Covid-19 Vaccination Roll-out

Tonia Antoniazzi Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

[Relevant Documents: E-petition 564155, Prioritise COVID-19 vaccines for first responders (police, fire, ambulance).]

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee in this debate. Some may note that, owing to the latest restrictions and recommendations from Mr Speaker, many hon. Members are unable to attend Westminster Hall in person. For reasons beyond the comprehension of the sensible, there is a reluctance by the Leader of the House to make these debates accessible virtually to all Members, so I ask the petition’s signatories not to be disappointed if they feel that their voices have not been heard; I have been contacted by many Members of Parliament and hope to reflect what many of them have told me.

The initial petition to be debated is entitled “Prioritise teachers, school and childcare staff for Covid-19 vaccination” and was set up by Charlotte. It has close to 460,000 signatures and the number is rising all the time. A newer petition related to the debate has also been tagged, which calls for first responders to be prioritised alongside NHS workers. It was set up by Laura Sylvester and had nearly 49,000 signatures when I last checked.

I want to be clear from the start that this debate is not about leapfrogging others who deserve the vaccine; it is about ensuring that our teachers, school staff and first responders are able to access the vaccine—it is them on the frontline every day delivering vital services. When I spoke to Charlotte, a primary schoolteacher from High Peak, she was so mindful of the necessity of vaccinating those people on the list already, but teachers want consideration of where they are placed on that list. Only NHS staff and healthcare workers have been considered as priority groups by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but I and many others think that overlooks the role that teachers and frontline workers have already played during the pandemic, and the contribution that they will continue to make.

The advice from the JCVI on the priority groups for a covid-19 vaccine, as stated in the petitions, does not include school and childcare workers. The petition therefore calls for those workers who cannot distance or use personal protective equipment to be kept safe at work by being put on the vaccine priority list, and for that to be adopted into Government policy. Some correspondence that I have received since the fact of the debate was published stated that to hold such a debate was a waste of parliamentary time, and that to question the conclusions of the JCVI was to undermine its decisions. However, the role of Parliament is to debate and to scrutinise the Government. The Petitions Committee is a vehicle for genuine first-hand concerns to be expressed on behalf of everyday people. I am honoured to be able to do so.

As a former teacher, I recognise that education is the greatest gift that we can give to our future generations—those who will be facing the consequences not only of the pandemic but of Brexit. My own son has had his centre-assessed GCSEs and now his AS-levels affected. It is far from what any of us ever imagined would happen. How do we get children back into school and in front of their teachers?

We know the consequences of missing school, especially for the most deprived, and those consequences lead to a widening of the attainment gap. Research by the charity Teach First suggests that school closures risk further contributing to that problem through the digital divide: 84% of schools with the poorest pupils do not have enough devices or internet access to ensure that pupils can learn from home, compared with 66% of schools in the most affluent areas. Access to technology, family home environments and economic pressures suggest that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to miss out on learning as a result of being at home.

There needs to be a plan, there needs to be a back-up plan and there needs to be a plan for the unthinkable. Getting teachers, and therefore pupils, back into school must be one of the key aims for this Government, and that should be reflected in the prioritisation of the vaccine. Think about how much contact a teacher has with human beings in one day, where there is no social distancing or it is practically impossible. Teachers see vast amounts of children in a week, according to a normal timetable, so there are many opportunities for the virus to spread.

We need to give children and young adults the best chance in life, and that always starts with their education. I can tell anyone who has not worked in the classroom environment that it is hard to comprehend the challenges that our teachers face every day. We cannot expect teachers to work in an unsafe environment. Schools have spent a lot of time making their environment safe, and the consensus among teachers is that they cannot give their best through online teaching. Teachers do what they do to inspire, develop skills, build confidence, entertain and impart knowledge. They want to be back in the classroom and to change the lives of the children they teach and want to teach.

The NASUWT has presented evidence showing that staff working in both secondary and primary schools are far more likely to be infected than the wider community, with rates of virus prevalence among school staff being three to four times higher than the prevalence rate for non-teachers. I welcome the announcement made last week by the Welsh Government about prioritising teaching and support staff in special schools. Those schools have remained open throughout the pandemic to support children classed as vulnerable. It is right that they are able to continue to deliver the excellent, vital support that they provide to families of children with additional needs. The Government must also give due consideration to those who deliver childcare in nursery settings. They are the carers of our youngest children. Those settings do not traditionally fall within education, but they must not, because of that, be forgotten.

