My Lords, the Prime Minister has correctly pointed out that a “tidal wave” of the omicron Covid-19 virus is upon us. Yet the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, wants to do nothing. I do not agree with him. He wants to learn to live with the virus; most people do not want to have to learn to die with it.
There are three sets of regulations before us today. I will first deal with extending the mandatory wearing of face masks. We support it because face masks work. But who is monitoring or enforcing it? To give the Minister one example out of hundreds of thousands, on Monday one of my colleagues was travelling on an LNER train for two hours to come to your Lordships’ House—I must ask why we are here in person today—and only about 60% of the passengers were wearing masks and somebody behind her was coughing and spluttering for the whole two-hour journey. Nobody checked. This must be enforced.
The second set of regulations are on changing isolation rules for contacts of people testing positive. We support them but I have concerns about reported supply issues in self-administered lateral flow tests. People are just “strongly advised” to take tests for seven days after they have had contact. Will there be enough and will there be regular public information to remind people how important it is to take them? Will anyone check that they have done so?
Finally, on the regulations on restrictions on entry to crowded venues, something has to be done if people insist on entering crowded spaces for non-essential services at this dangerous time. However, this regulation is not good enough for preventing widespread transmission. Here is why: the purpose of these measures is to reduce transmission of the very contagious new omicron variant and avoid further pressure on the NHS if it produces serious disease, which we do not know yet. Measures should be based on the science. So what do we know? We are told that, to get into those venues, you can have had either two doses of the vaccine at some time or a lateral flow test within the previous 48 hours. Let us look at what those do.
When the vaccines were first administered, they gave good protection from disease within a few weeks, especially serious disease, and in some cases up to 90%. As the immunity waned over time, the boosters were developed, which now give around 75% protection to those who have them, and the NHS is doing a magnificent job getting them into people’s arms. But let us note that the regulations do not require a booster. However, a vaccinated person without a booster may now have immunity as low as 40%. Add to that the fact that we know they can still pick up the virus and pass it on to others even if they have no symptoms. Also add the fact that the scientists suspect the omicron variant might be able to avoid the vaccines most widely used in the UK, although, as I said, the booster gives good protection. However, they are not asking for proof of a booster.
On the other hand, we also know that the lateral flow tests are at least 80% accurate in detecting someone with the virus, crucially at the point when they are most contagious, and that includes the omicron variant. Let us remember that the regulation says that you can present proof either of two vaccinations, which could have been months ago, or of a lateral flow test within the previous 48 hours. I know which I would go for.
If the Government want proof of the Covid status of a person unwise enough to want to go into a crowded venue in the middle of a pandemic, why do they not insist on the widely available and 80% accurate lateral flow test rather than giving people the option of showing proof of a vaccine which may now be only 40% effective against the disease? Such people may have the virus and do not know about it, and they may pass it on to others in a crowd, whereas the person who shows a recent negative lateral flow test is highly likely not to be infected and can therefore not pass on the virus.
It’s a no-brainer. It has to be a negative lateral flow test only if we really want to reduce transmission among those who go to crowded events. I hope to persuade the Government this morning to do better. In my opinion, this regulation will not achieve its objective.