The Business of the House motion just agreed to by the House provides for motions 3 and 4 on today’s Order Paper to be debated together, but the question will be put separately on each motion at the end of the debate.
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1374), dated 30 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30 November, be approved.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1375), dated 30 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30 November, be approved.
I want to begin by telling the House that I was hugely encouraged by a visit I paid only yesterday to a vaccine plant in north Wales, where I saw for myself the vials of one of seven vaccines backed by the UK Government that could turn the tide of our struggle against covid, not just in this country but around the world. It is the protection provided by those vaccines that could get our economies moving again and allow us to reclaim our lives. That one plant in Wrexham could produce 300 million doses a year. Yesterday was the momentous day when it began to manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and it was a very moving moment. I talked to one of the brilliant young scientists there, and she described the extraordinary moment in her life of being part of an enterprise that she thought was truly going to offer humanity a route out of this suffering.
But we have to be realistic, and we have to accept that this vaccine is not here yet—no vaccine is here yet. While all the signs are promising, and almost every scientist I have talked to agrees that the breakthrough will surely come, we do not yet have one that has gained regulatory approval, and we cannot be completely sure when the moment will arrive. Until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter. The national measures that are shortly ending in England have eased the burden on the NHS and begun to reverse the advance of the virus. Today the R is back below one, and the Office for National Statistics survey shows signs that the infection rate is levelling off. Imperial College London has found that the number of people with covid has fallen by a third in England since 2 November.
But while the virus has been contained, it has not been eradicated. The latest ONS figures suggest that, out of every 85 people in England, one has coronavirus—far more than in the summer. Between 24 November and yesterday, 3,222 people across the UK lost their lives. Despite the immense progress of the last four weeks, our NHS remains under pressure, with hospitals in three regions—the south-west, the north-east and Yorkshire—all treating more covid patients now than at the peak of the first wave.
The Prime Minister talked about the virus being eradicated. Only one virus in history has been eradicated. Containment may well be the only option open to us.
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, completely right. Containment is the objective of the tiering scheme that the Government are announcing, and I hope the Opposition will support that tonight, in spite of what I gather is their decision to abstain, which seems extraordinary to me. We cannot simply allow the current restrictions to expire, for the reason he gives, with no replacement whatever. With the spread of the epidemic varying across the country, there remains a compelling case for regional tiers in England and, indeed, a compelling necessity for regional tiers.
The latest rate in my area is 79 per 100,000 people. A week ago, it was 178. We went into lockdown in tier 1 and will come out in tier 2. Pubs and restaurants in my constituency are in the worst of all worlds. In asking me to support these regulations tonight, what hope can the Prime Minister give them?
Indeed, and I will come in just a moment to what more we hope to do for pubs, restaurants and everybody in the hospitality sector, whose anguish and difficulties everybody in this Chamber understands and appreciates.
I hope the House is clear what I am not asking for today. This is not another lockdown, nor is this the renewal of existing measures in England. The tiers that I am proposing would mean that from tomorrow, everyone in England, including those in tier 3, will be free to leave their homes for any reason. When they do, they will find the shops open for Christmas, the hairdressers open, the nail bars open, and gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools open.
My constituency sits entirely within the Borough of Allerdale, where our rates have declined to just over 70 per 100,000, and we are due to enter tier 2 restrictions. Will the Prime Minister commit to a more local tiering system, so that the hard work of my constituents is rewarded?
Yes, indeed. This is a point that many of my hon. and right hon. Friends have made to me and to the Government with great force and eloquence over the past few days. We want to be as granular as possible as we go forward to reflect the reality and the human geography of the epidemic, and we shall be so. What I can say is that, from tomorrow, across the whole country, not just gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools will be open, but churches, synagogues, mosques and temples will reopen for communal worship, organised outdoor sport will resume and, in every tier, people will be able to meet others in parks and in public gardens, subject to the rule of six. Every one of those things has been, by necessity, restricted until today. Every one of them will be allowed again tomorrow. Of course, I accept that this is not a return to normality—I wish it were so—but it is a bit closer to normality than the present restrictions. What we cannot do is to lift all the restrictions at once or to move too quickly in such a way that the virus would begin to spread rapidly again. That would be the surest way of endangering our NHS and forcing us into a new year lockdown with all the costs that that would impose.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. After the inconsistencies and controversies of the previous tiering system, what was required this time round was more fairness, clarity and transparency. We were promised a regional approach. However, what the powers that be have done is to place little old Slough in tier 3, despite the fact that we have been segregated from the wider region and that there are areas in neighbouring London and Essex with higher covid transmission rates. Why does the Prime Minister hate Slough? What have we done to annoy him so much?
I love Slough, but I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I appreciate people’s feelings of injustice, and people do feel it. There is no question but that people feel that they have been unfairly attracted by proximity into a higher tier than they deserve. People also feel that the tiering is not working for them. I want to repeat the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), which is that, as we go forward—I mean this very sincerely —the Government will look at how we can reflect as closely as possible the reality of what is happening on the ground for local people, looking at the incidence of the disease, looking at the human geography and spread of the pandemic, and, indeed, looking at the progress that areas are making in getting the virus down. We will try to be as sensitive as possible to local effort and to local achievement in bringing the pandemic under control.
I want to make a little bit of progress, because I want to say something now about our hospitality sector, which I know the House will want to hear. We all accept that the burden on the hospitality sector has been very great, and we feel this deeply, because our pubs, our hotels and our restaurants are, in many ways, the heart of our communities and part of the fabric of our identity as a country. Everybody can see that the hospitality industry has borne a disproportionate share of the burden in this crisis. There is no question about it. That is obviously because we want to keep schools open and we have to take such measures as we can. I just remind the House, however, that we are not alone in that: in France, bars, restaurants and gyms will not reopen until 20 January at the earliest; and in Germany, the hospitality sector will remain closed in its entirety over Christmas.
We will do everything in our power to support our hospitality sector throughout this crisis. We have already extended the furlough scheme for all businesses until the end of March. We have provided monthly grants of up to £3,000 for premises forced to close and £2,100 for those that remain open but have suffered because of reduced demand. We have allocated £1.1 billion for local authorities to support businesses at particular risk. Today, we are going further, with a one-off payment of £1,000 in December to wet pubs—that is, pubs that do not serve food, as the House knows—recognising how hard they have been hit by this virus in what is typically their busiest month. We will also work with the hospitality sector in supporting their bounce back next year.
I want to stress that the situation is profoundly different now, because there is an end in sight. I am not seeking open-ended measures this afternoon; on the contrary, the regulations come with a sunset clause at the end of 2 February, at which point we will have sufficient data to assess our position after Christmas. Though I believe that these types of restrictions will be needed until the spring, they can be extended beyond 2 February only if this House votes for them.
In the week up to 25 November, Market Rasen ward had six cases and is to go to tier 3; East Ham ward in London had 40 cases in that week and is to go into tier 2. What I want from my right hon. Friend is an absolute personal commitment that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will look personally at the case of Lincolnshire and do their level best to get us out of tier 3 by Christmas.
Indeed, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance: we will look in as much granular detail as we can at the incidence throughout the country. These points have been made with great power by Members from all parties. We will review the allocation of tiers every 14 days, starting on 16 December.
I just want to make an important point to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and to all Members who are rightly concerned about the position of their constituencies—our constituencies—in these tiers. Members have it in their power—in our power—to help to move our areas down the tiers by throwing their full weight—throwing our full weight as leaders in our communities—behind community testing and seizing the opportunity to encourage as many people as possible to take part.
Kent is the biggest county by population in Britain and there are vast differences in the rate of covid within it. In Tunbridge Wells, we have one of the lowest incidences in the country. Will the Prime Minister commit that at the first possible review on 16 December, if a particular borough meets the five criteria that he has set, he will move it down to a lower tier?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to raise the position of Tunbridge Wells, and I know that the feelings of the people of Tunbridge Wells are shared by many people across the country who feel this sense of being unjustly attracted into the wrong level of tiering. I repeat the assurance that I have given to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: we will look in granular detail at local incidence—at the human geography of the pandemic—and take account of exactly what is happening every two weeks. To repeat my point, it is in the power of Members to help their local area to move down the tiers.
I am going to give way for one last time, to the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey).
Will the Prime Minister ensure that anyone who wants to take a test to confirm that they do not have the virus before they visit family members over Christmas can have a test on the NHS?
We are rolling out lateral flow testing across the country and it is open to people to get a lateral flow test, but in general the testing system is available at the moment for people who have symptoms. I urge people who are worried that they may need to be in the company of those who are elderly or vulnerable to seek to get a rapid-turnaround test. [Interruption.] The one thing the right hon. Gentleman could do for his constituents if he wants to help them to move out of the tier they are in is to encourage them all to take part in mass community testing of the kind that the Government are rolling out.
This depends very much on the co-operation of local leaders and local authorities of the kind that we have seen in Liverpool, where, since 6 November, over 284,000 tests have been conducted, and, together with the effect of national restrictions, the number of cases fell by more than two thirds. This is the model that I would recommend. We are now proposing that from tomorrow Liverpool city region and Warrington should be in tier 2 whereas previously, obviously, they were in tier 3. We want other regions and other towns, cities and communities to follow this path. That is why, with the help of our fantastic armed forces, we will be offering community testing to tier 3 areas as quickly as possible.
What assessment has the Prime Minister done of compliance with previous lockdowns? Does he share my concern that people have just had enough and that the risk of non-compliance is very great, and that those who are compliant will then have the added frustration of watching those who will not comply doing whatever they want while they have to sit at home?
I normally find myself in agreement with my right hon. Friend, but I must say that I do not think she is right in this instance. If we look at what the British people have achieved in the past few weeks by following the guidance, and by deciding to work together to get the R down, they have done just that. Collectively, the people of this country have got the R back down below 1. That was not by non-compliance—it was by the people of this country deciding to follow the rules, do it together, and get the virus down.
I find it extraordinary that the official Opposition, represented by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), currently have no view on the way ahead and are not proposing to vote tonight.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us.
I am very pleased to hear it. Many Labour Members believe that there should be restrictions but believe that the Prime Minister’s tiers are wrong. He is explaining very well why he is going to come back on 16 December and come up with a system that we might be able to vote for, but the system he is coming up with today is totally inadequate. How is it possible that in Chesterfield, with 118 cases per 100,000, we are in tier 3, but London constituencies like the one he represents, with a much higher level, are in tier 2? It is because our pub owners and our restaurateurs are worthless to him.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will really think carefully about what he just said. We are trying to look after pubs, restaurants and businesses across this entire country, and no one feels the anguish of those businesses more than this Government.
I do think it is extraordinary that in spite of the barrage of criticism that we have, we have no credible plan from the Labour party. Indeed, we have no view on the way ahead. It is a quite extraordinary thing that, to the best of my knowledge, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, who said that he would always act in the national interest, has told his party to sit on its hands and to abstain in the vote tonight. The Government have made their decision, we have taken some tough decisions, and the Labour Opposition have decided tonight, heroically, to abstain. I think that when the history of this pandemic comes to be written, the people of this country will observe that instead of having politicians of all parties coming together in the national interest, they had one party taking the decisions and another party heroically deciding to abstain.
In the story of 2020, there are two great feats from which we can take a great deal of comfort. First, our country has come together in an extraordinary effort that has so far succeeded in protecting our NHS and in saving many lives, while our scientists have been zeroing in on the weaknesses of covid, telescoping 10 years of work into 10 months, and now their endeavours are about to deliver the means, as I say, to rout the virus. That is clear.
The Government are backing not one potential vaccine but seven. We have ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now seeking regulatory approval; we have ordered 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which has almost 95% effectiveness in trials; and we have ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which, if approved by the regulator, could start being administered before Christmas.
No, I am coming to the end.
In total, our vaccines taskforce has secured more than 350 million doses—more than enough for everyone in the UK, the Crown dependencies and our overseas territories. All we need to do now is to hold our nerve until these vaccines are indeed in our grasp and indeed being injected into our arms. So I say to the House again, let us follow the guidance, let us roll out mass testing, let us work to deliver mass testing to the people of our country, let us work together to control the virus, and it is in that spirit that I commend these regulations to the House.
I will be introducing a four-minute time limit.
May I start by welcoming the fall in infection numbers, with the drop in the number of people being admitted to hospital, and crucially that the national R rate is now below 1, and below 1 in many parts of the country? That is very welcome news across the House. Before this lockdown, the infection rate was doubling every two weeks, the R number was above 1 in every part of England and rising, and the number of people in hospital was going up sharply across the country. In other words, the virus had been allowed to get out of control.
If anyone doubts that a lockdown was necessary, I would point out that since 2 November, when this lockdown started, 10,711 people have tragically died within 28 days of testing positive for covid-19. In the past week alone, that is an average of 460 deaths per day. Those are appalling numbers, and every one is a tragedy. So we can argue about why this lockdown did not happen earlier, when the infection rate was lower, as we argued for on this side of the House, but whatever view was taken of the timing, it is clear that the lockdown was necessary and has helped to reduce infections.
May I also welcome the progress on vaccines? I have nothing but admiration for our scientists and the amazing progress that has been made. This is a great moment for our scientists. I went to Oxford University the week before last, to see the vaccine group there and to see the remarkable work that it was doing, just before it announced its results. A vaccine may now be in sight, and we must do everything we can to encourage take-up and make sure that it is rolled out quickly, fairly and safely.
However, the questions before this House today are these: how can we save as many lives and livelihoods as possible until we reach the light at the end of that tunnel, and are the measures that the Prime Minister has announced today going to control the virus and provide the right support to the communities worst affected by these restrictions? Labour has supported the Government in two national lockdowns. I recognise the need for continuing restrictions and I do recognise that the tiers have been toughened, as it was obvious to everyone that the previous tiers were a one-way street to tier 3, but I am far from convinced by what the Prime Minister has said today. In particular, the economic package is nowhere near sufficient to support the communities most affected, and they have been suffering for many months.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I will just make some progress, and I will come back to my hon. Friend.
I also fear that without the right health measures in place—in particular, a working trace and isolate system—there are real risks that this plan is incapable of controlling the virus this winter. I want to set that out in a bit more detail, but before I do so I will give way.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the support for businesses, especially in tier 3, that are struggling—in the hospitality and in the arts sectors specifically—is just not enough, because many of them are on the brink of collapse?
We have lots of speakers, and interventions from those who are down to speak early is not fair on those later in the list. I do understand that people who are not going to speak might need to intervene, but please let us think about each other.
I do agree, and I will come on to business support in a minute, but let me make the points in support of the case we make today.
The first point is this: we have been here before. On 10 June, the Prime Minister told us for the first time of his “whack-a-mole” strategy to control local infections. He told us it would be so effective that restrictions would only be for a few weeks or even a few days. That was far from reality; Leicester, for example, has just gone into the 154th day of restrictions, and by the time these regulations run out on 2 February, Leicester will have been in restrictions for 217 days. So that 10 June proposal did not work.
Roll on to 22 September: by now, infections are rising in 19 of the 20 areas then under restrictions. The Prime Minister announced new restrictions, including the rule of six. He told the House that the rule of six would
“curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to 1”.—[Official Report, 22 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 798.]
