Meg Hillier – 2021 Speech on Covid-19 Restrictions

The speech made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 14 December 2021.

I rise to focus, in the short time available, on statutory instrument No. 1416, on entry to venues and the issue of compulsory vaccines. It feels as though I have been around this block before, because just over a decade ago I was the Minister responsible for identity cards and passports in the last Labour Government, yet I share concerns about health data being routinely required in order to access services.

When we dealt with identity cards, we were clear that they were about verifying identity, with no health information included, despite some groups lobbying to have health information on those cards. No immigration status information was to be on them, although many of my constituents and people up and down the country, do have cards with their immigration status on, which they are happy to have to prove their rights. There was other lobbying to include things such as veteran status on cards, but the Labour Government pushed back hard on those points and there was absolutely no requirement in law to have an ID card to access any public service.

That is very important, because tonight’s proposal does not require people to show their vaccine status in order to access a public service. It is about accessing optional large events, where they could be a spreader. In addition, ID cards were on a statutory basis, with a raft of underpinning law to make sure that we had a clear basis for them, and they were long-term. They were debated at length, including twice in this House, because the general election of 2005 interrupted the process.

Let us be clear that a covid vaccine status document or app is a temporary measure—it expires. I have just had my booster, but had I not done so it would have been a moot point as to how long my second vaccine would still give me the status that I require. The Secretary of State has said that that booster will be required, once it is rolled out, on that pass in order for it to be valid. It is not required in order to access any public service. That is an important step, because if we were to go down that route, we would need to get this on to a statutory footing. I hope we never get to that point, but we do not know what is going to happen with coronavirus. As it stands, we have not had a version that will kill our children, and thank God for that, but we know that this is not yet over. At this stage, there is no proposal for a permanent covid pass and therefore there is no need for this to have a statutory footing, because we hope this is something that will run into the stand.

We are also talking about a health treatment here. When I present my pass, it tells the person nothing other than my name and my date of birth; sadly, people will have probably worked out that I am no longer 21, and I do not really mind about that. If that information is needed in order to get into a venue, I am prepared to make that choice. It is a compromise, because of what happens if we do not do this. The data will show that although even vaccinated people can catch covid and spread it, this reduces it, and the booster reduces it further.

For sceptics, let me say that 100% safety would mean a lockdown or closing down hospitality venues, events, workplaces and schools—no one wants that. So this is not a perfect solution to stop spreading omicron or any variant of the virus, but it protects our hospitality industries and events. Even though they are still hit, it protects them from complete closure. This approach of temporary and near universal coverage, limited information required to be presented and no requirement for venues to hold copies of our data is a proportionate response. It is a responsible thing to support each other. Individual freedom, as outlined by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), cannot be at the expense of wider freedoms; we do have that responsibility with that freedom.

I wish to touch on compulsory vaccines for health workers, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on his tour de force on that. I am concerned about pushing people forcibly to have a vaccine, but we should never have got to this point. We should rely on reliable information and education to ensure that we do not get to the point where people have to be forced. Of course, we cannot force someone to have a vaccine, so the consequences for a health worker are immense. Ultimately, for those health workers on the frontline supporting their patients, vaccination will have to be a requirement for the job, because the risk of spreading the virus or of sickness across the health service because staff are not protected would cripple our health service. Reluctantly, therefore, I have moved to the point where, having voted against it in the past, I will support the measure tonight. Spreading a virus that makes us ill, kills us and puts pressure on the NHS is not something that NHS workers can be a part of, but NHS England must work hard to convince and support people and to get rid of the disinformation about the danger of vaccines.