Just over a week ago there was several questions from MPs and one answer from a Government Minister. The rather disturbing element which emerged from the response was that very little is being listened to by the Government or if they are listening to the experts, their decision seems to be ignoring the experts. The two questions that were the the most concerning came from Debbie Abrahams who is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and Caroline Lucas who is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. Here are the two questions and then the response which came from Maggie Throup who is the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health and Social Care.
Debbie: The all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus took evidence this morning from SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—academics and clinicians. They were clear in their concern that the living with coronavirus strategy does not include what needs to happen. It tells us what needs to stop, but it does not say what needs to happen. I am thinking particularly about the surveillance of new variants and the impacts on the communities that will be most detrimentally affected. Will the Minister expand on how the Government will ensure they keep us safe?
Caroline: I was also at the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus evidence session this morning and the health experts were unanimous in saying that to remove the restrictions around self-isolation right now is premature. They were all concerned about the impact it would have on the 3.7 million clinically vulnerable people. If people cannot test and they are not self-isolating, they may well sit next to somebody in a train carriage who is extremely vulnerable. They will not know that that person is extremely vulnerable and they will not be taking any precautions.
We ought to ensure that we retain the requirement to self-isolate. It is one of the most basic measures we have to protect other people. When it comes to personal responsibility, we do not say that, for example, speed limits are a question of personal responsibility or that smoking in crowded places is a personal responsibility, because they affect other people. That is exactly the point with these regulations. Self-isolation is to protect others and therefore simply relying on self-responsibility is not enough.
Maggie: First, I would like to outline that the House has been asked to revoke the legal requirements around self-isolation if one tests positive for covid-19, including: the duty to self-isolate if one tests positive, the duty to provide NHS Test and Trace with details and contacts, the duty to notify an employer that one is self-isolating, and the legal duty on employers to not knowingly allow someone who is self-isolating to attend work. Rather than relying on restrictions, we are encouraging people to act responsibly and to follow the guidance that has been set out, just as we would for any other respiratory condition.
To answer some of the specific questions raised by Opposition Members, as announced on 21 February, we will continue to make testing available for a small number of at-risk groups. We are considering which groups will be eligible for tests after provision for the general public ends. Tests are available until the end of March. We will announce details as soon as we can. That addresses the specific questions asked about people in vulnerable settings.
As for how we are moving forward, the Government will retain surveillance to monitor the virus, understand its evolution and identify changes and new characteristics. That will enable the Government to make informed decisions and respond accordingly. The Government will prepare and maintain the capabilities to ramp up testing and other tools such as laboratory infrastructure to be used as the line of defence against new variants.
Finally, I remind the House that we have already sent out 1.3 million PCR tests to those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, so that should they find that they have symptoms, they can do an immediate PCR test, have priority and be able to be prescribed antivirals as a matter of urgency.