It is pertinent that England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, suggested that teachers and other frontline workers could be included in the next stage of vaccinations, which will cover the next five priority groups, including the over-50s and those with risky underlying health conditions. Many MPs from across the House agree that the reconsideration of the JCVI prioritisation schedule is necessary. Can the Minister give assurances that the JCVI will reconsider vaccine reprioritisation for certain professions? Will he be able to lay out the comprehensive plan for school leaders and local authorities that will provide the necessary financial and logistical support to implement the plans?

Although I have spoken mainly to teachers, the additional petition talks about the UK Government and the JCVI considering prioritising first responders alongside NHS carers and workers. To put that request into context, it is helpful to highlight the fact that, across the UK, there are just over 210,000 first responders and emergency service workers. It is not beyond the wit of man to make them a priority. Because first responders have an

“increased level of exposure with the general public every day and lack of regular testing”

they are at a higher risk of contracting covid-19 and transmitting it to the public. Losing our first responders on the frontline puts the public at risk of not being served when they most need it. Prioritising vaccines will help to ensure

“protection and safety of their health whilst carrying out their jobs on the frontline”

and lower

“the risk of easily contracting/transmitting COVID-19 to co-workers, their families, and the general public”.

The reprioritisation of the JCVI list is necessary. Government cannot just say, “This is what the JCVI says,” and that that must therefore be set in stone.

However, there is another consideration that the Government could use to address their concerns. That is laid out in “A Plan for Vaccine Acceleration” published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on 3 January:

“Almost 1 million people in the United Kingdom have received their first-dose vaccination against Covid-19. This is a Herculean effort from the NHS, which must be applauded. But in the situation we face, it is unfortunately not sufficient.”

That is not a criticism of the NHS. It is a reflection on the planning and strategy of the Government. If the Minister and the Department would consider following that plan for vaccine acceleration, there might be some hope on the horizon of our children returning to education and frontline workers carrying out their jobs fear-free, because our teachers and frontline workers, and our children, deserve better.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Colleagues, there are a number of changes. First, you will have noticed that there is a statement in the House, so the Minister and shadow spokesman are still detained there. I am sure that colleagues will be kind to the two Members standing in their place, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but everyone should bear in mind that they did not expect to be in that position. Furthermore, a number of Members who are on the call list have disappeared and not come back, and are not in the Chamber, so the order in which I call Members will be Opposition, Government, Opposition. I shall try to indicate the order to you. I call Craig Williams.

Craig Williams Portrait Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
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It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a great delight to be called earlier than I expected. I welcome the tone in which the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) introduced the petition. She has given a great voice to both petitions. I echo the statement that this is a very worthy and timely debate—anybody who has been filling her inbox to say the contrary is wrong.

There is an undertone of great political agreement about the JCVI’s recommendations, because we have Governments of different colours across the United Kingdom. We have a Labour and Liberal Democrat Government in Wales—the Education Minister is of the Liberal persuasion, but they are primarily a Labour Government. We have a Conservative Government in Westminster, and we have a Scottish National party Government in Scotland. Broadly, however, the JCVI has stacked up in its entirety in its recommendations.

I accept the spirit of the petitions and the recommendation for frontline workers and teachers to have early vaccinations. I had my county chair of the National Farmers Union on the phone this morning, and he was pleading for farmers and people working in food processing and in important sectors supplying food—not just to our hospitals, but to our entire country—to receive special treatment as the vaccinations are rolled out. There is a huge lobby around this issue. I cannot think of a better call-up in short order than the Minister, and I am expecting an excellent reply, but we really need a vaccination programme that speeds up at pace across the whole United Kingdom. I will make a number of asks in my short contribution—I know a lot of Members wish to speak.

