May 19, 2021
UK Downing Street Coronavirus Press Conference with Matt Hancock Transcript May 19
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock held a coronavirus press conference on May 19, 2021. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Matt Hancock: (00:00)
Good afternoon and welcome to Downing Street for today’s Coronavirus briefing. And I’m joined by deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam and Dr. Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency. I’d like to update you on what we’re doing to fight the virus, both at home and abroad. First, turning to what’s happening here in the UK. I’ll ask Professor Van-Tam to set out the numbers and the details in a moment, but overall hospitalizations and deaths remain very low, meaning that we’ve been able carefully to take away more restrictions this week as we’ve taken step three of the roadmap. But we must proceed with vigilance and everyone taking personal responsibility. We’ve always known that one of the things that has the potential to knock us off track would be a new variant. That’s why we made the presence of a new variant, that could do that, one of our four tests when we set out the roadmap, which is the test we must pass before going down each step of the roadmap.
Matt Hancock: (01:12)
The early evidence suggests that the B1617.2 new variant, first discovered in India, passes on more easily from person to person than the B117 variant that was first discovered of course in Kent. But as the Prime Minister said at lunchtime, we have increasing confidence that the vaccines are effective against it. That means that our strategy is the right one, to carefully replace the restrictions on freedom with the protection from the vaccine. What it means is that it is even more important that people get vaccinated. As I’ve reported to the House of Commons, there are now 2,967 cases known of this variant in the UK. And we are determined to do all that we can to ensure this new variant doesn’t put our recovery at risk.
Matt Hancock: (02:15)
So we’ve acted fast to guard the gains that we’ve made together. We now have an incredibly sensitive bio-security surveillance system here in the UK. And I’m going to set out a couple of new details about that in a moment. This surveillance system spotted the cases in Bolton and in Blackburn early. And through surge testing and increased vaccinations, we’re throwing everything at it there. The weekly case rates in Bolton is now 283 per 100,000 and it’s doubled in the last week. There are now 25 people in Bolton Hospital with COVID. The majority are un-vaccinated. Nearly 90% have not yet had two vaccines. This shows the importance of getting vaccinated, not once but twice. So when you get the call, get the jab. Almost 14,000 vaccines have been given in Blackburn and Bolton since Friday. And over 26,000 doses have been given in the last week, the highest weekly total in these areas.
Matt Hancock: (03:29)
We’ve also surged testing and delivered 75,000 extra tests to these two areas. And we’re using 12 testing sites and a hundred strong team going door to door. But these are not the only areas where we have a cause for concern. We’re seeing other cases where rates are rising and where we need to act fast as we have in Bolton and Blackburn. We know that this playbook that we’re using in Bolton and Blackburn worked in South London against the South African variant, where we had a series of cases of the South African variant and we brought that under control. And we’ve used our extensive surveillance system and new techniques to identify the areas we’re most concerned about. But we, of course, look at the number of cases, we look at the number of identified variants, and we look at hospitalizations and we publish all of these data. But we’re now also able to use two further tools.
Matt Hancock: (04:28)
Mobility data shows travel patterns in different areas. And we look at this in deciding where the virus is at risk of spreading. And next, we also analyze wastewater in 70% of the country. And we can spot the virus and the variance in the water, and that can help us identify communities where those spread. As a result of all this analysis, we’re now surge testing and increasing vaccinations in Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Kirklees, North Tyneside, and Hounslow in London. And we’re also supporting the Scottish government who are taking similar action in Glasgow and Murray. What this means in practice is putting in more testing, more testing sites, and on vaccinations, making more vaccinations available to everyone who’s eligible. And to everyone across the whole country, I’d urge vigilance as we open up. And of course, as soon as you’re able to, to get the jab. To everyone in these areas, please exercise caution, get a test, and as soon as you’re eligible, get the jab.
Matt Hancock: (05:42)
As we carefully replace this shield of restrictions with the sword of the vaccination program to give us protection for the longterm, we keep driving the vaccination program as fast as we. I’m delighted to say that as of midnight last night, seven out of 10 adults in the UK have now had their first dose. That’s seven in 10 people who have a big degree of protection against the virus. I’m also delighted that almost four in 10 have had the extra protection that comes from having two doses. And I’d like to show you a chart, which puts this into context and shows this protection across the country and also to help explain why we’ve taken the decision to change our dosing interval from 12 to eight weeks for the most vulnerable.
