The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Matt Hancock)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. We are nearing the end of such a tough year where the British people have united and had to make so many sacrifices for the common good. I know the whole House and the whole country have been cheered by the progress we have seen in the last few weeks, which means we can now roll out the vaccine programme that will ultimately set us free.
I can tell the House that, today, the NHS has begun vaccinations through GPs in England and in care homes in Scotland. Day by day, we are giving hope to more people and making this country safer. It is life-saving work. However, it will take time for its benefits to be felt far and wide, so we must persevere because the virus remains as dangerous as it has always been.
Average daily hospital admissions are up 13% and the latest figures show that average daily cases have risen by 14% in the last week. As before, the rise and spread is not even across the country. We are seeing a sharp rise in south Wales, in London and in parts of the east and south-east of England. This is a trend that we are also seeing in other parts of Europe, in countries such as Sweden, where nearly all the intensive care beds in Stockholm are currently in use; in Germany, where they had to announce tougher new restrictions over the weekend; and in the Netherlands, which today has announced further measures. Until we can vaccinate enough vulnerable people and ensure that they get the second dose so that they are protected, we must act to suppress this virus.
Our strategy throughout, as set out in the winter plan, has been to suppress the virus while protecting the economy, education and the NHS until the vaccine can make us safe. Today, I would like to update the House on the latest steps we are taking in this mission. First, I want to update the House on a new development in the virus itself. Over the past few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the past few months.
We have notified the World Health Organisation about this new variant, and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down. I must stress this point: there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that the mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows that we have to be vigilant and follow the rules, and that everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.
The first formal review of tiering decisions is taking place this Wednesday, two weeks after the new rules came into force. However, I need to tell the House that over the last week we have seen very sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire. We do not know the extent to which that is because of the new variant, but no matter its cause, we have to take swift and decisive action. Doing so is, unfortunately, absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out. In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days. This is no longer just about rising rates among school-age children, but about rising rates in all age groups, including the over-60s.
We know from painful experience that more cases lead to more hospitalisations and, sadly, the loss of more of our loved ones. Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent are already under pressure. We know that the doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions, and it only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed. Our NHS is straining every sinew to cope with the pressures, as it always does, but if cases continue to double, even it will be overwhelmed.
We must act now to shift the curve, because when the virus is growing exponentially, there is not a moment to spare. We are, therefore, acting ahead of the formal review date. I am very grateful to colleagues at Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, whose surveillance of this virus means that we can act very rapidly when a problem arises. We have therefore decided to move Greater London, the south and west of Essex—that includes Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford, along with Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea Borough Councils—and the south of Hertfordshire, which means Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers local authority, into tier three, the very high alert level.
That means that people can only see friends and family whom they do not live with, or with whom they are not in a support bubble, in outdoor public places and, of course, in line with the rule of six. Hospitality settings must close except for takeaway and delivery, and people should avoid travelling outside their area and reduce the number of journeys they make wherever possible. I know that this is difficult news. I know that it will mean that plans are disrupted, and that for businesses affected it will be a significant blow. This action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe, but because we have seen that early action can help to prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later.
These restrictions will come into force at midnight on Wednesday morning, because when the virus moves quickly we must move quickly too. We must take actions that are not necessarily easy but that are effective. We will continue to stand with those who are most impacted, through our furlough scheme and support for the self-employed. We have already begun to surge mobile testing into these parts of London, Essex and Kent, and we are extending community testing too.
In addition, I can tell the House that this weekend, as part of our expansion of community testing, we are extending it to 67 local authorities across England. Further, today we will be publishing a guide for colleagues to promote, support and champion local community testing and contact tracing. We will be using millions of newly invented tests to reduce the rate of infection in areas where infection is highest and to help them move down through the tiers and closer to normal life.
Thanks to the forces of science, help is on its way. While we know now that that day will come, this is not over yet. While we deploy the fruits of scientific endeavour to keep the country safe, we must do what it takes to protect our loved ones and our NHS now. I know that these steps are hard, but we must not waver as we enter the final stretch, so that when we look back on this time of crisis, we can all say that we played our part. I commend the statement to the House.