Covid-19 Update - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 29 June 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 28 June.

“I am honoured to have been asked to become Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I understand the responsibility that comes with this job, especially at this critical moment. As someone who has sat on the Front Bench for many years, this past year has been a difficult one. I have been frustrated not to be able to play my part in helping to meet the greatest public health challenge that our country has ever faced, so I am especially proud to have been given this opportunity for public service.

Nothing embodies the spirit of public service more than our National Health Service and those who work in our social care. I have seen it in my own constituency; I saw it again just this morning at St Thomas’ Hospital, where I met doctors, nurses and volunteers who have moved mountains over this past year. Now, they are helping us vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. I pay tribute to them all, and I pledge to do everything I can to deliver for them and the people of this great country. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the House on this vital mission.

We are making phenomenal progress with our vaccination programme. Vaccination is now open to every adult in the country, 84% of adults have got a jab and 61% of adults have had two doses. This progress has allowed us to safely take the first three steps out of the lockdown and towards the greater freedoms that we can enjoy today. We owe this strong position not only to the NHS but to everyone who has played their part.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right honourable friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who has worked hard throughout all these testing times. He achieved a great amount in the work that he did, and I know that he will have more to offer in public life. I wish him the very best.

There remains a big task ahead of us to restore our freedoms—freedoms that, save in the gravest of circumstances, no Government should ever wish to curtail. My task is to help to return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great, while, of course, protecting life and our NHS. That task has been made all the more difficult by the delta variant, which we now know makes up some 95% of new cases in the UK. Not only does it spread more easily but the evidence points to a higher risk of those who have not been vaccinated needing hospital treatment, compared with the previously dominant alpha variant.

This narrowing of the race between the virus and the vaccine led to this Government’s difficult decision to pause step 4 on our road map until 19 July. We are using this extra time to protect as many people as we can. When the Government took that decision on 14 June, more than 4.3 million over-40s had had a first dose but not a second. The figure is now down to 3.2 million people over 40. We can all be reassured by how many more people are getting the life-saving opportunity that a vaccine offers.

At this two-week review point, I want to update the House on our progress on our road map to freedom. Our aim is that around two-thirds of all adults in this country will have had both doses by 19 July. We are bringing forward second doses, and bringing forward our target for first doses too, so we can meet that 19 July goal. Vaccine uptake remains sky-high. We have seen that age is no barrier to enthusiasm for getting the jab: as of this weekend, more than half of adults under 30 have taken up the chance to be vaccinated—including, in the past couple of weeks, all three of my own adult children.

Our vaccines are working, including against the delta variant. The latest modelling from Public Health England shows that they have saved more than 27,000 lives and have prevented more than 7 million people getting Covid-19. We know that, after a single dose of vaccine, the effectiveness is lower against the new delta variant, at around a 33% reduction in symptomatic disease, but two doses of the vaccine are just as effective against hospital admission with the delta variant as with the alpha variant.

The jabs are making a difference in our hospitals, too. In January, people over 65 who were vaccinated earlier in our programme made up the vast majority of hospital admissions; the latest data shows that that group now makes up less than a third. While cases now are ticking up, the number of deaths remains mercifully low, and we will continue to investigate how our vaccines are breaking that link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. I am also encouraged by new data just today from Oxford University’s mix and match trial, which shows that a mixed schedule of jabs, such as getting the AstraZeneca jab first and the Pfizer second, could give our booster vaccination programme more flexibility and possibly even some better immune responses.

Finally, we continue to see a rise in hospitalisations. Although in line with the kinds of numbers we had anticipated at this point in our road map, the number of people needing hospital treatment for Covid-19 has doubled since the start of May. Admissions are most clearly increasing in the north-east and south-west of England, so we have been boosting testing centres and vaccines in those areas and keeping a close watch on the numbers.

I spent my first day as Health Secretary—just yesterday—looking at the data and testing it to the limit. While we decided not to bring forward step 4, we see no reason to go beyond 19 July because, in truth, no date we choose comes with zero risk for Covid. We know we cannot simply eliminate it; we have to learn to live with it. We also know that people and businesses need certainty, so we want every step to be irreversible. Make no mistake: the restrictions on our freedoms must come to an end. We owe it to the British people, who have sacrificed so much, to restore their freedoms as quickly as we possibly can, and not to wait a moment longer than we need to.