Matt Hancock: (06:32)
This chart shows the proportion of people who have the jab according to age group. Green bars represent people who’ve had one dose, blue bars represent people who’ve had two. And as you can see from the amount of green, uptake of the first dose has been phenomenally high. And we followed the strategy of getting first doses to as many people who are vulnerable to COVID as possible as quickly as possible. And for that read, the over 50s in particular. Now you can see the very, very high uptake rates, and we’re incredibly proud of how much people have stepped forward. But there’s still a little bit of a gap between the green bars and the 100%.
Matt Hancock: (07:13)
And what the experience of Bolton shows is it’s incredibly important that we get vaccination, even to the final few percent and encourage that take-up. And then the blue bars show the second doses. And we can see that the uptake of the second doses has been incredibly high too. But again, there’s a little bit of green showing and we need to get the blue bars, the second doses up to everybody who’s had the first dose. And of course as you go down the age range towards the left of the chart, fewer people have had two doses because it has been less time since they had their first dose.
Matt Hancock: (07:55)
This is why getting the second dose in to those who are most vulnerable to ending up in in the hospital and dying of the disease is so important. Academic studies have shown that this decision to have 12 weeks between the first two doses has saved around 12,000 lives. But that uptake, those figures are not yet 100% and we will not rest until we get them there. And crucially, this acceleration now of second doses for the over 50s, for the most vulnerable is all about getting the maximum possible protection for those at greatest risk. And while we deliver on the first and the second doses, we’re also working on our booster program too. And I just want to update you a little on that.
Matt Hancock: (08:44)
This is all making sure that the vaccines stay ahead of the virus. This includes new vaccines specifically targeted variants of concern. I’m delighted to be able to announce a new clinical trial backed by 19 million pounds of taxpayers’ money to look at the use of current COVID vaccines as booster vaccines, and to see what combination and what part they can play in keeping us safe for the longterm. And you can sign up to be part of this trial on www.covboost.org.uk. This will be the first clinical study in the world… Leading the way with this scientific endeavor, just as we have done so many times in this crisis. Take for example, the huge advances we’ve made in genomic sequencing. Today, we’ve published our genome UK implementation plan for how we can build on this genomic science even further, including our commitment to sequence one million whole genomes.
Matt Hancock: (09:48)
And I want to thank all the scientists and all those at Genomics England who have been involved in delivering this, which has also through their genomic work played such an important part in our tackling of the pandemic. Genomics saves lives. We learned that through this pandemic so clearly and determined that the UK stays at the forefront of this scientific endeavor as well. We’re not just focused on the effort at home. And so a few words about how we’re working to protect people all around the world. We’ve donated over half a billion pounds to COVAX, which has now delivered lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines in 120 countries and territories, but, and I really want to stress this point, over and above our cash commitment, the UK has probably done more than any other nation to help vaccinate the world’s poorest.
Matt Hancock: (10:45)
And that’s thanks to the gift to the world of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is available at cost, no charge for intellectual property. We invested, the British government, Oxford University, and AstraZeneca, the three of us, we invested in the research and came together to develop and deliver this vaccine at cost for everyone. And for context, in terms of the scale of the impact of what we’ve done here, almost 1.5 billion vaccine doses have now been injected across the world, more than 400 million of them have been the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. And in total, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has been now delivered in 160 countries. Two-thirds of this 400 million doses, two-thirds have been injected into the arms of people in low and middle income countries, including for instance 117 million in India, where they’ve been obviously so badly effected by this virus. And of the 67 million delivered through COVAX, over 65 million of them have been the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. This vaccination program is a vaccination program for the world using the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
Matt Hancock: (12:08)
It’s something every British taxpayer has had a part in supporting and everyone in this United Kingdom should be incredibly proud of it. Rather than changing the rules, as we got many jabs into arms across the world, we just got on with delivering this at cost without any profit. And I want to thank the team at Oxford and at AstraZeneca for the incredibly progressive and forward-looking approach that they took over a year ago now to set this up. And it is having an impact everywhere. So just as we fight the virus at home, we’ll stand side by side with other nations across the world. And I just want to add one more thing, because if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s taught us that our health is intertwined together. Next month, I’ll be welcoming health ministers from G7 nations to Oxford. The birthplace of this vaccine that said
Matt Hancock: (13:03)
… patients to Oxford, the birthplace of this vaccine that saved so many lives. And there, we’ll hold the G7 Health Minister’s Forum, not just to talk about how to fight this pandemic in the here and now, but how we need to emerge stronger, healthier, and safer with the great democracies of the world working together. This after all is a virus that attacks all of humanity and it calls upon everyone to step up and think about what we can do. And you can play your part in that too, in the same way that everybody has played their part so far. So please remember the basics. Hands, face, space, and fresh air. And even as we take these steps together, get your rapid regular tests. And when you get the call, get the jab. I’ll now hand over to Professor van Tam to go through the data.
