Feb 1, 2021
UK Downing Street Coronavirus Press Conference with Matt Hancock Transcript February 1
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock held a coronavirus press conference on February 1, 2021. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Matt Hancock: (00:01)
Good afternoon, and welcome to Downing Street for today’s coronavirus briefing. And I’m joined by Professor Steven Powis, the Medical Director of NHS England, and by Dr. Susan Hopkins, who is the Chief Medical Advisor to Public Health England and to NHS Test and Trace. I’ve got quite a lot of news to bring you up to speed on. And right at the start, I wanted to tell you where we are with our vaccine program. I’m so proud of the team who’ve now vaccinated 9. 2 million people across the UK. That includes 931,204 vaccinations just this weekend. And to put that into context, that’s one in every 60 adults in the whole United Kingdom vaccinated in one single weekend. It’s a mammoth effort. I know just how much these jabs mean to people, and I’m so grateful for all the messages that we get, all the pictures that I’m sent of people being vaccinated. It fills me with pride that so many people are doing so much to help for this rollout to happen so smoothly, and I want to say thanks to you all.
Matt Hancock: (01:17)
Getting vaccinated is an emotional moment for so many people and that’s because it is about protecting those who are most vulnerable to COVID. We’ve now vaccinated almost nine in 10 of all over eighties in the UK. And now, as of today, we’ve vaccinated over half of all people in their seventies. And I’m delighted that I can tell you that we have visited every eligible care home with older residents in England and offered vaccinations to all of their residents and staff. This has been an incredible example of health and social care working together, working side-by-side to protect people who are in the most need. As Professor Martin Green, the Chief Executive of Care England said today, “This is a wonderful achievement and one that is testament to the hard work of care home staff and our colleagues in the NHS and local authorities.” And I want to thank every single person who’s helped us get this far.
Matt Hancock: (02:26)
I also want to let you know some good news on vaccine supply. Today, we’ve ordered another 40 million vaccine doses from Valneva. As we have all along, we’ve invested early and at risk before we know for sure if it’ll come good, because from the start, we’ve taken a no regrets attitude to backing vaccines. We’ve tried to leave nothing on the table. If this gets regulatory approval, the Valneva vaccine, like many others, will be made right here in the UK. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is made in Oxford and Staffordshire and Wrexham, the Novavax vaccine is being manufactured in Teesside. And if approved, this Valneva vaccine will be manufactured in Livingston in Scotland. We didn’t start this pandemic with a large scale onshore vaccine manufacturing capability, so we’re building one all across the United Kingdom. And the vaccine program just goes to show how important it is the whole UK working as one together.
Matt Hancock: (03:42)
We now have over 400 million doses of vaccines on order. This is obviously more than the UK population needs. And my attitude has always been we protect every UK citizen as fast as we can, and at the same time, we’re generous around the world. I want to say this to our international partners. Of course, I’m delighted about how well this is going at home, but I believe fundamentally that the vaccine rollout is a global effort. One of the many reasons that I’m so happy with the AstraZeneca contract is that it not just gives us a strong supply here, but because it is the only vaccine currently being deployed that is available to the whole world at cost. And because it’s logistically straightforward, it can be practically deployed to the poorest parts of the world too. So we will protect UK supply and we’ll play our part to ensure the whole world can get the jab.
Matt Hancock: (04:56)
Another area where we’re helping around the world is in spotting new variants. And our global leadership in genomic sequencing has helped us to spot new variants here in the UK and quickly to alert the rest of the world. But there are other countries that don’t have the capacity that they need. Last week, we offered our capacity and expertise to other nations through our new variant assessment platform, because a mutation in one part of the world is a threat to people everywhere. For example, our South African colleagues spotted a new variant through their high quality genomic sequencing and rightly notified the world as we did with the variant that we discovered here in the UK. We’ve now identified 105 cases of this variant here, 11 of those cases don’t appear to have any links to international travel. There’s currently no evidence to suggest this variant is any more severe, but we need to come down it hard, and we will.