Although I broadly support the intent of the petitions, I stand squarely behind the recommendations made thus far by the JCVI. We are in the right phasing. The hon. Member for Gower was right to look at opening up the next round of vaccinations, but my plea is to get vaccinating as quickly as possible. We have seen different stages of planning across the United Kingdom. As a Welsh Member, I know we are at a different stage in Wales from the one in England. We also see a different phase of the roll-out in Scotland. My plea is to get vaccinating the groups identified by the JCVI as quickly as possible, and then to vaccinate the wider population. I can see the hon. Lady gearing up—I will certainly give way if she wants, knowing my Welsh colleague well.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I thank the hon. Member for giving way. If schools will be returning to normal practice after half-term in February—that is where we are now, practically across the United Kingdom—does he agree that there is real urgency to know what is going to be different this time round? What will be put in place this time round? That is why there is an urgent need to revisit the vaccination programme.

Craig Williams Portrait Craig Williams
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As the father of an eight-year-old and a four-year-old starting their education, I know home-schooling presents a challenge. I dare say that nobody present wants the schools reopened more quickly than I do, but let us be clear that we need to vaccinate in this country to keep deaths down. Of course education is of primary importance, and people would expect a father of young children to echo what is being said up and down the country, but the JCVI has made it clear that the first phases will tackle the mortality rate. It has to be the priority of Members in this Chamber and our Governments across the United Kingdom to keep the mortality rate as low as possible.

There are a couple of things that I will ask the Minister to focus on. I would like information published about how many vaccines are being delivered to the devolved Administrations, so that we can hold their feet to the fire on their delivery. I want to see how many vaccines are being supplied. We can then evaluate roll-out processes in the light of day, rather than operate as we are doing now.

I would like further consideration of what can be done for frontline first responders and teachers in future roll-outs. How do they feature? My key ask, however, is that we be as transparent as possible with the vaccine roll-out. We need communication not just with our teachers and first responders, but across the country, to make it clear when people can expect vaccinations and when the schools will fully reopen, so that we can say goodbye to Zoom—especially those of us with a four-year-old. When can people expect their local vaccine centres, GPs, or, I hope and pray eventually in Wales, community pharmacists to get involved in the frontline delivery of vaccines?

My plea today is that we follow the clear guidance from the JCVI and the ambition to keep mortality rates as low as possible, but that we are transparent with our teachers and our constituents to make sure that they see this roll out at speed.

Break in Debate

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. Standing here in lockdown again, with the Chancellor telling the House this afternoon that it is going to get worse before it gets better, I have to say that 2021 is starting to look a lot like 2020.

I could support lockdown 3 last week, whereas I could not support the lockdown in November, because we finally have the ultimate release from the deadly cycle of lockdown and release in the form of the covid vaccine. I warmly welcome the “UK COVID-19 vaccines delivery plan”, published this afternoon. We need to study it, and we will, but the figures suggest we have made a strong start. As the Health Secretary said in Downing Street this afternoon, 2.6 million jabs have been given to 2.3 million people, according to the very latest figures.

I welcome the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is responsible for many of the jabs. He has taken his seat at exactly the right time, because I agree with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), that we should vaccinate 24/7. I think there will be an appetite for that. The idea of key workers being vaccinated overnight and perhaps those in the older categories during the day if they do not want it during the night is absolutely fine. Let us at least give them the opportunity. It might be cold and it might be dark, but I will make the tea.

There is no question but that we will see problems, and the Minister will be the first to acknowledge that. Supply is going to be lumpy in the next few days, and that is creating problems. I cannot hide from that. We are off to a flier in my constituency of Winchester, way ahead of many areas. In fact, one primary care network in my district has already delivered more jabs than the whole of France. None the less, it is very frustrating that just today a raft of appointments made for this week in my constituency has had to be postponed because of supply problems. We cannot doubt the fact that this hits public confidence. I thank the Minister for Vaccines for his engagement with me and the primary care network involved this weekend, and plead with him to help us get this corrected and get the deliveries into this part of Hampshire, so that these appointments can be made good and carried out as soon as possible.

