Weekly Coronavirus Briefing – 20th November 2020

November 20, 2020 Charles Cummins

Navigate Politics produces a weekly roundup of all the key announcements in the UK’s attempts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, from the four governments across the nation. If you’d like to sign up to our daily updates for free – please get in touch.

10 Downing Street press conference – MHRA assessing Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for authorisation; If authorised, rollout will begin in December.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock MP, addressed a press conference in 10 Downing Street this afternoon in which he:

  • Stated there are 22,287 average new cases of coronavirus in the UK a day, down on the 24,430 a week ago; 16,409 COVID-19 patients are in hospital today and 511 people died yesterday.
  • Confirmed that they are rolling out free flu jabs in England to all over-50s from 1st December, adding that GPs will contact patients to arrange this.
  • Announced the Government has formally asked the MHRA to assess the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for its suitability for authorisation. He repeated that the Government will prioritise vaccines for those people who are most at risk.
  • Reported that if the vaccine is approved, the Government will be ready to start vaccinations in December 2020, with the bulk of the rollout in the new year.
  • Stated that the UK Government is working with the three devolved administrations to work towards a common set of rules over Christmas if possible.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, also addressed the press conference in which he:

  • Stated that if people don’t comply with the rules, it is likely numbers will go back up again. He also stated the speed at which the vaccine can be rolled out will be down to the speed at which batches of the vaccine can be authorised by the MHRA.

Weekly UK coronavirus statistics

The Department of Health and Social Care announced:

  • 37,575,856 tests have been conducted (+ 2,323,691 from last Friday)
  • 1,473,508 people have tested positive (+ 156,012 from last Friday)
  • 54,286 people have died (+2 ,982 from last Friday)

See online here


Prime Minister enters two-week self-isolation period after MP tests positive for COVID-19

Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP has completed the first week of his self-isolation period, after he met with Lee Anderson MP who then tested positive for COVID-19. The PM stated that he was notified by NHS Test and Trace and would observe the rules but remains in ‘good health’ with no symptoms. He also added that he will continue to lead on the Government’s response to the crisis and plans to ‘build back better’. He appeared in the House of Commons ‘virtually’ to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, and to deliver a Ministerial Statement on extra funding for the Ministry of Defence.

See online here, here and here


Health Secretary holds press conference on second potential COVID-19 vaccine

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in self-isolation, Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP addressed a Downing Street press conference to provide an update on COVID-19. Hancock confirmed that the UK Government had secured 5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which had shown to offer 95% protection based on preliminary trial data. He explained that this vaccine could be available “as early as Spring 2021”. Hancock also revealed that, by the end of November, the NHS would have a “network of 40 long COVID clinics right across England”, with these available to people who were suffering with the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Accusations were made in certain parts of the media that the UK was at the ‘back of the queue’ for vaccines, after the agreement was reached with Moderna on the day the results of its vaccine’s efficacy was announced. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy offered a swift rebuttal to these claims, stating that, if approved by the UK’s regulators, it would be available in the UK at the same time as other European countries, and noted that ‘the UK was already in advanced discussions with Moderna for some time to procure 5 million doses of their vaccine.’

See online here, here, here and here


MHRA state public safety ‘will always come first’, as Pfizer vaccine takes step forward

The UK’s regulatory agency, the MHRA, confirmed that with any potential COVID-19 vaccine, ‘the safety of the public will always come first’. This statement came following Pfizer-BioNTech announcing that their vaccine had now proved 95% effective in preventing COVID-19, and that it had met the safety criteria needed for emergency authorisation. MHRA Chief Executive Dr June Raine said that the results reported were “very encouraging”, and that the MHRA “look forward to receiving the full results of the trials as soon as possible, after which we will rigorously assess the evidence of safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”

See online here


Pharmaceutical company Janssen begins COVID-19 vaccine trials in the UK

Phase 3 clinical trials of global pharmaceutical company Janssen’s potential vaccine has begun, involving 6,000 UK volunteers. The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, part of Johnson & Johnson, is the latest study in the UK, jointly funded by the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, forming part of the third potential vaccine to enter clinical trials in the UK, alongside US biotech company Novavax and University of Oxford/AstraZeneca. However, experts have cautioned that no singular vaccine is likely to be suited for all, and that a wide range of types are required to ensure that people have access to one that works for them. As a result, the public are being urged to sign up to the NHS Vaccines Registry to take part in vaccine studies. Recruitment into the study will complete in March 2021 and the trial will last for 12 months.