With the numbers heading in the right direction, all while we protect more and more people each day, 19 July remains our target date. The Prime Minister has called it our terminus date. For me, 19 July is not only the end of the line but the start of an exciting new journey for our country. At this crucial moment in our fightback against this pandemic, we must keep our resolve and keep on our road map to freedom so that together we can beat this pandemic and build back better. It is a task that I am deeply honoured to lead and one I know will succeed. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:23, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I start by saying how much these Benches identify with the words the Government have issued about the horrifying treatment of Chris Whitty, our Chief Medical Officer. It was completely shocking and disgraceful. For a truly amazing public servant to be treated like this is unacceptable at any level.

I thank the Minister for presenting the Statement and echo the words of my right honourable friend John Ashworth yesterday in welcoming the new Secretary of State to his position. It was pleasing to see the new Secretary of State at St Thomas’ Hospital yesterday; I hope it is the first of many visits to our inspirational and dedicated NHS and social care staff. I hope the Minister’s new boss will be more receptive than the previous one and make arrangements for them to receive a fair pay rise, and not the real-terms pay cut that is currently pencilled in.

Yesterday the Secretary of State let it be known that the 19 July reopening will, in effect, go ahead. He told the news that there is “no going back” and that lifting the restrictions will be “irreversible”. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that many across your Lordships’ House will give a collective and noble eye- roll at these words. Like many here—and unlike the Secretary of State—we have responded to a lot of these Statements in the last 15 months. We heard that there was “nothing in the data” to suggest that 21 June could not go ahead. Noble Lords will remember that children returned to school for one day before the January lockdown and the words “It will all be over by Christmas.” Some time last spring, I think the words “We will send it packing in 12 weeks” were used.

The context this time is that there has been a rise of 84,000 cases in the past week—an increase of 61%. Yesterday saw the highest case rate since January. If these trends continue, we could hit 35,000 to 45,000 cases a day by 19 July. We know that this variant means fewer hospitalisations and fatalities, but it also means that young people will become ill and some will have long Covid. It will again mean disruption to our schools and our youngsters’ learning and socialisation. When will we see a review of the arrangements in schools?

We also all know that this is a race between the vaccine and the infection, but I fear it will not be won by the vaccine in the next three weeks, so if we are looking at possibly 200,000 people infected with Covid on 19 July, the Minister needs to tell us what impact that will have on the road map out of restrictions. Can he confirm whether “irreversible” means the Government are now ruling out restrictions this winter? Have they abandoned the plan that the previous Secretary of State and officials were drawing up for that?

The Secretary of State has promised to give the NHS everything it needs to get through the backlog, so will the hospital discharge and support funding be extended beyond this September, or will trusts have to make cuts instead? We have already had some discussion about the backlog today; for example, when will the NHS again guarantee that 95% of patients will start treatment within 18 weeks of referral? How long is it likely to be until we can reach those sorts of targets again? When will the Government give primary care the resources to meet the challenge of the hidden waiting list of over 7 million patient referrals that we would have expected since March 2020?

Given the pressures on primary care, is it still the Secretary of State’s plan to press ahead with the GP data transfer? Frankly, if this department cannot keep its own CCTV footage secure, how does the Minister expect it to keep our personal data secure? I think that is a legitimate question.

Given the pressures across the whole healthcare system, will the Government now abandon the ill-thought-out top-down reorganisation of the NHS that the previous Secretary of State was about to embark on?

Finally, I have raised with the Minister the importance of the Nolan principles which must guide the ethics and behaviour of us all, particularly those in government. The Good Law Project today published emails which used the noble Lord’s private address. Transparency is the word I am looking for here. The spotlight has been turned on the Minister in recent days, including a formal complaint to the Lords commissioners about the issuing of passes.

The Minister might do well to consider a couple of things: actually referring himself to the commissioners about that matter, if there is a chance he may have acted outside the rules, and—he has had to deal with this question several times and is very robust about it—making his emails and communications transparent and explaining them. He is sure that he has done nothing outside those rules; he would therefore be wise to be transparent about that. It is not the original scandal that gets people in the most trouble—it is the attempted cover-up, or the chance that there might be one. Transparency is the best advice I can give the Minister today.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I echo on behalf of these Benches the concerns about the treatment of Professor Chris Whitty. It is totally unacceptable, and it is good news that the police are now investigating this.

Just now, in reply to my question on the Urgent Question, the Minister said that the health and social care Bill has been published. Over the last few minutes I have been searching the web, but I cannot find it— can he help me any further?