Professor van Tam: (13:53)
Thank you, secretary of state. Good afternoon. The slides today are quick, simple, and thankfully should contain no surprises to anyone. Let’s have the first slide. Here we go. This slide is the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the UK. You can see the big winter wave of January and February, and you can see now on the right of the slide that we are in a very low place indeed. The most recent seven day average is just over 2000 cases per day. And that trend is absolutely flat.
Professor van Tam: (14:32)
Next slide, please. There’s better news on the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 in the UK, better than flat. Again, you can see that massive peak in January and February peaking at almost 40,000 people in hospital. We’re now down on the 17th of May to under a thousand people in hospital with COVID-19, 939, and that’s a drop of 17.17% in the last week.
Professor van Tam: (15:03)
Next slide, please. In terms of the number of deaths of people who’ve had a positive test result for COVID in the UK in the last 28 days, the most recent seven day average is now running at eight deaths per day. These are still regrettable, but we are nevertheless in an extremely low place compared with where we were back in January and February.
Professor van Tam: (15:31)
Next slide, please. And finally, this is a different depiction of the data that you’ve already seen in an animated form from the secretary of state. You can see that we are now at almost 37 million individuals who’ve received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK. And we are now at around about 20 million, just over for people having both doses of the vaccine. What is really important now is that we close the gap and turn that 20.9 million people who’ve had their second dose into 37 million people who’ve had their second dose, and that’s the challenge of the next few weeks. Thank you, secretary.
Matt Hancock: (16:21)
Thank you very much, Professor van Tam. We’re now going to go to questions from the public and then questions from journalists. And the first question from the public via video is Helen from Manchester. Helen?
Not including the Autumn booster, how long do you anticipate vaccination protection will last and when will we need a further booster?
Matt Hancock: (16:45)
That’s a great question, Helen. I’m going to hand over straight to JBT.
Professor van Tam: (16:49)
Thanks for the question, Helen. The short answer is, is that we don’t yet know. We do have data now showing the antibodies are persisting for at least six months, but antibodies on their own and not the totality of the protection you get from vaccines. You also get important T-cell related protection that is more difficult to measure.
Professor van Tam: (17:17)
We can’t make time go faster. So we simply have to watch very vigilantly to make sure that we’re not starting to see lots and lots of cases of COVID-19 in people who’ve been fully vaccinated. That would be a telltale sign that vaccine effectiveness is starting to wane. And we just don’t know, it is perfectly plausible that in the absence of variants, then the vaccine protection, particularly in the younger adults, might last for quite some time. But we’re entrusting our JCVI, who’ve done such a good job so far, to look at this. They’ve already started addressing this question and we will step by step as the science unfolds keep an eye on this. And then the JCVI will make an advice to government about what the next steps are.
Professor van Tam: (18:15)
But on the vaccine procurement side, the vaccine task force is doing everything it can to keep as many options as possible open, so that the JCVI has got that choice of strategy according to when and where and what we need.
Matt Hancock: (18:35)
Thanks very much, professor. Next question is from Iris in London.
Given the increased risk of complications for pregnant people and the updated guidance recommend vaccinations for those pregnant, why aren’t pregnant people prioritized over their age groups for the COVID-19 vaccination?