Looking at the delivery plan, such as I have been able to this afternoon, I agree about the publishing of data. Daily national data is so important—transparency is our best weapon—but daily regional data will also be really important. I want to see areas with enough supply almost competing to better each other. If Lancashire is doing better than Yorkshire, I have a funny feeling that Yorkshire will want to do better than Lancashire. That is the sort of national effort that we need to see right now. We need to jab for victory, get covid done—whatever three-word slogan the Minister chooses. Let’s do it.

As the Minister knows, it is my strong belief that these awful restrictions on our lives cannot be in place for a day longer than they are required, so alongside the published vaccine delivery plan and the daily figures on how we are getting this done, we have to give the public some hope. In the past hour or so, the Secretary of State has said at the No. 10 press conference that just over 88% of those likely to get seriously unwell and sadly die from covid reside within the top four priority vaccine groups. My view is that given that the only metric that really counts, and the reason why public support for lockdown is so high, is the desire to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, logic would dictate that once that threat has gone away, we can start to lift the restrictions. We need clear heads if we want to do that. Covid-19 is not a conspiracy or a hoax. We were right to take it seriously last spring, and we are right to take it seriously now, but we are equally right to demand a plan that dismantles the most draconian laws this Parliament has brought in in centuries, and to do so in lockstep with the vaccination programme that we have.

We know the plan commits the Government to vaccinate the top four groups by 15 February, which is great. As Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, grimly reminds us, we expect between 7,000 and 10,000 deaths from flu each year in an average year. The most cautious reading would suggest that the vaccination programme should take covid deaths well below this level, so when we have vaccinated the highest-risk groups, what will we do? When we have completed phase 1 by vaccinating all those with above-average risk in late March, what will we do then? These are important questions, and ones that I will keep asking. We do not lock society down for common colds or seasonal flu; we cannot do the same for the little-understood condition that is long covid, no matter how awful it can be. The many other economic, health and societal impacts of this pandemic are already serious enough, so we need a clear road map out of this that the public can believe in, or this year is going to make the last look tame by comparison.

The petition is right to look at the next phase of the vaccination strategy, but there are so many competing groups asking to be put in the front of that next phase. Supermarket checkout staff interact with huge numbers of people from multiple households, more than any teacher would during any working day. What about police officers? Just this afternoon, I had an email from a constituent telling me about the work that her son is doing in London. Maybe they should be top of the next queue. Pharmacists are going to play a very central role—I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for even mentioning pharmacists. They are brilliant, and as a former pharmacy Minister, I can say they are going to play a brilliant role in the roll-out of this. Maybe they should be top of the next phase’s queue.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we talk about prioritisation, teachers range from early years to further and higher education, and have widespread responsibilities and contacts, including intimate care with young children? Think of a secondary schoolteacher, carrying their bags around to each and every classroom in which they have to teach under certain systems that have been put in place. I cannot think of another group of people who have that much contact with other humans, and I cannot stress that enough.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine
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I do not disagree. The hon. Lady probably thinks that I am working up to disagreeing with the premise of the petition. I am not. The point that I am making, before I agree with the premise, is that there are so many competing groups and, while supply is lumpy—supply is limited at the moment—we have to prioritise, which is why phase 1 has to be right.

My overriding message is this. Let us get on with it. Let us have this national programme. Let us implement the vaccine delivery plan. And then we will put all these groups in. With regard to teachers, I absolutely agree: if reopening and keeping open schools is the Government’s priority, and the Westminster Government say that it is, surely it is good sense, let alone good politics, to vaccinate educators. I say “educators” because of course it is not just teachers, but support workers and all the other people who make schools happen. That must make sense, but I will just say that if we are going to have schools reopened at the end of half-term, we have almost, now, lost the opportunity to do that, because we have to give people the jab and then allow three weeks for it to take effect. That now cannot happen before the end of half-term, so there will be a gap, however we cut this particular cake.

Let me finish by talking about early years, which people would expect me to do as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education. The JCVI obviously identified its groups, and some early years workers will be covered by the groups involving the clinically extremely vulnerable and

“all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality”.

It is not the case that no teachers and no early years workers will be covered in phase 1; of course some will be. With regard to phase 2, the JCVI states:

“Vaccination of those at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 due to their occupation could…be a priority in the next phase.”

Its suggested list includes teachers, and I believe that early years workers should be a high priority, based on two key factors.

