Monday 11th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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.