The last couple of days in Westminster have been, I think, some of the most pivotal in recent memory. The vote on Wednesday was one of the most consequential we have seen for decades – and I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts about the new restrictions we will face over the next four weeks.
Firstly, I should emphasise that no right thinking person wishes to see the state interfering with personal liberty and the freedoms we usually – and rightly – take for granted. And I know the enormous hardship that many suffered during the course of the first lockdown, with the enormous stress of economic difficulties compounded by isolation, an inability to plan ahead and separation from family and friends. So when faced with the question of whether or not to grant the government the power to lock us down again, I took that responsibility extremely seriously, balancing 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 now seems imperative.
I should say that I’m aware that the statistical evidence for this fresh lockdown is contested. Like 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. I am myself wary of the more extreme predictions – especially given that the excess death rate is not substantially different from the 5 year average deaths from flu and that the category of COVID deaths includes those that died with, rather than from the disease.
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 team and I faced an unprecedented amount of casework from those in our area who found their businesses, relationships and lives radically compromised. I know the very real distress many suffered – the effect on mental health, loneliness, the local economy and the very texture of our everyday lives. Each lockdown imperils the fiscal coherence of the UK and threatens to fray the economic and social fabric upon which we all rely. With that in mind, I’ve been in touch with BEIS and the Cabinet Office to ask that exemptions from closure (where feasible) for gyms and places of worship are looked at as a matter of urgency – I know the stress-relief and solace they provide will be needed more than ever as the next four weeks wear on.
Before the vote on Wednesday, I spoke to Ministers and Number 10 to make my concerns clear. My support for this lockdown was conditional 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 not be minded to support any extension of these new restrictions if they were proposed and a new vote came before parliament. We must use these four weeks to bring down the R-rate, increase NHS capacity to mitigate against the risk of a future spike, improve the test and trace system and then release the country back into the three tier system which was beginning, gradually, to work. And I was 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 – and I’ll continue my ongoing discussions with Ministers to ensure that is not the case.
Looking to the future, my own view is that given the relative safety of younger people to the virus’s worst effects and the ever-improving mortality rate for those with COVID across all age-groups, we must, as of the 2nd of December, try to get the country back to a state which approximates as closely to normality as is possible. Should the picture remain similar to that which we now see, I will not support an extension of the current restrictions. Instead, I will urge the Government to reopen the country, unfetter the economy and operate a more flexible model that allows us to live with the virus (as we will have to do) rather than allow it to rob us of any more prosperity or freedom.
I do hope that goes some way to explaining the basis upon which I (with great reluctance) voted with the Government on Wednesday night and the principles that guide my thinking in respect of what’s to come.