Covid-19 Vaccinations — [Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 5:32 pm on 20th September 2021.

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[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: e-petition 586017, Do not vaccinate children against COVID-19 until Phase 3 trials are complete, e-petition 587380, Reform the VDPA 1979 to improve support for those harmed by covid-19 vaccines, and e-petition 593410, Do not make Covid-19 vaccination a requirement to physically attend university.]

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden 6:00 pm, 20th September 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 575801 and 577842, relating to Covid-19 vaccination.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I am glad that we have another opportunity to discuss vaccinations in this House. I thank the NHS, pharmacists and volunteers in Carshalton and Wallington, and across the UK, for making our vaccination programme such a huge success. I particularly thank Reena from SG Barai Pharmacy in Carshalton and Wallington for administering my covid-19 vaccinations.

I welcome the Minister to her place; I believe this is the first debate she is responding to as Minister. I have always found her to be nothing but courteous and friendly, so I wish her all the very best in her new role.

I draw the House’s attention to the Government’s responses to the petitions, which set out clearly that they are thinking carefully about such matters as certification and vaccine status, and are considering all issues prior to making a decision. I am sure the Minister will want to elaborate on them in her response to the debate, so I will not steal all her material. This debate gives us the opportunity to discuss vaccinations once again, so I want to use it to urge everyone to book their slot for vaccinations as soon as they possibly can. I particularly welcome the news today that we are beginning our booster jabs programme, which I am sure the Minister will want to touch on.

Covid has not gone away. Although we are unlocking and rediscovering many of the freedoms that we have sacrificed over the past 18 months, people are still being hospitalised and dying from coronavirus. The data speaks for itself: the majority of those hospitalised and dying from covid-19 have not been fully vaccinated. It is clear that by getting vaccinated, we are protecting not only ourselves but others, and are playing our part in bringing an end to this pandemic.

Vaccines truly are a marvel of modern medicine. We can be proud that they were discovered by a Brit, Edward Jenner, who demonstrated that a mild infection with a cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. Cowpox served as the natural vaccine for smallpox until more modern vaccines were brought out in the 19th century, which laid the groundwork for the system of vaccinations that we know today. Smallpox remains the only virus considered to be eradicated internationally since 1980.

Since Jenner’s discovery of vaccines as we know them today, vaccines have been developed and have helped to offer immunity to a whole range of virus, such as measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, yellow fever, rabies, hepatitis, poliomyelitis, meningitis, and so many more. It is easy, therefore, to take vaccines for granted, but I invite the House to consider how much of an impact they have had on the world. Those illnesses would once have struck dread, fear and anguish into the hearts of the patients who were diagnosed with them, yet today our lives are quietly unaffected by those horrors. We go about our day unworried by them, thanks to the seemingly simple concept of a jab that is over in a matter of seconds, which allows us to carry on our lives, protected and healthy.

These miraculous vaccines must pass extremely rigorous testing before they are licensed for use in the United Kingdom. According to the Oxford Vaccine Group, the following are just some of the stages that a vaccine has to go through before use: a literature review to look at what has been done before; a theoretical development or innovation, coming up with a new idea or varying an existing one; and laboratory testing and development, involving in vitro testing using individual cells and in vivo testing, which often uses mice. A vaccine must then go through three stages of human trials before licensing and reviews, and then continue to be monitored after their approval for wider use to take note of any new developments.

Covid 19 vaccines have been no different. They have had to meet the same testing criteria. Yes, there have been questions about speed, but Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, has explained perfectly clearly how the UK has been particularly able to approve this vaccine so quickly. So my message to anyone who still has apprehensions about getting their covid-19 vaccine is this: please, please speak to your GP or pharmacist to get the facts. That is an important point: speak to the professionals with the years of knowledge and training.

