Covid-19 Update - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 12:53 pm on 8th July 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 6 July.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the pandemic and the road map to freedom.

Freedom is in our sights once again, thanks to the protective wall of this country’s vaccination programme and the huge advances we have made in getting this virus under control. Yesterday, I stood at this Dispatch Box and set out the details of what step 4 in our road map will mean for this nation. After the arduous 18 months that we have all endured, it was so wonderful to describe a world where we no longer have to count the number of people that we are meeting; where theatres and stadiums are bustling with people once again; and where care home residents are able to see their loved ones without restrictions.

Of course I understand that some people are cautious about the idea of easing restrictions, but we must balance the risks—the risks of a virus that has diminished, but is not defeated, against the risks of keeping these restrictions, and the health, social and economic hardship that we know they bring. This pandemic is far from over, and we will continue to proceed with caution. But we are increasingly confident that our plan is working, and that we can soon begin a new chapter, based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense rather than the blunt instrument of rules and regulations.

Today, I should like to provide an update on another area where we will be able to ease restrictions: the rules on self-isolation. Self-isolation has played a critical role in helping us to get this virus under control, by denying the virus the human contact that it needs to spread. And I am so grateful to the many, many people right across the UK who have selflessly done their duty, making sacrifices so they can help keep the virus at bay. Even though we have done everything in our power to support the people who have had to self-isolate—and yesterday we announced that we will be extending financial support until September—I am fully aware of how difficult it has been. But we can take hope from the fact that science has shown us a solution, just as it has done so many times in our fight against this virus. That solution is our vaccine, which we know offers huge protection.

The latest data from Public Health England shows that our vaccination programme has saved over 27,000 lives and has prevented over 7 million people from getting Covid-19, and it shows that both doses of Covid-19 vaccine can reduce symptomatic infection by almost 80%. That protective wall—because that is what it is—means that the odds have shifted in our favour, and we can look afresh at many of the measures that we have had to put in place. That is especially important when almost two-thirds of adults—64%—have had both doses of a vaccine, and so have the maximum protection that the vaccine can offer. As a result, we will soon be able to take a risk-based approach that recognises the huge benefits that vaccines provide both to the people who get the jab and to their loved ones.

From 16 August, when even more people will have the protection of both doses and when modelling suggests the risk from the virus will be even lower, anyone who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer have to self-isolate if they have been fully vaccinated. If someone gets their second dose just before or just after 16 August, they will need to wait two weeks, after which their second jab will have taken effect, to get these new freedoms. Those two weeks will allow the vaccine time to build up the maximum possible protection.

As we make this change, we will draw on the huge capacity we have built for testing and sequencing and will advise close contacts who are fully vaccinated to take a PCR test as soon as possible, so that they can have certainty about their condition. Of course, anyone who tests positive will have to self-isolate, whether they have had the jab or not. This new approach means we can manage the virus in a way that is proportionate to the pandemic, while maintaining the freedoms that are so important to us all.

As honourable Members will be aware, we are not currently offering vaccines to most people under the age of 18. We have thought carefully about how we can ensure that young people get the life experiences that are so important to their development, while at the same time keeping them safe from this deadly virus. In line with the approach for adults, anyone under the age of 18 who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer need to self-isolate. Instead, they will be given advice about whether to get tested, dependent on their age, and will need to self-isolate only if they test positive. These measures will also come into force on 16 August, ahead of the autumn school term.

I know that honourable Members will have questions about the changes and about step 4 of our road map and the impact on schools and colleges; my right honourable friend the Education Secretary will update the House immediately after my Statement. We are looking at the self-isolation rules for international travel, to remove the need for fully vaccinated arrivals to isolate when they return from an amber-list country. The Transport Secretary will provide an update to the House later this week.

Step by step, jab by jab, we are replacing the temporary protection of the restrictions with the long-term protection of a vaccine, so that we can restore the freedoms that we cherish and the experiences that mean so much to us all. Let us all play our part to protect ourselves and to protect others as we enter these crucial few weeks, so that in this battle between the vaccine and the virus, the vaccine will prevail. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:00 pm, 8th July 2021

I thank the Minister for the Statement today, which takes us further into the discussion that we were having on Tuesday and allows him to address some of the questions that perhaps he was not able to on Tuesday.

