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 Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 1:26 pm, 15th July 2021

My Lords, the Prime Minister told us 10 days ago that we were heading for “freedom day” and that all the data was going in the right direction; all restrictions would be lifted, and now was the time to take personal responsibility for our behaviour and for the Government essentially to step back. The Secretary of State’s Statement on Monday confirmed that, although with a marginally more cautious note about taking care. I echo particularly the comments made just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about the mixed messaging in the new guidance for business and on returning to work, which conflicts with what was said both in the Statement and by the Prime Minister.

However, since the Prime Minister’s and Mr Javid’s confident assertions on Monday, there has been an outpouring of disbelief from senior scientists and doctors. Cases are currently doubling every nine days, and yesterday there were 42,000 new daily cases—a level last seen at the beginning of the January total lockdown. If there is no slowing of that doubling rate, we will have hit 100,000 new daily cases by the beginning of August. And that is before the Government’s expected extra cases as a result of “freedom day” on Monday.

Ministers constantly say that there are fewer people in hospital, that fewer people need ventilation and there are fewer deaths, but what they do not mention is that those numbers are a matter of ratios, and that with the current level of cases our hospitals are already reporting A&Es with the equivalent of a winter surge and more wards being turned into Covid wards for patients. A letter published a few days ago in the BMJ, initially signed by 1,000 doctors, is at over 7,000 signatures and still rising. The data is already clear that the surge in new cases from three weeks ago is increasing hospital admissions right now. So what are the Government doing to support and protect our NHS from this sharp increase and pressure on doctors, nurses and hospitals right now?

While many people are being responsible, still following the guidance and using their face masks, sadly there are many who are not. I was talking to a young security guard who told me that, this week, she is finding it impossible to persuade people to put masks on in their local shopping mall, despite the fact that the rules are still in place. Yesterday, my local community pharmacist told me in despair that two people arrived separately asking him for PCR tests as they each had Covid symptoms and thought all the previous rules had just finished. Not for the first time, much of this is about the Prime Minister’s muddled communication style. In the light of the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are going to retain the face mask mandate, and that the metro mayors, including Sadiq Khan and Andy Street, would like to do so, will the Government please reverse the lifting of the face mask mandate immediately, so that it remains in place, especially on public transport?

I turn to the new guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable. I have to say that I have never read such an inconsistent and contradictory formal guidance note from the Government—and I have read a few. You should stay at home to be safe but if you cannot work from home, go in; you must remain socially distanced from everyone outside your bubble, even if they do not have to; you must not mix with unvaccinated people, outside or inside. I ask the Minister to tell me how on earth you know who is unvaccinated. As one of the CEV, do I stand in the doorway at opening time at my local greengrocer’s—a quiet time—and shout out to any customers and staff, “Anyone not vaccinated in here”? Of course not. The inevitable logic of this is the restart of shielding but without any of the previous support.

Worst of all, on Friday evening Public Health England put out a press release in which it mixed up advice to the clinically vulnerable and the clinically extremely vulnerable by citing vaccine efficiency research relating to the former in advice to the latter. That paragraph has been repeated in the formal guidance published on Monday. It is plain wrong. In a total administrative muddle, no one has gone through the nine pages of this guidance and updated it, so it is littered with references to the need to follow other rules and guidance for the general public in place at 17 May and 21 June, all of which goes next Monday. Please will the Minister ensure that the guidance is reviewed immediately to remove these anomalies?

All this, and the lack of answers to my questions last week about who the clinical lead is on the clinically extremely vulnerable, tells us 3.8 million former shielders that we have been not just forgotten but thrown to the wolves. Please will the Government actually review the guidance to keep the CEV group safe and provide the support that they need?

I also gave the Minister notice of the following two questions, as they both concern urgent and slightly unusual elements of lifting restrictions. First, for a couple of weeks now, Malta has said that it will not accept UK citizens who have received particular batches of the AZ vaccine manufactured in India, about 5 million doses of which have been given in the UK. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister reassured the press, saying:

“I am very confident that it will not prove to be a problem.”

However, holidaymakers are being turned away from Malta right now. When will the Government resolve this problem?

Secondly, those thousands of wonderful people who came forward to take part in the AstraZeneca clinical trials have been told that their vaccine status cannot be put on the NHS app, which means that they cannot go abroad, either to work or on holiday, or do certain jobs in the NHS that require this evidence. In early June, there was a blog on the BMJ website that set out these problems, but three months on from this issue being initially raised, there is still no resolution. It is utterly wrong that these publicly-minded people have now been left in limbo. Can the Minister say when this problem will be resolved and their vaccine details uploaded?