Apr 1, 2020
United Kingdom COVID-19 Briefing Transcript April 1
Alok Sharma: (00:00)
Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us for the daily briefing on our fight against coronavirus. I’m joined today by Dr. Yvonne Doyle, who is the medical director of Public Health England. Before Yvonne provides an update on the latest data from our COBRA coronavirus fact file, I’d like to update you on the steps that we are taking to defeat this pandemic.
Alok Sharma: (00:24)
Our step-by-step action plan is aiming to slow the spread of the virus so fewer people need hospital treatment at any one time, protecting the ability of the NHS to cope. Throughout our response to coronavirus, we have been following the scientific and medical advice. We have been deliberate in our actions, taking the right steps at the right time. We’re also taking unprecedented action to increase NHS capacity by dramatically expanding the number of beds, key staff, and lifesaving equipment on the front line, provide the care when people need it most.
Alok Sharma: (01:05)
The daily figures showed that a total of 152,979 people in the UK have now been tested for coronavirus. Of those, 29,474 have tested positive. The number of people admitted to hospital in England with coronavirus symptoms is now 10,767, whilst 3,915 of those are in London and 1,918 in the Midlands.
Alok Sharma: (01:39)
Of those hospitalized in the UK, sadly, 2,352 have died. This is an increase of 563 fatalities since yesterday. The youngest of them was just 13 years old. All our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives. This is more tragic evidence that this virus does not discriminate.
Alok Sharma: (02:10)
The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest threat our country has faced in decades, and we’re not alone. All over the world, we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. We recognize the extreme disruption, the necessary actions we are asking people to take, are having on their lives, their businesses, jobs, and the nation’s economy. I want to thank everyone across our whole country for the huge effort that is being made collectively in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. To the frontline workers treating and caring for patients, the people delivering supplies to their neighbors, and the millions staying at home, thank you. You are protecting the NHS and saving lives.
Alok Sharma: (03:00)
I want to thank businesses too. Through your support for your workers and your communities, and through your willingness to support our health service, you are making a real difference, whether it’s INEOS building a new hand sanitizer plant near Middlesbrough in just 10 days, or UCL engineers working with Mercedes Formula One to build new continuous positive airway pressure machines which help patients to breathe more easily, or broadband providers giving their customers unlimited data to stay connected, or indeed, London’s ExCel Center being converted into the NHS Nightingale hospital with space for 4,000 patients. These are just a few of the examples of businesses from across our great nation supporting lifesaving work.
Alok Sharma: (03:51)
There are also thousands of businesses, large and small, which have worked with staff to ensure that they’re supported in the days and weeks ahead, whether that is through ensuring PHE guidelines are followed on site, implementing furlough schemes, carrying over annual leave, or providing the means to work from home. I want to convey my heartfelt thanks to all of those businesses, up and down the country, which are working to keep our economy going, so that when this crisis passes, and it will, we are ready to bounce back.
Alok Sharma: (04:27)
Our businesses are doing all they can to support our people, and I want to make it clear that government, in turn, will do all it can to support our businesses. We have already taken unprecedented action to support businesses, safeguard jobs, and protect the economy. From today, businesses will start benefiting from 22 billion pounds in the form of business rates relief and grants of up to 25,000 pounds which are being paid into the bank accounts of the smallest high street firms.
Alok Sharma: (05:03)
On Saturday, I said that we had provided funds to councils in England for grants to small businesses. As of today, these local authorities have received more than 12 billion pounds. This afternoon, I held a call with hundreds of local authorities across England and made clear that this money must reach businesses as quickly as possible, and I know that businesses across England have already started to receive these grants.
Alok Sharma: (05:33)
We know high street banks are working really hard to support the UK through this period, including through mortgage holidays and increased credit facilities. Loans for businesses are also being issued through the COVID Business Interruption Loan Scheme since it came into operation last week. The Chancellor, together with Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority, wrote to the chief executives of the UK banks to urge them to make sure that the benefits of the Loan Scheme are passed through to businesses and consumers. It would be completely unacceptable if any banks were unfairly refusing funds to good businesses in financial difficulty.
Alok Sharma: (06:19)
Just as the taxpayer stepped in to help the banks back in 2008, we will work with the banks to do everything they can to repay that favor and support the businesses and people of the United Kingdom in their time of need.
Alok Sharma: (06:36)
Of course, this is a brand-new scheme and, as with all new schemes, it will not be perfect from the outset. We are listening all the time. And in response to concerns that we’ve heard from businesses, we are looking at ways in which we can ensure they get the support they need. The chancellor will be saying more on this in the coming days. .
