Covid-19 Update - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 21 October 2021.

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Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 7:25, 21 October 2021

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on coronavirus. Even through the warm summer days, we drew up our autumn and winter plan. We used the time to plan and prepare, because we know that Covid-19 thrives in colder weather. With winter now around the corner, Covid-19 is re-emerging, as expected. It is clear that this pandemic is far from over: new cases of the virus are high; the pressure on our hospitals is steadily growing; and, sadly, we are seeing over 100 deaths a day. We must therefore be prompt and proportionate in how we enact the plan. We will not be implementing our plan B of contingency measures at this point, but we will stay vigilant and ready for all eventualities, even while pursuing plan A to its full extent.

Vaccines are our first line of defence. Eighty-six per cent of everyone in the UK over 12 has received at least one dose, and 79% of people have had at least two. Two steps naturally follow from this. The first is to plug any gaps in the wall by doing all we can to get vaccines into the unvaccinated. There are 4.7 million people over the age of 18 in England who have not accepted the vaccine, so we are working hard to encourage those who can take it to do so. It is never too late to come forward. We are also working with parents and schools to ensure that this life-saving protection is extended to over-12s.

Our vaccines continue to save countless lives, but early evidence shows that their protection can wane over time, especially in older and more vulnerable people. Our second step has therefore been to reinforce our wall of defence still further. That means third doses, not only for the immunosuppressed but booster shots for all those in phase 1 of our vaccination programme. We have given more than 4 million third doses and boosters in England so far. It is good, but it is not good enough. I want all those eligible to come forward. Over 85% of people have done it twice; there is no good reason not to do it again.

Those who are over 50 or in another priority group, and who had their second jab over six months ago, will be eligible for a booster. The NHS will send an invite once an individual is eligible. But if the invitation has not arrived despite a person becoming eligible, they should contact the national booking service. Boosters can be booked online or by calling 119, because there is zero room for complacency when it comes to this deadly disease and we all have our part to play.

Vaccines are not our only line of defence. Antivirals can stop a mild disease from becoming more serious. Our antivirals taskforce has been looking for the most promising new drugs, to speed up their development and manufacture. Yesterday, we signed a landmark deal for hundreds of thousands of doses of two new antivirals from Pfizer and Merck Sharp & Dohme. Should the MHRA approve their use, we will work with the NHS to make sure that they quickly get to those who need them.

There are, of course, further lines of defence: those that form plan B of our autumn and winter plan. We have always sought to maintain measures that are proportionate to the stage of the pandemic that we are in. We detailed plan B so that people and businesses would know what to expect. This includes face coverings in certain settings, encouragement to work at home where possible, and Covid certification. None of us wishes to implement these measures, but they are clearly preferable to having to close businesses or enforcing further lockdowns.

I recognise vaccine certification is of particular interest to my colleagues in this House. As we set out in our plan, we would seek to provide a vote in Parliament ahead of any regulations coming into force. However, at this time, we remain on Plan A and we will continue to monitor the situation carefully. We are identifying new variants all the time, including a new version of the Delta variant known as AY.4.2, which seems to be growing in prevalence.

Equally, we are monitoring the situation in our hospitals. I want to thank everyone in the NHS and social care for everything they are doing to keep us safe. Today, I can confirm to the House that we are making £162.5 million of additional funding available for social care through a workforce retention and recruitment fund to help local authorities work with providers to boost staffing and support existing care workers through the winter.

In closing, I want to underline just how many things remain within the control of each and every one of us. When we are offered vaccines for Covid-19, we can take up that offer. When we are offered a flu jab, we can take that too. When we have symptoms of Covid-19, we must isolate and get tested. Even if we are well, we can wear face coverings, meet outdoors, let the air in when we are indoors, regularly wash our hands and make rapid tests part of our weekly routine. Let me be clear: rapid tests are a vital tool. A quarter of the positive cases we are identifying at the moment come from lateral flow tests. They also help to give people peace of mind when they visit vulnerable people, such as grandparents.

Even before Covid, winter has always been a tough time for people across our country, for the NHS and for social care. We have another tough winter ahead. But we have a plan. We are prepared and, if things have to change, measures will be prompt and proportionate. We all have a part to play in protecting each other and the people we love.”

I commend this Statement to the House.

Photo of Baroness Wheeler Baroness Wheeler Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords) 7:32, 21 October 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for reading the Statement.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State said that the pressures on the NHS due to Covid-19 are “sustainable”. Today, we have the Commons Statement desperately trying to reinforce this message when, in reality, we see ambulances backed up outside hospitals, patients waiting hour upon hour in A&E, cancer operations cancelled and NHS staff worn out and exhausted. Yet still, as we head into winter, the Government refuse to trigger plan B or tell us what the criterion is for doing so. Can the Minister spell out exactly what evidence and criteria will be used?

