I will start by wishing all of you a safe and healthy 2021.

When I wrote the column before Christmas I had hoped that by now we would be talking about easing restrictions, but the new variant of Covid-19 has put paid to that, for now. As you will know, we are now in effective lockdown again and it is imperative that we all follow the new rules.

I have had many calls and discussions on this with various ministers over the last few days. These have been primarily with the Secretary of State for Health and his team but also with the Education ministers. The first briefings from the Health team were around the details of the presentations you will have seen on TV, and the reasons underlying why these measures have proved necessary. Looking at the regional graphs we have all seen it is clear that where the new variant has taken hold it has very quickly infected at an exceptional rate. Whilst the North East and the South West seem to have been least affected so far, the new variant is still present and we need to do everything we can to stop the spread.

We then had discussions with Nadhim Zahawi who is the minister responsible for the vaccination roll out. These supported the Prime Ministers proposition that we will target, that everyone in the top 4 priority groups will have been offered a vaccine by mid February.

I have seen information that implies that for every 20 people vaccinated in category 1 it is likely that we save a life, increasing to needing 600 to be vaccinated to save a life in category 4 but to 47,000 to save a life in the last group in category 10. This clearly shows why the vaccination plan is sequenced as it is. Particularly when you then consider that of the total deaths so far 36% of them were in category 1 alone and 88% were in the top 4 groups.

Whilst I understand the calls for teachers and others to be prioritised, if you look at the project from a saving lives perspective then the categories should be followed. I would encourage everyone to have the vaccine as soon as it is offered. Nadhim and his team have put in place a roll out capability that is greater than the rate the vaccine can be supplied, so the challenge is currently with the producers to supply as quickly as possible. I am told that the two key measures we need to see, moving in the right direction, to allow a release of the tiers are hospital pressures and death rates, clearly improvement in these metrics is driven by a combination of the comprehensiveness of the vaccine roll out and the adherence by people to the lockdown rules, so please do your part.

The discussions we had with the Education ministers were around what is happening to our young people in schools and colleges. We have seen the need to cancel most exams and move to largely on line learning for students. There are many different situations for different students so if you need any clarity do not hesitate to contact us. I want to recognise the extraordinary efforts of our teachers at this time. They have had a very challenging time with the need to continually evolve guidelines. Their efforts to maintain online learning and simultaneously physically teach our more vulnerable children, and those of key workers, are incredibly important over the coming weeks and they have my complete respect and thanks for everything they do.

It is also appropriate to mention key workers at this time, remember they are everywhere from our front line emergency staff to supermarket shelf stackers and from delivery drivers to refuse collectors. Please respect and thank them all in the jobs they are doing, it is their efforts in particular that will help us get through the next phase of the pandemic.

Finally for this week I wanted to mention what was supposed to be the big issue in this Parliament. When I was elected, Brexit was the primary point of discussions. As you also know we very quickly “Got Brexit Done” but then entered a transition period whilst the trading arrangements with the EU were negotiated. It was said that it was impossible to get a deal that had no tariffs or quotas but still freed us from the European Court of Justice. Well, that “impossible” deal has been delivered and I am delighted with the outcome. For the first time since 2016 our businesses know the legal frameworks in which they will be working for years to come and they can plan accordingly. Whilst this has been happening Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, has been getting on with business and negotiated around 70 trade deals with countries around the world.

In summary, we have what are hopefully the final weeks of the pandemic to deal with now, but we also have the major positives of the vaccine roll out and the opportunities that we can carve out as a sovereign state to complement our European trade.

For now though, it’s a case of Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect our NHS. Stay safe and look after you and yours.

Paul Howell, Member of Parliament for Sedgefield.