the red list for international travel has had on the arrival of this variant in the UK? Why did the Government not implement a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy when the variant was evident in other countries that were transporting visitors to the UK?

The Government have repeatedly pledged to be driven by data, not dates—yet we do not yet know the full extent to which many variants, including those identified in Brazil, South Africa and India, impact on vaccine effectiveness. A lot of the information is very positive and encouraging, but it would be helpful to know what research the Government are doing and how accurate some of that information is. Is she also able to say what information and advice the Government have received regarding the potential risk? Can she update the House on the rollout of booster doses that will be available later this year?

On a related matter—she may want to write to me about this; I am quite happy with that—it would be helpful to have an update on the Government’s plans for addressing the persisting disparities in vaccination uptake among different ethnic groups. She will share our concern on this issue. It has particularly affected the social care workforce, which has had a lower take-up.

More broadly, with the World Health Organization referring to the shocking disparity in vaccination rates between countries, and Chris Whitty saying that the prevention of new variants involves the need to get on top of the pandemic, I ask what role the UK is playing in leading the global response? One Minister said very early on that none of us is safe until all of us are safe, and we obviously want to see an international rollout of the vaccine.

All of us are desperate to get to a place where the virus is behind us and we can accelerate the return to living and working more normally. However, we need to do this safely, and our understanding of what did and did not work at the start of this pandemic is an urgent and essential part of that process. So we welcome the inquiry and think that it is the right decision to take, but it needs to be started sooner than next spring.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the House that, in order for me to get home tonight, I have to be on a train at King’s Cross at 8.03 pm. Therefore, I may have to leave before the end of all the supplementary questions, for which I apologise. I will undertake to watch them tomorrow morning.

For some time, we on these Benches have been calling for a committee of inquiry to be established to examine the actions of the Government in handling the Covid crisis and to consider what lessons can be learned for the future, so the fact that the Government are now setting one up is very much to be welcomed. However, I am somewhat dismayed at the proposed timescale. In response to the Prime Minister’s Statement, the relatives of Covid victims have strongly argued that we need to be learning lessons now, not at some distant future date—and they are surely right.

The Government’s argument in favour of delay until next year is that we should not distract people who are

“in the heat of our struggle against this disease”.

However, without being complacent, by the autumn, unless the vaccines prove ineffective against any new variants that might by then emerge, we will not be in the heat of the struggle as we have seen it in recent months. In any event, there are many aspects of the inquiry—such as the planning, procurement or decision-making processes within government—that could easily be investigated now, without jeopardising the NHS’s ability to manage a further wave. To delay starting the inquiry by a year is simply unjustified.

The lengths of public inquiries vary; the 69 held since 1990 have varied between 45 days and 13 years. The average was two and a half years. It is therefore highly unlikely that this inquiry will be conducted and concluded before the next election. This will mean that the Government will avoid any accountability for their actions, for by the time we get around to the following general election, people and events will have moved on. More importantly, such a long timetable will enable the Government to hide behind the fact that the inquiry is ongoing, and delay making the changes needed to avoid repeating some of the errors of the past 15 months.

The Government’s mind is clearly made up on the timescale, but I wonder whether the noble Baroness the Leader of the House could be a bit more specific about some aspects of it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked, when the Government say “spring 2022”, what is their definition of “spring”? Also, can the Minister specifically deny rumours from within Whitehall that civil servants working on the inquiry have been told to expect it to start next July? Have the Government any thoughts on how long the inquiry might last? Will they set even an indicative deadline for it to report?

Will they encourage the inquiry to produce interim reports on specific aspects of its work that could be completed first—an approach adopted in some other, analogous inquiries? For example, it would be sensible to know at the earliest possible moment what went wrong in the planning for the pandemic. We need those lessons to be learned before the next one arrives. It would also be sensible, and possible, to have an early report on procurement practices to ensure that the excesses of the last 15 months are never repeated. Can the noble Baroness give any indication of who might lead it? If she cannot, can she give us any indication of when we might know? Yesterday, it emerged that the Department of Health and Social Care has already concluded an internal inquiry which the Government are refusing to publish. Why is this, and will they now do so?