We have all had a bit of a laugh over the past week and a half about Nicki Minaj and swollen testicles—something that I never thought I would say in the House of Commons—but that story raises a very serious issue. Rates of vaccination drop as we go down the age groups, and it is important that the Government find ways to reach younger people and encourage them to protect not only themselves, but others around them, by getting the vaccine. That is especially the case when they are being fed misinformation, downright lies, and mad conspiracy theories by people with hidden agendas who are in the pockets of well-funded and well-organised anti-vax movements. I agree with Professor Chris Whitty that those people are preventing others from getting their potentially life-saving vaccine, and they should be utterly ashamed of themselves. My message today is to urge everyone to speak to their doctor and get themselves vaccinated in order to protect themselves and those around them, and help to bring an end to this awful pandemic.

Photo of Anum Qaisar-Javed Anum Qaisar-Javed Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts 6:06 pm, 20th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Ghani. I begin by commending all those across the four nations who have signed these two petitions: by signing, they have made their voice heard and are participating directly in democracy. E-petition 577842, entitled “Do not require health and social care workers to take covid-19 vaccination”, has been signed by 59 individuals in my constituency, and e-petition 575801, entitled “Outlaw discrimination against those who do not get a Covid-19 vaccination”, has been signed by 275 individuals in my constituency.

I thank Elliot Colburn for opening the debate. I join him in thanking the NHS, including those across my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts who have been involved in the vaccine roll-out, not just those administering the jag but those in the background who are working equally hard. I also take this opportunity to congratulate Maggie Throup on her recent appointment as Vaccines Minister. There will no doubt be matters on which we disagree, but I extend a warm hand to her in that role.

Evidence clearly shows that the vaccination programme has gone well across the four nations of the UK. Scientists and many politicians from across the political spectrum are in agreement that a strong vaccination programme is the safest way out of the pandemic. Around the UK, on average, 80% of those eligible have been double vaccinated, and 90% have received their first vaccination. Recent statistics demonstrate that the vaccine has had a significant impact on driving down death rates: only 1.2% of deaths in England from covid between January and July were among those who were fully vaccinated. Now, the general plan to save lives and avoid disruption includes vaccination of those aged 12 to 15, alongside the plan for booster jags for people over 50 and NHS staff—because I am Scottish, I say “jag”, not “jab”, in case any Members were confused. However, there remain a million people over the age of 60 in the UK who are not double vaccinated. The number of vaccinated must be increased to minimise further deaths and hospitalisations from coronavirus.

The vaccines used in the UK have been extensively studied and have been proven safe for use. Over 2 billion people around the world have now been vaccinated against covid-19, and the evidence shows us that the benefits of vaccination significantly outweigh the potential risks. It is therefore time to encourage the remainder of the population, who have not yet been vaccinated, to get the jag.

We in the SNP have a position of not voting on issues that do not relate to Scotland. As such, the SNP did not participate in the vote on regulations relating to mandatory vaccinations for English care staff. However, my hon. Friend Dr Whitford spoke in the debate on behalf of our party. She spoke against mandatory vaccination in that debate and highlighted the impact of vaccine hesitancy. She also highlighted that Scotland has a higher rate of vaccination among care home staff, without the need for mandating vaccination.

Vaccine uptake is vital. The Scottish Government believe in encouraging uptake by informing people about the medical facts and explaining the advantages that vaccination offers them and their loved ones. Requiring the mandatory vaccination of care home workers will not support the vaccine rollout, but it could undermine it. That is why the SNP spoke out against the proposals and supports an informed vaccine roll-out.

The Scottish Government are aware of the ethical concerns around vaccine passports, but accept that they are likely to play a role in keeping the pandemic under control. Scotland’s vaccine passport will be required in nightclubs, live events—with more than 500 attendees unseated indoors or more than 4,000 unseated outdoors—and at any event with more than 10,000 people. The Welsh Government have announced a near-identical plan beginning mid-October. The UK Government have shelved their plans for vaccine passports—for now, but who knows what they will say tomorrow? The Northern Irish Executive have said that they have no plans to implement a similar scheme. The latest estimate for unvaccinated 18 to 29-year-olds in Scotland stands at 25.6%. It is hoped that such schemes will encourage youth uptake of the vaccine.