Matt Hancock: (18:53)
Thank you, Iris. It’s another important question. I’ll ask Dr. [inaudible 00:18:58] to answer that.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (19:00)
Thank you, Iris, for that. And you’ll probably have noticed that our guidance has been very cautionary. People, women who were pregnant were included in the advice for the clinically extremely vulnerable at the start. And the same precautionary approach has been applied to vaccination. And Professor van Tam may want to add to my comments in a moment, but I think we didn’t have any information specific to pregnant women at the start. We have now acquired that over time. And we think it is perfectly safe for women to have that. Mixed with pregnancy will be women who have specific underlying conditions. So if you are a pregnant woman with underlying conditions, then clearly you will be treated within that risk group, but for pregnant women, otherwise, who are otherwise fit and healthy, it’s entirely appropriate. JCVI have looked at the evidence to be called in with your own age group, but not to receive dose of a vaccine because most of the evidence is for other vaccination types at this time.
Matt Hancock: (20:00)
Okay. Thank you very much. Anything to add?
Professor van Tam: (20:04)
Nothing to add. Thank you.
Matt Hancock: (20:05)
Thanks very much. We’ll now go to Hugh Pym from the BBC. Hugh?
Hugh Pym: (20:11)
Thank you very much, secretary of state. At what point do you think you’ll have enough data on the spread of the Indian variant and the impact on hospital numbers to give a clearer picture on the next stage of the roadmap. And a question for you and your colleagues, what is your current assessment of how fast this new variant is spreading relative to the existing UK variants?
Matt Hancock: (20:35)
Thanks very much, Hugh. So I’ll start. I’ll answer part of the question and then pass on to Professor van Tam, to answer the rest. In terms of the roadmap, we’ve set out that we will take step four not before the 21st of June. And we will give a decision on that on the 14th of June using all the information that we have up until then.
Matt Hancock: (20:59)
Now clearly every day, we’re getting more information. We’re getting more information about how many people are in hospital, in the areas where there are hotspots of this new variant. And we’re getting more scientific information that the professor can take you through. So in terms of making those decisions, we’ll look every day at the data and we’ll make a final decision on whether we can go ahead with step four and we’ll make and publish that decision on the 14th of June. Until then, it is just too early to say. And all I can tell you is that we remain vigilant. And this data on the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations is published and updated every day. Professor?
Professor van Tam: (21:44)
Yep. Thanks, Hugh. All I can add really is that I think scientists are sure that this virus is more transmissible than the strain that it is beginning to replace, which is the old Kent B 1.117 strain. The million dollar question is how much more transmissible. And we don’t have that yet. We have a credible range that goes from a few percent more transmissible through to, and you’ve probably read the Sage papers, through to 50% more transmissible. I think most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle rather than at the extremes of that band, but it is just too early.
Professor van Tam: (22:34)
The best estimate I can give you really is that the data will begin to firm up sometime next week. And I think next week will be the first time when we have a ranging shot at what the transmissibility increase is. And that will then feed into models that will help us understand how this looks in terms of the future prospects, in terms of resurgent disease. And from there, ministers will be able to make further decisions. But what I can say in the meantime is that I pitch this personally as a straight race between the transmissibility of this new variant. That transmission is not inevitable. People can slow it down through cautious behavior. They can slow it down through using test, trace, and isolate. And that cautious behavior is very important where we know there are hotspots.
Professor van Tam: (23:40)
So on the one side, the race is transmissibility. The other competitor in the race is vaccine delivery and the NHS is doing everything it can to turbo boost that. And that is the challenge that’s ahead of us in the next two to three to four weeks, to make sure that we outrun the virus through really vigorous pull through on vaccine delivery. And that is why, when you are called, you must come forwards and help us finish the job.
Matt Hancock: (24:20)
Thanks very much, Hugh. Next question is from Emily Morgan at ITV. Emily?
Emily Morgan: (24:26)
Thank you very much. And you’re hoping to stop the spread of the variant with vaccinations and surge testing, but it is still spreading. So it appears that surge testing isn’t actually working with millions of people still not vaccinated. Aren’t you afraid that this will inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and deaths?
Matt Hancock: (24:47)
Well, not necessarily is the answer and that’s why we’ve taken the approach that we have because we saw surge testing work effectively in reducing the spread of the South African variant in South London. And if you remember, we discussed this about a month ago. We put in a huge amount of testing. About a quarter of a million tests were taken in South London in a very short space of time. And that did manage to stop the spread of that variant. And I’ll ask [inaudible 00:25:21] to explain the details of what we’re doing, not just now in Bolton and Blackburn, but more broadly where there are hotspots.
