Coronavirus Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 20th July 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:39 pm, 20th July 2020

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on our action against coronavirus.

Thanks to the perseverance of the British people and the hard work of those on the frontline, this virus is on the back foot. For over three weeks now, the number of new cases each day has been below 1,000, and daily hospital admissions are down to 142. Because of this success in slowing the spread of the virus, on Friday, the Prime Minister was able to set out a conditional timetable for the further easings of the restrictions.

Throughout the reopening, we have acted carefully and cautiously, always vigilant, and we have been able to deliver on our plan. We have protected the NHS. We have cautiously replaced the national lockdown with local action. Thanks to our action against hundreds of local outbreaks, and thanks to NHS test and trace working well, NHS test and trace has now asked 180,000 people to self-isolate—that is up to 180,000 potential chains of transmission broken by this brilliant new service. What is more, in the hundreds of thousands of tests it delivers every single day, the vast—vast—majority test negative. That provides assurance to hundreds of thousands of people who can go back to work and sleep easy.

NHS test and trace is a brand new service. Putting together a massive service of this kind, at this pace, has been a remarkable job—almost unprecedented. I would like to thank the remarkable leadership of Baroness Harding for spearheading the programme and Tom Riordan, who has driven our vital work with local authorities. Everybody in this country who loves freedom should join me in thanking all those who work in NHS test and trace, in Public Health England, and in local public health operations for successfully delivering on our plan of moving from a national lockdown to local action. The plan is working.

I would like, if I may, to set out the next stages in this plan. We refuse to be complacent about the threat posed by the virus, and we will not hesitate to put the brakes on if we need to. Our goal is that this should be done through as targeted local action as possible, like we did in Leicester, where we can now start to ease the restrictions. On Friday, we published our framework for containing and controlling future outbreaks in England. From Saturday, local authorities have had new powers in their areas so that they can act with more vigour in response to outbreaks. They can now close specific premises, shut outdoor public spaces, and cancel events. Later this week, we will publish indicative draft regulations that clearly set out the suite of legislative powers that Ministers may need to use to intervene at a local level.

As I pledged to the House on Thursday, we are publishing more data and sharing more data with local bodies. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for the good use of data in decision making. Properly used, data is one of the best epidemiological weapons that we have. From last month, local directors of public health have had postcode-level data about outbreaks in their area. From today, as I committed to the House last week, we are going further and putting enhanced levels of data in the hands of local directors of public health too. Of course, high-quality testing is the main source of our data, and having set targets radically to expand testing over the past few months—which have had exactly the desired effect, as each one has been met—so we are now setting the target for the nation of half a million antigen tests a day by the end of October, ahead of winter. I am sure that, as a nation, we will meet this challenge too.

The need for extra testing is not, of course, the only challenge that winter will bring. We know that the NHS will face the usual annual winter pressures, and on top of that, we do not yet know how the virus will interact with the cold weather. So we will make sure that the NHS has the support it needs. We have massively increased the number of ventilators available to patients across the UK, up from 9,000 before the pandemic to nearly 30,000 now; we have now had an agreed supply of 30 billion pieces of personal protective equipment; and we will be rolling out the biggest ever flu vaccination programme in our country’s history.

To support this, I have agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the funding necessary to protect the NHS this winter too. We have already announced £30 billion for health and social care, and we will now provide a further £3 billion on top of the £1.5 billion capital funding announced a fortnight ago. This applies to the NHS in England. Those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also receive extra funding. This means that the NHS can keep using the extra hospital capacity in the independent sector and that we can maintain the Nightingale hospitals, which have provided so much reassurance throughout the pandemic, at least until the end of March. We have protected the NHS through this crisis, and that support will help us to protect it in the months ahead.

We all know that in the long term, the best solution to this crisis would be a vaccine, and I am delighted to say that Britain continues to lead the world on that. Two leading vaccine developments are taking place in this country, at Oxford and Imperial, and both are supported by Government funding and the British life science industry. Today, Oxford published an encouraging report in The Lancet, showing that its phase 1 and 2 trials are proceeding well. The trial shows that the Oxford vaccine produces a strong immunity response in patients, in both antibody production and T-cell responses, and that no safety concerns have been identified. That promising news takes us one step closer to finding a vaccine that could save lives around the world.

The UK is not just developing world-leading vaccines; we are also putting more money into the global work for a vaccine than any other country. With like-minded partners we are working to ensure that whoever’s vaccine is approved first, the whole world can have access. We reject narrow nationalism. We support a global effort, because this virus respects no borders, and we are all on the same side.

This morning I held a global conference call with other health leaders, including from Germany, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United States, and others, to discuss the need for global licensing access for any successful vaccine. Here at home, as well as our investment in research, we are working hard to build a portfolio of the most promising new vaccines, no matter where they are from. We have already secured 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, if it succeeds, and today I can tell the House that the Government have secured early access to 90 million further vaccine doses—30 million from an agreement between BioNTech and Pfizer, and 60 million from Valneva. We are getting the deals in place, so that once we know a vaccine is safe and effective, we can make it available for British citizens as soon as humanly possible.

Another long-term solution to eliminating this virus and its negative effects is through developing effective treatments, and it was British scientists, backed by UK Government funding, who led the first robust clinical trial to find a treatment that was proved to reduce the risk of dying from covid: dexamethasone. We now have preliminary results from a clinical trial of another treatment known as SNG001, which was created by the Southampton -based biotech firm Synairgen. Initial findings based on a small cohort suggest that SNG001 may substantially reduce the chance of someone developing severe disease, and it could cut hospital admission time by a third. The data still need to be peer reviewed, and we are supporting a further large-scale trial, but the preliminary results are a positive sign.

In the fight against this virus, our world-renowned universities, researchers and scientists are indispensable, so that we can develop the vaccines and treatments that will tackle this virus for the long term. We have a plan, our plan is working, and the measures I have set out today will help to protect the NHS, support our treatments and vaccines, and take our country forward together. I commend this statement to the House.