Alex Norris – 2021 Speech on Vaccinations

The speech made by Alex Norris, the Shadow Health and Social Care Minister, on 11 January 2021.

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

We meet today at a challenging moment in the handling of the pandemic. We have growing infection rates, we are in lockdown, businesses are shut and schools are closed, and tragically more than 80,000 people have already lost their lives to this awful virus. The vaccine provides us with a light, a glimmer of hope, and a way to beat the virus, saving lives and getting us back to normal.

The Government succeeded in the development of a vaccine—investing in multiple candidates has paid off handsomely—but a vaccine alone does not make a vaccination programme. Given the Government’s failures with the test and trace system and the procurement of personal protective equipment, it is right that we scrutinise the plans carefully.

The plan is quite conventional: aside from the new big vaccination centres, it uses traditional delivery mechanisms operating within traditional opening and access times. The Opposition have some concerns about that, as we believe that exceptional circumstances call for an exceptional response. At the No. 10 briefing earlier today, 24/7 access was said to be something that people would not be interested in, which surprised me; I would like to hear from the Minister the basis for that view.

Similarly, there is the mass deployment of community spaces and volunteer mobilisation unprecedented in peacetime. It is the Government’s prerogative to choose their approach, but I am keen to hear from the Minister assurance that the plan as written and set out today will deliver on what has been promised: the top four priority categories covered by the middle of next month.

On a recent call, the Minister said that the only limiting factor on the immunisation programme would be the speed of supply. Will he publicly reaffirm that and confirm that this plan will make maximum use of the supply as he expects to get it?

I think we would all agree that our frontline NHS and social care heroes deserve to be protected. At the beginning of the pandemic, our staff were left for too long without adequate personal protective equipment, and we must not repeat that with the vaccine. Protecting them is the right thing to do, reflecting the risks that they face, but it is also pragmatically a point of emphasis for us, because we need them to be well in order to keep doing the incredible job that they are doing.

We are currently missing about 46,000 NHS staff for covid reasons. The health and social care workforce are in category 2 in the plan, but there does not seem to be a national-level emphasis on inoculating them immediately. There seems to be significant variation between trust areas. Will the Minister commit today to meeting our demand that they all get their vaccines within the next fortnight? We very much welcome the clear and simple metrics that he is going to publish each day so that we can follow the successes of the programme, but as part of that, will he commit to publicising the daily total of health and care staff vaccinated, so that we can see the progress being made against that vital metric, too?

It was reassuring to see pharmacies included in the plan. They are at the heart of all the communities in our country, they are trusted and they already deliver mass vaccinations. It was disappointing and surprising to see them having to take to the front pages of national newspapers last week to get the Government’s attention, but now, with them in the plan, will the Minister reassure the House that he is fully engaged with their representative bodies and that they are satisfied that they are being used properly? The number that has been trailed publicly is of 200 participating pharmacies, but given that there are 11,500 community pharmacies in England, can that really be right? Why are there not more involved, or is that number wrong? If so, could the Minister share with us what the number is? On social care, 23% of elderly care home residents have been vaccinated, compared with 40% of the over-80s more generally. Given their top prioritisation, is there a reason for this lag? What plans are there to close the gap? Is the Minister confident that all care home residents will be vaccinated by the end of the month, as promised?

Finally, there has been a high level of consensus across this place, and certainly between the Minister and me, on misinformation, and we will support the Government in whatever they think they need to do to tackle it. We will have a real sense of the impacts of misinformation as the programme rolls along, particularly as we look at who is and is not declining the vaccine. Will the Minister tell us what he will be monitoring in that regard, and what the early feedback is, perhaps from our own care staff, on who has been saying yes and who has been saying no and what that might mean for the future?

We welcome the fact that the Government have published this plan. We will back them when we think they are right but we will continue to offer constructive ways to improve the process, as I hope I have just done. I hope that the Minister can address the points that I have raised.