The urgency of the inquiry might not be so great if we felt confident that the Government had already learned the lessons of the past 15 months, but I am afraid that we do not. I will take just two examples. First, the delay in implementing the stricter measures that were urgently required in the autumn has been replicated by the delay in adding India to the red list. This has led to a large number of travellers from India entering the UK while the virus was rampant in that country, and to its inevitable importation here. We need a timelier approach to dealing with such new threats. The inquiry could explain why that has been lacking until now.

Secondly, the central test and trace system is now being disbanded, with most of the central PHE staff having been sacked, leaving open how any future surges will be managed. We need an ongoing, effective test and trace system to deal with new variants and localised outbreaks. The inquiry could shine a light on how that might be achieved.

Finally, on the creation of a UK commission on Covid commemoration, I completely agree that a national memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral is a good idea, but I gently suggest to the Government that the best memorial of this crisis would be a commitment to paying properly those staff working in the NHS and social care, whose dedication has been phenomenal and without whose efforts the effects of the pandemic would have been even more destructive.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. I am afraid that I will not be able to go into the detail of the inquiry that both have asked for, but I will do my best to give the information that I can. The inquiry will begin its work in spring 2022. I do not know where the noble Lord got July from, but even I accept that that stretches the word “spring”. It will be funded by the Government.

The noble Lord asked about details. It will be for the chair of the inquiry to decide how to deliver it. They will be independent and will deliver it in line with the terms of reference and in accordance with the requirements set out in the Inquiries Act. That legislation sets out, for instance, that the chair will be appointed by the sponsoring Minister. It will all be done on a statutory basis, with full formal powers.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about timing. I am well aware of the differences of views on timing, and I understand calls for things to move forward. However, we believe that this is the right timescale, because the end of the lockdown will not be the end of the pandemic. The WHO has said that the pandemic has reached its peak globally, so we are certainly not through it. As the noble Baroness rightly said, we are uncertain about the effect of future waves, and new variants continue to present risks. We believe that a premature inquiry risks distracting the NHS, as the noble Baroness said, and Ministers, officials and departments from the ongoing response. An inquiry could not operate at sufficient pace to assist us in making the judgments that we might need to make in the medium term. So we believe that spring 2022, when we are on the other side of the pressures of this winter, which I hope will be far fewer than last winter, is the right time to start the inquiry. We are committed to that.

I will also say that we are continuously learning. While there has not been an inquiry, our whole approach in responding to the pandemic has been to draw up and develop plans based on experience. It is wrong to suggest that we are totally blind in what we are doing; we are learning lessons.

The noble Lord asked about the informal review. As is standard practice across departments, an informal lessons-learned review was carried out by DHSC officials to inform future working, so that we continually learn and improve our approach. It was not a formal or overarching review of the pandemic, but an internal, departmental ways-of-working review.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about the Indian variant. Cases have risen and we are watching it closely. We are assessing the threats but, at this stage, there is no evidence that the Indian variant is resistant to vaccines. This is something that we will keep under review. We are continuing to deploy surge and community testing efforts to find and isolate cases where there is evidence of community transmission, in addition to the comprehensive work under way to track and trace all contacts of cases.

The noble Baroness asked about the road map. At this stage, we are continuing with it and the next step is on Monday. We will keep things under review, but the road map remains the programme that we intend to follow, at this point. Having gone through the pandemic, as all of us have, I cannot make categorical commitments. All I can say is that the road map remains the programme that we are pursuing.

While we have been successful in closing vaccination disparities between different ethnic groups, I will write to the noble Baroness with the latest data, as she asked. I do not have it to hand.

The noble Baroness also asked about booster shots. As we complete the programme for first vaccinations, we are ramping this up. We are working with our current vaccine suppliers and new ones, such as CureVac, to work out which vaccines will be effective as boosters. We signed an agreement for a further 60 million doses of Pfizer, which will be part of the booster programme. That work is in train.

