Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:12 pm, 15th June 2021

I thank the Minister for this Statement. These Benches agree with Mr Speaker; in the statement he made prior to the Secretary of State’s Statement last night, he expressed a deep frustration on behalf of all parliamentarians about the Government’s conduct. The announcement yesterday was both predictable and, sadly, predicted. I sigh, because the Prime Minister is now referring to 19 July as “terminus” day instead of freedom day, which has probably brought eye-rolls everywhere. When will the Prime Minister learn that caution and the use of data means also being cautious about how you express these matters?

The Minister will know that on these Benches we support the Government’s decision to delay the move to the next stage of the road map, but do so with a deep sense of anger, if not despair, that this should be necessary. Since the delta variant of coronavirus, first discovered in India, was detected in the UK in April, cases have surged across the country, with the variant now making up 96% of new infections. Experts confirmed last week that the variant is 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, first discovered in Kent in 2020. Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have used genomic sequencing to produce maps which show how rapidly the delta variant has taken over in England, and I commend them to noble Lords. They are alarming in that they show the rapid spread to almost the whole country by the end of last week. It is doubling week by week—still with small numbers now, but that will change if this doubling continues.

There were warnings of a new variant in India on 25 March. It is reported that Ministers first learned that the delta variant was in the UK on 1 April. I must ask the Minister: is that true? The Government red-listed Pakistan and Bangladesh on 9 April, but did not red- list India until 23 April, by which point 20,000 people had arrived from India. As my right honourable friend Jon Ashworth said yesterday in the Commons,

“Our borders were as secure as a sieve, and all because the Prime Minister wanted a photo call with Prime Minister Modi.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/21; col. 77.]

On 20 April I said to the Minister:

“With regard to protecting our borders, this week Hong Kong identified 47 Covid cases on a single flight from Delhi.”

We were closing our borders on 23 April, and I asked him:

“there will be hundreds of people arriving on flights from India. Is this not very risky?”—[Official Report, 20/4/21; col. 1769.]

I now return to that question. How many people arrived from India carrying the virus during the period from when the Government were aware of the variant at the beginning of April to 23 April, when India joined Pakistan and Bangladesh?

It is unforgiveable that Ministers have consistently promised to take control of our borders and conspicuously failed to do so, particularly at the very moment when it mattered most: when we were succeeding in the vaccination rollout and the gradual loosening up. The Prime Minister not only opened the back door to this variant; he failed to take measures to suppress it when he could.

There has been growing prevalence of this variant among school-age children, yet mandatory mask-wearing has been abandoned in secondary schools. I have raised this with the Minister at least once before. He has to explain why this has happened, despite being repeatedly asked in both Houses. We also know that isolation is key to breaking transmission yet, 16 months on, people are still not paid adequate financial compensation to isolate themselves. When asked about this at the Select Committee last week, the Secretary of State claimed that people would game the system. Does the Minister believe that this is true? After all the sacrifices and rule-following of the public, does the Minister have the same low opinion of our fellow citizens as his boss?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State supported extending restrictions by pointing to plans to go further on vaccination. But even after extending the doses as outlined in the Statement, large proportions of the population will still be left unprotected —having had one dose or none—and exposed to a variant that, if left unchecked, will accelerate and double every week. That would mean more hospitalisations, more long Covid, more disruption to schools and more opportunities for variants to emerge. What will happen under these circumstances? Will the Prime Minister still lift the restrictions?

My reading of this announcement and the terms in which is it couched is that the science points to us being in a very dangerous position. We could lose the battle that is going on between the vaccine and the virus. Will there be vaccine surges to counter this in areas where the virus is most prevalent? What is the plan to bring down infections and extend vaccination rates in hotspot areas? We have learned that in some places—Leicester, Chorley, Tameside, Salford and Wigan —the dose numbers have gone down. Has vaccination surging been abandoned in those hotspot areas? Will the Government bring forward accelerated second doses, and how are they working further to overcome vaccine hesitancy?

The Chief Medical Officer said last night that we would be lifting restrictions were it not for the delta variant. The Prime Minister should have moved at lightning speed to prevent the delta variant reaching our shores. Instead he dithered, and today he is responsible.