The Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, announced in the coronavirus press conference today that a new “vaccine task force” has been set up by the Government to coordinate efforts to find a vaccine. The task force will bring together Government, industry, academia and regulators to accelerate the development of a vaccine, with a new vaccines manufacturing centre to be rapidly built in order to facilitate the wide-scale manufacture of a vaccine once one is developed.
The Government was criticised earlier today on its response to the coronavirus outbreak by leading physician Professor Anthony Costello in a virtual Health Select Committee session.
In the hearing, which was chaired by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Professor Costello attacked the Government for being too slow to respond to the outbreak and stated that the UK is now likely to end up with the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe. In terms of easing lockdown measures, he stated that further waves of the outbreak are inevitable and, in order to avoid large spikes in fatalities, the Government must step up community testing capacity in a similar way to how South Korea have.
The current Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, also appeared (virtually) before the Committee to answer questions over the Government’s coronavirus strategy.
During the hearing, Hancock outlined his six-point coronavirus ‘battleplan’:
- Social distancing. That is “mission critical” for bending the curve down.
- Building up NHS capacity. Making sure the NHS always has capacity to treat patients is also mission critical. There are 2,769 spare critical capacity beds as of this morning.
- Supply. This is a challenge since the world has suddenly needed huge amounts of particular items, like PPE, medicines, ventilators, and potential treatments.
- Testing. This is in the same category as tracking and contract tracing. It is the combination of the three that matters: test, track and trace.
- Treatments. If we can treat the disease, then its impact will be lessened. We are obviously looking for a vaccine.
- Shielding. The more you can protect the vulnerable, the safer society will be.
Hancock then made the following key points during the hearing:
- 7.1% of NHS staff have been off work because they or a family member have had symptoms.
- A wider group of key workers will now be able to get tested in testing centres. The workers now covered include the police, firefighters, prison staff, local authority workers, the judiciary and DWP staff.
- Mass community testing will be introduced when the Government are in a position to do so. Jeremy Hunt has subsequently stated that local authorities should be involved in the mass contact tracing programme.
- It is a big challenge to ensure that some hospitals won’t run out of gowns this weekend.
- Cancer deaths could increase because patients with suspected cases staying away from NHS.
See below for our summary of today’s press conference and other significant developments.
Coronavirus Press Conference summary
Alok Sharma, Business Secretary
- 423,991 people have now been tested for coronavirus; 21,328 of these tests were carried out yesterday.
- 108,692 people have now tested positive for coronavirus.
- 18,978 people are currently in hospital with coronavirus.
- 14,576 people have now died from coronavirus, an increase of 847 since yesterday.
- The worst thing to do would be to ease up now which would cause a second peak in the virus. Current social distancing measures will remain in place for at least the next three weeks.
- We need to apply “the best of British endeavour” to find a vaccine.
- A vaccines task force has been set up by the Government today to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine. The task force will coordinate efforts across Government, industry, academia and regulators.
- The Government has green-lighted a further 21 research projects to find a vaccine for coronavirus. They will receive £14m of funding.
- A vaccines manufacturing centre will be built rapidly by the Government, so that a mass manufacturing of a vaccine can be done once one is ready.
- Finding the vaccine “will take many months”.
- With the Government backing our scientists, we have the best chance of finding a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser
- Don’t think that just because you haven’t seen the coronavirus near where you are, that it isn’t near you.
- The number of patients in hospital beds is decreasing or flattening across the country due to the social distancing measures.
- Clinical trials are going ahead to test drugs we currently have on Covid-19. We should have results of these over the next few weeks.
- The number of deaths will continue for “a little while” and plateau after that.
- Loan scheme for large businesses expanded. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has unveiled the final details of the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme ahead of its launch on Monday. All viable businesses with turnover of more than £45m will be able to apply for government-backed support. Firms with turnover of more than £250 million can borrow up to £50 million from lenders. This complements existing support including the Covid Corporate Financing Facility and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
- The Scheme will be available through a series of accredited lenders which will be listed on the British Business Bank website.
