Like everyone, I have greatly enjoyed life steadily returning to some semblance of normality over the past six months. Following the successful roll-out of our vaccination programme, we are now in a much better position to fight this virus. The data continues to show that the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has been significantly weakened. This is why rules and restrictions have been largely replaced over the summer with advice and guidance on practical steps that people can take to help manage the risks.
As we move towards winter, the changing weather means people will be spending more time indoors. Conditions will become more favourable for Covid and other seasonal viruses to spread. Anticipating this, the Government has devised a five-pillar plan to prepare us for winter and ensure that our tremendous progress is not lost.
Firstly, vaccinations have proven to be our best possible line of defence against Covid-19. In North Oxfordshire, more than 225,000 doses have already been administered. 83 per cent of those aged 16 and above have received a first dose; 76 per cent are fully vaccinated. It is important that those who are yet to be vaccinated come forward and get the jab. Booster jabs will also be offered to those who received their second dose over six months ago, to ensure maximum protection is maintained. You can book your jab here.
I know a number of constituents are concerned that a first dose of the vaccine will be offered to children between the ages of 12 and 15 years-old. I was able to discuss this topic with pupils in Banbury schools last week and it is clear that opinions vary. I believe is it right to not make vaccinations compulsory, and that young people are able to make this decision for themselves with access to information and advice from the NHS on vaccinations.
Secondly, our testing, tracing and self-isolation abilities have been vital in mitigating against transmission. PCR testing for those with symptoms will continue to be available free of charge, Financial support will also remain in place for those who are contacted by the NHS Test and Trace system.
The third pillar is about supporting the NHS and social care. Earlier in the month, the Health Secretary announced an additional £5.4 billion for the NHS to support the Covid-19 response over the next sixth months.
Fourthly, the Government will be encouraging people to continue to act responsibly in order to mitigate against methods of transmission. This includes meeting outdoors where possible, ventilating indoor spaces, and wearing face masks in crowded spaces.
Finally, international cooperation in the fight against Covid-19 will continue. It is important that we support the progress of vaccination programmes abroad. This will protect the success of our own response at home.
While I am reassured that this comprehensive plan will help steer us through the autumn and winter, we must be mindful that the past 18 months have shown that the pandemic can rapidly change course. A Plan B containing contingency measures is therefore in place to be called upon should the NHS be placed under pressure.
The use of Covid-status certification remains one of these Plan B measures. A number of constituents have got in touch to raise concerns about their use. Personally, I want to see the full return of all our freedoms – as so many of us do. But, I do not believe it would be sensible to rule out their use in the future at this stage. It is vital that people continue to get the jab to ensure the strongest possible defence against Covid.