The speech made by Mark Harper, the Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, in the House of Commons on 14 December 2021.
Let me start with a few words about the big picture. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) put this very well. We know that covid is going to be with us forever, and we know that we are going to have variants forever. The chief scientific adviser has told us that, and I agree with him. There are many people who think that we will just have to wait a bit and it will all be over, but that is not happening. We have to be realistic about what we are facing, and according to Jeremy Farrar, we are facing this challenge as probably the best protected country in the world through vaccination.
This was effectively the first big test for the Government: how do we deal with a variant of concern in a very well vaccinated population? I am disappointed that we have quickly gone into panic and emergency mode, with late Sunday night broadcasts—not in the House of Commons where questions can be asked—scaring people witless. For example, they have been told that two doses give them no protection, which is not true. Two doses provide weakened protection from omicron against infection, but they still provide good protection against serious disease. I am concerned that many people out there who have had two doses and who are perhaps vulnerable now feel that they have no protection. That is simply not correct. If this is the first test, I do not think we are doing very well.
The data from South Africa that we heard this morning in the Science and Technology Committee showed that we still have good protection against severe disease from two doses of Pfizer, but it has gone down from 93% to 70% for hospitalisation. That is four times the risk of hospitalisation.
I have seen that, and I look forward to the information from the UK. The point I have been making in my constant repetition about the House sitting next week or the week after or being recalled—my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) also mentioned this—is that we are learning new information every day, and when we get that information, we might need to make different decisions. The House needs to be involved in those decisions; they should not simply be made by Ministers by decree. I repeat that point, and I do not understand why Ministers will not give us that assurance. It would build a lot of trust and good will among colleagues, and I do not understand why they will not give that commitment.
These decisions have significant economic and social impacts, as well as impacts on the NHS’s ability to deliver non-covid treatments. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has already pointed out that the NHS is going to scrap a whole load of elective surgeries and consultations with GPs in order to get boosters delivered. That might be the right decision, but I do not think that a proper balancing is taking place. Goodness knows how long it is going to take us to recover from the creation of this new backlog over the coming months. If the Government’s fears, as set out by the Secretary of State, are confirmed in any way, what is the exit strategy? What approach are they going to take to ensure that we do not face on-and-off seasonal restrictions forever? That is a serious question, and it has been raised by other colleagues. We need an economy that functions, people need to build lives that can function and the NHS needs to be able to function and deliver all the other healthcare we require.
Let me turn briefly to plan B. I am happy to support the measures on self-isolation. I simply note that, two weeks ago when we were asked to vote to restrict them, I voted against that. Two weeks later, the Government have agreed that I was right to do so, because they are effectively revoking those earlier measures. I will leave that thought with colleagues for when they decide whether they wish to listen to the advice of Ministers or others.
On vaccine passports, the Government’s plan B makes it very clear that Ministers’ preference is for vaccine-only passports. The only reason why tests have been incorporated is to buy or secure the support of the Opposition. That is the only reason. Ministers’ preference in writing is for vaccine-only certificates, so we know what they would like to do if they could get away with it.
The Secretary of State also made some commitments about not supporting mandatory vaccination for the entire population. The only reason that needed to be said is that, two weeks ago, the Prime Minister put on the table the whole concept of mandatory vaccination and talked about having a “national conversation” about it. All I say is that, if Ministers wish to build trust and good will, they need to be careful about what they say. They should not fling these very troubling concepts around without thinking about them. Words have consequences, both in terms of what happens in the real world and of the trust that needs to be built with Members of Parliament and the public.
What is proposed for vaccine passports is very limited, but that was the case everywhere they were introduced around the world. Everywhere they have been introduced, they have been extended. In Wales, for example, where Labour is in power, they have been extended in terms of the venues to which they apply, so anyone who thinks that Ministers will stick to what is currently on the Order Paper are, I am afraid, kidding themselves.
The final thing I say to colleagues is this: the vote on vaccine passports is not just about the regulations on the Order Paper; it signals how we wish to treat this House, how we wish to be treated on behalf of our constituents, and the direction of travel and the approach. If my colleagues wish to send the Government a clear signal that they need to rethink their approach, then, certainly on vaccine passports, they should vote against them. Send the Government a clear message that we can do better. There is a better way, and we should send that message today.