Statement on vaccination progress and new variants

Mr Speaker, with permission, I’d like to make a statement on coronavirus.

Mr Speaker, this virus is diminished, but not defeated.

Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are back to the levels we saw in September.

Throughout the crisis, we have protected the NHS, and there are now 2,186 people in hospital with COVID across the UK, down 94% from the peak.

And the average number of daily deaths is 25, down 98%.

Because of this brighter picture, we’ve been able to take Step 2 on our roadmap and it’s been brilliant to see the high streets bustling with life once again and to hear the real-life crowd back in Wembley this weekend – especially if you’re a Leicester City supporter. And now, with fewer COVID patients in hospital, the NHS is already turning to focus on work to tackle the COVID backlog.

Step by step, we’re returning this country towards normal life. And we are on track to meet the roadmap set out by the Prime Minister.

Last week we hit our target to offer a vaccine to priority groups 1 to 9, and we are on track to offer a vaccine to all adults by the end of July.

But throughout we must be vigilant, cautious and careful, because we want this road to be a one-way street.

Mr Speaker, the uptake of the vaccine has been astonishingly high.

For all over-50s, uptake is 94%.

Enthusiasm among those in their late 40s was so high that when we opened up the booking system last week they briefly overloaded the website.

And we can see the result of this uptake in the real world: the latest data show that 98% of people aged between 70 and 84 now have COVID-19 antibodies, which are crucial to the body’s ability to fight the disease. 98%.

This is the protection our vaccination programme is spreading across the whole United Kingdom.

Uptake amongst all ethnic minority groups continues to increase.

PHE estimate that the vaccination programme has prevented over 10,000 deaths up to the end of March and it will protect many, many more as the rollout continues.

We know the first dose gives significant protection, but the second dose is crucial to make people as safe as possible.

On Friday and Saturday we saw record numbers of second doses – over 499,000 on each day and I’m delighted to tell the House that as of midnight last night, we’ve now given second doses to over 10 million people across the United Kingdom.

Three quarters of over-75s have now had both jabs, rising to four fifths of the over-80s.

Mr Speaker, the vaccine is our way out of this pandemic, and I’m delighted it’s being taken up in such huge numbers.

We’ll do everything in our power to drive uptake, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable.

The vaccination rate among care home staff is currently below 80% in over half of all local authority areas.

Many care homes have called for vaccinations to be required for those who work in these settings.

We have therefore launched a consultation into whether we should require care home providers that care for older adults to deploy only workers who’ve received their COVID-19 vaccination, unless they have a medical exemption.

We all know that older people living in care homes are at greatest risk from this virus and I believe we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable, so we’ll consider all options to keep people safe.

Mr Speaker, as we deliver on stage 2 of the vaccination programme to vaccinate all remaining adults in the UK, we must also turn our attention to what comes next.

The biggest risk to our progress here in the UK is a new variant that the vaccine does not work as well against.

We know from our response to other viruses, like flu, that we need updated vaccines to tackle mutated viruses.

So I can tell the House that as we complete the programme of first and second jabs, we’re ramping up plans for a booster shot – to make sure our vaccines stay ahead of the virus.

We have already procured enough vaccine doses to begin the booster shots later this year.

We are working with our current vaccine suppliers, and new suppliers like the CureVac partnership, to work out which vaccines will be effective as a booster shot and to design new vaccines specifically targeted at the variants of concern like the variant first found in South Africa.

Our goal is to ensure the vaccine protects against this dreadful disease whatever is throws at us, to keep us safe and protect our much cherished return to our normal way of life.

Mr Speaker, the booster shot is important because it will help protect against new variants.

Until then we must remain vigilant, in case a new variant renders the vaccines less protective, because new variants can jeopardise the progress that we’ve made here in the UK.

Thanks to our early investment in COVID genomic sequencing, we have in this country one of the best systems to spot and suppress new variants wherever we find them, through a combination of tough measures at the border, our genomic sequencing capability and our massive testing system.

Mr Speaker, I’d like to inform the House of another new development in our testing system.

We have been piloting Pharmacy Collect, a system in which you can go and pick up tests for free from a pharmacy.

I’m delighted to tell you that following the successful pilot, we have now rolled out Pharmacy Collect to over 9 in 10 pharmacies.

Meaning that the universal testing offer, in which anyone can get tested up to twice a week, is now free and easily accessible to anyone who wants it – you just have to go to your local pharmacy.

Mr Speaker, I’d also like to update the House on our response to 2 new variants.

One, the variant of concern first identified in South Africa.

We’ve now detected a total of 557 cases of this variant since it was first identified in December.

We have seen a cluster of cases in South London, predominantly in the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark, and identified single cases over the last week in Barnet, Birmingham and Sandwell.

Around two thirds of these cases are related to international travel and have been picked up by the day 2 and day 8 testing for international arrivals.

However, we have seen a small amount of community transmission too.

As soon as these cases were discovered, we acted quickly to put in place enhanced testing, tracing and sequencing.

In Lambeth and Wandsworth, we’ve brought in 19 mobile testing units in our largest surge testing operation to date and we are distributing test kits to housing estates, secondary schools, places of worship and workplaces.

I’d urge everyone who lives in these areas, whether you have symptoms or not, to get tested regularly and help us to get this variant under control.

Two, we have recently seen a new variant first identified in India.

We have now detected 103 cases of this variant, of which, again, the vast majority have links to international travel and have been picked up by our testing at the border.

We’ve been analysing samples from these cases, to see if this variant has any concerning characteristics like greater transmissibility or resistance to treatments and vaccines meaning it should be listed as a variant of concern.

After studying the data, and on a precautionary basis, we’ve made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.

This means anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident, or a British citizen, cannot enter the UK if they have been in India in the previous 10 days.

UK and Irish residents and British citizens who’ve been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival.

These rules will come into force at 4am on Friday.

Mr Speaker, India is a country I know well and love. Between our 2 countries we have ties of friendship and family.

I understand the impact of this decision. But I hope the House will concur that we must act.

Because we must protect the progress that we’ve made in this country in tackling this awful disease.

Mr Speaker, another way we’ve kept this country safe is through maintaining a strong supply of PPE.

At a time of massive global demand, we secured supply lines, created a stockpile to see us through the winter and created on-shore manufacturing capacity here in the UK.

I’m pleased to inform the House that, since February last year, we’ve now distributed over 10 billion items of PPE to protect people working in the NHS, in social care, and in public service right across this country.

Delivering so much PPE at such speed and scale has been an extraordinary effort that has not only helped us through this crisis, but has given a lasting legacy for the future.

If I may, Mr Speaker, 2 further points.

I’d also like to inform the House that today we’ve appointed Professor Lucy Chappell as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Professor Chappell has a stellar track record in science and research, including leading on the vaccinations in pregnancy, and she has worked closely with our National Institute for Health Research, for which she will now be responsible.

I’m sure the whole House will join me in congratulating Professor Chappell on her appointment.

Finally, Mr Speaker, last month we laid before the House our one-year status report on the Coronavirus Act.

I am sorry to say that the report contains an error relating to Section 24 of the Act, concerning Home Office measures on data held for national security purposes.

Full details are set out in a written ministerial statement being laid today.

The error doesn’t change the substance of the report, as we’ll be laying the regulations to expire Section 24, alongside other provisions, as soon as Parliamentary time allows.

Mr Speaker, in summary we’re moving down our road to recovery.

Vaccinations are rising, and the pressure on our NHS is falling.

As we enjoy the freedoms that are returning, let’s take each step safely.

We must hold our nerve and follow the rules while the vaccinators do their vital work.

I commend this statement to the House.

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