York Press column – York must reopen safely in December
November 18, 2020
As the nights draw in, and we pass the halfway point in this month’s renewed lockdown, we can at least take comfort from some glimmers of light – the growing chance of a vaccine, and the new weapon of 15-minute tests, which can allow for mass localised testing of communities.
Last week’s announcement by the Health Secretary that the trial vaccine is already 90% effective was a big moment, as this really represents the only viable route back to normal life. Of course there is still a fair way to go on this, and many rigorous safety checks before final approval. Nevertheless, the fact the NHS is now being prepared to deliver any vaccine approved from 1st December, and that a provisional priority schedule for vaccination, starting with the oldest and health and care workers, has already been drawn up, should be a source of hope.
The new ‘lateral flow’ tests can give a result in less than 15-minutes on-site, providing immediate relief for those testing negative, and allowing for prompt isolation of positive tests. They can identify the asymptomatic, and will be useful in controlling infection in schools, universities, hospitals and similar institutions, with twice-weekly testing of all NHS staff commencing with these new tests from last week. All this is in addition to the build-up of existing traditional testing capacity, which has met the government’s target of half a million a day for November, now standing just shy of 520,000.
In his House of Commons statement last Tuesday, Matt Hancock said the new tests were now available to all local authorities, at a rate of 10% of local population per week, with a first wave of 600,000 being sent to 67 local authorities who expressed interest. Given the special challenges of a university city like York, with a large student population to protect alongside permanent residents, I intervened by asking him to clarify that this wider roll-out of mass testing would be available across university cities, for the whole population.
On receiving his confirmation, and suggestion York Council should get in touch to join the programme, I immediately checked in with York’s director of public health about York not participating in this first wave. I was told that they are planning to deploy lateral flow tests, but first wanted to examine the early pilots, and coordinate with existing testing. I appreciate the huge effort the Council team are putting in, but the opportunity to return towards normality offered by quick localised mass testing has to be seized with both hands. I therefore decided to raise the matter with Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions the next day, and he urged York Council to take up the government’s offer.
As someone who only voted reluctantly for this month’s lockdown on the basis it was strictly time-limited, I also used Prime Minister’s Questions to press Boris on the importance of York returning to the lowest tier 1 level (medium alert) of restrictions when lockdown expires on 2nd December. York residents have made serious sacrifices to get our virus rate significantly below where it was when we were escalated from tier 1 to 2(high alert) pre-new lockdown, and the government has to demonstrate that the community’s resilience and self-denial will be rewarded. Our local economy also cannot afford a renewed period of tier 2 limbo, with the household mixing ban devastating trade.
I made this point firmly in the Commons to Ministers at the Department for Business last week, stressing that even with the lifeline of government support to stay closed, many enterprises will only remain viable if they can be open be as normal for the pre-Christmas season.
Our city’s coronavirus measures after 2nd December should be carefully tailored to our local situation, rather than skewed by regional figures, and based on the feedback of local authorities. I raised this in the Commons last Thursday with the Cabinet Office Ministers responsible for coordinating the coronavirus response across government, and although I received a positive response, I will certainly hold them to this.
Although the nights are dark, there are strong indications we can begin to hope for a brighter New Year.