(5 months ago)Westminster Hall
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: E-petition 564155, Prioritise COVID-19 vaccines for first responders (police, fire, ambulance).]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee in this debate. Some may note that, owing to the latest restrictions and recommendations from Mr Speaker, many hon. Members are unable to attend Westminster Hall in person. For reasons beyond the comprehension of the sensible, there is a reluctance by the Leader of the House to make these debates accessible virtually to all Members, so I ask the petition’s signatories not to be disappointed if they feel that their voices have not been heard; I have been contacted by many Members of Parliament and hope to reflect what many of them have told me.
The initial petition to be debated is entitled “Prioritise teachers, school and childcare staff for Covid-19 vaccination” and was set up by Charlotte. It has close to 460,000 signatures and the number is rising all the time. A newer petition related to the debate has also been tagged, which calls for first responders to be prioritised alongside NHS workers. It was set up by Laura Sylvester and had nearly 49,000 signatures when I last checked.
I want to be clear from the start that this debate is not about leapfrogging others who deserve the vaccine; it is about ensuring that our teachers, school staff and first responders are able to access the vaccine—it is them on the frontline every day delivering vital services. When I spoke to Charlotte, a primary schoolteacher from High Peak, she was so mindful of the necessity of vaccinating those people on the list already, but teachers want consideration of where they are placed on that list. Only NHS staff and healthcare workers have been considered as priority groups by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but I and many others think that overlooks the role that teachers and frontline workers have already played during the pandemic, and the contribution that they will continue to make.
The advice from the JCVI on the priority groups for a covid-19 vaccine, as stated in the petitions, does not include school and childcare workers. The petition therefore calls for those workers who cannot distance or use personal protective equipment to be kept safe at work by being put on the vaccine priority list, and for that to be adopted into Government policy. Some correspondence that I have received since the fact of the debate was published stated that to hold such a debate was a waste of parliamentary time, and that to question the conclusions of the JCVI was to undermine its decisions. However, the role of Parliament is to debate and to scrutinise the Government. The Petitions Committee is a vehicle for genuine first-hand concerns to be expressed on behalf of everyday people. I am honoured to be able to do so.
As a former teacher, I recognise that education is the greatest gift that we can give to our future generations—those who will be facing the consequences not only of the pandemic but of Brexit. My own son has had his centre-assessed GCSEs and now his AS-levels affected. It is far from what any of us ever imagined would happen. How do we get children back into school and in front of their teachers?
We know the consequences of missing school, especially for the most deprived, and those consequences lead to a widening of the attainment gap. Research by the charity Teach First suggests that school closures risk further contributing to that problem through the digital divide: 84% of schools with the poorest pupils do not have enough devices or internet access to ensure that pupils can learn from home, compared with 66% of schools in the most affluent areas. Access to technology, family home environments and economic pressures suggest that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to miss out on learning as a result of being at home.
There needs to be a plan, there needs to be a back-up plan and there needs to be a plan for the unthinkable. Getting teachers, and therefore pupils, back into school must be one of the key aims for this Government, and that should be reflected in the prioritisation of the vaccine. Think about how much contact a teacher has with human beings in one day, where there is no social distancing or it is practically impossible. Teachers see vast amounts of children in a week, according to a normal timetable, so there are many opportunities for the virus to spread.
We need to give children and young adults the best chance in life, and that always starts with their education. I can tell anyone who has not worked in the classroom environment that it is hard to comprehend the challenges that our teachers face every day. We cannot expect teachers to work in an unsafe environment. Schools have spent a lot of time making their environment safe, and the consensus among teachers is that they cannot give their best through online teaching. Teachers do what they do to inspire, develop skills, build confidence, entertain and impart knowledge. They want to be back in the classroom and to change the lives of the children they teach and want to teach.
The NASUWT has presented evidence showing that staff working in both secondary and primary schools are far more likely to be infected than the wider community, with rates of virus prevalence among school staff being three to four times higher than the prevalence rate for non-teachers. I welcome the announcement made last week by the Welsh Government about prioritising teaching and support staff in special schools. Those schools have remained open throughout the pandemic to support children classed as vulnerable. It is right that they are able to continue to deliver the excellent, vital support that they provide to families of children with additional needs. The Government must also give due consideration to those who deliver childcare in nursery settings. They are the carers of our youngest children. Those settings do not traditionally fall within education, but they must not, because of that, be forgotten.
It is pertinent that England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, suggested that teachers and other frontline workers could be included in the next stage of vaccinations, which will cover the next five priority groups, including the over-50s and those with risky underlying health conditions. Many MPs from across the House agree that the reconsideration of the JCVI prioritisation schedule is necessary. Can the Minister give assurances that the JCVI will reconsider vaccine reprioritisation for certain professions? Will he be able to lay out the comprehensive plan for school leaders and local authorities that will provide the necessary financial and logistical support to implement the plans?
Although I have spoken mainly to teachers, the additional petition talks about the UK Government and the JCVI considering prioritising first responders alongside NHS carers and workers. To put that request into context, it is helpful to highlight the fact that, across the UK, there are just over 210,000 first responders and emergency service workers. It is not beyond the wit of man to make them a priority. Because first responders have an
“increased level of exposure with the general public every day and lack of regular testing”
they are at a higher risk of contracting covid-19 and transmitting it to the public. Losing our first responders on the frontline puts the public at risk of not being served when they most need it. Prioritising vaccines will help to ensure
“protection and safety of their health whilst carrying out their jobs on the frontline”
“the risk of easily contracting/transmitting COVID-19 to co-workers, their families, and the general public”.
The reprioritisation of the JCVI list is necessary. Government cannot just say, “This is what the JCVI says,” and that that must therefore be set in stone.
However, there is another consideration that the Government could use to address their concerns. That is laid out in “A Plan for Vaccine Acceleration” published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on 3 January:
“Almost 1 million people in the United Kingdom have received their first-dose vaccination against Covid-19. This is a Herculean effort from the NHS, which must be applauded. But in the situation we face, it is unfortunately not sufficient.”
That is not a criticism of the NHS. It is a reflection on the planning and strategy of the Government. If the Minister and the Department would consider following that plan for vaccine acceleration, there might be some hope on the horizon of our children returning to education and frontline workers carrying out their jobs fear-free, because our teachers and frontline workers, and our children, deserve better.
Colleagues, there are a number of changes. First, you will have noticed that there is a statement in the House, so the Minister and shadow spokesman are still detained there. I am sure that colleagues will be kind to the two Members standing in their place, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but everyone should bear in mind that they did not expect to be in that position. Furthermore, a number of Members who are on the call list have disappeared and not come back, and are not in the Chamber, so the order in which I call Members will be Opposition, Government, Opposition. I shall try to indicate the order to you. I call Craig Williams.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a great delight to be called earlier than I expected. I welcome the tone in which the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) introduced the petition. She has given a great voice to both petitions. I echo the statement that this is a very worthy and timely debate—anybody who has been filling her inbox to say the contrary is wrong.
