Good afternoon and welcome to today’s Downing Street coronavirus briefing.
I’m joined today by Professor Steve Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, and General Sir Gordon Messenger, the Head of Operations for the Community Testing Programme.
Tomorrow night, our national restrictions in England will come to an end and, subject to the vote in Parliament, we’ll return to the tiered system from Wednesday morning.
I know that the national restrictions have been really tough for some people. But the good news is: they’ve been working.
Let me take a moment if I may to run through the numbers.
Today’s study from Imperial College shows that the national restrictions have brought down cases down by a third.
Over the last week, the average number of positive tests is now 14,778 – down from a peak of 25,331 on 16 November.
Today, there are 15,712 patients in hospital in the UK with coronavirus – that is down from 16,612 on 23 November a week ago.
In England, in the week before the peak, the number of cases grew by 11% but in the last week, cases have dropped by 30%, almost a third.
This is clearly good news – it shows the national restrictions have been successful.
And what this means in practice is that – through everyone’s actions in respecting the national lockdown and through everything people have sacrificed – we’ve reduced pressures on the NHS, we’ve brought down the number of coronavirus cases, we’ve got this virus back under control.
And I want to thank you for that and for the part that you’ve played.
The effect of the action we take, of course, brings with it huge challenges too – especially for the hospitality sector.
But as the analysis of health, economic and social effects of COVID-19 and the approach to tiering shows – which we’ve published today – it clearly demonstrates, this action is necessary to avoid a much worse outcome.
And we must be vigilant. There are still 14,778 positive cases reported every day. There are still those 15,712 people in hospital with COVID.
And, sadly, there are still 460 reported deaths, on average, each day. This is far too many.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. We know that, together, we can beat this – and we’ve got to stick at it.
Putting this in technical terms, the R rate is back below 1 – but only just.
When R is below 1, the number of infections falls over time, because on average, each infected person infects fewer than one other.
And for that to happen on average, it’s important that lots of infected people, infect no one else at all.
This is the central challenge of this pandemic and it’s made much much more difficult because about 1 in 3 people who have coronavirus have no symptoms at all, but nevertheless pass the infection on to others.
And that’s why, even as we ease these national restrictions, we’ve got to keep some restrictions in place. Hence the tiering system.
So while we can let up a little, we can’t afford to let up a lot.
The success of our collective efforts means that, from Wednesday, everyone in England – even those in Tier 3 – can have some greater freedoms.
But we don’t have much headroom. We can’t risk letting cases rise again – especially into Christmas and with the flu season around the corner.
The Prime Minister has published the government’s COVID-19 Winter Plan which sets out the end to national restrictions and the steps we’ll take to help bring life back to normal by spring.
But even as we take these steps forward, we must keep our resolve. We’ve worked so hard and collectively sacrificed so much. But we can get through this. And we know that hope is on the horizon.
In the past fortnight we have made some really significant progress on vaccines and the NHS now stands ready to deploy a vaccine, should one be approved by the UK’s independent regulator.
And today, Moderna, the American company, formally filed for the use of its vaccine in America. Moderna has already been submitting data to the MHRA, the UK’s regulator, for some time.
And as we set out this weekend, we have secured 2 million further doses, meaning that we in the UK now have access to a total of 357 million doses of 7 different vaccines.
And while we keep working on a vaccine, we have already built a huge testing capacity that we can deploy right now.
I wanted to take a moment to talk through the next steps on testing.
Since the start of the pandemic we’ve built the biggest testing capacity in Europe and it means we can use tests to do lots of things we couldn’t do before.
In addition to our symptomatic testing programme and the rapid testing we are now deploying in the NHS and across social care, we have the capacity to do more.
Today we begin the roll-out of our university student testing programme and expand community testing.
And we won’t just test people with symptoms; because of this problem of asymptomatic transmission, people who don’t have symptoms but do have covid transmitting covid to others we’re going to test people who don’t have symptoms as well.
This really matters, because by finding the positives, we can break the chain of transmission and stop other people catching covid.
In Liverpool, where over 300,000 people – both with symptoms and without – where that testing has happened, they’ve managed to bring the case rates down by over three-quarters.
And so on Wednesday Liverpool will go into Tier 2, not Tier 3.
Of course, I want to see this sort of success right across the board so we’re rolling out community testing much more widely.
We’ve been working with those areas going into Tier 3 with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too.
And today – with the publication of our community testing prospectus – we set out the next phase of that work to give Tier 3 areas a faster way out of the toughest restrictions, to support them to come down the tiers – as has happened in Liverpool.
We’ve already received significant interest from around the country, including from the West Midlands, Redcar, Warwickshire and Medway and others.
And this offer is available across all of the UK and will be delivered in partnership with local authorities in Tier 3 areas and devolved administrations throughout the country.
Because by using tests that can turn results around in under 30 minutes we can identify and isolate people who have covid, including, crucially, the 1 in 3 people with covid, who don’t have any symptoms at all – but can nevertheless pass the infection on.
Because you can have covid without symptoms and still infect others. That of course is a silent danger.
You wouldn’t know that you’re risking lives around you.
So, if you’re offered a test – please take it. You might just save a life.
The final thing I wanted to say is that it is all of our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, to keep our families, our friends and our communities safe. That responsibility is on all of us.
I know it weighs heavily – we’ve been carrying it for a long time now.
But the light of dawn is on the horizon.
It’s the moment to stand firm until the morning.
So we can look back and see clearly: that everything we gave and everything we did, it was not for nothing but so we could save lives and build back better for everyone.
I now want to turn to Professor Powis to take us through the latest numbers on the impact on the NHS.