We all want our economy to open and get back to normal. The question is whether we do it in a controlled way or a chaotic way. The Health Secretary told the Commons on Tuesday that, under the Government’s plan, infections could go to as high as 100,000 a day. There are some huge issues that the Minister and the Government have failed to address with information and clarity about the massive change in policy contained in the announcements on Monday and Tuesday. The first of these is surely the potential 100,000 infections a day in a few weeks’ time. When I asked on Tuesday about the scientific advice, the Minister gave me what can be described only as a pick-and-mix answer, one in which he said SAGE’s advice was “interesting”. I am sure that SAGE’s advice is always interesting, but is it being taken into account in decision-making as it used to be? I specifically refer him to the most recent SAGE papers, which made it clear that with high infection rates there would be a greater chance of new variants emerging and greater pressure on the NHS. More people will get long Covid and test and trace will be less effective. As NHS Providers said today,

“current pressures on the NHS mean that the predicted rising infection rates for COVID-19 will inevitably affect the speed at which trusts can recover care backlogs.”

I quote Chris Hopson:

“Trust leaders can see the strong logic of ‘if not now, when?’ and they recognise that, as a nation, we must learn to live with COVID-19. But they want the Government to be clear about the risks of relaxing restrictions. This includes the inevitability of higher hospitalisations and mortality, albeit at lower levels than previous waves and the risk of new and more dangerous variants emerging. They are also worried about the impact of long COVID. It’s important these trade offs are clearly set out, including the impact on the NHS’s ability to bear down on the backlog.”

Indeed, a letter from 100 experts in the BMJ today raises the same issues. That is why the impact assessment is so crucial. The Prime Minister seemed to find this impossible to address yesterday, so I would like to see if the Minister with his much greater and closer knowledge of these issues could be more enlightening to the House today. Have the Government undertaken an impact assessment of the projected rate of infection? Yes or no would probably suffice. If it is yes, when will it be shared with Parliament and the public? If it is no, the Minister must explain why this has not happened and tell the House when it might. We need to know what is the number of hospitalisations and deaths; what is the number of people with long Covid, which will be the outcome of 100,000 infections a day; and what is the impact on the NHS, will it slow down the catch-up for diagnostics and treatment and by how much? I am very happy if the Minister wants to email the details of the answers to me, if he does not have them to hand–although he ought and they need to be in the public domain.

We know that the link between infection rates and deaths has been weakened, but it has not been broken. All the experts seem to agree on that. Let us be clear why infection rates are so high: it is because the Prime Minister let in the delta variant. I agree with my right honourable friend Keir Starmer that we might now change its name to the “Johnson variant”. Let us be clear why the number of cases will surge so quickly: it is because the Government are taking all protections off in one go. As my right honourable friends Sir Keir Starmer and Jonathan Ashworth have said, this is reckless.

The next obvious question is the one about the dreaded ping and the huge number of people who will be asked to isolate. If there are 100,000 infections a day, that means hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions —of people are going to be pinged to isolate. The Financial Times estimates that it could be 2 million people and the Daily Mail says it could be 3.5 million people. Either way, it is a massive number. How many people do the Government expect will be asked to isolate if infection rates continue to rise at this rate? Again, this question was asked of the Prime Minister yesterday and he clearly did not know the answer or refused to say, so I will repeat it again: how many people are going to be asked to self-isolate if there are 100,000 or more infections a day?

Does the Minister appreciate that those who are immunocompromised or for whom the vaccine is less effective will have their freedoms curtailed by ditching masks on public transport? Blood Cancer UK warned yesterday that people with blood cancer will feel that their freedoms have been taken away from them. It is quite possible that the 19th will not be freedom day. It might be the day when a record number of people will switch off their NHS app, because they will see coming down the track isolating and cancelling holidays. It is already beginning to happen. Has the Minister seen those stories? We on these Benches do not support that course of action, but does he realise that this could seriously undermine the expensive track and trace system, on which so much depends?

I have to repeat again that the biggest barrier to an effective isolation policy has been not the inconvenience but the lack of financial incentive to stay at home. If we are to live with this virus, the days of people soldiering on when unwell are over. Sick pay is vital to infection control. Will the Government please now fix it?

Business leaders are expressing very serious concerns about the loss of staff and customers. There are now 700,000 children off school per week. At my grand- daughter’s school this morning, two classes were sent home due to two teachers being pinged. After-school sports were cancelled and she is very disappointed. It is happening everywhere, as our amazing head teachers and school staff limp towards the end of term doing everything they can to deliver teaching, joy and normality to our children under the most difficult and often underappreciated circumstances.

The question I want to ask for clarity from the Minister is about the ubiquitous ping. Is the ping advisory for self-isolation or mandatory? If you get an email or phone call, does that trigger mandatory self-isolation? Finally, I ask about data in the last 24 hours or so from Israel’s Ministry of Health, which points to the Pfizer vaccine being just 64% effective at stopping symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the delta variant. Can the Minister tell the House about this?

