My Lords, with plan B, while we have measures to keep the economy open, we have messages that have ended up closing much of it. There is fear and there are confusing messages, including the advice to work from home—just look at trains, buses and restaurants, which have seen a collapse in demand. We have to consider how necessary all this is, with a major South African study of 78,000 omicron cases showing that symptoms are significantly less severe than with the delta variant and that the vaccines still afford protection. There are many fewer hospitalisations and admissions to ICUs.
As president of the CBI, in July we produced a document called Living with the Virus. We are now updating it to Living with the Variants, in which we say that, if we follow these steps, there should be no necessity for a plan B or a plan C. First, there should be forward guidance to support businesses and organisations to adapt. We should prioritise mass testing over mass isolation or working from home. We should utilise all Covid-secure tools available to build employee and customer confidence. We must maximise our world-leading vaccine programme, of which we are all so proud—hats off to Kate Bingham and what she did. We should also use our antiviral programme as much as possible. We should prioritise border control so that we keep our country and economy open and, if there are restrictions, government support must move in lock-step with them.
If we follow these steps, there should be no need for a plan B or plan C. I am very proud that I was one of the first people in this country to call in August last year for lateral flow tests to be widely available. I am so glad that the Government eventually listened; they are very effective, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. Will the Minister confirm that the supply of lateral flow tests will be there and that they will be freely available—at the moment they are not even available—to businesses and the public until at least March next year, if not longer, as necessary?
Will he also confirm that the Government will put effort and urgency into the approval of antivirals? The best example I have is the Pfizer antiviral—tablets given for five days—which has shown in trials that it reduces hospitalisations and deaths by 89%. Can the MHRA approve drugs such as that as soon as possible? Can they be widely available, so that every GP has them and anyone, if they test positive and has symptoms, can take these tablets, which will lead to an 89% reduction in hospitalisations and deaths? That in itself could be “game over” for this wretched virus.
Can he also confirm that we will do everything possible to make sure that schools, colleges and universities are never shut again? Use daily lateral flow tests; do not have a bubble system or a million children isolating. It is completely unnecessary. The Oxford trial that took place between April and June last year proved that using lateral flow tests is the way forward, so that staff and students do not miss a single day of school. Can the Minister please assure us of that? Our children and parents have suffered so much. We should not let our children suffer any more.