The British Medical Association is the latest front-line body to call for plan B’s immediate implementation. Why can we not just make the wearing of masks on public transport, for instance, mandatory now? We must remember that SAGE, the Government’s scientific advisers, called for plan B-type measures when the Government’s autumn and winter plan was first launched, with Sir Patrick Vallance stressing the importance of going early with measures to stop rising cases.

Once again, the Government have failed to learn the lessons of the early stages of the pandemic. This hesitation to follow advice will lead to more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths. The Secretary of State’s warning that cases could rise to 100,000 is chilling. Today, we have the sobering update from the Government’s own Covid dashboard showing 52,009 new coronavirus cases—the highest daily total and the first time the daily tally has topped 50,000 since 17 July.

It is obvious that plan A just is not working. The vaccination programme is stalling, particularly given the very late vaccinations for 12 to 15 year-olds and the mixed messages and worryingly low uptake of booster jabs. Ministers cannot blame the public when 2 million people have not even been invited for a booster jab, and on current trends the booster programme will not be completed until March 2022. Currently, there are just 165,000 jabs a day. Will the Government commit to 500,000 booster jabs a day and ensure that the programme is completed by Christmas, as it needs to be, particularly given the growing evidence of waning vaccination protection among double-vaccinated older and more vulnerable people? We learned from leaked data yesterday that only a quarter of care home residents have received a booster vaccination. Can the Minister confirm that this is correct and tell the House what urgent action the Government are taking to address this?

On children, where the highest rate of infections is concentrated and infections are running at 10,000 a day, only 17% of children have been vaccinated. This is a stuttering and wholly inadequate rollout of the children’s vaccination programme. Does the Minister recognise that this slowness exposes the folly of the drastic cuts over the past decade in the number of school nurses and health visitors who support these immunisation programmes in our communities? Will retired medics and school nurses be mobilised to return to schools and carry out vaccinations?

As the winter crisis looms, the rollout of flub jabs is also crucial to bringing down hospital admissions and ensuring that the NHS can cope, but it is also painfully slow. Only 6% of over-65s have been vaccinated, and across the country we hear stories of cancelled flu jabs at GP surgeries and of pharmacists running out of supplies. Why are supplies apparently running so low, with infections, meanwhile, running so high? What are the Government doing to ensure adequate stocks at GP surgeries and chemists to meet the demand? Can the Government guarantee a flu jab to all those that need it by December? We must get ahead of this virus, because otherwise it gets ahead of us.

Can the Minister also comment on reports in today’s media that as well as plan B, there is now active consideration of a plan C: no household mixing—in other words,

“a lockdown by the back door”,

as the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth, has called it. Can the Minister tell the House what is actually under “active consideration”, in the words of the Health Minister on Radio 4 this morning? No household mixing would be deeply concerning for many people who were prevented from seeing their loved ones for months at a time during the first and second waves of lockdown.

I am sure noble Lords will have much to say on mask wearing, as they did during yesterday’s PNQ. Ministers continue to sow confusion, including among themselves, with the Secretary of State’s comments in the Commons yesterday that politicians should “set an example” and wear masks in crowded spaces—yet the Leader of the House subsequently told MPs that there was no such advice for workplaces. Can the Minister explain what is going on?

The Statement also refers to the agreement with Pfizer and MSD on two new antiviral drugs, which we of course welcome, as they play a vital role in stopping a mild disease from becoming serious. Can the Minister tell the House about the expected timetable for MHRA approval and any provisional details on availability and rollout?

Finally, on social care funding, as usual we welcome the announcement at the end of the Statement of additional funding for local authorities to support staffing and care work through the winter, assuming that the £162.5 million workforce retention and recruitment fund is actually new money and not part of previous repackaged funding. Could the Minister confirm this? Can he provide more details as to how and when this money is to be available and how it will be allocated to local authorities?

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister’s reading the Statement from yesterday. We are discussing this on the day when more than 50,000 Covid cases have been recorded in the UK for the first time since 17 July. There have been over 52,000 cases and 115 deaths; 8,142 people are in hospital with Covid, and 870 of those are on a ventilated bed. We are discussing this just hours after the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust has declared a critical incident because of the pressures it is under serving the people of Cornwall.

