When we entered lockdown just over two months ago we faced an aggressive, unseen and unknown enemy. Since my last column we have reached several significant milestones in our efforts to defeat it. Firstly, our testing capacity has enabled us to open testing to anyone in the UK over five years of age with symptoms (including the newly confirmed symptom of loss of smell and taste). Keyworkers will continue to be regularly screened for the virus even if they do not have symptoms. This mass testing capability will help Britain get back on its feet.
Antibody test trials, to create a test which reveals who has already had the virus, have had success with scientists at Porton Down confirming we now have an antibody test shown to be exceedingly accurate. The test started to be rolled out across the UK this week for NHS and care workers. The data from the test results are invaluable; they will inform us how many people have been infected and are key to unlocking the puzzle of COVID-19 until we have a vaccine. This test will provide great peace of mind for many.
On the vaccine, last month we launched a new taskforce to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine bringing together the efforts of government, academia and industry towards a single goal. We have a promising vaccine trial progressing at pace at the University of Oxford, and last week the Government provided an additional £84 million to ensure that if currently clinical trials are successful, we will have dosages to start vaccinating the UK population immediately.
All of these efforts will not only defeat the virus but enable our lives can return to some form of normality as soon as possible. Part of this return is re-opening schools on Monday. As a parent, and the daughter of teachers, I understand the anxieties teachers, parents and pupils will be experiencing, but also how vital it is that our children receive the education they need.
Medical and scientific advice (the SAGE group) says June 1st is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased manner. The experts say there is virtually no risk to children or teachers and indeed, that is the experience of countries who have kept their schools open. The World Health Organisation Chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has said children are at “very low risk” of getting ill from the disease and children are “less capable” of spreading the disease.
School life will undoubtedly be different, and that will take some time for everybody to get used to it. Although there are logistical challenges, the guidance set out to schools will introduce ‘bubbles’ of 15 pupils, or teams or extended families, if you like, and a teacher. Breaks and lunchtimes will be staggered, but ‘bubbles will stay together, mix within the ‘bubble’ but not meet others. The idea is minimising mixing as much as possible, to reduce cross-contamination and keep both teachers and children as safe as possible. Applying the logic of households to these bubbles, if one of those children or the teacher does become symptomatic, that entire bubble can be sent home to isolate until testing confirms whether the symptomatic individual has the virus. If any teacher or parent has concerns, please do write to me.
Regretfully there is another issue I must discuss. Over the last few days I have received hundreds of emails from constituents about Dominic Cummings. During the pandemic I have had to make decisions about what the guidelines did or did not permit constituents to do. I have always acted in the best interests of residents, giving what I considered to be reasonable advice in each circumstance in consultation with Ministers.
Over the weekend I pressed for more information to get the facts of what happened, I believed that was the least the British people were owed, and I shared my own concerns, and those of residents, with the Conservative Party as is the correct mechanism.
This has been a deeply unhelpful distraction from the national effort to defeat COVID-19. Mr Cummings believed he was protecting his family. I know what it is to be a worried parent, but his actions have caused much frustration and disappointment. As I write on Tuesday, Police have determined he did not breach the guidelines, but he has accepted that he could have done better. I cannot say I would have made the same decisions. The Party is clear of my views, especially on the matter of fairness, as well as those of the many residents who have taken the time to write to me.
We have always been clear that beating this virus requires individual action on a national scale, and I am immensely grateful to Melton’s communities for how you have adhered to the lockdown to protect us all, often at great personal emotional cost. I am enormously grateful to each and every one of you, thank you.