Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:41 am on 10th September 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 11:41 am, 10th September 2020

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Just to concur with what you have said, I do regard it as incredibly important to come to the House as often as possible. Sometimes these are fast-moving situations, and I will ensure that I give the House my full attention and, as I try to do, answer as many questions as fully as I can.

With permission, I would like to make a further statement on coronavirus. We have done much as a nation to get this virus under control, so we have been able to restore so much. To give just one example, figures today show that radiotherapy services in England have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is good news and will save lives. But as I said to the House on Tuesday, we are seeing some concerning trends, including an increase in the number of positive cases, especially, but not only, among younger people. As the chief medical officer said yesterday, we must learn from the recent experience of countries such as Belgium that have successfully put in place measures to combat a similar rise in infections. So today, I would like to update the House on a number of new measures that will help us to get this virus under control and to make the rules clearer, simpler and more enforceable.

First, we are putting in place new rules on social contact. We have listened to feedback from the public and the police, and we are simplifying and strengthening the rules, making them easier to understand and easier to enforce. In England, from Monday, we are introducing the rule of six. Nobody should meet socially in groups of more than six, and if they do, they will be breaking the law. This will apply in any setting—indoors or outdoors, at home or in the pub. It replaces both the existing ban on gatherings of more than 30 and the current guidance on allowing two households to meet indoors.

There will be some exemptions. For example, if a single household or support bubble is larger than six, they can still gather. Places of education and work are unaffected. Covid-secure weddings, wedding receptions and funerals can go ahead up to a limit of 30 people. Organised sport and exercise is exempt.

These are not measures that we take lightly. I understand that for many they will mean changing long-awaited plans or missing out on precious moments with loved ones, but this sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term and save lives, and I vow that we will not keep these rules in place for any longer than we have to.

Secondly, we are putting in place stronger enforcement. Hospitality venues will be legally required to request the contact details of every party. They will have to record and retain those details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace without delay when required. This system is working well voluntarily, with minimal friction, and it is very effective, but it is not in place in all venues. It is only fair that it is followed by all. We are supporting local authorities to make greater use of their powers to close venues that are breaking rules and pose a risk to public health, and fines will be levied against hospitality venues that fail to ensure their premises are covid-secure.

Our goal, as much as possible, is to protect keeping schools and businesses open, while controlling the virus. The data show that, while the cases among 17 to 30-year-olds are rising, the number of cases among the under-16s remains very low. We all know how important it is to keep schools open. As the chief medical officers have said, the long-term risks to children’s life chances of not going to school are significant and far greater than the health risks of going back to school. The latest data confirm that.

University students will soon be returning. The Department for Education has published the updated guidance for universities on how they can operate in a covid-secure way. That includes a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, to avoid spreading the virus further across the country. If you are a student who is about to return to university or go to university for the first time, please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and grandparents’ health, follow the rules and do not gather in groups of more than six.

Our ability to test and trace on a large scale is fundamental to controlling the virus, as we have discussed in the House many times. The latest data show that we are doing more testing per head than other European countries such as Germany and Spain, and we have record capacity. We have increased capacity by more than 10,000 tests a day over the last fortnight. While there have been challenges in access to tests, the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home. The average distance travelled to a test site is 6.4 miles, and 90% of people who book a test travel 22 miles or less. We already have more than 400 testing sites in operation. We added 19 last week and plan 17 more this week.

However, as capacity has increased, we have seen an even faster rise in demand, including a significant increase from people who do not have symptoms and are not eligible for a test. That takes tests away from people who need them. If you have symptoms of coronavirus or are asked by a clinician or local authority to get a test, please apply, but if you do not have symptoms and have not been asked, you are not eligible for a test.

At the same time, we are developing new types of test that are simple, quick and scalable. They use swabs or saliva and can be turned round in 90 minutes or even 20 minutes. So-called Operation Moonshot, to deploy mass testing, will allow people to lead more normal lives and reduce the need for social distancing. For instance, it could mean that theatres and sports venues could test audience members on the day and let in those with a negative result, workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning, and anyone isolating because they are a contact or quarantining after travelling abroad could be tested and released. We are piloting that approach right now and verifying the new technology, and then it can be rolled out nationwide. [Laughter.]

I am going to depart from my script here. I have heard the nay-sayers before, and I have heard Opposition Members complain that we will never get testing going. They are the same old voices. They opposed the 100,000 tests, and did we deliver that? Yes, we did. They say, “What about testing in care homes?” Well, we delivered the tests to care homes earlier this week. They are against everything that is needed to sort this problem for this country, and they would do far better to support their constituents and get with the programme. I am looking forward to rolling out this programme and this work, which has been under way for some time already, and I am determined that we will get there. If everything comes together, and if the technology comes off, it will be possible, even for challenging sectors, such as theatres, to get closer to normal before Christmas.

Finally, the most important thing that each and every one of us can do is remember the small things that can make a big difference: hands, face, space, and if you have symptoms, get a test! Hands: wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds. Face: wear a face covering over your mouth and nose if you are in an enclosed space and in close contact with people you do not normally meet. Space: always stay 2 metres away from people you do not live with, or 1 metre with extra precautions, such as extra ventilation, screens or face coverings. And of course, if you have covid symptoms, get a test and self-isolate.

Coronavirus is a powerful adversary, and when called upon, the British people have done so much to blunt the force of this invisible killer. Now, at this important juncture, we are being called upon once more to deliver our collective commitment to follow the rules and get this virus under control. I commend this statement to the House.