Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:04 pm on 16th July 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 5:04 pm, 16th July 2020

With permission, I would like to make a statement on our action against coronavirus and the decisions we have been taking through the day today to determine the future of the action needed in Leicester. We continue our determined fight against this invisible killer. The number of new cases yesterday was 642, lower than when lockdown began. According to the latest figures, the number of deaths in all settings is down to 66. We are successfully turning the tide, and part of that success lies in our ability to take action locally whenever we see it flare up. Often this is on a very small scale, swiftly and quietly, such as in an individual farm or factory, but when needed we also act on a broader basis, as we have done in Leicester.

Today, I want to update the House on the situation in Leicester. At the end of June, we made the decision to close schools and non-essential retail in the city, and not to introduce the relaxations that applied elsewhere from 4 July such as the reopening of pubs. That was not an easy decision, but it was one that we had to take. At that point, the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was 135 cases per 100,000 people, which was three times higher than the next highest city, and Leicester was accounting for 10% of all positive cases in the country.

That decision was taken with the agreement of all local leaders, and I am grateful to the leader and officers of Leicestershire County Council, and to the officers of Leicester City Council, for their support and continued hard work. Since then, we have doubled testing in the city and, through a monumental programme of communications and community engagement, we have been pushing our important messages.

I committed to reviewing the measures in Leicester every two weeks. This morning, I chaired a gold meeting of the local action committee to discuss the latest situation, and this afternoon I held a further meeting with local leaders, Public Health England, the joint biosecurity centre, the local resilience forum and my clinical advisers. The latest data show that the seven-day infection rate in Leicester is now 119 cases per 100,000 people, and that the percentage of people who have tested positive is now at 4.8%. Those are positive indicators, especially in the light of the huge increase in testing in the local area, but they still remain well above the national average and the average for surrounding areas.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of people in Leicester who have followed the lockdown, even while others across the country have had their freedoms relaxed, we are now in a position to relax some, but not all, of the restrictions that were in place. From 24 July, we will remove the restrictions on schools and early years childcare and take a more targeted approach to the restrictions on non-essential retail, replacing the national decision to close non-essential retail outlets with a local power to close them where necessary. This is all part of our more targeted approach.

However, other restrictions, such as those for travel and having social gatherings of only up to six people for example, will remain in force, and measures introduced on 4 July such as reopening the hospitality sector will also not yet apply. The initial definition of the geography covered by the lockdown was a decision I delegated to Leicestershire County Council and that it made and published. The leader of Leicestershire County Council, Nicholas Rushton, has advised me, based on the data and the best public health advice, that he recommends that the restrictions now apply only to the Oadby and Wigston area of Leicestershire, as well as the city of Leicester itself, and I have accepted his advice.

Some say that the local lockdown is unnecessary. I wish that were true, but sadly it remains vital for the health of everyone in Leicester, and the rest of the country, that these restrictions stay in place. We will review them again in a fortnight. I hope that this careful easing of restrictions will provide some comfort to people in Leicester and Leicestershire. I say directly to the people of Leicester and Leicestershire, “I pay tribute to you all. Your perseverance and your hard work have brought real and tangible results, and you have shown respect for one another.”

I understand that this has not been easy. Strong representations have been made to me by my hon. Friends the Members for Charnwood (Edward Argar), for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), and by Opposition Members who represent the city of Leicester on behalf of constituents who have been impacted, and constituents who want to see the lockdown lifted. However, there is still a lot to do and the public health messages remain critical, so to them I say, “Please get a test if you have symptoms, keep following the rules that are in place, and please do not lose your resolve, because the sooner we get this virus under control, the sooner we can restore life in Leicester and across the country to normal.”

This statement also gives me the opportunity to inform the House of an issue relating to testing. We have identified some swabs that are not up to the usual high standard that we expect. We will be carrying out further testing of this batch. As a precautionary measure, and while we investigate further, we are requesting that the use of these Randox swab test kits is paused in all settings until further notice. This problem was brought to my attention yesterday afternoon. We contacted settings using the swabs last night and published the pause notice immediately. Clinical advice is that there is no evidence of any harm and that test results are not affected. There is no evidence of issues with any of our other swab tests, and there is no impact on access to testing.

Our ability to take action on the local level in Leicester is the keystone of our plan to defeat the coronavirus, ensuring we can keep the virus on the run and defeat it once and for all. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make a statement at this time, and I commend the statement to the House.