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

My Lords, one year ago when lockdown was lifted, we had around 1,000 new cases a day. Yesterday it was 32,000 new cases. Equally concerning, cases are doubling every nine days; hospitalisations are going up; ventilation bed occupation is going up; NHS Providers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has said, is talking about hospitals moving back into created-Covid wards and managing safe areas. GPs and hospitals are all reporting a worrying large increase in young people with long Covid, putting further pressure on their services, let alone the worries of an epidemic of long-term illness in the working population. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some hospitals are now considering cancelling some staff summer leave. Wonderful as yesterday’s England victory was, the sight of 60,000 fans walking down Wembley Way in very close proximity with hardly a mask in sight was concerning. As with the England-Scotland match, we must expect a surge in cases. Yesterday, the BBC asked Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization about the UK proposals to lift all restrictions on 19 July. He replied:

“The logic of more people being infected is better is, I think, logic that has proven its moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”.

The letter in today’s Lancet from 100 senior medics and scientists echoes the WHO view. What are the Government doing to explain to the experts why their strategy is safe?

I will return to the substance of the Statement later, but I start by thanking the Minister for the meeting yesterday with other Peers, Blood Cancer UK and the Anthony Nolan trust to discuss the immunocompromised and the clinically extremely vulnerable. There are over 2 million CEV who had to shield—that is 3% of the population. So, arising from questions I have asked the Minister many times before in your Lordships’ House, I will ask the following. The CEV, of whom I am one, are worried at the total silence to them over recent weeks since shielding ended formally but, with stay-at-home advice still in place, with cases rocketing daily and all restrictions easing, can the Minister explain how advice to them is being co-ordinated publicly by government? One blood cancer patient said today to an APPG of parliamentarians that the dissonance of their safety versus everyone else’s freedom was hard to bear, especially with no advice. In particular, who has clinical responsibility for drawing together the different issues of therapies, responses to vaccines and continuing care for underlying diseases, and which Minister has overall responsibility?

Overnight, there have been some suggestions from journalists that shielding might even return. If so, that needs to be communicated very urgently to those at high risk, who have not been told about their low vaccine antibody rate. They may be planning to mix with people, or perhaps even go on holiday. Will benefit support for the CEV who have to stay at home but cannot work from home be reintroduced? If the Government are serious about the irreversibility of the lifting of all restrictions, some of the CEV will not be able to return to work for weeks, or even months.

I turn to testing. There are reports today that the Government plan to charge for the lateral flow tests from the end of this month. As LFTs are supposed to be the great self-regulators that the Government are relying on, how much are people going to be charged? You do not pay the Government for a blood test to see whether you have picked up any other infection. The level of charging for PCR tests for people returning from abroad also remains a big issue. Last week in your Lordships’ House the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, told my noble friend Lady Ludford that PCR tests could be obtained at a price of £85 for two. My noble friend’s local pharmacy is charging £398 for a test on the same day, or £240 for the next day for two tests. I know other members of the public have reported similar problems. Can the Minister say how the pricing of PCR tests is being managed and, perhaps more importantly, where one can find the “£85 for two” tests?

On Tuesday, I set out what we from these Benches seek in a return to normal life. We want people to return to work as soon as possible, to be able to mix with family and friends and for our children to be able to have consistent access to education without interruption. We also agree that now is the time to start to do some of that but—and it is a big “but”—we cannot get rid of all the safeguards that protect people mixing together while the virus is still live. An effective test, trace and isolate system is essential. This Statement makes it clear that that is being dismantled. Can the Minister explain why that makes any sense?

Last night, Sebastian Payne of the Financial Times reported the re-election of Sir Graham Brady MP as chairman of the 1922 committee, and tweeted:

“Brady’s re-election is … a reminder of why Johnson is dropping masks and nearly all other … restrictions on July 19: ministers privately say the government no longer had the … votes to keep the measures in place. Relying on Labour would have been … difficult for the PM.”

Are the Prime Minister and the so-called Covid Recovery Group now putting health and lives at risk for their own principles?

Finally, with the threat of 100,000 cases by the end of the month, with hospitals saying they are already worried about the increase in patients and with the threat of the new lambda variant and new north-east variant under investigation, please will the Minister confirm that these changes are not irreversible and that the protection of the NHS, and the safety of all the people in this country, remain the Government’s priority?

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

My Lords, I am enormously thankful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for such thoughtful questions. I will certainly try to address as many of them as I can.

