“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the omicron variant and the steps we are taking to keep our country safe. We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. We are entering the winter in a strong position, thanks to the decisions we made in the summer and the defences we have built. Our vaccination programme has been moving at a blistering pace and this weekend we reached the milestone of 17 million boosters across the UK. This means that even though cases have been rising, hospital admissions have fallen a further 11% in the past week and deaths have fallen by another 17%. But, just as the vaccination programme has shifted the odds in our favour, a harmful new variant has always had the opportunity to shift them back.
Last week, I was alerted to what is now known as the omicron variant, now designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization. We are learning more about this new variant all the time, but the latest indication is that it spreads very rapidly. It may impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments for Covid-19, Ronapreve, and, as the Chief Medical Officer said this weekend, there is a reasonable chance that our current vaccines may be impacted. I can update the House that there have now been five confirmed cases in England, and also six confirmed cases in Scotland, and we expect cases to rise over the coming days.
The new variant has also been spreading across the world. Confirmed cases have been reported in many more countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. In this race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs. So, our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about its potential threat.
On Friday, I updated the House about the measures that we have put in place, including how, within hours, we had placed six countries in southern Africa on the red list. Today, I would like to update the House on the more balanced and proportionate steps that we are taking. First, measures at the border to slow the incursion of the variant from abroad. On Saturday, in line with updated advice from the UK Health Security Agency, we acted quickly to add another four countries to the travel red list: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. This means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish national or resident who has been in any of these countries for the previous 10 days will be refused entry; and those who are must isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days.
Beyond this red list, we are also going further to put in place a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from all across the world. So we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after they arrive and to self-isolate until they have received a negative result. The regulations for this have been laid before the House today and will come into force at 4 am tomorrow.
Secondly, we have announced measures to slow the spread of the virus here in the UK. We are making changes to our rules on self-isolation for close contacts in England to reflect the greater threat that may be posed by this new variant. So close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated. Face coverings will also be made compulsory in shops and on public transport in England, unless an individual has a medical exemption.
The regulations for self-isolation and face coverings have been laid before the House today and will come into force at 4 am tomorrow. I can confirm to the House that there will be debates and votes on these two measures to give the House the opportunity to have its say and perform valuable scrutiny. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House will set out more details shortly and we will review all the measures that I have set out today after three weeks to see whether they are still necessary.
Thirdly, we are strengthening the defences that we have built against this virus. We are already in a stronger position than we were when we faced the delta variant. We have a much greater capacity for testing, enhanced ability for sequencing and the collective protection offered by 114 million jabs in arms.
I will update the House on our Covid-19 vaccination programme, which has been a national success story. We have delivered more booster doses than anywhere in Europe, and we have given top-up jabs to over one in three people over the age of 18 across the UK. I pay tribute to the NHS, the volunteers, the Armed Forces and everyone else who has been involved in this life-saving work. Our vaccines remain our best line of defence against this virus, in whatever form it takes. There is a lot that we do not know about how our vaccines respond to the omicron variant, but although it is possible that they may be less effective, it is unlikely that they will have no effectiveness. So it is really important that we get as many jabs in arms as possible.
We were already planning to do 6 million booster jabs in England alone over the next few weeks, but, against the backdrop of this new variant, we want to go further and faster. So I asked the JCVI—the Government’s independent expert advisers on vaccinations—to urgently review how we can expand the programme and whether we should reduce the gap between second doses and boosters. The JCVI published its advice in the last hour. First, it advised that the minimum dose interval for booster jabs should be halved, from six to three months. Secondly, it advised that the booster programme should be expanded to include all remaining adults aged 18 and above. Thirdly, it advised that these boosters should be offered by age group in descending order to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus. Priority will be given to older adults and people over 16 who are at risk. Fourthly, it advised that severely immunosuppressed people aged 16 or above who have received three primary doses should now also be offered a booster dose. Finally, it advised that children aged between 12 and 15 should be given a second dose, 12 weeks from the first dose. I have accepted this advice in full. With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people more quickly and make us better protected as a nation. This represents a huge step for our vaccination programme.
