Monday 11th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I want to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her comprehensive and compelling introduction to this subject. She raised a whole series of questions, dilemmas and judgments that follow on from the very clear objective that we all share: we want as many people as possible to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gower clearly set out that lots of people in the country have been discussing this issue, as we would expect, but this forum is the right place in a democracy for us to be discussing those ideas, exchanging views and doing so in a way that is respectful and tolerant of other opinions. She set out clearly, as did other Members, the consequences of missing school, particularly in terms of the widening attainment gap and the digital divide, and she explained why it really has to be a priority to get children back into school as soon as possible. It was so disappointing, if not sadly inevitable, that we had to make the decision to restrict attendance at school. It is also very regrettable that the decision was taken without a proper back-up plan to allow children to learn remotely. I agree with her that teachers inspire, build confidence and impart knowledge, and they do that best of all when they teach in person in the classroom.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who talked about the overwhelming sense of fatigue that we all feel in dealing with this virus—I think we can all understand that. He described the vaccine as the way out of this situation and said that the wonders of human ingenuity have allowed the vaccines to be developed and made ready in such a short space of time. He gave a very good plug for our party’s campaign on the vaccination programme, and he raised the important point that it would be very helpful if employers gave paid time off for people to go and receive the vaccine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West also raised an important question, which I hope the Minister answers, about whether hospice staff should be included in the priority group for vaccination. He talked about a 24/7 vaccination programme and told us that the Prime Minister had apparently said there is no appetite for it. After talking to Members present and to members of the public, I have to say that there is an appetite for that. Every minute, every hour and every day that we can vaccinate people is another step closer to the freedom that we all want to return to. Let us not miss any opportunity to get to that point as quickly as possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, the 24/7 approach should apply not just to delivering the vaccine but to the production of it.

My hon. Friend was also right to talk about the importance of getting information out there, because everyone wants to know where we are up to with this. Certainly, my constituency office has had many phone calls and emails asking about the vaccination programme. He also spoke about the excellent work undertaken in Wales to roll out the vaccine. He made the fair point that this is not an easy choice—these are not easy options for anyone—but it is important that we take the best professional and scientific advice available when we take these decisions.

It is, of course, a source of great national pride that we were the first country to approve a vaccine for distribution and that our own scientists were integral to the development of the second vaccine, which is now beginning to be rolled out across the country. Having found ourselves in this good position, it would be very disappointing if we did not become the first country to mass vaccinate its population. For the grandparents who have not seen their grandchildren, for the businesses that have not traded properly for a year and are facing bankruptcy, and for the NHS staff exhausted by the relentless pressure that this virus has created, we all want the quickest route possible out of this.

To date, as we have discussed, the lockdown strategy has been our most effective weapon against the spread of the virus, but we all know that that has created another set of extremely tough challenges and that there are concerns that even that may not be enough to halt the spread of the new strain. Therefore, as has always been the case, mass vaccination is the key to ending the nightmare, which is why no stone should be left unturned and no component of the state left unutilised, and every member of society who wants to contribute should be engaged in some way so that we all play our part to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as soon as possible. We all share that ambition, but the Government have displayed a pattern in this pandemic of being too slow and of over-promising and under-delivering.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern—I suspect the Minister does—that the roll-out of the vaccine has been halted in parts of the United Kingdom because supplies are running out? Is there not a logistical issue to be addressed as well, to ensure that that does not happen?

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.