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 Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 1:12 pm, 15th June 2021

My Lords, we on these Benches echo the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for the Commons Speaker’s statement yesterday on the Government’s continued abuse of Parliament.

We repeatedly warned the Government that sending out mixed messages about lifting restrictions on 21 June would cause problems. Even in March, the Prime Minister made it evident that he wanted us out of restrictions “irreversibly”—his word—by next Monday. What is worse is that we are now in a fourth Covid wave because of his desire to visit President Modi in India in mid-April. The resultant dangerous dithering about putting India on the red list contrasted sharply with the TV news. Every evening, we saw that the then delta variant was scything through India. Even then, Indian epidemiologists were talking about a much faster transmission. We on these Benches have repeatedly asked why India was not added to the red list on 2 April.

At yesterday’s press conference we were warned that the current delta variant wave will likely peak in mid-July, as cases, hospital admissions and patients needing ICU increase steadily. Even if vaccines mean that hospitals are not being overwhelmed, there is an increase. The UK now faces continuing restrictions entirely because of the Prime Minister’s delay.

The academic paper Estimating the Failure Risk of Hotel-based Quarantine for Preventing COVID-19 Outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand, published in February this year, calculated the risks and likely seeding of variants in the light of infection control and surveillance used locally. It now provides an essential baseline to assess seeding of cases coming from abroad. Devan Sinha of Oxford University and other UK scientists have used this to look at the seeding of the delta variant in the UK. He noted that 96% of the seeding of the delta variant occurred after 2 April—that is, after Pakistan and Bangladesh were added to the red list but India was not. He estimates that putting India on the red list on 2 April would have delayed the current wave by a further four to seven weeks. That four to seven weeks would have meant that all over-40s had had access to a second dose and, at seven weeks, most over-30s. He said that the wave would have been

“much smaller and mostly neutered”.

What have the Government learned from this delay? Why did it take so long for the delta variant to be moved from a variant of interest to a variant of concern? Despite MPs, Peers and scientists all asking in early April, Matt Hancock told the Commons that it would be listed as a variant of concern on 20 April. In fact, it was not listed until 7 May. Even worse, surge testing did not start until May either. If it was serious enough for India to be added to the red list by 23 May, why was it made a variant of concern only on 7 May? Was the delay with PHE or with Ministers?

The necessary continuation of restrictions at the current level means that a number of support schemes are now out of kilter with the restriction levels. These include lifting the embargo on evictions, the reduction in furlough support while people are still being asked to work from home if possible, and other business support mechanisms. Please can the Minister say whether they will be extended until we know that we are lifting restrictions completely? When, oh when, will any of these Statements or communications make it clear to the clinically extremely vulnerable and their families and friends what they are expected to do?

The Statement lists the areas where restrictions are to be lifted, many of which will be welcome, especially the 30-person limit on attending weddings, receptions and commemorative events, and out-of-school residential visits in bubbles of up to 30. But I ask again about mask wearing in schools, given the continuing increase in delta variant cases among children. Will there be specific guidance for these events, including lateral flow testing before and after, so that any outbreaks at a wedding could be tracked and managed? What level of new Covid cases per day would change the pilots on large events with higher capacities, especially the ones planned at full capacity?

It is good to see the removal of enforced quarantine for care home residents after trips out of homes. I never did understand that one, given that staff and visitors did not have to self-isolate.

It was good to hear the emphasis in the statement from Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Valance on the importance of the second dose. I repeat my regular plea that all Ministers use this as a reference point. Far too many only ever use the number of people having had the first dose. With the delta variant, it is even clearer now that two doses are essential.

Why on earth did the Prime Minister say yesterday that 19 July is definitely the terminal day for restrictions? We all hope that he is right, but if he and Ministers are led by data, how can he say that?

Finally, the Statement refers to surge testing in areas where the variant is also surging, but maps show such a steady rise in cases across the country. Can the Minister confirm that there are enough test, trace and isolate staff to manage effectively this fourth wave of Covid?