Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2:23 pm, 22nd October 2020

I am worried about the rise in cases, especially among the over-60s in Warrington. We have seen that case rate continuing to rise, despite the hard work of people locally, since Warrington was moved into local alert level 2. There is an excellent local hospital in Warrington, but it is dealing with a very high number of cases and is working with other local hospitals to ensure that everybody gets the treatment they need. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has provided great leadership in his local community. I hope that with everybody supporting these measures and taking the actions necessary, we can keep these restrictions in place for as little time as possible, but I am absolutely convinced that we need to make progress. I have announced today that we will formally start the talks; I hope that we can reach an agreement and resolution soon.

The virus moves quickly, so we must respond quickly and in a targeted way like this to keep it under control. As part of local discussions, local authorities including the Local Government Association have asked for stronger enforcement powers, and I agree. To support businesses who are doing the right thing it is fair that we take action against those business who are doing the wrong thing. Firm enforcement helps make these restrictions fairer for all. We want to put in place stronger regulations to give local authorities further powers to take further action in their area. The proposals that we will bring forward will mean that councils will be able to act without delay and use closure notices to shut premises on public health grounds to help suppress the virus. We will work with local authorities in the coming days on the details of these proposals so that we can act in a firm and fast way against the minority who are breaching these life-saving rules.

These changes will help us fight the virus in the here and now but we are also making progress on long-term solutions. The long-term solution is not to give up, as some would have us do, or wish the virus away; it is to harness the science and the ingenuity of innovation while supporting people through.

First, on testing, thanks to exceptional work from so many people we have built a critical national infrastructure of diagnostic testing. Today’s testing capacity is now over 370,000. Alongside this expansion of the current technology, I want to update the House on mass testing. I know there have been many questions about this project. Last week, we began rolling out new testing technologies to hospitals based on the point-of-care LAMP—loop-mediated isothermal amplification—test. That will allow the regular repeat testing of NHS staff and patients. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that yesterday we began the roll-out of lateral flow tests to schools and universities. Lateral flow tests do not require a lab or a machine; the kit gives a result within minutes. We have successfully purchased many millions of these tests and they will allow us both to find the virus where it spreads and to reduce the disruption that virus control measures inevitably create.

If we can deliver a mass-testing solution so that pupils in a bubble do not have to isolate for a fortnight when one in the bubble tests positive, we will not only help control the spread of the virus but we will protect education better and help schools, teachers and parents to live their lives much closer to normal. These tests will also allow directors of public health to have more rapid access to testing capacity and we are starting the roll-out to councils, including today with the council in Stoke-on-Trent.

The second area to touch on is vaccines. Progress continues on the development and the deployment of vaccines, and we are determined to give those developing vaccines all the support they need. I can inform the House that we are initiating human challenge trials to speed up the development of the coronavirus vaccine and to improve further its safety. We are contributing £33 million to back these trials, joining forces with academia and industry. A human challenge trial involves taking a vaccine candidate that has been proven to be safe in trials and giving it to a small number of carefully selected, healthy adult volunteers who are then exposed to the virus in a safe and controlled environment closely monitored by medics and scientists. That gives us the chance to accelerate the understanding of promising vaccines that have been through the clinical trials so that we can improve on their safe development. The UK is one of the only countries in the world with the capability to run that kind of programme, and we should all be proud that, once again, we are leading on this global effort.

Our response to this lethal virus has been one of the greatest collective endeavours that this nation has seen. Thanks to those efforts, we are better prepared this time round. As a nation, we built the Nightingale hospitals in just nine days. As a nation, we came together as one to protect the NHS, and it was not overwhelmed. Now the NHS is better prepared still. As a nation, we built the biggest testing capability of all our peers, and we have made huge and historic advances in vaccines and treatments. We understand this virus infinitely more than at the start of this pandemic but we are not there yet—not when the virus is spreading at pace. So we must each of us look at what we can do, the role we can play and what actions we can take. We have seen throughout this pandemic that we are at our best when we come together. We know that with science on our side ultimately we will prevail.