Alok Sharma: (06:59)
It is crucial that when we overcome this crisis, as in time we will, that businesses are in a good position to move forward. Times are tough, and we have harder times ahead of us. But I know that together, we will pull through.
Alok Sharma: (07:20)
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (07:21)
Thank you, Secretary of State. I would like to present you with some slides just to give you an update on what is happening across the country and also with the health system. Could I have slide one, please? This shows a slightly concerning trend because we have seen an uptick in motor vehicle traffic. The message here really is people do need to stay at home. Most are doing the right thing, as you can see from the rapid decline in public transport use. Everyone needs to do that. The message here is we need to save lives and to protect the NHS, so please stay at home.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (08:04)
Could I have slide two, please? This shows the number of new UK cases as of today. It is slightly concerning. It’s still too early to say whether the plateau of hospital admissions has ended, but we’ve now seen three days of increases in a row. Again, we need to protect the NHS, and the best way to do that is to stay at home, to avoid catching the disease yourself, and obviously avoid giving it to anyone else. That is the way that the NHS can continue to protect us.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (08:43)
Could I have slide three, please? This slide shows the England hospital admissions. I think a lot of reporting has been about London, and you can see why on this slide. That’s where coronavirus is most advanced. But the chart shows that the threat is everywhere. We need to protect the NHS everywhere. The Midlands now is obviously a concern as well.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (09:12)
Slide four, please. This is what it’s all about. It is about saving lives. This slide shows the global death comparisons. We need to save lives. As things stand, it has not been as severe here as in France, and we’re just tucked in under the USA, and obviously, Italy on a different trajectory, and Spain and United States, as we said. But there is no reason to be complacent. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. Thank you.
Alok Sharma: (09:47)
Thank you, Yvonne. I think we’ll now move to the Q&A. The first question is from the BBC, Laura Kuenssberg. Laura?
Laura Kuenssberg: (09:54)
Thank you very much, Secretary of State. The peak of this disease seems to be coming earlier than the government expected, but you are missing the testing targets. There’s a huge amount of evidence of staff not having the equipment they desperately need. There are not enough ventilators. Do you accept now that the approach and the response from government has just been too slow?
Alok Sharma: (10:16)
Laura, thank you very much for that question. Can I just make it absolutely clear, and the prime minister has been very clear about this as well, is that increasing testing capacity is absolutely the government’s top priority. We’re now at 10,000 tests a day. We’re rolling out additional networks of labs and testing sites. In terms of PHE, over the last two weeks, 390 million products have been distributed. Of course, we will continue to do more and work to make sure that PHE is available. As you know, there is a hotline which is available, 24-hour hotline, for NHS staff as well.
Alok Sharma: (10:49)
But Yvonne, if you wanted to comment on this, please?
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (10:52)
Thank you, Secretary of State. Laura, there is positive news about this. The NHS and PHE committed to make 10,000 tests a day available. We have met that target by the end of March, early April, and we have some more capacity. Our commitment is actually to go to 25,000 tests a day, and we are confident, with our industry partners, that we will achieve that. That means patients are getting the tests they need, but there is also some spare capacity in that for testing the most urgent healthcare workers. Alongside that, as the Secretary of State has said, there is a second front opening and is already testing a couple of thousand healthcare workers in order of priority. So we are definitely increasing our testing capacity.
Alok Sharma: (11:45)
Thank you, Laura. Next question is from Sky, Beth Rigby. Beth?
Beth Rigby: (11:50)
Thank you. A question first for Yvonne Doyle. Can you give us the number and proportion of frontline NHS staff who’ve been tested for coronavirus? You said 2,000. Is that out of half a million frontline NHS workers. And how are you intending to scale that up?
Beth Rigby: (12:07)
And if I may, to the Secretary of State, the prime minister said nearly two weeks ago he wanted to get to quarter of a million tests a day. That was the virus and antibody tests. Latest daily figure is 10,412 tests. Why is it taking so long for reality to match the rhetoric? And will you give a clear timeframe as to when you will deliver on the prime minister’s promise? Thank you.
Alok Sharma: (12:31)
Well, Yvonne, could I ask you to take that first?
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (12:31)
Thank you, Secretary of State.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (12:33)
Beth, the number of tests undertaken in the NHS-Public Health England combined testing capacity is just increasing at the moment, so that would be a relatively small number. But there is capacity, for example, today for almost 3,000, and that will increase as we get to 25,000, to that capacity.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (12:55)
The important capacity is in the second strand, where we will have five centers where people can drive through and get their testing done in order of priority. NHS chief executives are identifying that priority. The intention here is to get from thousands to hundreds of thousands within the coming weeks. We are very committed to our NHS frontline staff. Thank you.