In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the advice we get, I am afraid, as I said last time, that we of course draw on lots of advice from lots of people. I completely acknowledge, as she rightly pointed out, that no decision in this pandemic is risk-free. She set out the list of possible risks very well. There is always the possibility that there will be new variants. We are extremely concerned about the existing 1 million people who have self-diagnosed with long-Covid symptoms; the possibility that that number may rise is very much on our minds, and we are putting in place NHS provision to assist in diagnosis and treatment of that.

We are extremely concerned that test and trace resources will be stretched. We are therefore looking extremely closely at the policy around testing and isolation, while providing test and trace with the resources it needs to get through any increase in the infection rate. I also completely acknowledge the concerns of the NHS Confederation on hospital beds and hospitalisations —although the statistics on those today are extremely encouraging.

Those are all acknowledged concerns that we keep close track of, while putting in place measures to mitigate and minimise their impact. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, half-answered her own question, because she is entirely right: we need to focus on getting the NHS back to speed in order to address the very long waiting lists and to get elective surgery back on track. It is very difficult to find an answer to the question, “If not now, when?” That has been tackled by the CMO and a great number of people. It must surely be right that we take the inevitable risks of restarting the economy and getting people back to their normal lives at the moment of minimum risk from the virus, which has to be in the middle of summer. Assessing those risks precisely is incredibly complex. Impact assessments of the kind that we would normally associate with legislation are the product of months of analysis. They often identify one relatively straightforward and simple policy measure. We are talking here about a machine of a great many moving parts.

I cannot guarantee that any model anywhere could give us accurate projections of the exact impact of what is going to happen this summer. We are, to a certain extent, walking into the unknown: the Prime Minister made that extremely clear in his Statement. As such, we are ready to change and tweak our policy wherever necessary in reaction to events. However, what we know very well now on the basis of our assessment of the data, and because of the pause we put in place to give ourselves breathing time to assess and additional time to roll out the vaccinations, is that that direct correlation between the infection rate and severe disease, hospitalisation and death has massively diminished. There is a relationship, but it is a fraction of what it used to be.

We can therefore look at a period where those who are at extremely low risk of any severe disease may see an increase in the infection rate, because we know that those in the highest-risk groups have been protected by two doses of the vaccine, and two weeks, and because we are working incredibly hard to get as many in the high-risk groups vaccinated as possible—half a million a day—and to roll out the vaccine to younger cohorts. That is the balance. I cannot deal in certainty here, because certainty does not exist. Balance is key, and I believe the balance we have here is the right one.

The noble Baroness asked specifically about the NHS Covid app. It is in some ways emblematic of the kind of decisions we are making at the moment. She is entirely right: the anecdotes are loud and clear. The app is pinging loudly around the country as the infection rate moves up. To clarify the legal point, as noble Lords probably know, the app protects privacy. We do not know the identity of the person who has the app. In fact, we have no information about people who have the app at all because it has such rigorous privacy protection. As such, the ping from the app is advisory but a telephone call from test and trace is mandatory. That has a legal status and a breach of that advice could lead to an FPN or a knock on the door. It has a different status in that respect.

Given the large number of infections and the large number of pings, we clearly need to review the way in which the app works. The Prime Minister talked about this earlier today. He talked about moving from a quarantine-and-isolation approach to more of a test-and-release approach. We are not quite there yet but we are clearly well on the way. Therefore, I would be glad to clarify how we have made those decisions once they have been announced.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about the plight of the immunosuppressed. I am grateful to her and to Anthony Nolan, Cancer UK and others who were on the call yesterday. I express complete sympathy with the point made by the noble Baroness. If you are at home and your immune system does not work as well as other people’s, and you see the rest of the country opening up, you will feel extremely uncomfortable, as though the world has moved on and that you have perhaps been left behind. Those were the feelings described to me by the experts I met yesterday. On an emotional level, I completely sympathise with that. There are some people in this country whose immune systems do not protect them from flu and contagious diseases that would have no impact on those with a fully functioning immune system. We have complete sympathy for those people.

I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s point that there is a need for clear advice because the immunosuppressed are a highly diverse group. There may be people recovering in hospital with a completely flatlined antibody system, compared to someone who has rheumatoid arthritis but is otherwise living at home and is mobile. It must be right that that communication is done on a tailored basis through the healthcare system. We will look at ways in which we can ensure that GPs are informed and have the right information in order to give that bespoke advice.

The dissonance is hard to bear. I recognise the noble Baroness’s point but I do not necessarily have a suite of answers for absolutely everyone in this condition. We have large investments in antivirals and in therapeutic drugs, including some of the monoclonal antibodies that may offer some protection to some people in this situation, but it is not going to be a blanket measure. As a result, we are putting a huge amount of investment in the OCTAVE study, which looks specifically at ways in which vaccines, boosters or therapeutics can be used to protect those whose immune systems are not right. Ultimately, it is going to be down to the vaccine. The vaccination of a large proportion of the population, including the carers who look after the immunosuppressed, is how we will offer protection to these people.