That shows why this Statement is not a master class in providing a range of effective public health measures to tackle a virus that spreads at speed, and more a master class in trying to keep the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party happy. The “jab, jab, jab” message is important but, when some people go on to the booking system now, they are not able to book. They are told to ring 119, as my honourable friend in the other place, the Member for St Albans, Daisy Cooper, said early today; when they ring 119, operators tell them that they cannot override the system. I ask the Minister what is going on with the booking system and how soon it will be repaired. The “jab, jab, jab” message is important, but it is not, in itself, going to deal with the severity of the public health crisis we face. As Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said yesterday, vaccinations in themselves are not going to stop us falling off the edge of the Covid cliff.

I want the Minister to explain these different rates, if plan A, of vaccination, is working. The seven-day rolling averages for Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of the population are: in the UK, just under 500, and rising sharply; in France, approximately 60, and falling; and in Spain, approximately 50, and falling. Even considering the variation in testing rates, the UK is clearly an outlier. Take a look at three months ago, when the Government removed all mandatory mitigation measures. The picture tells you the true story of why “jab, jab, jab”, as a public health strategy, is not enough to deal with the Covid-19 problems. Then, the UK had approximately 300 cases per 100,000, and it now has 500; France had approximately 220, and it now has 60; and Spain had approximately 350, and it now has 50. It is because France and Spain, as well as other countries, have jabbed, jabbed, jabbed but also mitigated, mitigated, mitigated. Indecision is our greatest enemy in the fight against this disease.

Let us be clear: those of us who ask for extra mitigation measures, such as the use of mandatory face coverings, do so to stop the crippling lockdowns that have come before. The Government, as the Health and Social Care Select Committee has reported, have acted too little too late before when dealing with this virus. This means that the damage, both to public health and the economy, is greater than it would have been if the Government had listened to the expert advice and acted sooner.

On one very important mitigation measure we could take, the mandatory use of face coverings, the Minister said yesterday, answering a PNQ:

“Personally, I do believe that many people should be wearing masks and that there is evidence for this.”—[Official Report, 20/10/21; col. 145.]

If good evidence exists that wearing face masks helps to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, why have the Government stopped their mandatory use in indoor settings? Could the Minister please enlighten the House on what evidence the Government have that asking people to use self-judgment on wearing a face covering in certain indoor settings is more effective than making them mandatory? I am sure that evidence will be at the Minister’s fingertips, as it is official government policy. They would not make up such an important policy to ditch a mitigation measure that could save lives without the use of good evidence—would they?

Furthermore, can the Minister explain why, at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, hardly any Tory MP sat on the green Benches had a face covering on, and why, today, a Minister sat on the government Front Bench in this House wore a mask below his chin, with both his nose and mouth exposed? Whose evidence are they following? What leadership and example does it set to the nation if the Government are, on the one hand, asking us to use our self-judgment to wear a face covering, but government Ministers and MPs in the House of Commons do not?

The evidence of experts in public health and epidemiology, and figures from Europe, show that a mixture of vaccination and mandatory mitigation measures is required, if the spread of the virus is to be contained to manageable levels, so that later in winter we do not have to slam on the brakes and have yet another lockdown.

Can the Minister clarify something that he said yesterday during a PNQ? When asked whether the Government still had confidence in SAGE and its workings, the Minister replied:

“May I write to my noble friend on that?”—[Official Report, 20/10/21; col. 146.]

I know that the Minister is new and that he did not have all the details to hand, so I am giving him a second chance. Can he confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Government do have confidence in SAGE and the advice that it gives?

It is time to be clear that the message on vaccination take-up and extra mitigation on issues such as mandatory face coverings are required. Otherwise, we will be left in a situation where, unfortunately, more people will die than is necessary, the Government will be behind the curve in dealing with the virus and much more draconian measures will have to be taken. Now is the time for plan B, not for dithering and not taking the measures that are required.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and noble Baroness for their questions, and I will try to clarify some of the issues. I also thank the noble Lord for his acknowledgement of my newness to the job and for giving me some bandwidth on it, if that is fair enough.

Let me be quite clear on the questions that were asked in terms of threshold. There is no pre-set threshold for considering plan B; we consider a range of evidence and data—as we have done throughout the pandemic—to avoid the risk of placing unsustainable pressure on the NHS. For example, while the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is an important factor, the interaction with other indicators, such as the rate of increase in hospitalisations and the ratio of cases to hospitalisations, will also be vital. We will need to make a judgment on whether plan B is necessary based on the interaction of all those indicators, and informed by advice from the Government’s scientific and clinical experts—I will come to that question later. As I have said, we have an effective vaccine and much-improved treatments, so we are not where we were last winter.