That is what he said about the rule of six. So that did not work.
Two weeks later, on 12 October, with the precise opposite happening, the Prime Minister stands up again—for the third time—and introduces a three-tier system. Again, he said that this will work: he told the House that this would deliver the reduction in the R rate locally and regionally that we need. That did not work.
Nineteen days later—the fourth attempt now—in a hurried press conference on a Saturday, the Prime Minister announced that the tier system had failed, the virus was out of control and a national lockdown was now unavoidable.
The reason that this all matters is that there is a pattern here. The Prime Minister has a record of overpromising and underdelivering—short-term decisions that then bump into the harsh reality of the virus.
And then a new plan is conjured up a few weeks later—we are now on at least the fifth plan—with an even bigger promise that never materialises. After eight months, the Prime Minister should not be surprised that we and many of the British people are far less convinced this time around.
I have a biology degree and I am going to take a wild punt that I am one of the few Members of this House to have used the word “epidemiology” in anger before January this year. We have choices to control this virus: we can have a lockdown, we can have a tiered system, or we can have no lockdown, where lives, such as those of John and Ken, family friends who we have just recently lost, are lost to this awful covid. Why will the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Labour party not tonight support these measures that are saving lives?
I am grateful for that intervention and I am setting out exactly why not—and I will take interventions along the way so that what I say can be challenged—but the first point, which I have just finished making, is that we have been here before; this is at least plan no. 5 and the first four have not worked. So I think everybody would forgive the British public for being sceptical about the fifth plan.
I will go on now and set out the second point I want to make, which is that the public health risk of the Prime Minister’s approach is significant. The prevalence of the virus remains high; even if the R rate is below 1, it is only just below 1, and we know that the virus is at its most deadly during the cold winter months, exactly when the NHS is under the most strain. So if we are to keep the R rate below 1 during winter and not waste the progress that has been made in the past four weeks, we need to proceed with precision and caution. But instead of levelling with the British public, the Prime Minister spent the weekend telling his Back Benchers that the plan is all about, in his words, loosening restrictions across the country, and he has been fuelling a promise that within two weeks or so local areas have a real prospect of dropping to a tier below the one they are in.
We need to level: in my view, that is highly unlikely, and we might as well face that now. It is obvious that the new tier 1 may slow but will not prevent a rise in infections, and it is far from certain that the new tier 2 can hold the rate of infection. [Interruption.] I hear the mutterings, but let us just see where we are in two weeks. I look across the House to Members who think that perhaps, in two weeks, their area is going to drop down a tier just before Christmas. Let us see.
Your famous hindsight.
This isn’t hindsight; I am telling you what is going to happen in two weeks. We know where we will be in two weeks. I have no doubt that there will be Government Members getting up and saying, “I thought my area was going to drop a tier just before Christmas.” That is not levelling—that is not being straight —because that is not going to happen. The new tier 1 may slow the rate of infection, but it will not prevent it from increasing, and tier 2 will struggle to hold the rate of infection. I hope that it does. I hope that I am wrong about this, and I think that all Members hope I am wrong about it, but tier 2—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Sambrook, it is continuous; we have had it for a few weeks now. Let us have a rest today.
Tier 2, crucially, depends on all other factors falling into place at exactly the same time. Although we all welcome the chance to see our loved ones at Christmas, I am not convinced that the Government have a sufficiently robust plan in place to prevent a spike in infections over the new year.
Of course this is difficult, and all systems would have risk, but that brings me to my third point. The risks we face in the decisions we make today are much higher because the Prime Minister has failed to fix the major problems with the now £22 billion track and trace system. Before the Prime Minister simply brushes the point aside again, let me remind him and the House that one of the major reasons that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised a circuit break back in September was that track and trace was only having, in its words,
“a marginal impact on transmission”.
The great thing that was going to control the virus was not working then. If we are to control this virus, that really matters, and the Prime Minister having his head in the sand is not helping.
I know that the Prime Minister will say, “We’ve made advances in testing.” I recognise that, and I genuinely hope that it helps to tackle the virus, but let me quote the chief scientific officer, who said that
“testing is important, but of course it only matters if people isolate as well.”
That is blindingly obvious, but only a fraction of people who should be self-isolating are doing so, and the Prime Minister still has not addressed the reasons for this, including the huge gaps in support.
I know that there has been an announcement about the change for those notified by the app—a ridiculous omission in the first place—but it does not affect basic eligibility. Only one in eight workers qualify for the one-off £500 self-isolation support. Anyone not receiving that has to rely on statutory sick pay, which is the equivalent of £13 a day. That is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. People want to do the right thing, but for many there is a real fear that self-isolation means a huge loss of income that they simply cannot afford.
I think—I cannot prove this—that one of the main reasons that people are not passing on their contacts in the way we want is that they fear that those they pass on contacts for will not be able to afford to self-isolate. That is a real problem, and we cannot carry on ignoring it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is doing a very good job—it is his job to criticise the Government, and of course mistakes have been made—but a credible Opposition would have a plan of their own. What is the plan of the Labour party?
Sir Edward, that is your second bite of the cherry; there are other people as well—please.
I will come to that. I have accepted the case for restrictions—we were very clear about the need for a circuit break; we are clear that we need to go into restrictions—but we need a scheme that works, and I am explaining what the problem is with this scheme as we go through it.
Let me stay with track and trace. We know the claims the Prime Minister made about this at the beginning of the year and in the middle of the year. On tracing, which is crucial, the latest figures show 137,000 close contacts were missed by the system in one week. That is the highest weekly figure yet. This is not a figure that is going down; it is a figure that is going up. Over 500,000 close contacts have been missed by the system in the past month. That is not a statistic. That is half a million people who should have been self-isolating, but instead of self-isolating, they were with their friends, their families and their communities—half a million people in one month. That is a huge gap in the defences. I raise this issue every week, and the Prime Minister pretends it is getting better, but it never does. The Prime Minister has almost given up on it and put mass testing in its place, but again, that is blind optimism, not a plan. The idea that we can go through the next few months and successfully keep the virus under control when 500,000 people a month are wandering round when they should be self-isolating is not a sensible plan going forward.
My fourth point is the level of economic support that is provided. I have to say to the Prime Minister that it is hard to overstate the level of anger about this out there in our communities, many of which have been in restrictions for months on end. Yesterday, I did a virtual visit to local businesses in the north-west. Their emotions range from deep disappointment with the Government to raw anger that the Prime Minister and Chancellor just are not listening and do not get the impact of months of endless restrictions and the impact they have had on local communities. In March, the Chancellor vowed to do whatever it takes to support households and businesses, but there have now been six economic plans in nine months, and the level of support is still insufficient.
For these reasons, and let me spell them out—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister mumbles, but let me spell them out. First, the scheme does not fairly reflect the difficulties faced by businesses across the country. [Interruption.] I would be surprised if Government Members are not picking that up from their constituents and businesses. Let me start with the additional restrictions grant, which gives a flat figure to local areas, regardless of how long they have been in restrictions. That means Greater Manchester, which will be on its 40th day of severe restrictions when it enters tier 3 tomorrow, has received the same one-off support as the Isle of Wight, which went into restrictions far later and will emerge tomorrow into tier 1. That is unfair, and everybody knows it is unfair, and everybody in this House is being told by their constituents and by their businesses that it is unfair, so to pretend it is not just is not real, Prime Minister.
The second aspect—[Interruption.] The second aspect is that the grant does not take account of the number of businesses that need support in each area. Our great cities are being asked to spread the same sum far more thinly, and that is also clearly unfair. Our constituents know it is unfair, our businesses know it is unfair, and nothing has been done about it.
The third aspect—even allowing for today’s announcement on pubs, which is the definition of small beer—is that many businesses are now receiving less support than they did during the first wave. That is a huge strain for businesses, particularly those that have been so long under restrictions, and it makes no economic sense for the Government to allow them to go to the wall.
Putting the grant system to one side, the second major point about the economic support is that millions of self-employed people remain unfairly excluded from the Government support schemes. Again, nothing is being done about that. I have raised it so many times with the Prime Minster, as have others, and every time he chooses to talk about those who are within the scheme, ignoring those who are not in the scheme. It is eight months on, and we are facing another three or four months of this. That will mean 12 months without the support that is needed in those areas.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He talks about those people who have been excluded from support. To focus in on who those people are, they include people who set up their own businesses 18 months ago, directors of very small limited companies, taxi drivers, hairdressers and the like. These are the entrepreneurs we need to build Britain back as we recover from the economic wreckage of the coronavirus. Does he agree we should be investing in those people, not excluding them and leaving many of them in deep and dangerous debt?
I do agree, and their cry still has not been heard. I accept that in putting together a support package in a hurry back in March, there may have been reasons why certain groups were overlooked, but this is eight months on. It has been pointed out over and over again, and here we go into a tiered system and there is still that gap in the system, and it is being very strongly felt out there.
The third point about the economic package is this: the Government must remove the uncertainty about furlough and rule out changing the scheme again in January. That is crucial, because businesses are beginning to make decisions about what they do in January. The Chancellor made this mistake before. By the time the furlough was extended, many businesses had laid people off because it came too late. We know what happens in that circumstance. The uncertainty has already caused real economic damage and we cannot afford the same mistake again. So, taken together, the business and economic support just does not stack up.
I want to make a wider point about the economic damage that this pandemic and the Government have done to our economy. Last week’s autumn statement laid bare the huge and worsening economic cost of the crisis. I know there are those who say, “That is the reason to end restrictions”, but the reality is that we cannot protect the economy if we lose control of the virus—that just leads to more uncertainty, more restrictions and more long-term damage to the economy. The failure to get control of the virus or take a long-term approach to shielding our economy has left the UK with the worst economic recession of the G7 and the highest death toll in Europe.
The fifth reason for scepticism about the Government’s approach is this: managing and priorities. The past 48 hours have been a summary of the mistakes the Government have made in this crisis. The Prime Minister is fatally split between appeasing his Back Benchers and following the science, and he is ending up pleasing nobody. I think the Prime Minister knows that tough restrictions are now needed, but he pretends that the restrictions might not be in place for very long. He pretends that it is quite possible that everybody will be in a lower tier in two weeks’ time. The reality is that tough restrictions will be needed until the vaccine is rolled out, and that may be months away. The Prime Minister will doubtless be back in a few weeks with another plan, but he does not make that case today or provide the certainty or the consistency that we need. So in the past 48 hours we have had concessions, letters and promises to his MPs, not clear and reliable messaging to the public, and that is symptomatic of the problem.
Coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health, our economy and our way of life. We recognise the need for continued restrictions, but it is not in the national interest to vote these restrictions down today and we will allow them to pass. But it is another wasted—
We accept the case for restrictions. We want a plan that is going to work, we are on plan 5 and this one is full of holes; we have been there so many times. So many times the Prime Minister has stood there and said, “This is the plan, this will solve the problem.” This is the fifth time around and we still have a plan with holes that have been there for months. Why is track and trace still not working? Why are the gaps in the support still there? Why are those we are excluding not included? Why are those who have to self-isolate not given the support to do so? Those are huge gaps in the system and to simply vote through a plan without recognising those problems is not going to help.
I accept the case for restrictions—we will not stand in the way of these regulations; we do not want the restrictions to come off—but I am not going to stand here and pretend, as the Prime Minister does: “This is the plan that will solve it all. Vote for this and it will all be fine through to Easter.” That is not going to happen and nobody should vote on that basis today.
I have to say that, although there are many points of merit in what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has just raised, he has left the House and the public with the impression that he is happy for these restrictions to go through, he just will not vote for them. As for the idea that that is the kind of atmosphere the public want or that they will be encouraged to comply and co-operate when there is disagreement between the main parties on these fundamental issues that cannot be resolved in a sensible way, I think the public will be disappointed with that.
Well, there might be a different interpretation of the events just passed, might there not, which is that a lot of us are very concerned that the Prime Minister does not give the full story to the House and to the nation. The truth is that we are almost certainly going to see another lockdown in January—a full lockdown across the whole of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I hear the Prime Minister say, “It is not what we want.” Nobody wants any of this—of course we do not—but we have to be honest and straightforward with the British people, and these measures today are not sufficient to the day.
I did not hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister make the promise that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he made. I think my right hon. Friend is being perfectly honest with the House on this. I think it is very difficult, and I will come to that point, but I want to concentrate on what we agree about.
We all agree that we want to keep the R rate below 1, while minimising the restrictions on people’s lives and limiting the economic damage. If the R rate rises above 1, it becomes much too difficult to predict or control. It has a multiplier effect, even if the R rate remains constant. It is perfectly legitimate for colleagues on the Conservative Benches to press the Government for more clarity about why the Government believe the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed. Data for much of the country does not suggest that at the moment, but it is not uncommon for hospitals to become overrun during the winter months, even without the addition of covid. It is also reasonable for Government to anticipate that the rising rate of covid infections would lead to exactly that in some areas, or much worse, unless we can keep R around or below 1; and that is all that these measures can be expected to achieve.
It is right to press the Government for more analysis of the economic impact of these measures, but maybe the Government were wrong to raise the expectation that they could provide that degree of certainty where so much uncertainty exists. Equally, it must be agreed that it is impossible to predict the economic consequences of a rapid spread of the virus. I understand the frustration of representing a low-virus constituency included in a tier 2 area, and the need to provide the right support to business that is being badly hit, but such frustrations are not about alternatives to the fundamentals of this policy, which I believe the Opposition are trying to avoid.
The real question—it is also a legitimate question—is will the tiers be enough. I hope that tier 2 will keep Essex below the R of 1, but there is doubt: tier 2 did not work before. We must look upon this period as a further period of transition to when vaccines begin to become available. We should look ahead at the challenges that the vaccine programmes will present, and give thought to how reassurance is provided that the vaccine that each person is invited to accept is right for that person. In the meantime, the challenge is to ensure that we can move down the tiers, and not just into tier 1, but to remain in tier 1, even if it takes time for the vaccines to become effective and to be rolled out at scale. That will depend on how we all behave, the example that we set, and what we do to encourage confidence and co-operation with test and trace operations.
There is much to ask the Government that time does not allow today—about how to improve trace and isolate operations, particularly at local level, and about how the community volunteer hubs could help support people who should isolate. That is vital work now.
The last thing I want is to vote for these restrictions today, but until there are better alternatives we have no alternative, and should support them. I am sorry that Her Majesty’s Opposition are trying to avoid that truth. The Government have also the opportunity to learn by continuing to listen, and to gain public confidence from that.
The motions before the House relate exclusively to England, but that does not mean that they do not have consequences across these islands, so it is important that the voice of the Scottish National party is heard in this debate, although in line with our long-standing practice on matters that are devolved, we will not take part in any Division this evening. I am sure that is of some assistance to the Government Whips Office.
Perhaps the first thing the Government need to consider is why they have got to such a stage. Scotland has passed similar but not identical regulations, with a far greater degree of cross-party and intra-party consensus than seems to have been managed here in Westminster. Perhaps that is because the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretaries and senior public health officials have always taken a commendably frank and honest approach with the people of Scotland about the challenges of the virus and the difficulty of the decisions that must be made.