The noble Baroness also rightly asked about the global picture on COVAX. She and the House will know that we are one of the biggest donors to COVAX and we are working through it to ensure global access to vaccines. We have contributed £540 million, which has helped over 70 middle-income and lower-income countries receive doses. At the virtual G7 meeting in February, we encouraged other donors to give more money. At the G7 summit later, we will continue to play that role.

The noble Lord rightly asked about nurses’ pay and talked about the fantastic work that they have done during the pandemic. As he knows, we have committed to providing NHS staff a pay lift at a time when this has been paused in the wider public sector. We have given written evidence to the independent pay review, which is common practice, and we are now waiting to hear back its recommendations, which I cannot pre-empt. We will consider the recommendations when they are given to us.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords) 7:15, 13 May 2021

My Lords, the threat of SARS-CoV-2 causing a pandemic was first highlighted in this House on 22 January 2020. From the early days of scientific uncertainty related to the virus and its transmission, which possibly helped to drive much of the policy of managing the pandemic, science helped to identify drug treatments, sequence the changing genome and develop vaccines. Does the Leader of the House agree that the proposed inquiry should include as part of its terms of reference the UK’s scientific ability to help manage and, importantly, prevent future pandemics, including the surveillance of likely emerging infections? The WHO independent panel report published on 12 May makes the same point.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Lord. I am sure that many of the issues that he raises will be part of the inquiry, but it will be up to the inquiry to determine its terms of reference, the scope of requests for evidence and who to call for evidence. We are clear that it will be a thorough examination, so I am sure the issues that the noble Lord talks about will be considered.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Conservative

I congratulate the Government, the Vaccine Taskforce and, of course, the NHS on the amazing vaccine rollout in the UK, but as we know, in a global pandemic nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe. Yesterday, analysis from UNICEF showed that we could share 20% of our doses with countries less fortunate than ourselves and still vaccinate all adults in the UK by July. The Prime Minister committed three months ago to share our excess doses. My noble friend referred to our contribution to COVAX, which was made seven months ago. Time is of the essence and we need to start sharing doses now. When will our excess doses start to be shared? Will it be just signing over the supply or an additional financial contribution?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. She is right to keep the pressure on us to do this. The Prime Minister has confirmed that the UK will share the majority of any future surplus Covid vaccines from our supply with the COVAX pool when they are available, and that remains our commitment. We have been a leading donor to COVAX. At the virtual G7 leaders meeting in February we managed to encourage donors to commit a further $4.3 billion. This will be an important part of the discussions at the G7 summit that is coming up because we want to make sure that we have global access to vaccines, and that the people my noble friend rightly raises who need our help get it.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

The pandemic has highlighted the vital role that the faith and voluntary sectors play in our society, particularly in the poorest communities, but initially our engagement was not as well done as it could possibly have been. Will the Minister comment on how the Government intend to include the faith and voluntary sectors in the inquiry so that their role is guaranteed in the future?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the right reverend Prelate. As I said, it will be for the inquiry and the chair to determine the scope of requests for evidence and who to call for evidence, but as it will be a comprehensive inquiry I am sure that the views of representatives from across society, including faith groups, will be heard.

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

My Lords, can I take the noble Baroness back to the point made by my noble friend Lady Smith? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the reason for delaying the start of the inquiry was the disruption it would cause to health workers working in the middle of a pandemic. If that is the case, why are the Government insisting on bringing a NHS restructuring Bill to Parliament yet again? It is hugely disruptive and expensive at a time when NHS staff should be focusing on dealing with the backlog of patients who need to be treated. Will the Government delay the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I set out in my response to the noble Baroness, there are a number of factors in why we believe that spring 2022 is the right time to start this inquiry. I gave them earlier. Of course the noble Lord is absolutely right that we need to tackle the worrying backlog of people needing care from the NHS, which is why we have committed billions of pounds to doing so, including £1 billion to tackle waiting lists by providing up to 1 million extra checks, scans and additional operations. We will continue to prioritise urgent and cancer care, as well as the recovery of non-urgent diagnostics and treatment so that patients receive the best healthcare as quickly as possible. That is an absolute priority.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

