Although Parliament has now risen for Christmas, politics – and all that flows from political decisions – continues unabated. And I’m conscious that the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday night dashed the hopes of millions who were hoping to seek solace in both the company and embrace of family and friends as the year draws to a close.
I know, too, that – despite the somewhat narrow beam of the media spotlight – this affects people right across the country, not just in London and the South East. It’s not just those who are left marooned in London, unable to make it home, but all those whose plans to cohere in festive bubbles have been ruined.
Each governmental decision has consequences that ripple outwards, in concentric circles. One phenomenon we’ve seen recur from the first lockdown is a spike in panic buying. As a result, I know that supermarket delivery slots – a literal lifeline for many of the elderly and isolated – may become increasingly difficult to secure, so I’m currently talking to supermarkets in Somerton and Frome to ensure they’re able to prioritise the most vulnerable. But if you are made aware of anyone who’s struggling to obtain food, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and I will do all that I can to help.
The rapidity with which the new strain of Covid-19 has been identified is a reflection of the UK having the world’s strongest genetic sequencing capabilities. Indeed, the Harvard epidemiologist, William Hanage, described this strength as being “the most sophisticated SARS-CoV-2 genomic monitoring in the world”.
And even as we lament the restrictions that prevent us from gathering, the structural integrity of our scientific sector gives us cause for optimism. That’s not true simply of the vaccine rollout that’s now underway, but is also exemplified by the speed with which the more transmissible strain form of the virus has been discovered and reported to the World Health Organisation. But, in a rather grisly piece of irony, the sophistication of our ability to track mutating strains of Covid-19 (and our transparency in reporting it) has led to UK citizens now being barred – no doubt temporarily - from travelling to many countries in Europe and around the world.
While I don’t agree with the blanket ban on travel, I understand the rationale that governs it. Indeed, when the mutant Covid strain carried by minks was isolated in Denmark, we took very similar steps. But the decision by the French Government to impede the cross-channel movement of freight is far harder to excuse, particularly in light of the imminence of Christmas, the strains faced by the entirety of the UK and the strong likelihood that the newer strain has already spread – though not yet identified – in France.
I understand that the measures taken by the French Government will be causing genuine alarm for many. But by way of context, I should say that that 80% of our imports, including food, are unaccompanied in containers. Calais and Dover have been effectively closed to accompanied freight in lorries and so these actions are unlikely to result in shortages. And, crucially, the importation of the vaccine will remain unaffected. It appears that cross Channel freight between Calais and Dover will shortly recommence with the assistance of our Armed Forces in providing rapid testing to drivers.
Before I finish, I should emphasise again the degree to which I share in the frustration and sorrow of those who’ve seen their Christmas compromised by the regulations that were announced on Saturday night. It’s for that reason that I believe Parliament should now be recalled – and for the Government to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of this latest raft of restrictions.
The rationale for the previous lockdown was (as it turns out, deceptively) simple. It was designed to drive down the infection rate sufficiently for businesses to be able to make up some of this year’s losses through seasonal trade – and, more importantly, for families to be able to gather at Christmas. Manifestly, it did not achieve these goals. So, at a time when a further lockdown is presented as a solution to the failure of its predecessor, I believe Parliament must gather now to examine the evidence, question Ministers and the scientists whose work informs their decisions, in order that we can take a considered view and vote on behalf of our constituents as to whether these Tier 4 restrictions are likely to achieve their ends.