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Health Secretary Matt Hancock hopes testing boost could move Kent out of Tier 3

A ramping up of coronavirus tests across the country could see Kent move out of tier three, ministers believe.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that the roll out of further checks across the country will help diagnose asymptomatic sufferers in the worst-hit areas.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Picture: BBC
Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Picture: BBC

The senior Conservative revealed during a press conference this evening that the government has already received interest from Medway Council, which is currently the third worst hit in England.

Mr Hancock said: "In Liverpool, where that testing has happened, they've managed to bring case rates down by three-quarters - so it'll go into tier two, not tier three.

"Today, we set out the next phase of that work to give tier three areas a faster way out of the toughest restrictions, as has happened in Liverpool.

"We've already received significant interest from around the country, including from the West Midlands, Redcar, Warwickshire and Medway. This offer is available all across the UK.

"By using tests that can turn around results in under 30 minutes, we can identify, crucially, the one in three people without symptoms but able to pass the infection along."

The latest figures show the rate of cases per 100,000 people in the week to November 25 was 479.3 in Medway, with 30% more cases recorded in that week than the seven days previously.

In Kent the rate was 278.2, a drop of 5% - although of the 18 areas with a rising number of cases in England, six are in the county.

Mr Hancock also announced during the speech the rollout of the government's university student testing programme.

Despite hoping that life may "return to normal by spring", he said there are still 14,778 positive cases reported each day and an average of 460 deaths every 24 hours.

"That's why we've got to keep some restrictions in place, hence the tier system," Mr Hancock added.

"I know hope is on the horizon. Over the past fortnight, we've made some really significant progress on vaccines.

"The NHS stands ready to deploy a vaccine, should one be approved by the UK's independent regulator.

"We in the UK have access to a total of 357 million doses of seven different vaccines."

On Wednesday, Kent be will moved into tier three as lockdown is relaxed across the country.

Under the restrictions, which are the toughest that can be imposed, household mixing is banned.

They'll be reviewed on December 16 but documents seen today suggest the tiered approach could stay in place until February.

The 30-minute tests would be rolled out across Tier 3 areas Picture: Getty Images/iStock
The 30-minute tests would be rolled out across Tier 3 areas Picture: Getty Images/iStock

Analysis by political editor Paul Francis

The government may well see off a threatened rebellion in the Commons over its imposition of tier three restrictions on areas like Kent, where some places who were in the lowest risk category found themselves moved to a higher risk category.

One of the reasons why a threatened revolt may fizzle out like a damp firework is that Kent now has the unenviable position of being one of the remaining parts of the country where infection rates are continuing to rise.

And the latest figures suggest that some of Kent’s hotspots are, ironically in some areas where local MPs have argued the restrictions are too harsh.

Ashford, Folkestone and Hythe, Dover, Maidstone, Tonbridge and Malling all saw rising numbers - albeit from a lower starting point - according to the most recent figures. Meanwhile, Medway is on the up while Swale and Thanet have seen small but encouraging signals that cases are beginning to plateau.

It means that of the 18 areas in the country where there are continuing increases, six are in Kent. At the same time, the government has published a report setting out the criteria it used to determine which tiers authorities would be placed on them.

Among them was the indirect and direct pressures being piled on hospitals - and if you were sceptical about the emphasis on this issue, it’s worth noting that the word “overwhelmed” was used 15 times in conjunction with health services.

MPs hardly need reminding that Kent’s hospitals are creaking under pressure and the report has been dismissed by some, saying it has been cobbled together.

However, that pressure on the NHS is very real: Roger Gale, the North Thanet MP, said at the weekend before the report was published that he had changed his mind and supported a blanket ban.

It still seems possible that there will be some kind of rebellion in the Commons on Tuesday but it may be more modest than first envisaged.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been hinting that there is still time before Christmas to conduct a review and move areas into lower restrictions.

That should be treated with a degree of caution but it should also be seen as a sign that even if Kent MPs did not get what they wanted, they have made the government listen.

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