See online here


NAO finds the Government ‘ripped up’ procurement rules during first phase of COVID-19

The NAO published a report following its investigation into Government procurement during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which heavily criticises how the Government handled COVID-19 contracts. The NAO found a ‘lack of transparency and adequate documentation’ over some key decisions, such as why particular suppliers were chosen or how Government identified and managed potential conflicts of interest. More than £10bn of contracts were awarded without competition, and without the required paperwork recording how any of the associated risks of procuring without competition had been mitigated. The NAO also found that certain companies were directed to a ‘high priority’ lane and were afforded a greater chance at winning a contract (one in ten) than those in the ordinary lane (less than one in a hundred). The NAO recommends that, should the need to procure significant volumes of goods with extreme urgency arise again, the Government identifies and manages potential conflicts of interest and bias earlier in the procurement process.

The Cabinet Office released an initial response to the NAO’s report the following day, highlighting that the report acknowledged that the Government ‘needed to procure with extreme urgency’ and ‘secured unprecedented volumes of essential supplies necessary to protect front-line workers’. However, the Cabinet Office maintained that it has a ‘rigorous due diligence and robust processes in place’ for procurement and rejected completely the report’s findings that the Government ‘ripped up’ procurement rules and procured with a ‘secret referrals inbox’. The Cabinet Office also rejected that there were ministerial conflicts of interest in its procurement. A full response to the NAO’s report is due to follow.

See online here and here


£300m of support for various sports in England announced

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a £300m package of investment for certain spectator sports in England, through the Sports Winter Survival Package. The funding will be provided to rugby union, rugby league, horse racing, women’s football, the lower tiers of the National League, motorsport, tennis, netball, basketball, ice hockey, badminton and greyhound racing. Preliminary allocations ‘have been made on a needs-based assessment process and reflect the submissions made from the individual sports, and the funding process will be overseen by an independent decision-making board and supported by Sport England.’ The professional leagues of English football have not been granted any Government support in this package, with Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden MP telling the BBC that he was “hoping” an agreement would be reached between the Premier League and the English Football League over a bailout package.

See online here, here and here


Major expansion of study into COVID-19 in care homes in England

The Department of Health and Social Care announced that there would be a major expansion of the Vivaldi 2 study, which aims to provide a ‘detailed picture of coronavirus infection in care homes in England’. The number of care homes taking part in the study will increase from 100 to 340, with a total of 14,000 care home residents and staff to be tested quarterly. The expansion will ‘provide a larger and more nationally representative sample of care home residents and staff’, and also offer an opportunity to work ‘with a wider range of small, care home chains and independent providers to ensure results are representative of all care homes in England’.

Homecare workers in England are also set to be offered weekly coronavirus tests from 23 November, in an attempt to identify more asymptomatic cases and to protect care users who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Care Minister Helen Whately MP said this step was able to be taken thanks to an expansion of testing capacity.

Family members or friends of those living in care homes will be given regular testing to ensure safer care homes visits as part of a Government pilot. The new system is taking place in around 20 care homes across Hampshire, Cornwall and Devon which will be rolled out more widely in December. The pilot will offer regular testing to one family member or friend per resident, enabling indoor visits without a screen where possible, while reducing the risk to care home residents, staff and visitors.

See online here, here and here


Efforts taken to keep key roads to hospitals and COVID-19 centres open throughout Winter

Local authorities have been urged to ensure that key transport routes to COVID-19 test centres are ‘kept open and running smoothly’ throughout Winter. Roads Minister Baroness Vere has written to councils to ask them to keep their supplies of salt and grit topped up, with the Salt Association confirming that production is at ‘sufficient levels to protect road users over the coming months.’ The UK Government has invested £16m to help Highways England rollout 93 new gritters for use this winter, with a further £40m to be invested by Highways England to ‘help over 250 replacement winter vehicles join the fleet.‘

See online here and here


Member of SAGE suggests ‘rethink’ to England’s Three-Tier Covid System after Lockdown

Senior Government Advisor Dr Susan Hopkins has said that England’s three-tiered system may need to be ‘strengthened’ to get the country “through the winter”. While Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP said the Government hoped to bring back the regional tiers, Dr. Hopkins indicated that there may be a rethink of the system when the lockdown ends on 2nd December, stating that the Government will need to look at what ‘tiers there may be in the future’. She added the Government should be receiving more information next week on whether the four-week lockdown was successful in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, facilitating judgements over whether England can ease measures.

