Covid-19 Vaccinations

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Monday 20th September 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Maggie Throup Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Maggie Throup)
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Thank you, Ms Ghani.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing this debate on these important topics, and I commend him for setting out the importance of vaccines in combating so many diseases. When we look at the history of vaccination programmes in previous eras, we realise just what impact they have had on people’s lives.

We know that the covid vaccination programme is the nation’s best line of defence against covid-19. Vaccinated people are far less likely to face severe disease from covid-19, to be admitted to hospital or to die from it. They are also less likely to pass the virus to others. More than 93 million covid-19 vaccinations have already been administered, and the latest estimates from Public Health England indicate that the programme has saved more than 112,300 lives and prevented more than 24 million cases.

As other hon. Members have done, I pay tribute to everyone who has played a crucial role in the success of the vaccine roll-out—our brilliant scientists, clinical trial participants, the armed forces, NHS England, frontline healthcare workers, vaccine volunteers and local and central Government. Their life-saving efforts have helped to maintain the rapid pace of the roll-out across the entire country. I also recognise the brilliant work of the former Minister for vaccines, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). I know that I have very big shoes to fill.

The public’s continued willingness to get vaccinated, to test, to self-isolate if they have symptoms and to follow behaviours and actions that mitigate all methods of transmission has played a key role in the lifting of restrictions. Over autumn and winter, the Government will aim to sustain the progress made and prepare the country for future challenges, while ensuring that the national health service does not come under unsustainable pressure.

In my first debate as Minister with responsibility for vaccines, I join the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and other hon. Members for those not yet vaccinated to take up their vaccine offer and join the around 89% of the UK who have had at least their first dose. I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking them for playing their part in helping us all to live safely.

We will continue to make vaccines easily available to everybody, to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but to date have not taken up the offer. In England, 11.3% of people ages 16 and older—more than 5.5 million people—remain unvaccinated, which heightens the risk of rising hospitalisations, particularly when prevalence is high. Take-up so far varies by ethnicity, age and deprivation, with some groups recording lower rates of vaccine uptake than others.

Building on lessons learned through phases 1 and 2 of the vaccine roll-out, the Government continue to work closely with the NHS to make it as easy as possible to get a vaccine, including through “Grab a Jab” in England, pop-up vaccine sites across the country and easy-to-use walk-in sites found on the NHS website. Pop-up sites include those at football stadiums and shopping centres, reaching out to the whole community. The Government have partnered with transport providers, such as Uber and FREE NOW to ensure access to vaccine sites is easier than ever before.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) asked how the Government have reached out to people who are hesitant to take part in the vaccination programme. Despite having been in post for only a matter of days, I reassure him that the Government and the NHS are working closely together to ensure that we reach out and get the extra 5.5 million jabs into the arms that need them, and fill the gap that is in the community. I reassure him that that is one of my key priorities in my role as vaccine Minister.

The last 18 months have shown that the pandemic can change course rapidly and unexpectedly. It remains hard to predict with certainty what will happen. There are a number of variables, including the levels of vaccination, the extent to which immunity wanes over time, how quickly and how widely social contact returns to pre-pandemic levels, which is partly to do with the return to schools and as offices reopen, and whether a new variant emerges that fundamentally changes the Government’s assessment of the risk. That is why the autumn and winter plan sets out our plan B.

Vaccine status certification is part of the Government’s plan B if the data suggests action is required to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. For venues, certification could allow settings that have experienced long periods of closure to remain open, compared to more stringent measures that may severely reduce capacity or cause them to close entirely. The autumn-winter plan committed to publishing further details shortly on the proposed certification regime that would be introduced as part of plan B.

In this scenario, certification would be introduced in a limited number of venues. Communal worship, wedding ceremonies, funerals and other commemorative events and protests would also not fall under the certification regime. Exemptions would continue to apply for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, those on covid vaccine clinical trials and for under-18s.

The NHS covid pass would continue to certify individuals based on vaccination, testing or natural immunity status, with more than 200 events and venues already introducing voluntary certification and the NHS covid pass as a condition of entry.

Care home staff provide a critical role in supporting the health and wellbeing of some of the most clinically vulnerable to the effects of covid-19 in society, and have maintained their dedication and professionalism through highly challenging conditions. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have committed over £6 billion to local authorities through non-ringfenced grants to tackle the impact of covid-19 on their services, including adult social care. We continue to be committed to supporting the social care sector.

To prevent individual susceptibility to covid-19, from 11 November it will be a condition of deployment for anyone working or volunteering in Care Quality Commission regulated care homes that provide accommodation for persons who require nursing and personal care to be fully vaccinated. Thanks to the incredible efforts of people across the sector, over 1.2 million social care workers in England have now been vaccinated. This is a fantastic achievement and an important step for staff to protect themselves, their loved ones and the people they care for from becoming seriously ill or dying from covid-19.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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Can the Minister answer the question that her predecessor failed to answer on the Floor of the House on Second Reading of the Bill? Everybody agrees that it would be a good idea if all care workers were vaccinated, but why will it be effective to force reluctant care workers to either have it or lose their employment, when other people entering care homes—hairdressers, musicians and entertainers and such—would not be forced to? How is that an effective policy?

Maggie Throup Portrait Maggie Throup
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. If he will excuse me, I have obviously been in post a short time. As I am led to believe, it is people who regularly go into care homes that will need this. It is not just restricted to the actual carers. If anybody needs to go into a care home in an emergency situation, that is a different scenario. If I may, however, I will clarify that after the debate.

Vaccine uptake nationally in the care home workforce is high, at 85.6% for first doses. This is in line with vaccine uptake in the general population. There is, however, significant variation at a regional, local and individual care home level. Vaccine requirements are designed to level up uptake in the care home workforce. While the majority of care home workers have been vaccinated, the latest published data as of 12 September highlighted that only 81.3% of older adult care homes in England were meeting the SAGE advice that 80% uptake of first doses among staff is the minimum needed to reduce the risk of outbreaks in these high-risk care settings.

While residents in care homes are some of the most at risk from covid-19, the responses to this initial consultation on care homes made a clear case for extending this policy to other settings where vulnerable people receive care and treatments. The Government are therefore seeking views on whether to extend vaccination requirements to other frontline health and care workers—those with face-to-face contact with patients and clients through the delivery of services, as part of a CQC regulated activity. Recent research has shown that people infected with both flu and covid-19 are more than twice as likely to die as someone with covid-19 alone and nearly six times more likely than those with neither flu nor covid-19, so vaccination requirements for both flu and covid-19 are being considered.

I trust that the debate will have helped to dispel some of the myths that hon. Members have raised about vaccinations, and will really reach out to the public to ask them, as colleagues have done, to go and get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. To conclude, I reassure the House that we are doing everything we can to widen and deepen our wall of defence that the vaccine provides. The ask of our NHS colleagues is challenging and complex, yet they have risen to this challenge and do it every day. Once again, I thank them for their dedication.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Minister, and well done on your first time speaking from the Front Bench.