The noble Baroness the Leader of the House did not respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the publication of interim reports from reviews and inquiries. The Hackitt review on the Grenfell fire and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse also produced interim reports in order to save lives and protect people. The Leader of the House has admitted that we know that the pandemic is by no means over. Surely an inquiry into the pandemic should also publish interim lessons learned to save lives and protect people. Can she make sure that that happens?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am sure that, when a chair takes their place, views like that will certainly be put to them and it will be up to them to decide.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

My Lords, the inquiry is welcome, but we may be faced with another Covid crisis or similar long before it can deliver its learnings. For instance, the Prime Minister’s Statement refers to a high likelihood of a surge this winter. We need to know which restrictions are necessary to curb infections and which are not. I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Our members had to watch as non-essential shops were allowed to open but galleries and museums were prevented from doing so, even though social distancing is much easier to organise in those establishments. Could the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree to publish the advice which led the Government to determine that visitor attractions should not be allowed to open while gyms, hairdressers and department stores could?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

We have obviously been very clear about the tests we have put forward to be able to move forward with the road map. We have taken a whole range of advice from scientists, businesses and across government in order to come up with the road map, and we have published a lot of evidence to back up why we have taken our decisions.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Conservative

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Sugg said, the UK has the potential of surplus vaccines. As one of the largest donors, the UK’s commitment to the COVAX programme has been impressive, but COVAX delivery is stalling. Given the urgency of the situation in Nepal, can I simply ask my noble friend whether the Government will respond positively to the Nepali Government’s request for 2 million vaccine doses via bilateral support?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As my noble friend says, we are a leading member of COVAX, and we are certainly doing everything we can to ensure global access to vaccines. We are looking to help all our global partners—one can obviously look at the support we have given India—and I am sure we are considering all the requests we receive from countries that need our help. I can certainly assure him and other noble Lords that we take our international responsibilities very seriously, and that is why we are a leading member of COVAX and are trying to push forward to ensure that we get global access to vaccines.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, this is a very important Commons Statement from the Prime Minister. Can I ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House if she has watched, along with 17 million others, the video by Peter Stefanovic regarding the constant untruths uttered by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons? Why should we believe a word he says in this Statement?

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the only way to make ourselves safe is to make everyone safe. This means that the whole world must have access to Covid vaccines. The Biden Administration accept this logic and are supporting the TRIPS waiver proposal to the WTO for the temporary suspension of IP rights and other barriers to allow all countries—rich and poor—to produce their own vaccines. Can I ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether the US has sought our support? If so, what response did it receive?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

All I can say to the noble Baroness is that we are in discussions with the US and WTO members to facilitate increased production and supply of Covid vaccines. There are other issues—for instance, licensing agreements—which can also boost production. We are in discussions about a range of things that we hope might be able to make a difference.

Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench

My Lords, I agree that there is a persistent threat of new variants and support the necessity of Covid tests for international travellers, but the high cost of these tests has been well highlighted. What measures can the Government take to ease the financial burden on individuals and families trying to book a summer holiday after such a lengthy lockdown? Surely the Government should make all Covid tests VAT exempt.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord is absolutely right. We recognise that the cost of tests can be high, which is why we are currently working with the travel industry and private testing providers to see how we can further reduce the cost of travel while ensuring that it stays safe. We are also closely monitoring the performance of private test providers to ensure that they deliver a high quality of service to customers. If they do not provide an adequate service they receive a five-day warning, and are then removed from the GOV.UK list of test providers if they do not improve. So we are cognisant of this issue and working hard to ensure that travellers can get lower-cost tests so that they can go and enjoy a summer holiday if they have booked one.