In the summertime, the First Minister initiated a national dialogue with people across Scotland on what a road map out of the initial lockdown should and could look like. Instead of promising moonshots and world-beating systems, and that it would all be over by Christmas, the Scottish Government and the other devolved Governments have worked to take people with them, whether that is the public at large or their own Back Benchers; and we have always been clear that public health and saving lives must be the priority. Whatever the pain —and real pain is caused to the economy and livelihoods by such restrictions—that pain is as nothing to a life ended too soon, to a family or community bereaved by this dreadful disease. As always, the Scottish National party sends its deepest sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one as a result of the pandemic.
That, however, is not to minimise the impact and effects of the economic pain. I see it first hand in Glasgow North, which thrives on the hospitality, entertainment and events sector. I will be interested to find out what the consequences will be north of the border of the Government’s announcement today on support for pubs. My constituency is home to thousands of creatives, start-ups and entrepreneurs who have all been left behind, forgotten and excluded from the Chancellor’s support package. We hear the impact from the families who are genuinely terrified that the £20 universal credit uplift will not be extended beyond March and from those on legacy benefits who have yet to see a similar uplift. And we all feel the struggle of the frontline public sector workers busting a gut to keep the services we all depend on going in the most difficult of circumstances.
On support for all those groups and for those who need to isolate, which is absolutely critical to stopping the virus, the Government have been found wanting. The Prime Minister was chuntering to the Leader of the Opposition, saying, “How do we get people to self-isolate?” Well, as he said, start by paying a decent rate of statutory sick pay. Make it affordable for people to stay at home and stay safe. Perhaps if the Government had made more effort to support those people—to support the excluded, to support families who are struggling—they would not be feeling the heat they are now from their own Back Benchers.
We just need to compare that with what we have heard in the last few days in Scotland: a £500 bonus for all NHS and social care staff. For 10 weeks, we all clapped for carers, but that was never going to be enough. This is a gesture of thanks for extraordinary service, and I really hope the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will have the decency not to level tax on this well-deserved reward. For the families who need it most, there will be a £100 one-off payment before Christmas to households with children in receipt of free school meals and a commitment that all primary children will receive free meals—breakfast and lunch—at school all year round if the SNP is re-elected next year. That is the difference that devolution makes.
For NHS workers and families in receipt of these payments, that is not a disaster; that is a Scottish Government working for and delivering for their best interests and the interests of our society as a whole. If it means that we are using our share of money that the UK Treasury has borrowed on Scotland’s behalf, well, that is the point of devolution. [Interruption.] If the Tories do not like it—I hear some chuntering—the solution is very simple. Independence for Scotland would have meant that we could have raised our own finance on our own terms and spent it on our priorities in our own time. We certainly would not have had to wait for the south-east of England to be placed into lockdown before the furlough scheme was extended across the whole of the UK.
If the Prime Minister is feeling pressure from his own side today, he only has himself to blame. Real leadership is about being able to make the hard choices and being honest with people when mistakes are made, especially in a time of crisis. People do not want bluster and false hope; they want honesty, determination and empathy. The devolved Governments have always sought a four nations approach wherever possible. We have seen that agreement can be reached in the provisions being made for those who need to travel to see loved ones over Christmas. While that period of easing will be welcomed by many, all of us will have an extra responsibility to be extra vigilant to minimise risk, practise social distancing and good hand hygiene, wear face coverings and take all the other steps we have become familiar with.
That familiarity, however, cannot become complacency. The threat of the virus to overwhelm our health service and to undermine the economy, and to individual lives across the country, has not gone away. We welcome the light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines come online, but that light must be approached slowly and carefully. That is why Scotland will continue with its tier system and the difficult decisions we need until the virus is beaten. The other devolved nations are making similar decisions and Members representing England in this place have a responsibility to do likewise.
May I say at the outset that I think the Prime Minister’s instincts in this matter are not so different from mine, and that I recognise the difficulty and the burden that he carries? This is a difficult matter and there are difficult decisions to take.
Freedom is not an absolute, but it should be regarded as precious. There should be always the strongest possible presumption in its favour. If the Government are to take away fundamental liberties from the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary. Today, I believe the Government have failed to make that compelling case. The benefit of the doubt that this House extended to Government in March and since is harder to take for granted in December. Six weeks ago, many of us made the case that the curfew policy at 10 pm was not just unnecessary, but counter- productive. Today, the Government apparently agree that the 10 pm curfew makes no sense. A month ago, the Government insisted that golf, tennis, bowls and gyms were unsafe. Now it seems that they are not.
Before the second lockdown, I invited the House to consider whether Government had the right to make it illegal for people to see their children, their grandchildren or their elderly relatives, and whether Government had the right to ban collective worship or to take away the right to work to support your family. Different people—different Members of this House—will draw the line in different places, but we must all accept that these are fundamental freedoms of our constituents, and we should insist on compelling evidence before we allow them to be compromised. That is why I asked for an impact assessment a month ago, for transparent publication of the criteria that would be used to decide in which tier our constituents would be placed, but also—crucially—for the weighting that would be applied to each of those criteria.
My constituents in the borough of Trafford have been placed unfairly in tier 3 in spite of covid test figures that are well below the average for England. Currently, the rate is 127.7 per 100,000 and falling rapidly, but I looked in vain at the document published late yesterday for any explanation or any route being set out as to how we would reach that lower tier. There was no serious attempt in that document to provide an answer. In the absence of that serious and compelling case, I have no choice but to oppose these measures.
I would say to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) that this debate is indeed about freedom, but it is also about the balance of risks and cost—the risks to life and the cost to business and families—which are both substantial and deeply worrying to every single Member of this House. But it is also a debate about facts—what are the facts? We know that our debate in this country, and indeed across the world, about how to handle this epidemic is disputed by some. It is a dispute in which the truth and the uncertainty—because some of this is all about scientific uncertainty—wrestle with the plainly false. It is about the impact of that on vaccination that I want to say a few words today.
For months now, we have lived through restrictions. We have seen people die. We have seen our local businesses suffer and, from time to time, we have lifted our eyes to the horizon in the hope of glimpsing something that is a bit better. Well, something has now appeared. To use a seasonal analogy, in the dark winter sky, three new stars have appeared, and they are the three new vaccines that have been developed and are awaiting approval. As has been said, every single one of us owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the scientists and the volunteers who took part and to all the people in the NHS, local authorities, our forces and others, who, as we speak, are making preparations for the mass vaccination programme to come. But that, too, is disputed by some people, although I think it is really important that we distinguish between the conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxers, on the one hand, and those who have genuine questions and concerns on the other.
It may seem incredible to every single one of us that there are people who believe those conspiracy theories, one of which, apparently, is that Governments wish to inject us all with microchips. Given the problems that there have been with handling other aspects of the epidemic, I do not think any Government in the world would have the capability to do that. It is of course complete nonsense but, more seriously, we remember the huge anxiety that was caused by the false claim that autism was caused by the MMR vaccine. That study was eventually discredited and the doctor responsible struck off, but the damage had been done. The anti-vax conspiracy theorists are still touting their lethal wares around the internet.
The fact is that vaccination has saved millions and millions of lives since Edward Jenner developed the first successful vaccine in 1796. In the last 30 years, vaccination against polio has almost eradicated that terrible disease. There are just two countries in the world where it still exists, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is in part down to some people who have killed brave health workers who were only trying to save the lives of children. Therefore—I say this to the Health Secretary—anything and everything that can be done to take on those who spread falsehoods will have the full support of this House. But it is also a fact that there are people who have genuine questions and concerns. It is important that we provide as much information as possible, so that people can weigh up the facts, talk to their GPs and make a decision.
I welcome the decision that vaccination will not be compulsory—it should not be compulsory—but we should not forget that it is both a fact and the truth that the more of us who are vaccinated, the better chance we have of defeating this disease. So, subject to the regulators saying that the vaccines are safe, I for one will be queuing with my sleeve rolled up when the time comes.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) leaves me with an interesting image to start my speech.
Let us look at the facts. The Government tell us that this is all about protecting the national health service. Fine—so let us start with the hard UK numbers. The number of covid-19 patients in hospitals reached a peak of 16,612 in the UK, out of 127,000 hospital beds nationwide, a week or two ago. The number of patients in critical care beds reached a peak of 1,489, with a UK-wide capacity of at least 4,500. At the recent peak of the virus, the national health service had 13,000 free hospital beds and 18% of critical care beds free, which is significantly better than it usually is at this time of year —so, cause for concern, because of the potential growth of the virus, but not cause for panic.
The Government, without doubt, have to act, but they should do so on the basis of hard facts. Today, we are talking about what the Government think of as a localised lockdown: tiers 1, 2 and 3. However, we know from other studies, and other countries, around the world, what does and does not work. We do not have to guess—there is hard evidence. Some of the Select Committees have covered that hard evidence.
What works is very narrowly targeted interventions, with intensive testing and tracking of contacts, and highly localised lockdowns. Take Germany, which has its fair share of densely populated areas, but has a death rate of one quarter of ours. Their concept of a local lockdown, perhaps at its biggest, is the city of Gütersloh, with a population of 101,000, or Warendorf, with 37,000, or one meat-packing factory, with 7,000, or even one block of flats, with 700 people. That is what they think of as a localised lockdown.
Compare that with us. We locked down Liverpool city region, 1.5 million, Greater Manchester, 2.8 million, and Yorkshire and the Humber, 4.7 million—anything but a precise lockdown. Other countries, such as South Korea and Vietnam, have used a similarly targeted approach to contain the virus, with spectacularly better results than we have achieved. South Korea has just 10 deaths per 1 million of population; Vietnam is even more successful, with about half a death per 1 million of population.
The measures will, without doubt, go through today, but I will not vote for them. When we come to vote on them next time—in early February, according to the Prime Minister—I hope that they will be massively more targeted. Restrictions on a local authority level, which is what we have now, are not enough. We must follow the example of Germany, South Korea and others by having restrictions imposed on a much smaller area. They work better, they are fairer and they cause much less economic damage.
We do not know for sure whether blanket lockdown restrictions work to suppress the virus, but we do know for sure the economic damage caused by such restrictions. The impact on people’s livelihoods and even their mental health is absolutely clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), the chairman of the 1922 committee, said, in this country we do not give up our freedoms lightly. What we need today is a policy of maximum protection for minimum damage. This policy is not it. I hope that the next iteration in February does a much better job.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). I agree with him, and I will be voting against these regulations. He has persuaded me to change what I was going to say by the power of his speech. We do not have to look to Germany and Vietnam to see what it is necessary to do. We have to look at 200 years of public health in this country, which has always been done at a local level.
One of the problems with the systems that the Government have followed is that, like all Governments, they want to centralise things—they want to take control. It is not just the fact that people suffer financially and will not isolate. It is that the central system is so slow at getting the information out to people that they need to isolate that, by the time it gets there, the £22 billion or whatever we have spent on it has been wasted, and the information is useless. We have also seen evidence that Public Health England has withheld information from local public health authorities. If we want to get this right when we come back to it in two months’ time, we must decentralise the expenditure and get it into local public health systems.
What I was going to say, before the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke, was that there is not a way forward where people do not die in this situation. That is tragic, and everybody in this House wants to minimise the number of deaths, but we sometimes speak as though if we have the most restrictive measures, which will undoubtedly stop people contracting covid, it will be fine. It is not. The first lockdown led to people dying from cancer as cancer services were withdrawn. People did not go to hospitals, and if they did, they often did not get treatment. The number of people dying at home increased dramatically over that period. The proposals before us will lead to more of that withdrawal of health services from some people. They will be extraordinarily damaging to the economy of Greater Manchester and other parts of the United Kingdom. We must remember that poverty kills. It is not just cancer and covid that kill—poverty kills. People commit suicide. Children have had their education withdrawn, and suicide rates among children are up by 40%. There is huge damage done across the board.
People say that these decisions have been informed by the science. I cannot see that. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care appeared before the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees on 24 November for our joint inquiry. When we asked him what criteria he was going to use to determine which areas went into which tier or whether there had been a cost-benefit analysis, he could not tell us. He could tell us that, because Greater Manchester leaders told him that he had got his figures wrong, in effect—he did not use the word “punish”—Greater Manchester was going to be punished for taking time to put him right on the science and the detail of what was happening there.
The science is not the same as the opinion of a single scientist.
I could not agree more, and one can go right the way from the Great Barrington group to the people advising the Government. The science to send a rocket to the moon is exact. The science on epidemics is not exact. It is open to different opinions.
The Secretary of State showed his prejudice against Greater Manchester, and his proposals will wreak economic havoc on Greater Manchester. We are told, although we clearly were not present, that when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was making his proposals to lock down London, the Prime Minister, the ex-Mayor of London, said, “No, you can’t do that. It will cost half a million jobs.” That means that the Government value jobs in London over those in Manchester and elsewhere in the country.
On bonfire night—normally a superb family occasion—this House locked down our nation for the second time, inflicting great damage on the livelihoods, mental health and wellbeing of our constituents, all in the interests of the greater good. I reluctantly supported that lockdown but made it clear to my Whip that I would not vote for any extension unless it was made clear to me why it would be the least of all evils.
I am afraid that the document that the Government provided yesterday does little to address my concerns, and therefore does not allow me to reassure my constituents. It deals with the here and now but does not provide an analysis of the long-term impact on people’s lives, nor does it explain why South Northamptonshire must be in tier 2. There is no analysis of the counterfactual—what would happen if there were no lockdown and people were given sound advice, rather than forced in law to comply.
This is my fundamental concern. We already know that compliance is a serious issue in some places and sectors. There are lots of jokes circulating about how a person can eat a substantial scotch egg with their pint in the pub but not a bag of pork scratchings, and about how different families meeting inside a restaurant will be rebranding their party as a business gathering. In fact, they are very serious; they graphically illustrate that those with the nous and desire to get around the rules will do so, and that those who are more compliant will suffer the frustration of seeing others flouting the rules that they do not break.
I have many concerns. A constituent told me recently that she finds it unbelievable that a mixed group of tradesmen can work in an enclosed space—one is her own husband—yet she has been unable to see her daughter indoors in their spacious sitting room, even though she would of course take extra special care. How is that fair or logical?
Yesterday, I spoke to primary school headteachers, who raised their grave concern that they are on their knees working to ensure that every child can be in school by are finding other services unavailable to them, such as child psychology assessments and supervision for non-resident parents, which all seem to be available only sporadically and never in person. How is that fair or logical?
Last week, I held a meeting of my South Northants business club and talked to small businesses that are flat out trying to survive and preserve their life’s work. One is a golf and hotel complex that is still unable to provide a service, unlike the big fast food chains, which can out-compete it through takeaways and deliveries. Another is a wedding events organiser with a beautiful stone barn that can seat up to 80, completely socially distanced, but its facility is for weddings and events, rather than a licenced restaurant, so it cannot open. How is that fair or logical?
Then there are the long-term health implications. My great fear is that my constituents are not accessing healthcare as they do not want to bother anyone. I have spoken to GPs in my patch, and they share that fear. What will be the long-term mental health impact of this year’s tsunami of loneliness, in particular for those with memory loss, for whom this isolation has been so disastrous? What about those who have had a baby in lockdown and have been isolated with virtually no face-to-face help?
