Today I voted on new Covid measures. This blog sets out how I voted, and my reasoning.
The threat from Omicron
Omicron is a new threat on top of the existing variants of the Covid virus, and we need to act swiftly to limit its spread. Throughout the pandemic, as the Official Opposition, we have always put public health before party politics, and we will continue to do so. We will support measures on their merits.
I know a lot of people are angry about the revelations regarding what happened in Downing Street last Christmas. I share that anger. Indeed, I’ve been instrumental in exposing the hypocrisy and disdain of the Prime Minister and his government. However, we should not let that get in the way of us doing the right thing now in the national interest.
I also know people are worrying about the impact of any restrictions on businesses and jobs, particularly those who have struggled in the last year and are just beginning to recover and hoping for a good festive season to help with this.
I’ve read a lot of emails from people living or working in Bristol West and I’ve listened to many different views. I’ve also reviewed the scientific evidence and consulted people in the medical and scientific professions with expertise in this area.
The votes today
There were four votes earlier today:
- Making face masks mandatory for public transport and various indoor settings with limited exceptions.
- A requirement for anyone who is a close contact of someone who tests positive for the Covid variant omicron to take daily lateral flow tests rather than isolate, unless they are not vaccinated, in which case they will have to continue to isolate.
- A requirement to use Covid passes to gain entry to various venues and events – showing either a recent negative lateral flow test or proof of vaccination.
- Rules for NHS and social care settings, including a requirement that all staff in these settings are fully vaccinated, with limited exceptions.
I voted in favour of all four of these sets of regulations:
1. Mandatory face masks
Whilst masks are not a 100% deterrent for the virus – nothing is – there is good reliable scientific evidence, which has developed over the last two years, that they significantly reduce the risk of spread of virus. They are not an interference in daily life and there are exemptions for people with a medical reason why they cannot wear a mask. As I want to decrease the risk of the virus spreading and consequently putting a strain on the NHS, on schools, on jobs, I voted in favour of this regulation. Indeed, Labour called on the government to maintain this when they scrapped it and we have been calling for it to return.
2. Rules for close contacts of people with omicron variant
We are learning more about the omicron variant every day but we already know that it is much more infectious than previous variants. It’s important that we are able to restrict transmission and unfortunately that does mean requirements on anyone who has the omicron variant and anyone who is a close contact.
3. Covid passes for certain events and venues
Many 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 is being proposed.
These 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 some types of events.
The regulation is about ‘Covid passes’. These passes will be to help people to feel confident visiting large indoor events by asking everyone to show either vaccination status or proof of a negative lateral flow test in order to gain entry. This is because at large venues/mass gatherings where there is a greater risk because of the number of people attending, and a particularly increased risk with this variant, which is much more infectious than previous ones.
This is the system that has been operating in Wales for quite some time. People travelling abroad have been required to show a negative result before travelling for some time. Many venues have been asking for proof of a negative test result on a voluntary basis. Just this weekend, thousands of people complied with this requirement for mass events in England and Wales including sporting fixtures and concerts.
We know that some people have not yet been able to have the vaccine for various reasons, so Labour called on the Government to include the option of a negative lateral flow test as an alternative to proof of vaccination status, I’m glad that ministers have listened. Your pass can be proof of a negative lateral flow test or a vaccination.
I voted in favour of the measures because I want to support people being able to take part in events safely – this is good for public health and good for the livelihoods which depend on the events and hospitality industries. 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 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.
4. Rules for NHS and social care settings and staff
On vaccination for NHS staff, I understand that this is a difficult question and I also note that from what I’m told there is only a very small minority of NHS staff who remain unvaccinated. 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 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 people who are sick, vulnerable, disabled, elderly and otherwise at increased risk of infection and severe harm should themselves have taken every step possible to reduce the risk that they may pass the virus on to those they are caring for. I have to be able to answer to constituents who would want to know why their loved one was infected by an unvaccinated NHS employee, no matter how dedicated they are.
But ahead of any 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.
Other concerns people have raised with me
Some people have understandably raised concerns about the guidance to work from home and the impact that this will have on some businesses, such as city centre hospitality. I know that this will be really worrying, particularly for those businesses who have had a very tough time for the last two years. Unfortunately, the Omicron variant is so very infectious that to carry on as we are would pose an even greater threat to those businesses – that of many more people being sick and unable to come to work.
There are many people who will not visit hospitality or indoor events unless and until there are covid passes or other covid measures in place – that’s a sensible approach and I applaud the many businesses who are taking this approach as it will encourage many potential customers to feel more confident about going out.
I will continue to monitor the situation closely – please let me know if you have specific concerns or questions.
Questions about mandatory vaccination
Whilst I believe we should look at all options carefully to ensure public health I can see no argument for such an approach. Indeed, it would be dangerous and discriminatory to restrict people’s access to essential services this way.
There is no proposal for mandatory vaccination in the regulations I voted on today. However, it’s really important that everyone does 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. Now evidence has emerged that two vaccinations alone provide less protection against the new Omicron variant until someone has had the third, booster jab, 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 hugely increases protection against Omicron.
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, including their own loved ones, friends and family as well as wider community.
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 unvaccinated.
The evidence demonstrates clearly that vaccination reduces the chances of getting sick, of becoming seriously ill or dying if you do get sick and it also reduces the risk of transmission. It protects you but also your family, friends, colleagues and everyone around you. Nothing is 100%, which is why there will still be some vaccinated people who will get ill, sadly, but the risk is massively reduced, which helps us all and protects our lives and livelihoods.
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 acquire SARS-CoV-2 infection, suggest that any associated transmission risk is substantially reduced in vaccinated people.
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 we must urgently step up the booster programme.