Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
My Lords, regardless of where your Lordships stand on mask wearing, I believe that we are all agreed that this Government have brought forward far too much emergency Covid legislation, much of which has not even been presented to Parliament before being brought into use. Why, once again, are regulations coming to the Lords for which the expiry date was well known in advance and is not an emergency at all? The Minister’s predecessor heard time after time over the last 20 months many noble Lords complaining that too many statutory instruments were being brought to us as emergency procedures, making a mockery of the scrutiny of your Lordships’ House.
The regulations talk about self-isolation. It remains vital for those who have Covid-19, but can the Minister confirm the rumours that many people are not taking lateral flow tests, even if they are symptomatic, in order not to have to report the results and to avoid self-isolation? I am also hearing that there has been a resurgence of the old problem we had last year of late pinging, presumably because of delays in a struggling test and trace system as case numbers rise dramatically.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised concerns about whether lateral flow tests are necessary and should be paid for from the public purse. Lateral flow tests are now proving extremely reliable. Actually, we are advised as Members of Parliament to have two lateral flow tests during any week in which we are present in Parliament. Many other workplaces demand even more tests per week than that. It is one of the safest ways we can catch Covid early in people, particularly if they are not yet symptomatic. If we are asking many people to have two, three or five lateral flow tests a week—as I know happens in some places—while the pandemic is still around, it should be paid for from the public purse.
I echo the Minister’s thanks to directors of public health, our local resilience forums and local authorities. Can he confirm that the funding for their work on Covid, including test and trace, is guaranteed for the next financial year and will not end, as is currently planned, in March 2022?
Once again, I ask why the messages from government Ministers repeatedly encourage us to believe that face masks are totally a matter of personal choice. Many noble Lords have expressed their concern about them and said why they do not want to wear them. Even the Secretary of State for Health, when pressed over the weekend, reluctantly said that he would use a mask. However, he refused to say that he would recommend it to his colleagues on the green Benches—although he thought that they should perhaps consider it—whereas the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, has completely eschewed the scientific advice and said that Tory MPs do not need to wear masks because they all know each other and get along so well. The new Minister for Vaccines was of a similar mind on the radio yesterday.
However, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, vaccination on its own is not the sole answer to Covid. A third of cases at the moment are among people who have already had their vaccinations. With a seven-day rolling average of around 1,000 admissions to hospital per day and with more than 8,000 beds occupied—and with those numbers increasing—I asked the Minister just now, in the Urgent Question in the Chamber, about accident and emergency departments and ambulance services. Conversations with GPs show that they, too, are hard-pressed at the moment in dealing with the increased number of Covid patients calling them for help.
One of the advantages of vaccination is that many people do not get Covid so seriously, but anyone who listened to the “Today” programme from Lancashire this morning will have heard many people say that, even though they had Covid mildly, it was the most unpleasant thing they had had to deal with and that catching their breath all the time was very difficult. GPs are much in demand in offering advice, hopefully to turn people away from hospital and give them the help they need.
Case rates in unvaccinated children remain very high, and despite being told many times in 2020 that children do not get Covid, they clearly do.
On 17 September, Sajid Javid wrote to the 3.7 million people who are clinically extremely vulnerable; that is 5% of our population, though not as large as the 22 million of the over-50s, the clinically extremely vulnerable and NHS staff having booster shots. This group comprises those who have serious problems making antibodies and are at high risk of getting very strong Covid. I declare my interest as being within the severely clinically extremely vulnerable group. Its numbers have expanded from 500,000 to 800,000 over the last two to three months following the publication of a number of clinical trials which were able to show that more categories of people were taking immunosuppressants, which moved them into this group. The news of the antivirals is vital for the clinically extremely vulnerable, and I welcome that. However, as my consultant said to me, “We don’t want you in hospital at all; we absolutely do not want you to end up on many of the drugs coming through yet. You need to keep safe.”
