Covid-19 - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 15th July 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:26 pm, 15th July 2021

I thank the Minister for taking this Statement, although I have to say—and I know this is not in his gift—that Monday to Thursday is probably too long a gap, but taking the Statement today might in this case prove useful because we have seen the reaction to the nearing of so-called freedom day, nationally and internationally. We have also seen the Government becoming progressively more cautious. That is not surprising because in England 42,000 Covid infections and 49 more deaths were recorded yesterday, hospital admissions have increased to more than 500 a day, up 50% on last week, and we now see routine operations being postponed and cancelled.

The NHS is rightly focused on waiting lists, which are at their highest level over the past decade at 5.3 million, and 336,733 people have been waiting more than a year, more than 76,000 have waited for at least 18 months and more than 7,000 have been waiting for two years. Emergency care is grappling with some of the highest summer demand ever, and this is in the context of NHS staff being exhausted and facing burnout. The NHS is also losing a significant number of staff to self-isolation, which has led to much reduced capacity due to infection control. As infection rates get worse and increase, what is the Government’s plan to deal with this situation?

Since Monday we have seen an increasing number of announcements and questions about how to safeguard against further increases in infection and the impact it is having on our NHS, schools, businesses and communities. Indeed, our own Lord Speaker wrote:

“Members are still expected to wear a face covering both in the Chamber, in indoor crowded spaces and when moving around the Estate, in line with general advice from Public Health England and the Chief Medical Officer. Members are strongly encouraged to use the testing facilities provided.”

On these Benches we intend to follow that advice, and I regret that some Members have already abandoned their masks when moving around the building and in the Chamber. We have staff to look after us who may not yet be fully vaccinated and, anyway, have no choice but to be here and who will continue to wear their masks to protect us. We should afford them the same consideration. Does the Minister agree?

On the “Today” programme a few days ago Professor Graham Medley, the chief modeller for the SAGE committee said: “Wearing face masks is worth it but only if everyone does it, not just 70%. I understand the Government’s reluctance to actually mandate it. On the other hand, if it is not mandated, it probably won’t do any good.” In other words, my understanding is that unless more than 70% wear masks, the protection for those who are still vulnerable will not work.

I fear we have been here before, with the Government back-pedalling and, in doing so, creating confusion and ambiguity—exactly the circumstances for the virus to thrive and mutate. The guidance issued by Ministers yesterday was stronger than businesses expected, many of which feel that they have been led astray, given the Government’s repeated characterisation of 19 July as “freedom day” and the end of most restrictions. The truth is that the guidance is hardly different from the current rules, except that businesses are now “encouraged” to keep many of their Covid adaptations rather than required to do so. Businesses now have just five days to decide how to implement the rules and how to communicate that to their customers. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s mixed messages have left many in legal limbo?

The new guidance gives little clarity to the 3.8 million extremely vulnerable people who are being told to avoid all unvaccinated people. How are they supposed to know whether or not someone is vaccinated? Does the Minister share the concerns raised by charities and patient groups that guidance has effectively told the extremely vulnerable to shield, without backing that up with any formal support from the Government for working or food shopping? Government advice to the clinically extremely vulnerable is to go to the shops at quieter times of the day after 19 July. I am not sure if that can be dignified as “support” for those most at risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

Is it true that the Government have not had anyone in post to deal with the clinically extremely vulnerable for three months, since Dr Jenny Harries was appointed chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency? If that is true, it is deeply concerning and it may explain why the Government have failed to prioritise support for these 3.8 million people.

What are the contingency plans for surging hospital admissions, which may remain high until the end of August, as called for by members of SAGE? The new guidance also says that businesses should encourage customers to check-in using the NHS app or otherwise leave their contact details. Can the Minister confirm reports that plans to reduce the sensitivity of NHS contact tracing have been reduced because of the surge in cases? What assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of the app as an infection control tool, given reports that more than 20% of adults and a significantly greater proportion of young people have actually now deleted the app and many more are ignoring the advice to self-isolate?

I turn to those working from home. Despite the lifting of guidance to work from home, the Government say they expect and recommend a gradual return to offices. This is very confusing. What protection is proposed for those who are vulnerable, and for whom “freedom day” is not freedom day but a further lockdown day? If their employers demand that they return to work, even if they are immunosuppressed, for example, travel and enclosed places pose a threat to them. Under these circumstances, we need to be grateful for the good sense of the Mayor of London in following the science. Sadiq Khan has said that Transport for London will continue to enforce the wearing of face masks on services in the capital beyond 19 July.

While industry bodies said on Tuesday that no domestic train operators or major bus and coach firms will require customers to wear masks, the city mayors and others are calling for mask wearing on all public transport. Does the Minister agree with them? If Tracy Brabin, Andy Burnham and the other mayors had the power to enforce mask wearing to protect drivers and passengers, they would do so. They are doing the Government’s job for them.

What support are the Government going to give those areas with the lowest vaccination rates? Local authorities in London have, variously, 35%, 36% and 42% of their populations vaccinated. Does the Minister support the leaders of those authorities who say that they wish mask wearing to continue until they have got their populations caught up with vaccination?