Alok Sharma: (13:20)
Yvonne, thank you for that.
Alok Sharma: (13:21)
I think, Beth, Yvonne has explained the details in terms of ramping up testing. You made particular reference to the antibody tests. What I can say on that is, of course, we are urgently evaluating that test, and it is an absolute priority. And of course, this is about making sure that people who have the test can find out whether they’ve had the virus and are now immune to it. The chief scientific officer has said that the accuracy of this test is incredibly important, so it’s also important that we get this right before we launch the test itself.
Alok Sharma: (13:55)
Thank you for that.
Alok Sharma: (13:56)
The next question is from ITV, Robert Peston. Robert?
Robert Peston: (14:01)
Hello. Good afternoon. Largely a question, I think, for Yvonne Doyle. Yvonne, I reported this afternoon that a million antibody tests are arriving from China in the coming few days. They have been paid for by the government. The government has said it won’t pay for anything that it doesn’t think works. But I am told that PHE, Public Health England, is dragging its feet in giving its approval to the use of these tests. I’m also told that these tests would be an alternative to PCR and would actually detect active virus, for example, in frontline staff. When will they be in hospitals for use?
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (14:43)
Thank you, Robert. The important thing about these antibody tests… This is not a matter of dragging our feet. It’s important that the test is valid, that it does what it says it does. As the chief medical officer said, something worse than no test is a wrong test or a bad test. That is what is being tested at the moment.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (15:02)
In the meantime, there is a separate strand which is very important, which is called zero prevalence, where our own labs are testing the validity of whether the blood samples we’re getting very generously from people who’ve had the disease, but also from Blood and Transplant and from the College of GP’s surveillance scheme, whether those tests are also valid, and we are very pleased about that. So I would say, Robert, as soon as we can, we want to be out there doing these tests.
Alok Sharma: (15:33)
Thank you. Thank you, Robert. Thank you, Yvonne.
Alok Sharma: (15:36)
The next question is from the Evening Standard, from Joe Murphy. Joe?
Robert Peston: (15:41)
Hello. May I ask Yvonne Doyle, if 2,000 NHS staff have been tested so far and 125,000 are self-isolating, or thereabout, that’s, by my reckoning, 1.6%, can I pin you to a target for the improvement that you promised in the previous answer? What, for example, will that number look like in one week from today? And do you think people are getting complacent about the measures that have been put in?
Robert Peston: (16:09)
And Mr. Sharma, I think a lot of us feel that we haven’t yet been given a full and practical explanation of why Germany is able to test many times more than the UK. Do they have more labs, more equipment? Are they making better use of universities or the private sector than us, and if so, why? Or are they using a different, perhaps a quicker test? And what are the reagents that we’re struggling to get? We’re looking to work out, is this a capacity issue for Germany versus the UK, or is it a political choice that’s made to test fewer people?
Alok Sharma: (16:42)
Yvonne, I’m wondering whether you might take that first.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (16:46)
I presume you’re talking about the healthcare worker frontline testing. The intention there, as I say, is to go from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. That will have to go on the basis of the priority that is identified as to which of these workers are actually needed… When I say workers, they’re really staff or colleagues… are needed in which settings, particularly where the sickest patients are, and they will be tested first. That is the intention over the coming weeks.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (17:15)
While I’m speaking, do you wish me to speak about the reagents?
Alok Sharma: (17:17)
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (17:18)
Just about the reagents, so the reagents are generally produced by the manufacturers of the machines, and so the reagents that work best are those that work with the machines that they’re intended for. That’s the most efficient. We are working with the industry to ensure that that supply is good and that the machinery is most efficient. But as the head of the industry has said, there is a global market in this, but they are committed to working with the UK government and with us to ensure that we get those tests through as quickly. And there is complimentary work going on to ensure that we can supplement that if needed, and that is very exciting for the future.
Alok Sharma: (18:01)
Joe, I think you made reference to Germany. We, of course, look to see where we can learn throughout this process. Of course, we are working with industry, we’re working with the scientific community to make sure that we have maximum possible supplies.