First, unlike schools, the early years sector is currently open to all children, meaning that staff are coming into contact with similar numbers of children as they were prior to the latest national lockdown. Secondly, it is of course impossible to socially distance from babies and young children. They need close personal care, such as changing nappies, treating cuts and just giving them a cuddle when they bump themselves. All early years settings are currently open to all children, and of course that is vital in providing continuity of care and early education to the youngest children, but with regard to supporting those settings and keeping them open and keeping those staff safe, I think that they have a strong case. Why are they treated differently? That was what the hon. Member for Leeds North West said. Well, early years workers are a fairly mild bunch. They do not have a powerful trade union often speaking up for them. They have only me and a few other people in the House of Commons. And that is possibly the reason why.

This petition makes a lot of sense. I think that, for every person who has signed the petition, that comes from a good place. I think that it comes from a will to see schools, educators and young people treated fairly and kept safe from this awful pandemic. Anything that we can do to roll out the vaccine delivery plan, which the excellent Minister, now in his place, will ensure happens, will move us out of this nightmare, and then maybe I can stop being a grinch about 2021.

Break in Debate

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will apologise at this point, because I am listed as No. 11 in the main Chamber afterwards and I want to get to the Global UK debate—not the Global Britain debate, because I live in the UK; but that is a separate point. As we say at home, it would starve you in here. It is so cold that I think Pfizer could use this room to keep its vaccine at the proper temperature for us all.

It is an honour to follow my colleague the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who quite rightly said that he has been disappointed so far with 2021. I have finished my 10-day free trial and I want a refund on the rest of 2021. Look, it is absolutely, entirely a matter of free will whether someone takes a vaccine if and when it becomes available. I am delighted that people are being given so much encouragement to take the vaccine. Of course, that has to be mixed with support for testing people and making sure that the right people get the vaccine as quickly as possible. It is absolutely right and proper that those most at risk are at the head of the queue.

I welcome the fact that today the Northern Ireland Executive have prioritised domiciliary care staff receiving the vaccine in Northern Ireland. That started this afternoon. Quite frankly, there is a hierarchy of frontline workers. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) was right to point out that educationalists should be at the top of that list, because of their reach across the entire community, whether they are early years workers or schoolteachers, or they manage kids with special needs in schools and institutions that have not been closed down as a result of covid. It is important that those frontline workers do not feel that they are second or third in the queue, and that society recognises their key and important role. It is disappointing to read that in some hospitals, more management staff have received the vaccine than nursing staff. That is abhorrent and wrong, and that balance has to be addressed. It is important that our frontline workers—our nursing staff—get it.

I strongly believe that schoolteachers are on the frontline. If we want schools to open again quickly, we have to start with early years and go right the way through to make sure that children can get back to school for the sake of their mental health, of opening up our society again and, of course, of promoting the welfare of our young people.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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The hon. Gentleman brought up mental health, which is really important. I am greatly concerned about my 16-year-old studying for his A-levels. He has just started college with a new group of friends, but he does not have the opportunity to socialise and have the life experiences that we experienced. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is of utmost importance to get children and students back into school and education as soon as possible?

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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The hon. Member has knocked it out of the park; she is absolutely right. It is key that we get our kids back in there so that they can socialise and work together again, and be the engine room of our society for the future. That will only happen when we get them back to school and facilitate that.

I received an email today from Ben Sidor, a student at Queen’s University Belfast. It is not just at the school level, but at the university level that people are being denied the positive interactions with their friends and peers that will allow them to become the men and women of tomorrow that society will look up to generation after generation. We must encourage that.

The hon. Member for Winchester mentioned the use of other organisations, which is important. Community pharmacies are key to the roll-out of the vaccine. Frankly, community pharmacists in my constituency have saved the NHS in the last couple of years. They are undervalued and underrated, yet they play a key role. Getting pharmacists on to the frontline to help with the roll-out is critical.

I also welcome the call to use the skills of our military. The Army is brilliant at logistical planning. We should use its skill to roll out the plan and to make sure that it is quick, efficient and agile, and that it responds to the needs of the community on the ground. There is no reason why our Army could not be used for that positive work. We are quite happy to send it to Sierra Leone to roll out vaccination projects there, so why can we not do that in our own nation and use its logistical planning skills?

