Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:15 pm, 14th December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered covid-19.

I am pleased to say that all across the country the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine is continuing at pace. Tens of thousands of patients, such as the very memorable Margaret Keenan and Martin Kenyon, have already received their jab, at more than 70 sites across the UK. That number will continue to increase, which is positive news, as I am sure we will all agree. This week also marks the start of the wave 1 roll-out of vaccination in GP-led sites, and I want to take this opportunity to thank general practitioners and their teams for their work in getting this programme up and running. I visited a practice this morning in Newham, where I talked to the team—to doctors, practice managers and the fantastic practice nurse, Raj, who had been busy caring for patients, delivering flu jabs and giving diabetes advice and is soon to be administering the covid vaccine. All those things, along with the promise of vaccines in care homes by Christmas, are encouraging developments, which colleagues from across the House will join me in welcoming. Right hon. and hon. Members will also be pleased with the announcement of 1,800 projects to upgrade and refurbish hospitals across 178 NHS trusts this winter; from fixing new roofs to new MRI machines, the £600 million package will make a real difference for patients and staff.

However, we all understand that this progress should be taken while bearing the current situation in mind. Coronavirus is very much with us. This past week, the average number of new cases each day was 15,960. Average daily hospital admissions currently stand at more than 1,500. As Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England reminded us only last week, even with our mass vaccination programme we will “not have sufficient protection” for the next three months. The number of cases is flattening and even rising in some parts of the country.

So it is important to remember that this is one of the most difficult times of year normally for respiratory infections. The winter period is always the most challenging time for the NHS, let alone in these unusual covid-tinged times. Therefore, we must do everything we can collectively to avoid putting any further burden on the NHS. We should continue with our current efforts, so that we can give all health and care workers the best possible environment, despite the current circumstances of rolling out that vaccine and saving lives. I am sure I speak for everyone when I say that I would like to take this opportunity to express my continued gratitude to those frontline members of staff in our health and care service up and down the country for all they do, in hospitals and in the community.

To reiterate, this Government will continue to focus their response and build around three vital pillars: tiers, testing and vaccine. The House has just heard my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary outline the latest changes in our system of tiering. The first formal review of tiering decisions is to take place this Wednesday, two weeks after the new rules came into force. However, when the virus is growing exponentially there is not a moment to spare, so we are acting ahead of the formal review date and putting in place stronger measures in several areas. I know these restrictions can be hard, but this action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe, but because we have seen that early action can prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later on. We will continue to stand with those who are impacted through our furlough scheme and support for businesses and the self-employed.

Even with the review point ahead of us, and following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s statement earlier today, the Government have wasted no time in taking bold action where it is needed. As soon as we became aware of these worrying trends in parts of London, Kent and Essex, a plan was put in place, and from last Friday surged mobile testing units have been deployed to where they are needed most. They are now in several boroughs of London, in parts of Essex that border London and parts of Kent where statistics show a high prevalence of covid-19, particularly among secondary school pupils. That is why our community testing is targeted towards the 11 to 18-year-olds and their families and teachers.

In addition to this testing support, we will continue to work with the local authorities and schools affected. Here I want to encourage anyone who has been asked to come forward for a test to do so, even if they are not displaying symptoms, for we know that community testing works. That is why this kind of deployment is available all across the UK. We are working with devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and now over 100 local authorities across England, so that people in Kent and Medway, Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Darlington can access tests. I thank local authorities for their efforts in mobilising the power of community testing for their areas.

Community testing works because it is the best way that we can identify and then isolate people with the virus. We know that people with coronavirus will often feel unwell and may well seek medical attention or indeed, unfortunately, be hospitalised. However, one in three people have no symptoms at all, but they can still pass it on to others through asymptomatic transmission. So that we can reduce transmission and help people protect their friends and families, I would like to urge everyone to keep following the restrictions in place, taking the sensible steps that have, I hope, become part of everyone’s daily routine: washing our hands, covering our face and making space, as well as opening the window to ventilate places where we can. This will help protect those around us, our families and friends.

We cannot stop all our efforts just because a vaccine is here—that would be premature and risk everything that people have worked so hard for—but we do know that, in time, the vaccine represents our surest way out of the challenges we face. Many of the population will get their jabs in the first part of next year, as more vaccines come on stream, and I am encouraged by the peer review in The Lancet confirming that our home-grown vaccine candidate, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, is clinically safe. We will be ready to roll out that vaccine along with any other vaccines in our portfolio if they are approved by the independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Vaccines are safe—so I urge people please to step forward.

Into the new year, our dedication to and efforts on the roll-out will continue. We will expand vaccination centres further. We will look to larger venues such as sports stadiums and conference centres. I remind everyone that they do not need to contact their doctor or the NHS; they will contact people when it is their turn for a jab. I know that many up and down the UK are eagerly awaiting that call.