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 Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:12 pm, 15th June 2021

As ever, I am also grateful to my own Benches for their support in these difficult times.

This Statement from the House of Commons has been reflected on very thoughtfully and accurately, as shown by some of the questions. I remind noble Lords that the rollout of the vaccine is happening at pace, but it deserves to have a breath and the space to be seen through, all the way, before we make categoric steps towards opening up. I emphasise in reply to these questions that the supply of the vaccine has stepped up. Pfizer’s forecasted supply in June will be 30% more than in May; in July, it will be 80% more than in June; and we hope to have that sustained level in August. By the week commencing 19 July, we will have offered all adults a first dose, as well as a second dose to those aged over 40 who have had their first dose by mid-May.

This rollout will be absolutely transformative. It will mean that we overtake an important inflection point: the numbers of those who have had their second dose, and who are therefore, as statistics show more and more clearly, highly resistant to this virus, and certainly to severe disease and death. This variant is undoubtedly much more transmissible, by between 50% and 80%. It is therefore completely proportionate and reasonable that we take this moment to delay step 4 and give the vaccine rollout the space that it needs.

I will build on the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the work done by the Sanger Institute on genomic sequencing. It is only because of enormous investment, and the skills and expertise of those in genomic sequencing in the UK, that we understand as much as we do about the variant. In her comments on India, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke about the process of analysing VOIs and VOCs. She is entirely right to allude to the fact that this is an extremely complicated matter. This analysis is down to the scientific judgment of those who have a copy of the variant. It took a very long time to get a physical copy of the variant from India, or even to have a digital sequence of it. That is why these things can take some time.

This demonstrates why we need to tidy up and invest in international systems for surveillance. An enormous amount of energy went into the G7, and I can report to noble Lords that, during the health track, we made great progress in the pandemic preparedness work stream in setting up an international scheme for exactly this kind of surveillance. It is imperative that we know what is happening in communities all the way around the world, because we are all touched by the mutations of this virus, wherever they happen. We continue to invest in the national variant assessment platform, which is our offer to the world to genomically sequence any variant sent to the Sanger, so that we can share that data with countries around the world.

We have also invested enormously in the control of our borders. Through both its red list and its amber list, the managed quarantine service has done an enormous amount to stop the transmission of new variants into this country. I pay a huge amount of tribute to Border Force and those in MQS, who have done a terrific job of bringing in this completely new infrastructure and this service that has done a huge amount to keep out variants—including the Manaus variant, the South Africa variant and others—through the red-listing process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about school-age children and mask wearing. It is important that we keep a balance. Even though the infection rate is creeping up among school-age children, we need to protect the life they have in schools. In areas of enhanced response, the wearing of masks is now a recommended option for those who seek to take it up. That is a proportionate response in areas of rising infection. But across the estate, we think it is proportionate to step away from that at the moment.

On isolation payments, I can share with the noble Baroness that we are putting £2 million of funding into an agreed pilot across the Greater Manchester area, testing ways to encourage people to comply with self-isolation rules. The pilot will include support and engagement teams who will work with households within 24 hours of a positive test. The pilot is expected to reach 13,000 people over 12 weeks, and I am hopeful that it will guide the way forward in this area.

The vaccination surge is absolutely working. We saw a dramatic change in the vaccination uptake among the community in Bolton in particular. That is one area of Britain where the infection rate is coming down, which demonstrates the effectiveness of both the vaccination surge and the testing surge. We are now focused very much on accelerating second doses, particularly for over-40s. Millions of over-40s have had their first dose; some have an appointment for their second dose and some do not. It is very much the focus of our efforts to ensure that we get those people over the line and finish the job, to protect them and the ones they love.

This is an important development in our steps programme. It is frustrating, but there is an enormous amount to be optimistic about and it is in that spirit that we have made this decision.