I am deeply disappointed that we have had to return to a national lockdown. However, I know the decision was not taken lightly. We have seen a rapid rise in infections across the country since the new strain of the virus was identified in December. Cherwell now has the highest case rate in Oxfordshire. The situation really does seem critical.
Throughout the pandemic I have been concerned about the impact of the virus on our hospitals, including the Horton. Infection rates have been monitored closely and updates provided to me during a weekly meeting with our local public health officials. Winter was always going to be difficult. I know from my conversations with the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and others, that a lot of planning had gone into making sure the Trust could respond as quickly and effectively to increasing pressures. Hospital admissions tend to be about two weeks behind the rate of infection. Latest data has indicated a significant upturn. Combined with the usual winter pressures and staff absences because of the pandemic, it is clear that our hospitals are in an extremely difficult position. Immediate action needed to be taken.
I know we are all tired and frustrated about the reality of further restrictions on our everyday lives. I had really hoped we would not have to close schools again. As a parent of a child who should have been sitting her A-Levels this summer I am very worried about the impact on our children. The pandemic has had profound consequences for our businesses who have been doing all they can to keep going. They need to be able to make it to the Spring, so I am glad that businesses will be able to access some further support which has been announced today. Measures include a one-off grant for closed businesses in England, discretionary funding which will be overseen by Cherwell District Council, and a new one-off grant to support retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses.
I have no doubt that the next few weeks will be the hardest yet. However, I remain hopeful that this will be the final phase of our fight against the pandemic. The biggest vaccination programme in our history is well underway, with more people vaccinated so far than the rest of Europe combined. The pace of vaccination is accelerating; I was proud to see the first person receive the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine at the Churchill Hospital yesterday. We now have local vaccination sites set up in Bicester and Banbury. As the four top priority groups – including all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable – are vaccinated, I am hopeful that the end is in touching distance.
Until then, it is absolutely essential that we follow the rules. My team and I have been working around the clock to signpost and support all those in need during this difficult time. I will continue to do what I can as we respond to the pandemic. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact me directly via firstname.lastname@example.org.