The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Sajid Javid)
Before I update the House on the pandemic, I would like to take a moment to congratulate the England football team on making history and on the way in which they have brought us all together with their skill and spirit over the past few weeks. Last night’s result may not have been the one that many of us were hoping for, but they played like heroes and the nation is proud of each and every one of them.
I also want to take this opportunity to condemn the shameful racism experienced by several members of the England team after the match. Racism has no place in football; it has no place in our society. I know that the whole House will agree that we must always show zero tolerance to this appalling behaviour.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like make a statement on our path out of the pandemic. All the way through our fight against the virus, we have looked forward to the day when we can roll back the legal restrictions and get closer to normal life. Now, thanks to the shared sacrifices of the British people and the protective wall of our vaccination programme, we have made huge advances. Today I would like to update the House on the next decision in front of us: whether to proceed to step 4 of our road map next Monday.
As I set out to the House last week, this will be a major milestone for the country, taking us another step closer to the life that we all used to live. It means carefully removing more of the restrictions that have governed our daily lives, such as how many people we can meet, how many people can attend weddings and how many visitors people in care homes can see, bringing them together with their loved ones. We have all been yearning to get there, and we all want this to be a one-way journey, so we have acted in a measured way, taking one step at a time, and looking at the very latest data and at our four tests before deciding whether to proceed.
The first test is the success of our vaccination programme. Ever since 8 December last year, when the world’s first clinically authorised vaccine was given right here in the UK, we have been putting jabs in the arms of people at a phenomenal pace, giving over 18 million doses in just seven months. We have given more doses per capita than any other large nation. As a result, around nine in 10 adults in the UK now have covid-19 antibodies, which are so important in helping us and our bodies to fight this virus. To bolster this protective wall even further, we made the tough but necessary decision to take a four-week pause to step 4, so that we could protect even more people before easing restrictions. Since making the decision, we have been able to give 7 million extra doses across the UK. We have pledged that, by 19 July, we will have offered every adult a first dose of vaccine and given two doses to two thirds of all adults. I am pleased to inform the House today that we are on track to beat both of these targets, so as we make this crucial decision, we are in a stronger position than ever before.
We have looked not just at how many jabs we have put in arms, but at what impact they are having on hospitalisations and the loss of loved ones. This is our second test. There is increasing evidence that the vaccine has severely weakened this link—a link that was once a grim inevitability. Data from Public Health England estimates that two doses of a covid-19 vaccine offer around 96% protection against hospitalisation, meaning fewer covid patients in hospital beds and fewer people mourning the loss of a loved one. The data also estimates that the vaccination programme in England has prevented between 7.5 million and 8.9 million infections. It has prevented some 46,000 hospitalisations and prevented about 30,000 people from losing their lives, all because of the protection that the vaccines can bring.
Our third test is around whether infection rates would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. I want to be open about what the data is telling us and why we have reached the decision that we have. Cases are rising, propelled by the new, more transmissible delta variant. The average number of daily cases is over 26,000, and this has doubled over the past 11 days. Sadly, the case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better. We could reach 100,000 cases a day later in the summer.
Hospitalisations are also rising, with sustained growth over the past month. Once again, they will rise too, but we should be encouraged that hospitalisations are far lower than they were at this point during the previous wave, just as we should be encouraged that people over the age of 65, who are more likely to have had both doses of a vaccine, made up 31% of covid admissions last week, compared with 61% in January. This is further evidence that our vaccination programme is doing its job and protecting the NHS. As more people get the jab, our protective wall is getting stronger still.
We will stay vigilant and keep a very close eye on the data, as well as on the impact of long covid, on which we are investing £50 million into new research. But on the basis of the evidence in front of us, we do not believe that infection rates will put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. It is so important that everyone still does their bit in helping the NHS to stand strong. The best thing that each and every one of us can do, if we have not done so already, is get the jab and, crucially, get both doses.
Our final test is that the risks are not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern. We have seen from the growth of the delta variant, which now makes up 99% of new cases in this country, just how quickly a new variant can take hold. However, although the delta variant is more transmissible than the alpha variant, the evidence shows that two doses of the vaccine appears to be just as effective against hospitalisation. But we know that the greatest risk to the progress we have made is the possibility of another new variant, especially one that can escape immunity and puncture the protective wall of out vaccination programme, so even as we look to ease restrictions, we will maintain our tough measures at the borders and we will expand our capacity for genomic sequencing, which is already one of the largest in the world, so that we can come down hard the moment we detect a new variant.
We have looked closely at the data against these four tests and we firmly believe that this is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life, so we will move to the next stage of our road map on 19 July. To those who say, “Why take this step now?”, I say, “If not now, when?” There will never be a perfect time to take this step because we simply cannot eradicate this virus. Whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away. Moving forward next week, supported by the arrival of summer and the school holidays, gives us the best possible chance of a return to normal life. If we wait longer, we risk pushing the virus towards winter, when the virus will have an advantage, or, worse still, we will not be opening up at all. We delayed step 4 by four weeks so that we could build the vaccine wall even higher. We believe that this wall means that we can withstand a summer wave. While the wall would be higher still if we waited until winter, we know the wave would be much more dangerous. So while we know that there are risks with any decision, this is the most responsible decision that we can take.
This step forward is about balancing the harms that are caused by covid with the undeniable harms that restrictions bring. These restrictions were vital to protect the NHS, but we must be upfront about the impact of keeping them just as we are about removing them: the rise in domestic violence, the impact on mental health and the undiagnosed cancer, to name just a few. So we will ease the restrictions next week while at the same time maintaining the defences we have built against this virus, like our vaccination programme, where we still need more young people to come forward; our work to support the most vulnerable; and the contingency plans that we have put in place to stay one step ahead of this virus.
But this is not the end of the road: it is the start of a new phase of continued caution while we live with this virus and we manage the risks. We are today publishing a plan showing the safe and gradual approach that we will be taking throughout the summer. It includes details of how we will be encouraging businesses and large events to use certification in high-risk settings to limit the risk of spreading infection, how we will use guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and details of a review that we will be conducting in September to assess our preparedness for autumn and winter.
As we make these changes, it is so important that people act with caution and with personal responsibility. For example, everyone should return to work gradually if they are currently working from home, they should try to meet people outside where that is possible, and it is expected and recommended that people should wear face coverings, unless they are exempt, in crowded indoor settings like public transport.
I also want to take this opportunity to update the House on our policies for self- isolation. Last week I announced to the House that from 16 August double-jabbed adults and under-18s will no longer need to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone with covid-19. Until then, with case rates expected to rise, it is vital that we ensure that our systems for self-isolation are proportionate and reflect the protection given by our vaccine programme. As part of this approach, we will be working with clinicians and the NHS to explore what more can be done for colleagues in patient-facing roles—this would be used only in exceptional circumstances where the self-isolation of fully vaccinated close contacts could directly impact the safety of patients—so that we can keep our vital services going as we safely and gradually get closer to normal life.
Mr Speaker, 19 July will mark another step forward in our road to recovery. Getting here has been hard fought, and it has been long awaited, but this battle is not over yet. Let us move forward in a confident but measured way so that we can get closer to normal life and protect the progress that we have already made.