WITH a national lockdown in place as a result of the pandemic, it has not been the start to the new year that anyone wanted but as we put 2020 behind us and move forward in 2021, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that better days lie ahead.

Scientists and health professionals are learning more about coronavirus all the time, in particular the new strain.

The fast spread of this strain has led to soaring rates of infection across the UK and in Worcestershire. Unfortunately, this means we have once again to ask that everyone follow the Government guidance and only leave home if you are shopping for necessities or medicine, going to work where you can’t work at home, exercising once a day or to attend childcare or support bubble duties. I know what a huge challenge this can be for many people and I am pushing for the maximum support from Government.

Locally over the past few weeks, the number of confirmed cases has continued to rise sharply as well as the number of in-patients within our hospital who tested positive for coronavirus. Sadly, we have seen more cases requiring intensive care and more deaths.

The extra capacity that has been added to intensive care over recent years has proved crucial to meeting the increased demand but even with this in place and more than twice as many intensive care beds as we had in 2018, we are seeing a challenging situation.

Vaccines are our pathway out of this pandemic and the roll-out is well under way. So far, three vaccines have been approved in the UK – the Pfizer vaccine, the first vaccine in the world to be approved and which started to be rolled out in December, as well as the easier to deploy Oxford and Moderna vaccines. I am glad that the U.K. is vaccinating faster than any other country in Europe and has one of the highest rates of vaccinations per head of population, behind only Israel.In Worcestershire vaccines have been provided to frontline NHS and care staff from a centre at the Alexandra hospital and more than 6,000 have been reached over the course of last weekend.

GP surgeries have been working together to administer the vaccine to members of the public starting with those at greatest risk in the over 80 category and I am pleased to have heard from a number of constituents that they have already had theirs.

Currently, the county’s vaccination capacity is around 5,000 per day, and I am pleased that this number will increase to 10,000 by end of month.

We are also hoping to see a significant step up in testing with lateral flow tests becoming available for community testing towards the end of this month.

Meanwhile in parliament, Chancellor Rishi Sunak addressed the House outlining an extra £4.6 billion package to protect UK jobs and businesses. All business premises in England which are legally required to close - including in retail, hospitality, and leisure - can now claim one-off grants of up to £9,000 for each of their business premises, benefitting over 600,000 businesses and coming on top of the existing grants worth up to £3,000 paid each month.

I welcomed the news that the Government has also made available discretionary funds of half a billion for local authorities in England to support local businesses in those areas on top of the £1.1 billion of discretionary funds we have already provided to local councils. This comes on top of the extension of the furlough scheme until April, as well as a fourth income grant for the self-employed.

On a positive note, I was pleased with the announcement of an £18 million investment in regeneration for the city centre as a timely boost for the High Street.

Coming hot on the heels of new funding for the Arches project, this additional funding will allow Worcester city council to purchase sites and redevelop them for cultural, commercial, and residential use in an area between the Corn Market and Angel Place. With ongoing work on the Towns Fund, we have a lot to look forward to in Worcester.

I would also like to recognise the vital role that charities such as Stepway, Talking Newspapers and St Paul’s are playing during this pandemic and the vital role that they have been playing in supporting people through such difficult times.

It is essential that we continue to protect both lives and livelihoods and I can assure constituents that as Worcester’s MP I will keep up the pressure to protect both.