The Government’s objective is to avoid a rise in Covid-19 hospitalisations that would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. The Government will monitor all the relevant data on a regular basis to ensure that we can act if there is a substantial likelihood of this happening. The Government monitor a wide range of Covid-19 health data which, to give a taste, includes cases, immunity, the ratio of cases to hospitalisations, the proportion of admissions due to infections, the rate of growth in cases and hospital admissions in the over-65s, vaccine efficacy and the global distribution and characteristics of variants of concern.

In assessing the risk to the NHS, the key metrics include hospital occupancy for Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients, intensive care unit capacity, admissions in vaccinated individuals and the rate of growth of admissions. The Government also track the economic and societal impacts of the virus to ensure that any response takes into account these wider effects. We also monitor a range of metrics on other NHS pressures, including winter respiratory hospitalisation rates, influenza, urgent and emergency care pressures, elective activity and ambulance response times.

A number of noble Lords asked, “So what is the plan for autumn and winter?” The Government’s plan includes building our defences through pharmaceutical interventions, including vaccines, antivirals and disease-modifying therapeutics; identifying and isolating positive cases to limit transmission—test, trace and isolate; supporting the NHS and social care, including managing pressures and recovering services; advising people on how to protect themselves and others through clear guidance and communications; and pursuing an international approach, helping to vaccinate the world and managing risks at the border.

Of course, we have had to prepare contingency measures for if the various indicators and the range of scientific advice that we receive suggests that we have to move to plan B. The measures include: mandatory vaccine-only Covid status certification in certain riskier settings; legally mandating face coverings in various settings, such as public transport and shops; and communicating clearly and urgently to the public if the risk level increases. The Government may also consider asking people to work from home again, if necessary, but, once again, a final decision on this would be made at the time, dependent on the latest data and recognising the extra disruption this causes to individuals and businesses. The message is clear: we prefer not to go to plan B. We prefer to rely on informed choice, but we might have to go to plan B, if cases rise.

I was asked questions on some statistics. Some 49.5 million people had been given a first dose by the end of 19 October, and almost 45.5 million people had been given a second dose. More than 4 million boosters and third doses have been administered so far, including to one in three health and care workers who are eligible. But there is more to do: 5.5 million people have been invited for their booster so far, and another 1.9 million people will be invited this week, as they have become eligible over the last few days and weeks.

Looking at NHS pressures, we are working with NHS England, which is leading work with NHS providers, regions and stakeholders to ensure that robust operational plans are in place for the winter, including plans to meet potential increases in demand for emergency care driven by seasonal flu and Covid-19. To further protect the NHS this winter, we are also carrying out the largest ever seasonal flu vaccination, alongside Covid-19 booster vaccines for priority groups. The NHS will also receive an extra £5.4 billion over the next six months to support its response to Covid-19.

The noble Baroness asked about boosters in care homes. We are committed to ensuring that those who are most vulnerable receive their booster jab as soon as possible after they become eligible. That of course means that care homes are a priority. Vaccination teams have already visited over 40% of all care homes in England, and we expect thousands more to have either received a visit or have a date for a visit scheduled in the coming weeks. The latest figure I have, from a few days ago, is that 40% of care homes—in addition to the 40% where boosters have been received—have booked a visit. That leaves a 20% gap, which we are continuing to look at and work on. Some, for reasons of local outbreaks, cannot yet receive a visit, but we are very clear that 80% are on plan and we are looking at how to narrow that 20% gap.

The noble Lord referred to the NHS booking system. I was not aware of the problem, so I thank him for bringing it to my attention. I will investigate and get back to noble Lords, but I am afraid I do not have the answer at my fingertips. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that.

The noble Lord also asked about NHS capacity. The NHS can respond to local surges in demand in several ways, including through expanding surge capacity in existing NHS hospitals, mutual aid between hospitals, and making use of independent sector capacity and accelerated discharge schemes.

I apologise to noble Lords that I am over time. All I will say to finish off, in answer to the question about our scientific advice, is that we have confidence in SAGE. I was also asked who we listen to. Our approach has always been informed by scientific and medical advice, using the latest data. We take advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS and others, which remains valuable. As always, scientific experts have contributed directly to ministerial discussions.

Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Conservative 7:54, 21 October 2021

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of Genomics England. Does the Minister agree that, as well as testing, sequencing is critical to tracing the pandemic as cases rise? In addition to delta, we are now observing the delta subtype, AY42, and we need to be constantly on our guard for vaccine escape. Can he say what steps are being taken to ensure that our so far really very good pathogen sequencing programme will be as responsive as it needs to be to the winter surge?

