Publication: Blackmore Vale Magazine
In my last column, I attempted to give a very brief summary of the kaleidoscope of activities in Westminster over the previous month. I’m conscious that – now more than ever – a week is not only a long time but a small eternity in politics, but at the time of writing, there was only one decision monopolising the attention of every MP over the last fortnight – the vote to reintroduce national restrictions to contain the transmission rate of COVID-19.
That vote was one of the most consequential we have seen for decades, and I was conscious, in making my decision, of the enormous impact it would have on the economy, jobs in our area, mental health and the texture of our everyday lives.
When faced with the question of whether or not to grant the government the power to lock us down again, I sought to balance my passionately-held belief in individual freedom against the grave counsel offered by Public Health England, the Chief Medical Officer, the NHS and SAGE.
It is the job of those bodies to advise the Prime Minister and Cabinet as to the level of transmission and the consequent risk to public health and the fabric of the NHS. They gave a direct recommendation - that the only way to arrest the spread of COVID-19 was through the imposition of a new set of national restrictions. This is something we all desperately wished to avoid. The 3 Tier system was, indeed, designed to mitigate against just this risk. But like Germany, France, Belgium and other European countries, we have found ourselves in a position where this seemed imperative.
I should say that I’m aware that the statistical evidence for this fresh lockdown is contested. Like, I’m sure, all of you, I’ve been following the data extremely closely and know that the infection rate is, for the moment, now falling again. I know too that the direst projections provided by the CMO don’t tally with the situation as we now see it.
But these truths do not confer the right for the government simply to ignore or reject the very clear scientific advice they’ve been given. I know that this fresh lockdown has already been met with widespread discontent. Over the course of the first lockdown, my constituency team and I faced an unprecedented amount of casework from those in real distress, grappling with the fact that their businesses, relationships and lives had been radically compromised.
Before the vote on Wednesday, I spoke to Ministers and Number 10 to make my concerns clear. My support for this lockdown was predicated upon it being strictly time-limited and upon the need for a further parliamentary vote for any suggested extension. Unless we see a truly dramatic worsening of the situation, I would be extremely reluctant to support any extension of these new restrictions. I was, of course, delighted to see the Chancellor extend the furlough scheme and other measures of financial support through to March. But I’m keen to ensure this is not a tacit admission that further lockdowns are seen as inevitable or any way desirable.
Thinking about power, the Roman poet Juvenal tried to square the political circle by asking “who will watch the watchers”? And over the next few week and months – as we wait for phial after phial of the new vaccine to drop off the production line – I’ll be seeking to do just that – to scrutinise, on your behalf, those in whose hands our safety and economy rest and ensure that both are protected.