Covid-19 Vaccination Roll-out — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:45 pm on 11th January 2021.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 6:45 pm, 11th January 2021

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for her introduction to the debate.

I declare an interest: my partner is a teacher who has been dealing with covid-safe procedures in school, and has dealt with many Track and Trace processes, so I have heard about the challenges in our schools very clearly. I have also heard from those in retail. I have close associations with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers; I declare that interest, too. It is really important that we listen to all those concerns, because there is deep worry in the country about the case rates. In particular, I have heard concerns relating to special schools and the care that they provide; that was mentioned earlier. I have Ysgol Y Deri in my constituency, a fantastic school that is part of the Penarth Learning Community. The First Minister in Wales has been very clear that we will extend vaccination to staff working in those contexts, given the care that they provide to often vulnerable young people. That is good to hear.

I commend the Welsh Government on the vaccination strategy set out today by my constituency colleague, the Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething; I know the Minister here also set one out today. It is important that we get information on those strategies out there, because we are hearing a lot of worry and genuine concern. Of course, everybody wants to be vaccinated, including those in frontline work and those who are particularly vulnerable. That is why it is absolutely crucial that we secure the supply and production.

I praise the work of my local health board, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, which in recent days has rapidly scaled up its vaccination plans and the number of vaccinations it has delivered. I spoke to members of its staff this morning. A few days ago, when I visited my GP on a personal matter, I was pleased to hear that the member of staff treating me had been vaccinated, and was looking forward to being part of the roll-out programme that the Health Minister in Wales set out today, in which an increasing number of GPs will be involved. Community pharmacies, which have been mentioned, will be involved too. They have a critical role. I am pleased that it was set out today that they are part of the plan in Wales. I hope they will be part of the plan across the whole UK.

The reality we face, as shown in the petition, is that there are very difficult choices of prioritisation. I think everyone recognises that, including many of those who have contacted me to ask, “When am I going to get the vaccination?” It is really important that we follow the best scientific, medical and clinical evidence set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and others. I want assurances that the Minister is considering all the representations that are being made, because it is important that there should be confidence in the difficult decisions that are reached. For example, there has been a lot of anxiety about spreading out the dosing. I have heard concerns from health professionals about that, and I appreciate that there is a live debate on that. We need confidence in all these choices, and in the decisions taken at UK level by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the JCVI and jointly by chief medical officers. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for them; they are having to make difficult choices because we do not have enough supply in the country.

That is the point I largely want to deal with. I have already raised a number of issues on that subject with the Minister. I would like clearer guarantees on the schedule for delivery to and around the UK. My constituents in Wales want to know when vaccine procured for the UK is being delivered to Wales, and when the different types of vaccine are being delivered to Wales. We know about the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines; when will the Moderna vaccine first be delivered to this country, and how will it be rolled out? I have heard positive things about a Johnson & Johnson vaccine; when do we think that will be approved by the MHRA, and when might we see supplies?

First, I would like more assurances from the Minister about our productive capacity in the UK. We all know that things can go wrong; there could be problems with delivery, accidental damage or contamination. Any of those things could happen. How are we scaling up our productive capacity in the UK to create all the different types of vaccines? What new factories are being built? What new facilities are being procured? That is right down to the level of capital equipment available in this country for vaccine production.

Secondly, the other crucial part of the process is the cold chain. We know that there have been issues with, for example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the way in which it has to be kept at that hyper-low temperature. Will that be similar for some of the other RNA vaccines? If so, what are we doing to scale up our cold chain and storage capacity to enable such vaccines to be used more quickly across the country? As we know, the Oxford-AstraZeneca one can be kept in a fridge, but that of course still requires a safe cold chain to get it to all the key locations.

Thirdly, the fill and finish part of the production process is critical. The Minister knows that I have asked him questions about the Wockhardt factory in north Wales. What other fill and finish capacity do we have across the UK? Will he be specific about that? What are we doing to expand it? I want to see those plants operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the supplies coming in all the time, getting into those phials and getting out to our communities across the country. Fundamentally, that is a UK responsibility and the responsibility of the Minister. I hope that he can give us some assurances on that.

Lastly, at the moment there is rightly a lot of concern about variants. At some point in the future, obviously, we will have to produce tweaked vaccine alternatives to deal with variants that may emerge, in the way that we do with the flu vaccine. Will the Minister give us assurances on how our productive capacity will be there to produce variant vaccines at the right moment, when we need them in the future? We need to get through this first phase, absolutely, but we also have to look at the medium and long term, because this virus is not going away anytime soon.