I fear that there will be a shortage that will have an impact on certain parts of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland protocol already means that PPE is waiting at Stranraer and cannot get into Northern Ireland because of tax inspectors. Can you imagine, Sir David, if the same happened with vaccinations—if they were ready for Northern Ireland, but could not get there because of the protocol? That needs to be addressed urgently, and I raised the point personally with the Chancellor today.

I leave hon. Members with those thoughts. I welcome the debate, which is very important. I hope that those who wish, of their free will, to have the vaccination have that facilitated urgently.

Break in Debate

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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The hon. Gentleman predicts the journey I am about to embark on. I will talk about that very legitimate point, which hon. Members have raised. AstraZeneca promised 30 million doses by September, but that went down to 4 million by the end of the year and, clearly, much less has been delivered on the ground. All the best plans possible will not matter if the supply is not there. Various Members have raised this issue, so when he responds, I hope the Minister will set out the exact position in terms of supply. How many doses have been received to date from each manufacturer? How many are expected each week? What are the weekly projections for delivery?

I will give the Minister a local example. My vaccination centre in Ellesmere Port is due to open sometime this week, but nobody knows exactly when because nobody knows when the first delivery will arrive. One thing this country is not short of is logistics experts. The Vaccine Taskforce is supposed to have been addressing this for months, so those on the frontline should not have been put in the position of not knowing when the vaccine is going to arrive. No vaccine should be left on the shelves, in warehouses or stuck at a factory gate waiting to be delivered. Greater transparency would be much appreciated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, we could do with a performance dashboard covering not just the total figures published each week, but the proportionate numbers in each category of the priority list, including NHS staff—at clinical commissioning group level as well as nationally—so that everyone can see what progress is being made. There are references to that in the document that was produced today.

Turning to the subject matter of the petition, we know from what SAGE has said that schools are making a significant contribution to the R rate and that, with infections running out of control, the closure of schools—except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers—was, sadly, inevitable. As we have said, however, there are multiple reasons why reopening them has to be a priority, not least the importance of getting children back into the classroom. Although we could not go against the JCVI priority list—indeed, it is likely that a change now would be counterproductive—we believe that, as with the change to the period between the first and second doses, serious consideration needs to be given to the order in which the vaccine should be distributed after the initial phase. Indeed, I think Sir Simon Stevens has said as much today.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that the most clinically vulnerable adults who work in education will receive the vaccine shortly anyway, and we believe that the priority should be to increase the number of people who have received the first dose, so that debates over prioritisation become obsolete. However, if that is not possible, we believe that it is more than reasonable to look not only at the risk posed by particular workplaces but at the wider societal benefits of vaccinating particular groups of workers.

I hope that we have sufficient supplies and delivery networks so that we do not end up in a position where particular groups of workers are pitted against one another, but clearly there is a strong case for priority to be given to those working in education settings. At this point, may I thank everyone who works in education for their contribution? I know how hard many of them worked over the Christmas period to prepare for the mass testing regimes, and we could all hear their exasperation when they were asked to revert to remote working at 24 hours’ notice. I am afraid that some of that exasperation actually turned to anger when the Education Secretary delivered his warning that Ofsted could become involved if online learning was not up to scratch. If ever there was a sentence that summed up how he is not listening to the education world, that was it.

When I talk about education, I mean education in the widest sense. As various Members have said today, that includes all those who come into close contact with others as part of their job in an educational setting. For example, if we look at those in special educational needs settings, we see that they are often in much closer contact with others than most people. It is not just teachers whom we must consider but classroom assistants, cleaners, cooks and probably just about everyone who works in a school. We are not only talking about schools; as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, nurseries and other childcare settings should be looked at. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, they remain open at this time. I think we can all see how, in those settings, it can be very difficult to avoid close contact with others.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Just to reiterate, everyone in an educational setting should be prioritised for vaccination. Also, what about student teachers? Does my hon. Friend agree that they need to be prioritised too?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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Yes. I think we have to look at the actual work that they do and the risk on the ground, but clearly student teachers would be part of that process.

