Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 18th May 2021.

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The following statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 17 May.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. Since January last year, and especially since 8 December, when the world’s first clinically authorised coronavirus vaccine was given in Coventry Hospital, we have been engaged—all of us—in a race between the virus and the vaccine. As a nation, we have taken some huge strides forward and we can make careful further progress today, and we must remain vigilant.

I can report to the House that there are now fewer than 1,000 people in hospital in the United Kingdom with coronavirus, and the average number of daily deaths is now nine. This progress means we are able to take step 3 in our road map today, carefully easing some of the restrictions that we have all endured. People have missed the things that make life worth living, businesses have endured hardship, and everybody has made sacrifices. While we can take this step today, we must be humble in the face of this virus. We have all learned over the past year that, in a pandemic, we must look not just at where we are today, but where the evidence shows we may be in weeks and months down the track. The vaccination programme can give us confidence, but we must be alert to new variants that could jeopardise the advances that we have made.

Today, I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to tackle variants of concern—in particular, variant B16172, which is the variant of concern first identified in India—so that we can protect the progress that we have worked so hard to achieve. There are now 2,323 confirmed cases of B16172 in the UK; 483 of these cases have been seen in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, where it is now the dominant strain. Cases there have doubled in the last week and are rising in all age groups. In Blackburn, hospitalisations are stable, with eight people currently in hospital with Covid. In Bolton, 19 people are now in hospital with coronavirus, the majority of whom are eligible for a vaccine but have not yet had one. That shows that the new variant is not tending to penetrate into older vaccinated groups, and underlines again the importance of getting the jab—especially, but not only, among the vulnerable age groups.

In Bolton and Blackburn, we have taken the approach that worked in south London against the South African variant. We have surged in our rapid response team: 100 people so far, who visited approximately 35,000 people this weekend to distribute and collect tests. We have installed six new testing units, brought in more than 50 new vaccinators and set up two new vaccination centres, as well as extending opening hours and capacity at our existing sites. In Bolton, we have quadrupled the rate of vaccination. We carried out 6,200 vaccinations over this weekend, and it is brilliant to see so many people from the most vulnerable groups coming forward to get the protection, whether it is their first or second jab.

All in all, this is the biggest surge of resources into any specific local area that we have seen during the pandemic so far. It has been co-ordinated by Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the new UK Health Security Agency, drawing on all the health capabilities, locally and nationally, that we have built in the past year. I thank everyone who is working so hard to make it happen, including everyone at the two local authorities; the rapid response team; all the volunteers, including those from St John Ambulance; and, most importantly, the people of Bolton and Blackburn for the community spirit that they are showing.

It has been really heartening, as I am sure the whole House will agree, to see the videos published over the weekend of people queuing up to get the jab. I say to anyone who feels hesitant about getting the vaccine, not just in Bolton or Blackburn, but right across the country: just look at what is happening at the Royal Bolton Hospital. The majority of people in hospital with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but had chosen not yet to have it and have ended up in hospital—some of them in intensive care. Vaccines save lives. They protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic.

This is not just about Bolton and Blackburn. There are now 86 local authority areas where there are five or more confirmed cases. The next biggest case of concern is Bedford, where we are surging testing. I urge everybody in Bedford to exercise caution and engage in testing where it is available.

I also want to tell the House the latest scientific assessment of this variant. The early evidence suggests that B16172 is more transmissible than the previously dominant B1117 variant. We do not yet know to what extent it is more transmissible. While we do not have the complete picture of the impact of the vaccine, the early laboratory data from Oxford University corroborates the provisional evidence from the Royal Bolton Hospital and the initial observational data from India that vaccines are effective against the variant. This, of course, is reassuring, but the higher transmission poses a real risk.

All this supports our overriding strategy, which is gradually and cautiously to replace the restrictions on freedom with the protections from the vaccines. The data suggests that the vaccine has already saved more than 12,000 lives and prevented more than 33,000 people from being hospitalised, and we are protecting people at a very rapid pace. Last week was the biggest week of vaccinations since the end of March. Some 36 million people have now had a first dose, and yesterday we reached the milestone of 20 million people across the UK having had their second dose.

I am delighted to see the figures released by YouGov today, which show that the UK has the highest vaccination enthusiasm in the world, with 90% of people saying that they have had or will have the jab. This was no accident. We began planning the campaign for vaccine uptake a year ago. I thank the huge range of people involved in promoting the benefits of vaccination, from Her Majesty the Queen to Sir Elton John, Harry Redknapp, Lenny Henry, Holly Willoughby, Lydia West and many, many others. Our campaign has been based on positivity and science, and I am grateful to everybody who has played their part.

I can confirm that from tomorrow we will be inviting people aged 37 to come forward, before expanding this further later in the week. It has been brilliant to see people’s enthusiasm when they have been invited to come forward, and we want to make it as easy as possible for them to show that they have had the protection the vaccine provides. I am delighted to say that, as of today, people can demonstrate whether they have had their jab, quickly and simply, through the NHS app.

Since January, we have been following a dosing interval of 12 weeks for second doses. Because of the extra protection people get from the second dose, particularly among those most likely to end up in hospital or dying, it is incredibly important that everyone comes forward for that second dose at the right moment. The approach we have taken aims to give the most vulnerable the strongest possible protection against this virus. Since January, that has meant getting the first dose to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. The research shows that this approach has saved about 12,000 lives.

Now, it is important to accelerate the second doses for all those most vulnerable to ending up in hospital or dying. Our vaccination strategy for all parts of the UK, including the areas of surge vaccination, will therefore stick by the clinical advice set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation: first, prioritise anyone over 50 who has not yet been vaccinated; next, second doses to those over 50 are vital—that will now be done on a schedule of eight weeks; and then, follow the cohorts in priority order, and the age groups as we open them. This clinically approved approach is the best way to save the most lives, rather than jumping ahead with first doses for younger people. Although the JCVI of course keeps this under constant review, we are clear that its advice is the best way to protect those most in need of protection and so save as many lives as we can. The NHS will be reiterating this advice to all vaccination centres and all directors of public health, and I am very grateful to everyone, in the NHS, local authorities and in the whole system supporting this vaccination programme, for following it.

Today’s opening and step 3 marks an important step on our road to recovery. We must proceed with caution and care, and bear down on the virus, in whatever form it attacks us, so that in this race between the vaccine and the virus, our humanity, science, and ingenuity will prevail. I commend this Statement to the House.”