Matt Hancock: (25:28)
But we have seen this playbook work and we want to do that. The advantage we have now compared to say in the autumn, when the Kant variant first arrived is we just know so much more about it, so much faster because of this extraordinary surveillance capability. So we could spot the rise in cases very, very early. And it means that we can act in this way without having to take more drastic action, given that the overall picture when you take the nation as a whole is really quite positive.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (26:01)
Thank you, secretary. So yes, so I think-
Matt Hancock: (26:02)
… really quite positive.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (26:02)
Thank you, secretary of state. So yeah, so I think the original question was around vaccination. I would just like to highlight the point that’s been made in the really fast moving of this turbo charging to the vaccination program. So just in Bolton alone last weekend, 6,000 people were vaccinated. For a small area, I think this is down to the really hard work of our NHS colleagues, local authority, directors of public health, everybody working together to ensure that people come forward for their second dose, if they haven’t had their first one, to do that.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (26:32)
But in terms of what we’re doing, as the secretary of state has said, we are in a completely different place to where we were last year. Our genomics testing is probably the best in the world. We’re donating 30% to 40% of [inaudible 00:26:47] tests. So we’re showing the world what we’re doing, and actually giving other countries information about the variants, which are arising. And with that very precise testing, we can follow backwards, follow up chains of transmission, undertake very enhanced contact tracing. So people using [inaudible 00:27:05], going door to door, working in these areas to support individuals, increase the testing capacity.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (27:12)
So for example, bringing testing into schools again, so that we’re sure that people are able to do the test properly and support them to do that. And then supporting individuals with isolation. So there are flexibilities about financial support in many areas to allow people who might otherwise be worried about being able to afford to isolate, to be able to stay out of circulation and therefore decrease the transmission risk. So I think, although there are a lot of cases, we actually have evidence. So Sefton, for example, has done a brilliant job recently with a rise in cases of this variant. And actually, that has now plateaued and has started to come down again. So it is not a game lost at all. It’s very much one to fight and there are huge resources and huge amounts of effort, particularly from the public in all of these areas. And we should continue to do that.
Matt Hancock: (28:05)
I mean, just reflecting on to Dr. [Harries’ 00:33:14] answer and your question, I just had one thing, which is this is on all of us again. We are masters of our fate. By taking the tests in one of these areas, by coming forward and getting vaccinated, by behaving with caution. And we all know the things that we need to do, especially outside is safer than inside and wearing masks. We can get this under control, but again, it is for something for us to do as a community. And in particular, in the areas where we’re seeing the faster rise. JVT?
Professor van Tam: (28:44)
I just want to add and pick up on your comment that we’re hoping to stop the spread with vaccines. Yes, of course we are, but on their own, they will need support from people being cautious and from the test, trace, and isolate, I’ve said it many times at this podium. I’ve said it to probably countless patients that I’ve vaccinated with the first dose. Please remember, it’s going to take probably around 21 days for you to have some protection from your first dose of vaccine. Now, thankfully with the second dose, we would expect that enhanced protection from the second dose to kick in much quicker, but still with a delay and probably seven to 10 days delay. And that helps explain why it’s so important now that we push on and get as many second doses into people as possible.
Matt Hancock: (29:40)
Thanks very much indeed. Next question is from Cathy Newman at Channel Four. Cathy?
Cathy Newman: (29:45)
Secretary of state, you spoke about standing side by side with other nations in the world, but tonight we’re reporting on the Treasury’s insistence that any COVID related help that your department gives to countries like India has to come out of the UK government’s overall international aid budget. Would you like the chancellor to reconsider that?
Matt Hancock: (30:08)
Well, of course we’re helping other countries around the world, including India. And of course it counts as overseas development aid because it is. What I’m really pleased about is that we’ve been able to support India so much already. We were the first country to put in support and I’ve been talking to my Indian opposite number. We’ve engaged on what they need. We’ve engaged for instance, on the offer of PPE, but they have not asked for PPE. What they have asked for is support with oxygen. And so, we’ve sent in oxygen concentrators and machines that generate oxygen to be able to support their hospitals. And we’ve been able to do that within our aid budget and working with our colleagues right across the UK.