There are strong arguments for those in other essential services to be given additional priority. There has been much talk of the police and their role in enforcing covid rules; if 20,000 police officers had not been cut in the past decade, the police might not be in such a difficult place to do that. We should remember that when the police go about their duties, they engage with the public and so, by definition, they put themselves at risk of infection.

Similar arguments could be made for those involved in the vaccination process—not just NHS staff but those who are volunteering. In relation to that, can the Minister update us on how many retired NHS staff have now passed all the requirements in this regard, so that they can assist in the vaccination process? We have all heard the stories about the fire safety training modules that have to be taken; although such requirements are worthy in their own right, it cannot be mission-critical at the moment for those tests to be undertaken. I can put it no better than the retired consultant who contacted me and said:

“This is actually more than I was required to do when I was a full-time NHS consultant. It is grossly excessive, unnecessary and burdensome.”

On the vaccination of NHS staff, we know the unprecedented pressures they are facing at the moment; the latest estimate is that there are some 46,000 NHS staff off sick with covid, and that is before we even consider those who are required to self-isolate. The need for a full complement of NHS staff to be available to work cannot be clearer, so we want to see all NHS staff receiving their first dose of the vaccine as soon as possible. There is also a concern about whether those people who are not directly employed by the NHS and instead may be self-employed are being picked up by the system.

In conclusion, we know that at the moment the vaccine programme rightly prioritises the most vulnerable and is designed to protect life. However, as that group of people receives that protection, it is right that we consider where priorities lie next. The nation’s key workers have literally kept the country going in the last 12 months—those in education and in transport, council workers, and many, many others who have gone to work day in and day out, knowing that they risk contracting a deadly virus. They do not deserve to be thanked with a pay freeze. At the very least, they deserve serious consideration for prioritisation in the next phase of the roll-out. Proper recognition of their contribution and of the wider societal benefits of their work demand no less.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
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It is slightly unfortunate, Sir David, that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), asked a lot of questions, because he took up a lot of time. Nevertheless, I will attempt to answer as many colleagues’ questions as possible.

Before setting out details of the plan for vaccination, I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the incredible passion with which she spoke. I apologise that I was not in the room for her speech—I was in the main Chamber, as she will know—but it has always been our strategy to suppress the coronavirus until a vaccine can make us all safe, because we know ultimately that vaccines are our way out of this terrible pandemic.

This afternoon we launched our complete vaccine deployment plan, the culmination of months of preparation and hard work by the NHS, the armed forces—the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned the armed forces, and they are embedded in the deployment programme—and, of course, local and regional government at every level. The sooner we can reduce mortality from this pernicious disease and bring an end to that human suffering, the better.

It is worth reminding ourselves of just what that suffering looks like. Sadly, yesterday, 563 deaths were reported. The average number of deaths per day over the past week has been 909, and behind every statistic is a person—a father, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a grandfather or a grandmother—with family and friends. We must never lose sight of that.

In the light of the petition that we are discussing and, of course, the time, I will reflect on the basic principles that sit behind our prioritisation and our strategy. Yes, we want to minimise disruption for pupils, parents and teachers; yes, we want to stop the NHS being overwhelmed, and yes, we want to protect UK jobs and businesses as much as we possibly can, but fundamentally it is about saving lives, and operationally it is about saving as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible.

I defy anyone to provide more powerful grounds for action in order to achieve that. We are following the science and we are vaccinating, according to the prioritisation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which recommended rapid immunisation of our most vulnerable groups. It is worth reminding colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) did, about the first four categories, for whom we absolutely are focused on making sure they have the opportunity of a first dose to protect them by mid-February across all four nations.

I know the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and others are concerned about supplies, and he has contacted me about that. I can reassure him that, having spoken to my counterparts in the devolved Administrations that, while the supply lines have been lumpy—in any manufacturing process, especially one so complex as a novel vaccine that is a biological compound, it is always difficult at the outset, but they very quickly stabilise—we have clear line of sight of deliveries all the way through until the end of February, hence we are able to make the pledge that we will be able to deploy.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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I am conscious of time, and I want to get through quite a lot; I will be happy to take the hon. Lady’s intervention if I can.