See online here


Free flu vaccine expanded to 50-64-year olds from 1 December

From 1 December, those aged between 50 and 64 will be able to get a free flu vaccine, as part of an expanded flu vaccination programme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The vaccine will be available from GPs and pharmacies, who are now able to order additional stock in order to vaccinate this group from the ‘centrally secured government supply of over 7 million vaccines.’ The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that flu vaccine uptake this year is higher in all vulnerable groups, except pregnant women.

See online here


Royal Mail to increase COVID-19 test kit collections

Royal Mail will start collecting COVID-19 test kits 7-days a week, with a weekend extension being introduced from 21 November. The additional collections will be made from over 15,000 priority boxes, with the majority of the home, regional test centre and care provider tests being moved through Royal Mail for ‘some or all of their return journeys since April 2020’. Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP said that it was a “big team effort and I am very grateful for our posties for playing their part to help keep people safe.”

See online here


£12.2m boost for genomic surveillance to help tackle transmission of COVID-19

The Department of Health and Social Care announced that £12.2m of funding has been awarded to the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium to expand whole genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19. Whole genome sequencing uses scientific techniques to read the genetic code of the virus, aiding the understanding of how the virus spreads and evolves through the study of DNA. This means that any changes to the genetic code, or mutations, can be picked up in samples from people and the environment. The data will be integrated within Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace to help understand outbreaks and strengthen infection control measures across the country.

See online here


Short film released stressing importance of effective ventilation in reducing COVID-19 spread

The UK Government has released a short film to demonstrate how COVID-19 ‘lingers in enclosed spaces’, and to show how people can keep their homes well ventilated. Research has shown that ‘being in a room with fresh air can reduce the risk of infection from particles by over 70%’, with the new film forming part of the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ campaign aimed at getting the public to ‘adopt simple health behaviours to help reduce the risk of the virus spreading’.

See online here


The BBC Investigates: What went wrong with NHS Test and Trace?

The BBC released a long-read article following its investigation into ‘what went wrong with NHS Test and Trace’. With testimonies from Government figures, scientists and health officials, the investigation found that the system is failing in the areas where it is needed the most and that it is still undermined by the legacy of decisions that were made from the beginning.

The BBC underscores the name ‘NHS Track and Trace’ is misleading, given that private firms play a key role as ‘the Government turned to its commercial partners to set up [the six large, centralised Lighthouse Labs] that sit outside any existing healthcare or research structures’. The BBC reports private contractors overpromised what they could do, with one saying it would build 200 testing machines that hadn’t, at the time, even made it to prototype. Professor Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, attests that no representatives from the existing NHS labs sector were involved in early meetings between the Government and private industry, telling the BBC that, ‘there wasn’t any consultation with the service itself’.

The centralised system for testing and tracing struggled to reduce turnaround times for test results, resulting in the critique that had the system been more localised – and used the existing network of hospital, university and PHE labs – tests would have been more accessible and targeted to those who needed one; and test turnaround times would have been ‘a lot quicker’. Instead, the new system sees swabs travelling long distances – sometimes by plane from Edinburgh to Belfast – slowing down the process ‘to this day’.

See online here


ONS COVID-19 study finds positivity rates ‘levelling off’ in over-25s

The latest results from the ONS study into COVID-19 infection rates has estimated that there were around 38,900 new coronavirus cases in the community population in England each day between 8th and 14th November. This is lower than the 47,700 daily cases the ONS had estimated in the week previous. Positivity rates have increased in London, the East and the South East of England, though rates ‘now appear to be decreasing in the North West and the East Midlands’. The highest COVID-19 positivity rates remain in the North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Positivity rates also ‘appear to be levelling off in people aged 25 years and over.’ Positivity rates have decreased in Wales over the last two weeks; in the last four weeks in Northern Ireland; and ‘appear to have levelled off’ in Scotland.

See online here


Latest statistics on Government business support schemes released

The latest statistics on the UK Government’s COVID-19 business support schemes have now been released. As of 15th November, £18.46bn of loans had been approved under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS); £4.84bn under the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS); and £42.18bn through the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS). Additionally, 1,325 applications have been made to the Future Fund, with £875.8m of convertible loans approved.

