Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 12:33 pm, 23rd June 2020

Before I begin, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of James Furlong, Joe Ritchie-Bennett and David Wails, who were brutally killed in Reading on Saturday. To assault defenceless people in a park is an act not simply of wickedness, but of abject cowardice. We will never yield to those who would seek to destroy our way of life.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the next steps in our plan to rebuild our economy and reopen our society, while waging our struggle against covid-19. From the outset, we have trusted in the common sense and perseverance of the British people, and their response has more than justified our faith. Since I set out our plan on 11 May, we have been clear that our cautious relaxation of the guidance is entirely conditional on our continued defeat of the virus. In the first half of May, nearly 69,000 people tested positive for covid-19 across the UK; by the first half of June, that total had fallen by nearly 70% to just under 22,000. The number of new infections is now declining by between 2% and 4% every day.

Four weeks ago, an average of one in 400 people in the community in England had covid-19; in the first half of June, the figure was one in 1,700. We created a human shield around the NHS, and in turn our doctors and nurses have protected us. Together, we have saved our hospitals from being overwhelmed. On 11 May, 1,073 people were admitted to hospital in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with covid-19; by 20 June, the figure had fallen by 74% to 283.

This pandemic has inflicted permanent scars, and we mourn everyone we have lost. Measured by a seven-day rolling average, the number of daily deaths peaked at 943 on 14 April. On 11 May, it was 476 and yesterday the rolling average stood at 130. We have ordered over 2.2 billion items of protective equipment from UK-based manufacturers, many of whose production lines have been called into being to serve this new demand. And yesterday we conducted or posted 139,659 tests, bringing the total to over 8 million.

While we remain vigilant, we do not believe that there is currently—currently—a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS. Taking everything together, we continue to meet our five tests, and the chief medical officers of all four home nations have downgraded the UK’s covid alert level from 4 to 3, meaning that we no longer face the virus spreading exponentially, although it remains in general circulation.

The Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold responsibility for their own lockdown restrictions, and they will respond to the united view of the chief medical officers at their own pace, based on their own judgment. But all parts of the UK are now travelling in the same direction, and we will continue to work together to ensure that everyone in our country gets the support they need.

Thanks to our progress, we can now go further and safely ease the lockdown in England. At every stage, caution will remain our watchword, and each step will be conditional and reversible. Given the significant fall in the prevalence of the virus, we can change the 2-metre social distancing rule from 4 July. I know that this rule effectively makes life impossible for large parts of our economy, even without other restrictions—for example, it prevents all but a fraction of our hospitality industry from operating. That is why almost two weeks ago I asked our experts to conduct a review; I will place a summary of their conclusions in the Libraries of both Houses this week.

Where it is possible to keep 2 metres apart, people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of 1 metre-plus, meaning that they should remain 1 metre apart while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission. We are today publishing guidance on how business can reduce the risk by taking certain steps to protect workers and customers. Those include, for instance, avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts, reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces, improving ventilation, the use of protective screens and face coverings, closing non-essential social spaces, providing hand sanitiser, or changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams. We already mandate face coverings on public transport.

While the experts cannot give a precise assessment of how much the risk is reduced, they judge that those mitigations would make 1 metre-plus broadly equivalent to the risk at 2 metres, if those mitigations are fully implemented. Either would be acceptable, and our guidance will change accordingly. That vital change enables the next stage of our plan to ease the lockdown.

I am acutely conscious that people will ask legitimate questions about why certain activities are allowed, when others are not, but I must ask the House to understand that the virus has no interest in such debates. Its only ambition is to exploit any opportunities to recapture ground that we might carelessly vacate, and to reinfect our communities. There is only one certainty, which is that the fewer social contacts someone has, the safer they will be, and our duty as a Government is to guide the British people, balancing our overriding aim of controlling the virus against our natural desire to bring back normal life.