Matt Hancock: (05:59)
We’ve already made sure that all these cases are isolating and that we’ve done enhanced contact tracing of all of their close contacts. We’re surging extra testing into the areas where this variant has been found and sequencing every single positive case. Working with local authorities, we’re going door to door to test people in the local area. These cases have been identified in the following postcodes, in W7, N17, CR4, WS2, ME15, EN10, GU21 and PR9. If you live in one of these postcodes where we’re sending in enhanced testing, then it is imperative that you stay at home and that you get a test even if you don’t have symptoms. This is so important so that we can break the chains of the transmission of this new variant, and we’ve got to bring this virus to heal.
Matt Hancock: (07:09)
So there’s lots of good news, but this is a stark reminder that the fight against this virus isn’t over yet. Every day, we’re protecting more people and getting ourselves one step closer to normal life. But this is no time to let things slip. So let’s all of us do what we must to get this virus under control. We’re now going to go to questions from the public and then from members of the media. The first question by video is from Elizabeth from Bradford. Elizabeth.
Many of the most vulnerable groups have now received their first dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, with a second dose due at the beginning of April. Given the recent attempts by the EU to block further supplies of the vaccine into the UK, how can these groups be sure of getting their second dose within the already extended timeframe?
Matt Hancock: (08:04)
Elizabeth, this is an incredibly important question and you’re quite right to ask it. And we have a high degree of confidence in the supplies that we have contracted from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and we’re working with our European partners to ensure those supply chains can remain open. And in the same way that some of the supply’s made on the continent, so to a huge amount of it is made on shore here in the UK. I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to have the constructive progress that we have over the weekend with the EU. And following those decisions by the EU, I’m confident that we’ll be able to deliver supplies to everyone who needs it for their second dose. This is obviously something we keep a very close eye on, but it is imperative that when the NHS…
Matt Hancock: (09:02)
… But it is imperative that when the NHS calls and gives you the chance to get the jab, please do come forward. The next question is from Ruth from Rochester also by video. Ruth.
You have said that clinically extremely vulnerable adults will receive their first vaccination by the middle of February yet there are many GP surgeries that are still struggling to get through Group 1 with the stocks they have. They have no idea when those in Group 4 would be able to receive their first vaccination. Please, could you tell us if you are going to extend the deadline or if you will make sure that the GP surgeries have enough stock to be able to complete that first vaccination rollout by the middle of February? Please could you also tell us why social care staff are in Group 2 yet unpaid carers are in Group 6? Those unpaid carers often do more work with their clients than those in Group 2 and for much longer hours. Please, could you explain the difference between their groups? Thank you.
Matt Hancock: (10:05)
Well, thank you, Ruth, for those two questions. On the first, yes we do have enough supply to be able to hit the target of offering a jab to everybody in Groups 1 to 4 by the 15th of February. And we’re working very hard to make sure that everybody gets that offer. And then I’m very, very keen that everybody takes up that offer. That isn’t only through the GP services, although they are playing a huge role, but also through the mass vaccination centers and the hospitals. And in Kent where you are, for instance, we’ve just opened a new mass vaccination center in Folkestone. I appreciate that’s a bit of a distance from Rochester, but we’ve got the rollout in all different parts of the country. And everywhere in Kent is less than 10 miles from a center to be able to get a jab. So the rollout is happening on mass scale as you can see from the numbers that we’re getting through. And we’ve got the supply to be able to make that offer to everybody ahead of the 15th of February. On the second point on care workers and where they fit in the priority, I’m going to ask Professor Powis to comment on this. The critical thing is that in category one, we have those who work in care homes. And that obviously is the most important group to reach because that’s where people who are most vulnerable reside. And then the other categories are determined by a clinical judgment and not by my judgment. We asked what is the appropriate order in order of how, how best to protect the population as quickly as possible. Professor Powis.
