The UK, and the whole world, finally had a reason to be cautiously optimistic this week. On Monday, the PM provided the nation with an update on the promising results from the Pfizer/BioNTec Vaccine trials. This new vaccine has been tested on over 40,000 volunteers, with interim results suggesting that it is 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants.
There are still, of course, rigorous safety checks and other hurdles that the vaccine must go through before it can be approved. If it does get approved, we will launch a nation-wide distribution of the vaccine, with older people and those at most risk receiving it first. I was pleased to learn that the Government has ordered 40 million doses of this vaccine (covering one third of the UK population), along with around 300 million doses from 5 other vaccine candidates.
Although this new vaccine gives us a reason to be optimistic, something we sorely need at this time, we must not let our guard down now. There are no guarantees, and we should proceed on this basis, continuing to do everything possible to bring the R rate down by following the guidance to stay at home, protect the NHS and saves lives.
As part of our continued efforts to control the virus, I was pleased that this week also saw the announcement of 600,000 rapid-turnaround tests being rolled out across England. The rollout of these “lateral flow tests” kickstarts a significant expansion of testing. This new and innovative technology provides test results on the same day, without the need for a lab to provide the result. We will therefore be able to detect the virus far quicker than before – something which will prove vital in helping us control the virus and getting life back to normal.
Moreover, these new lateral flow tests will help with the mass testing of NHS staff. Patient-facing NHS staff will now be provided with two tests every week, which can be taken at home, with results being received before they come to work. The mass asymptomatic testing of NHS staff will ensure that as many staff as possible can continue to work on the frontline safely.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for those on lower incomes. I was therefore pleased that, in order to support disadvantaged families during the winter, the Chancellor announced this week the launch of a Covid Winter Support Package. This scheme will provide £170m of targeted support for families in need, providing help with the cost of food and utilities. This funding, which comes on top of the £63m grant fund made available to local authorities earlier in the year, is being allocated to local authorities, with Swindon receiving over £600,000.
In addition to supporting those who are eligible for free school meals, this winter support scheme goes further – it will allow local authorities to support a wider group of vulnerable people, including those without children and children who are not currently eligible for Free School Meals.
Finally, the government also announced this week that Healthy Start scheme payments will increase from £3.10 to £4.25 from April next year. This scheme supports eligible low-income families and pregnant women to buy healthy food, like fresh fruit and vegetables. This fantastic scheme helps boost long-term health and education prospects, which is why this increase in payments is most welcome.