Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Many constituents have contacted me about the new Covid measures which were approved by the House of Commons on 14th December.
The first thing I would like to say is that I know a lot of people are angry about the revelations regarding what happened in Downing Street last Christmas. I share that anger, but we should not let that get in the way of us doing the right thing now in the national interest.
Omicron is a new threat on top of the existing variants of the virus, and we need to act swiftly to limit its spread. Throughout the pandemic, as the opposition, we have always put public health before party politics, and we will continue to do so. We supported the measures on their merits.
Many of the emails I have received refer to ‘vaccination passports’ as if we will all be required to show that we have been vaccinated. This is not what was being proposed. The vote was on ‘Covid passes’ where we will have to show either vaccination status or proof of a negative lateral flow test in order to gain entry to large venues/mass gatherings where there is a greater risk because of the number of people attending.
In other words, the new rules will not require us to show that we have been vaccinated; nor will they mean that people who haven’t been vaccinated cannot enter these events. This is because the alternative will be to show a negative test result. This is the system that has been operating in Wales for quite some time, people travelling abroad have long got used to showing a negative result and many other venues have been asking for proof of a negative test result on a voluntary basis. That’s why we called on the Government to include the option of a negative lateral flow test as an alternative to proof of vaccination status and I’m glad that ministers have listened. Incidentally, this was the system we used at this year’s Labour Party conference.
I recognise that some people are very strongly opposed to getting vaccinated – a point I will return to – but it is not right to suggest that the new rules will somehow force people to do so. I voted in favour of the measures because I don’t regard having to present evidence of a negative lateral flow test or having to wear a face mask in certain places as being unreasonable given the threat from the Omicron virus (which we know is much more transmissible). Nor do I believe that these measures somehow represent a threat to our fundamental liberties, as some have suggested. On the contrary, they are sensible and proportionate public health measures.
On the separate issue of mandatory vaccination of the public, I am opposed to this, as is the Health Secretary. I am also opposed to the use of covid status certification for access to essential services. Forcing the general population to have the vaccine would not only be wrong but would also be impractical. The Government have not brought forward measures to introduce this, but we will not support any attempt to do so in future.
Having said that, however, I think it’s really important that we do all get vaccinated. Vaccination remains the most important thing we have available to us in the fight against the pandemic. The evidence is now clear that it helps to reduce severe infection and death, and we have an obligation one to another to provide the maximum protection against the virus. And now evidence has emerged that two vaccinations alone provide less protection against the new Omicron variant, it’s absolutely vital that the booster programme is rolled out as fast as possible and that we all get our booster done because this increases protection against Omicron. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even a milder disease can end up claiming lives if it is much more transmissible. This is because as the number of infections soars even a small percentage of serious cases can present a risk to our hospitals.
Some people have said to me that it is their own choice as to whether they get vaccinated or not, and that they’re not worried about getting the virus. I think this misses the point about the impact this will have on other people. If the total number of cases is higher than it would otherwise be because some people have decided not to get vaccinated, then this will inevitably result in greater pressure on hospital beds and on NHS staff, which in turn will adversely affect other patients; for example, those whose operations or tests are having to be postponed because more of the health service’s capacity is being taken up by people with Covid, including those who are not vaccinated.
Some of those who have written to me have also claimed that being vaccinated does nothing to prevent transmission. This is not what the evidence seems to demonstrate. Several studies show that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 are less likely to infect others. The Centre for Disease Control says that these findings, along with the early evidence for reduced levels of viral mRNA and culturable virus in vaccinated people who get Covid, suggest that any associated transmission risk is substantially reduced in vaccinated people.
On vaccination for NHS staff, this is a difficult question. I would much prefer all frontline NHS staff voluntarily to agree to have the vaccine. The latest SAGE advice, however, suggests that Omicron may increase the risk of hospital acquired infections. While vaccination will not eliminate all transmission, it will reduce the risk and help protect both patients and staff in the NHS from severe disease. It may also reduce staff absences caused by Covid. There is precedent for certain NHS staff having to be vaccinated – for example against hepatitis. And given the evidence that being vaccinated reduces the risk of transmission, then I think it is reasonable to ask whether those who are looking after our loved ones should themselves have taken every step possible to reduce the risk that they may pass the virus on to those they are caring for, many of whom will be elderly and vulnerable.
But ahead of the roll out the Government must ensure this change does not make the staffing crisis in the NHS any worse and ministers should urgently meet with the royal colleges, NHS providers and trade unions to agree a framework for how this change will be implemented.
Finally, all of us want to enjoy Christmas safely this year, and we all want to protect our NHS which has been suffering from a staffing shortage and record waiting lists. Our best defence against all variants of the virus including Omicron – and we are now starting to see people with Omicron in hospital in the UK – remains vaccination which is why I welcome the new plan to urgently step up the booster programme.
I apologise for the length of this reply, but I thought it would be helpful to set out in detail why I believe these measures are in the interests of protecting public health, and why therefore I voted to support them.
MP for Leeds Central