Many of you have contacted me to ask how I will be voting on the Government's new tier system. Thank you to all of you who have taken the time and trouble to get in touch on such an important question. I’m conscious that this vote will be one of the most consequential in recent decades: for public health, the resilience of our economy and for the preservation of notions of individual responsibility and liberty. I will be voting against the proposed tier system tonight and thought it may be helpful to share my reasoning as to why I cannot offer my support for this system in its current form.
I very much welcome the constructive approach the Prime Minister has taken in consulting widely within the parliamentary party. We’ve seen additional support offered to those hospitality businesses – such as pubs – which stand to be most severely affected by the continuation of the restrictions we’ve seen. We’ve seen further ground given in other areas, but I remain unconvinced that this tier system has struck the right balance between the competing imperatives we’ve faced since March. The need to balance protecting our loved ones from harm and keeping the virus contained and the equally vital need to preserve individual liberty and the means by which people can provide for themselves and pursue their own ambitions.
I have seven key reservations which I outline below – and which prevent me from voting for this tier system. For the sake of clarity I’ve outlined them below in bullet-point form:
1, First, the regulations fail in their essentials. For government regulations to work (which can only be achieved through public consent), they must be clear, and underpinned by cohesive internal logic. But the rules that have been proposed are contradictory and, in many cases, seem almost arbitrary. From last orders at 10pm but 11pm closing (do we all order four rounds at 10pm, or do venues have to pay staff for an hour with no takings?), to the vaguely defined ‘substantial meal’. From allowing soft drinks all day but alcohol only with food, to an astonishingly labyrinthine and impossibly convoluted ‘bubble’ system, with no obvious sense of cause and effect. From work meetings being allowed in public or private places (only for self-employed), to no one allowed to meet from separate households either outdoors or indoors, unless they’re on a train or travelling.
2, I have been asking (both publicly on social media and in private conversations with Ministers) for the data – a cost benefit analysis - which informed the decisions around the Tier system. Apparently the Cabinet Office had been putting this together all weekend for us, which sadly suggests that the data was not the basis for the proposed rules. 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 and – of course – the future of the economy of the restrictions, against the likely lives saved from those same restrictions.
The ONS have calculated that there will be / will have been 200,000 excess non-Covid deaths caused by the restrictions. This is nearly four times the number of presumed Covid deaths. Bristol University put the figure at 560,000. While I don’t suggest these figures are anything other than an estimate (given the circumstances and fast-moving picture), they should nonetheless give us pause to question the wisdom of continuing a course of action that has produced them.
3, The regional basis for the tiering is problematic. The apparent incidence of Covid-19 is inflated in areas (like our own) that are affected by nearby towns or cities. And many, having had lockdown for a month, find themselves moving into stricter restrictions than were imposed before lockdown. This would seem to imply that lockdown was ineffective. Which itself would imply that the stricter Tier system will also be ineffective. Figures show that the previous Tiered system was having an effect on infections, whereas lockdown did not have a proportionately greater effect. So why will 99% of country continue under effective lockdown?
There is also a clear implication that the Tiers will continue until Easter. This will be devastating to lives and businesses in our area – while costing all of us, and future generations, almost £1 billion a day. It’s imperative that businesses are allowed to open – including those in the hospitality and tourism sector which contribute so much to the economy of the West Country. The restrictions have gone a long way towards the destruction of hospitality and tourism (and much else) in the West Country.
4, The NHS pressure argument is dubious. We have seven unused Nightingale hospitals in England (more in the other countries of the union). The excess deaths are barely above the annual average, and there is capacity even in regular hospitals. But even if the NHS does suffer pressure ,this is not unprecedented – and has been the case every winter for year upon year under successive governments of both main parties. But this has never before been regarded as a reason to make it illegal for people to be allowed to take risks with their health.
5, The data showing massive increases in infections/deaths has been shown to be dubious at almost every turn. For the under 60s, there is a 1 in 300,000 chance of death. For the over 60s, there is a 99% survival rate. For the over 80s, it’s still 90%.
6, There is an 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.
7, I have very real anxieties about the precedent that’s being set here: of the state arrogating itself the power to impose such stringent measures on its population when the data upon which this is based is chancy and uncertain. Liberty is like innocence, easy to remove and extremely difficult to regain. And a future government with less benign intentions could easily use this precedent to interfere further – and for malign motives.
So, given the economic, social, health, livelihood, business, mental health costs, the unemployment, insolvencies – each of which is a personal tragedy - I cannot in good conscience vote to compromise lives and destroy livelihoods. I recognise the pressures under which the Government is operating, and applaud many of the mitigation measures that have been implemented thus far. But I am unable to vote for a system which poses such an economic and social threat to our part of Somerset.
I do hope this explains my reasoning.