On the noble Baroness’ question about the LFT system being dismantled, I do not recognise those press reports. On the provision of PCRs by the private sector, she asked how prices are determined. The answer to that is through the market. The marketplace introduces competition and innovation. I am pleased to say that the price for tests is coming down and will come down further. The one provided by Chronomics for TUI is now £30; that is a very encouraging sign that there is more to go.

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

We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne.

Photo of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Conservative 1:24 pm, 8th July 2021

On behalf of the whole House and the whole population, I congratulate the Minister on his magnificent work during the entirety of the pandemic and, of course, all his colleagues and everyone in the National Health Service. It has truly been a real world-beater and we are all so grateful. I have a matching point on Covid-19. I had understood, maybe wrongly, that males are affected slightly differently to females. Given that hospitals now accept self-identification of males and females, does this impact on the statistics or indeed on the treatment that everyone receives?

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

My Lords, I understand the question put by my noble friend but I am afraid that I do not recognise the anecdote to which she refers in terms of hospitals’ treatment of individuals. Nor do I particularly recognise the generalisation that males and females are affected by the disease differently, but I would be very happy to look into this matter and write to her if I can find more details.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I thank the Minister for his responses and for the meetings he has set up. Using his words, given the challenges of “getting the NHS back to speed”, as well as the predicted rise in seriously ill patients with infections— both from influenza and Covid variants such as beta, lambda and others that may emerge—what contingency plans are being developed and activated now? What is being done to increase bed capacity for the autumn and winter and to recruit, train and upskill staff who have currently stepped back from or retired from clinical care, to increase overall capacity?

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

My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right to make the connection between Covid and flu. We regard the winter as presenting two pandemics, and we will treat them with equal energy. Flu and Covid have the same net effect on the healthcare system, which is to be a huge drain on resources. So we are putting a huge amount of effort into the vaccine and boosters for Covid and the vaccination against flu. They can be taken together, and the advertising and promotion distribution to identify priority groups will be extremely energetic. That is the most important thing we can do to protect the NHS. Our second priority, though, is getting the beds to which the noble Baroness referred used for elective surgery. We do not want to see the NHS heaving under the pressure of Covid and flu. We want to see it addressing the backlog.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, to return to my noble friend Lady Thornton’s first question, given the continued rise of the variant mutations and increasing infections, can the Minister report on a simple biological issue? What rapid mathematical calculations are in the Government’s possession to assess and predict the increasing risk of further new variants evolving that may escape the current vaccines or are more virulent? If he is unable to answer this question now, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me.

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

My Lords, I cannot promise to have a simple algorithm to make the calculation that the noble Lord refers to. I will ask the system if such a thing exists, but I have never come across such a thing. The challenge he alludes to is entirely right: the vaccine pressure on the virus will create the circumstances in which variants are possible. That is why we are investing heavily in sequencing, not only here in the UK where everyone positive is now sequenced thoroughly and studied, but also offering that around the world through NVAP—the new variant assessment platform—to try to understand what is going on in markets around the world. To date, we think that we have tracked down all the current routes that the virus is taking, and we are satisfied that they are met by the vaccine, but we keep our eyes peeled.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, evidence shows that those in close contact with a positive case need to be traced with 48 hours to break the chain of transmission. Regardless, if close contacts have to self-isolate or self-test, how does stopping a mandatory requirement to register, either digitally or manually, on entering a venue such as a pub or restaurant help with the effective tracing of close contacts if no record exists of people in venues where positive cases are identified?

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

My Lords, the registration of people going into events is an onerous responsibility for the hospitality industry and we have to make a proportionate assessment of what kinds of burden we are putting on the economy and society. With more than 60% of the population now having been double vaccinated for over two weeks and with the vaccination programme going along at 500,000 a day, it is the moment to start backing off on some of these obligations. That means dismantling some of the infrastructure of test and trace, which we seek to do in a proportionate and logical fashion.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative

Given the prediction of increased infectivity, what internal guidance is being given post 19 July within the NHS? Will GP surgeries, A&E and outpatient departments revert to their former practices, or is the guidance that they should retain face masks, distancing and hand gel use?

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

My Lords, on the three specific locations the noble Baroness asked about, I understand that those practices will remain in place, but I am happy to check that and write to her. As for going back to where we were before, I think some things will change for ever.

Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench

My Lords, 120 scientists have written to the Lancet and today come together in an emergency summit to ask the Government to rethink their plans. The editor in chief warned against

“a plan driven more by libertarian ideology than prudent interpretation of the data” and called for continued mask-wearing, distancing and increased vaccine coverage. A YouGov survey found that two-thirds of people want to continue with masks and an ALVA survey found that three-quarters of people did. So why have the Government decided to end this simple yet effective measure? It costs the economy nothing, but it would be life-changing for the clinically extremely vulnerable, who will be forced back into lockdown by this shift from a public health approach to so-called personal responsibility.

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

I am always grateful for the challenge of medics in the Lancet and elsewhere. I would like to reassure them that this is not a question of libertarian ideology but a question of assessing the risks faced by the country. We have discussed masks several times in the Chamber. I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that masks simply are not a panacea; were the whole country to wear masks for the rest of their lives, we would still have pandemics because they offer only marginal protection.

A noble Lord:

Nonsense!

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

I am afraid we cannot have in place laws on the intimate practicalities of people’s lives for the long term. We do not have a law on sneezing. I would not think of sneezing in the presence of noble Lords, but I do not accept that I should be given a fine for doing so.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, following calls from the BMA, the RCM and Cambridge University Hospitals, can we have an assurance that in every setting where health workers are caring for patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus, the health worker will be wearing at least a close-fitting FFP3 mask, thereby maximising personal protection? Can we be assured that the wearing of regular masks in such conditions will not be permitted? Mask specification is critical in healthcare settings.

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

My Lords, the noble Lord’s expertise on mask specification is well known in the Chamber and I bow to his greater knowledge on this. Of course, healthcare workers, social care workers and anyone exposed to those known to be carrying coronavirus should have entirely appropriate and significant protection. I do not know the precise mask numbers, but I would be glad to write to the noble Lord to confirm the current guidelines.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Is the Minister aware that the comments he just made about the effectiveness of masks are not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense? Will he withdraw them?

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

I do not accept that at all. The noble Lord does this debate no favours by using that kind of language. The argument I make is extremely reasonable. It is supported by the Chief Medical Officer and the other scientific advisers we have in government. I would like to ask the noble Lord to reflect on the manner of that question.

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench

My Lords, I was contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate earlier this week. I am double jabbed, I have no symptoms, I have had Covid, I have been testing myself every day with lateral flow devices and I am negative every day. The CBI, of which I am president, is finding that many companies and businesses are complaining of losing employees. The NHS itself is complaining of losing staff because of self-isolation. Surely, we have to move as quickly as possible to a test and release system so that people can get on with work. Will the Minister confirm that lateral flow devices will continue to be made available free to businesses and citizens? If not, it will be penny wise and pound foolish.

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

My Lords, I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s frustrations, but he is illustrating the delicacy of the inflection point we are currently at. Only 60% of people are in his fortunate position of having had two jabs for over two weeks. That is a huge reservoir of tens of millions of people who are unvaccinated. There is also a very large number of people—3.5 million in total—on the shielding list who have some kind of vulnerability. The noble Lord could be carrying the disease even though he has been double vaccinated. Of course I aspire to the destination the noble Lord described, but we cannot rush it. We are taking it in a proportionate and logical fashion, and we are absolutely keeping our eye on the kinds of down side risks the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, described.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, I welcome the fact we are losing our obsession with Covid and learning to live with it. Earlier this week the Minister mentioned the NHS winter plan and said that it would be published. When will it be published and will there a be an arrangement for it to be debated and regularly reviewed so that we can see how we catch up with the huge backlog of health conditions that need dealing with?

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

I am grateful for my noble friend’s kind comments. On the NHS winter plan, he is right that I implied that it would be published. I have looked into this and my understanding now is that it is not a document due to be published imminently, as a winter plan was published in the autumn of last year. There are plans in place and I am working hard to try to provide my noble friend with whatever information I can.

Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Chair, EU Services Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Services Sub-Committee

I asked the noble Lord on Tuesday what assessment the Government have made of Covid deaths and long Covid rates after the proposed 19 July changes. He did not answer. Will he do so now?

What incentive is there to uphold the test and trace system when a common interest between employer and employee is keeping their workplace open, particularly if sick pay is poor and self-isolation an unaffordable choice? If, as the noble Lord says, we do not know how many people use the app, how will we know if its use is dropping like a stone? What evidence will we have that it is becoming less effective?

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

My Lords, I did not quite say that I did not know how many people use the app; I said that we do not know who is using it. We keep an eye on it and, to date, its use has not dropped, but we are naturally concerned that trust in the app will deteriorate and that is why we are looking carefully at the advice that comes out of being pinged. Some 19 million people have the app. It is an enormously valuable resource, and one that we believe has made a big impact.