Photo of Lord Haselhurst Lord Haselhurst Conservative

My Lords, can the Leader tell us the current state of research into whether it is possible—or even advantageous—for a person’s second jab to be given with a different vaccine from the first? Such flexibility might accelerate the rollout programme still further and keep us ahead of the virus and its worrying variants.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. He is right that research is currently ongoing; it has been backed by £7 million of government funding. We are expecting the first set of results soon; that will be the first outcome of this research.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I ask the Leader of the House first to answer the question put to her by the Leader of the Opposition about whether she can give a guarantee that this inquiry will finish before the next general election. My second question is: since the Prime Minister has made such a feature of the decision that this inquiry should involve all the devolved Administrations across the UK, can she tell me whether the leaders of those countries were consulted on the timetable for the inquiry, and did they agree that it should be delayed until next year?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am afraid I cannot say anything further than that the inquiry will begin work in spring 2022. But I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke to all the First Ministers about the announcement of the inquiry, and we have pledged to work with them to establish it and ensure they are involved—so, yes, conversations have been had and will continue to be ongoing.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I searched the Prime Minister’s Statement in vain for any mention of care homes or social care. We must never forget that during the first wave almost 20,000 care home residents died, representing 40% of all Covid deaths registered in that period—and that is likely to be an understatement of the true toll. So what assurances can the Leader of the House give to the bereaved families that the reasons for this catastrophic failure to protect our most vulnerable citizens will be fully investigated and the lessons learned, so that such a tragedy can never happen again?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I have said, the inquiry will be a thorough examination across the breadth of our response. Obviously, the situation in care homes has been at the forefront of our minds throughout this pandemic. It is not for me to make commitments, but I cannot believe that this would not be something the inquiry looks at. I am sure that it will be and that relatives and those who work in care homes will be called to give evidence.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I declare that I have been involved in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus. If this is to be a UK inquiry, can the noble Baroness confirm that the terms of reference will be developed with the devolved Administrations and that they will be involved, not just consulted; that they will be involved in the appointment of the chair, with a panel on which they are represented; and that they will be involved in the appointments of other members of the inquiry?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Decisions as to whether the inquiry will comprise a panel in addition to a chair will be made in due course, but I can certainly confirm that we want to learn the lessons of the pandemic as four nations together, just as we recover together. That is why, as I say, we have already begun discussions with the devolved Administrations, because we want this to be a UK-wide inquiry. We have gone through this together and we want to come out of it together.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

I congratulate the Government both on the vaccine rollout and on getting ahead with plans for an independent inquiry. I am, however, concerned by the Covid-related delays in medical treatment, both by GPs and in hospitals, with more people probably dying early or living in pain than actually dying from Covid. Will the Government ensure that the NHS returns to normal rapidly, that energetic efforts are made to reduce the backlog of operations and that all medical practitioners return to offering face-to-face consultations immediately?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can certainly reassure my noble friend that we will prioritise, and are prioritising, recovery in NHS services to bring down waiting times and deliver the care that people need. As I have already said, this includes £1 billion to tackle waiting lists by providing up to 1 million extra checks, scans and additional operations. This is a priority and one we are working closely with the NHS to deliver.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

Can the Leader of the House confirm the nature of the discussions with the devolved Administrations? Will their leaders be equal or secondary partners in driving this inquiry to get at the truth and to prepare for future pandemics?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I have said, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been talking to the First Ministers about this, and those discussions will continue.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Labour

