Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 18th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:27 pm, 18th May 2021

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the very detailed and thorough questions from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, and I am also appreciative of and touched by their kind comments.

The noble Baroness asked about the Indian variant and the uptake of the vaccines. I reassure her that we are doing absolutely everything that we can to ensure that there is a thorough uptake of the vaccine among all communities. She spoke touchingly about the feeling of blame associated with those in hospital who people hear have not taken the vaccine. I hear her comments, but there is no attribution of blame meant in this. It is a simple statement of fact that if you do not take the vaccine that is offered to you, or if you do not take two doses, and you then expose yourself to the virus, that is putting yourself in substantial danger, and it is a clinical observation that many of those who have ended up in hospital with severe disease are those who have not had the vaccine, even though they may have been offered it.

The noble Baroness asked about accessibility. She is entirely right that there are some people to whom we as a healthcare system have not made ourselves accessible enough. During this pandemic we have moved on from using the phrase “hard to reach” and we now think of it in terms of people who find us “hard to access”. She makes a perfectly reasonable observation in that respect, but I reassure her that we have absolutely bent over backwards to do everything we can to put the vaccine in front of all groups in the country, particularly those in areas such as Bolton, which we recognise have in the past been places where we have not got our message across.

I personally am hugely touched by the videos I have seen of people now queueing to have the vaccine. I applaud all community leaders and those who work with communities in Bolton, who have clearly mobilised a huge amount of public sentiment behind the vaccine programme. We are seeing a transformation in the penetration rates among some very important communities.

There is more that we can do. I am open to any suggestions from noble Lords on how we can do better, but I would like to reassure noble Lords that we have strained every sinew in trying to achieve vaccine equity across all groups in the country. That is true not only in Bolton but in Bedford, and I am disturbed to hear that people in Bedford feel they may have somehow been overlooked. I do not believe that is the view of the Vicky Head in Bedford, the DPH, and we have worked extremely closely with her. I assure the noble Baroness that cluster 2, linked to 12 cases in Bedford, was targeted immediately. An MTU went to the community on 8 May, and two community sites were opened up on 10 May. We have absolutely prioritised Bedford, as we have Sefton, Leicester, Nottingham and London—all areas where clusters have broken out. There is absolutely no question of prioritising one area over another. On the availability of the Pfizer vaccine in Bedford, that is news to me. I will be glad to look into that and to write to the noble Baroness accordingly.

On children, as noble Lords will be aware, this is an area in which some of the vaccine companies are making considerable progress in their clinical trials. None is categoric yet. It is too early to have agreed policy in this area, but the noble Baroness makes a very good point. Opening up the Covid vaccine, as we have with the flu vaccine, means that not only are children with some kind of vulnerability, particularly to long Covid, put into a safe place but that the transmissibility of that important age group can be reduced.

I am afraid we cannot know for certain the long-term effect of the vaccine until time has passed, but the CMO’s view is that the indications on the body’s immune system are extremely strong. At this moment it seems the vaccine is working, and our confidence is at a reasonably high point, but we remain vigilant. VoCs could emerge that either reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine or, for instance, effect some kind of decline in protection from the vaccine. That is why we have put in place contingent plans for boosters in the autumn. Those boosters might be of the existing suite of vaccines that are proving extremely effective. We are also looking for VoC vaccines that may be used to supplement the range of immune responses so that they cover any new mutations or variants that may emerge.

I cannot immediately recognise from the Bench the data the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, gave on the India VoCs. I wonder whether it was data that emerged after we made the decisions, because a lot of the sequencing data is retrospective; it takes between a week and 10 days to emerge from the Sanger Institute. That is one of the difficulties in making these decisions, which sometimes seem so clear-cut in retrospect. When you have the data available to you on the day, the decisions are not necessarily quite so apparent.

I do not really recognise the criticisms the noble Lord makes of the red list system. The red list system we have in the UK is an incredibly important shield and is proving extremely effective. Segregation is unbelievably difficult during travel. It is very difficult to segregate amber list and red list passengers on a plane, train or ferry. Within an airport it is very difficult to segregate people, because of the physical proximity. That is why travelling is dangerous, why we tell people not to travel and why, when people do travel, we tell them to isolate. Travelling is dangerous, and that is not news to us or to the people who get on those planes in the first place. The ultimate sanction here is that, particularly as we go into the summer, we tell people: travelling is not for this year. Please stay in this country.

On the isolation pilots the noble Lord referred to, we are running a large amount of work on pilots for isolation generally. If he would like to write to me about the particular pilots he was referring to, I will be glad to give him an update. I am afraid I am not quite clear at this stage which ones he is referring to.