Matt Hancock: (30:58)
So we’ve been able to deliver support for India. But as I said, in my opening remarks, the biggest thing that the UK has done for the whole world, including India, is by generating, by developing, and deploying the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine at cost. It means that effectively we have supported the vaccination of over 400 million people, including over 170 million people in India. And so we can be very proud of the part that we’ve played in tackling this around the world. Harry [inaudible 00:31:34] at the Sun?
Cathy Newman: (31:36)
… budget? Aren’t you risking other international aid [inaudible 00:31:39]?
Matt Hancock: (31:38)
Sorry, Harry, was that you?
Cathy Newman: (31:42)
Sorry. I was just asking you a quick follow-up, if I may. So we’re taking these oxygen generators out of the overall aid budget, aren’t you then risking cuts to other international aid projects?
Matt Hancock: (31:54)
Oh, no. We have a very generous aid budget overall, north 0.5% of our GDP. And I think this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be deploying in terms of aid, helping other countries around the world. But obviously it is aid. I mean, that’s just by definition. if you send aid to another country, it counts within the overseas development assistance budget as it’s technically called. Thanks. Harry?
Thank you, secretary of state. Earlier in the week, a minister said that we could go to amber list countries to visit friends, but today the prime minister says we need an extreme reason to go to an amber list country. Can you give us an example or two if possible of what an extreme reason would be? And is it a regret to you that these mixed messages have once again dominated a week? And are you going to apologize to holiday makers who once again find themselves facing a summer of chaos when the list could have been explained a little bit better, frankly? And a question for whoever can answer it really, whoever’s best qualified to answer it. Secretary of state mentioned that there are 25 COVID patients now in Bolton Hospital. By my math, that’s up six from 19 last week. Is that rate of increase a cause for concern or is it actually better than feared?
Matt Hancock: (33:11)
Okay, thanks very much. I’ll ask Dr. Harries to answer the second question. On the first question, we’ve been absolutely straightforward about this. And the thing is I think that the public get it and understand. If you look at what the prime minister said last week, what I said at the weekend, what I said in the House on Monday, what the prime minister said at lunchtime today, we’ve been absolutely crystal clear that you should not go to an amber or red list country on holiday. You should only go in exceptional circumstances.
Matt Hancock: (33:43)
You asked for examples. An example might be to visit a very ill family member or to go to a funeral of somebody who is very close to you. There are two reasonable examples. And I think we have been really clear through this pandemic that there are some things that we have banned in law, but there are some things that we do not recommend. But you don’t necessarily have to ban everything. As a government minister, if you don’t advise it and you think that it isn’t the right thing to do, you don’t necessarily ban it. There are many examples of that. But what we do know is that the public have been brilliant at exercising the personal responsibility that we are seeking. And so, I would advise all Sun readers to listen to the prime minister, to follow the government advice, which is on the government website. To book a holiday. If you want a holiday abroad, that’s what the green list is for. Or like me, to holiday at home. Jenny?
Dr. Jenny Harries: (34:50)
Thank you. So on the second question about hospital numbers. And obviously it’s not just Bolton, it’s every area where we’re seeing variance across the country. We’re looking continuously to see if we are getting increased hospital admissions and if there are any fatalities for that, associated with it. And as a Professor van Tam has said earlier, actually, we are not seeing that at the moment. And the change in numbers that you’ve described is really too small. We’re seeing a fairly flat level of admissions. We have cases, and we expect people to come in and out of hospital. We’re not seeing sharp rises at the moment, but clearly we will continue to monitor that.
Dr. Jenny Harries: (35:27)
The only other thing I would just add as well is in interpreting some of these numbers, we have continued to learn right through the pandemic and the NHS now offers pulse oximetry out to patients. So we might find that patients are in the community more than they’re in hospital or vice versa. So I think we need to take an overall consideration, which is what we do on a very regular basis.
Matt Hancock: (35:51)
Thanks very much. Have any followups, Harry? I can see you-
Yes, please. With all due respect, sir, you haven’t been crystal clear, have you? Because on Monday, George Eustace was saying that it was okay to visit friends in amber list countries. He was wrong, wasn’t he? The example you’ve given isn’t to visit friends, it’s to visit very sick relatives. Why these mixed messages?
