Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
I hope you had a good Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wish you and all colleagues a happy new year. I take this moment to express our gratitude for the work of you and the staff to ensure that we could sit today. I also associate myself with the Minister’s comments regarding this country’s outstanding health and social care workforce, who have made Herculean efforts over Christmas and new year. They are greatly appreciated.
There is something very 2020 about discussing covid regulations three hours after a subsequent set of regulations were introduced, but it is nevertheless important that we do so. I will cover each of them, perhaps making some cross-cutting points as I do so.
With regard to SI No. 1611, we discuss these regulations today because we are obliged to do so following their introduction on 20 December. However, we are compelled to do so because the failures of the restrictions announced on 2 December. At some point in the next few parliamentary days, we will debate the restrictions announced from the Dispatch Box earlier, and we are compelled to do that because of the failure of restrictions that we talk about today. This episode is a perfect encapsulation of the failings of the Government’s handling of the pandemic: slow and always falling short.
The Government have now had three goes at a tier system. The first two have failed, and today’s announcement marks the final attempt to salvage a third go. We must hear from the Minister today a clear commitment that, based on the best scientific guidance available, the Government firmly believe that these restrictions will halt the rise in the infection rate and, indeed, start to reduce it. We must have that commitment today, because otherwise we will be back here time and again. When the Minister hopefully makes that commitment, there ought also to be a commitment to publish the guidance that the judgments are based on, so that we might begin to repair damaged trust.
The stakes are high. We cannot afford failure. Our national health service is experiencing dire pressures. A major incident was declared in Essex this afternoon. Elsewhere, exasperated doctors are taking to social media to report that oxygen is running out. An internal incident has been declared at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich. London hospitals are asking their counterparts in Yorkshire for support. Rates of sickness in our care facilities are increasing. Right hon. and hon. Members had a call this afternoon with Stephen Powis from NHS England, and it was clear not only that the pressures are significant, but that we can expect multiple weeks of growing demand. If the Government dither and delay again today, the price will be significant indeed.
We are considering a bundle of five different regulations. I do not intend to labour too much on SI No. 1533 or SI No. 1572, as they exclusively deal with moving specific geographies into specific tiers and are now significantly out of date, as was elegantly demonstrated by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope).
SI No. 1611 creates tier 4, something that nearly 80% of us will now need to get used to. I shall cover that shortly, but it also deals with Christmas. Although that is of course now in the past, it is worth reflecting on briefly. The change was announced on 19 December, turning the nation’s plans upside down at a stroke. Of course, some allowance must be made for the changing nature of the virus; I accept that. We are in very fast moving times. However, it was clear many days before the announcements were made that the initial Christmas plans would not be sustainable. That was regrettable, but it was clear. On 16 December, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister from this Dispatch Box to look at it again, and the Prime Minister replied characteristically with bluster and bluff. Later that day, he said that it would be an “inhuman” thing to do, but of course he had to. He delayed, he dithered and, eventually, he had to do it anyway. Again, these things matter because they chip away at public confidence bit by bit to create a sense that the Government do not really have a handle on the crisis.
We will all have been cheered—the Minister majored on this in her speech—to wake up this morning to the news of the approval by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. This is an extraordinary scientific success and a vindication of the Government’s backing of multiple vaccine candidates. We should be exceptionally proud of Britain’s role in this vaccine and others. It is a great success story for our country and our place in the world after such a significant day today.
The Health Secretary said today that the vaccine is the way out of the pandemic, so for us today the vaccine must be the way to end the regulations. That is nearly right, because actually it is a vaccination programme that is the way out of this. Of course, a vaccine is the most vital component of such a programme, but now that we have that it ceases to be so much a question of science and becomes a much more rudimentary and basic exercise in logistics.
The Government have faced two such major logistics challenges in this pandemic. The first was the effective and urgent procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment and the second was the roll-out of the test, trace and isolate system. Both have been significant failures. The PPE roll-out was a farce for at least the first two months, and the test and trace system has not delivered, even on the Government’s own metrics, since its introduction. At the root of both these failures has been the same slowness that has characterised the Government’s response to the pandemic. They have been slow to respond and slow to grasp the scale of the challenge—this cannot happen again with the vaccine.
I have an awful lot more confidence in a programme that will be delivered by the NHS than in one delivered by one of the companies that the Government seem to default to even though they do not tend to deliver for them. There are still some questions, however. NHS staff are in category 2 of the initial prioritisation, but we are still hearing that there has not yet been a full roll-out. Can the Minister let us know when she anticipates that all of our NHS heroes will have had their jab? Of course, that is the least they deserve, but we have heard today from the British Medical Association that NHS staff absence is at 10%, so it is a pragmatic necessity that, as we deal with increasing demand, we have a resilient workforce to do that.
We saw a significant change of direction in the administration of the vaccine this morning. Previously, we were administering it in pairs about a month apart, and that was seen as the best way of delivering it effectively. Now, the Government have made the judgment that they will go to a first shot, with a second shot to come three months or so later. I assume that this reflects the best advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, and if so we will support it, but will the Minister publish that advice and, crucially, the roll-out plan?