Yesterday’s Statement from the new Secretary of State struck an interesting new note. The department is clearly no longer going to be led by data but by dates. Yesterday, 22,868 new cases of Covid were reported. This time last year, when lockdown was finally lifted, daily cases were under 1,000. Even with the high level of vaccinations, this is causing illness and pressures on the NHS—even if it is a different kind of pressure to that of a year ago. On Sunday, Andrew Marr reported on his programme that his own experience of catching Covid had been difficult. He said that, while he had not needed to go to hospital, he was more ill than he had ever imagined possible, and it was not an asymptomatic experience. In the light of this and the reports of growing numbers of people living with long Covid, can the Minister say why data will now clearly not factor into the decisions about 19 July?

On these Benches, we believe that we need to learn to live with this disease, but unlike the Statement from the new Secretary of State, we do not believe that this is just about vaccination, important though that is. This week, Israel has found that, despite early and comprehensive levels of vaccination, the delta variant is ripping through its communities. We have argued since February 2020 that controlling outbreaks is vital. Can I ask the Minister about the provision of test, trace and isolate arrangements moving forward? Specifically, have local directors of public health been given access to emergency funding for the provision of surge testing and tracing and vaccination in their communities? When will the pilots for increased support for those needing to self-isolate be published? We still believe that people should be paid their wages if asked to self-isolate. As that number is considerably fewer than six months ago, it would be not only cheaper for the Treasury but a much more effective way of ensuring that the spread of the virus is reduced.

Usually the Minister agrees with me on the importance of test, trace and isolate, even if we perhaps disagree on how that should be funded and supported. Can he respond to the concerns of the doctors and scientists who are appalled with today’s proposals that company directors will be able to temporarily leave quarantine for business meetings? People are still furious that the Prime Minister delayed adding India to the red list, with the resultant rapid spread of the more transmissible and more serious delta variant. As Professor Christina Pagel says:

“luckily elites don’t get or transmit covid.”

Stephen Reicher, the eminent behavioural scientist, said he was horrified by the

“scandalous misuse of science as a cover for political decisions … which is putting us all at risk.”

When commenting on the DCMS report published on Friday, he said:

“The headlines and the political response isn’t just an exaggeration, they directly contradict what the report says. It warns that the research wasn’t designed to draw any conclusions about the effects of events on transmission and mustn’t be used to do so”.

Yet Ministers and the press are all reporting that these events in the trial had no effect on infections and were safe to reopen.

Yesterday, a No. 10 spokesperson explicitly denied that government Ministers have used private email addresses. They said:

“Both the former health secretary and Lord Bethell understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”.

This is directly contradicted by the Second Permanent Secretary in meeting minutes published by the Sunday Times. Those minutes clearly state that former Health Secretary Matt Hancock

“corresponds only with private office via a gmail account”.

As the Good Law Project has reported, on 19 April 2020, the noble Lord, Lord Feldman, emailed the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, at his private address, about the availability of Covid-19 test kits via a Canadian company, saying:

“Certainly worth contacting … to see if they can help … and the pricing seems competitive.”

Self-evidently, this is government business, and specifically within the portfolio of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. The noble Lord, Lord Feldman, once co-chair of the Conservative Party, was writing to the Minister at his private email address on government business. In addition, I note that the Minister’s meeting with Abingdon Health on 1 April 2020 was not disclosed on the ministerial meeting schedule.

We note that, unlike the response from the noble Lord, Lord True, on the earlier UQ, it is not possible for the public to access private emails; the Freedom of Information Act specifically excludes it. Not going through the formal government-approved routes, whether for emails or declarations of meetings, gives the impression that perhaps the Minister has something to hide from his dealings with a former chairman of the Conservative Party and the company he was acting for. I note that the company was awarded an £85 million contract after the meeting and the emails.

There has been considerable speculation about the role of Ms Gina Coladangelo as a lobbyist, unpaid adviser to Matt Hancock and then a non-executive director for the Department of Health and Social Care. The press and media have also reported that the Minister gave Ms Coladangelo a parliamentary pass last year. Can he tell the House what personal parliamentary service she provided for him during that period? Does the Minister feel that his position is tenable, given this evidence?

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

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for those extremely thoughtful questions. As ever, I welcome the challenge and scrutiny that the House of Lords always provides on these matters.

I completely endorse what the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, very thoughtfully said about Chris Whitty. Chris Whitty and JVT are both complete legends, and both have been accosted in public. This is completely unacceptable. We must look at the security of those who serve us so well, and we must somehow address the disrespect that often happens when public figures walk in public. It is a great regret that this has happened.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about nurses’ pay. I repeat to her what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health said yesterday: this absolutely remains a priority. We must have a fair pay settlement. That pay settlement is going through the pay review process at the moment, and we look forward to receiving the output on that.

Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, asked about the basis for the optimism that we have at the moment. I have stood at this Dispatch Box for 18 months as the purveyor of difficult news to the House, and have lived through some very difficult moments in that time. I am acutely aware of the concerns that noble Lords have. I think the questions put were very reasonable and deserve a clear answer, so let me explain why we are a bit more optimistic than I think we ever could have been in the recent past. The case rates are slowing down, for both over and under-60s. Hospital admissions among the over-60s have started to fall, and while there are signs in both measures that the rate of growth is slowing, there is just not enough to fundamentally change our assessment of the risk of delta. In the last two weeks, we have seen case rates fall in both Bolton and Blackburn. That is an incredibly important observation, and one that bears testimony to the effectiveness of the local authorities, test and trace, and all of those who have contributed. It is mainly driven by the under-60 group, but not wholly. Rates among older people are plateauing right across the country at a lower level, and hospitalisations and severe illness are being prevented by people being doubled vaccinated against Covid-19. There are very clear signs that the vaccine is working in lots of ways.

By 19 July, two significant things will have changed that may give us stronger confidence. First, we will have offered a first dose to all adults in the United Kingdom. The NHS states that it can do this by 19 July. We will have also given a second dose to a higher proportion of over-40s, giving them more protection against hospitalisation. Secondly, we will be very close to the school holidays, which start on 26 July, and school-aged children being out of school. This will significantly reduce transmission among the population which is unvaccinated and has driven case growth. Universities should also be out.

We are monitoring the data every day. So far, we have not seen indicators that substantially change our assessment of the four tests. I hear loud and clear what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, says about Andrew Marr and his experience. Vaccination is not a panacea. It does not save everyone from any illness at all, but it has a significantly strong effect for us to move on to the next stage.

In terms of the backlog, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that we are putting funds in place to do whatever it takes to get us back to where we began. I cannot give the specific reassurances she asked for on whether specific funds will be extended, but it is our aspiration to work as hard as we can. On GP data, I assure her that the clinical trial progress that we have made on things such as Regeneron in the last few days gives us such a clear inspiration and motivation for ensuring that we get this project right. On trusted research environments, we have demonstrated that we listen and that we will change how we implement the GP data transfer, but our objective remains resolute. We are committed to continuing with this programme of work.

I will give a very clear response to the very important question regarding emails, asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton. I am absolutely rigorous in ensuring that government business is conducted through the correct formal channels. Contracts are negotiated by officials, not by Ministers. Submissions from officials are handled through departmental digital boxes, and that is right. Official decisions are communicated through secure governmental infrastructure.

I have read the Ministerial Code; I have signed it and I will seek to uphold it in everything that I do. The guidelines are clear that it is not wrong for Ministers to have personal email addresses. I have corresponded with a very large number of noble Lords in this Chamber from both my parliamentary address and my personal address. That is right and I will continue to do so. In their enthusiasm, third parties often seek to engage Ministers through whatever means that they can find, including their personal email. That is not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decision-making. Those who have seen material on the internet should judge it extremely sceptically, because distorted fragments of evidence do not provide sufficient grounds to rush to judgment on how Ministers do their business.

I do not recognise the substance of the comments of the Second Permanent Secretary, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and he has indicated to me that he does not recognise the substance of those comments. I completely recognise the comments that were made regarding the meetings with Abingdon Health. The meetings schedule from that week was overlooked because of an administrative oversight. It has now been uploaded to the internet. I will be glad to share a link to that register. On the complaint made by Anneliese Dodds, I have written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and would be very glad to share that letter with the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton.

I take this post extremely seriously. During the work of the pandemic, many people—officials, Ministers and those in industry—worked extremely hard to address the severe epidemic that we face, and I am extremely proud of how that business was conducted.

Photo of Lord Haselhurst Lord Haselhurst Conservative 1:44, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I note the impressive acceleration of the vaccine rollout and its relevance towards taking step 4 on 19 July, at a time when relief at the end of restrictions could lead to lack of caution and a surge in cases. Have the Government assessed whether it might be safer to prioritise those requiring first jabs over those waiting for their second—or, indeed, the opposite?

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

My Lords, the question of prioritisation is one for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. In terms of operational delivery, we have moved to a moment of opening up jabs to all those over 18, and many places do not even require an appointment. Between now and 19 July we are escalating the speed at which we deliver the jab. I encourage all ages to step forward for their first jabs, and those who have an appointment for the second to ensure that they make use of it.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords)

My Lords, some of the vaccines used in the United Kingdom have been found to be less effective against the beta variant currently spreading in South Africa. What assessment have the Government made of the risk of travellers from South Africa bringing the beta variant to the United Kingdom following the rugby tournament that is taking place there?

