Nadhim Zahawi responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the e-petition relating to vaccination for Covid-19 entitled ‘Prevent any restrictions on those who refuse a Covid-19 vaccination.’
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on his leadership of this important debate on e-petition 323442. Over 300,000 people have signed the petition, including 641 in his constituency.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his very moving speech, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of his mother-in-law and the infection of his wife, other family members and friends. As the shadow Minister rightly pointed out, the hon. Member for Strangford brought home that each and every statistic is a person, with a family and people who love them very much.
I will hopefully address the excellent—as always—speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both for her excellent speech and for her clear confirmation that neither the Scottish Government nor the United Kingdom Government will mandate vaccination at all. I congratulate her chief medical officer, as well as the chief medical officers in Northern Ireland and Wales, who worked together so that we could all start to vaccinate on the same day, last Tuesday. I am grateful, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government this evening.
We in Northern Ireland were first.
I hear the hon. Gentleman; Northern Ireland was first by a few minutes.
Last week was a most important week across the United Kingdom, because we began vaccinating people against covid-19, and that, I hope, has started to turn the tide on this virus. The pandemic has forced the Government and our devolved Administrations to take steps that are truly unprecedented in peacetime. They are steps that no democratic Government would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary. At each point in the pandemic, every decision we have taken has been with the utmost consideration for its impact on our personal freedoms. As hon. Members have brilliantly highlighted this evening, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly reminded us, the petition that we are debating is a matter of great legal and ethical complexity.
Before I address some of those complexities, I will set out the facts. First, there are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have a covid vaccination. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us, we have no plans to introduce so-called vaccine passporting. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was slightly nervous about that, quite rightly, as when I did my first interview about the issue—with the BBC, I think—I was asked about some of the technological challenges and I may have mis-spoken. I was grateful to The Spectator and TalkRadio, which allowed me to explain myself.
Mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and others, I urge businesses listening to this debate to not even think about that. I will explain in further detail why that is the wrong thing to do. I put on record my thanks to Professor Karol Sikora, who has many hundreds of thousands of followers, who quoted me and said I eloquently dealt with the issue. We have absolutely no plans for vaccine passporting.
Secondly, cards that were issued after people got their first covid-19 vaccination have been mentioned on social media. Among other details, they contain the date of their second vaccination. That record does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport. It does mean anyone is immune. As we know, the vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart. The second dose is the booster dose. I am sure hon. Members will forgive me for repeating the message that patients must return as instructed for their second dose. Without the second dose, the vaccine will not be effective. That is a really important message, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who are repeating that to their constituents.
Thirdly, on completion of both vaccinations, patients will be issued with a vaccine record card, much as they are for other vaccination programmes, so there is nothing different in the way we are dealing with this vaccine. Again, that does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport; nor can it be used as a form of identification. That would be absolutely wrong. Colleagues will appreciate that the careful and accurate recording of vaccination status is an important part of a public health effort. It supports patient safety during probably the largest and most challenging vaccination programme in British history.
Fourthly, in addressing the many who signed the petition, I want to underline one key fact, which we have heard over and over again from hon. Members: vaccines work. It is really important that we send that message from this place. After clean water, they are the single greatest public health tool in the history of mankind. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us of Edward Jenner. It fills me with great joy that the Jenner Institute was one of the first to stand up and say, “We can do this.” I hope that, after a rigorous study by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be in place as soon as approval comes through. Obviously it is up to the regulator to deliver that.
Vaccines, as we have heard, have ended untold suffering for millions, if not billions, of people around the world. When our turn comes and our GP gets in touch, we all have a duty to heed that call. It is how we will be able to protect ourselves and the people around us—our friends and family, the people we love. Months of trials, involving thousands of people, have shown that the vaccines we are using are effective. They work. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, they have been tested on between 15,000 and 50,000 people. There were no shortcuts or quick fixes by the MHRA; it has followed exactly the same process as usual. The difference is that instead of waiting for phase 1 to finish before doing phase 2, and then phase 3, the studies were in parallel; hence we were able to develop the vaccines rapidly.
Fifthly, and equally importantly, each covid vaccine will be authorised only, as I have said, once it has met robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality. As we have heard, vaccines authorised by our independent regulator, the MHRA, will be assessed for clinical safety and effectiveness through a robust review. The vaccine is free to everyone eligible across the UK. There is really no excuse for someone not to take it when their turn comes.
Sixthly, although we know the vaccine protects individuals, we do not yet know its precise impact on onward transmission. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe made that point brilliantly himself, and by quoting the Secretary of State. In answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), we will not know where the point is that he mentioned until we scale up the vaccinations. We will continue to monitor the impact on transmission through the Test and Trace system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, we do know that the vaccine protects people, which is the important thing. That is why I encourage everyone to read, read and read again—or to ask, ask and ask again, to quote the hon. Member for Nottingham North.
The full impact on infection rates will not become clear until we get to those large numbers, so we are monitoring that carefully. Hon. Members will understand that without our knowing that, it would be irresponsible for anyone to declare that they are immune. The Qantas question is therefore completely wrong, because it is impossible for anyone to say that. The science does not yet support that conclusion. Even if people are vaccinated, they must continue to follow the rules where they are, and keep taking the common-sense steps that are now so familiar to us—washing our hands, covering our face and making space.
Hon. Members have raised many questions about the World Health Organisation and the required international response. The United Kingdom Government have led the way. We could do even more. Next year, the UK will take up the presidency of the G7, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned; we will need to deal with anti-vaxxers nationally and internationally. We look forward to working with many nations on that challenge.
I will turn to some of the hon. Gentleman’s other questions. On GPs and the additional 15 minutes, that was the further guidance from the MHRA after two cases in which people with a history of severe allergies had an allergic reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That is why there was a change to the process. On the roll-out today to primary care networks and the question about caseloads, it is brilliant that GPs have come together with primary care networks. For example, in an area of 50,000 people and five practices, they have come together and agreed that one would lead on the vaccination while the other four continued to support the community and deal with caseloads. On his question about care home staff who continue to be prioritised, I am happy to take that offline with him if he has a particular case or details.
The petition that we have debated is of profound importance. I urge anyone who is considering refusing a covid-19 vaccination to ask and ask again. Not only is the vaccine effective and proven to be clinically safe, but the quicker we are able to vaccinate people, the quicker we can bring forward the date when we can begin to lift the oppressive restrictions that were put in place with a truly heavy heart. I came from a world of entrepreneurialism, of unleashing people’s ingenuity, energy and passion. I did not enter politics to restrict people’s freedoms, which I profoundly believe in. In the meantime, we all have our part to play. We must continue to respect the rules to ensure that the efforts succeed and can be our shared success, so that we can all have a more joyous 2021. If I do my job properly, we will all be back in this Chamber celebrating, I hope, without the restrictions that we have today.