There is an undertone of great political agreement about the JCVI’s recommendations, because we have Governments of different colours across the United Kingdom. We have a Labour and Liberal Democrat Government in Wales—the Education Minister is of the Liberal persuasion, but they are primarily a Labour Government. We have a Conservative Government in Westminster, and we have a Scottish National party Government in Scotland. Broadly, however, the JCVI has stacked up in its entirety in its recommendations.
I accept the spirit of the petitions and the recommendation for frontline workers and teachers to have early vaccinations. I had my county chair of the National Farmers Union on the phone this morning, and he was pleading for farmers and people working in food processing and in important sectors supplying food—not just to our hospitals, but to our entire country—to receive special treatment as the vaccinations are rolled out. There is a huge lobby around this issue. I cannot think of a better call-up in short order than the Minister, and I am expecting an excellent reply, but we really need a vaccination programme that speeds up at pace across the whole United Kingdom. I will make a number of asks in my short contribution—I know a lot of Members wish to speak.
Although I broadly support the intent of the petitions, I stand squarely behind the recommendations made thus far by the JCVI. We are in the right phasing. The hon. Member for Gower was right to look at opening up the next round of vaccinations, but my plea is to get vaccinating as quickly as possible. We have seen different stages of planning across the United Kingdom. As a Welsh Member, I know we are at a different stage in Wales from the one in England. We also see a different phase of the roll-out in Scotland. My plea is to get vaccinating the groups identified by the JCVI as quickly as possible, and then to vaccinate the wider population. I can see the hon. Lady gearing up—I will certainly give way if she wants, knowing my Welsh colleague well.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. If schools will be returning to normal practice after half-term in February—that is where we are now, practically across the United Kingdom—does he agree that there is real urgency to know what is going to be different this time round? What will be put in place this time round? That is why there is an urgent need to revisit the vaccination programme.
As the father of an eight-year-old and a four-year-old starting their education, I know home-schooling presents a challenge. I dare say that nobody present wants the schools reopened more quickly than I do, but let us be clear that we need to vaccinate in this country to keep deaths down. Of course education is of primary importance, and people would expect a father of young children to echo what is being said up and down the country, but the JCVI has made it clear that the first phases will tackle the mortality rate. It has to be the priority of Members in this Chamber and our Governments across the United Kingdom to keep the mortality rate as low as possible.
There are a couple of things that I will ask the Minister to focus on. I would like information published about how many vaccines are being delivered to the devolved Administrations, so that we can hold their feet to the fire on their delivery. I want to see how many vaccines are being supplied. We can then evaluate roll-out processes in the light of day, rather than operate as we are doing now.
I would like further consideration of what can be done for frontline first responders and teachers in future roll-outs. How do they feature? My key ask, however, is that we be as transparent as possible with the vaccine roll-out. We need communication not just with our teachers and first responders, but across the country, to make it clear when people can expect vaccinations and when the schools will fully reopen, so that we can say goodbye to Zoom—especially those of us with a four-year-old. When can people expect their local vaccine centres, GPs, or, I hope and pray eventually in Wales, community pharmacists to get involved in the frontline delivery of vaccines?
My plea today is that we follow the clear guidance from the JCVI and the ambition to keep mortality rates as low as possible, but that we are transparent with our teachers and our constituents to make sure that they see this roll out at speed.
It is an honour to participate in a debate under your chairing, Sir David. It is an extremely important and timely debate, and I thank all the people who signed the two petitions that brought it forward.
For almost a year, covid-19 has impacted all our lives in ways we could never have expected or imagined. Young people have missed vital time in the classroom, businesses have been forced to close, families have been kept apart and, shockingly, more than 80,000 lives have now been lost. The correspondence I receive every day from constituents represents their vast and varied concerns. The common thread is an overwhelming sense of fatigue and the desperate wish for the country to get back to normal.
The vaccine is our way out, our golden ticket to some sense of normality. I put on record my thanks to all those who have worked to make it possible. It should amaze us all that in less than 10 months humans have been able to learn about the virus, develop a vaccine to combat it, test it, conduct three phases of trials and get it approved. That could not have been done without enormous sacrifice, talent and a level of international collaboration that should inspire us all and be applied to a range of areas. Because of that hard work, we can now see light at the end of the tunnel.
The pandemic has demanded huge sacrifices from people all over the world in the name of beating the virus. Now that we have a vaccine, it is incumbent on the Government to hold to their end of the bargain and ensure that the roll-out is done correctly. The stakes are painfully clear. If we can get a vaccine for people most at risk, in the fastest amount of time, we will be able to save countless lives.
That is why, alongside the Daily Mirror and the TUC, my party has started the Let’s Vaccinate Britain campaign. We are working with trade unions to demand that employers give workers paid time off to get vaccinated. We are encouraging people to sign up to the NHS to volunteer and to speak to their friends, neighbours and relatives about the importance of getting vaccinated. I call on everyone listening to the debate to get involved in that campaign.
Many of my constituents and others in Leeds are already contributing to the national effort. Fittingly, Leeds’s first covid vaccine was given Sylvia Harris, an 80-year-old ward housekeeper who has worked for the NHS since she was 26, but has had to shield at home since March last year. Soon, she will finally be able to return to what she does best—caring for her patients. I thank Leeds United football club for offering its stadium, Elland Road, to be a vaccination centre, and all those across Leeds who are devoting time and energy to making the vaccine administration possible.
We need a huge national effort to get this country vaccinated, starting with key workers and those most vulnerable to the virus. That means conducting round-the-clock vaccinations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It makes perfect sense for key workers to be vaccinated overnight, allowing daytime vaccinations for the age priority groups.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has said that there is no public appetite for vaccinations 24 hours a day. I do not believe that is correct. Key workers, and people who want the vaccine in order to get back to normal, will take it on whatever day or night is offered to them. Older age groups might not be prepared to have the vaccine during the night, so maybe the strategy is to vaccinate the key workers in the nocturnal hours and the older age groups in the daytime hours. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] There is agreement about that across the House.
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) said, politicians across the House have been keen to emphasise the importance of getting children back into school. I declare an interest, as I have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old, and it is sometimes difficult to motivate them for home learning. I am sure we all know that feeling. We cannot get them back in school until it is safe. Schools cannot operate in a socially distanced way, without access to proper personal protective equipment. Vaccination is the only way we can ensure staff are protected.
It is not just teachers who need to be added to the priority groups. I submitted a written question last week on hospices. The Minister who has just finished in the Chamber, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), can listen to this debate now and to what I have to say. He responded by saying that the JCVI based its advice on the data it reviewed from a number of sources, including the Office for National Statistics and Public Health England. For the purposes of covid-19 vaccine prioritisation, the definition of care homes is all care home premises licensed and registered with the Care Quality Commission. This definition does not include hospices. I want to ask the Minister on duty, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and the Minister who is hopefully watching, why hospices should not be added, because they are just as important as other care settings.
