The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Matt Hancock)
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on coronavirus.
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. The average number of daily deaths is 25—down 98%. Because of this brighter picture, we have been able to take step 2 on our road map, and it is brilliant to see the high streets bustling with life once again and to hear a real-life crowd back in Wembley this weekend—especially if one is a Leicester City supporter.
Now, with fewer covid patients in hospital, the NHS is already turning to focus on the work to tackle the covid backlog. Step by step, we are returning this country towards normal life, and we are on track to meet the road map 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. However, we must be vigilant, cautious and careful throughout, because we want this road to be a one-way street.
The vaccine uptake has been astonishingly high. For all over-50s, uptake is 94%. Enthusiasm among those in their late 40s was so high that they briefly overloaded the website when we opened up the booking system last week. We can see the result of that 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%. That is the protection our vaccination programme is spreading across the whole United Kingdom. Uptake among all ethnic minority groups continues to increase. Public Health England estimates that the vaccination programme prevented over 10,000 deaths up to the end of March, and it will protect many more as the roll-out continues.
We know that 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 am delighted to tell the House that, as of midnight last night, we have 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 over-80s. The vaccine is our way out of this pandemic, and I am delighted that it is being taken up in such huge numbers.
We will 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 such 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 have received their covid-19 vaccination, unless they have a medical exemption. We all know that older people living in care homes are at the greatest risk from this virus, and we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable, so we will consider all options to keep people safe.
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, such as flu, that we need updated vaccines to tackle mutated viruses. I can tell the House that as we complete the programme for first and second jabs, we are ramping up plans for a booster shot to make sure that our vaccines stay ahead of the virus. We have already procured enough vaccine doses to begin the booster shots later this year. We will be working with our current vaccine suppliers and new suppliers such as 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, such as the variant first found in South Africa.
Our goal is to ensure that the vaccine protects against this dreadful disease whatever it throws at us, to keep us safe and protect our much cherished return to a normal way of life. The booster shot is important because it will help protect against new variants, but until then we must remain vigilant in case a new variant renders the vaccines less protective. New variants can jeopardise the progress that we have 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 supress new variants wherever we find them through a combination of tough measures at the border, our genomic sequencing capability and a massive testing system. I would like to inform the House of another new development in our testing system. We have been piloting Pharmacy Collect, a system in which people can go and pick up tests for free from a pharmacy. I am delighted to tell the House that following the successful pilot, we have now rolled out Pharmacy Collect to over nine in 10 pharmacies, meaning that the universal testing offer, through which everyone can get tested up to twice a week, is now freely and easily accessible to anyone who wants it. You just have to go to your local pharmacy, Mr Speaker.
I would also like to update the House on our response to two new variants. One is the variant of concern first identified in South Africa. We have 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 two and day eight testing for international arrivals. However, we have seen a small amount of community transmission, too.
As soon as those cases were discovered, we acted quickly to put in place enhanced testing, tracing and sequencing in Lambeth and Wandsworth. We have 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 would urge everyone who lives in these areas, whether they have symptoms or not, to get tested regularly and help us keep the variant under control.
Secondly, 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 have been analysing samples from those cases to see whether the variant has any concerning characteristics such as greater transmissibility or resistance to treatments and vaccines, meaning that it needs to be listed as a variant of concern.
After studying the data and on a precautionary basis, we have made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list. That means that 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 have been in India in the 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 4 am on Friday. India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision, but I hope that the House will concur that we must act, because we must protect the progress that we have made in this country in tackling this awful disease.
Another way that we have kept the country safe is through maintaining a strong supply of personal protective equipment. At a time of massive global demand, we secured supply lines, created a stockpile to see us through the winter and created onshore manufacturing capacity here in the UK. I am pleased to inform the House that since February last year, we have distributed more than 10 billion items of PPE to protect people working in the NHS, social care and public services right across the country. Delivering so much PPE at such speed and scale has been an extraordinary effort that has not only helped us through the crisis, but provided a lasting legacy for the future.
Let me make two further points. I would like to inform the House that today we have appointed Professor Lucy Chappell as the 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 work on vaccinations in pregnancy. She has worked closely with our National Institute for Health Research, for which she will now be responsible. I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating Professor Chappell on her appointment.
Finally, last month we laid before the House our one-year status report on the Coronavirus Act 2020. I am sorry to say that the report contains an error relating to section 24 of the Act, which concerns 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 does not change the substance of the report, as we will be laying the regulations to expire section 24 alongside other provisions as soon as parliamentary time allows.
In summary, we are 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 us 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.