My Lords, I declare my interest as a chair of the All-Party Group on Coronavirus. I thank the Minister for his speech on the three SIs before your Lordships’ House today.
Plan B was published four months ago. It was absolutely evident, first from the Secretary of State for Health’s announcement on Friday and then from the Prime Minister’s speech on Sunday, that no real planning has been going on behind the scenes in the department. Before we get into the practical consequences of these regulations, from these Benches we want once again to join in the strongest objection to the slack way in which the regulations and the Explanatory Memoranda are written.
The right reverend Prelate was right to say that we accept that late legislation may need to be written at pace, but this is communication at its worst and, of course, it cannot go through the usual scrutiny from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and others. This goes hand in hand with Ministers’ messaging to the wider public, from the Prime Minister down. All because he is worried about certain parts of his party, he has once again announced mitigations too late, which inevitably result in further restrictions and in omicron being allowed to move really fast through our society.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, said that he worries this will be the case with every new variant we go through. That has not been the reality so far. What is different about omicron is how quickly transmission has doubled, which, by the way, without mitigations, will have an effect on the economy, because businesses are already seeing staff go off sick. If we have 2 million people with omicron by the end of the year, and that continues to increase at the same doubling rate every two days, we will find that the economy, schools, societies, our GP surgeries, ambulances and hospitals struggle even more than they are now. On Tuesday, at the All-Party Group on Coronavirus, one GP said to us that, on the previous day, every single doctor in her practice had tested positive. That meant that there were no doctors available to work, other than by Zoom.
We are learning about omicron because it is very new to us. The evidence of its exponential growth so far is concerning. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, said that not one patient in South Africa has had oxygen. This is not true. It is true that there are fewer people in hospital, but some have severe disease. The number of omicron critical care beds is going up. At the end of November, 291 people in hospital were on oxygen. Two weeks later, it is nearly 900. The numbers in ICU have also doubled. These figures are from the Covid dashboard on the Spectator website.
From all Benches, we have heard agreement with the Prime Minister’s confused lines in the sand—for example, face masks must be worn in shops, but not in pubs and restaurants. Even if omicron is less dangerous—by which I think the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, means that there are fewer people with severe disease—its key elements are higher transmission and the doubling of cases. If there are fewer hospital admissions per 100,000, the already beleaguered NHS will have to find many more hospital beds than were needed in January 2021. This is what the doctors are advising us.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, constantly repeats his mantra that the only deaths from Covid are in the over-80s or among those with underlying conditions. In a recent debate, he asked if anyone knew anyone under the age of 80 who had died. Last week, a dear friend died of Covid after just four days in hospital. She was much younger than I am. Another friend in his 40s, who had a lung transplant earlier this year, is back in ICU with Covid. He does not know where he caught it because he has been very careful. Is the noble Lord really saying that there should be no mitigations to keep the vulnerable safe? This is the consequence of removing all these mitigations.
My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford spoke movingly about his compromised immune system. I too am in this position, though for a different reason. My medical advice is not to come out at the moment.
The 800,000 clinically extremely vulnerable have not had one word of guidance in the last week. It is not good enough to say that shielding ended in July. This group is at high risk and needs advice. When will this be evidenced? I think that even the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, would recognise that some people are at high risk. Shame on the Government for not getting in touch with them at all.
Other noble Lords have spoken about those with long Covid, including children. On schools, we have been asking since last year for air filtration units in classrooms. This has only just happened in the last week. Until now, the Government have been talking about CO2 monitors, but the public health need in our schools is for air filtration units.
The first regulation is about self-isolation and moving to a daily lateral flow test. If it is negative, you can leave your isolation. We say that test and trace must remain the key defence in fighting Covid—particularly omicron—not least because of the somewhat reduced vaccine efficacy with this variant. The level of transmission of omicron is so high that this is a public health precaution. We disagree, therefore, with the fatal amendment laid by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, which would remove this vital, basic, public health rule of self-isolation and testing.
The second SI on entry to venues and events creates a broader Covid pass, vaccine or test result, than the previously proposed vaccine pass. We have consistently opposed vaccine passports—first, for public health reasons. Importantly, vaccine passes give people a false sense of security, especially as it is possible to catch Covid and pass it on, even if you are double-jabbed. People cannot tell if their vaccine immunity is waning. We just do not like the reliance on that. We also do not want vaccine passports creeping in by the back door, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, outlined. Our principal concern with this SI is about public health. This hotch-potch Covid pass is a muddle.
We agree with the use of lateral flow tests. They are highly accurate. Researchers from University College London found that they are more than 80% effective at detecting any level of Covid-19 infection. They are likely to be more than 90% effective at detecting who is most infectious when they use the test. None of us wants lockdown, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, and his colleagues, but I struggle to understand why those who do not want lockdown will not accept lateral flow tests as a mechanism to help reduce transmission.
We cannot support the noble Lord’s fatal amendment on the issue of flow tests, but we are deeply unhappy that the Government are relying on the vaccine element of the Covid pass at a time when we need to reduce transmission by the tried and tested test, trace and isolate system. So, if a vote is called, we will not support the Government’s proposals for Covid passes—although for very different reasons from those of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.
The third SI, on the wearing of face coverings, expands the legal requirement to wear face coverings when in shops, on public transport or in transport hubs, banks, places of worship, public areas in hotels, hospitals and museums. But it does not extend face masks to hospitality and some other venues. My noble friend Lord Scriven has spoken on the need for face masks. He is absolutely right.
Liberal Democrats have consistently argued for the regular use of face masks, and for hand washing and social distancing. The WHO and our doctors and scientists still say that those three basic elements, along with test, trace and isolate, are absolutely key. This is particularly important with omicron, given how fast the number of cases is growing. So, although we want the Government to go further, we will support this SI.
There are rumours that further restrictions may come in. Can I ask the Minister whether Parliament will be recalled if further restrictions are put in place during Recess?
To conclude, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has argued that there is absolutely no evidence that face masks work at all, and his fatal amendment would remove the requirement for any face masks. While we would like masks in more places, we cannot vote for the removal of the requirement to wear masks, so we would vote against his fatal amendment. We believe that the noble Lord is wrong to say that this is an issue of freedom. With freedom come responsibilities to minimise spread and to keep all people safe, especially the most vulnerable. It is shameful that parts of the Government’s SIs do not do this.
But above all, I echo the comments of many Peers from all sides of the House that these SIs are chaotic and confusing—but parts of them are absolutely vital in our public health fight against Covid. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack is right that this House should not use the fatal amendment procedure, but we will continue to hold this Government to account.