I also want to make a plea for early years. Why is early years treated differently from teachers or other settings? They should not be. Early years settings are suffering at the moment because they are open, and the financial pressures are immense because of the different pressures on their time. Today the leaders of Leeds City Council wrote to the Minister for Children and Families and copied in the Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment. Councillors Blake and Venner wrote, “We are requesting that early years staff, to include childminder staff working in group settings and wraparound care, are prioritised for the covid-19 vaccine. Early years providers support a large number of children, provide personal care and do not wear PPE. It is of course vital that the NHS and care home workers as well as other priority groups more vulnerable to the virus receive the vaccine first. But we are asking that early years staff form an additional priority group after this.” That is another group that can be vaccinated in the evening or at night, putting our youngest away from harm in those settings.
I will conclude by asking about transparency on data, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire gently touched upon. We have a lot of data around testing. We know how many tests are being conducted in each local authority area. We know where the roll-out is and where the centres are. If we can have that level of data for testing, why can we not have it for vaccinations? I am sure that other Members, like me, look on the Worldometer website, which has started recording vaccination data as well as testing data, cases, mortality and so on. Soon there will be global comparisons around vaccinations and we will be able to see where the UK stands. We can see that now, but we need to be able to dig right down to see how many vaccines have been supplied to each primary care network, how many centres there are, and how many first and second vaccines have been given. That will start to give the public confidence that there is not a postcode lottery, that roll-outs are happening and that centres are open. That will encourage more people to come forward, not just to receive the vaccine but to support the roll-out.
Data and public confidence are really important. I hope that the duty Minister, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds, will take that away and provide us with that data. I asked the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon about that in a private call just before Christmas. He said he would get back to me. Now that I have raised it in this Chamber, I hope that he will.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. Standing here in lockdown again, with the Chancellor telling the House this afternoon that it is going to get worse before it gets better, I have to say that 2021 is starting to look a lot like 2020.
I could support lockdown 3 last week, whereas I could not support the lockdown in November, because we finally have the ultimate release from the deadly cycle of lockdown and release in the form of the covid vaccine. I warmly welcome the “UK COVID-19 vaccines delivery plan”, published this afternoon. We need to study it, and we will, but the figures suggest we have made a strong start. As the Health Secretary said in Downing Street this afternoon, 2.6 million jabs have been given to 2.3 million people, according to the very latest figures.
I welcome the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is responsible for many of the jabs. He has taken his seat at exactly the right time, because I agree with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), that we should vaccinate 24/7. I think there will be an appetite for that. The idea of key workers being vaccinated overnight and perhaps those in the older categories during the day if they do not want it during the night is absolutely fine. Let us at least give them the opportunity. It might be cold and it might be dark, but I will make the tea.
There is no question but that we will see problems, and the Minister will be the first to acknowledge that. Supply is going to be lumpy in the next few days, and that is creating problems. I cannot hide from that. We are off to a flier in my constituency of Winchester, way ahead of many areas. In fact, one primary care network in my district has already delivered more jabs than the whole of France. None the less, it is very frustrating that just today a raft of appointments made for this week in my constituency has had to be postponed because of supply problems. We cannot doubt the fact that this hits public confidence. I thank the Minister for Vaccines for his engagement with me and the primary care network involved this weekend, and plead with him to help us get this corrected and get the deliveries into this part of Hampshire, so that these appointments can be made good and carried out as soon as possible.
Looking at the delivery plan, such as I have been able to this afternoon, I agree about the publishing of data. Daily national data is so important—transparency is our best weapon—but daily regional data will also be really important. I want to see areas with enough supply almost competing to better each other. If Lancashire is doing better than Yorkshire, I have a funny feeling that Yorkshire will want to do better than Lancashire. That is the sort of national effort that we need to see right now. We need to jab for victory, get covid done—whatever three-word slogan the Minister chooses. Let’s do it.
As the Minister knows, it is my strong belief that these awful restrictions on our lives cannot be in place for a day longer than they are required, so alongside the published vaccine delivery plan and the daily figures on how we are getting this done, we have to give the public some hope. In the past hour or so, the Secretary of State has said at the No. 10 press conference that just over 88% of those likely to get seriously unwell and sadly die from covid reside within the top four priority vaccine groups. My view is that given that the only metric that really counts, and the reason why public support for lockdown is so high, is the desire to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, logic would dictate that once that threat has gone away, we can start to lift the restrictions. We need clear heads if we want to do that. Covid-19 is not a conspiracy or a hoax. We were right to take it seriously last spring, and we are right to take it seriously now, but we are equally right to demand a plan that dismantles the most draconian laws this Parliament has brought in in centuries, and to do so in lockstep with the vaccination programme that we have.
We know the plan commits the Government to vaccinate the top four groups by 15 February, which is great. As Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, grimly reminds us, we expect between 7,000 and 10,000 deaths from flu each year in an average year. The most cautious reading would suggest that the vaccination programme should take covid deaths well below this level, so when we have vaccinated the highest-risk groups, what will we do? When we have completed phase 1 by vaccinating all those with above-average risk in late March, what will we do then? These are important questions, and ones that I will keep asking. We do not lock society down for common colds or seasonal flu; we cannot do the same for the little-understood condition that is long covid, no matter how awful it can be. The many other economic, health and societal impacts of this pandemic are already serious enough, so we need a clear road map out of this that the public can believe in, or this year is going to make the last look tame by comparison.
The petition is right to look at the next phase of the vaccination strategy, but there are so many competing groups asking to be put in the front of that next phase. Supermarket checkout staff interact with huge numbers of people from multiple households, more than any teacher would during any working day. What about police officers? Just this afternoon, I had an email from a constituent telling me about the work that her son is doing in London. Maybe they should be top of the next queue. Pharmacists are going to play a very central role—I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for even mentioning pharmacists. They are brilliant, and as a former pharmacy Minister, I can say they are going to play a brilliant role in the roll-out of this. Maybe they should be top of the next phase’s queue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we talk about prioritisation, teachers range from early years to further and higher education, and have widespread responsibilities and contacts, including intimate care with young children? Think of a secondary schoolteacher, carrying their bags around to each and every classroom in which they have to teach under certain systems that have been put in place. I cannot think of another group of people who have that much contact with other humans, and I cannot stress that enough.
I do not disagree. The hon. Lady probably thinks that I am working up to disagreeing with the premise of the petition. I am not. The point that I am making, before I agree with the premise, is that there are so many competing groups and, while supply is lumpy—supply is limited at the moment—we have to prioritise, which is why phase 1 has to be right.
My overriding message is this. Let us get on with it. Let us have this national programme. Let us implement the vaccine delivery plan. And then we will put all these groups in. With regard to teachers, I absolutely agree: if reopening and keeping open schools is the Government’s priority, and the Westminster Government say that it is, surely it is good sense, let alone good politics, to vaccinate educators. I say “educators” because of course it is not just teachers, but support workers and all the other people who make schools happen. That must make sense, but I will just say that if we are going to have schools reopened at the end of half-term, we have almost, now, lost the opportunity to do that, because we have to give people the jab and then allow three weeks for it to take effect. That now cannot happen before the end of half-term, so there will be a gap, however we cut this particular cake.
