THE North East can be proud of the role it is playing in the battle to defeat Covid. Not only is it home to the UK’s first integrated Covid hub in Gateshead, which has dramatically increased testing capacity, it is now playing a lead role in our world-beating vaccine programme too.

Last week it was confirmed that 60m doses of the Novavax vaccine will be manufactured in Billingham for delivery in the second half of this year. Novavax was found to be 89.3 per cent effective in preventing coronavirus among trial participants, including against the new UK variant, and will become the fourth vaccine to bolster our fightback against the pandemic.

The North-East is also leading efforts to inoculate its population against the virus, as the Guardian newspaper reported last week, in a feature headlined: “Why is Newcastle so good at Covid-19 vaccinations?”

Newcastle was the first UK city to vaccinate all eligible care home residents, and by bringing all 31 of its GP practices together under one roof, it has created a mass vaccination centre capable of administering 30 jabs every five minutes. Further mass vaccine facilities will be opened across the region soon.

Every jab brings the end of this terrible pandemic one step closer. There’s rising evidence that just one dose provides significant protection against further infection, and could cut transmission rates by up to two thirds.

While production and distribution of the vaccines are the Government’s top priorities right now, we also need to prepare for our economic recovery. And as Transport Secretary, I am exploring ways we can build back better by improving transport links.

We are reversing the Beeching rail cuts of the 1960s, and investing £34m to start work on reopening the Northumberland rail line between Newcastle and Ashington.

I am also delighted to report that Middlesbrough station is also to receive a £34m upgrade, allowing the return of direct trains to London by the end of this year.

The work includes extending Platform 2 to allow more and longer trains to use the station, including the LNER Azuma services which run on the East Coast Main Line. It will also boost local routes so passengers in Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool can enjoy faster and more frequent services.

Further improvements to the station will see construction of a new Platform 3 and a redesigned entrance. This significant project further underlines our commitment to levelling up the North-East.

One of the key drivers for local growth across many parts of the country are the devolved authorities led by mayors, such as in the Tees Valley as well as in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region. Local leaders across the Northern Powerhouse give these regions a stronger voice, and make the case for greater investment to increase economic growth, and last week we added West Yorkshire to that list, by legislating for a new mayor with a £38m annual budget.

We are investing massive sums to level up the North and build a strong and dynamic region, backed by local leaders with the means to make decisions, and adding West Yorkshire to the list of mayoral authorities is another important landmark in the development of the Northern Powerhouse.