Covid-19: Vaccination

Nadhim Zahawi Excerpts
Monday 14th December 2020

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I have not finished yet. The hon. Member concluded his speech that day with lots of references to Ronald Reagan, which sent me down a reading rabbit hole that I have not yet finished. I still cannot get the attraction, but the merits of Reagan are perhaps a debate for another day. However, I thought the hon. Member made a very strong case on both the pragmatic and the moral arguments. I will come back to some of the implied coercion points that he made.

I welcome the Minister to his place. This is certainly the first time I have opposed him. We all enjoyed William Shakespeare being one of the first to get the vaccine, but no one made the Stratford connection to him as Minister. I thought that was a missed opportunity. I will make a few points, and hopefully draw him out on a couple of them. We know that many basic freedoms have been curtailed over the last year, and we all want that to end as soon as possible. We know that there is a strong desire for things to get back to normal, but these significant measures and restrictions on freedom are necessary, and we have seen yet another reminder of that today.

Vaccines are the most effective public health intervention, either in relation to coronavirus or health in general, so the progress that has been made should cheer us. It is therefore important that a significant proportion of people take up the vaccination, especially those with the greatest vulnerabilities. The last time we debated the covid-19 vaccine in this place was just over a month ago. It was the day after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had achieved success in phase 3 studies. Similarly, since then both the Moderna candidate and the University of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine have achieved similar success.

That is a remarkable story in terms of time. We saw wonderful pictures of people receiving their first dose last week, and I understand that this week the vaccination programme is being extended to GP surgeries. It has been a whirlwind month, and I commend the Government for what they have achieved. It is no small feat, and I know that the Minister will take my attempts to seek clarity in that spirit. I am not seeking to throw rocks at the success, but we want some answers.

I am particularly keen to know the Minister’s assessment of the take-up required for the programme to be effective. I submitted a written question on that and received a holding answer, but he might indulge me today. If the Government are not keen to be drawn on what the figure is, which I can understand, perhaps he could explain why they do not think sharing it is helpful. In my head, I would have a totaliser. When we are fixing the community centre roof, and we need to raise money, we colour it in every time we receive another hundred pounds, but that might well not be the right approach, and I would be keen to know why.

The vaccine is one thing; a vaccination programme is another. We have rightly been very critical of the big logistical challenges for the Government both in the roll-out of personal protective equipment and the implementation of test and trace. We cannot afford a situation where vaccines complete the set. I recognise that the early signs have been positive, but I wish to pick up on a couple of bits. We have been made aware of some care-home and hospital staff being at risk of missing out due to requirements of the IT system. Have those loopholes been closed yet? Has that been clarified?

Similarly, GPs have raised concerns with us about the new rules being brought in late in the day, so that vaccinations will take twice as long, as patients need to be observed for 15 minutes. Again, that might be on very good public health grounds, but I am keen to know from the Minister what they are. We know that general practice per designated site has to deliver at least 975 vaccinations over a seven-day period. I did not receive a convincing answer when I raised this last month with my opposite number, the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, but what is the assessed impact on other GP services and how will we ensure that practices can meet their normal case load? I would be very keen to hear those points addressed.

Turning to the substance of what these 300,000 people have asked us to discuss, at the root it is about vaccine hesitancy. It is very easy to talk about the anti-vax elements. I am glad that colleagues have not majored on that, because to an extent that is a straw man. Multiple hon. Members made contributions about just how thin the basis for those conspiracy theories or anti-vax sentiments are. We could spend all day deconstructing them and never lose the argument, but that concerns only a very small proportion of the British people.

We know from polling, and from our constituency mailbags, that those people are a very small group indeed. There is a much more significant and noticeable chunk of people—though far from a majority—who are vaccine-hesitant, and entirely reasonably. Some might simply not want to have it, as the hon. Member for Wycombe said, and we ought to respect that. Others might not want to do so because of safety concerns—something I have heard from lots of constituents. They want to know that any vaccination, be it for covid-19 or anything else, is safe, so we as political leaders have a really important role in giving constituents the confidence that they seek. That will hopefully come from people observing the debate, and from our public engagements in general.

I know people will be watching this debate. I do not always think that about the debates we have; I suspect my 30-minute Adjournment debates do not pull in the big numbers. My message to people watching is that if they are unconvinced by what we are saying, which is perfectly reasonable, they should ask, ask, ask. If they get a question answered and are still not happy, they should ask the next one. I would certainly say that to my constituents. We will seek to get them information through all the available channels, if that is what it takes for them to feel confident about receiving the vaccine.