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

I thank my noble friend for that question. The UK is world leading in genomics, and it is something that we can all be proud of. COVID-19 Genomics UK has now sequenced 1 million genomes, and the UK is working with global partners to fill global sequencing capability gaps. This includes building the new variant assessment platform, which will offer UK expertise to assess and detect new Covid variants emerging globally.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop

My Lords, I apologise for having stood up too early a moment or two ago; I am still very much learning my trade in this House, but I follow the dictum of Martin Luther, that if you must sin, sin boldly.

I am grateful for the Statement, and assure the Minister that the faith communities, which did a lot last year to get health messages to some of the harder-to-reach groups in our society, stand ready to do the same again this winter, but I wonder whether the Government have made a rod for their own back in having plan A versus plan B. It seems a very polar way to deal with things when, actually, we need a more graduated method. Perhaps I might encourage the Government not to be the prisoner of their own rhetoric and for the Minister to share with his colleagues in another place that perhaps we could have steps between a plan A and a plan B: we need gradual, incremental stages as the virus levels rise. I encourage him to try that.

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

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his advice, and for pointing out the very important role that faith communities paid played helping many people get through the lockdowns. They play an important role in this country; many people often assume that it is down to the state, but faith communities play a really important role and complement many of the things we do.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate’s specific question, it should not be seen as plan A or plan B; it is sequential. The Government would prefer that plan A works and that we vaccinate more and make sure that we reach those who have not yet been vaccinated. But if the figures, and the various factors we are looking at—scientific, but also socio-economic—suggest that we have to go to plan B, then we will. At the moment, we are hoping that plan A will work, but we are reliant on the advice that we get from the various scientific advisers that I outlined, but also the other stakeholders, to ensure that we test plan A. Hopefully, it will work, but if it does not, we will move to Plan B.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

My Lords, I have recently returned from Germany, where medical masks are worn indoors in settings such as shops, restaurants, theatres, conferences, churches and, of course, on public transport. To enter, you have to show a Covid green vaccination pass—the QR code is checked—or, alternatively, a same-day antigen test performed and certified in a pharmacy. It is easy, it is acceptable, it is working and people feel safe. The death rate is much lower. Will plan B provide the same security and reassurance to British citizens as I experienced in Germany by mandating face masks and green passes, and will this happen soon enough to prevent more deaths? We started the pandemic with a first lockdown that was too late; plan B may be too late.

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

I thank the noble Baroness for sharing her experiences from Germany. We are relying very much on a range of scientific advisers to tell us whether we need to move to plan B but at the moment, because we are not where we were last winter and because we have broken the link between cases, hospitalisation and deaths, we would prefer to try plan A. If we have to move to plan B, we will—on the advice of our range of scientific advisers—but there are also some concerns, as the House can imagine. I think it was Professor Mark Pennington of King’s College London who said, when assessing Covid-19 and the response to it, that you have to look at it as a complex system. When one thing happens, there might be a reaction elsewhere but also unintended consequences.

One concern we have heard about mandating face masks at the moment is: who enforces that? Do we suddenly have more police enforcing it and become a police state? Transport workers are also concerned about having to approach certain people and ask them to put their mask on in the proper place, for fear of abuse, so we have to get the balance right. We will try to stick to plan A, given that we have broken that link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, and encourage more people to get vaccinated while reaching out to those hard-to-reach groups. But if the numbers and the various indicators are there and the scientific advice tells us to move to plan B, we will do so.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is such a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, to whom I had the pleasure of referring by name a week ago today in my maiden speech. SAGE is so crucial to the advice given to the Government. So far as I understand it, in the first half of this year SAGE met on at least a dozen occasions. Yet since July it appears to have met only three times. Is it true that SAGE has not met since 9 September and, if so, why? On 9 September, SAGE’s official advice was that the epidemic was

“entering a period of uncertainty” because of waning immunity and “changes in contact patterns”—which meant people going back to work and children going back to school. SAGE then

“reiterated the importance of acting early to slow a growing epidemic.”

When SAGE advises the Government, as it did on 9 September, that

“Late action is likely to require harder measures”,

does the Minister agree?

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

I thank the noble Viscount for his question and welcome him to the House. The Government are taking a range of advice, including from SAGE, but also from the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, the UK Health Security Agency and the NHS. We have to balance a number of different views. We want many scientific experts to contribute directly to ministerial discussions and believe that we have benefited from that wide range. I know that SAGE has met regularly; I do not have the latest date for when it did so but I can forward that information to him.