As Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment, Nadhim Zahawi responds to a debate on two e-petitions seeking to (a) prioritise teachers, school and childcare staff and (b) NHS first responders for Covid-19 vaccination.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
It is slightly unfortunate, Sir David, that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), asked a lot of questions, because he took up a lot of time. Nevertheless, I will attempt to answer as many colleagues’ questions as possible.
Before setting out details of the plan for vaccination, I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the incredible passion with which she spoke. I apologise that I was not in the room for her speech—I was in the main Chamber, as she will know—but it has always been our strategy to suppress the coronavirus until a vaccine can make us all safe, because we know ultimately that vaccines are our way out of this terrible pandemic.
This afternoon we launched our complete vaccine deployment plan, the culmination of months of preparation and hard work by the NHS, the armed forces—the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned the armed forces, and they are embedded in the deployment programme—and, of course, local and regional government at every level. The sooner we can reduce mortality from this pernicious disease and bring an end to that human suffering, the better.
It is worth reminding ourselves of just what that suffering looks like. Sadly, yesterday, 563 deaths were reported. The average number of deaths per day over the past week has been 909, and behind every statistic is a person—a father, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a grandfather or a grandmother—with family and friends. We must never lose sight of that.
In the light of the petition that we are discussing and, of course, the time, I will reflect on the basic principles that sit behind our prioritisation and our strategy. Yes, we want to minimise disruption for pupils, parents and teachers; yes, we want to stop the NHS being overwhelmed, and yes, we want to protect UK jobs and businesses as much as we possibly can, but fundamentally it is about saving lives, and operationally it is about saving as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible.
I defy anyone to provide more powerful grounds for action in order to achieve that. We are following the science and we are vaccinating, according to the prioritisation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which recommended rapid immunisation of our most vulnerable groups. It is worth reminding colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) did, about the first four categories, for whom we absolutely are focused on making sure they have the opportunity of a first dose to protect them by mid-February across all four nations.
I know the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and others are concerned about supplies, and he has contacted me about that. I can reassure him that, having spoken to my counterparts in the devolved Administrations that, while the supply lines have been lumpy—in any manufacturing process, especially one so complex as a novel vaccine that is a biological compound, it is always difficult at the outset, but they very quickly stabilise—we have clear line of sight of deliveries all the way through until the end of February, hence we are able to make the pledge that we will be able to deploy.
Will the Minister give way?
I am conscious of time, and I want to get through quite a lot; I will be happy to take the hon. Lady’s intervention if I can.
Obviously, if a teacher or a school or childcare worker falls within one of those cohorts, they will be contacted by the NHS at the appropriate time to receive the vaccine, but the importance of starting with our most vulnerable groups cannot be overstated. There is no evidence that teachers or school or childcare workers are at higher risk of mortality. That is the thing: we are protecting against death in this first phase, and our most vulnerable groups account for 88% of mortality; I think my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester gave us that figure earlier. We can safeguard against 88% of mortality if we vaccinate those top four groups, but of course I understand the sentiment behind this petition.
Teachers, and everybody involved in this petition, do not want to be prioritised beyond those four groups; but, if something is not going to be done, if the lateral flow tests are not going to be in place for all pupils going to school on a regular basis and the vaccination is not going to be available to teachers, is there a possibility that schools will not actually be returning at the end of February, and that this is going to be longer term?
Schools, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) reminded us, are open. Primary and secondary schools are open, delivering both online education and education in school for the most vulnerable children and the children of NHS and social care workers, who look after the people who are most vulnerable and whom we are trying to protect from dying. I understand the sentiment behind the petition and pay tribute to the vital work that teachers in schools and childcare workers do to see us through this difficult time. However, I believe that our strategy of putting the most vulnerable first is the right one, morally, ethically and practically, but I recognise that even with such brilliant work in full swing the next few weeks will be difficult, especially in education settings.
We have always sought to keep schools open, and said that they would be the very last things to close, but the challenges posed by the new variant and the more than doubling of transmissibility mean that we have had to take some difficult decisions. I am confident that as our vaccination programme bears fruit we can begin slowly to move out of lockdown. The Prime Minister has promised that schools will be the very first places to reopen, working on the principle of last in, first out. The hon. Member for Gower asked about testing, and it will continue to play a vital role in getting children back into the classroom as soon as possible.
In the time available to me, I want briefly to turn to some of the questions asked by colleagues. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly reminded us that we do not yet know whether the vaccines have an impact on transmissibility—but they obviously offer protection, in terms of both immunity and protection from severe infection. That is why we are focusing on the most vulnerable people. Of course she was right to highlight the issue of young adults with special educational needs. Some of those will be picked up in category 4, but many will be picked up in category 6 of the top nine categories.
I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) rightly asked whether hospices are included. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, also asked about that. Hospices are absolutely included in the cohorts, and we are focusing on making sure that they are protected. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and for Winchester, and the hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth and for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked about data. Data is our ally in this endeavour, in the Prime Minister’s view and in my view. That is why he has insisted on daily data release, so that the nation can see the progress that we are making in protecting the most vulnerable people from covid. We will continue to publish daily data. On Thursdays we will publish more detailed regional data, and my absolute commitment to the House is as much data as the NHS feel is robust that we can publish. We all reference our own experiences in life but the best way to learn, in my view, is to learn from different teams. Not everyone can give 1,000 vaccinations a day, as some primary care networks have, but we learn from them and we try to put support into other teams, to enable them to do that. [Interruption.]
I am conscious that the debate ends at 7.30 and I think I have to give the hon. Member for Gower at least a minute to respond, so I will wrap up there. I apologise to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who wanted to intervene, and I would have loved to take his intervention, but I am happy to write to him if he emails me with any other queries. I shall give the hon. Lady the last word.