Prof. Powis: (11:57)
Yes. As the secretary of state has said, those groups have been determined by an independent group of experts, the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations, and they have ordered those priority groups exactly as the secretary of state has said to give the greatest benefit to those who are at highest risk of the consequences of the virus. It’s absolutely great news that we are making wonderful progress in the NHS to offer a vaccination to all those in those top four priority groups. And I’m confident that with the supplies coming through, we’re on track to deliver those jabs into the arms of people in those top priority groups by the target that we set two weeks today. So it’s no doubt it’s a big challenge, but as you will have seen in recent days, we are vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people every day and we are very confident that we’re on track to beat that challenge.
Matt Hancock: (12:57)
Fantastic. Thank you very much, Ruth. Next question is from of Hugh Pym of the BBC. Hugh.
Hugh Pym: (13:03)
Thank you, secretary of state. What assurances can you give those in priority groups who are housebound but who haven’t yet been given a date for their vaccination, that they will be contacted as soon as possible? And for Professor Hopkins and Professor Powis, how confident are you that the existing vaccines in use will be effective against the South African variant?
Matt Hancock: (13:29)
Thank you very much, Hugh. Well, I’ll ask Professor Powis to answer the first question and then Dr. Hopkins the second.
Prof. Powis: (13:35)
Yes, thank you, Hugh. So you’re absolutely right. We acknowledge that there are individuals in those priority groups who, for various reasons, are house bound or find it difficult to travel to the vaccination centers. So of course our GPs are working hard to ensure that we can undertake visits to those individuals and get them vaccinated. If they’re in those priority groups, they are a top priority and we will get to them. So I’m confident, as I’ve said, that we’re on track to meet that target and that includes ensuring that we’re getting the vaccine to all those who are in those groups, irrespective of whether they can travel into centers or not.
Matt Hancock: (14:16)
Thanks. Dr. Hopkins.
Dr. Hopkins: (14:17)
So three of the vaccines that have been used to date in the trials have shown that they’ve been effective against the South African variant at a level greater than was set as the minimum standard by WHO and the US FDA. We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalization and death. And we’re doing detailed laboratory studies at the moment with the South African variant growing in the labs so that we will be able to estimate that with greater robustness over the next couple of weeks.
Matt Hancock: (14:49)
Thanks very much, Hugh. The next question is from Emily Morgan at ITV. Emily.
Emily Morgan: (14:57)
Hello. Thank you, secretary of state. I just wonder how confident you are that you can actually contain this new variant because there’s clearly community transmission going on and it’s probably far more widespread than we actually think.
Matt Hancock: (15:13)
Well, it’s on all of us to contain this new variant. Of course, in lockdown when the number of cases overall is coming down, we hope too that we can bring down the number of cases of the new variant and we’re sending in the extra surge testing and the enhanced contact tracing to try to stop those chains of transmission, to stop the spread altogether of these new variants, but it is not straightforward. And as you say, there may be further cases that we don’t know about yet. And our genomic sequencing is in place to try to spot them. The most important thing is that people in the postcode areas that I’ve outlined need to take extra special precautions.
Matt Hancock: (16:04)
The stay at home message is there for everyone, but in particular, in those areas, it is absolutely vital that people minimize all social contact and get a test when the opportunity arises and we’re going door to ensure that people have the chance to get those tests in the postcode areas that we’ve described. So it’s a big effort trying to get this new variant, essentially finding every single case of it. That is the goal to make sure that we protect people as well as possible. And the person medically responsible for making that happen is Dr. Hopkins.
Dr. Hopkins: (16:46)
Thank you. So I would just add that the most important thing that everyone can do right now is follow the Hands. Face. Space and stay at home message. Those are the key things that we’ll do to reduce the virus transmitting to others, and the additional measures that we’ve put in place, enhanced contact tracing, enhanced testing in those areas will help us. We will continue to watch the genome sequencing data very carefully for any new variant that emerges and enhance the efforts that we put to try our best to reduce the spread of these variants.
