Dr Caroline Johnson is the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham.
Today the Government will announce the new tiers that will apply across different areas of the country, after analysis of the latest ONS data out yesterday.
The Prime Minister was clear that after this second period of lockdown we would return to a three-tier local and regional approach. We know that the new tiering system will be tougher than before we went into national restrictions, and I know many colleagues have expressed concerns about their constituents and local businesses facing further restrictive measures.
I share their concerns, however the scientific advice has been clear that, while the previous tiers did reduce the R rate, they were not quite enough to bring R below 1, and therefore it is right that the tiers have had to be toughened in some ways as we head into colder winter months, so that we can protect the NHS and save lives.
While it is completely understandable that people want to avoid the toughest restrictions if possible, adherence to these tiers is how we will avoid another national lockdown and the only way we will get through the tough winter months that still lie ahead.
As sorely tempting as it is to get back to some normality of life, especially over the festive season, whether that be heading to the pub or meeting friends and family, it would be wrong to risk lives and overwhelming the NHS when the real prospect of ending restrictions with vaccines and mass testing is now within reach.
And I believe the public understands this. A recent poll by ComRes showed that in England, adults are three times as likely to support moving to a tiered approach than oppose.
To its credit, the Government has listened to concerns and learned lessons from the original tiered system, and made important changes. Sensibly, the 10pm closing time for hospitality has been shifted to 11pm with a 10pm last orders, to allow for more staggered departures. Across all tiers, non-essential retail will be able to remain open and operate in a Covid secure way, in a vital boost for small businesses over the Christmas period.
As a doctor, I am particularly pleased that gyms will be reopening and outdoor sports – like tennis and golf – can resume across all tiers, so people can keep fit. Spectator sports can also resume outside in some tiers with capacity limits and social distancing, and collective worship and weddings can resume.
And as before, the Government will continue to provide financial support to areas, including cash grants for closed businesses and extra funding for local authorities.
The principle of targeting the toughest measures in areas where the virus is most prevalent remains the right one. Crucially, the Government has published clear indicators which will determine the tier each area will go into on December 2 and how areas then move between tiers thereafter. Those indicators will include case detection rates in all age groups, case detection rates in the over 60s, the rate at which cases are rising or falling, positivity rate, and pressure on local NHS services.
Tiers will be reviewed every 14 days against these indicators, providing much needed clarity and a route out of restrictions. These tiers are designed to keep the R below 1 and therefore allow areas to move down the tiers, rather than simply escalate as the epidemic grows.
I know there are some areas of the country that have been under some form of restrictions since the summer, which is why it is right that those areas in Tier 3 restrictions will be being prioritised for community testing rollouts.
There is at last some light at the end of what has been a long tunnel. All the indications are that through the collective effort of the people of Liverpool, the community testing trial has been a success and is ready to be rolled out much further, to 13 million people before Christmas, including NHS staff and care homes.
Community testing is not the silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool at our disposal – one that offers us new and exciting possibilities. There will be a clear incentive for everyone in areas where the virus prevalence is high to get a test, to help reduce the spread of the virus and eventually minimise the restrictions in your area.
We have also had a slew of positive news on vaccines over the last week and thanks to the work of the Vaccine Taskforce we have secured more than 350 million doses of vaccines of all kinds. The development of vaccines has been hugely impressive work at an unprecedented speed.
However, even if these vaccines are approved – we still have some road ahead of us before all those who need a vaccine have been inoculated. That is why it is so important that we hold firm and return to the tiered system so that we can get through the next few months.
It would be fatal now to become complacent. We must hold our nerve, reluctantly but resolutely re-enter the regional tiers and get through the winter. If we can continue to show the discipline and resolve that has characterised the entire country’s steadfast response to this crisis, then next spring we can build back better from Coronavirus and it could truly be a season of renewal like no other.