Health and Social Care Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 23 April 2020

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Welcome back to Downing Street for today’s daily coronavirus briefing.

I’m joined by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor John Newton, who is co-ordinating our work on testing.

The government is working through our action plan, which has as its core that we must protect life and protect the NHS, both by slowing the spread of the virus so that we flatten the curve and by ensuring that the NHS is always there to treat all people who need its care.

According to the most recent figures, 583,496 tests for coronavirus have now been carried out in the UK, including 23,560 tests carried out yesterday. 138,078 people have tested positive for the virus, that’s an increase of 4,583 cases since yesterday. 17,615 people are currently in hospital with coronavirus, down from 18,189 on 21 April. And sadly, of those hospitalised, 18,738 have now died. And that is an increase of 616 fatalities since yesterday.

And although this number is lower than it has been in previous days, I stop and think of each one. They will not be forgotten and their stories will live on.

We must maintain our resolve and follow the social distancing rules. Because they are working. They are protecting the NHS. And they are saving lives.

To lift the measures too soon, and to risk a second peak, would be a mistake. It would undo all of the hard work that’s been done and it would be bad for our nation’s health and for our nation’s economy.

We can only start to change the measures:

  • when the NHS can continue to cope
  • when the operational challenges have been met
  • when the daily death rate falls sustainably and consistently
  • when the rate of infection is decreasing
  • and, most importantly, when there’s no risk of a second peak

We need to bring the incidence of new infection right down. We’ll then use a rigorous programme of test, track and trace and keep it down, so we can safely release more of the restrictions.

And, today, I want to set out our progress on test, track and trace, which is such an important part of the measures that we’re taking and the work we’re doing.

First, testing. We set the goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month. I knew when we set it that this was a challenging target.

Capacity is now ahead of our plans – and even overnight has increased from 40,000 to 51,000. And, because capacity has increased so substantially, we are now able to expand who can get the tests.

Our ultimate goal is that everyone who could benefit from a test gets a test. But, of course, we had to start by prioritising patients in hospital, followed by NHS and social care colleagues and by those in care homes.

As we expanded the capacity from just 2,000 tests a day at the start of March, to 10,000 tests a day at the start of this month, so we have been able to further expand access.

Today I can go further. We make it easier, faster and simpler for any essential worker in England who needs a test to get a test.

From today, employers of essential workers will be able to go on GOV.UK to get a test for any of their staff who need a test. And, from tomorrow, any essential workers who need a test will be able to book an appointment on GOV.UK themselves directly. This all applies for people in essential workers’ households too who need a test.

It’s all part of getting Britain back on her feet.

Those included as essential workers will be based on the list for schools and education, set out on GOV.UK. The whole process will be free. And, once you’ve entered your details on the website, you’ll get a text or an email inviting you to book an appointment.

After you’ve had your test, results will be sent out by text and a helpdesk will be available to deal with queries. People who can’t go online can still apply through their employer.

I want to make it as easy as possible for people to get a test, not least because we’re talking about people who are ill.

Our network of regional test sites has now reached over 30 locations right across the UK, and more are being set up each day.

And I want to just take this moment to applaud the private companies who have been involved, as well as my team at Public Health England and the NHS: Boots, Amazon, ThermoFisher, Randox, Roche, Oxford Nanopore, GSK and AstraZeneca. They’ve really stepped up to the mark, and I’m grateful to each and every one of them.

We are also introducing home test kits. And, with the support of the armed forces, mobile testing sites too. The armed forces and the MoD have played a vital role here and I’d like to pay tribute to their work.

I thought, at yesterday’s briefing, General Sir Nick Carter when he said that coronavirus had presented the single greatest logistical challenge in his 40 years of service, I thought that spoke a truth. Our armed forces have played their part in rising to this challenge and want to thank them all.

In addition to testing essential workers, we are using testing to find out how many people have coronavirus. And how many people have had coronavirus.

These are critical pieces of information to inform our battle against this novel virus, and that we’ll use to learn, and we keep learning about every day.

This week we have begun one of the biggest virus infection and antibody studies that this country has ever seen.

This is a joint project, with the Office for National Statistics bringing their experience of running large household surveys and the University of Oxford bringing their world leading scientific expertise.

In total, 25,000 people will take part in the first phase, with plans to expand it to up to around 300,000 people over the next 12 months. Participants will provide regular samples taken from self-administered swabs and answer a few short questions during home visits by trained health workers.

We will use these tests to help us strengthen our scientific understanding and inform us all on the big choices we have to make about social distancing measures and how we start returning to a more normal life.

Letters are arriving on doorsteps from today. Please, if you’re asked, take part in this vital research for your country. The early signs from today are that there is huge enthusiasm from those who have received letters taking part in the survey. If you get a letter, please respond to it as soon as you can because you will be doing your bit.

And, as we ramp up our ability to test in large numbers, and as we slow the spread of the virus, we also need to make sure we’ve got the ability to trace contacts just as effectively.

As we look ahead, this is critical to keep the virus under control. And so we are putting the infrastructure in place now so we can roll out contact tracing on a large scale.

We are currently testing the new NHS contact tracing app. If you become unwell with symptoms of coronavirus, you’ll be able to tell the NHS via this app. The app will then send an alert to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with in recent days, even before you had the symptoms. So that they know and they can act accordingly, so we can get tests to people even if they are asymptomatic.

If we are worried that they have been in significant contact with someone who has the disease, we’ll be able to let them know.

But it’s not just about the technology. We need the people too. We need to be really kick-starting contact tracing, as the number of cases begin to fall.

We are preparing for this now, by hiring an initial 18,000 people. Including over 3,000 clinicians, including public health specialists. We will be training up the mass ranks of our contact tracers over the coming weeks, and then roll out the service.

This test, track and trace will be vital to stop a second peak of the virus.

But recent weeks have shown that there’s something we can all do. And that is to follow the rules on social distancing.

I am acutely aware of how difficult this has been, and especially as we enter Ramadan – a month that is so special for so many people.

And this Ramadan, so many Muslims who serve our country in the NHS, and in the armed forces, and in so many other ways, will not be sharing the joy of this month as they normally do.

I want to say to all British Muslims, thank you for staying at home. I know how important the daily iftar is. How important communal prayers are at night. And how important the Eid festival is.

Thank you for making major changes to these vital parts of your practice. And I want to say to you all – Ramadan Mubarak. And thank you for your service and citizenship. And thank you for your sacrifice.

This will help so we can, together, emerge from this challenge all the more united, all the more grateful to one another and all the more safe.

We have travelled together too far to go backwards now.

So please stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

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