I was concerned on 5 November, and I remain so today. I have some final questions to the Government. Why are we going back into the tiering system? Did the lockdown work or did it not? What are the merits of the ongoing constraints on my constituents, versus the ongoing visible costs to them? I want to support my Government and my Prime Minister in the Lobby this evening, but I cannot and will not inflict deliberate harm on my constituency unless I can see for myself that to do nothing would be worse.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, which will have a huge impact on my Slough constituents and all those across the country who face the prospect of entering tier 3 tomorrow. Since restrictions began in March, we have all made huge sacrifices to curb the spread of the deadly virus, which, as I know from personal experience, can be devastating. We have all accepted that we have a role to play to protect those who are more vulnerable to the virus. We have all seen the impact that it has had on communities up and down the country, especially on people who are elderly, from more disadvantaged backgrounds, or from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
As we leave our second national lockdown this year, we must recognise that we are where we are because the previous three-tier system did not work. Nobody wants a repeat of that. We must ensure that the new system protects lives and supports businesses, and that no area is left behind. Sadly, the proposed system does not achieve that.
Despite the excellent work of our local Slough Borough Council, public health teams and volunteers, Slough’s current high weekly infection rate has placed it in a very high alert tier. It is right that, with high coronavirus numbers, stricter measures should be implemented to protect lives. However, when I checked nearby areas, I was absolutely astonished that Slough was a dot of red in a sea of orange tier 2s.
Despite committing to a regional approach, Slough has been made a special case, segregated from the rest of Berkshire and the wider region. That appears to be based on an arbitrary political decision and an anomaly nationwide. Areas in Essex, London and Surrey all have local authorities with comparable, if not higher, infection rates to my Slough constituency, yet similar action has not been taken.
For the tiered system to work, it must be consistently applied and based on scientific evidence, yet at a time when we need fairness, clarity and transparency, all we have is confusion and mixed messaging. That is particularly detrimental for businesses that, under normal circumstances, would be heading into the busiest period of the year. They are now faced with no clear plan or adequate support from the Government.
I have been contacted by hundreds of Slough constituents concerned about the impact that tier 3 restrictions will have on their livelihoods without increased support. Businesses are in the dark; there are eligibility issues with the self-isolation support payment; and the support is inadequate and does not reflect business need or length of time spent in each tier.
The Government have had months to prepare for and fix the many issues that Labour Members have been consistently highlighting. In October, prior to the month-long lockdown, I called on the Prime Minister to fix our test, track and trace system, and to hand responsibility from Serco to local public health teams that know their area. Yet the Government are not listening and continue to fail us.
The budget is now at a staggering £22 billion—more than the annual budget for the police and fire services combined. We need much more funding and resources for our local public health teams. With each day of Government incompetence, lives and livelihoods are being put at risk. Despite the doubts about the new proposals, I sincerely hope that with them, and with the excellent news of a vaccine on the horizon, things will vastly improve, or I fear that we are heading into further lockdowns in future.
I rise to oppose this motion with some sadness, as I recognise the hugely difficult decisions that Ministers have to make, and the many successes that my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary and his team have brought about in recent months. As the first Member from Kent to be called in the debate, however, I would be failing my constituents if I did not register a strong protest about the way that the tiers have been applied, which feels arbitrary to many people.
I should say that I do not, of course, share the views of those who think that any restrictions are unnecessary, and still less those who think this is part of some great conspiracy. I want to see a balanced and effective approach to saving lives and jobs. I reject the idea that we have to choose between lives and livelihoods—of course we will save more jobs if we control the virus as fast as possible—and it is reckless and inhumane to argue that the death of older people is something that we should just put up with.
To be as effective as possible, however, the new tiered system needs wide public consent. In the end, we are all responsible for our own actions, so I want to see a system that encourages the most people to obey the rules for the largest amount of time. I put to the Prime Minister last week the thoughts of a constituent who said that if the Government impose stupid rules, people will stop obeying the sensible rules as well. This was sadly dismissed. Since then, the national debate has moved on to how big a Scotch egg has to be to constitute a substantial meal. I rest my case. I am afraid that what we have before us today fails the test of maximising voluntary public support. To be specific, it certainly does in my constituency, where I have had the most angry emails over a weekend since the Dominic Cummings trip to Barnard Castle.
The problem for us is the sheer size of Kent and the huge disparity of rates of infection between different parts of the county. There are rural areas in the south-west of the county with very low rates, which are many miles from the areas in the north-east of the county, where rates are indeed alarmingly high, and which absolutely need to be in tier 3. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his indications earlier on this, but they are not yet quite a commitment.
I do not believe in simply whingeing, so we have suggested an alternative route to Ministers. We have said that, instead of putting an entire county or region into a particular tier, we should do it on a borough or district basis. I hope that this idea is being seriously considered in Government now. One advantage of this approach is that it would be more flexible for Ministers to decide to move areas between tiers, so this would give people some hope, given that only 1% of the population is in tier 1, that they might have more of their normal life restored quickly.
I have two more points. First, from my constituency point of view, what was the point of the second lockdown? The national figures are pointing in the right direction, but we entered it in tier 1 and leave it in tier 3. That is a puzzle for a successful policy, but if that is puzzling even more so is why it seems to have worked in every part of the country except north-east Kent. Genuinely, why is that?
Secondly, I urge Ministers to spend a lot of time and effort between now and Christmas urging people to be ultra-cautious in the five-day exemption period. We seem to accept it as inevitable that there will be another spike in January because of Christmas. I very much hope that that will not happen, because if we do we will have exchanged a weekend of fun for a long winter of regret to follow.
We can now see the glimpses of normal life resuming with the vaccine and regular quick testing. For us to reach that promised land as quickly as possible, the public need to give their full assent to the new measures. I very much hope the Government will come forward with some that do reach that public assent, but these proposals, I am afraid, do not achieve that, so I will be voting against them.
Lancashire is an awful long way from Kent, but, as I follow the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), I can say that there are many parallels in the experiences that I have had this weekend with the experiences that he describes with his constituents. Tomorrow, my Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency, along with the whole of Lancashire, goes into tier 3 restrictions. However, from the outset, I want to stress that I do support necessary measures to protect public health, but those measures must have support from local communities, buy-in from local leaders and a support package for our local economies. That would mean that the regulations will be respected by local communities.
I was struck by what the right hon. Gentleman said when he paraphrased one of his constituents, which was that when the rules are stupid, why should we follow them. I feel like I have spent my weekend hearing from constituents who say that it is unfair that Lancaster and Fleetwood has been placed under tier 3 restrictions when the infection rates are far lower than those in the vast majority of London boroughs, which end up in tier 2, and lower than those in neighbouring district councils such as South Lakeland, which is in tier 2, as is the whole of Cumbria. When my constituents see an unfairness and a discrepancy in how these tiers are applied, the kickback tends to be, “Well, why should I follow them?” I have been very clear as a Member of Parliament that my constituents should follow the regulations in tier 3. I do not feel it is fair that they have been put into those restrictions, but it is important that we follow those restrictions in order to ensure that infection rates come down.
I want to set out a state of health picture. I am very grateful to the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust for setting out such a clear and open picture of how my local hospitals are doing. I stress that these are running totals and not validated data. As of last night, our area has had 317 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Currently, three wards are closed at the local hospital and bed occupancy at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, as of last night. was running at 98%.
I understand the seriousness of this health crisis and this pandemic—all this is having an impact on regular and scheduled operations as well—but the Government really must set out how they believe that these restrictions are going to be effective and fair, because right now the second wave is having a disproportionate impact on the north, particularly when it comes to local businesses. Those businesses have made clear representations to me, as a local Member of Parliament, about the fact that the £20-a-head business support grant, which is a one-off payment to local authorities, will have to stretch for the length of time we are in tier 3 restrictions. For communities such as mine in Lancashire, that money has to stretch the same length of time as it does for, say, Cornwall, which was placed in tier 1 restrictions and had to make it last for just 28 days.
When it comes to the local economy, my constituents are quite frankly annoyed to read reports in papers such as The Sunday Times that London’s economy was taken into consideration when the decision was made to place London into tier 2, but the economy in the north of England was not taken into consideration as one of the five factors. That stinks of one rule for the south and for London and another rule for the north. That is not the message that the Government ought to be sending if they need to bring local communities and local leaders along with them in order for the restrictions to be enforced.
Finally, I stress that in Lancashire we had cross-party consensus among everyone—from the Conservative-run county council to Labour district councils to MPs such as myself—that it would have made sense to look at Lancashire district-by-district rather than county-wide, given that it is such a diverse county that looks in very many directions.
First, I pay tribute to the continued amazing performance of NHS staff and, indeed, to the Government and Kate Bingham’s team for the incredible developments in respect of the vaccines.
I do not underplay the difficult and complex decisions being made by people in the Government and, of course, the terrible toll on families affected, but it seems to me that with every difficulty and milestone reached the Government are acting on largely uncontested information. It feels like there has been a serious lack of diversity of opinion, analysis and evidence when it comes to many of these restrictions. The Covid Recovery Group does not want to “let it rip”; they just ask for proper economic impact assessments.
Let us take, for example, the hospitality industry. We are talking about using an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money to pay the industry not to open or to pay people not to go to work, but the payments will go nowhere near the losses that the businesses will make, and many of them will still go to the wall, despite that money. Why are we looking at not keeping them open, given the very limited evidence for closing them?
Prior to this latest lockdown, I joked with the proprietor of the Compass Alehouse in Gravesend that going into his place was like being put under his control: “Stand there, scan here, anti-bac your hands, walk along that path, sit down there” and so on—Members get the picture. The point is that the hospitality industry has spent an absolute fortune and thought long and hard about how to run establishments safely. We should be reopening well-run pubs and restaurants such as the Reliance fish bar and Bartellas in Meopham, and the authorities should be merciless in closing and fining pubs that risk NHS capacity.
I would much rather my constituents socialise in well-run venues than squeeze on to the sofa back at home with their friends. I would have thought that mixing in venues was much better than mixing at home in tiers 2 and 3. I would have thought that encouraging personal responsibility was rather better than the nuances of how much people have to eat with their beer. As others have said, we must make sure that restrictions make sense, or we will drive down compliance.
We have to have a bit more diversity in the advice—perhaps there should be a few people with private sector experience, and perhaps even some more diverse scientific voices. I do not understand why we are using infection rates and not intensive care unit occupancy to guide policy. Why can we not move people around the country? I do not understand why we are preventing millions of people from working when we have not even made a dent in the surge capacity of the Nightingale hospitals—
There are no staff!
Intervene if you like.
I will. The hon. Gentleman talks about Nightingale hospitals, but there are not enough staff to staff the Nightingale hospitals. We would have to take them out of the hospitals that they are trying to give some relief to. That is why they are not being used.
I thank the hon. Lady for intervening and giving me a bit more time, and that is where I would like to see money spent. I would like to see money spent on surge capacity in the NHS, rather than on paying people not to work.
You know what, like it or not, my constituents are going to be thrown into more weeks of extraordinary lockdown, and there is no possibility of this not now happening given the Opposition’s decision to abstain. Well, I am going to support the Government’s decision and message to comply and, indeed, our remarkable Prime Minister in particular, but I will be hard pushed to support the Government in future if there is a realistic possibility of the Government being forced to seek a different path. Churchill himself had a wide mix of generals and advisers.
Covid is still taking a heavy toll on the lives of our constituents, and with this job crisis and health crisis, we all want to get back to life as normal as soon as possible, so the news of the three vaccines could not be more welcome. The priority now has to be keeping people safe by ensuring that no one is left behind and businesses are supported. The science is clear: restrictions are needed to save lives and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. That is why Liberal Democrats have backed all the previous lockdowns and the previous tiering system. However, at the same time as supporting those past restrictions, we have consistently called on Ministers to do three crucial things.
The first is to provide clarity. We need transparency and honesty in Government communications, so people understand what the rules actually are and why they must follow them, and are not just left confused and unconvinced. Conservative Members have talked about Scotch eggs and pork scratchings. I asked the Prime Minister about whether he could assure people they could get tests before travelling to see their loved ones at Christmas, and he could not answer that question clearly. It is not surprising that the general public are unclear about what the Government are trying to tell them.
The second issue we have raised is that we need proper financial support for all individuals and all businesses impacted by these restrictions—especially the self-employed, the hospitality sector, the tourism sector and charities—otherwise people are excluded. The third point, which we have made time and again, is the most critical. We need a comprehensive system of test, trace and isolate so that every case of covid is identified fast and the right measures to prevent new infections are taken fast. Sadly, the Government have failed to deliver on each of those things.
Let me focus on isolation, because I do not think this has had the attention it deserves. Back in September, the Prime Minister promised that anyone on a low income who had to self-isolate would get a £500 payment so they could afford to self-isolate. What has the reality been? The money simply has not got through, and isolation rates have become dangerously low. The head of the Resolution Foundation told the Work and Pensions Committee recently that there is “almost no take-up” of this payment. Why? Because people cannot get it if they are told to self-isolate by a local contact tracer instead of a national one, and because they cannot get it if they have to stay at home because their child has been told to self-isolate. So 7,000 people who have applied for their £500 in Yorkshire and the Humber have been turned down, which is 60% of all applicants. In Oldham, it is 50%, and in Liverpool, it is 80%. Is anyone surprised that the Opposition have no confidence in this Government’s ability to handle this pandemic?
I am afraid that, reluctantly, we cannot support the Government today. They have failed to set out the clear criteria for which areas are in each tier, they have failed to engage with local authorities and they have failed to provide clear evidence to this House. The Prime Minister’s proposals are arbitrary, confusing and chaotic, and we will not support them.
I find myself more able to support the Government today than I was on 5 November, and the reason for that is that last month I was concerned about the lack of a plan B and the fact that we might have to have such a thing in the event of the prospect of a third, fourth or fifth wave of this terrible virus. It seems that we are now on the brink of a game changer, in a way that perhaps we could not be confident about last month. That is important, because in the event that we can turn this around in the near future, the need for protected isolation falls away. It is for that reason that I see the logic of what the Government are attempting to do on this occasion, in a way that was eluding me ever so slightly on 5 November. The other thing that probably gets it over the line for me is that the UK appears, with what is proposed for tomorrow onwards, to be doing more or less the same as other similar jurisdictions. That is not just followership; it is important because each one of those countries, with all their experts, will have been making similar assessments and coming to broadly the same conclusions.
We saw in the leaked documents in October that our hospitals in the south-west and the midlands would have been the first to go over capacity. There is a big difference between the two, however, in that the prevalence of the disease in the midlands was much larger than in the south-west. The documents suggested that the hospitals in the south-west would have been overwhelmed on 9 November and the Nightingales on 24 November. In the event, at peak, my largest hospital, the Royal United Hospital in Bath, had 70 cases, and that was on 24 November, 19 days after lockdown. That seems to vindicate the model, the action and even perhaps the broadbrush tiering approach now being proposed by the Government, apropos the point about the midlands and the south-west.