Alok Sharma: (18:14)
But I just go back to the point that Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, made some days ago when she said we are looking to create a lab-based testing on a scale which is comparable to building a medical equivalent of a car factory. We are trying to do something at huge scale very fast, but I think as you’ve heard from Yvonne, we are making progress, we will continue to make progress, and we are determined to make sure that we have the supplies and provide the support that we can for people across the UK, and particularly the most vulnerable and those key workers in the NHS.
Alok Sharma: (18:53)
Thank you very much for that, Joe.
Alok Sharma: (18:54)
The next question is from Financial Times, from Laura Hughes. Laura?
Laura Hughes: (18:59)
Good afternoon. Can I ask, what is the government’s exit strategy for getting us out of this lockdown, and what role will testing play in that? Jeremy Hunt has called for mass community testing. Is it too late for that, or is that the government’s policy and one that we’ll see being carried out over the next few weeks and months?
Alok Sharma: (19:20)
Yeah. Well, thank you for that, Laura. Let me just say a few words before I pass on to Yvonne on this. Of course, people understand across the country why we have put these restrictions in place, and the prime minister was very clear they were for an initial three-week period and we would review them. But what’s also really important is that if we stop these too quickly, there is a possibility that that effort that people have made, that massive effort people have made across the country, is wasted, and we could potentially see a dangerous second peak. We absolutely want to avoid that.
Alok Sharma: (19:59)
But I think it may be helpful, Yvonne, if you want to amplify on this particular point.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (19:59)
Thank you, Secretary of State. The prime minister has committed to taking review of this after Easter, and I think it’s important to say that we are looking at this through the scientific lens, as well through modeling and through the information we’re getting from clinical cases, as to how this epidemic is progressing. We will be guided by that, Laura. We obviously wanted to make the right call at the right time on this, and it is something that we have to keep reviewing every week. Certainly, we’re very close to SAGE and the modeling on that.
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (20:31)
But in terms of the mass testing, which is your other point here, the testing strategy is to increase the amount of testing done, not just in healthcare workers but in the population. But the rate-limiting step there is not us. It’s really whether the tests are valid, and then to get that out and about, and aided by technology. I think that will change as the phases of this epidemic change. We will perhaps use different techniques. In the beginning, at the containment phase, this was very professional people dependent in the community. We obviously would want this to go faster as we come to a different phase of the epidemic.
Alok Sharma: (21:16)
Thank you for that, Yvonne.
Alok Sharma: (21:17)
We have one final question, which is from BuzzFeed, from Emily Ashton. Emily?
Emily Ashton: (21:22)
Alok Sharma: (21:23)
Emily Ashton: (21:23)
This is a question for both of you, I think. NHS frontline workers across the country are showing extraordinary courage in showing up at hospitals day after day in horrific circumstances. You may have seen today a joint statement from trade unions saying the lack of personal protective equipment has become a crisis within a crisis. Workers are being put at unnecessary risk, and also going into work not knowing whether they have been infected by this virus or not, and maybe wondering why we weren’t preparing for testing much earlier. The government keeps offering them warm words, and we’ve heard more of those this evening, but do you accept that you are putting those workers into a dangerous situation and really need to act urgently to keep them safe?
Alok Sharma: (22:07)
Emily, thank you for that. You’re absolutely right. I pay tribute to the amazing work that NHS staff in the front line across the whole of the NHS and across the public service are doing at this time to support us and support the population.
Alok Sharma: (22:22)
Specifically on the point of PPE, I think as I said in response to an earlier question, over the past two weeks, we have delivered over 390 million PPE products. We have ensured that these are being delivered to every GP practice, to dentists, community pharmacies. There is also now a 24-hour NHS-run hotline where NHS and social care workers can call and request that PPE if it’s needed. Of course, we will continue to do as much as we can, more, to get more of this equipment to the front line, because at the end of the day, you are absolutely right, this is about helping and supporting those who are making a difference in helping and supporting our population.
Alok Sharma: (23:04)
Dr. Yvonne Doyle: (23:05)
Thank you, Secretary of State. Emily, it is absolutely our commitment to protect frontline staff, and we are in touch with a wide range of leaders, clinical leaders, nursing leaders, community leaders, and the trade unions, and they are aware of our intention. We are working very rapidly at the moment to ensure that the deliveries reach where they’re needed, and good stocktaking on that, and also that our guidance is easily understood and people understand what they actually need to keep them safe in the circumstances they’re in.
Alok Sharma: (23:39)
Great. Well, thank you very much. I think that was our last question. Could I just end by saying, is that we do request that everybody follows the government guidelines. Ultimately, this is about staying at home, protecting the NHS, and saving the lives, and we will get through this working together. Thank you.