The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Bethell) (Con)
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to both the noble Baronesses for their thoughtful and provocative questions. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, in paying tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore. His story touched on something we have talked about in this Chamber this year: the way in which someone, in their 99th year, can make a tremendous impact on the whole country, bringing us together and raising money for NHS staff. It was an amazing achievement so late in life. It demonstrates that every year of every life, however late in that life it is, is valuable. That is why this Government are extremely proud of the measures that we have put in place to protect the lives of, and avoid severe harm to, the elderly and infirm.
I also share in the noble Baroness’s tribute to NHS staff and the vaccination rollout. She is entirely right; there is huge mental and social attrition across the NHS at the moment. The hard work that goes on, particularly in intensive care, is having a tough impact on those who work there. We hear of the need for some form of respite for NHS staff, loud and clear, but I have to be candid: when we are done dealing with the hospitalisations for Covid, there will be a massive wall of work to manage the huge backlog and restart business as usual. We are looking at the human investment needed. I pay tribute to my colleague Helen Whately, the Minister who covers the NHS workforce. She speaks to the NHS and social care workforce daily. We are looking extremely carefully at the investment that will be needed to support healthcare staff in the difficult year ahead.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about those who refuse the vaccine. I am afraid that those statistics do not exist, because people do not identify themselves as vaccine refusers. However, the overall picture is extremely positive at the moment. Those in categories 1 to 4 are stepping forward for the vaccine in tremendous numbers, and we are extremely encouraged by that. I take on board the insight of Tim Spector and others who have spoken thoughtfully about the barriers. I pay tribute to civic and particularly religious groups, which have often put vaccination sites in their temples, synagogues, churches and other religious settings. That is exactly the kind of trusted civic engagement that has led to vaccine deployment reaching deeply into communities that might otherwise have been worried or suspicious.
The challenge that we will face will be when we turn our attention to the younger. To answer the other question from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, we will be rolling out the vaccine to all age groups. The very good news from AstraZeneca about the vaccine being an extremely effective agent against transmissibility is exactly what we need to know, because it gives a green light to using the vaccine to avoid not just severe illness, hospitalisation and death, but transmissibility. We have to get the message across to those whose lives are not necessarily saved by the vaccine—it saves someone else’s life—that taking it is important and something they should feel trusting about and obligated to do. That will be the second phase of the vaccine rollout, and we are thinking carefully about how to do it as effectively as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, alluded to staff vaccination. She is entirely right about the very high number of Covid deaths in homes at the moment, and I reassure her that vaccines have been offered to every person in every home. There is an email address, which I would be happy to share with all noble Lords, for anyone who thinks that they have not been offered the vaccine. There is an absolute backstop for anyone who thinks that they have been overlooked or have missed out. We are doing our level best with an effective deployment and rollout programme to ensure that all social care homes, whatever their status, and all staff in them are protected by the vaccine.
I will say a word about schools and teachers. I completely support the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and many other Peers who have spoken thoughtfully and emotionally about the importance of getting schools back. The Government and I agree that this is our priority. I spoke to the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, about this yesterday. I pay tribute to the work of the Department for Education in rolling out testing in schools. Either today or very soon, we will have had the millionth test in schools, which is a great tribute to the work that schools, teachers and the DfE have done on asymptomatic testing in schools. It is an important way to cut the chain of transmission and to protect all those in schools, from both the disease and being agents of transmission to those who are more vulnerable. I support all the measures on social distancing, PPE and testing that we can put in place to keep schools open.
When it comes to vaccinating teachers, I emphasise that saving lives and avoiding severe harm is the priority for the vaccination programme. While we are sympathetic to teachers and will definitely have them on the prioritisation list, the protection from harm and death is our current priority.
We take the news on mutations from South Africa, Brazil, California, Kent and Bristol, and all the other manifestations of mutations, extremely seriously. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, spoke about not expecting a mutation, but of course it was not the virus mutating that was not expected—that is commonplace. The CMO spoke about that impactfully and early, in February and March; he utterly predicted that mutations would lead to a second wave. But the virus had not mutated much last year. In fact, it was a phenomenally rigid and consistent virus for a long time. What was not easy to predict was that a highly transmissible disease would emerge that completely outperforms its previous classic manifestation. We saw that only when the infection rates started to climb extremely quickly. We changed our tack accordingly, and we continue to change our tack.
As I have said from the Dispatch Box previously, we are in a different game now. Previously, the focus was on keeping a lid on infection rates and getting the prevalence levels low. That remains an important feature of our battle against Covid. On the other hand, we have to protect the vaccine. We are aware of the potential for a mutation to emerge that escapes the vaccine. That has been seen in other diseases and could be seen in this disease. That is why we have mobilised Operation Eagle to track down the South African variants that have landed in the UK, where we do not have a clear chain of transmission. That is why we are going door to door, offering PCR testing to all those—around 10,000 people—in each of the relevant postcodes, to put a lid on any community transmission. That is why we have deployed a special team, tracing variants of concern, which is tracking down the origins of each infection to stamp out and suppress variants of concern, where they emerge.
This is exactly the kind of capability that we need to put in place should a highly transmissible vaccine-escaping variant manifest itself. I pay tribute to those in test and trace who have put together this capability extremely quickly and are implementing it so thoroughly.
Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, alluded to the important issue of isolating. I hear those points loud and clear. We support those who are isolating, and make a £500 payment to those on benefits, who need it. Charities and local authorities support those who isolate. But I hear the point made about additional measures, and we are looking at further ways to support those who are required to isolate, either because they are infected themselves or because they are the contact of someone who is infected.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke thoughtfully and movingly about the role of the Lord Speaker in fighting HIV and AIDS, and I join her in paying tribute to the Lord Speaker, whose 83rd birthday was earlier this week. The messaging in that campaign was poignant, it cut through and we all remember it very well.
I also pay tribute to those in the communications team who have, during the last year, put through some incredibly impactful campaigning around the Covid messages. There has been massive societal behavioural change because of the clarity and the impact of the campaigns that we have done. Those campaigns have got better and better, and the most recent “look into my eyes” campaign, as it is now called, is one of the most impactful. When we look back on this campaign, we will think very highly of the marketing and communication skills of those in the Department of Health, the Cabinet Office and other departments, who have worked so hard in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, alluded to the vaccination of social care staff. She is absolutely right to allude to lists. One of the current difficulties is that we do not have proper lists of all those who work in various roles in social care, either as domiciliary staff or in unpaid roles. My colleagues are looking at this, and we are moving quickly to address it. I know that the noble Baroness feels very strongly about the vaccine dashboard; I have taken it back to the department and spoken to the vaccine team about it and I will raise the matter with them again. Regarding the unpaid carers and the delivery plan, I will take that to the department again. I will be happy to write to the noble Baroness.