See online here


Latest NHS Test and Trace statistics released

The latest statistics from NHS Test and Trace have been released, covering the period between 5th – 11th November. During that week, 167,369 people tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of 11% compared to the previous week. Of the 156,853 people who were referred to the contact tracing system during this time period, 84.9% were reached and asked to provide information about their contacts. 77.9% of the 313,771 people identified as close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. The Department of Health and Social Care announced that over 2.3 million contacts had now been identified by NHS Test and Trace.

See online here and here


Alterations made to the Travel Corridor lists

A vast number of nations and destinations have been added to the travel corridor lists for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with those arriving after 4am on 21 November from Israel, Jerusalem, Namibia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands no longer required to self-isolate for two weeks. There will also be no removals from the travel corridor lists this week. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith said that it had been decided to not change Scotland’s travel corridor list this week.

See online here and here


Large swathes of Scotland placed under strictest measures

11 local authorities in Scotland are being placed into Level 4 of the Scottish COVID-19 coronavirus system at 6pm on 20 November. The changes, which affect the City of Glasgow, East and West Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian, will be in place for at least three weeks, until 11 December. The Scottish Government have also strengthened restrictions on those living in both Level 3 and Level 4 areas, with people not permitted to travel outside of their local authority ‘except for an essential purpose’. In Level 1 areas, 8 people from 3 households will be allowed to meet outdoors. It had previously been a maximum of 6 people from 2 households. These measures were approved by the Scottish Parliament in a debate on vote on 19th November.

See online here and here


Scottish Government announces vaccine roll-out plan

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman MSP outlined to the Scottish Parliament week that the first groups to be prioritised for vaccination will be health and social care staff, older care home residents and those over 80 years old who live in the community, based on current independent clinical advice. This first group of recipients could begin to receive the vaccine from as early as December 2020.

Once these initial priority groups have been vaccinated, those over 65 will be offered the vaccination along with those under 65 who are at additional clinical risk, before moving on to the wider population over the age of 18. An agreement has also been reached with the British Medical Association on the terms and conditions of GPs’ involvement in the programme.

See online here


Devolved Governments plan for 2021 Elections

The Scottish Government published legislation to make sure the 2021 Scottish General Election can take place safely during the pandemic. The poll is expected to go ahead as planned on 6 May and the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill has been drafted to provide powers, if needed, to conduct the election differently. Key measures include: earlier deadline for postal vote applications of 6 April rather than 20 April to give more time for these to be processed given expected increase in demand; and powers for Ministers to allow polling to take place over more than one day if needed to support physical distancing at polling stations

In June, First Minister Mark Drakeford MS established the Elections Planning Group to consider the impact of the Coronavirus on the 2021 Senedd Elections and to recommend any legislative arrangements that may be necessary. The group has agreed on a number of measures, which include: encouraging widespread, early registration for postal voting; the provision of greater flexibility around the nomination of candidates; and special measures to ensure the safe operation of polling stations and count venues. The First Minister stated the Welsh Government will do ‘everything that it is appropriate’ to support Returning Officers to make the necessary arrangements.

Alongside this, the Welsh Government is preparing contingency plans in the event that the Coronavirus pandemic presents such a serious threat to public health that it is not safe to hold the election in May next year. Preparations are underway for a draft Bill to enable the Senedd’s Presiding Officer to postpone the election for up to six months. It remains, however, the Welsh Government’s ‘clear intention’ to have Senedd elections on 6th May 2021.

See online here and here


NHS Wales announces new measures to improve patient access to emergency care

NHS Wales resumed the publication of data on its performance, with this revealing that the number of people waiting more than 36 weeks for planned hospital treatments is six times higher than at the start of 2020. Waiting list figures, published for the first time since March, show nearly 169,000 people waiting. Despite recent progress, NHS Wales chief executive Andrew Goodall warned waiting times could grow even further, saying there was a “real concern” that hospital doctors were only able to see about half as many in-patients and day cases as normal. According to Goodall, it will take “a number of years” for NHS waiting times in Wales to recover to pre-coronavirus levels

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething MS responded to the publication of usual NHS performance data, stating that the NHS had been instructed by the Welsh Government to postpone all routine procedures in March 2020. Since then, services has ‘gradually been reintroduced’ but given the ongoing pandemic, the significant rise in waiting times for elective treatment was ‘as expected’.

