LiveLIVE: Matt Hancock holds Downing Street coronavirus press conference

Matt Hancock will outline the latest developments in the fight against coronavirus in a press conference today.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 4:26 pm
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock will speak live from Downing Street this afternoon, Wednesday, May 19.

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He will be joined by deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam and Dr Jenny Harries from the UK Health Security Agency at around 5pm.

Scroll down to follow our live blog for all the latest updates.

Matt Hancock Downing Street Covid press conference

Last updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2021, 18:34

The press conference has now ended.

The Health Secretary says as many as 30,000 door-to-door inspections have taken place in the past week to ensure people are following quarantine rules after foreign travel.

Matt Hancock says all Government advice has been “completely consistent” on travelling to a country on its “amber list”, stating: “If you go to an amber list country, when you come back you have to go through the testing regime – three tests – (and) you have to quarantine.

“I can tell you that in the last week we’ve done 30,000 home visits to check people are quarantining and you should only go to a red list country or an amber list country if you have exceptional circumstances.

“The purpose of the green list is that we have looked around the world at the countries where we think it is safe to travel, both from a point of view of having no or very low variants of concern and a low case rate, just as we have here in the UK.”

Van-Tam compares the risk of holidaying in countries with higher levels of coronavirus even after vaccination to jumping into different levels of shark-infested ponds.

“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, 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,” he adds.

“The things that will go last are the vaccine’s ability to stop you getting into hospital from severe disease and dying – they’re the bits we think are generally the strongest even with a weaker vaccine.

“So, that’s a tricky nuance in terms of the argument that just because you’ve had vaccines it’s entirely safe to go abroad.

“Everything is relative and the other bit of relativity is whether you’re, 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.

“The disease levels in these different countries that are potential destinations are all very different, and some of them still have quite levels of disease activity compared to the UK.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam warns the level of protection vaccines offer will vary from person to person.

“Vaccine effectiveness is not 100%, we know that from the clinical trials, and we know that vaccine protection is going to vary by individuals,” he says.

“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.

“So, in other words, it’s very personalised in how well the vaccine is going to work for you.

“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.”

Mr Hancock says visiting an ill family member or attending a funeral of someone close to you are two justifications for travelling to a country on the Government’s “amber list”, but stresses they are not destinations suitable for a foreign holiday.

He says ministers have been “absolutely straightforward about this” and denies there have been mixed messaging about where Britons can travel for holidays.

“We have 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,” said the Health Secretary, before giving the examples of the aforementioned justifications.

“I think we have been really clear throughout this pandemic that there are some things 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 it isn’t the right thing to do, you don’t necessarily ban it – there are many examples of that.

“What we do know is that the public have been brilliant at exercising the personal responsibility that we are seeking.”

He recommends people book a holiday in a destination featured on the “green list” if they want to go abroad, or else follow his example in holidaying in the UK this summer.

The Health Secretary defends the Government’s cautious approach to international travel restrictions as being due to a “higher rate of the virus” in mainland Europe and the vaccination programme needing to progress further before holidaying abroad is safe.

“Most areas of 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,” he says.

“On the latest data, a proportion of the South African variant in France was around five per cent, and hence we’ve kept it on the amber list.

“I’ve seen the proposals from the EU and I work with 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.”

Mr Hancock says the vast majority of coronavirus cases are in younger and unvaccinated people.

“We are seeing the vast majority of cases, both of the existing variant and of the B1617.2 variant, amongst younger groups and unvaccinated people,” he says.

“On the one hand hand that is actually a good sign as it implies the vaccine is working effectively, but obviously we don’t want to see a huge increase in the number of cases everywhere.

“We have said all along that we expect some increase in cases, of course, younger people, who are much more likely to be those yet to be vaccinated, are much less affected in terms of hospitalisations and deaths, and that core fact about this virus underpins the strategy and road map we have set out.”

Matt Hancock says it is up to the public to prevent the Indian variant from blocking the country’s progress against coronavirus.

The Health Secretary says: “This is on all of us again.

“We are masters of our fate.

“By taking the test in one of these areas (where there is surge testing), by coming forward and getting vaccinated, by behaving with caution – and we all know the things we need to do, especially outside is safer than inside, wearing masks – we can get this under control.

“But, again, it is something for us to do as a community, and in particular in the areas where we are seeing a faster rise.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam advises people in Covid hotspots to “think carefully” about using the new freedoms they have this week.

Asked if he would advise people in areas such as Bolton with high coronavirus rates against taking advantage of new freedoms, he says: “I would advise the residents in those areas to think very carefully about the freedoms they have, weigh up the risks and be very cautious.

“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.

“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, medium term and probably the long term.”

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, says the battle against the Indian variant is “not a game lost”.

“We are in a completely different place to where we were last year – our genomics testing is probably the best in the world,” she says.

“With that precise testing, we can follow up chains of transmission and undertake very enhanced contact tracing, so people are using shoe leather to go door-to-door, working in these areas to support individuals.”

She adds that people are being financially supported to help them to self-isolate where necessary.

“It is not a game lost at all, it is very much one to fight and there are high resources and a huge amount of effort, particularly from the public, in all of these areas, and we should continue to do that,” Dr Harries says.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on people to “keep getting your jab” as 70% of UK adults have now had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

He said in a tweet: “Seven in 10 adults in the UK have now had the first dose of the vaccine.

“It’s a monumental achievement and my thanks go to all the healthcare workers, Armed Forces personnel and volunteers who have made this incredible rollout possible.

“Please keep getting your jab when called.”

The Health Secretary says almost 14,000 vaccinations have been given in Bolton and Blackburn since Friday and more than 26,000 have been given in the past week – the highest weekly total in the two areas.

He says the surge testing “playbook” being used in the North West areas has worked in south London when tackling the South African variant.

The Cabinet minister said monitoring travel patterns and analysis of waste water in 70% of the country had helped identify where variants are and also where they are at risk of spreading to.

“We can spot the virus and variants in the water, and that can help us identify communities where there is spread,” he added, with new surge testing taking place as a result in places such as Bedford and Burnley.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam describes fighting the spread of the Indian variant of coronavirus as a “straight race” between the transmissibility of the virus and the vaccine rollout.

“I pitch this personally as a straight race between the transmissibility of this new variant… and vaccine delivery,” he says.

“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.”

Scientists will know more about the transmissibility of the new Indian variant by next week, says deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam.

“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.117 strain,” he says.

“The million dollar question is how much more transmissible – we don’t have that yet.

“We have a credible range that goes from a few percent more transmissible through to 50% more transmissible – I think most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle… but it is just too early.

“The best estimate that I can give you is that the data will begin to firm up some time 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.”

He adds the transmission of the new variant is “not inevitable” and it can be slowed down through “cautious behaviour”.

Seven out of ten adults in UK have now had first virus.

Almost four in ten have received two doses.

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