Let me finish by talking about early years, which people would expect me to do as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education. The JCVI obviously identified its groups, and some early years workers will be covered by the groups involving the clinically extremely vulnerable and
“all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality”.
It is not the case that no teachers and no early years workers will be covered in phase 1; of course some will be. With regard to phase 2, the JCVI states:
“Vaccination of those at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 due to their occupation could…be a priority in the next phase.”
Its suggested list includes teachers, and I believe that early years workers should be a high priority, based on two key factors.
First, unlike schools, the early years sector is currently open to all children, meaning that staff are coming into contact with similar numbers of children as they were prior to the latest national lockdown. Secondly, it is of course impossible to socially distance from babies and young children. They need close personal care, such as changing nappies, treating cuts and just giving them a cuddle when they bump themselves. All early years settings are currently open to all children, and of course that is vital in providing continuity of care and early education to the youngest children, but with regard to supporting those settings and keeping them open and keeping those staff safe, I think that they have a strong case. Why are they treated differently? That was what the hon. Member for Leeds North West said. Well, early years workers are a fairly mild bunch. They do not have a powerful trade union often speaking up for them. They have only me and a few other people in the House of Commons. And that is possibly the reason why.
This petition makes a lot of sense. I think that, for every person who has signed the petition, that comes from a good place. I think that it comes from a will to see schools, educators and young people treated fairly and kept safe from this awful pandemic. Anything that we can do to roll out the vaccine delivery plan, which the excellent Minister, now in his place, will ensure happens, will move us out of this nightmare, and then maybe I can stop being a grinch about 2021.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will apologise at this point, because I am listed as No. 11 in the main Chamber afterwards and I want to get to the Global UK debate—not the Global Britain debate, because I live in the UK; but that is a separate point. As we say at home, it would starve you in here. It is so cold that I think Pfizer could use this room to keep its vaccine at the proper temperature for us all.
It is an honour to follow my colleague the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who quite rightly said that he has been disappointed so far with 2021. I have finished my 10-day free trial and I want a refund on the rest of 2021. Look, it is absolutely, entirely a matter of free will whether someone takes a vaccine if and when it becomes available. I am delighted that people are being given so much encouragement to take the vaccine. Of course, that has to be mixed with support for testing people and making sure that the right people get the vaccine as quickly as possible. It is absolutely right and proper that those most at risk are at the head of the queue.
I welcome the fact that today the Northern Ireland Executive have prioritised domiciliary care staff receiving the vaccine in Northern Ireland. That started this afternoon. Quite frankly, there is a hierarchy of frontline workers. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) was right to point out that educationalists should be at the top of that list, because of their reach across the entire community, whether they are early years workers or schoolteachers, or they manage kids with special needs in schools and institutions that have not been closed down as a result of covid. It is important that those frontline workers do not feel that they are second or third in the queue, and that society recognises their key and important role. It is disappointing to read that in some hospitals, more management staff have received the vaccine than nursing staff. That is abhorrent and wrong, and that balance has to be addressed. It is important that our frontline workers—our nursing staff—get it.
I strongly believe that schoolteachers are on the frontline. If we want schools to open again quickly, we have to start with early years and go right the way through to make sure that children can get back to school for the sake of their mental health, of opening up our society again and, of course, of promoting the welfare of our young people.
The hon. Gentleman brought up mental health, which is really important. I am greatly concerned about my 16-year-old studying for his A-levels. He has just started college with a new group of friends, but he does not have the opportunity to socialise and have the life experiences that we experienced. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is of utmost importance to get children and students back into school and education as soon as possible?
The hon. Member has knocked it out of the park; she is absolutely right. It is key that we get our kids back in there so that they can socialise and work together again, and be the engine room of our society for the future. That will only happen when we get them back to school and facilitate that.
I received an email today from Ben Sidor, a student at Queen’s University Belfast. It is not just at the school level, but at the university level that people are being denied the positive interactions with their friends and peers that will allow them to become the men and women of tomorrow that society will look up to generation after generation. We must encourage that.
The hon. Member for Winchester mentioned the use of other organisations, which is important. Community pharmacies are key to the roll-out of the vaccine. Frankly, community pharmacists in my constituency have saved the NHS in the last couple of years. They are undervalued and underrated, yet they play a key role. Getting pharmacists on to the frontline to help with the roll-out is critical.
I also welcome the call to use the skills of our military. The Army is brilliant at logistical planning. We should use its skill to roll out the plan and to make sure that it is quick, efficient and agile, and that it responds to the needs of the community on the ground. There is no reason why our Army could not be used for that positive work. We are quite happy to send it to Sierra Leone to roll out vaccination projects there, so why can we not do that in our own nation and use its logistical planning skills?
I fear that there will be a shortage that will have an impact on certain parts of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland protocol already means that PPE is waiting at Stranraer and cannot get into Northern Ireland because of tax inspectors. Can you imagine, Sir David, if the same happened with vaccinations—if they were ready for Northern Ireland, but could not get there because of the protocol? That needs to be addressed urgently, and I raised the point personally with the Chancellor today.
I leave hon. Members with those thoughts. I welcome the debate, which is very important. I hope that those who wish, of their free will, to have the vaccination have that facilitated urgently.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her introduction to the debate.
I declare an interest: my partner is a teacher who has been dealing with covid-safe procedures in school, and has dealt with many Track and Trace processes, so I have heard about the challenges in our schools very clearly. I have also heard from those in retail. I have close associations with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers; I declare that interest, too. It is really important that we listen to all those concerns, because there is deep worry in the country about the case rates. In particular, I have heard concerns relating to special schools and the care that they provide; that was mentioned earlier. I have Ysgol Y Deri in my constituency, a fantastic school that is part of the Penarth Learning Community. The First Minister in Wales has been very clear that we will extend vaccination to staff working in those contexts, given the care that they provide to often vulnerable young people. That is good to hear.
I commend the Welsh Government on the vaccination strategy set out today by my constituency colleague, the Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething; I know the Minister here also set one out today. It is important that we get information on those strategies out there, because we are hearing a lot of worry and genuine concern. Of course, everybody wants to be vaccinated, including those in frontline work and those who are particularly vulnerable. That is why it is absolutely crucial that we secure the supply and production.
I praise the work of my local health board, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, which in recent days has rapidly scaled up its vaccination plans and the number of vaccinations it has delivered. I spoke to members of its staff this morning. A few days ago, when I visited my GP on a personal matter, I was pleased to hear that the member of staff treating me had been vaccinated, and was looking forward to being part of the roll-out programme that the Health Minister in Wales set out today, in which an increasing number of GPs will be involved. Community pharmacies, which have been mentioned, will be involved too. They have a critical role. I am pleased that it was set out today that they are part of the plan in Wales. I hope they will be part of the plan across the whole UK.