Proof of vaccination will be important in the post-pandemic world to facilitate travel and tourism, which is of course vital to our economy. It has been used by many countries for various vaccine-preventable diseases for decades. As someone from a Pakistani heritage, I remember being dragged to the doctors to get my vaccines in order to visit my grandparents. Growing up, I was very frightful of vaccines, but I persevered and went with it so I could visit them. This is not something new.

It is important to note that the proposals in Scotland and Wales both fall short of the requirements in place in European countries such as France or Italy, which require the EU green pass or equivalent for trains, cultural attractions, or any indoor hospitality settings. Italy is now even requiring proof of vaccination in the workplace.

Both Labour and the Tories opposed vaccine passports in Scotland, allegedly on the grounds of how it is being implemented, rather than as a principled position against the proposal. The Lib Dems in Scotland have opposed vaccine passports throughout the UK. It is important to say that the Scottish Government have no plans to introduce the requirements for public settings that people need to visit, such as shops or public transport. Individuals will continue to have the right to work, shop and meet people without vaccination.

I conclude by stating an important point, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington in his opening remarks: people have the right to refuse vaccination—yes—but they do not have the right to spread dangerous misinformation. Violence and intimidation are not acceptable. I highlight the case of Marianna Spring, who covers disinformation and social media for the BBC. At the weekend, she shared online a video in which it appears that an anti-vaxxer protestor is calling for her to be tried for war crimes. Marianna explains that she has received death threats and rape threats.

As elected Members, tackling misinformation is a responsibility for all of us. I welcome any advice that the Minister can provide to ensure that people have the full facts and are making an informed decision when deciding to take the jab.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 6:15 pm, 20th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and I welcome the Minister to her position in Government and here today. One of the welcome innovations of parliamentary democracy in recent years has been the notion that the public can trigger debates by way of e-petitions, and we are here to debate two e-petitions that commanded significant public support.

Elliot Colburn was absolutely right to talk about the development of the vaccines as a remarkable triumph of British science, and all those who have been involved deserve huge credit—not least because the consequence has been to save the lives of tens of thousands of people who would have otherwise have died. We in the Labour party are committed to following the science and, as has been said eloquently, we can see that vaccination is having a dramatic impact, reducing hospitalisation and preventing people from becoming very ill with covid. As Anum Qaisar-Javed rightly said, it is absolutely vital that everyone who can get the vaccines should do so. We therefore need to send an unmistakable and united message from Parliament: by keeping uptake rates high, we can beat the virus. Anyone who is worried about the vaccine—there are many—should speak to health professionals about their concerns and receive proper advice. They should not be influenced by anti-vaxxer fantasists, whose advice is not just wrong, but dangerous to health and wellbeing.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I agree with the point that my hon. Friend is making. I was talking to a 14-year-old over the weekend, and she said that she had seen on the internet a magnet that was attracted to somebody’s arm because they had been vaccinated. Does my hon. Friend agree that the internet companies and the Government should get such nonsense taken down as soon as they can?

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the propaganda that we have seen, including on the internet, is positively pernicious. If anyone is seduced into believing it and, as a consequence, catches covid and dies because they are not vaccinated, those responsible bear should bear a heavy burden for what they are doing. Everyone with power, including the internet companies, needs to be more proactive and dynamic in ensuring that shameful propaganda is not propagated on social media.

Over the past year, we have seen the tragic impact of coronavirus on our communities. I stress once again that it is absolutely vital that the importance of taking the vaccine is constantly emphasised. I think of Jane Roche in my constituency, who lost her father and, five days later, her sister to covid. Jane remains distraught to this day, one year on. People such as Jane know all too well just how important it is that vaccine uptake remains high, so that no one should suffer the grief that she has suffered. Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I therefore strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated for their own protection, but also for that of the wider community.

