No one wanted a second lock down to be necessary. The Prime Minister, with a massive expansion in testing and the tiered approach to controlling the virus, tried desperately hard to avoid it.
We all know that the lockdown, despite extra support, will be extraordinarily hard for many businesses. Likewise even with the retention of the reinforced furlough scheme there is a real risk to jobs. For many it means the heartache of being apart from loved ones and, although the impact would be worse were we not to take action, a lockdown, even if time limited, does represent a risk to peoples’ well-being and mental health.
All of this is known, it is not a decision that anyone wants to take.
However the reality is stark.
The whole of Europe is seeing Covid 19 return with a vengeance with cases now significantly outstripping North America. Lockdowns have been imposed in France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Spain. Even Sweden, the standard bearer for a different approach, has introduced regional “voluntary lockdowns” with households encouraged not to mix, to visit restaurants, travel out of their area or use public transport.
Here in the UK, the Office of National Statistics has been testing and monitoring the spread of the virus in the community. Its evidence of increasing infection is all too apparent – manifested in increasing hospitalisations and deaths.
We know locally that we have a far, far lower rate of infection than for example Liverpool, Glasgow or Manchester. In those cities the high level of infection has stabilised, or even begun to fall on the back of the measures taken but the number of people affected is very high. Meanwhile areas like London, the South East and South West are seeing a very rapid growth in the virus – and the direction it will take is all too apparent without measures being taken.
I appreciate that there are alternative views on what the current statistics reveal – and what they project. We are blessed in the UK with many world leading experts in epidemiology and related disciplines. Differences of view are inevitable over a disease that is new and about which we still have so much to learn. It is right that the advice provided to the Government by SAGE – a broadly based group of scientists and experts - is informed by that healthy debate. It is right that the Government challenges the advice it receives before deciding policy. It is appropriate that Parliament then tests the Government and has the ability to challenge its decisions.
However, informed by the best scientific advice, action to my mind must be taken at this stage to suppress the virus.
Without taking action the number of people requiring hospital treatment for Covid will continue to increase. This will be happening during the winter months when we see an annual rise in hospital admissions – and it cannot be guaranteed that the lower level of flu in the Southern Hemisphere in their winter will be replicated here.
The brilliant pioneering work of the NHS has improved the treatment of a virus unknown in humans under a year ago. This saves lives – but those recovering need beds and support often for protracted periods.
Despite having more doctors and nurses than ever before, more hospital beds available and the Nightingale Hospitals standing by, there is a real risk that Covid-19 could overwhelm parts of the NHS. This is not an inconceivable scare-story – it is exactly what happened to other advanced healthcare systems earlier this year and threatens to again.
The impact would be felt not just from those suffering from Covid, but by all those requiring hospital support be it for cancer treatment, stroke or heart attack.
No one believes it is right to potentially place medics, who fought the virus so valiantly earlier this year, in the situation of deciding daily who to treat and who to turn away, when this can be avoided by acting now.
By acting now we hope to maintain the full remit of health services – so critical after delays in treatment earlier in the year. It means with the support of Heads and teaching staff, that we can keep children, who have missed out so much this year, in education. It also means we can hope to suppress the virus more quickly.
By acting now our NHS will continue to save lives and improve health outcomes over a huge range of conditions.
In speaking to our local hospitals the message is very clear. They can and will treat patients safely. The lockdown ensures they have the capacity to continue to see patients, keep them separate from Covid cases and treat them as normal. Our hospitals are planning to sustain this through the winter. They do NOT want patients who need treatment to “stay at home”. If you need treatment or diagnostic tests please come forward.
Since March we have learned far more about this disease, we are delivering more daily tests: at a capacity of over 500,000 a day than anywhere in Europe. We have the immediate prospect of using rapid, reliable turnaround tests, which can be used at home. We are piloting plans which should revolutionise our ability to identify the virus in the community early and keep people safe.
We are also much closer to a likely vaccine.
There is light at the end of this very dark tunnel but we do need to act to ensure that we keep people, of all ages, safe through to when we can finally put paid to this dreadful pandemic. The decision to ”lockdown” is extremely difficult, it will have grave consequences, but it is the right approach and necessary.