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

As ever, the noble Lord is extremely perceptive in his questions, and he is right that as we vaccinate more and more of the population, the risk will become less from highly transmissible mutants and more from those which can somehow escape the vaccine. The South African variant is the one that so far has demonstrated the greatest escapology. For that reason, we are extremely cautious about visitors who may come from areas that have the South Africa variant, including South Africa itself.

Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Labour

My Lords, although the Statement is upbeat, it does say that hospitalisation has doubled since May. This will not be solved in three weeks. What would it take to extend beyond 19 July on safety grounds and is the Minister ruling out restrictions this winter? Also, will the proposed top-down reorganisation of the NHS be abandoned?

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

My Lords, hospitalisations have doubled but the vast majority of them are among people who have not been double-vaccinated for plus two weeks. It is very striking, when you look at the list of who is in hospital, how many simply have not been vaccinated. That is why our focus is on seeing through the vaccination programme, particularly getting all those at-risk groups—those over 50—double-vaccinated as soon as possible.

I cannot rule out anything, but I am more optimistic today than I have ever been, and that optimism is grounded on a very careful study of the facts, having sat through the joint biosecurity presentations day in, day out, for months on end. While I cannot be 1000% confident of everything, since this virus has a lot that it can throw at us, I really am hopeful for the future.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, to minimise the need for another national lockdown, effective local test, trace and isolate systems will need to be in place. Therefore, can the Minister explain why, in the test and trace budget, centralised corporate services, which has no front-line test and trace activity, has £931 million more allocated than the localised front-line test, trace and contain allocation? If he does not have those figures to hand, can he please write to me, although not from his personal email address?

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

My Lords, I suspect that I have corresponded with the noble Lord from my personal email address; I am deeply hurt that he does not want to receive any of my emails again, but not entirely surprised. The waiting at test and trace has moved dramatically, as I think the noble Lord knows, from the central supply of testing and tracing services to a much more local model, and that does not always manifest itself in the corporate accounts of the organisation. It manifests itself in both the management and the delivery, and I pay huge tribute to those who are involved in the local implementation. As I said earlier, the way in which the delta virus infection rates, which were skyrocketing at one point, have been turned around in places such as Hounslow, Blackburn with Darwen and other areas of the north-west is phenomenally impressive and is a tribute to the impact of test and trace.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative

My Lords, what has the SIREN study most recently established about the effectiveness of infection-induced antibodies over time? Furthermore, as per my Written Question, answered by the Minister on 2 June 2021, why has not Public Health England or another government-backed health body conducted a review of research on the long-term effects of face mask wearing when clinicians such as Antonio Lazzarino from UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care cite deleterious health effects?

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

My Lords, SIREN is one of the most thought-provoking and interesting of all the many studies that we have done. It is a sad fact that we do not understand many of the aspects of the body’s immune system, and that is why we are so committed to that study. It suggests that once you have had the virus, your body’s immune system is extremely strong. The proportion of people who catch it a second time round is incredibly small. That is good news for those who have caught it and for those who have had the vaccine, because if the immune system works well after catching the virus, it probably works well after the vaccine. However, we continue to publish from the SIREN study. On the health impacts of wearing face masks, I am not fully across that, but I will be glad to write to my noble friend with any details that I may have.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench

The Government have been concerned for some time that even though someone is symptom-free and has had both vaccine jabs, there is still some risk that they might pass it on to others. But surely the risk must be minuscule. Have the Government ascertained how minscule the risk is compared with other much more major kinds of risk, and has there been a danger of the Government overcompensating here, particularly with respect to those in that position wanting to enter this country?

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

My Lords, what a perceptive question from the noble and right reverend Lord—he absolutely hits the nail on the head. The honest truth is that we do not have the precise figures on this but the indications are that he is right: the vaccine does not stop you being infected or transmitting it, but it reduces the chances of both those things dramatically. That is one of the reasons why we have kept our foreign travel arrangements under review. It is possible that the effect that he describes may mean that we can look very thoroughly at foreign travel—I think all noble Lords would welcome that.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I have no doubt about the Minister’s personal integrity but he will recognise that he is part of a Government who are not exactly renowned for their probity or truthfulness. I want to ask him about lateral flow tests. There have been reports that the accuracy of this test, which has been less than 100% in any case, is less still when it comes to the delta variant. Can he say a little more about that, and what discussions are taking place with UK companies, who appear to have developed better models which may be more accurate?

