Caroline Lucas – 2021 Speech on Covid-19 Restrictions

The speech made by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, in the House of Commons on 14 December 2021.

I have just come from a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus. We were given a shocking set of presentations, about which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) will say more shortly.

I want to bring three key messages from that meeting of scientists and NHS professionals. The NHS is already beyond full stretch, and some said that it was at breaking point. They pointed out that we are not South Africa, which started its omicron wave from a low level of cases. We are starting it on top of a rising number of delta cases, so we have to get transmission rates down now. The focus on vaccinations alone, although they are vital, will not be enough. We have to focus on a range of other measures such as ventilation in schools, as other hon. Members have mentioned, and the big issue of limiting social contact.

We need to be honest and to have consistent and clear messaging about the need to reduce social contact. There is a direct relationship between the number of contacts that we have and the spread of infection. Giving guidance to work from home while still giving the green light to Christmas parties is, as the professor of primary care in Oxford suggests, akin to giving people advice to wash their hands after a meal but not after going to the toilet. We are all dreading the prospect of not seeing loved ones again at Christmas, but that is exactly the direction in which we are heading unless the Government show some leadership and tell us the unwelcome truth that we might not like to hear.

Tim Loughton

The hon. Lady and I share a hospital trust. She will know that that hospital is being overwhelmed at the moment not by covid cases or covid pressure but by cases of non-covid illness that have been neglected during lockdown and by the inability to release people who are medically fit for discharge. Is it not correct that, as it stands, those are the real pressures on the health service, not a torrent of covid cases coming in?

Caroline Lucas

That may well be the case now, but I do not see why that is an argument against needing to get coronavirus cases down. If transmission rates go up on the trajectory that we are being told they will, we can be sure that there will be massive pressure on our hospitals and NHS trusts. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not a criticism of my argument. It is precisely because of the multiple pressures on our hospital system that we need to get transmission rates of omicron and delta down. That is why I want the Government to get rid of the disincentives that are built into the system and that stop people being able to self-isolate when they need to. Why do we still not have better sick pay for self-isolation? Why do we not have better support for our businesses? If there is going to be reduced social contact, as there needs to be, we know that has an impact, particularly on the hospitality sector.

We need VAT reductions to be extended beyond April, when they are due to end. We need businesses to be offered grants to help them through the next difficult weeks and to be given flexibility on paying back covid loans. My constituency is already feeling the impact of omicron, and the hospitality sector is extremely worried. Why can we not tell it, for example, that there will be extended and expanded business relief, with the Government ensuring that local councils do not lose even more funding? There should also be a proper support scheme for the self-employed who, as we know, play such a key part in our economy but were utterly left out of previous support mechanisms.

I regret that the Government have given MPs less than 24 hours to analyse the statutory instruments before us. Frankly, they have not advanced the scientific case for them. A Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry earlier this year concluded that the Government had not made a robust case for vaccine passports, and I have not heard anything today that has persuaded me otherwise.

Although I recognise the civil liberty arguments on the measures, with which I have sympathy, my bigger concern comes from the strong body of evidence on the impact of vaccine passports on vaccination rates. That evidence makes it clear that, although they can accelerate take-up rates among those inclined towards vaccination, they also entrench opposition among those who are hesitant.

As Professor Stephen Reicher has said, people not getting vaccinated is not a cognitive problem—it is not that they do not understand the issues—but a social problem.

People are not getting vaccinated because of a lack of trust, and trying to force them into it, either through vaccine passports or through mandatory vaccinations in some settings, compounds that mistrust, as does berating them or “othering” them. If we want more people to be vaccinated—and believe me, I absolutely do—that is the bottom line, but we have to build the sense that vaccination is being done for the community, not to it. It is for the common good. Behavioural science clearly indicates that coercion undermines the relationships we need to build and the respect we must show one another in order to increase vaccination rates, and we do everyone a massive disservice by ignoring that science.

I want to end by saying a few words about the wider global situation that we face. It is supremely reckless to have so catastrophically neglected vaccination in poorer countries, and it is extremely reckless of our Government to refuse to support the waiver on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organisation. As Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, has said,

“Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world.”

The Government should absolutely be changing their position on that TRIPS waiver: they should not be blocking it. The virus will be with us for years and years to come, and it will mutate into other viruses and variants unless we treat this as a global crisis, not just a crisis here at home. I beg the Government to look at the evidence, to look at what works, and to move forward on that basis.