- The Government is also under pressure to increase the Government guarantee on loans to small businesses from 80% to 100% to boost the flow of urgently needed funds. Shadow Business Secretary, Ed Miliband, has called on the Government to do this.
- Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended by one month to reflect continuing social distancing measures. The move will allow firms from across UK to continue to protect millions of jobs
- Brexit transition period. David Frost, the UK’s Chief Negotiator, has stated that the UK would not accept any delay to the Brexit transition period beyond 2020, even in light of the coronavirus outbreak and even if the EU itself offers an extension. Downing Street cite the need for “legislative and economic flexibility” to manage its response to COVID-19, and describe an extension as “simply prolong[ing] business uncertainty”.
- EU settled status scheme. As covered in The Guardian, the Home Office has announced that 3.4m applications for the EU settled status scheme have been received, putting the Government close to its overall goal given the estimated number of EU, EEA and Swiss citizens in the UK is between 3.4m and 3.8m. However, there are 320,000 applications stuck in a backlog still being processed, with some fearing that many of those eligible may “fall through the cracks”.
- Guidance for consumers to maintain good food hygiene. The Government has published guidance in order to assist consumers maintain good food hygiene. The guidance offers advice on how people should buy, cook and store food during the coronavirus outbreak.
- London transport face masks. As covered in Sky News, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps calling for all passengers and workers to be obliged to wear face masks on London transport. Khan said the UK was “lagging behind the international community on this issue”.
- The Transport Secretary has subsequently said that wearing masks to avoid spreading Covid-19 might have some advantages. He explained tor Sky News that the policy was under review by the Government’s chief science advisers.
- TfL have also subsequently confirmed today that from Monday bus passengers in London will not have to pay to travel and they will board buses via the middle doors in order to protect drivers from coronavirus.
- Coronavirus in English and Welsh jails. The two leading prison reform groups in the country have threatened the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, with legal action over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in jails in England and Wales. The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust have written to Buckland setting out a proposed judicial review of his plans for reducing the prison population.
- Testing. The Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, told BBC Question Time last night that the German death rate has been lower because “their rate of testing has been much, much higher.” He added: “If we were testing much more widely, then we might have a different set of statistics”.
- Manufacturing PPE. As covered in The Guardian, industry figures have said the Government has been too slow to enlist support for manufacturing PPE from textile firms. Make It British founder Katie Hills said the Government is favouring high profile names such as Burberry and is “just picking out brand names”.
- G7 call. Last night the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, represented the UK in a virtual summit of G7 leaders. The rapid developments and production of coronavirus treatments and a vaccine was agreed to be crucial. Raab emphasised the need for internationally coordinated action on this.
- Fishing grants. Fishers in England will receive cash grants as part of a £10 million package to support fishing communities, Environment Secretary George Eustice announced last night.
- Retail Prices Index consultation. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has written to Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) to announce an extension to the consultation period for the current consultation on the timing of reform to the Retail Prices Index (RPI).
- Scottish Covid-19 Committee. There will be a new Covid-19 Committee in the Scottish Parliament following discussion between parties. The biggest proportion of its members will come from the SNP. The Committee will scrutinise the response to the outbreak.
- Virtual Parliament. Next week will see Parliament attempt to ‘go virtual’. At first, the operating model will only apply to oral questions, urgent questions and oral statements. Any business not included in the hybrid model will continue with physical participation only on a socially distanced model. The House of Lords will not broadcast its proceedings.
- Home Affairs Committee. The Committee has written to Chris Philp, the minister for immigration compliance and the courts, raising concerns about poor conditions in an asylum centre in West Yorkshire that reportedly breached measures to control the spread of Covid-19.
- Education Committee. The Committee has opened an inquiry into the underachievement of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The call for evidence will run alongside the work on how COVID-19 is affecting the education system and the implications for the most vulnerable in society.
- Justice Committee. The Committee have relaunched their inquiry into the ageing prison population. In particular, they will look at the greater risk that older people face from COVID-19 and how they can be protected from the virus.
- Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The Committee have announced a new inquiry on the impact of COVID-19 crisis on the homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector. Written evidence can now be submitted to the inquiry.