Matt Hancock: (17:19)
I should have said this in my first answer, it’s worth saying in addition that the contact tracing system now find around 95% of those contacts. So it has built up to this very effective level. And in addition, by sending people door to door and working with the local authority, and we’re trying to find all of the possible contacts and ensure that they isolate, of course, which is the way that we’re going to get this under control. Thank you very much. Next question is Tom Magna from [inaudible 00:17:57]. Tom.
Tom Magna: (17:58)
Thank you very much indeed, secretary of state. Unpaid carers in our audience welcomed the successful-
Unpaid carers in our audience welcome the successful vaccine rollout. It certainly brought a sense of real relief to our audience. But unpaid carers still don’t feel truly recognized, because they were put in a footnote when the JCVI decided that unpaid carers should be in vaccine band six. So, Secretary of State, what assurances can you give our viewers, that unpaid carers will always be at the heart of your policy decisions? And to Professor Powis and Dr. Hopkins, when a person in the high priority band is vaccinated, there’s often an unpaid career going with them and not being vaccinated at the same time. This terrifies the unpaid career who feels they’ll contract COVID-19, leaving the person they care for at greater risk of being left alone, impacting the NHS and social care. So, shouldn’t unpaid carers and the person they care for be vaccinated at the same time, whatever the band? Thank you.
Matt Hancock: (18:54)
Well, thank you very much, Tom. Look, I know from my own family, just how important unpaid carers are and we’ve looked very closely into, where is the right place for unpaid carers in the prioritization list, and taking the independent advice that Professor Powis talked about. So, I can absolutely give you the assurance that unpaid carers are at the heart of policy making around social care. And I understand the value. It’s not just a financial value. It’s the value in terms of looking after people who are sometimes the most vulnerable and what people give up in order to do that. I get that and I think it’s incredibly important., On the specific technical answer to the question I’m going to ask Professor Powis to set out in more detail.
Prof. Powis: (19:41)
Well, thank you, Tom. And of course in the NHS, we absolutely recognize the huge value that unpaid carers bring to our patients. They look after them at home, and of course they can prevent hospital admissions, and of course they can facilitate hospital discharges when somebody is well enough to go home, so I can assure you that we absolutely value all that they bring to the patients that we look after.
Prof. Powis: (20:08)
As I said earlier, we are working our way through the vaccination program according to those priority groups set by JCVI. I talked about the target we have for 2 weeks today of those top four priority groups. But I think it’s also worth saying that as soon as we have done that, we will immediately be going into the next set of groups and very rapidly as quickly as we can, of course, supplies dependent, but very rapidly working our way down those priority groups. So, we have a focus on the top five or four priority groups for the next 2 weeks, and of course, that’s right, but we will also be planning, as we speak at the moment, to keep that focus on as we move into other priority groups rapidly.
Matt Hancock: (20:55)
Thank you very much, indeed. Next question is from Gordon Rayner at The Telegraph. Gordon?
Gordon Rayner: (21:02)
Thank you, Secretary of State. You’ve stressed the need to break the chain of transmission of the new strain, and in other countries where a new strain is discovered, they’ve isolated the areas where they found them to stop it spreading. Why are we not doing that? And have you ruled out tighter restrictions in the areas where the South Africa variant has been identified, given that the vaccine is less effective against it? And just lastly, can I just ask the three of you, whether any of you have been vaccinated yet?
Matt Hancock: (21:34)
I haven’t been vaccinated yet, but I will get my jab as soon as it’s my turn, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll ask the other two as well. The answer to the question you have about the transmission of the new variant is, of course we’re always looking at what we need to do. There is already a national lockdown in place that says that you should not travel unless it’s absolutely necessary and that you should stay local, and we expect people to adhere to that everywhere. But in particular, in the postcodes that I’ve set out where people should stay at home, unless they absolutely have to leave, and anybody even thinking about stretching the rules in those areas must not.