Matt Hancock: (36:10)
Well, I thought this subject might come up. So I took the trouble to look at what we said when we announced the travel policy ahead of the 17th of May. Well, the transport secretary said, to look at what the prime minister said last week, to look back at what I said at the weekend, to check the record of what I said in the House on Monday, to look at what the prime minister said at lunchtime today, in case this question came up. And you’ll be glad to know that all of those statements were completely consistent and consistent with the advice on the gov.uk website. And that is that if you go to an amber list country, when you come back, you have to go through the testing regime with three tests. You have to quarantine. And I can tell you that we have in the last week done 30,000 home visits to check that people are quarantining and you should only go to a red list country or an amber list country if you have exceptional circumstances.
Matt Hancock: (37:16)
The purpose of the green list is that we’ve looked around the world at the countries where we think that it is safe to travel both from a point of view of having no or very, very low variance of concern and a low case rate, just as we have here in the UK. That green list is that for people who want to have foreign travel. And for instance, for a holiday. The amber list is not for holidays. And the red list is not for holidays either. That’s the policy. We’ve been very clear and consistent in terms of the language that the prime minister and the transport secretary and I’ve used. And it’s all been on the gov.uk website. And I’m sure that some readers have got that from the start, because we’ve also seen actually… We’ve seen the public get it, and many, many members of the public I know we’re looking forward to an extremely good holiday in the UK this summer. Thanks, Harry. Next question is from Heather Stewart at the Guardian.
Heather Stewart: (38:21)
Hello, secretary of state. The Indian variant appears to have been able to take hold and spread rapidly, despite two-thirds of adults having received at least one dose of the vaccine. Given the concerns about other variants emerging, would it be prudent to wait until all adults have at least some protection before removing what you called the shield of restrictions, such as masks and distancing rules, rather than sticking to the 21st of June dates in the roadmap. And just for Professor van Tam, you talked about cautious behavior being very important in those new hotspots, Lester and Bedford, and so on. I wonder whether you’d advise people against taking advantage of some of the new freedoms that have been allowed this week. So just meeting up in parks and restaurants, and would it be unwise for people from outside to travel to these areas to visit family and friends?
Heather Stewart: (39:02)
From outside to travel to these areas to visit family and friends.
Matt Hancock: (39:04)
Thanks very much, Heather. Two excellent questions. All I’ll say before handing over to Professor Van-Tam on the roadmap is we’ll set out a decision on the 14th of June looking at all this data. We are seeing the vast majority of cases, both of the existing variant and of the B1617.2 variant amongst younger groups and un-vaccinated people. On the one hand, that is actually a good sign because it implies that the vaccine is working effectively, but obviously we don’t want to see a huge increase in the number of cases anywhere. We have said all along that we expect some increase in cases, and of course younger people who are much more likely to be those yet to be vaccinated are much less effected in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, and that core fact about this virus underpins the strategy and the roadmap that we’ve set out. Jay, over to you.
Professor van Tam: (40:06)
Yes, thanks very much for the question. Look, the areas that have been mentioned today in the press briefing, including [Bolton 00:40:14], are absolutely areas of concern for now. And I would advise the residents in those areas to think very carefully about the freedoms they have, weight uo the risks and be very cautious. If it is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside. If it is possible to do something with smaller numbers, with people you know rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that. Take it steady. I think I’ve said don’t tear the pants out of it once before from this similar podium. But frankly, we’re back to that again now. The government has given people freedoms to start to make these judgments for themselves, and I understand that we can’t live for years and years on end with rules. People will have to learn to manage these risks from COVID for themselves because this is not going to go away in the short-term, the medium-term and probably the long-term. But you have to be cautious, you have to weigh it up really carefully.
Professor van Tam: (41:26)
And if you don’t feel well, you need to absolutely get a test. If you’re offered a test as part of the surge testing, you need to have it. You need to follow the rules on isolation, and when you get the call for the vaccine, whether it’s your first dose or your second, remember this is a race against the transmissibility of the virus. Don’t delay; take up the offer, come forward immediately.
Matt Hancock: (41:54)
Thanks very much indeed. Is that okay, Heather? Very good. Final question is from Andy Woodcock at The Independent. Andy.