Predicting long Covid and infections is extremely difficult because we do not know what the infection rate is going to be. We are in a race against the virus. I hope that very soon the impact of the vaccine will bring R below one and the disease will start going down instead of up. But I cannot tell the noble Baroness, exactly when that date will be.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, last month the Minister made some highly critical comments about my having had the temerity to question the wisdom of government restrictions. Yet we now know that the last Secretary of State did not believe in their value either. Given the small risk to children and teachers from the virus, can my noble friend explain what the value has been—backed by evidence—of severely disrupting the education of hundreds of thousands of children by enforced isolation? Or should we be similarly sceptical about that policy?

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

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is sceptical of almost everything to do with the Government, and I am not quite sure how to address that question—but I will take it seriously. The bottom line is that children are a vector of infection, and, during the tough days before the vaccine, they were the ones who spread the disease around, accounting for a very large proportion of the numbers. As a father of four, I can tell you that it was extremely frustrating to have our children sent home, but, none the less, it was an important and impactful aspect of our fight against Covid.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

My Lords, at the press conference on Monday, the Prime Minister drew a distinction between crowded Tube trains and relatively empty carriages on trains, where he might choose not to wear a mask. The Health Secretary made exactly the same point on Tuesday’s “Today” programme. However, the Minister will be aware of the research showing that aerosols can hang in the air for many hours in enclosed spaces—which train carriages are. Despite what the Minister has just said about face masks, will that important factor be taken into account when a final decision is made about mask wearing on trains and other public transport?

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

The noble Lord will remember that, when we spoke about masks the day before yesterday, I re-emphasised my personal commitment to wearing masks. In no way do I want to leave noble Lords with the impression that I do not think that masks can play a role—I just do not think that we should be guilty of displacement and assume that masks will somehow solve all of our problems. The thing that will solve all our problems is the vaccine, and, when a larger proportion of the country is vaccinated, that will make an impact. But the noble Lord is entirely right: aerosols do hang in the air for a long time. You can breathe and cough into the air now, and someone can walk into that cloud minutes or even an hour later and catch the disease, as happened in the famous incident in Australia. We are very conscious of the point that the noble Lord makes, but a proportionate strategy on masks is reasonable.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, I accept of course that the choices for Ministers such as the noble Lord are very difficult, but, with just half the population fully vaccinated, experts say that the 100,000 daily Covid cases predicted by the Secretary of State after he lifts restrictions could mean around 200 deaths daily. Is that an acceptable price to pay for living with the virus, when Professor Anthony Costello predicts a rampant third wave?

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

My Lords, the Secretary of State did not predict 100,000; he accepted that it was a possibility. I do not accept that we should welcome any deaths in any way. Our hope is that, in the race against the disease, the vaccine will win, R will be brought to below one, the spread of the disease in the UK will be brought under control and any third wave—there will be one of some kind—will be focused on the unvaccinated young, whom the disease largely passes straight through. That is what we are planning on, but we accept that there are risks; that is why we look at the situation daily, and we will change our policies if necessary.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the Statement. Given the warnings of millions of infections and millions suffering from the serious impact of long Covid, are we not opening up too soon without planning, as was well stated by my noble friend Lady Donaghy? Worryingly, we apparently do not have data on the numbers of infections and those with long Covid among those who have been fully vaccinated, as I have—why? Like others, my grandchildren are among the millions of children affected by many school absences, with many finding the regular testing extremely difficult. Is the Minister aware of Abu Dhabi’s Biogenix Labs’ non-invasive saliva testing, which is being used widely and effectively? Are the Government considering a rollout among our own school population? Finally, I add my voice to calls for the Government to publish an equality impact assessment, specifically with the differential effect on diverse and vulnerable communities.

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

I completely accept the question on whether we are moving too soon; it is a perfectly reasonable question. The counter suggestion is this. Say we waited until 85% of the population is double vaccinated, which would be in, say, October—would that necessarily be a better time to do this, when the NHS is at its most stretched and the winter conditions and cold encourage the spread of the virus? We have looked at it really carefully and, on the balance of risk, today is the right day to make these decisions.

On saliva testing, I pay tribute to those who are working here in the UK on the LAMP system, which we have prioritised with a huge amount of investment, particularly for those from special needs schools who find swab testing uncomfortable or really do not like to do it. We hope to report back but I am afraid to say that saliva testing has so far proved to be quite a difficult challenge, and it has not met all the tests that we would have liked it to have done.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, declaring an interest, I ask my noble friend to guarantee that all octogenarians will have a booster jab in the autumn? I apologise for returning to this, but can he guarantee, on the Floor of this House today, that all care workers in care homes will be obliged to be vaccinated no later than September?

