When I spoke in the general debate on covid last month, I accepted that the worsening statistics made it inevitable that England would face national restrictions, but in doing so I had hoped that Stoke-on-Trent would avoid tier 3. Sadly, that was not to be, given the rapid rise in cases and the pressures that our health system faced, and the new tier 3 that we are currently in is still more restrictive than what we had hoped to see.
Despite considerable progress locally, thanks to everyone’s efforts in getting rates down in Stoke-on-Trent, daily case numbers still remain relatively high, and the seven-day rate threatens once more to rise to in excess of 300 per 100,000. It would be a huge shame if the city slipped back, given the great progress we have already made. We must keep our focus on what matters most to each and every one of us, whether our families, our jobs, our mental health, our children, our grandparents or whatever it might be, and that relies on us getting out of tier 3 and defeating covid as soon as possible.
We have achieved so much working together—we have gone from being one of the worst 10 hotspots to being not even in the worst 30—yet as we approach Christmas and community testing and vaccines are being rolled out, a minority of people might be on the verge of throwing away the hard-won advances from the whole city’s efforts. Many families will be relieved that they can see loved ones over the Christmas period—many will not have seen one another for months—and many will want to see one another over this important period, but I urge people to be sensible and not take unnecessary risks.
The clear case we had hoped to see, and which we were close to seeing, for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire leaving tier 3 now looks unlikely. As a number of hon. Members have already said, we are absolutely desperate to get out of tier 3, but the sad reality is that it looks like we will have to ask for further sacrifices and resolution to control the spread of this awful virus. Our NHS has taken the brunt locally—especially the Royal Stoke—and we will never be able to thank the staff enough for all they have done. We must continue to get the virus under control and help our hospitals, NHS and care workers who have faced unimaginable pressures—often at great risk to themselves—to care for others. The only way we can do that is by keeping covid rates down, reducing the numbers needing hospital treatment and saving lives. We can all play our part in that.
What is especially needed now is to get the last leg of testing systems right and ensure we identify the one in three cases thought to be asymptomatic. I am pleased to see an expansion in lateral flow community testing across Stoke-on-Trent and thank the city council and public health officials who made that possible for their work. They have done an incredible job. However, it is vital that the Government commit to expanding capacity further in Stoke-on-Trent over the Christmas and new year periods.
Alongside that, we are given hope, with the vaccination programme well under way, focused now on those most at risk and frontline health and care workers. It was hugely welcome to hear the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, suggest that through phase 1 of the vaccine roll-out up to 99% of covid deaths might be avoided. I know the vaccine roll-out in Stoke-on-Trent is progressing extremely well through the Royal Stoke, and it is starting in primary care facilities in our communities tomorrow. I am pleased to say that includes my own grandfather, Graham Brereton, who tells me he should receive a vaccine later this week.
There is much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, but it is vital to remember that we are still in that tunnel. We must continue to be vigilant and remember hands, face, space and avoid mixing households. Locally, in the weeks ahead we must focus absolutely on community testing and tracing and enforcing the restrictions to give us breathing space until the vaccine is more fully rolled out.
Thanks to the incredible advances of science, we are perhaps just a few months from returning to something resembling normality. I look to the Minister to tell us whether relative normality might be as little as 100 days away. Such a figure, if it is possible to give it, would really focus minds on how much longer the greatest sacrifices will last. We should not be restricting liberty, enterprise, socialising and leisure for a minute more than is necessary, but unfortunately right now—for a relatively short period of time—restrictions remain necessary. We see from Wales the risks of lifting restrictions too quickly, and with restrictions still in place—especially in tier 3—we must do everything possible to support our local businesses and protect jobs and livelihoods. I sympathise incredibly with all businesses forced to close and those that have had their livelihoods put on hold.
Covid has hit so many very hard. The extension of furlough to the end of March was hugely welcome, as was the extension of the self-employment income support scheme. For many businesses in Stoke-on-Trent, there has also been welcome grant support administered through the city council and loans for businesses that need them. Signposting support continues to be a top priority. The hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit, as has the events industry, which my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher mentioned, and retailers are losing out on what is usually the busiest time of their year.
I was pleased to see the Prime Minister announce an additional £1,000 for wet pubs recently. It will be vital to ensure that businesses indirectly impacted by the closure of hospitality, events and leisure are supported. My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley and I will be meeting local businesses tomorrow to discuss their needs in the months ahead. I will continue to push for additional support where it is needed, to get our economy back on track.
It is at the local, everyday level that we will control the spread while we wait for the extraordinary science of vaccination, and improving treatment and testing will enable us to erase restrictions. We must be willing to enforce all measures in an even-handed and proportionate way, which I know has been the case across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, with Staffordshire police doing an excellent job. In Stoke-on-Trent, successful enforcement action, from iteration of advice to closure and fining of those who have repeatedly broken restrictions, strikes exactly the right balance. That action is necessary and, importantly, is seen to be necessary, with the end goal of mass vaccination clearly now in sight. Regular reviews of which areas belong in which tiers are essential, giving us hope that we can drop down those tiers in the future. I cannot begin to emphasise enough the urgency of opening up again as soon as it is safe to do so, not least for our pubs, restaurants and the leisure industry, and all in our hospitality and those linked to it.
There is huge hope for the future, with the progress of vaccination and more rapid testing. In the meantime, it is vital that we stick with these measures and face short-term sacrifices to give time for them to be rolled out. I will continue to encourage people to get tested and to hold the line in this final leg of our efforts to overcome covid-19.