The reality we face, as shown in the petition, is that there are very difficult choices of prioritisation. I think everyone recognises that, including many of those who have contacted me to ask, “When am I going to get the vaccination?” It is really important that we follow the best scientific, medical and clinical evidence set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and others. I want assurances that the Minister is considering all the representations that are being made, because it is important that there should be confidence in the difficult decisions that are reached. For example, there has been a lot of anxiety about spreading out the dosing. I have heard concerns from health professionals about that, and I appreciate that there is a live debate on that. We need confidence in all these choices, and in the decisions taken at UK level by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the JCVI and jointly by chief medical officers. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for them; they are having to make difficult choices because we do not have enough supply in the country.
That is the point I largely want to deal with. I have already raised a number of issues on that subject with the Minister. I would like clearer guarantees on the schedule for delivery to and around the UK. My constituents in Wales want to know when vaccine procured for the UK is being delivered to Wales, and when the different types of vaccine are being delivered to Wales. We know about the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines; when will the Moderna vaccine first be delivered to this country, and how will it be rolled out? I have heard positive things about a Johnson & Johnson vaccine; when do we think that will be approved by the MHRA, and when might we see supplies?
First, I would like more assurances from the Minister about our productive capacity in the UK. We all know that things can go wrong; there could be problems with delivery, accidental damage or contamination. Any of those things could happen. How are we scaling up our productive capacity in the UK to create all the different types of vaccines? What new factories are being built? What new facilities are being procured? That is right down to the level of capital equipment available in this country for vaccine production.
Secondly, the other crucial part of the process is the cold chain. We know that there have been issues with, for example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the way in which it has to be kept at that hyper-low temperature. Will that be similar for some of the other RNA vaccines? If so, what are we doing to scale up our cold chain and storage capacity to enable such vaccines to be used more quickly across the country? As we know, the Oxford-AstraZeneca one can be kept in a fridge, but that of course still requires a safe cold chain to get it to all the key locations.
Thirdly, the fill and finish part of the production process is critical. The Minister knows that I have asked him questions about the Wockhardt factory in north Wales. What other fill and finish capacity do we have across the UK? Will he be specific about that? What are we doing to expand it? I want to see those plants operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the supplies coming in all the time, getting into those phials and getting out to our communities across the country. Fundamentally, that is a UK responsibility and the responsibility of the Minister. I hope that he can give us some assurances on that.
Lastly, at the moment there is rightly a lot of concern about variants. At some point in the future, obviously, we will have to produce tweaked vaccine alternatives to deal with variants that may emerge, in the way that we do with the flu vaccine. Will the Minister give us assurances on how our productive capacity will be there to produce variant vaccines at the right moment, when we need them in the future? We need to get through this first phase, absolutely, but we also have to look at the medium and long term, because this virus is not going away anytime soon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I very much welcome this debate, and I am grateful to my many constituents for signing the petition—I believe Twickenham was about 13th on the list of signatories. Like many other Members, I have received many emails from school staff and early years staff urging me to participate in this debate and to press for the prioritisation of those staff.
One thing that strikes me is that a number of the staff—I very much agree with them—said that they accept that health and care workers, absolutely, and the most vulnerable, so those who are very old and at highest risk, should be front of the queue. Generally, I do not think that the discussion is around those top four priority groups. There is probably more of a discussion to be had on some of the lower groups. The JCVI has said that, after all its priority groups, it is a matter of policy as to whether other groups, such as teaching staff, are prioritised.
The Liberal Democrats have proposed that teaching staff should perhaps be in group 7, but that is up for discussion. Indeed, if we look at some of the data on the lowest priority group according to the JCVI, the 50 to 55-year-olds, they are at very little higher risk compared with the rest of the general population. I would contend that there is a policy discussion to be had on some of those lower groups that the JCVI put forward, and on whether teaching staff and early years staff should go in there.
I must declare an interest as the mother of a two-year-old and a six-year-old. I am utterly delighted that childcare settings are open: my two-year-old is a handful, and my husband could not home-school our six-year-old daughter if my son was at home, so I am very grateful to the staff in early years settings who put themselves at risk day to day.
I appreciate that vaccinating early years staff and teaching staff will not necessarily prevent the spread of disease, because we do not yet have the data to show that; it will merely give them protection, but that is important. We are all united, across the House, in that we want to see schools return as soon as possible. The most disadvantaged are being hurt, and that is not just the very poorest on free school meals. Over the Christmas holidays, I had a conversation with a mother of three who does not qualify for free school meals, but is just above that line—just about managing. She could not afford devices for her kids in the first lockdown, so she was having to borrow to be able to home-school them—it really is hurting the most vulnerable, because the devices for home schooling are not out there as widely as they should be. It is also having an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health, a subject that I am passionate about and that has already been raised today. Before the pandemic, one young person in 10 had a diagnosable mental health condition; that figure has already risen to one in eight.
I particularly want to shout out for special educational needs and disabilities. By definition, those settings have to remain open, because they have the most vulnerable children. I have had a number of representations from staff and governors in SEND schools in my constituency; one member of staff from Clarendon Primary Centre in Hampton pointed out that, like in early years and some of the younger primary settings, pupils with special educational needs and disabilities struggle to socially distance. The staff provide personal care, including changing, to a wide age range. Some pupils spit and bite; most pupils cannot tolerate the invasive nature of a lateral flow or PCR test. His school has over 60% attendance and his class has 80%—he says, “We are fully open.” More than 50% of pupils in that school are free school meal or pupil premium kids.
It is quite clear that in such settings additional protection for teachers and other school staff is very much warranted, so I urge the Minister to revisit some of the lower-level groups on the JCVI priority list. As I tried to allude to in the main Chamber earlier, there is a desire to have a 24/7 vaccination programme as and when supply allows. The workforce is there to deliver it, so why cannot we include teachers and early years staff?
Our children and young people are really suffering in this pandemic. We owe it to them—and to the people who are taking care of them and helping them to develop into young adults—to protect them as best we can.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her great introduction to the debate. I also thank the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition, demonstrating the interaction between the people of this country and the Parliament that seeks to represent them. As many hon. Members have said, vaccination is a light at the end of the tunnel that gives us all a sense of hope, but of course the danger is that that tunnel will be longer for some than for others.
The main topic of the petition is education. People talk about the reopening of schools, but they are open: far more children are being taught in our schools and in school settings today than during the April-May phase of the earliest lockdown, for lots of very good reasons. One reason why schools have been otherwise closed as part of the lockdown is that we recognise that the science shows that although children do not get badly affected by the disease, they clearly spread it.
We are asking teachers, teaching assistants and other school staff to put themselves in harm’s way for good reason, so it is right that they be considered as part of the priority vaccination list alongside others. No one wants to muscle their way to the front of the queue, but we recognise that these are people who are doing an immense service for our children and our country, and who are putting themselves at risk at the same time.
