Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Other Provisions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 16 June 2021.

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Lord Bethell:

Moved by Lord Bethell

That the Regulations laid before the House on 15 June be approved.

Instrument not yet reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, we are making excellent progress along the spring 2021 road map, and we now have one of the most open economies and societies in this part of the world. But we all want to see restrictions lifted even further, and on that I am optimistic. However, we know we cannot be complacent. As the Prime Minister set out in his address to the nation on Monday, we do need to hold at step 3 of the road map for just a little longer. This is vital. The very latest scientific data and evidence show us that we must proceed with the utmost caution. By pausing at step 3, we are seeking to protect the progress we have made on infection rates and the vaccine rollout, and to make absolutely certain that we are on a stable footing before we go further.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of the highly transmittable vaccine escapee delta variant has shifted our assessment of the risks. It is now the dominant variant across England, accounting for 90% of cases, and it is set to spread around the world. Its R number is estimated to be 60% to 80% higher than the previously most widespread alpha variant. The overall R number in England has increased and is now between 1.2 and 1.4, meaning that we are in the age of doubling times. We need to be in an age of halving times. Early evidence suggests an increased risk of hospitalisations with the delta variant compared with the alpha. This pause will bring us more time in the race between the vaccine and the virus. It will ensure that we as a nation are equipped as well as we can be to take on the virus and the delta variant.

Can I say a word about the vaccine? Increasing the number of second jabs is absolutely crucial. The data that we have at the moment suggests that the vaccines are less effective against symptomatic disease cause by the delta variant, but that protection increases after two doses. Two doses of the vaccine has now been shown to be highly effective in reducing hospitalisation from the delta variant, with the latest PHE data suggesting that this could be 96% for the Pfizer vaccine and 92% for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the second dose.

In this time, while we pause step 3, we will deliver many more first and second vaccine doses. There are currently 1.2 million over-50s and 4.3 million over-40s who have had their first jab but have not had their second. By 19 July all those over 50 and the clinically extremely vulnerable who have had their first doses by mid-May will have had their second dose—or will have been offered it. Second doses for all over-40s will be accelerated by reducing the dosing interval from 12 weeks to eight weeks. All over-40s who received a first dose by mid-May will be offered a second dose by 19 July. All adults aged 18 and over will be offered a first dose by 19 July, two weeks earlier than planned.

I am confident that we can hit those targets, not least because our vaccination programme has made great progress. A network of vaccination sites continues to operate brilliantly across the UK; there are now more than 1,990 vaccination sites in England, with more coming on line in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of all those involved, more than 41.8 million people in the UK have received their first dose and 30.2 million their second. From today, all adults over 21 can book their first dose.

Vaccine supplies are robust and delivering to forecast. For the Pfizer vaccine, we expect supply in June to be 30% more than in May, and July’s will be 80% more than in June. Supplies should be sustained at this level in August. So I thank everyone involved in the vaccination programme for their continued efforts to maintain this tremendous progress over the weeks ahead.

I would like to anticipate a couple of the questions that may arise in the debate ahead, and I will start with borders. A number of noble Lords have asked why, if the delta variant has changed our assessment so much, we did not act sooner, protect our borders more quickly and prevent the variant entering the country. I would say that we did act quickly to reduce the importation of the delta variant; we took the decision to add India to the red list immediately upon being advised that this lineage of variant was potentially higher risk than any other variants under investigation, and several days before the delta was considered a variant of concern. We acted quickly and with caution. The contribution of variants to the surge in cases in India was at that time unclear. We added India to the red list on 23 April, with arrivals having to quarantine for 10 days in a hotel. Before India was red listed, everyone had to quarantine on arrival for 10 days, take a pre-departure test and two further tests on days 2 and 8 of quarantine.

The decision to add and remove countries from the red list is made by Ministers, informed by the latest scientific data and public health advice from a world-leading range of experts. As with all our coronavirus measures, we keep the red list under constant review, and our priority remains to protect the health of the UK public. However, this does not change the fact that this virus is a formidable enemy and needs to be tackled on many fronts. Border measures are important, but that does not mean that we can be complacent elsewhere. We have learned that Covid likes to take advantage of complacency, which is one reason why we each need to take individual responsibility for tackling the virus. We all need to follow the public health advice to protect the progress that we have made.

I will now move on to a topic that I know many noble Lords are interested in: singing. We are aware that singing can increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission through the spread of aerosol droplets. It is particularly dangerous indoors, where the particles can build up and, as with any activity, the cumulative effect of aerosol transmission means that the more people are involved, the higher the risk of transmission. The guidance mirrors our approach elsewhere to be more cautious indoors than outdoors and to be mindful of the impact that our actions have on other people.

Finally, can I say a word about adult social care vaccination? An extensive six-week consultation on making the vaccine a condition of employment for care home staff concluded on 26 May. It saw a fantastic level of engagement; we see a clear public health rationale for driving vaccination uptake in care homes.

So I am confident that we will be in a stronger position by 19 July. This pause at step 3 will help us reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths and will protect the NHS. I commend these regulations to the House.