Obviously, if a teacher or a school or childcare worker falls within one of those cohorts, they will be contacted by the NHS at the appropriate time to receive the vaccine, but the importance of starting with our most vulnerable groups cannot be overstated. There is no evidence that teachers or school or childcare workers are at higher risk of mortality. That is the thing: we are protecting against death in this first phase, and our most vulnerable groups account for 88% of mortality; I think my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester gave us that figure earlier. We can safeguard against 88% of mortality if we vaccinate those top four groups, but of course I understand the sentiment behind this petition.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Teachers, and everybody involved in this petition, do not want to be prioritised beyond those four groups; but, if something is not going to be done, if the lateral flow tests are not going to be in place for all pupils going to school on a regular basis and the vaccination is not going to be available to teachers, is there a possibility that schools will not actually be returning at the end of February, and that this is going to be longer term?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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Schools, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) reminded us, are open. Primary and secondary schools are open, delivering both online education and education in school for the most vulnerable children and the children of NHS and social care workers, who look after the people who are most vulnerable and whom we are trying to protect from dying. I understand the sentiment behind the petition and pay tribute to the vital work that teachers in schools and childcare workers do to see us through this difficult time. However, I believe that our strategy of putting the most vulnerable first is the right one, morally, ethically and practically, but I recognise that even with such brilliant work in full swing the next few weeks will be difficult, especially in education settings.

We have always sought to keep schools open, and said that they would be the very last things to close, but the challenges posed by the new variant and the more than doubling of transmissibility mean that we have had to take some difficult decisions. I am confident that as our vaccination programme bears fruit we can begin slowly to move out of lockdown. The Prime Minister has promised that schools will be the very first places to reopen, working on the principle of last in, first out. The hon. Member for Gower asked about testing, and it will continue to play a vital role in getting children back into the classroom as soon as possible.

In the time available to me, I want briefly to turn to some of the questions asked by colleagues. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly reminded us that we do not yet know whether the vaccines have an impact on transmissibility—but they obviously offer protection, in terms of both immunity and protection from severe infection. That is why we are focusing on the most vulnerable people. Of course she was right to highlight the issue of young adults with special educational needs. Some of those will be picked up in category 4, but many will be picked up in category 6 of the top nine categories.

I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) rightly asked whether hospices are included. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, also asked about that. Hospices are absolutely included in the cohorts, and we are focusing on making sure that they are protected. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and for Winchester, and the hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth and for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked about data. Data is our ally in this endeavour, in the Prime Minister’s view and in my view. That is why he has insisted on daily data release, so that the nation can see the progress that we are making in protecting the most vulnerable people from covid. We will continue to publish daily data. On Thursdays we will publish more detailed regional data, and my absolute commitment to the House is as much data as the NHS feel is robust that we can publish. We all reference our own experiences in life but the best way to learn, in my view, is to learn from different teams. Not everyone can give 1,000 vaccinations a day, as some primary care networks have, but we learn from them and we try to put support into other teams, to enable them to do that. [Interruption.]

I am conscious that the debate ends at 7.30 and I think I have to give the hon. Member for Gower at least a minute to respond, so I will wrap up there. I apologise to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who wanted to intervene, and I would have loved to take his intervention, but I am happy to write to him if he emails me with any other queries. I shall give the hon. Lady the last word.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I thank the Minister for his response and I understand the time pressures that we are currently under and the reason he could not be here earlier, but I remind those watching online that the two debates are both live, and they can still add their names to the petition. Also, on 15 December, UNICEF called for teachers to be prioritised, and we must realise that there are difficult decisions that force difficult trade-offs. They were not asking to be in the top four vaccination priorities, but they need consideration. That begins with safeguarding those who are responsible for opening up the future—looking after the teachers who will give a future to our future generations, and to our children, who have missed so much. I accept all the debate today, and thank the Minister and everyone who took part, but we need to move forward and give the matter that consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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If you have not already done so, colleagues, would you wipe the microphones? I apologise for the ridiculous freezer that this room is. I will complain to the authorities yet again. I am sorry if anyone becomes unwell as a result—this is not acceptable.