Matt Hancock: (22:24)
Now, of course, further measures are always there, but we already have this very strong set of rules, indeed, very strong laws in place against people traveling unnecessarily, unless that travel is essential. So, what I’d say is that if you’re in one of the postcode areas that I set out, if you’re in an area where the new variant has been found, then stay at home and let’s get this new variant totally under control. Dr. Hopkins, over to you. Have you been jabbed yet?
Dr. Hopkins: (23:01)
I haven’t, because sadly I’m not doing very much frontline clinical work, more work in the department these days. But my husband, who is a frontline healthcare worker, has been.
Prof. Powis: (23:09)
No, I haven’t been vaccinated yet. I’m looking forward to it. Like Susan, I haven’t been doing frontline health care work, so I’m not at the front line. If I do start vaccinating, because I have volunteered to vaccinate, that would be one reason to get it. And otherwise, I’ll need to wait until my age band or we get to my age band in the priority groups. My wife may have been vaccinated because she was in one of the clinical trials, but we don’t know whether she got the vaccine or the control.
Matt Hancock: (23:42)
Thanks very much, indeed. The next question is to Jane Merrick at The i. Jane?
Jane Merrick: (23:48)
Hello, thank you. Firstly, to Professor Hopkins. Does the geographical spread suggest the South African variant is endemic? And if the vaccines do need to be tweaked to improve effectiveness against it, will the 9.3 million people who’ve already had the vaccine or had a jab, be able to get a booster of the tweaked vaccine? Or will they have to restart the course, given that they are the most vulnerable in the country? And if I can ask you, Secretary of State, as a parent, you will understand that the benefits of children being in school are not only from learning, but the physical and mental health benefits of seeing friends, playing in the playground, which helps them sleep better and improve their motivation to do schoolwork. Do you think from a health perspective, there is an argument to reopen school playgrounds for play times only, earlier than the 8th of March, if it can be done safely with you do a bubble system in place, it’s outdoors, and if it’s primary schools? Thank you.
Matt Hancock: (24:47)
Well, thank you Jane. On that last question, before I hand over to Dr. Hopkins, what I’d say is we’ve taken these actions we’ve had to take with respect to schools. We’ve taken them with a very heavy heart and they are, as the Prime Minister said, the first measures that we will want to lift. But this virus is still absolutely widespread across the country. There are still over 34,000 people in hospital. And to put that into context, that’s 10,000 more than at the original peak. So, we still have a lot of work to do together to get this under control. And of course I understand the implications of the lockdown, but we’ve also seen just the terrible devastation that’s caused by the virus being too widespread, and I’m very glad to say that it does appear to be coming down in terms of the case load. On the first question, I’ll pass over to Dr. Hopkins.
Dr. Hopkins: (25:58)
I think the first thing I would say is that these cases do not appear to link to the moment. I think they’re in quite separate parts of the country and they’re more likely to be related to somebody who potentially had asymptomatic infection when they came in from abroad. We are looking to find extra cases in the community to see where we can find links, and to try and close down and eliminate the transmission between people.
Dr. Hopkins: (26:24)
I think it’s really important to also add that with the R value just below 1 as it is in the vast majority of the country, that we can reduce these cases of the new variant. And along with additional testing and people taking even more control than they are normally, then this will all help us do that.
Dr. Hopkins: (26:45)
In terms of the tweaked vaccine, we’re already working and looking at that. Looking at what mutations are particularly common that might be important to be put into a tweaked vaccine. It is unlikely that people would have to start again. Much more likely that it would be a booster shot, a bit like the annual flu vaccine.
Matt Hancock: (27:02)
Thanks very much, Jane.
Dr. Hopkins: (27:03)
A bit like the annual flu vaccine.
Matt Hancock: (27:03)
Thanks very much, Jane. Our final up question is from Jonathan Walker from the Birmingham Mail and Newcastle Chronicle.
