I fully understand that the announcement of a further national lockdown from today is another bitter blow for many who have already endured months of restrictions causing separation from family and friends, loss of income and cancellation of plans. In particular, I recognise that the return to remote learning for those in education will be very damaging and know that this was a decision that the Government was desperate to avoid. However, the speed with which the virus was spreading made these actions unavoidable.

The whole country faces a huge challenge in containing the spread until the vaccine is administered in sufficient numbers. In Essex, the situation is especially acute with some of the highest rates of infection in the country. In Maldon District, the positivity rate has risen sharply and the rate per 100,000 has risen to over 900, up by 20 per cent in the past week.  In Chelmsford, the rate is higher still. This is putting huge pressure on our hospitals with 27,000 being treated across England, with 250 in Broomfield alone. The lag between infection and hospital admission means that this pressure is likely to increase over the next few weeks.

Essex has already been in first national and then local lockdowns since early November yet the figures have continued to rise. The major cause of this is the new variant of Covid which is far more easily spread and now is responsible for more than half of cases in the East of England. However, it has been made worse by the small minority who have flagrantly breached the rules. The fact that Essex Police had to issue £18,000 in fixed penalty notices on New Year’s Eve is truly shocking. The need to keep to the rules in order to protect the NHS and save lives has never been greater than it is today.

The NHS is now rolling out the vaccine as quickly as possible and already 1.3 million have received their first injection. Locally it is being administered at Basildon and Broomfield Hospitals as well as Danbury and Maldon. However, it may take some time before we can stop the spread and are able to relax restrictions. The Chancellor has today announced a further £4.6 billion package to support those businesses most affected and the furlough and self-employed income support schemes will run until the end of April. The BBC is providing programming to help children maintain their education while at home. The welfare and voluntary services are providing tremendous support to those who are vulnerable and forced to shield.

The next few months will be very hard for everybody and I would again like to thank all those in the NHS, key workers and volunteers who are working tirelessly to help our community through this. I am confident that given time and by keeping to the rules we will beat the virus and life can return to normal.