Christmas provides an ideal opportunity to spend time with family and friends, but also to reflect. Not only on the year that has passed, but also on the opportunities presented by the start of a new year.
The pandemic, frustratingly, has not gone away. But Torridge and West Devon has continued to respond well to the Government’s guidance, and the national effort against this public health crisis is remarkable. We have seen a huge uptake of vaccinations here in Devon, with around 90% of people in Devon now fully vaccinated. I am sincerely grateful for your efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable in our community and relieve pressure on the NHS. Now we must get boosted and it is vital that everyone over 30 and those working or living with the vulnerable should try to get their third vaccination in the next few weeks.
While the arrival of a new variant is concerning, I have every faith that our frontline workers will continue to offer first-class care to the elderly and infirm. Our nurses, doctors, volunteers, and social care staff are working extremely hard and I am deeply grateful for their continued efforts. I am also grateful to our teachers, who continue to educate; to the police and rescue services, who continue to protect the public; to our essential workers, who have kept shelves stocked, telecoms and transport functioning.
Although our response to COVID-19 has continued to be the focus for much of 2021, locally we have dealt with a range of issues, and there has been much to celebrate. Having long supported efforts to improve rail connectivity in Devon, I was pleased that — thanks to the Government’s Restoring Your Railway Fund — a £40.5-million cash injection has enabled passenger services to resume on the Exeter to Okehampton line after almost 50 years of dormancy. The Dartmoor Line opened on November 20, and was the first line in the country to be reinstated under this scheme. I hope that the line eases congestion and provides a much-used service to locals, students, and holidaymakers alike.
We have also seen a £60-million government investment in the maintenance of the North Devon Link Road. This vital link between Devon and the rest of the UK is essential to the levelling up of local businesses, and I will continue to press my ministerial colleagues and elected colleagues on Devon County Council for improvements to local roads. There is always more that can be done to keep roads functioning for motorists and holidaymakers.
On that note, it has been heartening to see local hospitality venues rebound from the difficulties caused by long closures and social distancing measures. But I know the financial strain of the pandemic has been painful and long-lasting and I have been pushing the Government to do more. Fortunately, the Government’s Hospitality Strategy will now enable the hospitality sector to rebuild from these challenging times by allocating a further £5-billion in grants to help struggling hospitality businesses get back on their feet. The Government has established a Hospitality Sector Council to oversee the delivery of this investment, and better understand the needs of small businesses. I will continue to monitor developments closely.
We have lived through challenging days, and there are no doubt more to come. The new variant is a temporary setback. But the great strides we have made are proof that the spirit of our community — and our nation — can overcome any challenge, however great. We must maintain that optimistic spirit as we enter 2022; it is critical to defeating this virus, and making the most of new opportunities when the coronavirus pandemic is finally behind us. I hope that we can continuing to work together here in Torridge and West Devon, whatever the future may hold, and that 2022 will bring you great happiness.
My very best wishes to you and your family for a merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.