The speech made by Justin Madders, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, in the House of Commons on 14 December 2021.
Having had the dubious pleasure of spending an inordinate amount of time in various Committee Rooms over the past 18 months to scrutinise regulations introduced by the Government as part of their response to the pandemic, I must confess that I have had withdrawal symptoms following the reshuffle, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on these regulations today.
I am sorry to say that, on too many occasions, regulations were debated well after they came into force, so it is positive that at last we seem to be getting into the habit of having debates and votes before regulations become law. I would not want that to be seen as a ringing endorsement of the Government’s approach to parliamentary scrutiny, as two of these sets of regulations were published only at 3 pm yesterday, less than 24 hours before this debate began. I know things move quickly, but some of these regulations have been the subject of consultation for many months. There is no excuse for their being dropped in at the last minute.
The decision to reveal the precise detail of these regulations at the last minute has probably generated more opposition than is warranted. I have had many representations from constituents about the entry to venues regulations on the basis that they represent a compulsory vaccine passport. Let us be clear that they do not. A negative test taken in the 48 hours before entry can be used as an alternative, which addresses many of the legitimate concerns that have been raised with me about civil liberties and discrimination. I am pleased that my party’s persistence in pushing for a negative test as an alternative has been accepted, because it gives me enough confidence to support these regulations.
Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
Across the House, many of us have been calling for greater transparency from the Government. The more we hear from the chief medical officer, the more concerning it is. If the Government had been more transparent up front, I am sure there would be greater support across the House.
Indeed. If we look at what has happened in Wales, there has been a similar system for some time, which seems to be working reasonably well. People have been required to produce tests when travelling abroad and several venues in England have been doing that on a voluntary basis. It is not the slide into dystopia that some people fear, but the situation has not been aided by the Government not being as up front as they should about what the regulations mean. Many people already routinely take lateral flow tests before they go out.
However, there are some outstanding questions and concerns. There is no doubt that some constituents feel that the regulations are the start of a slippery slope and that we will soon have to show vaccination papers to get in anywhere. I will be clear: I do not support such a move. Given that the Government cannot even bring themselves to mandate wearing face coverings in pubs, I would be surprised if they moved in that direction, but I want confirmation when the Minister winds up that the Government are not planning any extensions to where the regulations will operate. We also need a clearer explanation of where the line is drawn and to which venues the regulations apply. Do places such as this, which fall into the definition of a public hall indoors with 500 or more people who stand up and move around, come within the ambit of the regulations? My reading suggests that they do. If we want to gain the public’s confidence, we should show that the rules apply to us equally.
Another concern that has rightly been raised is whether a charge will be introduced at some point to obtain lateral flow tests. That would obviously undermine tests as an alternative to showing vaccine status. Charging people to obtain tests would be an absolute disaster from a public health perspective. That goes way beyond the remit of the regulations, but I hope we can get confirmation from the Minister that there are no plans to charge for tests.
The Government need to do rather better at setting out what they consider the cost of the regulations to be to businesses. Again, I note there has been no impact assessment for the entry regulations. Who will pick up the cost of enforcing them? There is nothing I can see about supporting businesses to check people, let alone providing resources to local authorities, which are meant to enforce the regulations.
What will be the position if there is a national shortage of tests? We are told that there are tens of millions of them but, as we know, there are challenges in getting them out to the people who need them. In those circumstances, will the regulations be suspended, or will people be pushed down the vaccination route?
That said, the evidential burden for a negative test seems particularly broad. I think that will assist in reducing the burden on businesses, but it also increases the risk of fraudulent tests doing the rounds. That would undermine the whole point of the regulations. We do not want the worst of all worlds: an expensive bureaucratic system that does not actually help reduce transmission because it is not properly enforced.
Regarding the vaccination of NHS staff, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a small but significant proportion of covid admissions is the result of people acquiring the infection in hospital. I have seen figures to suggest that it has been as high as 15% to 20% of all covid admissions, although once staff started to receive the vaccination, the figure dropped dramatically. There is therefore evidence to show that the regulations will have an impact on covid admissions and the wider pressure on the NHS. I know it is difficult, but on balance, the regulations should be supported.
However, that should not be the end of the story. We have had a workforce crisis for years. Covid has accelerated cases of burnout and only a few weeks ago, the Government passed up the opportunity to grasp the nettle by refusing to implement a long-term workforce strategy. That is why we need an awful lot more work on the regulations.
The Government have an uphill struggle to earn people’s trust and explain why they consider the proposals necessary, to convince the public that what is before us will be the limit of restrictions and that we will not be talking about extensions or changes at some point in the future. Judging by the comments of many Conservative Members, the Government have failed to persuade a number of their Back Benchers, so it is little wonder that we are all being bombarded by emails from our constituents expressing concern. That exposes the wider truth that the Government have vacated the space where leadership should be. They are compromised by their own failure to follow the rules, riddled with internal disagreements about the route ahead and unable to provide the authority to persuade a sceptical public that the measures are needed.