The House of Commons last night retrospectively approved the regulations governing the lockdown into which the country was placed on Wednesday morning. There was never a question of Parliament rejecting the measures that the Prime Minister announced on Monday - and which were already in force – as they had the full support of the Opposition and much of the House.
I myself have very serious reservations about them. In making my vote, I wanted to register that disquiet with the Government’s approach, while knowing I had a certain degree of freedom to do so, given the certainty of the measures passing.
Each day we’ve been hearing of rising rates of infection, the new – more transmissible – strains of Covid, increased numbers of infected patients in hospital and ever-increasing warnings from SAGE of the NHS being overwhelmed, cases rising exponentially and predictions of appalling death rates. Given all that, I fully appreciate that my vote against the current lockdown may seem unexpected.
And of course, I very much appreciate the difficult position the Government has to face. Public health must be its prime responsibility and it would be immensely hard for Ministers to disregard the advice of those specifically tasked with assessing the risk and making consequent recommendations.
But I have concerns in several areas:
First, the numbers and how they are being reported. Yes, there is no doubt that the new evolving strains of the virus – though thankfully no more virulent - are more easily transmitted between individuals. But our increased rates of infection are more interesting. The mass scale of our PCR testing and self-reporting through the NHS app means that, for example, our case rate appears to be far higher than many European neighbours. And testing also creates some revealing anomalies: the virus seems to understand the soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, for example, crediting those to the north with a far higher rate of infection. Our mortality rate – dreadful though it is - remains much the same as others’. So either the false-positive incidence of our testing is giving us a bleak picture, or we appear more resilient to the worst effects of the virus, which is obviously unlikely.
Everyone who attends hospital is now tested – itself, of course, a terrifically important step. Those who test positive are reported statistically as hospital Covid patients, whether they were asymptomatic or not; whether they attended hospital for a broken ankle or regular cancer treatment. Naturally, when we then hear of hospitals managing thousands of Covid patients, such reporting will concern us all and lead the Government to seek to act.
Every death, for whatever reason, is tragic and shocking. Even to write about it - and especially to do so in terms of data and numbers - belittles and minimises the personal loss which we all feel. It is important to see, I think though, that excess deaths over the past year have not been statistically higher than the average for previous years. And the ONS reveals that, in terms of deaths per 100,000 of population, since 1993 ten previous years have had higher rates than 2020. But I also understand that, given the infection rates and the new strains, it is the predictions of future mortality which concerns the Government. They do not know what may come.
I will not dwell on the historic predictions of SAGE, but I must draw attention to the missing component in this thought process. At the end of the regulations before us yesterday was the bald admission that “No impact assessment has been prepared for these Regulations.”
That means that we were asked to vote, again, on restrictions which will have unknown effects, both positive and negative. We are not provided with evidence for the efficacy of the lockdown, other than our experience of the mixed results of previous lockdowns, and – crucially - we do not know what is the nature or the extent of the detrimental effects.
As I’ve said before, the ONS have estimated that the restrictions across 2020 will have resulted in 200,000 non-Covid excess deaths. Bristol University put the figure far higher. Whether or not these predictions have any more accuracy than SAGE’s own Covid predictions, these numbers are many times higher than those who tragically will have been lost to the virus.
Many of us have repeatedly asked for the data – a cost benefit analysis - which can allow us to make an informed decision. The crucial question we have to ask ourselves is what is the cost to lives, to livelihoods, to businesses, to mental health, suicides, to all non-Covid related heath. It’s imperative that these factors are weighed in the balance against the likely lives saved from those same restrictions.
In his broadcast to the country on Monday, the Prime Minster suggested that the lockdown would last until mid-February, but the regulations for approval yesterday actually gave the executive a blank cheque to maintain lockdown until the beginning of April. Three full months. The Christmas lockdown cost the country the equivalent of an entire year’s NHS budget, and last year’s total costs are unimaginable. Another three months will not only literally cost lives, it will be devastating to so many others - both lives and businesses – while costing all of us, and future generations, almost £1 billion a day.
I am also deeply concerned by Ofcom’s media restrictions around the virus, and their enforceable guidance on broadcasters which demands that there be one prevalent narrative. However benevolent their intentions, such restrictions clash harshly with the spirit of our freedom to challenge and question; to examine and debate. This I find an enormously worrying step.
And, as I’ve previously outlined, I have very real anxieties about the precedent that resorting to lockdown again sets: of the state arrogating itself the power to impose stringent measures on its population – to literally lock us all in our homes for three months - when the data upon which this is based is uncertain or unknown. Liberty is like innocence: easy to remove but difficult to regain. And a future government with less benign intentions could easily use this precedent to interfere further - and for malign motives.
But I am most concerned because I simply cannot comprehend why an alternative approach to this pandemic is not quickly embraced. Given that – even when including those with pre-existing conditions - for the under 60s, there is a 1 in 300,000 chance of death, or the over 60s, there is a 99% survival rate and for the over 80s, it’s still 90%, there is a clear alternative to hand – based on individual responsibility that we exercise in our own lives anyway.
We should allow the vulnerable to isolate and protect themselves, as with any other virus – no-one suffering from ‘flu goes to visit and then embrace elderly relatives. These are the people at risk. They must be protected. But those not at risk have – I believe - little reason not to resume a normal existence, however much adapted to ensure safety and minimise risk.
Above all, we must now do everything possible to ensure that those most vulnerable receive both their doses of the vaccine as quickly as possible. And, as with all we are trying to achieve, that means mobilising as many as possible, acquiring the vaccine as quickly as possible, and ensuring that we do not fall behind. More volunteers, less red tape, oiled networks of rapid distribution to mass vaccination centres. We have led the world on this front, and we must now light the way out of this pandemic.
And, once the vaccine has been provided to those most vulnerable – which must be completed in the immediate next few weeks – there is no reason for us to continue with the restrictions. The Government must lift them. Not wait until April. And certainly not impose a repeat next winter as SAGE advisors have intimated.
So, once again - given the economic, social, health, livelihood, business, mental health costs, the suicides, unemployment, insolvencies, each of which is a personal tragedy - I could not possibly in good conscience vote again to compromise lives and destroy livelihoods.
I very much understand the enormous pressure under which the Government is operating, and applaud many of the mitigation measures that have been implemented so far. But, knowing that the vote and the regulations would pass, I felt strongly that the Government needed to know that there are still, small voices who have serious concerns, who would advocate a different approach, and who are deeply uncomfortable in supporting restrictions which will in themselves directly cause such personal, economic and social harm for their constituents and for our country.