My Lords, on the 73rd birthday of the NHS yesterday we supported and echoed the thanks to everyone in the NHS and the care sector for their extraordinary and humbling response to the pandemic, which continues to this day. We are far from being an NHS back to normal, whether through increased Covid cases, the backlog of hospital appointments and life-threatening delayed diagnosis, all the way through to the more routine but also vital services. So, our best present to the NHS will be to lift restrictions and return to normal in the safest way possible for them, for patients and the wider health of our country.
For months, the Prime Minister has talked of “data, not dates”. The data shows cases running at over 25,000 per day and predicted to rise to 50,000 per day by the end of the month. Hospitalisations are up and even ventilator bed use is up, which, while not as bad as in the previous two waves, is putting pressure on the hospitals dealing with them.
There is a large surge of cases in the north-east, and there are concerns that a new variant may exist there. Cases in the UK of the lambda variant from Peru are now being investigated as it appears more transmissible and possibly more resistant to vaccines. If the UK is following the route out of the pandemic used by Israel and the USA, we should note that both those countries are now finding that that system is not working for them: Israel’s proportions are picking up again and Florida is struggling to cope with a very large surge in cases.
Yesterday’s Statement was a case of ideology over science. It says that the vaccine is a “wall of defence”, but it is a wall with holes in it. First, one-third of adults have not yet had their second jab; nor have any children. That is a reservoir of millions—not just thousands, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton said—who are at risk of catching Covid, whether seriously or not, and passing it on to others. Secondly, double-jabbers are not conferred with magical total immunity and protection, and we know that they can transmit it too.
We on these Benches want to start with a return to normal and to lift restrictions. We desperately need to kick-start the economy, to start to socialise again and, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said last month, to live with Covid as it is now endemic and will be with us for some years to come. However, that means providing the safety net needed to ensure that people are as safe as possible. Asian countries that managed their pandemic well learned from SARS. The use of face masks became routine and a matter of personal and wider social responsibility, allowing life to continue in the flu season and in the pandemic. They also maintain strong and effective test, trace and isolate systems all the time. We will be discussing test, trace and isolate in detail following the Statement that is due to come to your Lordships’ House on Thursday, but the proposed reductions in test, trace and isolate will remove the UK’s ability to manage outbreaks swiftly, during which time others will catch and pass on Covid.
When we drive into our towns and cities, we rely on local authorities to set up traffic systems, including traffic lights, to help to guide us on safe journeys, regulate movement and reduce harm and damage. But it is as if “freedom day” is getting rid of all our traffic lights.
Proportionate responses are needed, and these include face masks. Early last year, even the WHO was equivocal on the use of face masks but, as the world became aware that this is a respiratory disease passed on through droplets, most countries moved to face mask mandates. On
Last night the Government published the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2021 and brought them into force at 6 am this morning. This amendment allows supporters of foreign teams with tickets for the final stages of the Euros to travel. Tens of thousands of foreign fans will be waved in, despite the high number of daily cases and despite 1,300 cases among Scottish fans after they travelled to Wembley to play England last month. I am not surprised: it is a crowd-pleaser. But as a legislator I find it extraordinary and unacceptable that the Explanatory Memorandum states this amendment is needed “to protect public health”. Frankly, that is in complete contradiction to the regulations themselves. Such inconsistent behaviour from the Government typifies a desire to please people, rather than think ahead and manage scenarios.
What we need is careful planning when lifting restrictions that keeps people safe by having effective measures in place: face masks in risky environments; test, track, trace and self-isolate rules that protect people; and funding for those who have to self-isolate. That is the way we can move to a new normal, to an economy that can work again, with health traffic lights around us to manage and minimise Covid.