For those of us who have low or no antibodies and were told on 17 September by the Secretary of State that our doctors would now tell us what we needed to do, the outside world is a worrying place. The letter from Sajid Javid said that I should ensure that I did not go into any environment where there were people who were not double vaccinated. I have joked before whether, before entering my local greengrocers, I should stand at the door and shout, “Everyone double vaccinated in here?” I do say that.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, can make his own decision about wearing a face mask, but 5% of the population, a mere 3.7 million people, remain at high risk even if they have had their booster jabs. They do not have the choice. I ask him please to reconsider; even when you think you are safe, you may be protecting someone as you may not know that you have Covid and are likely to pass it on.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, quoted our scientists in March and April 2020 as saying they did not see the evidence for face masks being helpful. He clearly missed the screeching U-turn in the summer of 2020 after our experts, both in the UK and at the World Health Organization, realised that Covid was much more airborne than they had understood. The noble Lord asked for evidence. This is from the World Health Organization in December 2020, and it is still current advice:
“Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.
If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue. Check local advice where you live and work. Do it all!
Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people. The appropriate use, storage and cleaning or disposal of masks are essential to make them as effective as possible.”
SAGE told Ministers in May that schoolchildren should wear masks. SAGE did not get rid of masks on freedom day; it was the Government. They decided against the advice. Frankly, it has not been a freedom day for the many people who have caught Covid since mid-July and been in hospital, or for the many who have died.
Sky News reported on 6 July on a report in the Lancet that showed why masks were effective. If noble Lords doubt me, they should just put “Sky News” and
“COVID-19: Do face masks work? Here is what scientific studies say”
into their browser. The evidence is there for the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. It includes that the American CDC reported an incident where two hairstylists with minor Covid symptoms
“were found to have interacted with 139 people during an eight-day period. The stylists and the clients all wore masks”
and a not a single one became infected. Sky News said that, on the USS “Theodore Roosevelt”,
“where living quarters and working environments leave little room for social distancing, a study found there was a 70% reduced risk of infection among those who used a face covering.”
The article also said:
“In Thailand, a retrospective case-control study found that among 1,000 people interviewed as part of contact tracing investigations”—
real people and real cases—
“those who reported always having worn a mask during high-risk exposures again experienced a 70% reduced risk of becoming infected compared with others.”
A quick search of the internet will produce many other examples.
The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said that many masks do not contain the aerosol droplets as well as the hospital-grade masks do. That is right, but too many people wear their masks insecurely—not pinching the nose frame or pulling back the ties properly. That is the point the World Health Organization was making. Worse, I am sorry to say that too many think they are protected when they wear their masks under their chins. That does not provide for any protection at all.
As before, the problem of recording third doses versus boosters remains. This is vital. The Minister’s predecessor said that this would be dealt with by the end of July. Because third-dose people need a booster in a few months, it has to be listed separately from ordinary boosters. When will the online system be able to record third doses? Those who took part in vaccine clinical trials or have had their vaccines abroad still cannot get them logged on to the systems. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, promised that this would be sorted before the summer break.
Since 19 July, when we released all mitigation measures here in the UK, why is it that France, Portugal, Spain and other countries have seen a rapid drop in case rates, while the UK has seen a rapid increase: from 320 cases per 100,000 to 488.5 per 100,000? It is very simple. Our plan B is, in fact, those countries’ plan A across western Europe. Those countries have mandates for masks, social distancing and ventilation. These are not studies but real-life examples.
The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, cited Denmark in her contribution. In Denmark, a country that has been particularly successful, there is not even a mandate but the public choose to wear masks and socially distance. They have accepted this because of the strong messaging right from the start by their Government and local government about taking personal responsibility for their friends, neighbours and community. By comparison, the UK stands alone in saying that a daily case rate of up to 100,000 and, from the Prime Minister’s own mouth, 50,000 deaths a year are acceptable. We are creeping towards those numbers right now. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to Ministers appearing to believe in UK exceptionalism. Perhaps this is exceptionalism of exactly the wrong kind.
I ask the Minister: why has SAGE been meeting only monthly since July? Who calls those meetings and, if SAGE members feel that they need to advise Ministers, do they have to wait for Ministers to seek that advice? That would be helpful to know.
I believe that every single noble Lord who has taken part in this debate would not want to see plan C having to be enacted, especially if it means that the Prime Minister will have to cancel another Christmas. Experts across our country, and even in the World Health Organization, have expressed real concern that if we do not take at least some of the mitigating measures in plan B right now, the Government will have to move to plan C. We do not want that, so please can the Ministers listen to SAGE and put in the mitigations that most of our neighbouring countries accept as normal and good behaviour, to prevent us ever having to retreat into draconian shutdowns again?