Baroness Thornton (Lab)
My Lords, this has been a proper House of Lords debate and I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations with such clarity. I need to declare an interest as a non-executive director of an NHS hospital.
I would like to start my remarks by quoting my honourable friend Wes Streeting, the shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who said yesterday that
“it should not be for me, as shadow Secretary of State, to point out”
to some Conservative MPs, following remarks made in the media in recent days,
“that we are not living in the 1930s and that the Secretary of State and his team are not Nazis.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/12/21; col 954.]
It is sad that my honourable friend felt that he needed to say that. Our history is peppered with examples of where we required citizens to act in a way that served both their own self-interest and the interests of others. That does not make us a totalitarian state. I believe that the public are less outraged by the fact that some obligations are being placed on them than by the antics of those who blatantly and arrogantly imagine that the obligations do not apply to them.
On these Benches we will be supporting the Government today, as we did yesterday, and we will vote with the Government if the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, chooses to test the opinion of the House on either of the fatal amendments before us. Actually, the noble Lord said that these Benches would go further than the Motions before us. That is not true—but what is certainly true is that we have tended to be two or three weeks ahead of the Government. We have said “We think you need to do this, that or the other”—and I can testify to this, having been here for nearly two years, saying this —and the Government have said “No, no, no”, and two or three weeks later that is exactly what happens.
We will act in the national interest, as we have done throughout the pandemic, putting public health before party politics, by supporting the Motions under consideration now. Our task today—as it has been throughout the pandemic—is to consider what is best for the health of our nation and how to discharge our responsibility to protect our NHS.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, absolutely nailed it when he said that we had to listen to the CMO, the CSO, the other scientists and the public health experts, and follow the course of action that they were recommending. This was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who said that we should be listening to the advice we are given. My noble friend Lord Davies put these regulations into proportion in terms of what they are seeking to achieve. There is no doubt that sacrifices have impacted on lives, livelihoods and liberties; that is why noble Lords need to scrutinise and question how the Government are dealing with this issue, or indeed mishandling it. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, and other noble Lords that we would be having this debate today whether or not he had put down his amendments.
On Sunday the Prime Minister made a totally unnecessary broadcast which served to panic people and create worry and confusion. Presumably he was trying to re-establish leadership credibility for himself, which clearly did not work with his own Conservative Benches. The broadcast was irresponsible in its lack of preparedness and clarity. As well as displeasing Mr Speaker, as the Prime Minister tends to do, it held Parliament in contempt yet again.
The lack of clarity is clear, for example, as NHS England and the Prime Minister have made conflicting promises on the booster rollout, leaving plans to deal with the rapid spread of omicron mired in chaos and confusion. On Sunday evening, the Prime Minister said:
“Everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the New Year.”
However, the NHS has promised a different target, pledging to offer all adults the chance to book a booster rather than receive one. Pressed on the conflicting advice, NHS England said:
“The NHS vaccination programme will offer every adult the chance to book a COVID-19 booster vaccine by the end of the year”.
Perhaps the Minister could clarify for the House which it is. If the Prime Minister has promised 1 million vaccinations a day, how is that supposed to be achieved?
I think it was even worse for local government than for the NHS. A local council leader in London, with a London-wide strategic role, said that 72 hours’ notice would have been helpful. It is not the need to up the vax and testing capability but the lack of planning—hence no tests, no testing ability and vaccinations not available. There was not one mention of local government in the Statement we heard on Monday. Had the relevant Government departments talked to local government, and when did they do that? It begs the question: did the NHS even know about Sunday’s statement before it was made?
We cannot yet be sure about the severity of the omicron variant, but we can be certain, as many noble Lords have said, that it is spreading faster than any other variant. Even if a smaller proportion of omicron victims are hospitalised, the rapid advance of the virus through the population could see large numbers of people admitted to hospital during the months in which the NHS is already under the greatest pressure. The winter months present pressures on the NHS in any normal year, and we know that this is far from a normal year.
The NHS is contending with winter pressures, a serious backlog, the delta variant and now this variant. Many of the challenges are understandable, given the unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we have got to be honest and acknowledge that confronting them has been made much harder because the country went into the pandemic with waiting lists already at 4.5 million, 100,000 NHS staff vacancies and a shortage of 112,000 staff in social care. My noble friend Lord Rooker was quite correct on that. We support the NHS and care services in the task they have been set. Let me say from these Benches to every NHS worker, every GP, every pharmacist, every public health official in local government, every member of the Armed Forces and every volunteer stepping up to meet this enormous task that we are with them 100% and thank them again.
The measures put forward for consideration today are an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, while trying to protect Christmas so that people can enjoy the festive season. They are about limiting interactions in the workplace, wearing face coverings in settings where the virus finds it easiest to spread, testing before we attend large indoor gatherings, and getting behind the booster rollout to ensure that everyone who can be protected is protected.
The goal in the end must be to learn to live with the virus. That means effective vaccination, antiviral treatments and public health measures that have a minimal impact on our lives, jobs and businesses. No one enjoys wearing a mask, but it is nothing compared with the costs that more draconian restrictions have for our lives, livelihoods and liberties. Masks are simply a price worth paying for our freedom to go out and live our lives during this pandemic.
On the introduction of a Covid pass for large indoor gatherings, the Labour Party argued against vaccine passports without the option of showing a negative test. Further, we argued that such passes should not be required for access to essential services. On both counts, I am pleased to say that the Government listened and amended the proposals, so we will support this measure today. I regret that colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches do not feel able to do so, but let me be clear: we in the Labour Party support Covid passes because we support British businesses. We want to give people the confidence to go out and about—to go to venues and to the theatre—despite the presence of this virus.
With passes and lateral flow tests, venues can operate at 100% capacity. Look at Italy, France and Denmark—countries with strict Covid rules. All have seen their retail and recreation sectors fare far better than those in the UK. However, for the passes to work, people must be able to access tests readily and easily. We cannot continue in this situation where tests are out of stock, so I ask the Minister whether this has been resolved or when it will be.
For months, we have called for workers to be given the flexibility to work from home and we support the guidance to work from home where possible. However, how does the Minister explain the contradiction that many noble Lords have asked about, which is why, at the same time, the Government are allowing them to go to Christmas parties? By limiting the interactions people have at work and by lowering infections, we hope to preserve their ability to go ahead with social events anyway.
Noble Lords have talked about ventilation in schools. We know that young people have borne the brunt of this pandemic, and we owe it to them and their education to support them and staff to make sure our schools are properly ventilated. The Christmas holidays seem to us to be an ideal time to get young people vaccinated. When does the Minister expect to know about this matter and share it with the House?
I hope this is my last contribution on Covid this year. I therefore end by wishing all noble Lords a safe and happy Christmas.