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

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right that the Porton Down verification team has looked extremely closely at all lateral flow tests and their sensitivity to the delta variant in particular. There is suggestion and some indication that for very low viral loads, the LFTs are not quite as sensitive, or if they are sensitive, the band is less easy to read. However, for higher viral loads—in other words, the kind of viral loads that the body needs to carry to be infectious—there is no change of sensitivity. Therefore, from that point of view the LFTs continue to perform their original purpose very effectively but we need to keep a very close eye on sensitivity with the new variants.

I pay tribute to all UK companies which are coming forward with LFT, PCR or genomic sequencing tests. I am extremely proud of the progress that the UK diagnostics industry has made. We have extremely high standards and extremely high validation and authorisation protocols through Porton Down. Those standards are very difficult to achieve but we are working extremely closely with UK companies to try to get them over the line so that they can play an important role in our response to the pandemic.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Statement places great emphasis on regaining freedoms but has relatively little to say on the specifics of how we learn to live with Covid, as we surely must, given the rising number of new cases and concerns about new variants. Apart from a very brief mention of care workers, there were no other details of how the planned end of restrictions on 19 July will affect care home residents and their families. Can the Minister say what thought is being given to how we learn to live with Covid in care settings and when we can expect to see detailed guidance on this which balances the need for protecting the elderly and vulnerable from infection and improving the quality of their daily lives?

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

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s question is entirely reasonable and I wish I could be more specific on the precise timing. The honest truth is that we look at the data every day; our experience through this pandemic is that our understanding improves every day and therefore the guidance that we provide is often provided at a relatively late stage. It is an unfortunate aspect of this awful pandemic and one that I know noble Lords have commented on with vigour in the past, but it is an unavoidable fact of life. However, the comments made very thoughtfully and persuasively by noble Lords about the conditions in care homes, the restrictions that are put on residents and the pressure that that puts on them and their families have been heard loudly and clearly by all those in the department and across government, and we will seek to address those concerns when the moment is right.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Conservative

I remind the House of my interest as Deputy Colonel Commandant Brigade of Gurkhas. According to the Daily Telegraph, 63 unvaccinated Gurkha veterans have now died in Nepal. Had they lived in the UK they would have been vaccinated, but because they left the Army before the law was changed, they have no right of abode here. Under the Armed Forces covenant which we are enshrining in law, we have a duty of care to our veterans, and the differential way in which we are treating our Gurkha veterans from their UK counterparts is a clear breach of that covenant. Just 20,000 vaccines, or less than 3% of a single day’s rollout in the UK, is all that is required. When will those vaccines be made available?

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

My Lords, I pay tribute to the points made by my noble friend and to the persuasive and energetic way in which he made them. Our thoughts go to those in Nepal, who face an awful position; the pandemic there is running extremely hot. I reassure my noble friend that colleagues at both the Department of Health and the FCDO are fully aware of the concerns of the noble Lord and the Nepalese people. We will put in place the kind of vaccination provision programme that we would like to see as soon as we can. Our priority for the moment is the UK. For all the reasons I just described, we must continue the march towards 19 July and get our own people vaccinated. However, my noble friend makes the point well; the sums involved are relatively small and we will seek to address them as soon as we reasonably can.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

My Lords, there is a growing feeling in the arts that they are being taken for a ride. Up to 60,000 will attend the Euro semis but festivals such as Kendal Calling, with less than half of that capacity, and now WOMAD, have had to cancel because they have no access to the Events Research Programme data or to a government-backed insurance scheme. On top of that, despite the Costello study, our amateur choirs are restricted to six while professional choirs in similar settings are not. For the arts, none of this makes sense.

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

My Lords, I completely understand the noble Earl’s points. On WOMAD, I have a particular interest in that fine festival and I am extremely sad to hear that it has been cancelled, and to have to change my family plans accordingly. I reassure the noble Earl that we have not overlooked the arts at all. They are absolutely paramount in our thoughts. The events research programme is making progress, but it consumes a high number of tests and we simply do not have the capacity, despite the huge investment we have made, for the kinds of figures that would be needed to open up the whole of the arts world at this stage. But I am hopeful that the research we are doing will create the kind of persuasive data necessary to figure out safe ways of reopening the arts, so that we can get back to the life we had as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

I welcome the Minister’s openness and transparency about his conduct. I also support what he said about the attacks on Dr Whitty. If there are no arrests before the end of the day, it will just show how useless the Metropolitan Police is under its current leadership. In his Statement, the Secretary of State talked about keeping the NHS safe. What I have not really connected, both from the previous Question and this Statement, is that keeping the NHS safe cannot be done in isolation. The issue of social care and its reform is inexorably linked to keeping the NHS safe, and that point does not seem to be used by Ministers as a serious connection. Finally, without abuse, if this country starts boosters or third jabs later this year when people in countries such as Nepal are still going without vaccinations, it will be a thundering international disgrace.