I will update the House on the part that the UK is playing. We currently hold the presidency of the G7, and, earlier today, I convened an urgent meeting of the G7 Health Ministers to co-ordinate the international response. We were unanimous in our praise for the leadership shown by South Africa, which was so open and transparent about this new variant, and we were resolute in our commitment to working closely with each other, the World Health Organization and the wider international community to tackle this common threat.
Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it is best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat, which is why we are building our defences and putting these measures in place without delay. Scientists are working at speed, at home and abroad, to determine whether this variant is more dangerous. I assure the House that, if it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than is necessary.
Covid-19 is not going away, so we will keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to live with the virus for the long term, we must follow the evidence and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do this, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking at the impact of these measures not just on the virus but on the economy, education and non-Covid health, such as mental health. I am confident that these balanced and responsible steps are proportionate to the threat that we face.
This year, our nation has come so far down our road to recovery, but we always knew that there would be bumps in the road. But this is not a time to waver; it is a time to be vigilant and think about what each and every one of us can do to slow the spread of the new variant: getting a jab when the time comes, following the rules that we have put in place and getting rapid, regular tests. If we all come together once again, we can keep this virus at bay and protect the progress that we have made. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement from today and for the Statement from Friday. I add my thanks to the scientists in South Africa for their prompt sharing of this information, as unwelcome as it may be.
We understand that scientists believe that it will take two to three weeks before they can establish whether the omicron Covid variant is more transmissible, causes more severe disease or can make vaccines less effective than was the case with delta, or all three. We support the Government’s strategy of tougher travel restrictions and mandatory face masks, as far as it goes. It seems that there is already real-world evidence from South Africa and Hong Kong that omicron is highly infectious, which begs the first question: why are the Government limiting the mandating of mask wearing to travel and to shops, and not extending it to indoor meetings and social events? Mask wearing is the single most effective public health measure in tackling Covid according to the first global study of its kind, which found that the measure was linked to a 53% fall in the incidence of the disease. As Dr David Nabarro said recently:
“We know that wearing a face mask reduces the risk. We know that maintaining physical distance reduces the risk. We know that hygiene by regular hand washing and coughing into your elbow reduces the risk. We should do it all, and we should not rely on any one intervention like vaccination on its own.”
On these Benches, we support taking swift action and the inclusion of new countries on the red list. We do not want a repeat of the inertia that saw the delta variant run rampant through the country and, as the Minister said, we must protect the progress that we have made. We welcome an increase in the availability of the booster jabs. The only question that I would ask him is about the capacity of the NHS to deliver the massive increase that the Government have reported today.
We support the move to PCR testing, but there are still holes in the testing programme. Ministers have not introduced pre-departure testing and there is little, if any, follow-up on PCR test results, so we need action on this if we are to take it seriously.
The Government could, of course, go further to keep people safe. Fixing sick pay, improving ventilation and properly utilising antivirals remain crucial to ensuring that we reduce the spread of this deadly disease. Do any of these feature in the Government’s plans?
“Whatever happens to this particular variant, we’ve got to realise our failure to vaccinate the rest of world … is going to come back to haunt us.”
He said that the new variant was a “wake up call” for rich nations with surplus vaccines. There seem to be surplus vaccines which will expire within the next month. How many vaccines in the UK will pass their use-by dates before Christmas, and will these be destroyed? I am afraid that Ministers have not met the commitments made at this summer’s G7 to roll out the vaccine to other parts of the globe. There is now sufficient vaccine to reach almost every adult in the world. I agree with the Minister that we need to play our part in ensuring that everyone around the globe has access to vaccines to stop the emergence of new variants.
This variant is indeed a wake-up call. The pandemic is not over. We need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay. In that context, I ask the Minister about preparedness for new Covid variants in general. Both Clive Dix and Kate Bingham, former chairs of the Vaccine Taskforce, have expressed worries about our preparedness for dealing with new variants. Mr Dix has said of a paper that he sent to No. 10 in May:
“I wrote a very specific proposal on what we should put in place right now for the emergence of any new virus that escaped the vaccine.”
