Prime Minister’s Statement on Coronavirus
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on our continuing fight against coronavirus and how we intend to fulfil our simultaneous objectives of saving lives and protecting the NHS while keeping our children in school and our economy running, thus protecting jobs and livelihoods.
This morning, the deputy chief medical officer set out the stark reality of the second wave of the virus. The number of cases has quadrupled in the last three weeks. There are now more people in hospital with covid than when we went into lockdown on 23 March, and deaths are already rising. Of course, there are those who say that on that logic, we should go back into a full national lockdown of indefinite duration, closing schools and businesses, telling people again to stay at home as we did in March, and once again shattering our lives and our society. I do not believe that would be the right course. We would not only deprive our children of their education, but we would do such damage to our economy as to erode our long-time ability to fund the NHS and other crucial public services.
On the other side of the argument, there are those who think that the patience of the public is now exhausted, that we should abandon the fight against covid, stand aside, let nature take her course and call a halt to these repressions of liberty. Of course, I understand those emotions. I understand the frustration of those who have been chafing under the restrictions and the sacrifices they have made. But if we were to follow that course and let the virus rip, the bleak mathematics dictate that we would suffer not only an intolerable death toll, but put such a huge strain on our NHS with an uncontrolled second spike, that our doctors and nurses would be simply unable to devote themselves to other treatments for cancer, heart disease and hundreds more illnesses that have already been delayed and would be delayed again, with serious long-term damage to the health of the nation.
I am afraid that it is no answer to say that we could let the virus take hold among the young and fit while shielding the elderly and vulnerable because the virus would then spread with such velocity in the general population that there would be no way of stopping it spreading among the elderly. Even if the virus is less lethal for the under-60s, there will still be many younger people for whom, alas, it remains lethal.
We do not want to go back to another national lockdown; we cannot let the virus rip, so since June, we have followed a balanced approach, with the support of many Members across the House, to keep the R down while keeping schools and the economy going, and controlling the virus by changing our behaviour to restrict its spread. That is why we have the rule of six and restrictions such as the 10 pm closing time on our hospitality sector.
I take no pleasure whatsoever in imposing restrictions on those businesses, many of which have gone to great lengths to reopen as safely as possible. Nor do I want to stop people enjoying themselves. But we must act to save lives and the evidence shows that in changing our behaviour to restrict transmission between us, our actions are saving lives. Left unchecked, each person with the virus will infect an average of between 2.7 and three others, but the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies assesses that the current R nationally is between 1.2 and 1.5. So we are already suppressing that R too well below its natural level, which is why the virus is not spreading as quickly as it did in March, but we need to go further. In recent months we have worked with local leaders to counter local spikes with targeted restrictions. This local approach has inevitably produced different sets of rules in different parts of the country, which are now complex to understand and to enforce. So just as we simplified our national rules with the rule of six, we will now simplify and standardise our local rules by introducing a three-tiered system of local covid alert levels in England, set at medium, high and very high.
The medium alert level, which will cover most of the country, will consist of the current national measures. This includes the rule of six and the closure of hospitality at 10 pm.
The high alert level reflects the interventions in many local areas at the moment. This primarily aims to reduce household-to-household transmission, by preventing all mixing between different households or support bubbles indoors. In these areas, the rule of six will continue to apply outdoors, where it is harder for the virus to spread, in public spaces as well as private gardens. Most areas which are already subject to local restrictions will automatically move into the high alert level. As a result of rising infection rates, Nottinghamshire, east and west Cheshire and a small area of High Peak will also move into the high alert level.
The very high alert level will apply where transmission rates are rising most rapidly and where the NHS could soon be under unbearable pressure without further restrictions. In these areas the Government will set a baseline of prohibiting social mixing indoors and in private gardens, and, I am sorry to say, closing pubs and bars. We want to create the maximum possible local consensus behind this more severe local action, so in each area we will work with local government leaders on the additional measures which should be taken. This could lead to further restrictions on the hospitality, leisure, entertainment or personal care sectors, but retail, schools and universities will remain open.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out, the Government will expand their unprecedented economic support to assist those affected by these decisions, extending our job support scheme to cover two-thirds of the wages of those in any business that is required to close, and providing those businesses with a cash grant of up to £3,000 a month, instead of £1,500 every three weeks. We will also provide local authorities across England with around £1 billion of new financial support, on top of our £3.6 billion towns fund. And for “very high” areas, we will give further financial support for local test and trace and local enforcement, and assistance from the armed forces—not for enforcement, but rather to support local services, if desired in the local area.
I can report that we have been able to reach an agreement with leaders in Merseyside. Local authorities in the Liverpool city region will move into the very high alert level from Wednesday. In addition to the baseline, I have outlined—this is as well as pubs and bars—in Merseyside gyms and leisure centres, betting shops, adult gaming centres and casinos will also close. I would like to put on record my thanks to Steve Rotheram and his colleagues for their co-operation in very difficult circumstances.
Engagement with other leaders in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber is continuing. I know how difficult this is—they, like us, like everyone in this House, are grappling with very real dilemmas—but we cannot let the NHS fall over when lives are at stake. Let me repeat the offer that we are making to those local authorities: work with us on these difficult but necessary measures in the areas that are rated very high, in return for more support for local test and trace, more funding for local enforcement, the offer of help from the armed services, and the job support scheme, as announced by the Chancellor.
I believe not to act would be unforgivable, so I hope that rapid progress can be made in the coming days. Regulations for all three covid local alert levels are being laid today. They will be debated and voted on tomorrow, before coming into force on Wednesday.
We will also keep these measures under constant review, including a four-week sunset clause for interventions in very high areas. A postcode search on gov.uk, as well as the NHS covid-19 app, will show which local alert level applies in each area. We are also publishing updated guidance to explain what the covid alert levels mean for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. While these levels specifically apply to England, we continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to tackle this virus across the whole United Kingdom.
This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown and the massive human and, indeed, economic cost of an uncontained epidemic. With local, regional and national Government coming together in a shared responsibility and a shared effort to deliver ever better testing and tracing and ever more efficient enforcement of rules; with ever-improving therapies and the mountains of personal protective equipment and the ventilators that we have stockpiled; and with all the lessons we have learned in the last few months, we are becoming better and better at fighting this virus.
Though I must warn the House again that the weeks and months ahead will continue to be difficult and will test the mettle of this country, I have no doubt at all that, together, we will succeed, and I commend this statement to the House.