In all this, we have to understand that there is a huge margin of uncertainty. We also need to understand that the facts are changing all the time. I say to some of my colleagues that we have to accept that sometimes there is no evidence in the way that maths, physics and chemistry provide us with evidence, and that we have to deal instead with what appears to be biologically plausible. We have to look at outbreak studies, and we have to look at the application of common sense to anecdote. I, too, am disappointed that the proposed tiering system has so little granularity. We have found, to our dismay, that the tools to do comprehensive contact tracing that would have facilitated such granularity are simply no longer there. Even Germany is now finding that to be the case. In two weeks’ time, it is to be hoped that we will have been able to appraise the situation against the five points, plus the knowledge of human geography that we facilitated with the restrictive measures we put in place earlier this year, and that, where appropriate, boroughs and districts will be able to be re-tiered to the satisfaction of colleagues.
The fundamental problem is our lack of public health capacity, and that is something we need to address in the longer term, notwithstanding the positive early steps the Government have taken at pace in relation to things such as the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the National Institute for Health Protection. Finally, in agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), I would say that the Prime Minister is no natural Grinch, but we have to be very careful that we do not have five days of partying over Christmas only to regret it in January.
We are in a never-ending cycle of national and localised lockdowns and restrictions that are not working. The daily death toll remains high, and hundreds continue to die every single day. Infection rates are ever-shifting, and people are seeing their sacrifices and the impact on the liberties and freedoms in the wider community not yielding the results they were promised. This Government have squandered any goodwill they had and lost the confidence of the country and many in this place. I voted for the current lockdown through gritted teeth. It was to give the Government one last attempt to get the virus under control and sort out the shambles that is test, track, trace and isolate. They have failed. Thousands of contacts continue to be missed. As a result, thousands of people continue not to isolate and the virus continues to spread. Instead, the Government have used this pandemic as an excuse to bung our taxes to their mates, reaching new levels of chumocracy.
It is clear now that the Government are void of any proper strategy. Their mixed messaging and ever-shifting rules and regulations have caused confusion, so public health measures put in place are not being given enough time to embed properly into our everyday behaviour. I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State and various Ministers what will be different this time that will mean that these new local lockdown measures will work. Each time I get the answer, “Mass testing.” Yet this mass testing is now community testing, as it transpired that there is no actual plan at all about how to carry it out, and it is still not in place. The long-awaited cost-benefit analysis was poor, but we do not really need it. We can all see what is happening to the economy. We can all see the impact this is having on loneliness, mental health, poverty, and delays in cancer treatments.
I do not accept that voting against these measures today is letting the virus rip. It is saying to the Government, “Come back with something else. Come back with something better and more acceptable.” We need a more sensible approach: one where we can live with the virus in the safest way possible, and that gives clear public health messaging; indicates how areas can move between, and in and out of, tiers; gives proper, equitable financial support to each area; protects the most vulnerable; and does not trash our economy.
I know that this is not easy for any of us, and we are grappling with a virus that, quite frankly, we still do not know enough about. But I also know that what is currently being done, and what we are about to repeat, has not worked and I do not think will work this time. Today I will be voting against these measures because I absolutely must do what I feel is best for my wider community.
Why will you be able to buy a pint in a sports venue without getting anything to eat, but if you order a pint in a pub, you will have to have a substantial meal? I will leave that hanging as the great existential question of the day.
Suppression in anticipation of vaccination is the reason for the measures before us today, but people have been writing to me for months terrified that a vaccine will be compulsory. I have responded by saying, “Don’t be so absolutely ridiculous—that could never possibly happen. We are a Conservative Government, after all.” Yet now we discover that vaccination may be a passport to the acquisition of your civil liberties, without which you will have all sorts of things that you would otherwise be able to do denied to you. That would be absolutely disproportionate to a virus with a mortality rate verging on 1%. It would equally be a terrible precedent to set for other vaccines and medicines. I therefore hope that we can get away from that.
The way to persuade people to have a vaccine is, of course, to line up the entire Government and their Ministers, and their loved ones, let them take it first, and then get all the luvvies—the icons of popular culture—out on the airwaves singing its praises. To have any kind of suggestion of coercion absolutely feeds the conspiracy theory that we are being cowed and our liberty is being taken away.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not enough for the Government merely to refrain from coercing people—they also have to pay attention to implicit coercion whereby they turn a blind eye to allowing businesses like airlines and restaurants to refuse to let people in unless they have had the vaccination? The Government have to decide whether they are willing to allow people to discriminate on that basis.
That would be discrimination. It would be vaccinationism, which we must of course resist.
The other thing that any kind of coercion would do is to set the seal on this Government’s reputation as the most authoritarian since the Commonwealth of the 1650s; but it is as nothing to the enthusiasm that we have seen from the Opposition Front Bench for even more coercive and restrictive measures.
It is hard to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).
As a Northern Ireland Member, however, may I say first of all that people might ask, “What input do you have into a debate about restrictions in England?” The truth is that whatever restrictions are introduced in England tend to be replicated—and sometimes magnified —by the Health Minister in Northern Ireland. Let me give one example. In my constituency is the lovely Carnfunnock Park. I could go for a walk through it today, with a golf bag over my shoulder, but if I dodged through the hedge into the golf course next door I would be breaking the law, because the law was introduced here that if you played golf, you would somehow kill some of the population, so you could not do it. The restrictions introduced here will have an impact in Northern Ireland.
I could live with restrictions if they actually proved effective; but if they are, why are we discussing introducing a form of lockdown for the fourth time, and hearing the same arguments—that if we do not have it the health service will be overwhelmed, the R rate will increase, the number of infections will increase and people will die? We have had lockdowns before, and yet the same factors are coming to the fore once again.
Of course, it is hard to do controlled experiments with such a virus. But the New England Journal of Medicine reported on an experiment that was conducted with marines, in which 2,000 were totally isolated and observed all the restrictions that we have introduced here, and another 2,000 did not, and they found no difference in infection rates. The report was not widely published because some of the science around it was contradictory.
The second reason why I am against the lockdown is its disproportionate effect on business.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern for dentists, who have followed the rules over face, hands and space and all the precautions, and for whom the R rate has kept low, and barbers and hairdressers, who have done the same thing and followed all the regulations, accepting customers by appointment only, whose R rate is 0.05? Is it not time for those who follow the rules correctly to be rewarded, rather than stopped from operating their businesses?
The frustration for many people is that they see their businesses being ruined by restrictions even though, first, it cannot be identified that their businesses are responsible for spreading infection, and secondly, they have taken all the precautions. The number of small businessmen and women who have sacrificed their savings, who have given their lives to building up their business, who have taken risks with their own money, only to find that their business is squeezed by the powerful hand of the state—it causes anger. It also, quite rightly, causes anger when we see people tossed out of their jobs by the same powerful hand, all on the basis that those restrictions are necessary. We need to ask ourselves whether it is significant that the Government do not want to put aside the benefits of the restrictions, given the impact that they have on the economy—and no such stark comparison is being made. The reason is, of course, that if we did, we would find that a lot of questions had to be asked.
We must also remember the many people who are suffering from diseases that could be treated and cured and whose lives could be saved. Those deaths will not be reported as part of the daily death toll that we are given every night on the BBC news. Those people equally have a right to ask questions, such as, “Why is the health service so distorted that our lives are not valued in the way that they should be?”
Thirdly, I am against these measures because I believe that the methods we have introduced have led to a huge incursion into our personal liberties. Many people have been amazed by how people have acquiesced. It has been done through Project Fear. I listened to Ministers during the debate on Brexit, in which they condemned Project Fear. Well, we now have Project Fear on steroids. There are people who are afraid to leave their houses. There are children who are worried, when their class has closed down, that either their wee friends will die or they will die. That is no way to run a democracy, and that is no kind of policy for this Parliament to support. For that reason, I shall oppose these measures tonight.
Covid is a very serious disease, and I take it very seriously, as I do the pressures on our national health service. It is disappointing that some people, when faced with different arguments or questions, always either accuse those of us who have a different view, pretending that we want to let it rip, or present, as the Government did yesterday in their economic analysis, a counterfactual, which is doing nothing. This is not about that; it is about doing the right thing that is going to be effective.
That is why I wrote to the Prime Minister with 70 colleagues asking for as much information as we could have about the effectiveness of the measures being proposed—not just whether they are too tough, but whether they will be effective enough. They definitely come with big economic costs, and if we are to pay those economic costs and those costs on people’s lives and livelihoods, I want to know that they will have the effect of suppressing the virus. We simply do not have that information. The modellers who work for SAGE are very uncertain about even the effects of tiers as a whole, let alone individual measures.
I am also concerned, from talking to my local NHS, about pressure on the health service, but again, I ask for the modelling and forecasting about NHS capacity. That was leaked before this lockdown that we are in at the moment, but it was never published—never substantiated—and the specific forecast in that leaked information turned out to be wrong. All I ask is that Ministers share with the House the modelling and forecasts that they have seen that have led them to come to the conclusions that they have reached, if they wish to take the House with them. Unfortunately, they have so far failed to do so.
I also want to say a word about the hospitality industry, which the Prime Minister, in his opening remarks, agreed was taking a disproportionate impact. There is very little hard evidence that covid transmission is high in those settings. If the covid-secure guidelines are to have any meaning, the Government should work with the sector to understand, if there are risks, how they can be managed.
I will give one example. In papers published at the end of last week, there were some concerns raised about ventilation. Two things: the Government have never discussed that with the industry subsequent to the publication of the guidance in the summer, and UKHospitality thinks that 80% of premises are up to the specifications that SAGE thinks are required. If there are issues, let us deal with them. Let those businesses open; do not just give them taxpayers’ money to keep them closed.
My final point is about what happens at the vote in January. Based on the fact that I do not think the Government have provided the information necessary to the House today to take decisions that are, by any normal measure, draconian, I am afraid I will not be able to support them. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if the Government want to maximise unity both in the House and in our party at the vote in January, they need to start treating Members of Parliament properly, and they need to start sharing with Members of Parliament the information that I hope Ministers are asking for but I fear they are not. If the Government were to do that, even though these are difficult decisions and the forecasts are uncertain, I think that people would be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is because they are not treating the House like that that I am afraid, on this occasion, I am not prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and I will vote against the regulations this evening.
The right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is absolutely right to say that this Government have not provided the information the House requires to make a balanced judgment about the right thing to do on these regulations. I cannot vote for these regulations. My constituents are sick and tired of how they are being treated by the Prime Minister and the Government. The Government’s strategy seems to be all over the place; by all accounts, it depends on who the Prime Minister last spoke to.
Friends of the Government have made millions, while some of my constituents have had no help whatsoever and have lost their jobs, or their jobs are hanging on by a thread. Just last night, two constituents told me that they had been made redundant and another told me about their son who had lost his apprenticeship.
Of course, forgotten and excluded by this Government are the sole traders who are limited companies, self-employed people, who are getting little or no help, and hospitality, which has been sacrificed by this Government. I do not know whether it is the same in the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ constituencies, but many pubs in my constituency are very much part of the community and the culture. They and restaurants have done everything possible to make themselves covid-safe, spending many thousands of pounds. There is still no evidence to suggest that any sizeable outbreaks occur in hospitality.
Many of my constituents have gone into debt with their rent, mortgages and bills, and they have no idea how they will pay for this. Of course, that also has unintended health consequences. Children are petrified about the exams next year, because they have been in and out of school for months now.
A question that has never been properly addressed, which I have spoken about on a number of occasions in this House, is that of the unintended health consequences. I put in a freedom of information request to my local clinical commissioning group about referrals from GPs, and the information I got back was staggering: GP referrals for first out-patient appointments for cardio dropped by 66% between September 2019 and September 2020, with gastro referrals dropping by 64%, renal medicine referrals dropping by 57% and ophthalmology referrals dropping by 68%. Those drops are just in referrals, never mind what has happened to the waiting times, where targets are being missed time and again. I have also asked the CCG for figures to let me know whether there have been excess non-covid deaths at home.
I wish briefly to mention councils, which are not getting enough support. Halton Borough Council is doing a really good job, but it will have a deficit of about £8.6 million. It needs more support, and it is important that we give more support and financial aid to councils to do more locally. Local is better and it proves to be more effective.
I wish briefly to mention the vaccines. If, as we are hearing, these vaccines are going to be very effective, it is even more crucial that the Government get their strategy right for delivery and that we do not see a repeat of the incompetence we saw over personal protective equipment and test and trace. We need to make sure we all work together for effective take-up. Retaining people’s confidence will be crucial to that, and we do not need Government incoherence. On 16 October, the Secretary of State said that a new, simpler system of alert levels would be in place, but three weeks later we went into a national lockdown. Today, we see that the Government want to put in place new regulations and restrictions, which will be reviewed again later this month.
My constituents deserve to be treated with respect and not patronised; being granted a few days of normality over Christmas by the Government as some sort of reward for their sacrifice is not on. In the real world, many people will not have an enjoyable Christmas, as they have lost their jobs and are desperately worried about their finances. I am not against restrictions in total. There have to be some restrictions, but there has to be a balance involving the economic and health consequences as well. I will be voting against these restrictions tonight.
Let me start with some positives. I say to the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, that her team in the Department has done some things phenomenally well in the past few months; I look at the work they have done in preparing this country for a substantial supply of vaccines and on testing. What they have achieved on both is far in excess of what has been achieved by any other European country. They should all be proud of that and take credit for it. They face criticisms on issues such as track and trace, but the reality is that the problems they face are exactly the same as those being faced in other countries. We just have to read the media in France, Germany and elsewhere to realise that these issues are not unique to this country, and they are not issues of some individual form of incompetence in government here. These challenges are being faced by all major nations, and the Government should always bear that in mind as they deal with the inevitable flak that flies around in such difficult times.
However—I do not say this to the Minister personally, because I have the highest regard for her, but I hope she will take this back to the Secretary of State—I want to explain to her why it is that much of what is now coming out of her Department and Public Health England, including the presentations we hear and the data we see, is now undermining our confidence in this House in the messages we are being given. That is fundamentally important when we are being asked to support measures going forward. I am not talking about now, since quite clearly the measures will get passed today, but there is another checkpoint in January, and the Government have a big task to do to win the confidence of us all at that time.
I have two particular areas of concern. The first is relates to the data we see. It is a matter of record that when we were shown the data to justify the current lockdown back at the end of October—the 4,000 deaths a day figure—that information was a long way from being accurate. Indeed, the people who authored it discredited it as being relevant for that purpose. That is one example.
The second example is that we were told about the risks to the health service and that only lockdown could sort the problem, because the tier system just was not doing enough. We now know that that was questionable, too. Almost none of the progress we have seen in hospital admissions and the death rate in the past month can be attributed to the current lockdown, because of the time spans between infection, hospitalisation, serious illness and so forth. The reality is that the data published by the Minister’s Department showed hospitalisations were slowing at the start of the lockdown period.
Just yesterday, we saw figures—I saw them in my county of Surrey, and they were released nationally—that show the health service is not at capacity at the moment. The bed occupancy rates are lower than they were last year, and in my county of Surrey, only 95 out of more than 1,300 beds with oxygen are currently occupied by covid patients. These are the things that sow seeds of doubt.