It seems that, thus far, No. 10 has not responded, so perhaps I can ask on Mr Dix’s behalf what the Government’s plan is for an escape variant? What is the plan for resistance for the future? The country needs to know. He suggested that a strategy should involve a co-ordinating team to seek out new vaccines and give the company involved a fast track to a swift trial, access to the data and regulatory approval in return for early access to vaccines. If that sounds familiar, it is exactly what the Government did at the start of the pandemic, and it needs to be repeated. Is this in the Government’s plan?
Reports from South Africa and other places indicate that the new infection seems to manifest itself with nausea, headaches, fatigue and a high pulse rate, but not the original and distinguishing features of loss of taste or smell, nor the headaches, sore throat, runny nose, fever and persistent cough which have been the most common in the delta variant. Will the NHS stick to the old symptom guide or will it update it to allow those running test and trace to recognise that they are not necessarily looking for things like loss of taste and smell but for other symptoms?
If the Government intend to report again in three weeks’ time, if not before, it takes us into the Recess, so I would like the Minister to ensure that colleagues will be briefed appropriately. On Saturday evening, the Secretary of State held a Zoom call to brief MPs about the new world that we now entering. I hope that the Minister will do the same for all Members of your Lordships’ House.
We must all be concerned that any spike in serious cases from this new variant could coincide with the NHS’s peak winter period, particularly given that the service is already at full stretch. We all want to enjoy Christmas but, most of all, we all want to stay safe.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating today’s Statement. The World Health Organization and many globally respected scientists and doctors have been warning us that variants of Covid-19 might pose a serious risk, especially when a Government think that we are winning the war against the virus and that we can all afford to relax. Omicron reminds us that the battle is not won until it is won across the world. From these Benches, we also thank the South African scientists for their genome sequencing that has alerted the world, and I hope that the UK and the other G7 countries will offer them not just gratitude but countries in southern Africa more practical support.
I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about arrangements for international travel and test and trace. I also support her request for a briefing for Peers. For some bizarre reason, the Liberal Democrat MPs were not included in the MPs’ briefing. Please could the Minister make sure that we are included in any such meeting in the Lords.
In April, before the Minister was appointed, we warned Ministers that the Government were responding far too late to the reports of the delta variant in India. So we warn again. While the face mask mandate in shops and on public transport is welcome and well overdue, we are absolutely bemused that it excludes hospitality and that the advice to schools excludes classrooms. Professor Chris Whitty said in Saturday’s No. 10 press conference that when there is a risk we should go in hard, so can the Minister explain how the virus will be kept at bay in those indoor settings where masks are not required? Why is there no encouragement for people to work from home where possible? Trains and buses are crowded and unventilated. Risks will remain there too, even if lessened with masks.
I have said before that I am in the clinically extremely vulnerable group. I have had my third dose of the vaccine and now look forward to my fourth, or booster, dose. But many of those who should be getting the third dose still face a series of problems in the NHS about who should get it, as opposed to a booster, and how it is recorded. Indeed, today, in response to a Written Question to my honourable friend Daisy Cooper about the recording of a third dose, the Minister, Maggie Throup MP, replied:
“Work to assess the need to include boosters in the NHS COVID Pass is ongoing and we will provide a further update in due course”, so even the records cannot distinguish. Can the Minister say when “in due course” is? I am afraid this is symptomatic of the way the clinically extremely vulnerable have been ignored and left to fend for themselves.
I will ask a question that I have asked the Minister’s predecessor repeatedly since June of this year. In May 2021, Jenny Harries left Public Health England to set up the UKHSA. For the preceding 12 months she had specific responsibility for co-ordinating all the different elements of Covid issues for the CEV and for shielding. When she left, no one was given that responsibility, and it was noticeable that all communications with CEV people and the different parts of the NHS on Covid just stopped when shielding stopped. Can the Minister tell us which senior person in the NHS has that managerial responsibility? It has been five months since I first asked and there are 3.7 million worried people still waiting for answers. It would be good to know which Minister has the responsibility to co-ordinate all Covid matters for the CEV or former shielders. This is important, because the last letter from the Secretary of State tells the CEV not to go into any environment where people have not been double-jabbed. There is no mention of boosters, and obviously no mention yet of omicron.