As a Member of Parliament for a very rural constituency, I am aware that delivering a vaccine in a place such as my constituency, which is bigger than Greater London, is a challenge. I am concerned that there are parts of my community where we have yet to get the vaccine rolled out; I ask for the Minister’s intervention, through the CCGs, to ensure that we fast-track site approval. We and the local primary care network particularly want to see delivery of the vaccine at the surgery in Windermere. The primary care network is already delivering it in Grange and in many care homes, but can we get it delivered from the surgery in Windermere as soon as possible? I would like to say the same for the Yorkshire dales end of my constituency: people in Sedbergh in the western dales are having to travel to Kirkby Lonsdale or further to get the vaccine.
It is important, particularly for older people and people who rely on public transport, that we do not overlook rural communities such as ours and that we ensure that the vaccine is delivered close to where people live. Many hon. Members have talked about the importance of community pharmacists; involving them would allow the Government to roll out the vaccine really close to where people live and get it done more quickly.
Although I agree that 24/7 delivery of the vaccine is something that we should be doing, I am deeply concerned because I have talked to health professionals from right across my county and it is clear from the number of sites and the staff that we have that the capacity to deliver the vaccine far exceeds the amount of the vaccine. I would like to hear from the Minister what his strategy is for procuring sufficient vaccines so that we can meet those targets.
I also want to emphasise the importance of data, which people have talked about, so that we can hold the Government to account. For example, I and the whole of the local community would like to know what percentage of over-80s in the LA9 postcode, for instance, have been vaccinated once or even twice. That would ensure that there is healthy competition and would also allow us to hold the Government to account and know whether we will meet the targets. We know that that data exists: NHS England has it, but is not sharing it.
I have talked to local providers of the vaccine through our primary care networks, and they tell me that they could ask a secondary question themselves. They could double-report, but that takes two minutes per patient. That is time when they could be vaccinating patients, so they think that is a waste of time and a duplication. We know that that data exists because it is being collected, so why is it not being shared? Will the Minister guarantee that that information will be made public this week, district by district—indeed, postcode by postcode?
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for all of us, but the tunnel is longer for some than for others. What a great disappointment that the nearly 3 million people who are excluded from financial support through the coronavirus crisis continue to be excluded today. For them, the tunnel is impossibly long. They face deep debt and find it hard to abide by the rules and regulations, because to do so very often means not being able to pay their rent or look after and feed their children. I would like answers to the questions that I have put to the Minister when he makes his concluding remarks.
Thank you, Sir David, for allowing me to make a few comments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on bringing forward this debate and setting the scene very well, as she always does with any issue she brings forward. I have previously highlighted with the Secretary of State for Health the need to include our teachers in the priority roll-call for vaccines. We did that just last week in the main Chamber.
The hon. Lady rightly highlighted that the education of children is paramount. Children are currently out of school and are being taught at home; that is not what families and children need. To expect a mother with no degree in teaching to understand how to teach a child the necessary tools of learning puts stress on the family, and too many children are missing out on learning. Some parents can home-school and others cannot. That is not disrespectful; it is a fact of life.
I have spoken to several teachers who are concerned about the fact that some parents are not logged on to the online learning tools for primary school children. Messages have been sent and encouragement has been given, yet the fact remains that some parents and carers are simply overwhelmed with home schooling. Add to the mix the parents who have to work from home and who are struggling to maintain their work life as well as spend adequate time on their children’s schooling. The pressures are immense, and it is very difficult on households. The pressure on teachers from trying to maintain contact and check the work of 30 pupils online is extensive. It is imperative that our children are back in class being taught by those who know what they are doing. It is clear that vaccinating teachers and teaching staff is necessary to keep them safe and keep our children in school.
I understand that the vaccine has not been tested for children, and there is little that we can do there. However, vaccinating school staff will help curb the spread of this virus. In my estimation, that is an essential part of our fight against covid. It is really important that teachers in nurseries and special needs schools also have the opportunity to have the vaccine—doubly so when we look at special needs schools, which are operating at full numbers and where staff are expected to teach with no protection around incredibly vulnerable children. We all know them; we meet them every day. I asked the Minister last week in the main Chamber to consider adding teachers to the priority vaccination list, and I am asking again for that to be done in Westminster Hall—it is probably one of the coldest places on the planet; it is so cold that we could hang beef in here and it would not go off—that is the truth. That is a fact of life; ask any butcher.
Today in the Chamber, the Minister replied to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on the issue of teachers and the vaccination. Education is one of the cornerstones of our society. That can continue only if our teachers are at full strength and are able to do their jobs, and vaccination is key to that.
Another issue that I want to highlight, as other Members have done—in particular, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—is the availability of the vaccine in rural areas and the need for support for rural GP practices that have thousands of patients on record. The patients who are most vulnerable need the best vaccine. We must make use of our incredibly capable armed forces logistics branches to arrange and implement in rural communities what could well be a mammoth task for GP practices individually. The fact is that people in towns will be quicker to receive the vaccine, but those in rural areas and in constituencies such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale really need to have equality in the vaccine roll-out. The precision with which our military operates is second to none, and I believe that it is a resource that we have yet to make full use of.
My mother is 89 years young, and she received her vaccine at 9.40 this morning. It is a happy day for us all, and I am very pleased. I have a sense of relief. Although I have told her to remain at home and be careful, there is a definite ray of hope. We need such hope being felt by every family member of the vulnerable in our society, and I believe that our military—our Army of the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—can support our GPs, who are under pressure, with the standard flu jab programme. It is interesting to read in the papers today that the flu jab—it is really good news, which we should welcome—has been so successful that the number of people dying of the flu has reduced dramatically. The figures for Northern Ireland are very clear.
We have the vaccine, and we have more knowledge than we did this time last year. It is now time to ensure that every person who wants to receive the vaccine will be able to do so in a timely manner. For those who are uncertain about it, or who are certain that they do not want to receive the vaccine, we must ensure that their wishes are respected and that the Government place no restrictions on those who exercise their free choice. Again, I ask the Minister to confirm that and put it on the record.
I am excited about the vaccine—I believe it is very hard not to be. We are in a better place today. We can have some confidence for the future. You and I, Sir David, are confident because we have faith, but we also have confidence in what the Government are doing, which is really important. I am sure the Minister will not let us down. There is a fully trained and obvious ready-to-go resource—let us use the military to get the vaccine out and make a difference to our battle against covid.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I want to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her comprehensive and compelling introduction to this subject. She raised a whole series of questions, dilemmas and judgments that follow on from the very clear objective that we all share: we want as many people as possible to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower clearly set out that lots of people in the country have been discussing this issue, as we would expect, but this forum is the right place in a democracy for us to be discussing those ideas, exchanging views and doing so in a way that is respectful and tolerant of other opinions. She set out clearly, as did other Members, the consequences of missing school, particularly in terms of the widening attainment gap and the digital divide, and she explained why it really has to be a priority to get children back into school as soon as possible. It was so disappointing, if not sadly inevitable, that we had to make the decision to restrict attendance at school. It is also very regrettable that the decision was taken without a proper back-up plan to allow children to learn remotely. I agree with her that teachers inspire, build confidence and impart knowledge, and they do that best of all when they teach in person in the classroom.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who talked about the overwhelming sense of fatigue that we all feel in dealing with this virus—I think we can all understand that. He described the vaccine as the way out of this situation and said that the wonders of human ingenuity have allowed the vaccines to be developed and made ready in such a short space of time. He gave a very good plug for our party’s campaign on the vaccination programme, and he raised the important point that it would be very helpful if employers gave paid time off for people to go and receive the vaccine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West also raised an important question, which I hope the Minister answers, about whether hospice staff should be included in the priority group for vaccination. He talked about a 24/7 vaccination programme and told us that the Prime Minister had apparently said there is no appetite for it. After talking to Members present and to members of the public, I have to say that there is an appetite for that. Every minute, every hour and every day that we can vaccinate people is another step closer to the freedom that we all want to return to. Let us not miss any opportunity to get to that point as quickly as possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, the 24/7 approach should apply not just to delivering the vaccine but to the production of it.
