This article was written by Damian and published in this week's Herald editions and Petersfield Post:
"The roadmap presented by the Prime Minister this week signals an important moment in our fight against the pandemic; a pathway to restoring our freedoms in a way that is sustainable and – we all fervently hope – irreversible.
Seeing the infection rates coming down as they are, and the great success of the vaccination programme, some will be disappointed that restrictions are not being lifted sooner. And there will always be reasonable cases to make about individual and important sectors and activities.
On the other hand, others will think the caution should be greater still. There is continuing risk, as with any communicable disease. So many lives have been lost, so many sacrifices made. Now, much progress has been seen too. Naturally people want to know those gains can be banked fully and firmly and for good.
In determining the pace at which the roadmap will progress, the government and their advisers have had a fine balance to strike. We all want to be out of lockdown, with all the detriment it has to livelihoods and the way we live our lives. But the very worst thing would be to make that exit in such a way as to risk a reversal and a further future lockdown.
As I have said before in this column, in the end it isn’t a trade-off of health versus economics. We have seen that when new health measures are needed that has a huge impact on the economy. But economic recessions also have major implications for health and well-being.
Over time, scientists expect Covid-19 to become endemic, and vaccinations – including revaccination – will be key to managing that transition. Therapeutics and antivirals will also become increasingly important, replacing most non-pharmaceutical interventions over the long term, with an effort to build resilience for any future pandemics, both domestically and across the world.
Vaccines mean fewer people will get the virus and that those who do are far less likely to become seriously ill. But vaccines don’t get 100 per cent take-up, and there are some groups, including children, for whom a vaccine is not yet authorised. And no vaccine is 100 per cent effective – and, like all viruses, Covid-19 can mutate, as we have seen.
So as lockdown is lifted, there will still inevitably be more cases and hospitalisations, and very sadly more deaths. The approach taken by the Government is therefore cautious, guided by science and data. And it is vital that the deployment of the vaccine continues apace, with the right tools in place to manage local outbreaks and any new Variants of Concern.
As you will have seen, there are four key steps in the roadmap and four key tests that will need to be satisfied before a move to the next step can be confirmed. This includes evidence that the vaccine rollout continues successfully, the vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths, the infection rate does not risk a surge that would put undue pressure on the NHS, and a new Variant of Concern does not fundamentally alter the assessment of risk.
Data will be reviewed during each 5 week period between steps, enabling the impact of the previous step to be assessed and to also give a week’s notice on the decision. It is therefore important that these are regarded as indicative ‘no earlier than’ dates, and we recognise they may need to change.
This is a cautious approach, but with any transmissible virus, there is always risk. It is important to have the ability to adjust if that became necessary.
The priority has remained getting children and young people back to the classroom. Step 1 will see all schools and colleges reopen fully from the 8th March. We need a broad and very ambitious plan, building on the existing catch-up plan, to support this generation, the future of our country. Being back with their friends, and in-person with inspiring teachers, is the first step.
Although the Stay at Home requirement will remain until the end of March, people will be able to leave home for recreation outdoors (as well as exercise) such as a coffee or picnic with their household or support bubble, or with one person outside their household.
From the 8th, every care home resident will also be able to nominate a single named visitor who can come in for a regular visit, bringing comfort to the individuals and families who have remained apart for so long.
Step 1 also includes provision to ease more measures from the 29th, enabling people from different households to meet outdoors, and outdoor sports and leisure starting to reopen.
Later stages cover indoor leisure and gyms, more retail businesses, hairdressers and personal care, outdoor hospitality, overnight stays; then larger gatherings and indoor hospitality and a staged approach for weddings and funerals. 21st June – the day with the longest light – is set to see the removal of remaining legal limits on social contacts, and the reopening of remaining businesses.
There are definitive details of the roadmap on gov.uk, and I have put links to the most frequently-asked questions, and to local details and data on my website (damianhinds.com).
It is clear that maintaining good habits which minimise transmission will remain important. The Test, Trace and Isolate system will continue to support the easing of social and economic restrictions. It will also be important in identifying local outbreaks and Variants of Concern.
I am acutely conscious of the ongoing effect locally of dealing with the virus for the wider health service. And acutely conscious, too, of the severe effect on businesses vital in East Hampshire – retailers, pubs & restaurants, weddings and events organisers, and more – and on those who rely on them for their livings.
Eyes now are on the Budget, both for the continuing support that individuals and businesses need, and for the plan to deliver our national recovery."