I agree with a number of hon. Members that the sentiment of the petition slightly misses where we are at the moment. There is a pretty broad political consensus against compulsion, coercion or inconveniencing people into submission. I know what our position is as the Opposition, but no one studies what the Government say more closely than we do, and I have never detected a desire for mandatory vaccination in what they are saying. We all want to have confidence, and to know that the roll-out has been done through the proper process, rather than in any other way, and like other hon. Members who have spoken, I hope that business will take the same view. The Government might have a role in that, and I would be interested to know the Minister’s reflections on the contribution from the hon. Member for Wycombe. I would say gently to businesses that compulsory vaccination will almost certainly not do what they want it to do. It is therefore important to take some time and have a cool head on this issue.

People’s unwillingness to take the covid-19 vaccine has a knock-on effect on vaccine hesitancy more generally. In fact, this is probably the FA cup final of vaccine hesitancy. Last year, vaccine hesitancy was in the World Health Organisation’s top 10 threats to global health—it was up there with a future pandemic. It is something that we have to address, whether it is related to covid-19 or not. In Denmark in 2013, false claims in a documentary about the human papillomavirus vaccine led to a decline in uptake of around 90% among some cohorts. Similarly, between 2014 and 2017 in Ireland, vocal attacks on the HPV vaccine from the anti-vaccine lobby led to a drop in uptake from 70% to 50%. These things matter.

What we see through those developments, and through our experiences in this country, is that the best method of countering those views is through proactive, positive health-promoting campaigns. I know that is something the Government are doing, and it is very welcome—we will support them in that. It is almost certainly too early to have enough data to be able to talk about the efficiency of such things, but we want the Government to keep pushing hard on this issue. That is what our constituents want us to do—to explain and, as I say, make ourselves available to answer any questions that they have.

We have had an extraordinary year fighting the virus. There is now clearly a path for us to take—a light at the end of the tunnel, or however people want to characterise it. We need to pursue it with the same vigour with which we attacked the previous year. If we do, we might just get out of this thing.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on his leadership of this important debate on e-petition 323442. Over 300,000 people have signed the petition, including 641 in his constituency.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his very moving speech, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of his mother-in-law and the infection of his wife, other family members and friends. As the shadow Minister rightly pointed out, the hon. Member for Strangford brought home that each and every statistic is a person, with a family and people who love them very much.

I will hopefully address the excellent—as always—speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both for her excellent speech and for her clear confirmation that neither the Scottish Government nor the United Kingdom Government will mandate vaccination at all. I congratulate her chief medical officer, as well as the chief medical officers in Northern Ireland and Wales, who worked together so that we could all start to vaccinate on the same day, last Tuesday. I am grateful, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government this evening.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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We in Northern Ireland were first.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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I hear the hon. Gentleman; Northern Ireland was first by a few minutes.

Last week was a most important week across the United Kingdom, because we began vaccinating people against covid-19, and that, I hope, has started to turn the tide on this virus. The pandemic has forced the Government and our devolved Administrations to take steps that are truly unprecedented in peacetime. They are steps that no democratic Government would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary. At each point in the pandemic, every decision we have taken has been with the utmost consideration for its impact on our personal freedoms. As hon. Members have brilliantly highlighted this evening, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly reminded us, the petition that we are debating is a matter of great legal and ethical complexity.

Before I address some of those complexities, I will set out the facts. First, there are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have a covid vaccination. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us, we have no plans to introduce so-called vaccine passporting. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was slightly nervous about that, quite rightly, as when I did my first interview about the issue—with the BBC, I think—I was asked about some of the technological challenges and I may have mis-spoken. I was grateful to The Spectator and TalkRadio, which allowed me to explain myself.

Mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and others, I urge businesses listening to this debate to not even think about that. I will explain in further detail why that is the wrong thing to do. I put on record my thanks to Professor Karol Sikora, who has many hundreds of thousands of followers, who quoted me and said I eloquently dealt with the issue. We have absolutely no plans for vaccine passporting.

Secondly, cards that were issued after people got their first covid-19 vaccination have been mentioned on social media. Among other details, they contain the date of their second vaccination. That record does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport. It does mean anyone is immune. As we know, the vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart. The second dose is the booster dose. I am sure hon. Members will forgive me for repeating the message that patients must return as instructed for their second dose. Without the second dose, the vaccine will not be effective. That is a really important message, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who are repeating that to their constituents.

Thirdly, on completion of both vaccinations, patients will be issued with a vaccine record card, much as they are for other vaccination programmes, so there is nothing different in the way we are dealing with this vaccine. Again, that does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport; nor can it be used as a form of identification. That would be absolutely wrong. Colleagues will appreciate that the careful and accurate recording of vaccination status is an important part of a public health effort. It supports patient safety during probably the largest and most challenging vaccination programme in British history.

Fourthly, in addressing the many who signed the petition, I want to underline one key fact, which we have heard over and over again from hon. Members: vaccines work. It is really important that we send that message from this place. After clean water, they are the single greatest public health tool in the history of mankind. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us of Edward Jenner. It fills me with great joy that the Jenner Institute was one of the first to stand up and say, “We can do this.” I hope that, after a rigorous study by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be in place as soon as approval comes through. Obviously it is up to the regulator to deliver that.