Another thing that sows seeds of doubt is the reluctance of the public health world to have a balance of risk between health needs and economic needs. We see that in the treatment of the hospitality sector. Do not ask me why on earth pubs cannot open in the five days over Christmas, so that we can have a meal out at the pub, rather than a meal at home. That is one example of risk aversion. There is also the treatment of the aviation sector. We can test the whole population of Liverpool, but we will not use testing to reopen key economic routes for the country as we approach the post-Brexit world.
My message to the Government is this: they have done many things over the past few months that have been fantastic in dealing with extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but if this risk aversion continues, and if the data continues to have these question marks, how on earth can we on these Benches be relied upon to be confident in the decisions being taken?
It seems to me, listening to the debate and to my constituents, that the Government have a problem with being trusted in this field at the moment. Much of that—I am trying to be supportive—comes from the feeling that there is not total transparency. Trust of the kind needed to impose these sorts of measures must come from utter openness and transparency. If the Government were to learn anything from the nature of these debates over the months, that is the lesson they should learn. They must be more open and more transparent.
The Government are repeatedly changing the rules in a confusing way. They seem often to be more interested in managing difficulties from their own Back Benchers than in communicating properly with the public and promoting understanding about why the measures sometimes are necessary.
I will say a little bit about the experience in Liverpool, because we were the first area into tier 3—the old tier 3; we have already got a new one starting tomorrow—where the reality is that infection rates have fallen enormously since then. Local leaders were asking for a full lockdown ahead of the tier 3 arrangements, and they embraced tier 3 happily because of what was happening. We had over 700 infections per 100,000 and our hospitals were precious close to being totally overwhelmed, and the staff in those hospitals have had to work like absolute Trojans. They are still dealing with very high levels of illness.
The reality is that the work done there and the mass testing have helped. We have seen the numbers fall from more than 700 per 100,000 to under 100 per 100,000 in Liverpool, and that is an enormous fall for which we are very grateful. It has relied on solidarity: on people in Liverpool helping each other, doing things they would not necessarily want to do for each other. It is that solidarity around the country between people and communities that has to be promoted, not “We’re all right at the moment, so why should we have to have these issues?” That is what the Government need to focus on. Ensuring routine testing for all high-risk workplaces is important. More testing of the kind we have seen in Liverpool spread out across the country is tremendously important.
More also needs to be done to help to support self-isolation, because that is the real problem. One of the lessons in Liverpool is that people have not downloaded the app and they have not gone to get tested, because they feel that if they get a positive response they cannot comply. That is where we need to focus—on helping people to comply. If someone lives week by week on a wage that is only just enough to keep their head above water and food on their family’s table, they will not want to see whether they are positive unless they have symptoms and absolutely have to do so. People will not go for a test on a routine basis if they are worried sick about what they would be able to do if the answer is yes and they are positive.
We have to focus more effort on the £500 test and trace self-isolation payment. Far too few people are getting it. It is not an entitlement and it should be. People should not have to jump through hoops at a worrying time to get it. Only one in eight are qualifying for it. Many more people are being turned down and local authorities in my area are being told that when the money they have to pay for it runs out, which it nearly has, it will not necessarily be replenished. That is not a way forward if we expect people to comply. People have to be helped to comply when they are worried sick about whether they can put food on the table for their children.
I hate this. I hate the whole situation, as do many people in the country. We are all trying to stay positive, but it is hard. I wake up every morning feeling angry, thinking why do we have to do this? But after 10 minutes, I think, “What else can we do?” because fundamentally the disease is the same today as it was at the beginning of the year. I have seen my parents for three hours since February. I was hoping to be able to meet them for Christmas— I was longing for it—but, as with so many other families now, that cannot happen. It cannot happen because the global pandemic has fundamentally not changed.
I hear people say that excess deaths are only slightly higher than normal. I remind them that that is with a lockdown. Pressures on A&E have been reduced. Numbers out this week show that because hospitality is closed alcohol-related emergencies in A&E are down significantly. That is the point: when you are unwell, the NHS needs to be able to treat you. There has been a lot of debate this afternoon about figures, one way or the other, but the reality is that in Leeds the numbers last week were 480 per 100,000. Yesterday, they were 220 per 100,000 and today there are 200 cases per 100,000. NHS capacity, however, is at 95% to 98%. That is unchanged and that is the key. We all need to make sacrifices to ensure sick people get the healthcare they need.
The tragedy of people dying, however, cannot overshadow the tragedy of businesses dying across many sectors, not least in hospitality, especially in December, its bumper month. I am afraid that I have to say that the Prime Minister’s announcement today for wet pubs is risible. It is not good enough. Many people have contacted me, including Michelle Dwan from the Victoria Hotel in Allerton Bywater. Justine Gregory of Salute at the White Swan in Rothwell, who I am speaking to later today, contacted me very politely and said: “We’ve spent thousands of pounds on hygiene and cleanliness measures. Every year we rely on the significant cash boost from Christmas. I know this is a big ask from the Government that has already spent billions, but ultimately we are a viable, profitable business that the Government has closed.” Please, Minister, people need more support than they are getting. I have a huge amount of respect for the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and I know she will feed this back, but it has not gone unnoticed on the Government Back Benches that, a little over two hours into this debate, we are on our third Minister on the Front Bench. Is the message going back clearly from the points that are being made today?
I do not believe we have any choice but to back the restrictions—if we do not, at one minute past midnight tonight there will be a free-for-all—but we have to stop playing jeopardy by saying, “If we don’t back them for the health measures there is a problem and we will think about what we are doing for businesses.” The hospitality industry desperately needs our support, but if we do not back the measures and there is a free-for-all, we will be in a very difficult situation and—to use a term appropriate to the time of year—the NHS will say, “Sorry, no room at the inn,” and will send people away to die at home. We need to get control ASAP. We need to stop businesses dying; we need to put them on life support. We are taking away their lifeblood, and we have not heard enough about that today. If we keep the numbers down for when the vaccine is ready, we can get our country up and running as quickly as possible, but when we do that there will be more everyday demand on the NHS, so we have to make sure covid patients are at a minimum.
I have had a huge amount of correspondence threatening me and calling me every name under the sun if I vote for these restrictions tonight, but being Member of Parliament is about taking holistic, tough decisions. It is not about hiding away and dodging leadership, as we are seeing from the Opposition; it is about saying, “We don’t like it, but we have got to make these decisions.” I ask my hon. Friend the Minister please to take this back to the Government: I will be voting for the restrictions tonight, but the package that has been put in place for the hospitality industry at the most profitable time of the year is just not good enough.
I will focus my remarks on these health regulations in relation to my constituency. Liverpool, Walton is the most deprived constituency in England. It has the highest youth unemployment in the country, and child poverty is at 40%. The effect of the pandemic and these restrictions, coming on top of 10 years of austerity and cuts, has been to push many more families over the edge and into poverty. We have had big policy announcements from the Government, but the reality for too many people has been little or no help from the Government and little hope for the future. Jobs have been lost, businesses have folded and communities have gone under.
Liverpool will move into tier 2 tomorrow if these regulations are passed. It is the first place to move into a lower tier than it was in before the lockdown. Its mass testing pilot has been impressively delivered by our local public health teams, the council and Mayor Joe Anderson, with the support of armed forces personnel. About 1,000 asymptomatic cases have been detected, and we await the scientific community’s evaluation.
It was a pilot scheme, so there are lessons to learn from it. The first lesson that this House should learn is that a system delivered by local public health experts, as opposed to profiteers led by central Government, is the most effective way to deal with the virus. In the most deprived parts of the city, only 4% of people came forward at first to be tested. I have spent time listening to people locally and hearing about their experiences and what they are facing during this pandemic. They are all too aware that testing positive means losing income if they have to self-isolate. They know that the Government’s eligibility criteria for the £500 payment is far too strict, and they are right: in Liverpool, about 80% who applied were rejected. The discretionary payments, which the local council has more control over, are capped and the funding is set to run out before Christmas.
Statutory sick pay is £95.85 a week—among the lowest rates in the whole of Europe. Put simply, it is not enough to live on. If that was not bad enough, millions are not even entitled to it. Nobody should be forced to choose between protecting public health and their own financial security, but that is the choice that the Government are forcing on the poorest in society.
The Government know they are failing. They know from their own polling that only 11% of people asked to self-isolate are doing so, and it is time that they asked why. Test and trace will work only if everyone is properly supported to isolate. Does it not tell us everything we need to know that, whether it is for the self-isolation grant, the personal independence payment or universal credit, the poorest people, the disabled and the vulnerable have had to jump through humiliating, dehumanising hoops created by Tory Ministers over years to get the meagre levels of support that they are entitled to, while corporate cronies and Tory donors get to jump the queue and are put in the fast lane for covid contracts for literally billions of pounds of public money without transparency, competition or any accountability?
In these debates, we talk about elderly people as if they are not in the room. We talk over their heads. We patronise them. We say to them, “This is being done in your name to keep you safe and, really, your view is of little interest to us.” I have been contacted by many grandparents and parents who say, “Charles, not in my name. I do not want to see my children’s future destroyed or my grandchildren’s business destroyed. I do not want to see my son and daughter worrying about losing their home and their livelihood. I do not want to see my grandchildren arrested on the streets of London for daring to raise their voice in protest at the removal of their liberties.” Old people—the people we patronise—have a view, and we should listen to it. Of course, it is not a universal view, but it is a view that is held by many.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster asked on Saturday, “How could we protect every old person?” The answer is obvious to everyone in this place: we could not protect every old person, but we could provide them with the information to make informed choices about their own safety because, funnily enough, you do not get old by being that stupid. There is a degree of wisdom in older people, and I hope to achieve that wisdom one day myself.
There is a serious point here: no Government can abolish death. It is impossible. Every year, 615,000 people die in this country, and not every death is a tragedy. It is so distressing when I hear leaders of political parties, leaders of communities and leaders in this place say that every death was a tragedy. A tragedy is when a child dies. A tragedy is when some young woman or young man dies, or when someone is cut down in their middle years. When we say it is a tragedy that someone at 80 or 90 has met their mortality, we diminish that life so well lived. We diminish the love. We diminish the way that that person was cherished and valued. Please can we change the narrative when we talk about death? Not all deaths are equal—there is the same outcome, but to compare the death of someone of 90 with the death of someone of 19 is not right.
Of course, there has been tragedy attached to the death of elderly people, and that tragedy is that in their final days and months, they have been denied the touch of the people they love. We have kept families apart for the good of an old person who is desperate to see their child and desperate to be cared for by their daughter in their final weeks and months. My plea to this place is: please can we involve older people in this discussion? They love their children and grandchildren and want to see them prosper. They want to see them have the same chances and opportunities that they had in their life.
Yet again, we are here debating measures that restrict the freedoms of the people we represent, which I do not think any of us would have dreamt of just 12 months ago when we stood at the general election. Now this decision falls to us, so we have to balance the evidence of the threat to health and life with the threat to people’s livelihoods, mental health and education. In making that choice, we must take people with us based on the evidence. It is clear to me that we understand this virus better now than we ever did before, and there is more evidence now, in this debate, than ever before.
I have been contacted by many people in my constituency who do not want to throw away the gains that we have made so far in advance of the roll-out of mass testing and vaccines. NHS staff, and school and shop workers do not want to see an increase in infection in their community, making it more difficult for them to be effective in their roles.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been clear today that the tiers we are debating will be reviewed every two weeks. He gets my full support for that approach, rather than a continued lockdown, if—if— in return Ministers can carefully consider two things, and I know that the Minister will be listening carefully, that I believe will help us continue to take the country with us through to the end of this dreadful pandemic. I speak representing a constituency where infection rates have fallen by 40% since the beginning of this lockdown, and our hospital trusts have fewer than 10% of their beds being used to care for patients with coronavirus, yet we are moving from tier 1 to tier 2.
The first issue the Government have to help us with is data. Data is our most powerful weapon, but we need to understand better what it is telling us. A data mountain has been amassed. I welcome the five-pillar approach taken by the Government, but we need a clear and agreed process to analyse it, regular analysis at a local level by our public health directors, and clear and transparent input to the decision making of Ministers. We need clearly set out roles for our directors of public health in that decision-making process, setting out local infection control actions that are being taken and the capacity of our hospitals to deal with coronavirus without impacting on other elective procedures and non-coronavirus illnesses. As Members of Parliament, we need to see that local professional leadership inputting directly into the decision-making process, getting rid of the confusion and conjecture that surround so much of the information at the moment.
Secondly, we need to follow the human geography of the epidemic, not the blunt tool of upper-tier authority boundaries, which bear little relation to the everyday lives of the people we represent. My constituency is in Hampshire, which is 47 miles long and is the largest county in the south-east of England, with 1.3 million people, yet it is being treated the same. Can we please look at breaking down the ways in which the country is split—perhaps in Hampshire, we can look at a north-south split—which better reflects the infection rates?
In conclusion, the last thing I want is to vote for the restrictions today, but we cannot throw away the gains that we have made so far. In the next two weeks, can we see from the Government a clear process to build the confidence of our constituents in the data available, and tiers that follow the human geography of the pandemic, not administrative regions? In that way, we are better able to explain, better able to evidence decisions and better able to take people with us.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate.
The UK has suffered one of the worst death rates, coupled with an economic crash that is greater than that in any of our international competitors. The Government’s covid approach has failed. I note the timing of the debate, just hours before the national lockdown regulations expire, in a clear tactic to pressurise MPs. It is the Government’s responsibility, with their substantial majority, to secure their own policy—the Conservative Government have a majority of 80—and I do not believe that MPs, in particular Labour MPs, should be placed under pressure to facilitate this Government’s agenda, when it is clearly failing our country.
Individuals, the excluded and businesses in my constituency cannot afford to pay the price for the Government’s mistakes on test, track and trace, and on a tier system that is clearly not fit for purpose. The levels of Government support are not sufficient. So I will vote against what is in effect a third lockdown, particularly in my region, in the north-east.
The Government have never had a clear and consistent strategy. The Prime Minister has swung between the scientific evidence and political pressures. We have had nine months of U-turn after U-turn, eroding public confidence and trust in Government. No doubt the Prime Minister’s wholehearted and uncritical defence of a special adviser breaking the covid rules has contributed to an undermining of public trust and of the public’s willingness to comply with covid restrictions. Today, we heard of a last-minute £40 million bailout for pubs. That was introduced not because the Government wanted to support the industry, but as a pay-off to secure the votes of Tory rebels.
The Government could have my vote tonight with a competent and comprehensive support package for individuals and businesses in my constituency. We need to fully compensate the hospitality sector. Bars and clubs have spent thousands of pounds to be covid-secure. It is reprehensible to turn on them now and say that that expenditure was for nothing. By and large, they are not multinational or franchised businesses; they are community businesses that responded to covid in our time of need and said, “How can we help?” They cooked and delivered meals and collected food throughout the first lockdown. They stood up tall and fed children during the school holidays when the Government abandoned them.
