Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

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Monday 26th April 2021

(1 year, 2 months ago)

General Committees
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Helen Whately Portrait The Minister for Care (Helen Whately)
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I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I. 2021, No. 455).

First, I thank everyone who has mobilised to fight the disease. It is not possible to namecheck everyone, but may I single out for thanks all those in the NHS, social care and the Army, as well as returned healthcare staff, who are involved in the deployment of the vaccine? I also thank scientists, pharmaceutical companies and those running clinical trials for developing new vaccines, antivirals and all manner of therapies to combat the threat of mutations.

Of course, I also thank the general public for continuing to follow the rules. It has been a difficult year, but we have made significant progress towards reclaiming our freedom, while doing all we can to protect people against coronavirus. Thanks to the collective efforts of the British public, our world-leading vaccine programme and our fantastic healthcare workers, we have been able to progress to the next stage of the road map, which seeks a balance between our social and economic priorities, and the need to save lives and avoid another surge in infections that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

The decision to move to step 2 was informed by the latest scientific evidence and was based on the assessment that all four tests set out in the road map have been met. Test 1 is that vaccine deployment continues successfully. We continue to make great progress in vaccinating the most vulnerable as we move through the road map. As of 25 April, more than 33.7 million people have received their first dose of the vaccine, and another 12.9 million people have received their second dose. That huge progress means that we continue to meet the first test.

Test 2 is for the evidence to suggest that the vaccine continues to be effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths. Public Health England’s analysis indicates that the UK covid-19 vaccination programme has so far prevented more than 10,000 deaths in those aged 60 and above in England. Furthermore, hospital admissions in the over-65s remain consistent with a vaccine effect of reducing serious or life-threatening illness from covid-19.

Test 3 aims to ensure that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions that could put undue pressure on the NHS. That is somewhat mitigated by those who are most vulnerable being vaccinated. However, I know from speaking to NHS staff how concerned they are about the risk of a third wave. Currently, the number of hospital admissions continues to decrease, and case rates among the over-60s are also falling. The NHS emergency alert level has been dropped from level 4 to level 3, mirroring how the NHS was in the summer of 2020.

Test 4 is that our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern. As further evidence is gathered on their impact, the incidence of variants of concern, such as the South African B1351 variant or the Brazilian P1 variant, remains very low and stable in the United Kingdom, with border restrictions and testing in place. The Government will continue to monitor those and other variants closely as we ease restrictions, and we will not hesitate to take firm action as necessary to protect lives and livelihoods.

We met all four tests, so we were able to take the next cautious step along the road map on 12 April 2021. That involved the easements to restrictions set out in the regulations we are debating today and covered the reopening of non-essential retail, including personal care and indoor leisure, such as hairdressers and gyms, and the reopening of additional outdoor settings, including the hospitality sector and attractions. Outdoor hospitality is not required to provide a substantial meal alongside alcoholic drinks. Furthermore, no curfew will be imposed on pubs and restaurants, but the requirement to have table service and for customers to order via table service if the venue sells alcohol remains, and payment should be taken at the table or at another outdoor location wherever possible.

The easements also included the resumption of indoor childcare and supervised activities for children, providing they are not in private homes. That includes indoor sport and parent-and-child groups, which can take place for up to 15 people. Wedding ceremonies are permitted for up to 15 people, and wedding receptions are permitted outdoors again for up to 15 people, and should be in the form of a sit-down meal. Smaller outdoor events such as fêtes, literary fairs and fairgrounds are able to take place.

Self-contained accommodation can be used for single households or bubbles. Social restrictions will remain the same as those in place from 29 March, with the rule of six or two households outdoors only. We regret that we are only just debating these amendments now. However, it was essential to introduce them quickly, as no restriction should be in place for longer than necessary.

Step 2 is a considerable achievement and is down to the sheer dedication of all health and social care sector staff, as well as the public’s determination to beat this virus. The easing of regulations is hugely welcome and brings us a step closer to reclaiming normality. Although I am proud of our efforts that have led us to introduce step 2, I must be frank: the virus is not gone from our lives, and we must be cautious as we look to ease restrictions further. There is still the risk of a resurgence of cases such as those reported in other countries. However, if we continue to be guided by data rather than dates, and we ensure that we meet the four tests, we can safely reopen our society and claim back our lives. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

--- Later in debate ---
Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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It has always been clear that the path set out by the road map in February would be guided by data, not dates, and we have stuck to that commitment. Data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling and Public Health England indicate that the five-week gap after step 1 on 8 March enabled us to meet the four tests we had previously set out. The move to step 2 is therefore the next part of our cautious but sustainable path out of the current lockdown in England.

We recognise the impact that the restrictions have had, but the risks of not following that path are too great. By taking a cautious approach, we will protect our NHS and social care system, ensuring that it will be effective in protecting us and putting us on a sustainable footing towards normality. We must all continue to be cautious and observe the limitations that remain in place, and I ask each and every individual to continue to play their part to keep the virus rates low and the strain on the NHS even lower.

On the points made by the shadow Minister, who was critical of some of the details of the regulations, I do not necessarily accept all his criticisms, but I say to him that we are in a situation where regulations are made at pace, and we are not living in entirely normal times, as he is well aware. It may be helpful to mention that the approach taken towards compliance by the police, for instance, is to engage, explain and encourage people to follow the rules, before moving to enforcement.

Rules have been refined during the pandemic—the rule of six or of two households together in outdoor places, for example. As a member of a family of five, I, like many others, welcome that particular move. During the pandemic, we have constantly sought to assess the impact of restrictions, although we recognise that they are often applied in combination, so identifying the impact of a specific change to restrictions is not always possible to the extent that the shadow Minister might like. We have indeed sought to ensure that we understand the impact, and clearly, we have been reluctant to impose restrictions if they are not necessary for saving lives.

The shadow Minister said that he would like to have debated the regulations before, but as he knows and has heard me say before, pace is of the essence here. We wanted to remove restrictions as promptly as we could, albeit by following the steps in the cautious approach that we have taken. I am glad that he noted the slightly longer timeframe than on some of the other regulations. We have committed to following steady progress in the easing of restrictions—subject, of course, to the data and to meeting the tests that I set out earlier.

I thank each and every person for the sacrifices that they have made to keep ourselves, our loved ones and each other safe. Our road map reaffirms our commitment to protecting the citizens of the UK and to providing a credible route out of this lockdown.

Question put and agreed to.