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

My Lords, I have failed in my mission, because I have sought to convey to the Chamber that we completely understand that the NHS, social care and public health—the three sectors of our healthcare system—are inextricably linked. That is why we are bringing to the House the health and social care Bill that we are. That is why we have already brought about a large number of reforms, including ICSs and the integration of various diagnostic elements, and have sought to bring more parity for social care workers and those in public health. The noble Lord absolutely hits the nail on the head. I completely agree with his point, and that is our guiding star for the future.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, if we are to return to normality on 19 July, as the new Secretary of State has stressed in the other House is his aim, can my noble friend assure me that the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, will be properly and effectively answered by a return to normality with choirs, inside and out? Can he also assure me—and I am sorry to press him on this yet again—that, by the end of August at the latest, all care home workers will have to have been vaccinated?

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

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to address both points. On singing, I have heard loud and clear the points made by many noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Cormack. The right honourable Secretary of State for Health said very clearly yesterday that it was his aspiration that we should return to normal as soon as possible and that he himself would be joining in the singing when it happens. I completely echo that point.

On social care workers, I am advised that we are working as hard as we can to get through the very delicate employment law and the consultations necessary. I know my noble friend would wish that this could all happen a lot more quickly, but the way in which we go about the treatment of our workers needs to respect their human rights, and that is why it is important that we do this in a thoughtful way. It is also necessary to build trust in the vaccine and I do not think that there would be anything gained by in any way pre-empting those processes.

Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the hotel quarantine for those returning from red-list countries is having a huge, stressful impact on those using the hotels. I have a couple of examples to share and one or two suggestions to make. The first case is family A from Huddersfield. They went to bury their father in Pakistan. On return, they had huge difficulty booking hotels. At Heathrow Airport some family members were taken to Swindon and others to Camberley, which are about 50 miles apart. They could not be put in the same hotel, for some reason. They have made a formal complaint. I have received a copy of it and I am willing to send it to the Minister as well. It shows the level of dissatisfaction people are feeling.

The second example is from my home town, Luton, where, sadly, a young teenager lost his life in a tragic incident. His father and some other relatives, including somebody who is epileptic, were in Pakistan at the time. On their return, whatever amount of stress they had, they were taken to the hotel straightaway and were not allowed out, other than just coming for the funeral.

The third example—and I would say a more tragic one—is a family who went to Pakistan before it was put on the red list. The father was under stress and there are two disabled children. The mother died there and the children are waiting to come back to the UK

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord may wish to direct his question to the Minister at this stage.

Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the suggestion is, please can those returners be tested and those who are found to be positive asked to quarantine in their own home? To observe their quarantine, they should have some kind of electronic tag instead of being put in expensive hotels and having these terrible experiences.

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

My Lords, the noble Lord’s testimony is very moving and I have no doubt that the red-list system has put a lot of pressure on a lot of families. I personally sign off on these exemptions, and every evening as I go through them and read about the stories people have, it breaks my heart—and I do it with huge regret indeed. However, the noble Lord needs to understand that we put the red-list system in place to protect this country. People simply cannot expect to travel in large family groups as if the pandemic had not happened, and they cannot expect the testing system to work as some kind of barrier to infection. We have tried that. It did not work. The proof is absolutely categoric.

If I may be honest with noble Lords, it is likely, unfortunately, that we will have to live with some red-list countries for some time to come. That is one aspect of the unwinding of this pandemic that is not likely to go away very quickly. I completely take on board the noble Lord’s guidance. If he would like to write to me about the specific examples, I would be happy to correspond with him. However, I would not be levelling with him if I did not make it clear that this is something that we are extremely committed to.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I welcome my right honourable friend Sajid Javid to his new role and also offer my public endorsement of the integrity of my noble friend the Minister. I echo the words of this Statement that we must learn to live with Covid, so that our country benefits from the fantastic vaccine success. I fear we have lost perspective on real life. Zero Covid and stopping people being ill with just one disease among the myriad diseases around us all our lives are wholly unreasonable—and indeed unattainable —aims. Can my noble friend comment on when we will take more seriously the mental health damage that lockdown and deprivation of freedom to see all our loved ones is causing, and the importance of trusting the British people to decide for themselves who they need to meet and hug and who—as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friend Lord Cormack said—they feel safe to sing with?