As a response, he reiterated the Welsh Government have made an additional £30m funding available to support urgent and emergency care services and increase resilience over the remainder of 2020/21. In addition, three new experimental measures will be tested in emergency departments across Wales to improve patient access while also improving patient care. These measures seek to reduce the time to triage, time to clinician and includes an assessment on the outcome to improve understanding of how the services are being used. The data produced by running these measures will be produced on a monthly basis.

See online here, here and here


Procurement and testing on Welsh Government’s agenda

Addressing the “widespread public concern and interest” in the procurement of PPE across the UK, Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething MP outlined in a written statement that NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership had responded effectively to the challenges of the pandemic, balancing the need to secure critical services with extreme urgency whilst ‘maintaining robust processes that have ensured value for money, safety of users and adherence to procurement regulations’. All contracts over the EU Procurement threshold are published on the EU public register, the Tenders Electronic Daily. He concluded by saying that people in Wales should ‘be assured about the probity and success of our PPE procurement’.

The Welsh Government announced that Merthyr Tydfil County Borough will be the first whole area testing pilot in Wales. Everyone living or working in Merthyr Tydfil will be offered COVID-19 testing, whether they have symptoms or not, from Saturday, 21st November. The move forms part of the mass test strategy undertaken by the UK Government; and will be delivered through a partnership between the Welsh Government, UK Government, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, Cwm Taf Morgannwg Health Board and the Ministry of Defence, with logistical support from Armed Forces personnel.

See online here and here


NI Executive agrees two-week circuit breaker

The Northern Ireland Executive has decided to ease restrictions on 20 November for a brief reprieve that will see cafes and close-contact services reopen for seven days. Following this, a two-week circuit breaker will be reintroduced from 27th November until 11th December to slow the spread of coronavirus. All retail, other than essential retail, will close, with off licenses required to close at 8pm. Schools are permitted to stay open during this circuit breaker.

See online here


Northern Ireland Communities Minister announces enhanced COVID-19 Self-Isolation Grant

Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín announced that she has enhanced the existing Covid-19 self-isolation grant, increasing the daily allowance payable and extending the number of days for which an award can be made. The non-repayable Discretionary Support Self-Isolation Grant assists with short-term living expenses where a person on a low income is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is advised to self-isolate in accordance with guidance published by the Public Health Agency.

See online here


Table of UK COVID-19 Measures as of 20th November 2020

Region Restriction Level Implemented Current End Date
Scotland (Level 0) Maximum of 8 people from 3 households can meet indoors. 15 people from 5 households can meet outdoors. 2nd November Reviewed each week
Scotland (Level 1)* Maximum of 6 people from 2 households can meet indoors in a public place. 8 from 3 households can meet outdoors; meeting in somebody’s home is prohibited; 2230 curfew for venues. 2nd November Reviewed each week
Scotland (Level 2)** Maximum of 6 people from 2 households can meet indoors in a public place and outdoors, but meeting in somebody’s home is prohibited; 2000 curfew for venues inside; 2230 curfew for venues outside; Alcohol only to be sold with the purchase of a main meal. 2nd November Reviewed each week
Scotland (Level 3)*** Maximum of 6 people from 2 households can meet indoors in a public place and outdoors, but meeting in somebody’s home is prohibited; 1800 curfew for all venues; Only essential shops to be open; No non-essential travel outside local area. 2nd November Reviewed each week
Scotland (Level 4)**** No household mixing indoors. Maximum of 6 people from 2 households can meet outdoors; No non-essential travel outside local area. 20th November 11th December
Northern Ireland Closure of majority of hospitality sector; cafes and close-contact services allowed to open. No household mixing indoors. Up to 6 people from two households can meet outdoors. 20th November 27th November

*Full list of Level 1 areas: Highland; Moray; Western Isles; Orkney; Shetland.

**Ful list of Level 2 areas: Aberdeenshire; Aberdeen; Scottish Borders; Dumfries & Galloway; Argyll & Bute.

***Full list of Level 3 areas: Inverclyde; North Ayrshire; Falkirk; Clackmannanshire; City of Edinburgh; Midlothian; East Lothian; Dundee; Fife; Perth & Kinross; Angus. Midlothian and East Lothian will move to Level 2 from 24 November.

****Full list of level 4 areas (as of 6pm on 20 November): City of Glasgow; East and West Renfrewshire; East and West Dunbartonshire; North and South Lanarkshire; East and South Ayrshire; Stirling; and West Lothian

There are no areas of Scotland in Level 0