“Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.
Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.
Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.
Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.
There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.
Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.
This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.
As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.
Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.
The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.
Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.
Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.
Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.
The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.
Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.”