Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 6th July 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:35 pm, 6th July 2021

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the thoughtful questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton. I will address the first question from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on where we get our advice from and will try to explain a little bit about how these decisions are made.

We get advice from a wide variety of inputs. They include the NHS, and we look very carefully at NHS capacity and projections for trying to catch up with the very large waiting lists that we have for electives. We get advice from schools about the prevalence of infection and attendance at schools. We look to Parliament for guidance, scrutiny and challenge. We have talked to GPs about the front-line picture that they see. We look to the JVCI for epidemiological advice. SAGE provides an important challenge and interesting support, particularly in terms of modelling, but it is not the sole repository of all the evidence for our decision-making. We are extremely grateful for its input but we have to take on board a very large set of perspectives when we make these decisions. We cannot rely on just one data set from one group. It is a holistic situation, and we have to balance a lot of different and competing needs at the same time.

That is why the decisions made in the Statement yesterday and in the Statement made by the Secretary of State an hour ago are proportionate and have, I hope, the caution, care and clarity that the noble Baroness quite rightly referred to. She is right that some infections will, very sadly, lead to severe disease, hospitalisation and, in some cases, death. But the proportion of those infections is much smaller than it was before the vaccine arrived. We have successfully vaccinated a huge proportion of those who are the most vulnerable to this disease. As a result, although infections are rising, the impact on hospitalisation and death is a very small fraction of what it once was.

We need to proceed with caution, keeping a very close eye on those relative relationships, but the picture that we see at the moment is relatively straightforward: the vaccine works. The statistics for both the BioNTech and the AstraZeneca vaccines are incredibly impressive in terms of both hospitalisation and transmission.

The noble Baroness challenged me to explain what I thought might be an acceptable level of deaths. I do not wish to split words with her, but the honest truth is that I do not accept any deaths as acceptable. I am not just trying to be smart with the language. It is our mission, particularly in the Department of Health but in the Government as a whole, to try to tackle all deaths as well as we possibly can.

All health decisions are always based on a balance of risk, whether it is a GP taking your blood pressure in his or her surgery or whether it is for big demographic interventions of the kind that we are debating today. Balance is the essence of public health decisions, and we are trying to make the best possible decisions around this. They have to take into account the huge challenge that the NHS faces in tackling business-as-usual disease. Millions of people have not turned up for the diagnostics that they should have taken or to have examinations of the lumps and bumps that they are worried about. There is a huge catch-up in terms of the waiting lists, and those have an impact on illness, long life and death. We have to balance the priorities of the pandemic and those of our existing healthcare system, and also the usual life of our communities. That is why we are taking the route that we are.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised public transport. That is not only a practical and very important context for this discussion; it is iconic of the decision to move from mandation to a voluntary principle on behalf of a large amount of the public for a large number of the measures that we did, at one point, put into law. We are trying to seek a new covenant with the country based on consideration for each other. The noble Baroness put it extremely well, and I entirely share her scruples. I have four children—who are vectors of infection, to put it politely—and I attend a large number of business meetings, including here in the House, and I regard myself as a high-risk candidate for carrying the disease. I have never caught it myself and I have been vaccinated but when I sit on a Tube train I wear my mask, not to protect myself but to protect the person next to me. That is my personal assessment and my personal decision. That is the spirit in which we are inviting people to step forward and make their own decisions and to be considerate to each other.

We cannot have laws on all these matters for the rest of time. At some point we have to ask the country to step up and take responsibility and to have personal agency in these decisions. If we do not put that challenge to the country in the summer months, when our hospitals are relatively safe and the virus has the right conditions, when will we be able to make those decisions?

I agree with the noble Baroness about the position that many workers find themselves in. She is right that PHE data is very daunting when you look at the low-paid, front-line workers who drive taxis and buses or are in all sorts of other front-line positions. They have been hard hit by the pandemic, partly because of their living conditions, partly because of their environment and partly because of the prevalence of comorbidities, but also because of the risk that they personally put themselves at. I call on everyone to be considerate on that point. We need to think about the kind of risk that people are putting themselves at when they go about their normal day-to-day work. I ask people to be thoughtful about infectious respiratory diseases and, in fact, all diseases. That is why the Prime Minister has talked in the terms that he has.

In the meantime, we are making changes to the way we are doing things. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked me about children. To be clear: the Secretary of State said in his Statement that anyone under 18 who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer need to self-isolate after 16 August. Instead, children will be given advice about whether they should get tested, dependent on their age, and will need to self-isolate if they test positive. These measures will come into force on 16 August, ahead of the autumn school term. That is a proportionate response to the changed situation we find ourselves in, with the massive rollout of the vaccine and the evidence that we can see in front of our eyes of the impact of the disease on those who are under 18.

In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I spoke about the Secretary of State’s speech yesterday, in which he said very clearly, on the clinically extremely vulnerable, that guidelines will be published, and that remains the case. We are extremely sympathetic to those whose immune system does not allow the vaccine to have an impact. What use is a vaccine that supports your immune system if your immune system does not work very well? That is a challenge that more than a million people in the country face, and we are working extremely hard to address that issue. That work includes a huge amount of research through the OCTAVE study and a massive investment in the antivirals task force and the therapeutics task force. Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, particularly those who are immunosuppressed, have not been forgotten and are very much the focus of our efforts, but it is an extremely difficult challenge to meet.