I would like the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister to tell the Horden Labour club, Flanders pub, Dempsey’s, working men’s clubs in Seaham, Murton, Shotton, Easington, Peterlee and many more that the Government will stand by them. Then I could vote for the restrictions. Can the Prime Minister tell me what the average pay-out from the £40 million announced will be? The Campaign for Pubs calculates that it is £32.26 a day to cover the catastrophic losses that pubs will suffer over the Christmas and new year period.
Until the Government change course, deliver a consistent strategy, prioritise businesses and the excluded in my constituency and my region, and support workers rather than penalising them, I cannot in good conscience vote for yet more pandemic measures based on the say-so of the Prime Minister and the Health and Social Care Secretary. I will vote against the measures in the hope that we can have more targeted measures and more trust in the Government and their approach to the pandemic.
When I last spoke in one of these debates in September, I urged real caution about the imposition of tighter restrictions in the Tees Valley. We are all conscious of the costs of lockdown to the economy, to our public finances and, of course, to the wider physical and mental health of our constituents.
Two things, above all, concerned me. First, there was no clear route out of lockdown—that is to say, no consistent criteria against which areas such as mine could assess their progress. Secondly, it was a situation of potentially indefinite duration. I am glad to say that, in both regards, the situation has fundamentally changed. The Government are right to end the national lockdown tomorrow. It is a crucial feature of the system that will replace it that it is clear which metrics need to be going down for an area to move from tier 3 to tier 2, or from tier 2 to tier 1.
I will turn to the situation in the Tees Valley in a moment, but the other thing that has changed affects us all. In the last fortnight, we have received the wonderful news that we have not just one, but a range of vaccines that we know to be highly effective at stopping the spread of covid-19. We know today, in a way that we did not in September, that the long national nightmare will draw to a close in the early months of next year. We know today that we are buying time against a definite target, as opposed to simply the hope of national deliverance.
To my mind, that makes a crucial difference to the logic of a tiered set of restrictions and the balance of risk that applies to our actions over the next three to four months. I can look my constituents in the eye in a way that I struggled to do earlier in the autumn and say that this is a terrible time—my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) put it well—with terrible sacrifices inherent in it in terms of what we are asking of our constituents, but we are now entering the final phase of the battle.
The Government will have my support today. My focus is not so much on whether tiered restrictions are the right thing, but on how we ensure that we move the Tees Valley from tier 3 to tier 2 as rapidly as possible, potentially as soon as the review date in the middle of the month. I am glad to say that the figures from the Tees Valley are now showing sustained improvement. In Middlesbrough, the number of positive cases fell by 40% in the week to last Friday, including a 25% fall among the over-60s. Pressure on South Tees NHS is easing, both in terms of covid occupancy and staff absence. The proportion of people testing positive has fallen from 13% to 8%, and, having stood at around 500 cases per 100,000, the headline rate in Middlesbrough is now 169.5 per 100,000. In Redcar and Cleveland, it is down to 140 per 100,000, so having not been a realistic candidate for tier 2 as the system was being established, I believe that there is a very important conversation for us to be having with Ministers over the course of next week, and I will argue strongly for this if the data continues to support it.
I want to make an additional point about the merits of mass testing. I was delighted that my right hon Friend the Health Secretary referred to Redcar and Cleveland specifically in his press conference yesterday as being one of the authorities that is actively seeking a roll-out of mass testing. I believe that this is important. Alongside the emergence of a vaccine, it will go to the heart of making sure that we can get our community out of these restrictions, which are causing so much harm and suffering, as rapidly as we possibly can. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) and I are as one in saying that we want to see this happen in our area.
I also pay tribute to the fact that a new support package has been rolled out for the pub sector. There is more to be done in the forthcoming Budget, because wet-led pubs, in particular, have suffered. I will close on that note by simply saying that I think that this is an ongoing conversation, reflecting the fact that, as we know, there is going to be a large piece of reconstruction on the other side of this national effort.
I oppose these measures not because I oppose restrictions, but because they are wholly inadequate. How can we still be getting it wrong? Once again, people will die because of the serial failures of this Government. Their record on combating coronavirus is one of abject and deadly failure. We have one of the worst per capita death tolls among advanced industrialised countries and we have one of the worst economic outcomes. There is not, and there never was, a trade-off between public health and the economy, because people are the most important factor in the economy. We cannot force people to go to pubs, bars and restaurants during a pandemic. They will not do it, but we can fully—I stress fully—support the hospitality industry and all those sectors struggling financially. However, this Government will not.
Research from King’s College London shows that 82% of people say they have followed the latest lockdown restrictions as strictly, or even more strictly, than they followed the first lockdown, but our communities are losing patience with the inconsistencies. Children can go to school but people cannot go to church. There are sporting events but not weddings. People can gather to shoot grouse but not for AA meetings. They should stay home and isolate when exposed but they could well be ineligible for support. And we wonder why people are sceptical.
I would say to those hon. Members, however, who are against all measures that they are completely wrong. This is a deadly virus and its growth rate rises if left unchecked. Those areas with low infection rates can easily become tomorrow’s hotspots. The decision to ease restrictions now and over the Christmas period makes infection from all these sources more likely, not less. The science now points to a third wave. Because the Government keep getting it wrong, we are in a cycle of lockdowns. Do the Government even realise how damaging this is for individuals and the economy?
There is an alternative, and that is to follow the example of other countries and aim for a zero covid strategy. There are countries, most in Asia, where new cases and deaths have dwindled towards zero. Melbourne has now returned to work after over 100 days of severe lockdown, but now life is getting back to normal. New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam and others, amounting to nearly 1.5 billion people, have had some combination of strict lockdown, highly effective tracking and tracing and well-enforced and supported isolation. We have none of these. We have had ineffective and delayed lock- downs, a shambolic private testing and tracing system, woeful isolation measures and a pitiful economic support package from which too many are excluded. The Government cannot pin all their hopes on a vaccine. Everything must be mobilised against the virus, but they continually refuse to do that.
Before I end, I want to say that, as a London MP, I think that it is fundamentally wrong that only the impact of London’s economy was considered. All jobs and the economy of all our regions matter. The treatment of some of the northern constituencies has been an absolute disgrace. Why is there also no increased financial support for those in tier 3? Where is the logic in that?
I am a Back-Bench MP in Opposition with a Government who have an 80-seat majority. I have no real power here, but I do have my conscience and my vote, and I will not be conceding either to this failure of a Government today.
Many of my constituents are very angry that west Berkshire and Wokingham have been placed in tier 2 when we were in tier 1 before the national lockdown and we still have very low figures. On all the evidence that the Government say they look at—case numbers, trends in cases and available hospital capacity—there seems a very clear case that we should not be worse off as we come out of national lockdown than we were when we went in, and my constituents will expect me to reflect their anger in the way that I vote tonight.
I would far rather work with the Government, and I think that on the whole they are doing a very good job in a very difficult circumstance, but they could make life easier for themselves if they identified more policies that both bear down on the virus problem and allow the much-needed economic recovery so that we rescue and encourage more livelihoods.
The first policy is this: why can we not have expanded isolation capacity in the NHS to deal with covid-19, with volunteers properly backed up with all the equipment and safety protocols they need so that we free up many more of the district generals to do the general work that they need to do and free up their staff from the possibility of cross-infection and cross-contamination? One of the problems in the NHS at the moment is that there are too many staff who have had to self-isolate. Can we not do better on infection control, isolation, and specialisation? Money is no longer a problem, I am pleased to see. I am very happy for more money to go into the health service, but it must buy the staff and make sure that the staff are properly looked after, so that we have that extra capacity.
The second issue is the capacity of our hospitality industry. I encouraged the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department of Health and Social Care to do work some time ago on safer methods of extracting air quickly from hospitality venues, so that more people can use a hospitality venue safely. I believe that some of that work has shown some fruit, and that experts agree that we can create much safer environments if we reverse overflows and extract air quickly. We are now told by the experts that the main transmission threat is aerial transmission by being in an enclosed space with people with the disease. Can we not have more public prominence for that work? Perhaps we could have some grant systems for small businesses and proper technical assistance from the Government and from those the Government retain so that more venues can trade sensibly and profitably without being threatening in any way.
Can we please also have a proper package for all the self-employed and the small business people? Why do some groups of the self-employed get omitted from the packages every time? These are the people who go the extra distance, provide the flexible service, work all the hours God made, and do not often get much reward for it. These are also the people who have suffered the most from these compulsory closures. If a person works for a large company, they are, in many cases, paid their salary, even if that company cannot operate properly, but if they work for their own business, there is no income coming in. They cannot put food on the table unless they get public support or can trade profitably. I urge the Government to look again at their totally inadequate packages for the self-employed and small businesses and understand just how much we are going to need them when we get into recovery mode proper.
My final point in the brief time allotted is that we desperately need to give people hope about livelihoods and economic growth again. We desperately need to have a full recovery programme sector by sector, including for small businesses and the self-employed, and understand that some people will need to retrain and some will need to go from the employment they have lost into self-employment. Can we not hear a lot more about this and be positive? We need to cheer up the country up as well as control the virus.
Hon. Members have been very brief and well-behaved this afternoon, but we are trying to get in as many people as possible. Therefore, after the next hon. Gentleman, the time limit will be reduced to three minutes, but with four minutes to speak, I call Alex Sobel.
I am extremely grateful to Madam Deputy Speaker for my time.
I wish to talk specifically about the impact of a tier system on the leisure and hospitality industry in Leeds, which would equally apply to other areas under tier 3. As I know is the case for most MPs, the picture in my constituency is very grim. I have spoken to many business owners who have been forced to make devastating choices, considering letting staff go or even closing their business with Christmas just around the corner. Support for hospitality businesses is extremely limited. The furlough scheme is due to expire in January, workers are missing out on self-isolation support payments, and there is no comprehensive hospitality support package for businesses under tiers 2 or 3. Why did we not see an extension of furlough, improvements in the self-isolation scheme and sector-specific packages brought forward today? The £1,000 that was announced for wet pubs is not even worthy of being called a sticking plaster. The fact is, the majority of businesses cannot operate on this basis, with unsustainable income and ever-increasing debt. The lack of meaningful support from the Government is a massive kick in the teeth for those who work so hard to make their businesses safe and have taken additional measures at their own expense during this latest lockdown, trying to survive what has been an apocalyptic year for hospitality.
The one-off £20 per head additional restrictions grant for councils was welcome, but I am not sure how the Government expect local authorities to stretch out the grant for as long as they are in tier 3 when some areas have been under the strictest measures for many months with no end date in sight. So, again, a new extended support package for councils should have been announced today.
I am pleased, however, that as of today the Leeds infection rate is down significantly again, with nearly all wards across the city seeing significant decreases and an R rate far lower than that of many London boroughs. With a city-wide rate now at 200 and dropping every day, the measures are working, and I want to put on record my thanks to all those in Leeds making huge personal sacrifices so that this can happen.
The Leeds improvement shows the need for continued restrictions. However, we simply cannot afford to lose £1.7 million-worth of Government support for each seven days spent in tier 3, which is what will happen if the Government do not step up.
We are on the verge of a vaccine roll-out, but the Government are leaving swathes of the country to fall at the final hurdle. Currently, tier 3 areas, which are predominantly northern and urban, will get no more financial support than areas in tier 1. The only way to prevent mass job losses and business closures unlike anything we have seen before is to provide urgent economic support to both businesses and workers in tier 3 areas.
So I suggest the following changes to the Government, without which I cannot support the proposed tiers tonight. The unit of geography for tiers should have as its building block the upper-tier local authority for unitaries and districts for two-tier local authorities, not sub-regions or counties. I am also concerned that the 14-day review period is insufficiently flexible, as rates are falling fast and there could be an opportunity to get the economy going at an earlier stage, so I ask for a seven-day review period to make the system more responsive; the capacity to deliver that exists given that there will not be any negotiation. There should, too, be council engagement with Government to scale up lateral flow testing on a targeted basis, ensuring it is integrated with contact tracing and supports those who self-isolate. We will deliver this in the most effective way if it is done with councils, to ensure that we do not compromise roll-out of the vaccination and that resources are available to deliver it. I am also disappointed about communications on the tiers, with local leadership not having the opportunity to help lead communications as part of rebuilding trust and confidence.
That is what I call on the Government to do when we next have the review—it is clear that they will not accept any of my suggestions today, although I will delighted if the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announces that they will in his concluding remarks. Without the additional support and additional measures I have called for I cannot support what is happening today, and therefore I will not be taking part in the vote this evening.
There will now be a three-minute limit. I call Mark Jenkinson.
May I start by thanking my hon. and right hon. Friends across Government for their level of engagement this weekend as I wrestled with the decision before us today? Like many colleagues, I have wrestled, with the whole of Cumbria, an area of 2,600 square miles containing only 500,000 people, being lumped together as one and with the narrative in the written ministerial statement being less than helpful and seemingly at odds with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary’s comments just two days earlier.
My constituency of Workington sits entirely within the borough of Allerdale, which entered national restrictions at tier 1 and will leave them in tier 2. If we drill down into the data, however, we see that our rate as we entered those restrictions suggested that we were already in tier 2 territory or may have been in short order. The narrative also fails to set out the impact that the local outbreaks it references and the over-60s rates, in some cases 90 minutes away from my constituents, may have on our shared health infrastructure.
Since Thursday, I have met with local health leaders, who overwhelmingly asked that I support the Government in these restrictions in order to protect our local NHS. The nature of this virus means that it is not a simple calculation of empty beds. I ask the Government to take note going forward of the impact on those of us who, unavoidably, have small hospitals and rural health infrastructure shared across boroughs.
I have had many communications from constituents, ranging from threats if I support the restrictions to desperate pleas from constituents who have put their lives on hold for eight months to not throw it all away at the last hurdle as the vaccine at the finish line is in view.
I also cannot ignore the fact that if we are to control the virus, there cannot be a binary decision of tiered restrictions or no restrictions. Having fought so hard to keep gyms, hairdressers and personal care outlets open, I do not want to condemn those businesses to the same situation again. The loosening for these businesses is welcome. Having had the discussions about the justification for and route out of restrictions, and with the Government having committed to the publication of data and a meaningful review, I remain hopeful that a more localised approach can be taken.
I am happy that most of my asks to be able to support the Government have been addressed, but I have one more as I support the Government tonight. We have condemned the leisure and hospitality industry to as good as closure in tier 2, but for many November and December make or break the year. I thank the Treasury for the support that has been forthcoming to date, but it is not enough to consider only those that are closed outright. The additional support for wet pubs is welcomed, but many other leisure and hospitality businesses are significantly impacted by those restrictions, and then there is the supply chain. I recognise the parlous state of the economy and I do not envy my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but the loss of an entire sector has larger long-term ramifications. Necessity forces the Government’s hand, but where the Government confiscate, the Government must compensate. I ask that Ministers keep this at the forefront of their discussions, but I make the point that time is running out for many of these businesses and the jobs that they support.
I am very pleased that my constituents in Sefton Central are now in tier 2, because they were in the old tier 3. What I want to say today is that the experience of my constituents, who live in one of the six boroughs of the Liverpool city region that are in that position, leaves clues about what has worked and what has been missing.
