Covid-19 Vaccination Roll-out

Tim Farron Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Sir David, for allowing me to make a few comments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on bringing forward this debate and setting the scene very well, as she always does with any issue she brings forward. I have previously highlighted with the Secretary of State for Health the need to include our teachers in the priority roll-call for vaccines. We did that just last week in the main Chamber.

The hon. Lady rightly highlighted that the education of children is paramount. Children are currently out of school and are being taught at home; that is not what families and children need. To expect a mother with no degree in teaching to understand how to teach a child the necessary tools of learning puts stress on the family, and too many children are missing out on learning. Some parents can home-school and others cannot. That is not disrespectful; it is a fact of life.

I have spoken to several teachers who are concerned about the fact that some parents are not logged on to the online learning tools for primary school children. Messages have been sent and encouragement has been given, yet the fact remains that some parents and carers are simply overwhelmed with home schooling. Add to the mix the parents who have to work from home and who are struggling to maintain their work life as well as spend adequate time on their children’s schooling. The pressures are immense, and it is very difficult on households. The pressure on teachers from trying to maintain contact and check the work of 30 pupils online is extensive. It is imperative that our children are back in class being taught by those who know what they are doing. It is clear that vaccinating teachers and teaching staff is necessary to keep them safe and keep our children in school.

I understand that the vaccine has not been tested for children, and there is little that we can do there. However, vaccinating school staff will help curb the spread of this virus. In my estimation, that is an essential part of our fight against covid. It is really important that teachers in nurseries and special needs schools also have the opportunity to have the vaccine—doubly so when we look at special needs schools, which are operating at full numbers and where staff are expected to teach with no protection around incredibly vulnerable children. We all know them; we meet them every day. I asked the Minister last week in the main Chamber to consider adding teachers to the priority vaccination list, and I am asking again for that to be done in Westminster Hall—it is probably one of the coldest places on the planet; it is so cold that we could hang beef in here and it would not go off—that is the truth. That is a fact of life; ask any butcher.

Today in the Chamber, the Minister replied to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on the issue of teachers and the vaccination. Education is one of the cornerstones of our society. That can continue only if our teachers are at full strength and are able to do their jobs, and vaccination is key to that.

Another issue that I want to highlight, as other Members have done—in particular, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—is the availability of the vaccine in rural areas and the need for support for rural GP practices that have thousands of patients on record. The patients who are most vulnerable need the best vaccine. We must make use of our incredibly capable armed forces logistics branches to arrange and implement in rural communities what could well be a mammoth task for GP practices individually. The fact is that people in towns will be quicker to receive the vaccine, but those in rural areas and in constituencies such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale really need to have equality in the vaccine roll-out. The precision with which our military operates is second to none, and I believe that it is a resource that we have yet to make full use of.

My mother is 89 years young, and she received her vaccine at 9.40 this morning. It is a happy day for us all, and I am very pleased. I have a sense of relief. Although I have told her to remain at home and be careful, there is a definite ray of hope. We need such hope being felt by every family member of the vulnerable in our society, and I believe that our military—our Army of the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—can support our GPs, who are under pressure, with the standard flu jab programme. It is interesting to read in the papers today that the flu jab—it is really good news, which we should welcome—has been so successful that the number of people dying of the flu has reduced dramatically. The figures for Northern Ireland are very clear.

We have the vaccine, and we have more knowledge than we did this time last year. It is now time to ensure that every person who wants to receive the vaccine will be able to do so in a timely manner. For those who are uncertain about it, or who are certain that they do not want to receive the vaccine, we must ensure that their wishes are respected and that the Government place no restrictions on those who exercise their free choice. Again, I ask the Minister to confirm that and put it on the record.

I am excited about the vaccine—I believe it is very hard not to be. We are in a better place today. We can have some confidence for the future. You and I, Sir David, are confident because we have faith, but we also have confidence in what the Government are doing, which is really important. I am sure the Minister will not let us down. There is a fully trained and obvious ready-to-go resource—let us use the military to get the vaccine out and make a difference to our battle against covid.