Is there a confirmed register that distinguishes between the CEV and the severely CEV? Unlike in Scotland, hospital consultants in England do not have access to individual patient records that GPs use or even to the Covid app data. Can the Minister say how NHS England will be able to communicate directly with eligible people if they do not have a register? Is there a specific communications plan to ensure that primary care, secondary care and the 119 vaccine helpline are fully aware of plans and processes for this group? Reports are coming back of blood cancer patients being told at vaccine centres that they do only boosters—there is no knowledge or understanding of the third dose.
I recognise that I am asking the Minister a large number of questions on the immunocompromised. I really do not expect answers to them today—written answers are always very welcome—but please will he agree to meet with me, Blood Cancer UK and the Anthony Nolan Trust to discuss these key questions, not least because we are now in a different situation, with the 3.7 million, which is 5% of the country, left in limbo?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, it is too early to say whether omicron is more dangerous than delta or beta, or whether treatments such as Ronapreve and the current vaccines might not be as effective. The Government are right to be cautious. I echo her comments about Clive Dix, the former head of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce. What plans are in place for vaccine development for an escape variant?
At a time when manufacturing is one of the key issues slowing down the delivery of vaccines worldwide, why is the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre at Harwell, which has received in excess of £200 million of public funding via UK research and development, now up for sale, long before the pandemic is over? We still need its expertise. Selling off a publicly funded, not-for-profit organisation during the pandemic, if at all, seems, frankly, bizarre.
Finally, the Statement has a passing reference to test and trace domestically. It says:
“We have a much greater capacity for testing, enhanced ability for sequencing”.
Genome sequencing in the UK has been a real strength of UK science and has undoubtedly helped us considerably in this pandemic. But, in recent weeks, with the Government’s determination to open up and return to normality, test and trace has been scaled back, with reduced centres and reduced hours for those that remain open. Can the Minister say what plans there are to increase these back as needed? Are directors of public health and their local resilience forums receiving funding for the current omicron problem? It also appears that there is no Covid funding for them next year at the moment. If omicron is a viable variant, we must plan to fund them to keep these safety nets of test and trace in place, because without an effective test, trace and isolate system, including proper payments to those who need to isolate, we will not manage, let alone control, this virus. Defences are not defences when there are large holes in them.
I thank both noble Baronesses for their questions. I will try to answer as many as I can.
On the first issue of face coverings and why not all places, we are taking temporary, targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we learn more about this new variant. Face coverings have been introduced as part of the temporary measures being put in place to slow the spread of the omicron variant. We know that face coverings are effective at reducing transmission indoors when people are likely to come together—for example, on public transport or in shops—while having a low impact on our daily lives. We continue to encourage everyone to wear face coverings in settings that are crowded or where they meet or come into contact with people they do not normally meet, but we are also guided by the advice of our scientific and medical experts. We are constantly keeping these under review.
One of the reasons why our advice is not the same for hospitality venues is that the advice has been that it is not seen as practical for people to wear a face covering when eating or drinking. It is not recommended that face coverings are worn when undertaking strenuous activity, including exercising and dancing. That is the advice we have had to date on that one.
Questions were 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. The NHS is the Government’s key spending priority. That is why we committed to the historic settlement of the cash increase of £33.9 billion a year by 2023-24, and other investments we have made to make sure we have that capacity.
The booster vaccine will be offered in order of descending age groups, with priority given to older adults. This will probably be the most complex phase of the NHS vaccination programme so far, but the NHS is working through updated guidance and will set out how this will be operationalised shortly. It will contact you when you need to act and book in for your life-saving vaccination.
On helping the rest of the world, the UK remains committed to donating 100 million doses by mid-2022. We will have donated more than 30 million vaccines by the end of 2021 and we have announced plans for 70 million doses in total so far. We will continue to work to ensure that any vaccine that the UK does not need is reallocated to other nations that require it, wherever possible.
On future preparedness for variants and future pandemics, as noble Lords will know, the UK Health Security Agency, which focuses on health protection, became fully operational on
We are delighted to see students back at schools and higher education settings, but to reduce transmission we are keeping some sensible measures in place across education and care settings. These include access to twice-weekly testing in secondary schools and the provision of CO2 monitors to all schools. We have said that education settings must continue to comply with health and safety law, and we are working between the Department of Health and the Department for Education to make sure we have the right and appropriate response in our education settings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about severely immunosuppressed individuals—I thank her for the acknowledgement that I will not be able to answer all the questions in detail and that it probably would be better if I write to her in more detail. So far, however, the individuals who have completed their primary course of three doses should be offered a fourth booster dose with a minimum of three months between the third primary and fourth booster dose. If they have not yet received their third dose, they should have that now to avoid further delay.
