From the first time since this virus took hold, we finally have a route out of this epidemic, provided vaccines are approved and successfully deployed.
But the spring is still months away. January and February are traditionally some of the hardest months for the NHS. No one wants to throw away the gains of lockdown. We must keep transmission down. Here's how.
A Targeted Approach to Suppressing the Virus in England
The second coronavirus peak that we have seen around the world shows us all that we are going to be dealing with the coronavirus for the long-term.
That is why, during this period of national restrictions, we have been working on a long-term, balanced approach which protects the NHS, keeps children in school and lets the economy get moving again.
At the heart of that long-term and balanced approach is a return to the regional tier system. Adherence to these tiers is how we avoid another national lockdown.
And whereas Labour want to keep the economy on ice and working people in suspended animation – we want to get things moving again.
That’s because we understand that national lockdowns are not cost-free. Not only do they have an enormous cost in terms of jobs and small businesses, they have a profound impact on peoples’ mental health and loneliness.
Only by keeping the virus under control through December, even when national restrictions fall away, can we be able to see friends and family over Christmas in a relatively safe way. As mass testing and vaccines are rolled out through winter and into the spring, the need for even localised restrictions will gradually reduce – and life can begin to return closer to normality.
Keeping our Country Safe After Lockdown
After lockdown ends on 2 December, we are preparing to rollout vaccinations as soon as they are found to be safe and effective.
Next month, if regulators provide approval, the vaccination programme will begin. We have secured access to 355 million vaccine doses, and the NHS is gearing up to lead a national vaccination programme.
We are also making progress on mass testing, to help reduce the need for restrictions as a vaccine is rolled out. We now have capacity for 500,000 tests a day, and recently announced the creation of new two mega-labs, that will add a further 600,000 tests a day to the UK’s capacity when they are operation. We will roll out mass testing to 13 million people before Christmas, allowing us to identify and isolate people who don’t have symptoms but are unwittingly spreading the virus.
Returning to the Localised Approach
We are ending the national restrictions on 2 December – true to our word. Thanks to the progress we’ve made on vaccines and mass testing, the stay at home order will end, collective worship can resume, and people will no longer be limited to seeing one other person in outdoor public spaces.
Afterwards, we will re-introduce the localised approach after 2 December, in order to keep the virus under control.
The virus is still present, and that means we need to keep some level of restrictions on a local level. If these are not in place then it could get out of control again before vaccines and mass testing have an impact. That would put at risk all our work to date.
We believe it’s right to target the toughest measures in the areas where the virus is most prevalent. So we will make changes to the previous tiered system to keep our country safe and to control the virus:
- The 10pm closing time for hospitality has been modified to last orders at 10pm and closing time at 11pm. This allows customers to depart in a staggered way and provides greater flexibility.
- Across all tiers, non-essential retail will be able to remain open and operate in a COVID-Secure way.
- Gyms will be allowed to remain open.
- Spectator sport can resume with capacity limits and social distancing, providing more consistency with indoor performances in theatres and concert halls.
Strengthening the Tier System
The scientific advice is also clear that, while the previous tiers reduced the R rate, they were not quite enough to bring R below 1. The tiers therefore need to be toughened in some ways to keep the virus under control:
- In tier 1, we will encourage people to minimise travel and reinforce the importance of working from home where possible.
- In tier 2, alcohol may only be served in hospitality settings as part of a substantial meal.
- In tier 3, hospitality will close except for delivery and takeaway, and indoor entertainment venues must also close.
The Government will publish clear indicators to determine which tier an area enters into, and how areas can move between tiers thereafter.
These tiers are designed to keep the R below 1 and therefore allow areas to move down the tiers, rather than simply escalate as the epidemic grows. We are publishing clear indicators which will determine the tier each area will go into on 2 December and how areas move between tiers thereafter.
We are also aware how frustrating it has been for people living in areas which have had some form of restrictions since the summer, and will therefore prioritise tier 3 areas for the rollout of mass testing. Up to 13 million people will be offered two tests each before Christmas.
Our COVID Winter Plan will Suppress the Virus
The public’s selflessness in following the rules is making a difference. The virus is not spreading nearly as quickly as it would if we were not washing our hands, maintaining social distance, wearing masks and so on. And in England, where national restrictions came into effect at the start of this month, the increase in new cases is flattening off.
That would not have been possible without the public doing what has been asked of them. Times have been tough. But the new year brings with it new hope – and, while there is still a long way to go, this plan shows how, together, we will get there.