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

My Lords, we have a prioritisation list for the booster and the third jab. It is my understanding that octogenarians are in category 1, but I am happy to write to my noble friend to confirm that point, in case I have got that wrong. I share my noble friend’s aspiration on care home workers. We are in a consultation; I cannot make the guarantee that he asks for because it is an honest consultation. We have to take people with us: this is not something that we can impose on people against their will. When the consultation has passed, I am hopeful that we will be able to take the steps that he describes.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

I congratulate the Minister on his track record of appearances in the House. I will raise two brief subjects with him, both of which have been raised today, neither of which he has addressed. First, are there plans to charge for the lateral flow test? It is now being delivered to people less than 24 hours after they request it, and requests will certainly go down if there is a charge. A clear answer on that would be useful. The second issue is shielding. When the Prime Minister makes a Statement on Monday, in advance of 19 July, it is crucial that something is said about people who were shielding before; they must not be left in limbo and ignored. They could at least be given a warning that they will be given, say, a week or 10 or 14 days before they need to shield, which would remove part of the worry from the large changes due to take place on 19 July. I ask the Minister to respond on lateral flow test charging and shielding, please.

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

My Lords, on lateral flow tests, I said that I did not recognise the press reports that the noble Baroness mentioned, and I still do not. On shielding, I completely agree with noble Lord. Some 1.5 million patients are identified as CEV-equivalent through the new QCovid model, and they have been added to the shielding patient list, with 820,000 who had not previously been invited as part of the JCVI cohorts 1 to 4 given priority access to vaccines. Overall, 3.8 million—I think I said 3.5 million earlier—individuals are on the shielded patient list, and we continue to maintain that through the NHS. We will look at the QCovid model and see if we can apply mix-and-match vaccines, booster shots and third shots to that model, and if we can bring together a new risk assessment for those who are vulnerable. That list could therefore be applied to any future shielding or protection that may be needed.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Non-affiliated

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord the Minister, in his usual courteous and helpful manner at the Dispatch Box, to provide answers to points raised yesterday with the Prime Minister in another place. In his usual way, the Prime Minister answered by asking yet another question, which of course earned another rebuke from the Speaker. If infections are allowed to rise, perhaps to 100,000 per day, how much are hospital admissions likely to increase and how many deaths may result? Why are the changes regarding isolation not taking effect until 16 August, with all the disruption to businesses in the interim?

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

The bottom line is that we believe that any rise in the infection rate will not have an impact on hospitalisation in a way that will disrupt the NHS. This is something that we have worked on with NHS colleagues, the clinical directors, the CMO’s office and the JBC, and we have taken into account a large variety of advice, including from SAGE. At the end of the day, it is our belief that, despite the rise of a third wave, hospitalisation rates will be manageable.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about the 3.8 million patients on the shielding list, will there be special provision for them to have antibody testing? Many of them may have had the vaccine but will not be sure whether it has been effective. Will there also be practical support for them? For example, if they do not feel that it is safe to go out, will there be help with shopping, special arrangements for medical appointments and other practical help?

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

We have committed to issuing guidelines for the vulnerable and immunosuppressed before 19 July. I cannot share with the noble Baroness at this stage exactly what those guidelines will say, but her points are very well made. We have not made a decision on antibody testing yet, but she raises an important point. We have a number of therapeutics and antivirals that may provide either prophylactic protection or support in the case of infection. Knowing whether somebody has antibodies before they go into the winter is one of the things that should really help to provide reassurance as well as important clinical data on how treatment might pan out. We are looking at the use of antibody tests for that reason.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, the Statement says that there are currently no plans to vaccinate the under-18s. Can the Minister indicate what the possible timeframe could be for reversing that decision and vaccinating that cohort, taking on board that around 0.5% of pregnancies are to girls aged under 18? Will he further elaborate on the fact that the Prime Minister indicated that there will be deaths—quite a large number—when we open up? What level of deaths do the Government consider acceptable?

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

My Lords, the vaccination of children is something that we are looking at; it is with the JCVI at the moment, I understand. I do not have the precise timetable at my fingers. What I will say is that we of course need to vaccinate as many adults as we can and will therefore move to children after that, because they are the ones who least need that protection. My nephew has been vaccinated in another country; I have spoken to him about it and it is very touching to hear him describe how he now feels that he can visit relatives who might be vulnerable or have co-morbidities. He sees it as a contribution to the national well-being. That is exactly the spirit in which we go into this but, as I say, it is up to the clinicians to make their pronouncement. We wait to hear from them before we can make a decision.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.