Lord Bethell (Con)
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for a very thorough debate on these regulations and I will try to pick off the key points. One point is the question of guidance versus law, which almost all noble Lords spoke about. My noble friend Lord Lansley put it extremely well. He is right that it is the British way to seek to use guidance and to appeal to people’s best nature wherever we possibly can; it is our default setting in this country. I for one very much welcome the move from legislative impetus to guidance. I think almost all have welcomed that principle.
However, I am afraid that it is an inevitable consequence of moving from law to guidance that you leave a degree of interpretation up to the British people. That is a dilemma we have to wrestle with in government. I acknowledge the communication challenges. I have said from the Dispatch Box and that I thought one or two things might have been done better, but we have given the British public discretion on how they interpret some of the guidance, particularly on travel.
The truth is that the British public are very clear about the guidance we have provided and are incredibly consistent in their behaviour. Despite the suggestion made by some noble Lords, there has not been an explosion of foreign travel. Quite the opposite: the number of people who went to Portugal while it was open was relatively small. Adherence to isolation, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, remains incredibly high. For positive cases it is around 90%, and for contacts of positive cases it is around 85%. The British public are much clearer in their heads than perhaps some would give them credit for. The public understand that the Government sometimes allow people to do something while not recommending it, much like with smoking.
We are at a stage of the pandemic—the infection rate is currently relatively low—where it is proportionate and reasonable to use guidance over the law and to accept that there are some friction costs to that, but they are within the range of acceptable risk. We are at a stage where things are generally getting better. We hope that we are on a journey out of this dreadful pandemic. It is therefore entirely right that we seek to move away from legislation wherever we possibly can.
My noble friend Lord Lansley made the point on testing, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised my noble friend Lady Harding’s comments earlier. My noble friend Lord Lansley is right: the capacity of testing to make an impact on the infection is possibly underestimated at the moment. I cite the example of schools, where 65 million LFDs have been used since the beginning of the year to huge effect. We were extremely concerned about infection rates in schools on their return, and the presence of a new, highly transmissible variant is something we watch extremely closely indeed, but pupils, parents and teachers have worked incredibly hard to use the latest technology to keep a lid on transmission rates. That has worked incredibly well. I note my noble friend Lord Lansley’s points about business travel and will take them away with me. The cost of tests is coming down dramatically, and I would be glad to share details of that with him.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and others spoke about the late arrival of these regulations, for which I express genuine personal regret, but I push back against noble Lords who express outrage and concern. I remember the run-up to 14 May extremely well indeed. I have in front of me, on my computer, the chart of the growth of the Indian variant. Even now it puts chills down my spine as I look at it. Naturally, we were extremely worried about a relatively unknown variant for which we did not have a genomically sequenced example. We had no idea about its impact on hospitalisation and death, but we kept our nerve. We waited for the data to come in from the clinics and for the virologists and biologists to do their work. In the end, we had made the right decision and were able to proceed with these step 3 regulations as intended, and as very clearly outlined in the road map. Although there was a delay in the paperwork, we were able to deliver on our commitments in that area.
There is no way we can ignore the data. In fact, in other matters noble Lords are absolutely emphatic that we should follow the data. This is just a direct and unavoidable consequence of that commitment. We face the same dilemma today. We are not fully clear about the serious illness and hospitalisation impacts of the delta variant. We are waiting for NHS statistics to come in. The CMO has made it clear that he feels we will have significantly more information on that at the end of next week. Until then, we have to hold our course. This is the pattern of these waves and will continue to be so. The fact that our constitution allows us to have agile legislation that adapts to the circumstances is a benefit, not a disbenefit, of the British way of doing things.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that the Coronavirus Act will last until March 2022. The PCMs to which he referred are largely driven by Section 2 of the 1984 public health Act. Analysis of emergency powers is currently being undertaken by the Constitution Committee, to which I have already given evidence. I recommend that the noble Lord engages with it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about the immunocompromised, a subject that I am extremely concerned about, as I know she and other noble Lords are. I pay tribute to the work of Birmingham University and the Octave trial. This is a huge challenge for those who have little by way of an immune system. The vaccine clearly will not work in the same way as it does with those with a fully charged immune system. There are huge opportunities from therapeutics and antivirals. We are chasing those down very actively, but I would be glad to meet with her, Anthony Nolan, Cancer Research UK and any other charities she would very helpfully like to convene.
My noble friend Lord Bourne spoke about travellers from the red list. I pay tribute to the managed quarantine system. Last week, there were 115,000 passengers into the UK. Only 9,000 of them were from the red list; 92% of those were through Heathrow. I pay tribute to Heathrow and the creation of its new red terminal. We have to accept that the red list may well be here for some time, but I am very optimistic that we can make huge progress on foreign travel. The mutual recognition of double vaccination protocols is being discussed at the very highest levels and offers a way out from the impact of this awful pandemic. I am optimistic that foreign travel will be able to start soon.
By way of a wind-up, I shall address the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who said that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon and give evidence of how dramatically our lives will change, largely for the worse. I am much more positive. Ultimately, the vaccine does work. If it works on the variants we have today, there is every reason to hope that it will work on future variants. We have learned a huge amount about therapeutics, antivirals, diagnostics, tracing, surveillance and treatment of the ill. Where we have a challenge as a nation is in public health, which has been found wanting. The health of the nation is far too poor. We weigh too much, smoke too much and drink too much, and we go into illness in a poor condition. That is the challenge we face as a nation, and the one we will turn to once the pandemic is out of the way.