My Lords, in 2010, 2.5 million people in England were waiting to start their NHS treatment. This reached 4.52 million in December 2019, with nearly 224,000 waiting for more than 52 weeks. Today, the number on the waiting list is 4.95 million, with 436,000 waiting for more than 52 weeks. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what the waiting list will be in six and 12 months from now, and when the Government will be able to reduce it to 2010 levels?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord is right to set out the challenge, but I do not think it would be responsible of me to pluck a figure. “I do not know” is the obvious answer—I do not think anyone does. All I can say is that we are working hard with the NHS to tackle these backlogs. It is an absolute priority and we should thank our NHS staff for the incredible work they have done through the pandemic and what they will be doing to help us tackle this backlog.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, in declaring my interests as stated in the register, I ask whether my noble friend is aware that organisers of festivals and other live events need more clarity now on the basis on which they can stage events planned for this summer. They are already having to meet planning and preparation costs, but they are exposed to cancellation risks for which no insurance is available on the market. Are the Government still considering setting up a Government-backed insurance scheme?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. We are obviously aware of the concerns raised about the challenge of securing indemnity for live events. Reopening when we are confident it is safe to do so will reduce the chance of cancellations and interruption, which is why the rollout of the vaccination programme is so critical. We also want to be sure that any investment or intervention would lead to an increase in activity. At the moment, for instance, we understand that social distancing remains one of the key barriers to activity. I can certainly reassure my noble friend that DCMS officials are working across government and with the affected sectors to understand the challenges and are keeping the situation under review to determine the most appropriate and effective response.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, in light of the difficulties Australia and New Zealand, with their excellent Covid control track records, have had in preventing breakouts of infection from quarantine facilities, can the Leader of the House tell me how many cases of infection have been traced to English quarantine facilities, an issue of particular importance given concern about the B16172 variant? If she is unable to answer this now, could she perhaps write to me later?

Photo of Baroness Pidding Baroness Pidding Conservative

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the establishment of a public inquiry in a timely manner. However, we must be mindful that we are not out of this pandemic yet. What reassurance can my noble friend give that there will be capacity in the system for second jabs, potentially booster jabs in the autumn and the annual rollout of the flu jab?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I hope that I can provide that reassurance. As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we are ramping up plans for the programme of booster shots. We are working with current suppliers but also new suppliers such as CureVac; we have signed an agreement for a further 60 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be used as part of the booster programme; and we are obviously working on the flu jab programme. This is very much in our minds. We are making plans and, at the moment, we are very confident that we will be able to deliver this and are taking steps to do so.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the repeat of the Statement made in another place. The purpose of any inquiry must be to establish the facts of the pandemic and learn lessons for the future. Already, we have learned through tremendous scientific co-operation—both private and public—with the Government, who have produced and procured successful vaccines. Of course, all this is for naught if we do not combat the mass misinformation that reduces the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign. With over 127,000 bereaved families mourning their loved ones, can the noble Baroness say whether the important aspect of vaccine denial, particularly on social media, should be included in the terms of reference?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I have said, the terms of reference will be published in due course, but the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. We can be proud as a country that we have done very well to stamp out some of these false stories. Take-up has been extremely high, which has allowed us to move forward with the road map and everything else. I am not saying that there are not still challenges, but a lot of work across communities, through local government and community groups, helped to ensure that we got out strong messages about the importance of vaccination, and we are seeing the positive effects of that.

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative

My Lords, the Olympic Games are now just over two months away and, despite the current state of emergency in Japan and a low vaccination rate of just 3%, recent Olympic test events met all WHO guidelines and were a success. Given the bubbles that will be formed for our athletes in Tokyo, can the Government confirm that they intend to offer vaccinations to British athletes and their entourage well in advance of their departure? Is it also my noble friend’s understanding that Team GB members will need to be tested and quarantined at home or in the place in which they are staying for 10 days on their return?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can certainly reassure my noble friend that we are considering the matter and working closely with the British Olympic Association. We also note the offer from the IOC and Pfizer to support efforts in this area, so work is ongoing.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to start tackling the NHS waiting list backlog created by Covid, but can I urge Ministers not to lose sight of the extra demands that will be created by the consequences of long Covid? We do not yet know how extensive those demands will be, and we will not resolve and deal with Covid unless we also address such needs.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We have a number of ongoing research projects, and we are really only just beginning to see the effects of long Covid and understand its impact. She is absolutely right, and I can reassure her that research will be ongoing and we will look to ensure that we can tailor proper support and help as we increasingly understand long Covid and the traumatic and terrible effect it has had on many people.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, all questions have now been asked.

House adjourned at 7.39 pm.