The Labour party calls on the Government to make a more direct effort to vaccinate those from communities in which vaccination rates are low, particularly young people. I hope that in her response, the Minister will be able to update us on the Government’s efforts to tackle the problems of low uptake.

On vaccine passports, in relation to the petitions before us, we understand why the public might be confused or anxious about perceived discrimination against those that are not vaccinated. I have to say that the Government’s approach to covid passports has been chaotic at times. There has not been consistent clarity from Ministers about what vaccine passports are supposed to achieve, how they would work and what would be expected from the public, businesses and workers, and that meant we had a degree of chaos over the summer and no real preparation before the winter. Two weeks ago, the then vaccines Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, stood before Parliament to confirm the introduction of covid passports and stress their importance; days later, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that they had been scrapped. No matter the measures being introduced, businesses, workers and consumers need clarity from the Government, not conflicting messages and rapid U-turns. We have therefore repeated many times that we would not accept any certification or passport scheme that was vaccine-only.

The Welsh Labour Government have made some interesting progress on this very issue. They followed the data and applied a mandatory risk assessment that takes into consideration the full risk posed, and then recommends a range of mitigations on that basis. For large venues, crowded events and close-contact businesses, such as nightclubs, the NHS covid pass application is mandated for use; that means using familiar mitigations such as masks, social distancing and ventilation in most business settings, based on the risk level. Use of the NHS covid pass gives people the option to present a negative test result as an alternative to full vaccination.

We do not support the introduction of any scheme that provides access to a service for only fully vaccinated people. Free testing should therefore remain widely available so that we can identify and isolate the virus. The approach in Wales has been welcome in other respects, as it makes a clear distinction between venues such as local cafés on one hand and Wembley stadium on the other, where different mitigations for covid are needed.

We also do not support any potential covid pass scheme for access to essential services that does not get the balance right. That includes, but is not limited to, access to doctors and dentists, supermarkets and other essential retailers. We do not agree that vaccine passports should be used for day-to-day, routine access to the office, health services, dentistry or food.

On health and social care workers, we want everyone working in care homes to take up the vaccine—that is absolutely essential. The vaccine is safe and effective. I stress again: do not believe the sometimes poisonous propaganda of the anti-vaxxers. However, we do not support the case for compulsory vaccination. There are serious warnings from the care sector that the Government’s plan could lead to staff shortages in already understaffed care homes, which would have disastrous consequences for the quality of care.

Again, the UK Government should learn from the work done in Wales, which is running the fastest vaccination programme in the world, and has vaccinated a far greater proportion of its care staff than England. The Welsh Government have rejected compulsory vaccinations and have instead chosen to work closely with the care sector to drive up uptake, as well as valuing the workforce, including a proper pay rise. The Government should focus on driving up standards and retention of staff by treating care workers as the professionals they are, with improved pay, terms and conditions and training. We need all care homes and care workers to have proper personal protective equipment, regular testing and good training.

We are now approaching what is likely to be one of the most challenging winters that the national health service has ever faced, and the top priority must be to protect it. We urgently need a plan from Government that sets out the direction of travel in the next stages. Any plan for the winter period must, first, get vaccination rates up in areas where uptake is low; secondly, outline how and by when vaccinations for children will be rolled out; thirdly, finally fix the issues of self-isolation and sick pay; fourthly, provide proper ventilation in schools and public buildings; and, fifthly, provide a clear plan for businesses, workers and consumers. Those are significant steps the Government could take to greatly improve the country’s response to coronavirus. I hope that when the Minister responds, she will be able to outline in more detail the Government’s plan to fix those problems.

