Covid-19 Vaccination Roll-out

Munira Wilson Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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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.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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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.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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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.