We know now that we have enough vaccines for everyone who wishes to take the offer up. We know that we have a national health service and different ways of dispensing it through our GPs and our hospitals. We know all the components, but we now need to know the timetable. That is important so that it can be scrutinised and perhaps improved, but also so that we can build public confidence in this crucial plan. People are rightly looking at this with great hope, and it is right that they know that there is a proper process behind it. In the meantime, however, the way out of the tiers as constituted in SI Nos. 1611 and 1646 remains to reduce the five metrics on which the Government say the tiering decisions are based.
As a constituency MP, I have to say that this is a Kafkaesque process. Like you, I suspect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have met Ministers, Government scientists and NHS leaders, both national and regional, and I still do not believe that there is a particular criterion for going up and down tiers. It is more that you kind of know it when you see it. To an extent, that is understandable. This is a complicated mix of infection rates, healthcare capacity and their associated trajectories and direction of travel, and then you kind of cook them all up altogether, so it is never going to be one number at one time at one moment. However, it is a significant issue for us as local leaders that we cannot build confidence in regulations by answering the basic question from constituents. I have had this multiple times, as will other hon. and right hon. colleagues. Constituents are saying, “I accept that we are in the tier that we are in, and it is important that we are. I wish that we were in a lower one, so that I could do more of the things that I enjoy doing. What do we need to do in order to achieve that?” Frankly, as a local leader, I cannot answer that question and I doubt that anybody, including the Minister, could answer that question either.
What we did not hear from the Health Secretary from the Dispatch Box earlier, and what we did not hear from the Care Minister in her contribution just now, is that the reality is that you are in your tiers now, especially in tier 4, until the vaccine is rolled out. However, we have heard from the Prime Minister on that, hints on that from Robert Peston and hints on that in a reply after the Downing Street briefing. If that is the case, it is time for the Government to be honest about it. The one thing that we know after the year that we have had is that the British people can take it. They can take that level of honesty. What they hate is when plans are changed at the last minute. What they hate is being told that, if they push down the infection rate in their community, they will be able to get back to doing the things that they love doing, and then finding out that it is no longer that but the percentage of positive tests. We have been through that in Nottingham; it is horrible and it is chipping away at confidence. It is time for a bit more honesty.
We support the introduction of these tiers. We withheld our support from the three-tier system. We did not believe that it would work and it did not. This goes further, so we are willing to support it, but two things need to be resolved with regulations that flow from today’s announcements, but also relate to the regulations we are discussing today. First, on the support for business, the £1,000 for wet pubs was an insult—£30 a day for the busiest time of year. Tiers 3 and 4 mean a shuttered hospitality sector. Viable businesses, jobs and livelihoods that are closed for very good reason must be better supported.
Similarly, tier 4 restrictions were introduced 10 days ago. We have worked throughout this pandemic on the principle that as restrictions increase, so does support for businesses, jobs and communities, but we have heard nothing since then. Where is the Chancellor? His slow and shorthanded response in his winter economic plan meant that, in the end, he had to have four different versions of it. Frankly, we might need another one because, otherwise, these restrictions will mean significant damage to our economy and to lives. This means action, finally, for those who have fallen between the various schemes on offer. We could dispute all day how many have been excluded, but we cannot deny their existence. I would give the Government significant latitude in understanding that, as you make up a furlough scheme and a self-employed scheme out of nowhere for the first time, there will be gaps between those schemes. It is entirely obvious that that will happen. However, what we must do is do something about it and close those gaps. It has been months and months, and now the Government really have to do it.
Secondly, a fundamental gap remains the test, trace and isolate system, which is fundamental to breaking the chains of transmission. The Prime Minister promised 100% of results within 24 hours nearly six months ago. At the moment, that figure is 19%. If we allow for next day, rather than 24 hours—because it is still the Christmas season—that figure rises to 37%, which is pathetic. On tracing, things have got better, with the greater improvement of local authority teams. However, the one way the Government have made significant inroads in their testing statistics is by defaulting to the canniest tactic in the book; they have changed the way this is counted. Generally, that is not a good sign about how things are going. Again, progress here has been pathetic.
Crucially, we come to isolation payments. All colleagues will have heard stories of constituents making that impossible choice between feeding their families and doing the right thing for the national effort. The £500 payment was too slow to come forward and does not adequately replace lost income. The scheme is still so full of holes and very much depends on how the system picks you up. Self-isolation should be automatic and we have failed communities by not creating conditions for it to be so. Ministers will want to blame the new strain for covid’s continued spread, but the reality is that they did not have control of the virus prior to this and they still do not have an adequate test and trace system to subdue and control it anyway. In the course of such a defective system, we have managed to spend £22 billion—dearie, dearie me.
Finally, on regulation No. 1518, we are happy to support the reduction of the self-isolation period from 14 to 10 days, assuming, again, that it is based on the best scientific evidence. Will the Minister commit to publishing this?
To conclude, we are at a crucial point in this pandemic. Today, with profound sadness, we hear of the passing of a further 981 of our fellow countrymen and women. The total directly who have lost their lives from covid alone is over 70,000 but, in reality, it will be many, many more. Those are big numbers but behind every one of them is a life, a person missed, a grieving family. Today, we have heard that the way out of this is in sight. However, we have also heard that things are poised to get much, much worse before they get better. In recognising this, the Government’s response is another system of tiers. These have failed every time so far. They must not fail now and we must hear from them why they believe they will work. We must also hear more clearly what they are going to do to deliver on other crucial aspects—on the vaccine and on test and trace. Failure to do otherwise will cause extraordinary harm.