Once again, as other hon. Members have done cross party, I emphasise the importance of vaccine take-up. Covid-19 vaccines have saved thousands of lives and been crucial in protecting the national health service. It is critical that we maintain the protection the vaccine affords and send a clear and unambiguous message to all that vaccines work, and that anyone who can, should receive the vaccine.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I now call on Minister Maggie Throup to respond, and welcome her to the Front Bench; I wish her well.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:26 pm, 20th September 2021

Thank you, Ms Ghani.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for introducing this debate on these important topics, and I commend him for setting out the importance of vaccines in combating so many diseases. When we look at the history of vaccination programmes in previous eras, we realise just what impact they have had on people’s lives.

We know that the covid vaccination programme is the nation’s best line of defence against covid-19. Vaccinated people are far less likely to face severe disease from covid-19, to be admitted to hospital or to die from it. They are also less likely to pass the virus to others. More than 93 million covid-19 vaccinations have already been administered, and the latest estimates from Public Health England indicate that the programme has saved more than 112,300 lives and prevented more than 24 million cases.

As other hon. Members have done, I pay tribute to everyone who has played a crucial role in the success of the vaccine roll-out—our brilliant scientists, clinical trial participants, the armed forces, NHS England, frontline healthcare workers, vaccine volunteers and local and central Government. Their life-saving efforts have helped to maintain the rapid pace of the roll-out across the entire country. I also recognise the brilliant work of the former Minister for vaccines, my right hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi. I know that I have very big shoes to fill.

The public’s continued willingness to get vaccinated, to test, to self-isolate if they have symptoms and to follow behaviours and actions that mitigate all methods of transmission has played a key role in the lifting of restrictions. Over autumn and winter, the Government will aim to sustain the progress made and prepare the country for future challenges, while ensuring that the national health service does not come under unsustainable pressure.

In my first debate as Minister with responsibility for vaccines, I join the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and other hon. Members for those not yet vaccinated to take up their vaccine offer and join the around 89% of the UK who have had at least their first dose. I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking them for playing their part in helping us all to live safely.

We will continue to make vaccines easily available to everybody, to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but to date have not taken up the offer. In England, 11.3% of people ages 16 and older—more than 5.5 million people—remain unvaccinated, which heightens the risk of rising hospitalisations, particularly when prevalence is high. Take-up so far varies by ethnicity, age and deprivation, with some groups recording lower rates of vaccine uptake than others.

Building on lessons learned through phases 1 and 2 of the vaccine roll-out, the Government continue to work closely with the NHS to make it as easy as possible to get a vaccine, including through “Grab a Jab” in England, pop-up vaccine sites across the country and easy-to-use walk-in sites found on the NHS website. Pop-up sites include those at football stadiums and shopping centres, reaching out to the whole community. The Government have partnered with transport providers, such as Uber and FREE NOW to ensure access to vaccine sites is easier than ever before.

Jack Dromey asked how the Government have reached out to people who are hesitant to take part in the vaccination programme. Despite having been in post for only a matter of days, I reassure him that the Government and the NHS are working closely together to ensure that we reach out and get the extra 5.5 million jabs into the arms that need them, and fill the gap that is in the community. I reassure him that that is one of my key priorities in my role as vaccine Minister.

The last 18 months have shown that the pandemic can change course rapidly and unexpectedly. It remains hard to predict with certainty what will happen. There are a number of variables, including the levels of vaccination, the extent to which immunity wanes over time, how quickly and how widely social contact returns to pre-pandemic levels, which is partly to do with the return to schools and as offices reopen, and whether a new variant emerges that fundamentally changes the Government’s assessment of the risk. That is why the autumn and winter plan sets out our plan B.

Vaccine status certification is part of the Government’s plan B if the data suggests action is required to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. For venues, certification could allow settings that have experienced long periods of closure to remain open, compared to more stringent measures that may severely reduce capacity or cause them to close entirely. The autumn-winter plan committed to publishing further details shortly on the proposed certification regime that would be introduced as part of plan B.

