On 12th October, the Government set out its plans to pursue a local and regional approach to tackling this virus. The tiered framework was designed to simplify local restrictions and enable targeted action to be taken in areas where the number of cases was increasing significantly.
However, when it became clear by the end of October that cases were increasing beyond expectations in all regions, the Prime Minister took the difficult decision to put further restrictions in place across England, asking people to stay at home as much as possible for four weeks. The related legislation is time limited, ending on 2nd December. When this new lockdown period ends, Ministers believe that the tiered framework already in place will continue to enable the Government and local authorities to work together to target regional outbreaks.
The Government had hoped that with strong local action and leadership, we could all help get the rates of infection down in areas where the disease was surging. I am grateful to the vast majority of local residents who have been helping with this task and abiding by public health restrictions for so long.
However, we need to recognise that in this country, as across much of Europe, coronavirus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst case scenario of the Government scientific advisers, whose models now suggest that unless we act we will see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day - a peak of mortality far bigger than the one we saw in April.
There are clear implications for the NHS. If we let infections grow in the way they could, then the risk is that the NHS will not be there for us in the way we are used to. Even if the Government could double capacity overnight – and we have 13,000 more nurses than a year ago, and many more doctors – it still would not be enough, because the virus is doubling faster than we could conceivably add capacity. The huge exponential growth in the number of patients – by no means all of them elderly – would also mean that doctors and nurses could in certain cases be forced to choose between saving coronavirus patients and non-coronavirus patients. The sheer weight of demand from coronavirus patients would also mean depriving tens of thousands of non-coronavirus patients of the care they need.
Following a vote in Parliament on Wednesday 4th November, until 2nd December regulations require that people must stay at home, and only leave home for specific reasons, including: for education; for work, if you cannot work from home; for exercise and recreation outdoors, with your household or on your own with one person from another household; for medical reasons, appointments and to escape injury or harm; to shop for food and essentials; and to provide care for vulnerable people.
As stated previously, these measures will be time-limited. They will end on Wednesday 2nd December, when the Government will seek to ease restrictions on a local and regional basis according to the latest data and trends. While the festive period will be very different this year, by taking tough action now it is hoped families across the country can be allowed to be together.
Throughout the pandemic, the priority has been to protect lives and livelihoods. I continue to actively work to support local businesses and I strongly welcome the new economic support package that was announced on 5th November. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or furlough scheme, has been extended until the end of March, and the next self-employed grant has been increased from 55% to 80% of trading profit. This is on top of cash grants of up to £3,000 for businesses which are closed and £1.1billion of funding for local councils to further support businesses over the coming months.
Ministers have set out how they hope the current challenging situation will be more positive by the spring. There are better medicines and therapies, and the prospect of a vaccine in the first quarter of next year. It is also anticipated that in the near future many millions of cheap, reliable and above all rapid turnaround tests will be in use, which individuals can use themselves to tell whether or not they are infectious within 10 to 15 minutes. From trials across the country in schools and hospitals, it is known that these tests can be used to drive down the disease. The Government is planning a steady but very large expansion of these quick turnaround tests applying them in all kinds of situations, from helping women to have their partners with them in labour wards, to testing whole towns and even whole cities. The army has been brought in to work on the logistics and the programme will work with local communities, local government, public health directors and organisations of all kinds to help people discover whether or not they are infectious, and get them to self-isolate to help control the spread of coronavirus.
It is vital that we all go on playing our part and abide by the latest regulations. Working together, and for one another, we will get through these challenging times.