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

My Lords, I hear my noble friend’s comments loud and clear, and I think that we have hit some kind of inflection point where our focus is now much more on the learning-to-live rather than the saving-life dimension. I say that with unbelievable caution, having, as noble Lords know, been through all sorts of rollercoasters of expectation over the past year. I am extremely hopeful that the vaccine has laid out a clear path out of this pandemic. It is one that is fragile, delicate and could be overturned at any point, but, so far, the vaccine has seemed to be extremely durable.

On the mental health of the nation, I completely agree with my noble friend. It has put huge pressure on families, loved ones and communities. There have been positive benefits—my honourable friend Nadine Dorries spoke movingly about that to the Health and Social Care Committee the week before last. Some families in some communities have been drawn closer together— there is good evidence for that—but, for a great many, there has been a huge amount of pressure. I, for one, look forward very much to some lessening of that burden.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Goss Moor Lord Taylor of Goss Moor Liberal Democrat

The Minister has just commented that there may be red-list countries for some time to come, and that is clearly correct. That is a reflection of two things. First, many countries, particularly poorer countries, have not been able to vaccinate at our rates—not even close to that. The changes to Covid, which are making its spread both more easy and more dangerous mean that it is ripping through many of those countries and threatens many, many more deaths. Secondly, in doing so, it increases the chances of variants being bred in those countries and ultimately finding their way here—we know from experience that they will find their way here sooner or later. So, while feeling more optimistic about the situation here in the UK, what can we do to further ramp up the effort to support countries around the globe that are struggling to vaccinate their populations, struggling to save lives and, frankly, struggling to stop the creation of new variants that threaten this country?

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

The noble Lord is entirely right: those three things are linked. We cannot live in a world where there is a high infection rate in large parts of it, where new variants prosper and where we cannot travel. That would be inhuman and unpragmatic. I met with the CEOs of the major companies that manufacture the vaccines in Oxford during the G7, and we discussed this point in great detail. It is frustrating, but I also have optimism that the manufacturing capability in the hubs around the world—in the geographical places where populations live—are being built today and, by the middle of next year, there will be a huge amount of vaccine capacity in order to address this problem. It is frustrating that it cannot happen overnight, but vaccine manufacturing capability takes time to build up, as we know only too well. However, those investments are taking place, and I believe that, as a world, we can beat this pandemic together.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

Notwithstanding the disclosures of the past few days, may I tell my noble friend that I, for one, very much appreciate what Matt Hancock did and the immensity of the effort he put in to combat Covid infection? Step 4 is not a return to normality, so, for example, self-isolation requirements will continue after contact tracing. The Government now have a lot of research to look at whether daily lateral flow tests can replace self-isolation both for schools and for businesses, which are must disrupted by self-isolation. Can my noble friend say when the Government may be able to proceed to allow some schools and businesses to shift to daily lateral flow tests?

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

My noble friend’s comments are very much appreciated and taken on board. On his question about daily lateral flow testing, he is very perceptive and correct. This is an area that we have been exploring for some months, and we are working extremely hard to bottom it out with rigorous clinical trials—clinical trials are difficult to nail down, by their nature, but we have invested substantially in them. He is right that, for schools, for international travel and for contacts—those three things—daily testing may well offer an alternative to 10-day isolation. That would be a huge relief to many in the country, and it is something that we are very focused on delivering.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

I welcome the change of tone when the new Secretary of State said that the big task ahead is to restore our freedoms—freedoms no Government should ever wish to curtail. Regime change is a bit disruptive, so I ask the Minister: are all the department behind this new approach, because it is in rather stark contrast to the Secretary of State’s predecessor’s more doom-laden, illiberal approach? As we have seen in this debate, there seems some reluctance, at least within Westminster, to allow fellow citizens to embrace freedom.

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

The noble Baroness is quite right to ask the question, but I would say to her that it is not actually the regime that has changed, although the regime has changed; it is that the data has changed. Last Tuesday, I sat through Covid Gold, which is our big set-piece data session—a two-hour deep dive into national and local data. Every week for the past 70 weeks, that has been a very chilling experience where we have looked at the progress of and tactics of this awful virus, and I have often left it with a very heavy heart. Last week, I genuinely felt that we had reached some kind of turning point and, on Friday, when I sat in my kitchen, I felt a great weight beginning to lift off my shoulders for the first time in a very long time. I cannot disguise from your Lordships that there may well be more surprises left in this virus. I cannot promise that I will not be standing at this Dispatch Box giving bad news at some point in future, but, right now, I am more optimistic than I have ever been, and I think that the Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State reflected that.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the time for questions has now elapsed and, with regrets and apologies to those noble Lords whom I was unable to call, we must move to the next business.