Lord Bethell (Con)
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful, at times passionate, but at all moments detailed and challenging points. Rather than dwell on the regulations themselves, I will address the three key themes that have been raised in this important debate.
The first theme I will address is that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and others on the presentation of the regulations themselves. I completely acknowledge the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I fully acknowledge the power of scrutiny, the consideration that noble Lords give to legislation and the benefits of that scrutiny, but I do not accept the implication of the noble Lord’s comments that there has in some way been a grand injustice or that these regulations have in any way undermined the power of the policy behind them.
I gently remind noble Lords of the immense complexity of the policy we are trying to apply in these regulations. They are extremely legally delicate and subject to judicial review. It is therefore quite reasonable that legal colleagues wish to spend as long as they possibly can getting them right. The environment in which they are drafted has been fast changing, as this debate has very clearly illustrated. They often require a very large amount of cross-government consensus and collaboration, which in itself brings in delays and a certain amount of complexity.
Given all those considerations, I pay tribute to the officials, the clerks and the legal support, who have done a heroic job tabling these regulations. It is of course up to the House of Lords itself to determine the sequencing of House business. I am afraid it is above my pay grade to comment on that, but when the inquest is finally done I think that the regulations will be a huge testimony to the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of our democratic processes. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that the regulations are tweaked at the last minute to accommodate the changes in the situation we face. That is why they are sometimes laid at the last minute. I remind noble Lords that the House of Lords Constitution Committee is looking at processes around emergency legislation. My noble friend Lord True and I have given evidence to that committee. I very much look forward to its recommendations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, asked about learning on the job, as it were, and what we are putting in place today for our future pandemic preparedness and to prepare for any potential third wave. I assure her, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that we are doing a huge amount to put in place new systems, institutions and practices. The launches of the UK Health Security Agency and the office of health promotion have been brought forward to ensure that we have the institutional resilience to meet any future pandemics, and to bring the learnings from the handling of this epidemic in real time. They are already making huge strides in the institution-building and management systems necessary to upgrade our arrangements.
The investment in diagnostics is remarkable. Last week, I visited Leamington Spa, where I stood by a machine that could do 13,000 tests in one go. It reminded me of the days last March when we were struggling to do 1,300 tests in a day. In terms of our outbreak management, we have learned a huge amount from the success of Project Eagle in containing both the South African and Manaus variants, although the escape of the Indian variant demonstrates how a highly transmissible variant is something that even the best systems cannot fight.
To the noble Lord who asked about the stay-at-home protocols, I clarify that the guidance as of today is that people should continue to work from home wherever possible, but we look forward to a moment when we can have a general return to the offices.
We are looking at ways of dealing with new variants by potentially introducing booster shots in the autumn, introducing VoC vaccines through other providers and investing in therapeutics and antivirals. A huge amount of work is going into every level of our pandemic preparedness.
Let me tackle head-on the key issue of the India variant and our travel arrangements, which several noble Lords raised. On 8 April, we had the benefit of more surveillance, more genomic sequencing and more analysis of the infection rates in the UK than any other country. It is easy to imagine that all that data, which is so impressive to look at in retrospect, somehow gave a clear projection of what was going to happen, but at that date the India 2 variant with which we have now become so familiar had not been ascribed as a variant of concern. There were in fact three variants in India, all of which were competing with each other, none of which we had here in the UK—we therefore could not analyse them hands-on—and the anecdotal evidence from India was extremely unclear, whereas we had a lot more information on the presence of the South Africa and Manaus variants in the other neighbouring countries.
At that time, it was right that we invested in our red-list capacity, and I pay huge tribute to the officials managing the managed quarantine system, the airports and transport partners running an extremely efficient travel system, and the hotel and transport partners doing so much to ensure that the system for both red and amber-list countries is as good as possible. The red-list system has been an incredibly impressive mechanism for containing variant spread. It has grown dramatically since launch to contain a very large number of travellers each day. No other similar country has quite such an effective system in place. It continues to be an effective way in which we can maintain flights in and out of the country—something we are extremely reluctant to turn our backs on.
On ongoing travel, to clarify for my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, it was not legal to travel until step 3 was brought in. It is now lawful, but it is not advised. Whatever was heard on the radio this morning, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that we are not in talks with airport operators—we have been in daily contact for many months, running a complex and detailed managed quarantine scheme, and I pay enormous tribute to both Heathrow and the Border Force for the incredibly impressive arrangements that they have in place. I say to my noble friend Lord Bourne that, yes, there are still direct flights to India and Pakistan. It is actually better to channel passengers from those countries in direct flights to avoid what has become known as the Maldives hop and to avoid mingling wherever possible.
My noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the VoC map, which is available on the department and the Sanger institute websites, and I would be glad to send a map.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I pay enormous tribute to those in Bolton who have done an enormous amount to upgrade the vaccination of local people there. I remind her that the priority is still very much to get the most vulnerable vaccinated—those who are older or with pre-existing morbidities. That is more important than getting young people, who are relatively low-risk with regard to the virus. The priority is to get those who have had a first jab and convert them into having a second jab, because it has emerged that, with the Indian variant, the second jab is all the more significant.
In conclusion, the good news is that the vaccine does seem to work. The Indian variant is highly transmissible, but the vaccine is protection for all people against severe illness and death. We should give thanks for that, but we are not counting our chickens quite yet and we remain extremely diligent and determined to contain any other variants that may come along. I commend the regulations to the Committee.