Photograph ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I am extremely grateful to you for accommodating the timing of this statement.
I would like to update the House on the pandemic and our road map to freedom. This morning, I joined some of the remarkable people who have been at the heart of the pandemic response at a service to mark the NHS’s 73th birthday at St Paul’s Cathedral. Together, we reflected on a year like no other for the NHS and for our country. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in celebrating the decision by Her Majesty the Queen to award the NHS the George Cross. I can think of no more fitting tribute to the NHS. I know that everyone in this House—indeed, everyone in this country—will celebrate that award.
There is no greater demonstration of our high regard for the NHS than the manner in which we all stepped up to protect it. Now, it is thanks to the NHS and many others that we are vaccinating our way out of this pandemic and out of these restrictions. Eighty-six per cent. of UK adults have had at least one jab, and 64% have had two. We are reinforcing our vaccine wall of defence further still. I can tell the House that we are reducing the dose interval for under-40s from 12 weeks to eight, which will mean that every adult should have had the chance to be double-jabbed by mid-September.
And those vaccines are working. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that eight in 10 adults have the covid-19 antibodies that are so important in helping our bodies to fight this disease. When we look at people aged over 50—the people who got the jab earlier in the programme—that figure rises to more than nine in 10. Allow me to set out why all this is so important.
Before we started putting jabs into arms, whenever we saw a rise in cases, it would inevitably be followed by a rise in hospitalisations and, tragically, a rise in deaths. Yet today, even though cases are heading upwards, in line with what we expected, hospitalisations are increasing at a much lower rate and deaths are at just 1% of the figure that we saw at the peak. Our vaccines are building a wall of protection against hospitalisation. And, jab by jab, brick by brick, that wall is getting higher.
For those people who sadly do find themselves having to go to hospital, we have better treatments than ever before. Last week on my visit to St Thomas’ Hospital, clinicians were telling me just how transformative dexamethasone has been in their effort to save lives. Taken together, the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths is being severely weakened. That means that we can start to learn to live with covid.
As we do that, it is important that we are straight with the British people. Cases of covid-19 are rising and will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that, by 19 July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today. Against this backdrop, many people will be understandably cautious about easing restrictions. After many months of uncertainty, that is entirely natural. But we can now protect the NHS without having to go to the extraordinary lengths that we have had to in the past. That is not to say that this is going to be easy.
Of course, the pandemic is not over. The virus is still with us; it has not gone away. The risk of a dangerous new variant that evades vaccines remains real. We know that, with covid-19, the situation can change and it can change quickly, but we cannot put our lives on hold forever. My responsibility as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care includes helping us to turn and face the other challenges that we know we must also address, from mental health to social care to the challenges of long covid. I am also determined to get to work on busting the backlog—the backlog that has been caused by this pandemic and which we know will get a lot worse before it gets better.
As I set out to the House last week, I remain confident that we can move to step 4 in England on 19 July and that the Government will make their final decision on this on 12 July, so today I wish to set out further details of what step 4 will look like. In essence, our national response to covid will change from one of rules and regulations to one of guidance and good sense. We will revoke all social distancing guidance, including the 2 metre rule, except for in specific settings such as ports of entry and medical settings, where of course it would continue to make sense.
It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear face coverings in any setting, including public transport, although we will advise this as a voluntary measure for crowded and enclosed spaces. It will no longer be necessary to work from home. There will be no limits on the number of people we can meet. There will no limits on the number of people who can attend life events such as weddings and funerals, and there will be no restrictions on communal worship or singing.
We will remove legal requirements on how businesses operate. Capacity caps will all be lifted and there will no longer be any requirement to offer table service. All businesses that were forced to close their doors will be able to open them once again. And we will lift the cap on named care home visitors so that families can come together in the ways they choose to do so. Ministers will provide further statements this week on self-isolation for fully vaccinated people, including for international travel, and on restrictions in education settings, including the removal of bubbles and contact isolation in schools.
Today, I can also confirm to the House that we have completed our review of certification. While already a feature of international travel, we have concluded that we do not think using certification as a condition of entry is a way to go. For people who have not been offered a full course of vaccination and for businesses, we felt that the impact outweighed the public health benefits. Of course, businesses can use covid-status certification at their own discretion and, from step 4 onwards, the NHS covid pass will be accessible through the NHS app and other digital routes. This will be the main way that people can provide their covid status—a status that they will achieve once they have completed a full vaccine course, a recent negative test or some other proof of natural immunity.
Taken together, step 4 is the biggest step of all: a restoration of so many of the freedoms that make this country great. We know that, as a consequence, cases will rise, just as they have done at every step on our road map, but this time our wall of protection will help us.
While step 4 will be the moment to let go of many restrictions, we must hold on to those everyday, sensible decisions that can help make us all safe. The responsibility to combat covid-19 lies with each and every one of us. That means staying at home when you are asked to self-isolate. It means considering the guidance that we are setting out, and it means getting the jab—both doses. When you are offered it, please, please take the jabs. This is something that everyone can do to make a contribution towards this national effort. It may even mean, for some people, that they will get three jabs in a single year. Last week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation provided interim advice on who to prioritise for a third dose, and our most vulnerable will be offered booster covid-19 jabs from September in time for the winter.
And preparing for the winter ahead is not just about covid, but flu as well. Because of the measures in place this winter, almost nobody in the UK has had flu for 18 months now. That is obviously a good thing but it does mean that immunity from flu is down. This winter’s flu campaign will be more important than ever, and we are currently looking at whether we can give people the covid-19 booster shot and the flu jab at the same time.
Step 4 is the next step in our country’s journey out of this pandemic. I know that, after so many difficult months, it is a step that many of us will look upon with a great deal of caution, but it is one that we will all take together, with a growing wall of defence against this virus—a wall that each and every one of us can help build higher. It is vital that each of us plays our part to protect ourselves and to protect others into better days ahead. I commend this statement to the House.