In this scenario, certification would be introduced in a limited number of venues. Communal worship, wedding ceremonies, funerals and other commemorative events and protests would also not fall under the certification regime. Exemptions would continue to apply for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, those on covid vaccine clinical trials and for under-18s.

The NHS covid pass would continue to certify individuals based on vaccination, testing or natural immunity status, with more than 200 events and venues already introducing voluntary certification and the NHS covid pass as a condition of entry.

Care home staff provide a critical role in supporting the health and wellbeing of some of the most clinically vulnerable to the effects of covid-19 in society, and have maintained their dedication and professionalism through highly challenging conditions. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have committed over £6 billion to local authorities through non-ringfenced grants to tackle the impact of covid-19 on their services, including adult social care. We continue to be committed to supporting the social care sector.

To prevent individual susceptibility to covid-19, from 11 November it will be a condition of deployment for anyone working or volunteering in Care Quality Commission regulated care homes that provide accommodation for persons who require nursing and personal care to be fully vaccinated. Thanks to the incredible efforts of people across the sector, over 1.2 million social care workers in England have now been vaccinated. This is a fantastic achievement and an important step for staff to protect themselves, their loved ones and the people they care for from becoming seriously ill or dying from covid-19.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Can the Minister answer the question that her predecessor failed to answer on the Floor of the House on Second Reading of the Bill? Everybody agrees that it would be a good idea if all care workers were vaccinated, but why will it be effective to force reluctant care workers to either have it or lose their employment, when other people entering care homes—hairdressers, musicians and entertainers and such—would not be forced to? How is that an effective policy?

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. If he will excuse me, I have obviously been in post a short time. As I am led to believe, it is people who regularly go into care homes that will need this. It is not just restricted to the actual carers. If anybody needs to go into a care home in an emergency situation, that is a different scenario. If I may, however, I will clarify that after the debate.

Vaccine uptake nationally in the care home workforce is high, at 85.6% for first doses. This is in line with vaccine uptake in the general population. There is, however, significant variation at a regional, local and individual care home level. Vaccine requirements are designed to level up uptake in the care home workforce. While the majority of care home workers have been vaccinated, the latest published data as of 12 September highlighted that only 81.3% of older adult care homes in England were meeting the SAGE advice that 80% uptake of first doses among staff is the minimum needed to reduce the risk of outbreaks in these high-risk care settings.

While residents in care homes are some of the most at risk from covid-19, the responses to this initial consultation on care homes made a clear case for extending this policy to other settings where vulnerable people receive care and treatments. The Government are therefore seeking views on whether to extend vaccination requirements to other frontline health and care workers—those with face-to-face contact with patients and clients through the delivery of services, as part of a CQC regulated activity. Recent research has shown that people infected with both flu and covid-19 are more than twice as likely to die as someone with covid-19 alone and nearly six times more likely than those with neither flu nor covid-19, so vaccination requirements for both flu and covid-19 are being considered.

I trust that the debate will have helped to dispel some of the myths that hon. Members have raised about vaccinations, and will really reach out to the public to ask them, as colleagues have done, to go and get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. To conclude, I reassure the House that we are doing everything we can to widen and deepen our wall of defence that the vaccine provides. The ask of our NHS colleagues is challenging and complex, yet they have risen to this challenge and do it every day. Once again, I thank them for their dedication.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

Thank you, Minister, and well done on your first time speaking from the Front Bench.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 6:38 pm, 20th September 2021

I thank the petitioners, especially those in Carshalton and Wallington, for allowing us to have this discussion about vaccinations. I thank all Members for coming along to participate. I know that the Government are considering certification and vaccination status carefully before making their decisions, and we have heard some of the concerns about those expressed eloquently today, but I would like to end by repeating the message that all of us have sent out today—for people to please get vaccinated to protect themselves and others.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 575801 and 577842, relating to Covid-19 vaccination.

Sitting adjourned.