We cannot lift all the restrictions at once, so we have to make difficult judgments. Every step is scrupulously weighed against the evidence. Our principle is to trust the British public to use their common sense in the full knowledge of the risks, remembering that the more we open up, the more vigilant we will need to be. From now on, we will ask people to follow guidance on social contact, instead of legislation, and in that spirit we advise that from 4 July, two households of any size should be able to meet in any setting, inside or out. That does not mean that they must always be the same two households; it will, for instance, be possible to meet one set of grandparents one weekend, and the other set the following weekend. We are not recommending meetings of multiple households indoors, because of the risk of creating greater chains of transmission. Outside, the guidance remains that people from several households can meet in groups of up to six, and it follows that two households can also meet, regardless of size.

Mr Speaker, I can tell the House that we will also reopen restaurants and pubs. All hospitality indoors will be limited to table service, and our guidance will encourage minimal staff and customer contact. We will ask businesses to help NHS test and trace respond to any local outbreaks by collecting contact details from customers, as happens in other countries, and we will work with the sector to make that manageable. Almost as eagerly awaited as a pint will be a haircut—particularly by me, Mr Speaker—and we will reopen hairdressers with appropriate precautions, including the use of visors. We also intend to allow some other close-contact services such as nail bars to reopen as soon as we can, once we are confident that they can operate in a covid-secure way.

From 4 July, provided that no more than two households stay together, people will be free to stay overnight in self-contained accommodation, including hotels and bed and breakfasts, as well as campsites, as long as shared facilities are kept clean. Most leisure facilities and tourist attractions will reopen if they can do so safely, including outdoor gyms and playgrounds, cinemas, museums, galleries, theme parks and arcades, as well as libraries, social clubs and community centres.

Close-proximity venues such as nightclubs, soft play areas, indoor gyms, swimming pools and spas will, I am afraid, need to remain closed for now, as will bowling alleys and waterparks, but my right hon. Friends the Business Secretary and the Culture Secretary will establish taskforces with public health experts and those sectors to help them to become covid-secure and reopen as soon as possible.

We will also work with the arts industry on specific guidance to enable choirs, orchestras and theatres to resume live performances as soon as possible. Recreation and sport will be allowed, but indoor facilities, including changing rooms and courts, will remain closed, and people should only play close-contact team sports with members of their household.

I know that many have mourned the closure of places of worship, and this year Easter, Passover and Eid all occurred during the lockdown. I am delighted that places of worship will be able to reopen for prayer and services, including weddings, with a maximum of 30 people, all subject to social distancing.

Meanwhile, our courts, probation services, police stations and other public services will increasingly resume face-to-face proceedings. Wraparound care for school-age children and formal childcare will restart over the summer. Primary and secondary education will recommence in September with full attendance, and those children who can already go to school should do so, because it is safe.

We will publish covid-secure guidelines for every sector that is reopening, and slowly but surely these measures will restore a sense of normality. After the toughest restrictions in peacetime history, we are now able to make life easier for people, so that they can see more of their friends and families, and to help businesses get back on their feet and get people back into work.

The virus has not gone away, however. We will continue to monitor the data with the joint biosecurity centre and our ever more effective test and trace system. I must be clear to the House that, as we have seen in other countries, there will be flare-ups, for which local measures will be needed. We will not hesitate to apply the brakes and reintroduce restrictions, even at national level, if required. I urge everyone to stay alert, control the virus and save lives. Let us keep washing our hands; staying 2 metres apart wherever feasible, mitigating the risks at 1 metre where it is not; avoiding public transport where possible and wearing a mask when we have to use public transport; getting tested immediately if we have symptoms; and self-isolating if instructed to do so by NHS test and trace.

Today we can say that our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end. Life is returning to our streets and to our shops, the bustle is starting to come back and a new but cautious optimism is palpable, but I must say to the House that it would be all too easy for that frost to return. That is why we will continue to trust in the common sense and the community spirit of the British people to follow this guidance, to carry us through and to see us to victory over this virus. I commend this statement to the House.