Jonathan Walker: (27:12)
Hello, [inaudible 00:27:12]. The north of England appears to be doing well in terms of rolling out the vaccine. You’ll know there have been suggestions that areas that have been fastest in getting people vaccinated will have supplies cut to help other areas catch up, but can you tell us if that is the case? And are you able to tell us what portion of England’s supply of vaccines is due to go to the north east in February and March? And also, if I may, I’d like to ask Dr. Hopkins or Professor Powers about the South African variant. As far as we know, is it more infectious than other variants? Is it likely to cause serious illness? How concerned should people living in the areas identified today be about their own health and welfare?
Matt Hancock: (27:55)
Thanks, Jonathan. I’m very grateful that you’re asking this question because I want to put to bed a myth that has been circulating in some cases online about the fair share of vaccines. The north east is getting its fascia vaccine. Birmingham in the midlands is getting its fair share of the vaccine. The north west is getting its fair share of the vaccine and we’re making sure that the vaccine goes to all parts of the country. In fact, all parts of the whole country, including all of the devolved areas and making sure that that happens on a fair basis according to need.
Matt Hancock: (28:32)
Now, the north of England has done absolutely brilliantly in the vaccine rollout. The north east was the fastest out of the blocks. The north west is going great guns too. And I’m really, really grateful to everybody who is working so hard. There is, as you know, a bumpy supply schedule for the whole country. And if you look on coronavirus.data.gov. uk, and click on the link to vaccinations, you can see that across the country there are some days when we do, like Saturday, over half a million vaccines. There are other days when we do 200, 300,000 vaccines, this is according to supply across the country as a whole.
Matt Hancock: (29:19)
And so, if your area has a few days where supply is lower than it has been, then that is because of the supply available nationally. And our goal is to get the supply in and then out as quickly as feasibly possible. I think the NHS are doing a brilliant job of that. And I think they’re doing a brilliant job of it in Newcastle and making sure that people get protected. And we’ve got to make sure that there are a fair shares everywhere, and we will do that. On the second question, I think that was definitely a question for you, Dr. Hopkins.
Dr. Hopkins: (29:53)
Thank you. So on the South African variant, we know that it’s similar in transmissibility to the variant that we’re seeing now almost endemic in the UK. Pretty much everywhere, we’re seeing the variant that first arose in Kent. So we want to reduce the transmission of it by the same measures that we have in place.
Dr. Hopkins: (30:10)
We do not have evidence that it’s causing more severe disease than the variants that are circulating in the UK. But what do we know is that it’s got slightly more mutations, some more mutations in the parts of the protein, the spike protein, that is causing it perhaps to have the diminished effectiveness to the vaccine, but still very good. And we want to prevent that spreading because what we want to do is to prevent viruses with mutations being able to acquire more mutations, which they will do over time. So everything we can do to reduce the spread of this variant, to detect cases with it and break the chains of transmission are essential.
Matt Hancock: (30:47)
Thanks very much, Jonathan. I just want to add one thing to that, which is that for 40 years, we’ve had the flu vaccination program, and every year the flu jab is updated to make sure that it is as effective as possible against new variants. So this is a standard part of what the NHS does every autumn to protect us against the flu. And I hope through this vaccination program, and then through the work that we’re doing with the vaccines manufacturers and the scientists, we’ll be able to get the coronavirus jab to the same place, that it’s something that people have as standard.
Matt Hancock: (31:32)
Doing that does mean building that manufacturing capability onshore, which is part of the task that’s underway right now. It also means getting the science right, exactly as Dr. Hopkins has set out. That is the goal here. There’s an awful lot of work to do. But in the meantime, the vaccination program is rolling out well. And when the call comes, please take the jab. And for everyone, let’s keep this under control by staying at home wherever possible, and following hands, face, space because the basics are critical and everybody has got a role to play. Thanks very much indeed. See you soon.