My hon. Friend was also right to talk about the importance of getting information out there, because everyone wants to know where we are up to with this. Certainly, my constituency office has had many phone calls and emails asking about the vaccination programme. He also spoke about the excellent work undertaken in Wales to roll out the vaccine. He made the fair point that this is not an easy choice—these are not easy options for anyone—but it is important that we take the best professional and scientific advice available when we take these decisions.
It is, of course, a source of great national pride that we were the first country to approve a vaccine for distribution and that our own scientists were integral to the development of the second vaccine, which is now beginning to be rolled out across the country. Having found ourselves in this good position, it would be very disappointing if we did not become the first country to mass vaccinate its population. For the grandparents who have not seen their grandchildren, for the businesses that have not traded properly for a year and are facing bankruptcy, and for the NHS staff exhausted by the relentless pressure that this virus has created, we all want the quickest route possible out of this.
To date, as we have discussed, the lockdown strategy has been our most effective weapon against the spread of the virus, but we all know that that has created another set of extremely tough challenges and that there are concerns that even that may not be enough to halt the spread of the new strain. Therefore, as has always been the case, mass vaccination is the key to ending the nightmare, which is why no stone should be left unturned and no component of the state left unutilised, and every member of society who wants to contribute should be engaged in some way so that we all play our part to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as soon as possible. We all share that ambition, but the Government have displayed a pattern in this pandemic of being too slow and of over-promising and under-delivering.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern—I suspect the Minister does—that the roll-out of the vaccine has been halted in parts of the United Kingdom because supplies are running out? Is there not a logistical issue to be addressed as well, to ensure that that does not happen?
The hon. Gentleman predicts the journey I am about to embark on. I will talk about that very legitimate point, which hon. Members have raised. AstraZeneca promised 30 million doses by September, but that went down to 4 million by the end of the year and, clearly, much less has been delivered on the ground. All the best plans possible will not matter if the supply is not there. Various Members have raised this issue, so when he responds, I hope the Minister will set out the exact position in terms of supply. How many doses have been received to date from each manufacturer? How many are expected each week? What are the weekly projections for delivery?
I will give the Minister a local example. My vaccination centre in Ellesmere Port is due to open sometime this week, but nobody knows exactly when because nobody knows when the first delivery will arrive. One thing this country is not short of is logistics experts. The Vaccine Taskforce is supposed to have been addressing this for months, so those on the frontline should not have been put in the position of not knowing when the vaccine is going to arrive. No vaccine should be left on the shelves, in warehouses or stuck at a factory gate waiting to be delivered. Greater transparency would be much appreciated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, we could do with a performance dashboard covering not just the total figures published each week, but the proportionate numbers in each category of the priority list, including NHS staff—at clinical commissioning group level as well as nationally—so that everyone can see what progress is being made. There are references to that in the document that was produced today.
Turning to the subject matter of the petition, we know from what SAGE has said that schools are making a significant contribution to the R rate and that, with infections running out of control, the closure of schools—except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers—was, sadly, inevitable. As we have said, however, there are multiple reasons why reopening them has to be a priority, not least the importance of getting children back into the classroom. Although we could not go against the JCVI priority list—indeed, it is likely that a change now would be counterproductive—we believe that, as with the change to the period between the first and second doses, serious consideration needs to be given to the order in which the vaccine should be distributed after the initial phase. Indeed, I think Sir Simon Stevens has said as much today.
Of course, it is worth pointing out that the most clinically vulnerable adults who work in education will receive the vaccine shortly anyway, and we believe that the priority should be to increase the number of people who have received the first dose, so that debates over prioritisation become obsolete. However, if that is not possible, we believe that it is more than reasonable to look not only at the risk posed by particular workplaces but at the wider societal benefits of vaccinating particular groups of workers.
I hope that we have sufficient supplies and delivery networks so that we do not end up in a position where particular groups of workers are pitted against one another, but clearly there is a strong case for priority to be given to those working in education settings. At this point, may I thank everyone who works in education for their contribution? I know how hard many of them worked over the Christmas period to prepare for the mass testing regimes, and we could all hear their exasperation when they were asked to revert to remote working at 24 hours’ notice. I am afraid that some of that exasperation actually turned to anger when the Education Secretary delivered his warning that Ofsted could become involved if online learning was not up to scratch. If ever there was a sentence that summed up how he is not listening to the education world, that was it.
When I talk about education, I mean education in the widest sense. As various Members have said today, that includes all those who come into close contact with others as part of their job in an educational setting. For example, if we look at those in special educational needs settings, we see that they are often in much closer contact with others than most people. It is not just teachers whom we must consider but classroom assistants, cleaners, cooks and probably just about everyone who works in a school. We are not only talking about schools; as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, nurseries and other childcare settings should be looked at. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, they remain open at this time. I think we can all see how, in those settings, it can be very difficult to avoid close contact with others.
Yes. I think we have to look at the actual work that they do and the risk on the ground, but clearly student teachers would be part of that process.
There are strong arguments for those in other essential services to be given additional priority. There has been much talk of the police and their role in enforcing covid rules; if 20,000 police officers had not been cut in the past decade, the police might not be in such a difficult place to do that. We should remember that when the police go about their duties, they engage with the public and so, by definition, they put themselves at risk of infection.
Similar arguments could be made for those involved in the vaccination process—not just NHS staff but those who are volunteering. In relation to that, can the Minister update us on how many retired NHS staff have now passed all the requirements in this regard, so that they can assist in the vaccination process? We have all heard the stories about the fire safety training modules that have to be taken; although such requirements are worthy in their own right, it cannot be mission-critical at the moment for those tests to be undertaken. I can put it no better than the retired consultant who contacted me and said:
“This is actually more than I was required to do when I was a full-time NHS consultant. It is grossly excessive, unnecessary and burdensome.”
On the vaccination of NHS staff, we know the unprecedented pressures they are facing at the moment; the latest estimate is that there are some 46,000 NHS staff off sick with covid, and that is before we even consider those who are required to self-isolate. The need for a full complement of NHS staff to be available to work cannot be clearer, so we want to see all NHS staff receiving their first dose of the vaccine as soon as possible. There is also a concern about whether those people who are not directly employed by the NHS and instead may be self-employed are being picked up by the system.