The other point I will make is that it is not too late for anyone who has not yet had their first or second dose. Please do not think that, because we are advertising for boosters, it means that you have missed the boat. In fact, we are working very hard—and I have received a lot of advice from noble Lords across the House—on how to address the low take-up of vaccines among certain communities and demographics. I am grateful to noble Lords for that. I also reiterate the point that it is not over. I humbly disagree with the statement that we have given the impression that it is over. We have been quite clear that it is not and that we must continue to be vigilant.
In terms of briefings, I will commit to giving a briefing to all Peers. I thank the noble Baroness for that suggestion. I have apologised for not being more proactive on that—maybe I should have done so on Sunday afternoon or evening after the Secretary of State. To the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I can only apologise for not having an answer sooner to the questions she has asked in the past. The best way to resolve this is for me to commit to the meeting that she has requested so that we can try to answer the questions that she has outstanding. I apologise to her for those questions not being answered previously.
My Lords, it is very difficult to find out why many people are hesitant about having a booster jab having had two vaccinations. Does the Minister think that, if something went wrong and left a person seriously disabled from the vaccine, but if they knew they would have adequate compensation, they might be more willing to have the booster?
I thank the noble Baroness for raising that important point. We have made the point that it is not over, but one thing that we have seen, sadly, with the uptake of the booster vaccine is that a number of people felt that because they had had the first and second doses, they could almost return to normal. Maybe we could have been stronger with the message that it is not over, but we continue to say that we should be ever vigilant. The important point is that, if you have not had the booster, we ask you to come forward, just as we ask all those who have not had their first or second vaccine to come forward. We are trying to work with all those in different communities to make sure that they come forward. We are, for example, working with interfaith communities and local groups.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement, but may I express the hope that the requirement to wear masks in shops and on public transport is not relaxed prematurely? Is there not a case for continuing those requirements while the pandemic is prevalent?
My noble friend will be aware of the constant debate that there has been in the public sphere about the effectiveness of masks, when they are effective and who is affected. Therefore, we have always followed scientific advice on the wearing of masks and where would be most appropriate. We know that many noble Lords and others have called on us literally not to let the masks slip, as it were, and to make sure that people continue to wear masks. There have been others, however, asking why people still need to wear masks. We have always been vigilant, and the fact that we now have this new variant means we are taking a precautionary approach. We will continue to review it and it could well be that, in three weeks’ time, we will see how dangerous it has been and how effective mask wearing has been in the places that we have specified.
My Lords, it is now recognised widely that none of us is safe until we are all safe, leading to the conclusion that we need a worldwide vaccination programme. However, there is mounting evidence that populations that are immunocompromised, especially people living with HIV, provide a particularly ideal environment for the mutation of the virus. Does the Minister accept that we must therefore contemplate the possibility of having a global programme of antiretroviral medicine as part of our response to Covid?
I thank the noble Lord for the point he just made. If he will allow me, I will take that back and try to get an answer for him.
My Lords, I hear from colleagues in South Africa that nasal swabs alone are not as effective at picking up the new variant and that there have been many false negatives reported. I would welcome the Minister’s comment on that, as we are moving to more nasal swabs. I also suggest that it would be more sensible to encourage the use of face coverings in offices and to encourage people to work from home wherever it is feasible in terms of employers, so that the next two weeks can be used by scientists to really identify other problems that might be associated. This would help to safeguard NHS clinical staff as well as hospitals. If people are getting false negatives and then being admitted to hospital, it puts the very staff we need to keep at work at risk.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, will be aware, our scientific medical advice and the data are constantly reviewed. We are currently conducting thorough tests to review both LFT and PCR efficacy when it comes to the omicron variant. The advice that I have been given is that we must wait for the data and take a cautious, proportionate approach as scientists work urgently to better understand the variant. In terms of the question on more restrictions in terms of where face masks should be worn, the advice at the moment is still on public transport and in shops, and to continue to encourage people to work either from home or in offices, as appropriate.
