My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Statement today and for the debate that we are about to have.
The past 15 months have been so hard on all of us. We all want to find the light at the end of the Covid tunnel and take a step closer to a life of normality. However, caution, care and clarity are needed as we step forward into new freedoms. We all want to see the restrictions end, but what the Secretary of State said yesterday was not a guarantee that restrictions will end; it only described what the end of restrictions will look like.
Can the Minister confirm that the ending about to be announced will be based on SAGE advice and data? Yesterday, the Secretary of State said that he believes the best way to protect the nation’s health is to lift all restrictions. Is that the Secretary of State’s own view or SAGE’s advice? If the latter, where does SAGE say that? The advice that I read yesterday about the spread of the virus was much more cautious, saying:
“There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination.”
It went on to say that, depending on what happens and whether the variant morphs—my word—restrictions might need to be introduced. Is that the Minister’s understanding?
“Here in West Yorkshire, Covid cases have risen by 62% in the last week. So, we really do need a clear message from the government that puts people’s safety first, based on the science and live data.”
Surely she is correct. If only 50% of people across the UK are fully vaccinated and another 17% partially vaccinated, infections will continue to rise steeply; and hospitalisations are rising. Inherent in the strategy outlined is an acceptance that infections will surge further, that hospitalisations will increase and that we will hit a peak later this summer. Some of those hospitalised will die, and thousands—children and young people—are being left exposed to a virus with no vaccination protection, leaving them at risk of long-term chronic illness and personal impacts that might be felt for years to come.
We may have to accept the Government’s argument for a “learning to live with Covid” strategy, but how many deaths, and how many cases of long Covid, does the Minister consider acceptable? Yesterday’s message put the onus on individuals and businesses to self-manage what in recent months has been mandatory. I suspect that this may have left many people confused. As we on these Benches have said on many occasions, ambiguity in a pandemic costs lives. As demonstrated by the lively debates in today’s media, advice can be divisive, leading to disagreements on the interpretation of what is safe. We have government Ministers saying different things about what they personally intend to do; last night, we had a clear message from the CMO about the circumstances under which he intends to wear a mask. So I think that we have every right to be concerned that the debate may cause confusion and compromise crucial safety.
Let us look at public transport, for example. I have been using public transport throughout. I started wearing a mask long before it became mandatory. I still do not feel safe on a very crowded Tube, and I still do not want anyone to sit next to me. I test twice a week, and I have self-isolated twice since January when I got pinged. I do not think that I am unusual or nervous, but I feel strongly that I have a duty not to unwittingly spread the virus, and I do not want people to infect me. In a recent travel study, a majority of passengers said that they would lose confidence if the use of face masks were reduced. Many people, especially those who are more vulnerable, may become more anxious about using public transport if face masks become voluntary.
What is the Minister’s answer to these legitimate concerns? Does it go with the view that we let the virus rip and take the consequences? Given that we know that bus and taxi drivers experience Covid and death, what does the Minister have to say to them about their safety in these circumstances? Masks do not restrict freedoms in a pandemic when so much virus is circulating; they ensure that everyone who goes to the shops or takes public transport can do so safely. Who suffers most when masks are removed? It is those working in the shops, those driving the buses and taxis, and low-paid workers without access to decent pay, many of whom live in overcrowded housing and have been savagely, disproportionately impacted by this virus from day one.
We know that masks are effective when a virus is airborne. Given that high circulations of virus can see it evolve and possibly escape vaccine, what risk assessment have the Government done on the possibility of a new variant emerging? Will the Minister publish that assessment?
Given that the Statement says that isolation will still be needed, does the Minister think that living with the virus means the low-paid will be properly supported, or does he think they would game the system, as the previous Health Secretary suggested to a Select Committee?
As the Prime Minister announced, we can all crowd into pubs. Meanwhile infection rates in school settings continue to disrupt schooling, with nearly 400,000 children off in one week. With one in 20 children off, I look forward to a sensible announcement from the Secretary of State for Education, but I am not holding my breath.
We are not out of the woods. We want to see lockdown ended but we need life-saving mitigation to be in place. We still need sick pay. We need local contact tracing. Mask wearing should continue where it is needed. We need ventilation, and we need support for children to prevent serious illness.
On many occasions in the last year I have stood here and warned the Minister and the Government about not quarantining properly, of a chaotic test and trace system, of not having a circuit-breaker when it was needed and of taking decisions too late. I really do not want to find myself saying in September or October, “We warned you that you needed to take this more slowly and weigh the risks more carefully.” We should keep some measures—for example, mask wearing—until, say, two-thirds of the population are fully vaccinated.