My Lords, I thank the Minister for being here to take this Statement. We keep meeting like this; it is over a year now. I wonder whether our relationship needs to move on.
The Covid variant first detected in India looks as though it has now seeded in 86 areas and is set to become the dominant strain in the UK within the next few days or weeks. Indeed, many experts think that it was a mistake for the Government to go ahead with the easing of lockdown restrictions implemented yesterday. I suppose that there must be increasing doubt about whether the further lifting of lockdown measures will be able to go ahead as planned next month. I will not ask the Minister to give any definitive answers on that because I absolutely accept that uncertainty is the name of the game. However, I quote one of the four tests that the Government set out for proceeding with the road map out of lockdown, which is if
“our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern”— in other words, if there are new variants of concern, that may be the issue. Is this still the case?
The Royal Statistical Society, which promotes the proper use of data, is concerned that the Government have failed to publish the information justifying their decision that stage 3 of lockdown easing should go ahead because the new variant threat has been met. Will the Government publish the framework for that decision and the data that fed into it so that people can be assured that the facts justify the policy? Can the Minister confirm reports in the Times that officials have drawn up plans for local lockdowns modelled on the tier 4 restrictions introduced last year, and that, under these measures, people will be advised to stay at home and non-essential shops and hospitality will be closed, if the new strain is not brought under control?
On Bolton and Bedford, I regret to say this, but it seemed that the Secretary of State reverted to a blame game yesterday, perhaps to deflect from the fact that the Government did not do enough to protect us from this new variant. He said that people infected by the new variant in hospitals in Bolton had refused or not taken up the vaccine and had chosen not to take the jab. I felt that was very unfair.
My honourable friend the MP for Bolton, Yasmin Qureshi, says that the vaccine is not easily accessible to some of the poorer and BAME communities in Bolton: for example, some people have to take three buses to get to the vaccine centre in the centre of the town. If you are not mobile and do not have flexibility in your working hours, or are a key worker and have caring responsibilities in a multigenerational household, you are not refusing the vaccine if you cannot get to it.
Turning to Bedford, the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, has said that Bedford is now to be among the areas given surge testing, as the borough recorded the second highest rates of Covid-19 infection in the country, and that cases were doubling every five days. This comes after the MP, the mayor and the health chiefs all called on the Government to act quickly to prevent further spread of the variant in Bedford. For days they have felt ignored. They have felt that the Government wanted to recognise the new variant as a northern problem, which clearly is not the case because it is in Bedford. My honourable friend Mohammad Yasin MP said that, after a fair bit of dither and delay, he welcomes surge testing in Bedford.
Can the Minister tell us whether it is true that Bedford has no access to the Pfizer vaccine at the moment? This must limit a comprehensive vaccine campaign in that town; you cannot do a comprehensive vaccine campaign, especially if you are dealing with the under-40s, if you do not have two or three of the vaccines that are available. I am aware also that reports of many people choosing to delay their jab were about concerns over side effects and whether they would be available for work or might struggle to manage their responsibilities. So the Government must give resourcing and support on these issues and improve the flexibility, information and understanding at a local level.
The Minister is also aware that achieving the truly remarkable vaccine take-up among adults will still leave 20% of the wider population—our children—unvaccinated, meaning of course that the virus can still spread. So can he update the House on any plans to vaccinate the under-18s? It also remains unclear for how long vaccines prevent Covid-19. Initial studies suggest that it may be six months, or possibly longer. Well, those who were vaccinated in December are rapidly approaching that. So we need to know whether there will be declining protection from Covid and what assessment the Minister has made of this risk. Can he update the House on plans to roll out booster shots this autumn?
Finally, at this critical time when we need to work internationally, why are we the only G7 nation cutting our aid budget? How can the Government defend cutting our contribution to vital science and research projects? Given the Government’s total silence on President Biden’s support for the temporary lifting of patent protections to increase vaccine production, should we assume that the British Government do not agree with the President?