My Lords, in my noble friend’s repeat of the Statement, he said that
“our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences”.
May I ask him about our border controls? Given our testing capacity, would it not make sense for us, for example, to test everybody who comes into our airports at the airport itself so that we have certainty that, where they are positive, we know who they are and are able to conduct the contact tracing required?
I thank my noble friend for giving me notice of the question; I appreciate it. The answer that I have been given in response is that we have built a thriving private diagnostic market to meet the demand of the international travellers and day 2 PCR testing for travellers is provided by these private providers. Based on forecast modelling, we are confident that the market has sufficient capacity to meet the rise in demand that omicron may pose.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement, in which he indicated that he was chairing a meeting of G7 members to deal with this specific issue. Will that meeting deal with the rollout of excess vaccines to the rest of the world, particularly those countries in southern Africa? I can only think of what my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said at the weekend, which was also reaffirmed in the leader column in yesterday’s Sunday Times: that nobody is safe in this world until everybody is safe. So is there a strategic plan to deal with excess vaccines to ensure that they are all used up, and particularly that they are used in those countries in the developing world that need them most?
I believe all noble Lords will agree with the points made by the noble Baroness on making sure that as many people in the world as possible have access to the vaccines. Someone said to me today that we are talking about third and fourth doses in the UK, but there are people in many parts of the world who have not yet had their first dose. I am sure noble Lords are aware of that. There is an analogy with when you are on an aircraft and the oxygen masks fall; do you protect yourself before you protect others? There is clearly a debate on this.
The UK remains committed to donating 100 million doses by the middle of 2022. We will have donated more than 30 million vaccines by the end of 2021 and have announced plans for 70 million doses in total so far. We will continue to ensure that any vaccines that the UK does not need are reallocated to other nations which require them wherever possible. Having sat in one of those G7 meetings with Health Ministers and joint G7 meetings with Health and Transports Ministers, I can assure noble Lords that one of the issues that comes up constantly is how we can help the rest of the world, particularly those countries which have not had access to even first doses of the vaccine.
My Lords, on whether LFT swabs should be nasal or nasal plus throat, it is more important that the test is carried out properly; we know that LFTs have low specificity, as opposed to sensitivity, compared to PCRs. Those who test positive with the new variant and their contacts must isolate for 10 days. If a traveller arrives on these shores and tests positive for the new variant, will the whole of the aeroplane have to isolate for 10 days or only close contacts? If only close contacts, who counts as a close contact? What risk assessment have the Government made on the transmissibility of the new variant in superspreader events such as clubs and sporting events?
The noble Lord raises an important point. I will double-check the details as I do not wish to mislead him or the House. Given that this is a fast-moving situation, in which the data is very new, changing constantly and constantly being reviewed, it would be more appropriate if I double-check before I answer.
The new requirements are for all travellers arriving in the country to take a PCR test on or before day two and to self-isolate until they have received a negative test. However, on the government website today, it says that if someone has tested positive with a PCR, they should not be tested again using either a PCR or lateral flow test for 90 days, unless they have developed new symptoms. What are returning travellers who have tested positive in the last 90 days meant to do? Who is cross-checking the existing guidance against new regulations?
All I can do is thank the noble Baroness for her question. I will have to double-check; as she will imagine, I do not have all the answers at the moment. Throughout the day, as I was preparing for this, the advice was changing constantly, and things were being swapped in. Advisers from the Department of Health and Social Care were saying, “This is the latest advice”, but it was changing literally hourly. I will try to get the latest advice and share this with noble Lords.
In light of the overall success of the vaccination programme, is it now a condition of employment that every new recruit to the NHS, at every level, must be vaccinated against Covid and agree to accept any future recommendations on protection against it?
As my noble friend will be aware, vaccination as a condition of deployment has been brought in for the social care sector. It will be brought in for the wider NHS, but there is a grace period in certain cases. Management are being encouraged to meet with staff to encourage them, particularly staff who are vaccine-hesitant. There is a grace period to see us through the winter period; it runs up to April next year. However, we are encouraging as many members of NHS staff as possible to get vaccinated and we have a high rate of vaccination so far.