Vaccines, as we have heard, have ended untold suffering for millions, if not billions, of people around the world. When our turn comes and our GP gets in touch, we all have a duty to heed that call. It is how we will be able to protect ourselves and the people around us—our friends and family, the people we love. Months of trials, involving thousands of people, have shown that the vaccines we are using are effective. They work. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, they have been tested on between 15,000 and 50,000 people. There were no shortcuts or quick fixes by the MHRA; it has followed exactly the same process as usual. The difference is that instead of waiting for phase 1 to finish before doing phase 2, and then phase 3, the studies were in parallel; hence we were able to develop the vaccines rapidly.

Fifthly, and equally importantly, each covid vaccine will be authorised only, as I have said, once it has met robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality. As we have heard, vaccines authorised by our independent regulator, the MHRA, will be assessed for clinical safety and effectiveness through a robust review. The vaccine is free to everyone eligible across the UK. There is really no excuse for someone not to take it when their turn comes.

Sixthly, although we know the vaccine protects individuals, we do not yet know its precise impact on onward transmission. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe made that point brilliantly himself, and by quoting the Secretary of State. In answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), we will not know where the point is that he mentioned until we scale up the vaccinations. We will continue to monitor the impact on transmission through the Test and Trace system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, we do know that the vaccine protects people, which is the important thing. That is why I encourage everyone to read, read and read again—or to ask, ask and ask again, to quote the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

The full impact on infection rates will not become clear until we get to those large numbers, so we are monitoring that carefully. Hon. Members will understand that without our knowing that, it would be irresponsible for anyone to declare that they are immune. The Qantas question is therefore completely wrong, because it is impossible for anyone to say that. The science does not yet support that conclusion. Even if people are vaccinated, they must continue to follow the rules where they are, and keep taking the common-sense steps that are now so familiar to us—washing our hands, covering our face and making space.

Hon. Members have raised many questions about the World Health Organisation and the required international response. The United Kingdom Government have led the way. We could do even more. Next year, the UK will take up the presidency of the G7, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned; we will need to deal with anti-vaxxers nationally and internationally. We look forward to working with many nations on that challenge.

I will turn to some of the hon. Gentleman’s other questions. On GPs and the additional 15 minutes, that was the further guidance from the MHRA after two cases in which people with a history of severe allergies had an allergic reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That is why there was a change to the process. On the roll-out today to primary care networks and the question about caseloads, it is brilliant that GPs have come together with primary care networks. For example, in an area of 50,000 people and five practices, they have come together and agreed that one would lead on the vaccination while the other four continued to support the community and deal with caseloads. On his question about care home staff who continue to be prioritised, I am happy to take that offline with him if he has a particular case or details.

The petition that we have debated is of profound importance. I urge anyone who is considering refusing a covid-19 vaccination to ask and ask again. Not only is the vaccine effective and proven to be clinically safe, but the quicker we are able to vaccinate people, the quicker we can bring forward the date when we can begin to lift the oppressive restrictions that were put in place with a truly heavy heart. I came from a world of entrepreneurialism, of unleashing people’s ingenuity, energy and passion. I did not enter politics to restrict people’s freedoms, which I profoundly believe in. In the meantime, we all have our part to play. We must continue to respect the rules to ensure that the efforts succeed and can be our shared success, so that we can all have a more joyous 2021. If I do my job properly, we will all be back in this Chamber celebrating, I hope, without the restrictions that we have today.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this e-petitions debate. The shadow Public Health Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), is right: people are watching. For Members who are interested, Petitions Committee debates attract higher ratings on average than even Prime Minister’s questions, so it is worth taking part.

To reiterate the main points that we have covered in today’s debate, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke of the privileged position that we are in today to be talking about a vaccine, and I could not agree more. It is excellent news at the end of an incredibly difficult year. The shadow Public Health Minister spoke about the pride that we should take in the UK’s history and involvement in vaccines, beginning with Edward Jenner in 1796, and going right up to now, with our contribution to Gavi.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for reminding us of the very human cost of the virus. The shadow Minister and the Minister are right: behind every statistic there is a real person and a real family torn apart by the virus. We must remember that as we make decisions on how best to tackle it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) put the case for the petitioners very well indeed. We do not want, and will not see, as the Minister has confirmed, restrictions put in place, certainly not mandated by the UK Government—or indeed the Scottish Government, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran has confirmed. I hope that businesses and other organisations are watching and hearing that message. To repeat what we have all said, I urge everyone to get the vaccine when their time comes. They should ask questions if they have concerns, and should listen to the people who have the knowledge. Let us beat this thing and get back to normal.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 323442, relating to vaccination for Covid-19.