It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I want to start by thanking my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for her comprehensive and compelling introduction to this subject. She raised a whole series of questions, dilemmas and judgments that follow on from the very clear objective that we all share: we want as many people as possible to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower clearly set out that lots of people in the country have been discussing this issue, as we would expect, but this forum is the right place in a democracy for us to be discussing those ideas, exchanging views and doing so in a way that is respectful and tolerant of other opinions. She set out clearly, as did other Members, the consequences of missing school, particularly in terms of the widening attainment gap and the digital divide, and she explained why it really has to be a priority to get children back into school as soon as possible. It was so disappointing, if not sadly inevitable, that we had to make the decision to restrict attendance at school. It is also very regrettable that the decision was taken without a proper back-up plan to allow children to learn remotely. I agree with her that teachers inspire, build confidence and impart knowledge, and they do that best of all when they teach in person in the classroom.
We also heard from my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, who talked about the overwhelming sense of fatigue that we all feel in dealing with this virus—I think we can all understand that. He described the vaccine as the way out of this situation and said that the wonders of human ingenuity have allowed the vaccines to be developed and made ready in such a short space of time. He gave a very good plug for our party’s campaign on the vaccination programme, and he raised the important point that it would be very helpful if employers gave paid time off for people to go and receive the vaccine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West also raised an important question, which I hope the Minister answers, about whether hospice staff should be included in the priority group for vaccination. He talked about a 24/7 vaccination programme and told us that the Prime Minister had apparently said there is no appetite for it. After talking to Members present and to members of the public, I have to say that there is an appetite for that. Every minute, every hour and every day that we can vaccinate people is another step closer to the freedom that we all want to return to. Let us not miss any opportunity to get to that point as quickly as possible. As my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty said, the 24/7 approach should apply not just to delivering the vaccine but to the production of it.
My hon. Friend was also right to talk about the importance of getting information out there, because everyone wants to know where we are up to with this. Certainly, my constituency office has had many phone calls and emails asking about the vaccination programme. He also spoke about the excellent work undertaken in Wales to roll out the vaccine. He made the fair point that this is not an easy choice—these are not easy options for anyone—but it is important that we take the best professional and scientific advice available when we take these decisions.
It is, of course, a source of great national pride that we were the first country to approve a vaccine for distribution and that our own scientists were integral to the development of the second vaccine, which is now beginning to be rolled out across the country. Having found ourselves in this good position, it would be very disappointing if we did not become the first country to mass vaccinate its population. For the grandparents who have not seen their grandchildren, for the businesses that have not traded properly for a year and are facing bankruptcy, and for the NHS staff exhausted by the relentless pressure that this virus has created, we all want the quickest route possible out of this.
To date, as we have discussed, the lockdown strategy has been our most effective weapon against the spread of the virus, but we all know that that has created another set of extremely tough challenges and that there are concerns that even that may not be enough to halt the spread of the new strain. Therefore, as has always been the case, mass vaccination is the key to ending the nightmare, which is why no stone should be left unturned and no component of the state left unutilised, and every member of society who wants to contribute should be engaged in some way so that we all play our part to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as soon as possible. We all share that ambition, but the Government have displayed a pattern in this pandemic of being too slow and of over-promising and under-delivering.