Monday 11th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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The debate finishes at 7.30 pm. Five colleagues wish to speak, and I want to call all of them, so I suggest that everyone speak for about five minutes. That will give the Minister and his opposite number time to respond to the debate.