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 Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:26 pm, 15th July 2021

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for their thoughtful questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, put it extremely well: we are at a delicate inflection point. It is a moment when the whole country needs to be cautious about rushing into change, but it is also a moment when the vaccine is having an enormous impact and change is therefore appropriate.

Infection rates are rising dramatically, but we cannot avoid the fact that hospitalisations and deaths are holding relatively steady. Today, there are 2,970 Covid patients in beds and 470 on ventilators. This is a massively smaller proportion than in the pre-vaccination spikes, when the connection between infection, hospitalisation and death was much firmer and more profound. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly pointed out, waiting lists are huge and the gap for diagnostics for severe diseases, such as cancer, is extremely concerning. It is our responsibility to step up to that deficit and not be wholly distracted by Covid. This is therefore a moment when we have to balance competing demands on our healthcare; we are trying to hit the right balance.

On masks, I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for his leadership in this area and on asymptomatic testing. I saw his Twitter post where he was being swabbed for his LFD test—a commendable sign of leadership. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, are entirely right: we should wear masks out of consideration for others, including others who may not have had the vaccine or may not be able to have the vaccine. However, it is also entirely right that central government cannot mandate every aspect of human behaviour for months and years to come. I take great pleasure in the sight of local leaders using their influence to inspire the public in this matter. I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that DPHs are able to bring in mandatory measures where there are areas of outbreak. People need to know that the wearing of masks has an impact, and we are hopeful that they will go along with that. Although legal restrictions are being removed, the guidance will recommend that masks continue to be worn in certain situations, and businesses will be encouraged to support staff and customers who continue to wear masks.

In line with businesses, public services have always been free to set their own entry policies as long as they meet their existing obligations, including under the Equality Act. Public services must continue to protect workers and others from risks to their health and safety, including from Covid. That is only right and fair.

On the very important question of the immuno- suppressed and the immunocompromised, both noble Baronesses made extremely powerful points. I want to express in very clear terms my personal sympathy for all those who have concerns about the impact of the vaccine and for whom the rise in infections presents a very real threat to their health. However, I flag the Public Health England report on the clinically extremely vulnerable group as a whole. It makes it clear that there is little reduction in vaccine effectiveness for them compared to those who are not in high-risk groups, with between 76% and 93% effectiveness after a second dose. The PHE data also suggests reduced effectiveness for the immunocompromised and the immunosuppressed, particularly after one dose, but effectiveness after two doses is much higher. These general figures mask substantial variations, which we have discussed before—we would expect this between one set of compromised systems and another—but future studies will provide much more granularity on that. It is not right, however, to suggest that all those with compromised immunities are left unprotected by the vaccine.

The guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable was updated and published on 12 July, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out. This confirms that changes to social distancing rules in step 4 will also apply to the CEV, who are advised to continue considering additional precautions that they may wish to take on board. I hear very clearly the noble Baroness’s points about anomalies in the guidance; I will take those back to the department and try to tidy up the documentation as she advises.

I can inform the House that we are writing to NHS clinicians to update them on them on the latest position regarding vaccine effectiveness for these groups and provide information on potential treatment options currently under development, such as monoclonal antibody therapies and novel antivirals, as well as access to antibody testing. This guidance will support clinicians in their conversations with patients. This is such a variegated group that that kind of personalised advice is critical.

The interim JCVI advice is that all clinically extremely vulnerable people, including immunosuppressed individuals and their household contacts, should be prioritised for a booster vaccine in the autumn. We are continuing to invest in the OCTAVE study, which will provide further data on patients with suppressed immune response. Interim results for the immediate response to the vaccine will be available from the middle of July.

We are absolutely focused on ensuring that the population is given clear guidance. The NHS app is undoubtedly an area that needs to evolve. Its effectiveness as a technological tool in giving people counsel and advice when they have been in close proximity to someone with the infection is extremely valuable. We are looking at ways in which that value can be enhanced.

On the specific question of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about Malta, it is for member states to determine what they accept at their borders regarding vaccines. Foreign travel advice recently published for Malta misleadingly reported that it would not accept the specific batches received from the Serum Institute of India in the UK. This has now been resolved with agreement from the Maltese Government, and Malta is now accepting proof of vaccination from any Covid vaccine administered in the UK.

Turning to those who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, rightly pointed out, stepped forward for the critical AstraZeneca vaccine clinical trials, being on a vaccine trial absolutely should not disadvantage them. The Government intend to take any action available to ensure that that is the case. We are working with clinical research sites to add participant information of vaccine clinical trials to the national immunisation management service—NIMS—to allow participants to access their NHS Covid pass for both domestic and international travel purposes.