My Lords, the Minister referred to a thriving diagnostic market in PCR tests. When these were previously commonly required, there were huge problems with misleading advertising about costs and people being misled about the services and timings on offer. Have the Government solved these problems and are they looking at how much money these companies are making out of this thriving market?
The important thing for us is to make sure that PCR tests are available and that there is sufficient supply and capacity to deliver them. Frankly, as much as we want to make sure there are enough PCR tests, we want to make sure that supplies come to the market. But, as the noble Baroness will be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has raised concerns about the cost of some of the PCR tests and has been quite public about that.
My Lords, first, did the Minister see the interview with Dr Coetzee, the South African doctor who first identified the omicron variant, on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday? She said that the British Government were overreacting and, when asked, specifically agreed that they were panicking. Secondly, could he identify and publish for the benefit of everyone the studies that have shown that wearing these flimsy, non-surgical face masks is effective in preventing transmission? I refer to the excellent research which my noble friend Lord Ridley detailed in the Grand Committee on
I thank my noble friend for those points. On the comments made by the South African expert, I raised these issues with officials and experts today; one of the points made was that there are different demographics of who has been affected. We want to make sure that we are being cautious and proportionate. Therefore, we have taken these measures as a precaution. On the efficacy of face masks, the point my noble friend makes shows that there is a debate, but we have decided to err on the side of caution to make sure that we are prepared.
The noble Baroness makes a good point. Health issues are devolved to Northern Ireland, but I will double-check this point and write to her.
My Lords, I too generally find the GOV.UK website wanting in the detail. Frankly, it is very confusing and is never kept accurate enough in a timely manner; I encourage the Minister to pay regard to that. May I drill into one particular issue on a point which other Peers have touched on? What is the rationale for the emphasis on testing after arrival into the UK, rather than catching those with Covid before departure?
My Lords, the Government’s Statement says that close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of the omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. Can the Minister tell the House what specific scientific advice has been received in the recent past to support that? Or are the Government being excessively precautionary? If so, is this a permanent or a temporary provision?
The Government have taken these measures as a precaution and we will constantly review them as we get more data. We have already committed to reviewing the measures after three weeks. If the data becomes available and we are clear about whether or not this is effective, we may well have an announcement before then, but we have committed to reviewing this within three weeks.
My Lords, can the Minister say what steps will be taken to enforce the regulations being made? I ask the question because Transport for London has been saying for weeks that the wearing of masks is required on London transport. I am a regular passenger on the London Underground, and something like a quarter or even a third of passengers are not wearing masks. It is all very well making regulations, but they need to be enforced.
The noble and learned Lord makes a valuable point. One of the points I made previously about enforcement on public transport is that it puts staff in a difficult position. We therefore have to be careful about how we do this. When giving advice, you assume that some people will not follow the advice, whatever you do. It has been found that most people will wait until it is mandated on public transport, sadly, rather than doing it of their own volition. The police and police community support officers can take measures if members of the public do not comply, and I am sure the noble and learned Lord will have seen a number of police and community officers.
We are clear that face coverings reduce the risk, and until now we have followed scientific advice. We are now adopting a precautionary approach and taking precautions. Some may argue that it is overly precautious, but we feel that it is the right balance. None of these things is binary, and we want to make sure we balance the steps we take with the data we receive.
My Lords, what signal does the Minister think it sends to the world about doing the right thing when the consequence of South Africa’s excellent science and exemplary transparency is a total flight ban, with potentially devastating consequences for its economy and that of the region, with no apparent mitigating support package from the rich world? What conversations can he have with his friends in the Treasury so that they act to give some support to South Africa and the region?
The noble Lord makes a valuable point: we should pay tribute to the openness of the South African Government, in real comparison with the openness of the Chinese Government at the beginning of the whole pandemic. It is clear that they have been transparent. It is important to recognise that one of the things about the WHO is that it relies on experts in certain countries to report early signs. I will have a conversation internally and see what can be done; otherwise, it almost acts as a disincentive to report to the WHO. We have to make sure we are not disincentivising others who may wish to report similar cases in future.