This is not the Happy New Year we were hoping for. Before Christmas the daily data produced by the Government, showing the numbers of new cases of coronavirus in Kent, was starting to look more positive. In Folkestone and Hythe there had been a sustained fall in the rolling seven-day average of new cases, from the peak on 17 December, and it looked as though the tier four restrictions that we endured were starting to control the virus. Confidence in the improving situation was such that the Department for Education believed that it would be possible for our local schools to re-open this week for the new term. However, what we have learnt in the past year is that it is difficult to predict the development of an organic virus. We can try to restrict its spread by limiting human contact, but even then, new more contagious strains of the virus come along and present new challenges.
It is clear looking at the local data on infection rates that cases are rising again. Admission rates for treatment for COVID in hospital are rising too, which is why the Prime Minister has announced that there will be a new national lockdown, to help us protect the NHS and save lives. It is likely that schools will remain closed, with students being educated online, until at least the February half term. I hope by then that a declining number of cases of COVID-19 will allow them to re-open, so that children can be back in school, which is the best place for them to receive their education. Given the disruptions suffered this year for students in years 11 and 13 who were due to sit public exams this summer, I support the decision to cancel these tests and to create a new method of assessing their attainment in order to determine the grades they will receive.
To many this may seem a bit like the film Groundhog Day, where we are all trapped, unable to move on with our lives, constantly reliving the same events. However, unlike last year, we now have new hope that we will defeat the virus through the delivery of the covid vaccinations. The UK was the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine and administer it. We have now approved the Oxford vaccine which is both cheaper and easier to deliver. So far, we have vaccinated more people that the rest of Europe combined, and the Prime Minister has pledged that by mid-February, all of the most vulnerable groups, including everyone aged over 70, will have received the vaccine. Locally, people are receiving vaccines by appointment now at the William Harvey hospital, and Oaklands Surgery in Hythe. Plans are being prepared for additional mass vaccination centres. It will also be possible, using the Oxford vaccine to go into care homes and other community hubs to deliver the vaccine. The sooner people are vaccinated, the sooner we can plan for a significant lifting of the social distancing restrictions, knowing that the people most likely to have an adverse reaction to the coronavirus are protected.
I know that many local businesses will be concerned about the impact of these further lockdown measures on them. I was pleased therefore that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has now confirmed that there will be £4.6billion in new lockdown grants to support businesses and protect jobs. Businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors are to receive a one-off grant worth up to £9,000. A £594million discretionary fund has also been made available to support other impacted businesses, in addition to £1.1billion further discretionary grant funding for Local Authorities. You can find out more about these schemes online at gov.uk/coronavirus.