It is in no way exceptional that there should be profound differences in view among politicians and others of the way in which an epidemic or pandemic should be handled. In my day, we had chief constables openly attacking the patients and the Government. We had religious leaders, I regret to say, arguing that it was not a public health issue at all, but one of morality. We had Ministers, particularly Scottish Ministers, arguing that giving free needles to drug addicts was condoning crime, although there was absolutely no evidence that crime increased, and the example of our Government was followed worldwide. We had a Treasury which refused to provide extra resources for the pandemic.
Debate, controversy and difficulties on the way forward are absolutely nothing new in debates of this kind. The crucial question is: what advice do we follow? My view now, as then, is that we should follow the advice of the public health experts inside the Department of Health who work on these issues year after year, in particular the Chief Medical Officer. I pay particular tribute to my old CMO, Donald Acheson, and the new CMO, Chris Whitty. Chris Whitty and the Chief Scientific Adviser have done a remarkable job for this country over the last months and deserve full credit for that.
It is said that this is a question of freedom; obviously, I do not discount that argument, but surely the exercise of that freedom should not put others at risk. That seems to be a matter of common sense. It should not lead to infection being spread or hospitals having to prioritise which patients they treat because some have decided to remain unvaccinated and then become dangerously ill.
As is evident, after my spell on the Woolsack, I am now a Cross-Bencher, so I am not an automatic or whipped supporter of the Government—I am not whipped at all. My days as Conservative Party chairman are behind me—noble Lords might be very grateful for that—and no more than noble Lords in the Labour Party do I automatically follow the lead of the Government Front Bench. However, I must say that I think their case is totally overwhelming. The success of the national vaccination programme has moved us ahead in the race to get people vaccinated in this country and worldwide but, with the new omicron variant, we have to work even harder to stay ahead. That is the lesson of the whole thing.
Last week, we learned two things about this variant. The first is that no variant of Covid-19 has spread this fast—if you want a definition of an emergency or a need for action, surely that is not a bad one. We expect the numbers to increase dramatically in the days and weeks ahead. I do not think that is seriously disputed by anybody so, again, this is an argument for action. As the Prime Minister said—for once, his language is not over the top—
“there is a tidal wave of omicron coming”.
That seems to be the view of the public health experts as well. We know that a third or booster dose provides strong protection, with analysis from the UK Health Security Agency showing that a third dose is 70% effective at preventing symptomatic infection. We expect the booster to take effect more quickly than the second dose. Again, I would have thought that this should provide an incentive to us to do what is not just the best thing in terms of public health but the right thing, as I would term it—and action is the right thing.
What I really wished to say to this House in the few minutes that I have spoken is that we should do our utmost as a House and a Parliament to appear united. It seems it is not the best day to make that case or plea, after the rather dismal vote in the House of Commons yesterday, but I hope that the House of Lords will give support to this struggle. Parliament consists of two Houses—a fact that seems to be conveniently forgotten by much of the media and the press—and this House can give a real lead as far as the handling of this pandemic is concerned.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose speech I enjoyed, I hope that the noble Lord who has proposed a series of amendments will not persist with them. The Government have far more support than I think they realise. Far more people outside this confined area of Parliament are signing up to the case that they are putting. Ministers should persist in their case and fight for it as strongly as they can.