Hugh Pym: (42:05)
Chris, thanks. The European Council has decided today that it’s going to recommend that anyone who’s been fully and properly vaccinated can come to the EU this summer. There’ll be a lot of people in the UK who’ve had their two jabs. They’ll think I’ve been vaccinated. I’m safe. I can have travel to the EU and go to France or Spain, but I can’t come back because if I do then I’ll have to go into quarantine, as things stand. Why is it that people that have been properly vaccinated aren’t exempted from the traffic light system? And if I could ask the medical experts if somebody has been fully vaccinated, what sort of risk do they actually present to people if they go abroad? Is the decision by the European Union to allow vaccinated people in a rational decision to take at this stage?
Matt Hancock: (42:54)
Thanks very much, Andy. Well, the thing is that most areas of Europe, most countries in Europe have a higher rate of the virus than we do, some significantly. And there is also a much more significant presence of the so-called South African variant of concern in mainland Europe. And that’s why we’ve chosen to put only Portugal out of mainland Europe on the green list. And, for instance, on the latest data, the proportion of the South African variant in France was around 5% and hence we’ve kept it on the amber list. We take these decisions in order to protect the recovery at home, and so of course it’s a matter for the EU what their international travel rules are, and largely it’s a matter for individual countries within the EU.
Matt Hancock: (43:48)
I’ve seen the proposals. It’s not a final decision, I understand. I’ve seen the proposals from the EU, and obviously I talk to my EU counterparts all the time so we will work with them. In the long-term, we need to find a way to have safe international travel, but right now, with our levels of vaccination really good but not yet there, we are, I think, wise to take a cautious approach to international travel. Anything to add?
Professor van Tam: (44:20)
Yes. Thanks for the question. It is a good question. Vaccine effectiveness is not 100%. We know that from the clinical trials. And we know that vaccine protection is going to vary by individuals. It’s probably going to vary by age. There are some data that suggest that protection is not quite as good in people who have a suppressed immune system. And it is possible that we will see some signals in the future that vaccines don’t work quite as well in people who have a range of chronic illnesses. In other words, it’s very personalized how well the vaccine is going to work for you personally. On top of that, we can’t solve this by just measuring your antibodies because T-cell immunity is far less measurable and is much more difficult to do and that’s another component of the degree of protection you’re going to get.
Professor van Tam: (45:26)
And then I think we can be very clear that when or if a vaccine fails to give you the maximum amount of protection that you were hoping for, and what it says on the tin, as it were, then the things that are going to go first are the vaccine’s ability to protect you from infection and to stop you from transmitting it to others. The things that will go last are the vaccine’s ability to stop you getting into hospital having severe disease and dying. They’re the bits that we think are generally the strongest, even with a weaker vaccine. From that perspective, the bit that fails first if a vaccine’s not 100% is its ability to stop you getting infection and transmitting to others, even if it would still keep you out of hospital and stop you from dying of COVID. That’s a tricky nuance in terms of the argument that just because you’ve had vaccines it’s entirely safe to go aborad. Everything is relative. And the other bit of relativity is whether when you go abroad jumping into a pond with one shark in it or jumping into a pond with 100 sharks in it, it changes the likelihood that you’re going to get bitten. And the disease levels in these different countries that are potential destinations are all very different. And as we’ve just laid out, some of them still have quite high levels of disease activity compared to the UK. I think it’s a fair ambition, I think it’s a good aspiration, but I think we have to move very cautiously and find our way forwards carefully on this.
Matt Hancock: (47:18)
Well, there you are. Professor Van-Tam’s theory of relativity. Anything to add, Dr. Harris?
Dr. Jenny Harries: (47:23)
Just to say that the variant that we’re looking at now, the B1617.2, we think has been detected in 48 countries to date, 44 of those confirmed on GISAID, which is the international library, if you like. And it just goes to show how many different variants are out there. And we’ve just had a conversation about understanding the vaccine effectiveness against that variant and waiting for the information. I think we still have a lot to learn, but as Professor Van-Tam said, good aspiration ambition.
Matt Hancock: (47:54)
Thanks very much indeed. That concludes today’s Coronavirus briefing from here in Downing Street. Thank you.