In conclusion, we know that at the moment the vaccine programme rightly prioritises the most vulnerable and is designed to protect life. However, as that group of people receives that protection, it is right that we consider where priorities lie next. The nation’s key workers have literally kept the country going in the last 12 months—those in education and in transport, council workers, and many, many others who have gone to work day in and day out, knowing that they risk contracting a deadly virus. They do not deserve to be thanked with a pay freeze. At the very least, they deserve serious consideration for prioritisation in the next phase of the roll-out. Proper recognition of their contribution and of the wider societal benefits of their work demand no less.
It is slightly unfortunate, Sir David, that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), asked a lot of questions, because he took up a lot of time. Nevertheless, I will attempt to answer as many colleagues’ questions as possible.
Before setting out details of the plan for vaccination, I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the incredible passion with which she spoke. I apologise that I was not in the room for her speech—I was in the main Chamber, as she will know—but it has always been our strategy to suppress the coronavirus until a vaccine can make us all safe, because we know ultimately that vaccines are our way out of this terrible pandemic.
This afternoon we launched our complete vaccine deployment plan, the culmination of months of preparation and hard work by the NHS, the armed forces—the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned the armed forces, and they are embedded in the deployment programme—and, of course, local and regional government at every level. The sooner we can reduce mortality from this pernicious disease and bring an end to that human suffering, the better.
It is worth reminding ourselves of just what that suffering looks like. Sadly, yesterday, 563 deaths were reported. The average number of deaths per day over the past week has been 909, and behind every statistic is a person—a father, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a grandfather or a grandmother—with family and friends. We must never lose sight of that.
In the light of the petition that we are discussing and, of course, the time, I will reflect on the basic principles that sit behind our prioritisation and our strategy. Yes, we want to minimise disruption for pupils, parents and teachers; yes, we want to stop the NHS being overwhelmed, and yes, we want to protect UK jobs and businesses as much as we possibly can, but fundamentally it is about saving lives, and operationally it is about saving as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible.
I defy anyone to provide more powerful grounds for action in order to achieve that. We are following the science and we are vaccinating, according to the prioritisation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which recommended rapid immunisation of our most vulnerable groups. It is worth reminding colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) did, about the first four categories, for whom we absolutely are focused on making sure they have the opportunity of a first dose to protect them by mid-February across all four nations.
I know the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and others are concerned about supplies, and he has contacted me about that. I can reassure him that, having spoken to my counterparts in the devolved Administrations that, while the supply lines have been lumpy—in any manufacturing process, especially one so complex as a novel vaccine that is a biological compound, it is always difficult at the outset, but they very quickly stabilise—we have clear line of sight of deliveries all the way through until the end of February, hence we are able to make the pledge that we will be able to deploy.
I am conscious of time, and I want to get through quite a lot; I will be happy to take the hon. Lady’s intervention if I can.
Obviously, if a teacher or a school or childcare worker falls within one of those cohorts, they will be contacted by the NHS at the appropriate time to receive the vaccine, but the importance of starting with our most vulnerable groups cannot be overstated. There is no evidence that teachers or school or childcare workers are at higher risk of mortality. That is the thing: we are protecting against death in this first phase, and our most vulnerable groups account for 88% of mortality; I think my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester gave us that figure earlier. We can safeguard against 88% of mortality if we vaccinate those top four groups, but of course I understand the sentiment behind this petition.
Teachers, and everybody involved in this petition, do not want to be prioritised beyond those four groups; but, if something is not going to be done, if the lateral flow tests are not going to be in place for all pupils going to school on a regular basis and the vaccination is not going to be available to teachers, is there a possibility that schools will not actually be returning at the end of February, and that this is going to be longer term?
Schools, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) reminded us, are open. Primary and secondary schools are open, delivering both online education and education in school for the most vulnerable children and the children of NHS and social care workers, who look after the people who are most vulnerable and whom we are trying to protect from dying. I understand the sentiment behind the petition and pay tribute to the vital work that teachers in schools and childcare workers do to see us through this difficult time. However, I believe that our strategy of putting the most vulnerable first is the right one, morally, ethically and practically, but I recognise that even with such brilliant work in full swing the next few weeks will be difficult, especially in education settings.
We have always sought to keep schools open, and said that they would be the very last things to close, but the challenges posed by the new variant and the more than doubling of transmissibility mean that we have had to take some difficult decisions. I am confident that as our vaccination programme bears fruit we can begin slowly to move out of lockdown. The Prime Minister has promised that schools will be the very first places to reopen, working on the principle of last in, first out. The hon. Member for Gower asked about testing, and it will continue to play a vital role in getting children back into the classroom as soon as possible.
In the time available to me, I want briefly to turn to some of the questions asked by colleagues. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly reminded us that we do not yet know whether the vaccines have an impact on transmissibility—but they obviously offer protection, in terms of both immunity and protection from severe infection. That is why we are focusing on the most vulnerable people. Of course she was right to highlight the issue of young adults with special educational needs. Some of those will be picked up in category 4, but many will be picked up in category 6 of the top nine categories.
I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) rightly asked whether hospices are included. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, also asked about that. Hospices are absolutely included in the cohorts, and we are focusing on making sure that they are protected. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and for Winchester, and the hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth and for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked about data. Data is our ally in this endeavour, in the Prime Minister’s view and in my view. That is why he has insisted on daily data release, so that the nation can see the progress that we are making in protecting the most vulnerable people from covid. We will continue to publish daily data. On Thursdays we will publish more detailed regional data, and my absolute commitment to the House is as much data as the NHS feel is robust that we can publish. We all reference our own experiences in life but the best way to learn, in my view, is to learn from different teams. Not everyone can give 1,000 vaccinations a day, as some primary care networks have, but we learn from them and we try to put support into other teams, to enable them to do that. [Interruption.]
I am conscious that the debate ends at 7.30 and I think I have to give the hon. Member for Gower at least a minute to respond, so I will wrap up there. I apologise to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who wanted to intervene, and I would have loved to take his intervention, but I am happy to write to him if he emails me with any other queries. I shall give the hon. Lady the last word.
I thank the Minister for his response and I understand the time pressures that we are currently under and the reason he could not be here earlier, but I remind those watching online that the two debates are both live, and they can still add their names to the petition. Also, on 15 December, UNICEF called for teachers to be prioritised, and we must realise that there are difficult decisions that force difficult trade-offs. They were not asking to be in the top four vaccination priorities, but they need consideration. That begins with safeguarding those who are responsible for opening up the future—looking after the teachers who will give a future to our future generations, and to our children, who have missed so much. I accept all the debate today, and thank the Minister and everyone who took part, but we need to move forward and give the matter that consideration.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.
If you have not already done so, colleagues, would you wipe the microphones? I apologise for the ridiculous freezer that this room is. I will complain to the authorities yet again. I am sorry if anyone becomes unwell as a result—this is not acceptable.