Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:40 pm on 8th September 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 1:40 pm, 8th September 2020

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. As a country, we have made huge strides in our fight against this invisible killer. Today’s Office for National Statistics figures show that weekly coronavirus deaths have dropped to the lowest number since mid-March, and the latest daily number of recorded deaths is three. However, we have seen a concerning rise in the number of positive cases, particularly among younger people. These figures serve as a salutary reminder that this virus is still very much with us and remains a threat, so it is critical that we maintain our collective commitment to controlling this disease.

Social distancing is the first line of defence. While young people are less likely to die from this disease, be in no doubt that they are still at risk. The long-term effects can be terrible, and of course they can infect others. Six months on, many people are still suffering chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties. Previously fit and healthy people have been reduced to barely being able to function. A King’s College survey published today shows that 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms lasting for more than a month and that 60,000 people have been ill for more than three months.

I also want to address the point, which is of course good news, that the number of people who are sadly dying from coronavirus in this country is currently low. We have seen all across the world how a rise in cases, initially among younger people, then spreads, leading to hospitalisations and fatalities. In Spain, where the rise in cases started around two months ago, hospitalisations have risen 15 times since mid-July. The number of daily deaths there has reached 184. In France, hospitalisations have more than tripled in the same period.

This must be a moment of clarity for us all. This is not over. Just because we have come through one peak, it does not mean we cannot see another one coming towards our shores. But together we can tackle it, so long as we remember that, in a pandemic, our actions today have consequences tomorrow for the people we love, for our communities, and for our country. Each and every citizen has a responsibility to follow social distancing and help to stop a second peak. After social distancing, the next line of defence is test and trace. Over the past six months we have built the biggest testing system of any major European country, and one of the biggest testing systems in the world. Today, I can tell the House that we have met our target to provide testing kits to all the care homes for older people and people with dementia that have registered to get tests.

But I will not rest. We are working flat out to expand our testing capacity even further. Using existing technology, we are expanding our capacity right now, and we are investing in new testing technology too. Last week, I was able to announce £500 million for next-generation tests such as saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes. The ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results will significantly increase the weapons in our armoury, in our fight both against coronavirus and for economic recovery. We are rolling out these tests right now, and plan to use them to relieve capacity constraints, to expand asymptomatic testing to find the virus and to give people the confidence that a negative test result brings.

Where it is necessary, we will not shy away from taking targeted local action. In June, I established the Joint Biosecurity Centre, to provide the best possible data analytics, using information from all possible sources. Our local action is driven by the data. We now publish daily local data on cases, so that everyone can see the data on which these decisions are taken, and this shows that our approach is working. For instance, in both Leicester and Luton, the weekly case rate more than halved during August. I want to thank the people of Leicester, including Jonathan Ashworth, of Luton and of the other areas where we have taken local action, who have followed social distancing and helped to bring the virus under control.

Sometimes local action requires us to act fast and respond to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, after improving for several weeks, we have seen a very significant rise in cases in Bolton. Bolton is now up to 120 cases per 100,000 population—the highest case rate in the country—and I am publishing the data behind the decisions that we have taken. I must therefore tell the House that, working with the local council, we are taking further local action. The rise in cases in Bolton is partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s; we know that from contact tracing. Through our contact tracing system, we have identified a number of pubs at which the virus has spread significantly. We are therefore taking the following action in Bolton, starting immediately. We will restrict all hospitality to takeaway only, and we will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours, which will mean that all venues will be required to close from 10 pm to 5 am. We will urgently introduce further measures that put the current guidance—that people cannot socialise outside their household—into law.

I want us to learn the lesson from Spain, America and France, not to have to learn the lesson all over again ourselves through more hospitalisations and more deaths, and take this local action in Bolton. Crucially, we all have a part to play. Young people do not just spread the virus to each other. They spread the virus to their parents and their grandparents. They spread it to those they come into contact with and others who they love. I know that social distancing can be hard and that it will be extra tough for students who are starting university, but I ask them please to stick with it and to play their part in getting this virus under control.

We are also putting in place extra measures, including visitor restrictions, to restrict the spread of the virus into care homes and hospitals in Bolton. I want to thank the leadership of Bolton Council, who are doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances, and colleagues who represent Bolton in this House, with whom I have discussed these measures. I want to say this directly to everyone living in Bolton: I know how anxious you will be, and I know the impact that these measures will have. We are asking you to take a step back, at a time when we all just want to get on with our lives and what we love and get back to normal, but we need to take this crucial step to keep the virus at bay, because as we have seen elsewhere, if we act early and control the virus, we can save lives.

As well as controlling the virus using the tools we have now, we will do everything in our power to bring to bear the technologies of the future. Over the past few months, we have seen the pivotal role that technology has played in our response, such as next-generation rapid testing, machine-learning tools to help the NHS predict where vital resources might be needed, and the discovery here in the UK of the only two treatments known to save lives from coronavirus. We want to keep that momentum going, so today, we are allocating £50 million from our artificial intelligence in health and care award. That fund aims to speed up the testing and evaluation of some of the most promising technologies, because through bringing new technologies to the frontline, we can transform how we deliver critical care and services across the country.

Finally, the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine. We have already announced that we will roll out the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in history this winter. We now have agreements with six separate vaccine developers for early access to 340 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, and we will use every method at our disposal to get as many people protected as possible.

This virus feeds on complacency, and although time has passed since the peak in the spring, the threat posed by the virus has not gone away. Now, with winter on the horizon, we must all redouble our efforts and get this virus on the back foot. I commend this statement to the House.