I start by saying thank you to my constituents and the people of the city region for their hard work, their solidarity and the way they have come together to reduce the infection rate; thank you to the NHS staff in our hospitals in particular, who have reduced the number of people in hospitals with covid illness; and thank you to our council staff and to the military for administering the mass testing pilots and, in the case of the council staff, for taking on some of the responsibility for contact tracing too.
As I have said, the experience leaves clues about what has not worked as well. Mass testing is not the whole answer by any means. It is part of the reason we are now in tier 2 instead of tier 3, as is the fact that we went into tier 3 so early, but it has taken 2,000 military personnel to administer mass testing. Where are the military personnel to deliver this, whether it is called mass testing or community testing, elsewhere? That mass testing has only been in the city of Liverpool, not in the other five boroughs. My constituents have been able to access it when they have gone into Liverpool, but not in our own borough.
The experience in the poorest areas has been that the lack of financial support has stopped people self-isolating because they have not been able to. The Government must address that if they want people to be able to self- isolate. The same is true of people who are self-employed, freelancers or people who run their own firms who have run out of money and have not had support since March. This must be addressed if we are to get through to the vaccine, which is really what these regulations are about—giving us a way forward.
The regulations will only work if they are supported by a proper test, trace, isolate and support regime. That must see the financial support I have mentioned, but it must also end the delays in getting the contacts from the centralised call centres to local government and feeding them back in, because at the moment that communication problem is causing delays. It is one of the contributory factors still to the fact that 500,000 people a month are not being contacted. If these problems are not addressed, I am afraid we still face the bleakest of midwinters.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were flying blind. The number of tests we could administer—a few hundred a day out of a country of 60 million—was so inadequate that we were in the chilling position of being able to monitor the speed of the spread of the disease only by counting the sick and the dying in our hospitals. It meant that only the crudest of measures could be taken to control the spread of the virus—a national lockdown. But now it is different. We can test over half a million people every day. We publish the results on a national website—so much so that many of our citizens can tell us exactly the rate of infection in their area day by day. The whole purpose of this eye-wateringly expensive system is to allow local forensically directed action and be free of crude, blind, massive-scale impositions. That is why there is such outrage in Kent. We are the biggest county by population in the country. Everyone in my borough of Tunbridge Wells knows that the level of infection is low—at around 79 per 100,000 per week, it is less than half the national average, and it is falling—yet people in Tunbridge Wells are being ordered to comply with tier 3 restrictions that are known by everyone to be completely inappropriate.
Everyone also knows that the movements in and around my constituency are within the area, across the border into East Sussex and up and down to London, with only a very small proportion going to the areas of Kent that are most affected. That means that pubs, cafés and restaurants risk being boarded up, in effect for the winter, when the level of infection in my constituency is closer to that in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight than it is to that in north Kent. Livelihoods are being damaged unnecessarily.
I call to the House’s attention the letter from the excellent leader of Kent County Council, Roger Gough, who said: “It is hard, if not impossible, to justify why businesses in such areas should be subject to further perhaps irretrievable damage.” He is the leader of the whole county, but he recognises the nature of the differences within the county.
There is a way out, which I put to the Prime Minister earlier. The way to resolve this situation is if the Government will commit to apply, in the review in a fortnight, the tests that they have set—the five different criteria—but apply them borough by borough. If the borough of Tunbridge Wells meets those tests, the Government should allow it to go into Christmas released from the highest tier of restrictions, which bridle so much against the lived experience of people locally. If the Government gave that commitment today, I think my constituents would broadly welcome it.
I commend the Government, because I know that the motivations behind the measures they are trying to adopt are worthy. They believe that these measures represent the best way forward and I respect that point of view. They have done a great job on PPE, the acceleration of vaccine development and the rolling out of mass testing, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) just observed.
I thank the Prime Minister, his office and the Government for interacting with Back Benchers in an open and co-operative way. It is our duty as Members of Parliament to make informed decisions on behalf of our constituents and our country—to be able to say that we have chosen the best measures to save lives and jobs and to make sure that we have tax revenue for the future. It seems to me that this is not a zero-sum game: there is not just one option—the Government’s option—or no option at all. That is certainly not the case; there are all sorts of alternatives.
We could take a targeted approach, as in Germany; a borough-based approach, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells just mentioned; or even a targeted approach based on the individual premises where there may be an outbreak. We could decide to use a strategy in which we trust people more, offering more guidance and allowing people to make up their own minds about what they are going to do. We need to look at the evidence around that kind of approach.
We could continue to conduct intensive research into whether or not hospitality does spread the virus, along with all sorts of other areas. We could look at triage at hospitals to see whether the bar should be lowered slightly or raised slightly depending on the demand for hospital beds. We could also accelerate and refine test and trace. There are plenty of alternatives.
It seems to me that we have to focus on the harms versus the benefits. Whenever any one of us makes a decision in our own daily lives—about an investment or buying a house, for example—we think about the long-lasting consequences: the costs and the benefits. When it comes to personal healthcare, we go to see a consultant, who makes it clear that there are alternative treatments and sets out the relative benefits and harms of those various treatments. When it comes to business, if one is going to make an investment, one will always do a cost-benefit analysis in the long-term. In this place, we virtually always see an economic analysis, an impact assessment or an analysis based on quality-of-life indicators.
When it comes to this decision, however, we do not have a cost-benefit analysis, we do not have an economic impact assessment, and we do not have a health and harms analysis based on QOLIs, so it is with deep regret that I find it incredibly hard to back the Government today. However, I hope that in the future we will see proper health and economic impact assessments for proposed actions, as we will have a lot more actions to consider around vaccines and testing. It is our duty to make an informed choice, but I do not feel that we are in a position to make that choice. The Government will probably have their way today, but I hope that in a few weeks’ time we will assess this more carefully and perhaps make a different judgment.
For the first time in 10 years on a matter of policy, I will be voting against my Government tonight. That is not because I am unwilling to share responsibility for difficult decisions—I took my share in Government and I have voted for every set of covid restrictions that the Government have proposed so far—and not because I oppose a move away from nationwide restrictions towards a localised tiered structure. I do support that, but the logic of that approach is that we make the restrictions as local as we can, consistent with accurate and reliable virus data. We have that data at borough and district level, so why do we not consistently impose our restrictions at that level?
I am afraid that the Government have been heading in the opposite direction. My county of Warwickshire was assessed alone the last time tiered restrictions were imposed, but this time it has been assessed as part of a much wider area that includes Coventry and Solihull. That means that the restrictions soon to be faced by the people of Warwickshire, and even more so in south Warwickshire, are bound to be based on data less relevant to where they live. My Warwickshire colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), as members of the Government, and I have been working together to have Warwickshire considered separately again and to ensure that everything possible, including new testing, is done to control the virus. However, it is difficult to explain to our constituents why they will be waking up to tier 3 restrictions tomorrow morning. The case rate in Warwickshire was higher when we went into the November lockdown in tier 1 than it is as we come out of it into tier 3, and in my constituency in south Warwickshire it is even lower.
This is not just an inconvenience; it is profoundly damaging to hospitality businesses in particular, which will be obliged to close during the most lucrative part of the year. Let us be clear: a decision to relax restrictions at a review on 16 December would take effect only from 19 December, meaning that most, if not all, of the crucial pre-Christmas season would be lost in an area where the visitor economy is crucial. Some of the businesses I am talking about will not survive further economic damage inflicted by these tiered restrictions, which are a blunter instrument than they need or ought to be. I am being asked to support them for my constituents based either on data that is out of date or on data that applies to different places. This is not just a parochial point. In the management of this pandemic, it really matters that we can be sure that the Government are restricting only where they have to. If they impose restrictions when they are not justified, people are less likely to obey them when they are justified. That will make the Government’s already difficult job harder and do much wider and more lasting damage.
The people of Sedgefield respect the difficulties and challenges involved in how best to control the virus. We understand that we must look after our vulnerable, and we understand that the picture is complex. As hon. Members would anticipate, I have had representations ranging from, “We shouldn’t be allowing anyone to do anything until we have a vaccine” through to “We’re infringing human rights by impinging on civil liberties.” We understand that this is complex. We also understand that the simpler the message, the more clarity can be delivered and therefore the more likely it is to be acted on.
Unfortunately, there are also things that we do not understand. The north-east has been grouped as a region with an edge running through the south of my constituency and all the way up to the Scottish border—a distance of 136 miles and a geographic area of 3,344 square miles. Sedgefield as a constituency has only 140 of those square miles and a population of 85,000. Its population density of 600 per square mile reflects the County Durham figures. However, we are also linked to towns such as Newcastle, which has a density of 6,100 per square mile. That is 10 times as much, and poses a very different risk. Our concern is the agglomeration of this mass. Sedgefield sits in the middle of this. It does not have a city centre. It has many rural villages and a small town. The only reasons people are leaving their communities and travelling are for work and retail, and that is the same across all tiers.
Our hospitality is primarily village pubs and a few hotels. A number of those, such as Walworth Castle, Redworth Hall, and The County in Aycliffe Village, are among those that have made representations to me. They deal almost exclusively with food and meals, with limited accommodation demand other than from workers, and need whatever opportunity Christmas spend would bring. The risk of inter-community transmission from tier 2 restrictions here would be extremely low, but we are tier 3.
I welcome the extra support for hospitality, but we should recognise that these businesses are the lifeblood of these communities and desperately need help and to be allowed to open economically—and not just them, but their extended supply chains. I would like to see rural areas considered differently from cities when it comes to hospitality rules. I would like to see non-food venues evaluated by their risk profile, perhaps by local councils, so a wet pub or private club—be that a golf club or what was previously known as a working men’s club, such as the Big Club in Newton Aycliffe—that has been able to introduce covid compliance could open. Instead, we are grouped into a mass that includes city centres with significantly higher risk profiles, and an exit is difficult to see.
Hope and optimism are the key to getting us through these winter months. The Government should enable those that can provide controlled environments to do so. We need to communicate personal responsibility, in that the rules cover a broad church and we all have to look after our friends and relatives, particularly those that are vulnerable, and we should not max out on our options.
Regionally, numbers are trending well. I support the concept of tiers, but I find it very difficult to accept the size of the regions and the current application across diverse and separate geographies. Please can we see some light on our journey? Can we have some hope for our collapsing hospitality trade? Please reconsider the gravity and pressure of tier 3 on these low-risk enterprises and provide signals as early as possible of any opportunity to trade. It is no good telling them on 16 December, “You can open for Christmas.” No stock, no staff, no bookings—
Order. Sorry, time up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) queried whether Manchester had been discriminated against, because Ministers considered the threat of 500,000 job losses in London and put it in tier 2. He seemed to be suggesting that London should have been put in a higher tier. I disagree. Frankly, Manchester and the midlands should have had the London criteria applied to them, taking account not only of medical evidence but of the risk to the economy, jobs and society.
Let us also not set up a false dichotomy between health and economic factors. We already do this. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence evaluates new treatments. It puts a value on those for each quality-adjusted life year—somewhere between £20,000 and £30,000 a year. We have seen no such analysis done with regard to the pandemic or suggested remedies.
The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said that we have not had a proper impact assessment—absolutely right. Yesterday, we had a slightly odd and fairly insubstantial document produced by the Government. It does not really fit the bill; there must be some more rigorous analysis lurking somewhere in Whitehall. However, there were some nuggets in there. It refers to what is termed “economic scarring” as a result of the following:
“Deferred or cancelled investment in physical capital and lower innovation.
The destruction of valuable firm-specific capital and knowledge, due to business failures.
A loss of human capital due to sustained unemployment and changes to business models away from contact-intensive services.
Early retirement prompted by the pandemic.
Increased loss of days worked due to sick leave.”
Behind all those phrases are real human tragedies.
We also ought to be quite clear that the vaccine, while it is a huge breakthrough and enormously welcome—it is important; it is a great advance—is not a panacea, certainly not for a long time. Saying that we must vote for the regulations tonight because the vaccine is just around the corner is, frankly, the mañana option and I do not think it should be given serious consideration.
We have to move from risk avoidance, which seems to be the mark of this Government, to risk management. What we really need is a targeted approach based on robust evidence. The measures that need to be introduced, frankly, are not these. The case has not been made for these measures, and that is why I will vote against them tonight.
My constituents have, with very few exceptions, done what was asked of them. They have made immense sacrifices, playing their part in getting infection rates down to protect our community and our hospitals, but they feel that the Government have not done their bit—they have not used the lockdown to fix test and trace. We know that public health teams can do better, but Ministers must give them the resources to deliver. The Government also have not ensured that when people are told to self-isolate, they can afford to do so. Ministers must extend eligibility for the £500 support payment to users of the NHS covid app and look again at the level of statutory sick pay.
The Government have not done enough to support businesses and their workers, especially those that still cannot reopen under the new tier 3. It cannot be right or fair that tier 3 areas get the same support as those in tiers 1 and 2, or that some self-employed workers and small businesses are still excluded from support altogether. Our cafés and restaurants, and especially our pubs, are suffering. Despite all their investment in covid-safe measures, they remain closed at what would normally be their busiest time of year. The Government must step up and give them the help they need, or I fear that they simply will not reopen at all, and some places will lose their vital community facilities.
My constituents are deeply disappointed that, despite a huge fall in cases, Nottingham remains in tier 3. They want to know what we need to achieve to come out of tier 3 when it is reviewed on 16 December. People need to feel that the allocations are fair—and they do not—and they need clarity about what we are aiming for, rather than a constant moving of the goalposts.
We also need clarity about the restrictions themselves and the evidence on which they are based. Nottingham is home to the National Ice Centre. Our city is famous for its past Olympic champions, but it is also the training ground for the gold medallists of the future. Why are ice rinks classed as leisure and entertainment venues and forced to remain closed when other indoor sports facilities are allowed to reopen? What about 10-pin bowling? The sector does not qualify for 5% VAT because HMRC says that a bowling alley is a sports facility, but unlike gyms and leisure centres, it is not permitted to open.
Bowling alleys have invested in measures to ensure that their venues are covid-secure, and they are not the only ones. Nottingham Playhouse has spent £80,000 on implementing measures to secure “See it Safely” status. The team has worked really hard to give Nottingham families their traditional panto trip, but now they are closed, even though not a single case of covid in the old tier 3 originated in a theatre. Will the Minister please rethink that restriction?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I think I learnt from you not to let the fact that something has been said in a debate prevent me from saying it again. The same thing has been said again and again and again today, and I hope that those on the Front Bench have been listening. We want a transition from lockdown to the tier system, but it must have proper scrutiny. We have to be honest with the people, but let us also be honest about this place. Most people do not see what goes on here. Votes take place all the time, but the vote that takes place today will affect every citizen, every family and every business. The oversight that Parliament provides is so important—it is our duty—and that has not taken place this time.
We face challenging events; there is no doubt about it. Governments across the world are looking at the balance between lives and livelihoods—containing the covid-19 pandemic but also supporting the economy. I would add a third element to that: the will of the people —the consent and the buy-in of the nation to follow the rules. I am worried that the Government might lose that consent if they do not work with the country and Parliament in a stronger way. Communities want to understand why they are in a particular tier. They want to understand what they need to do on 16 December to move to a new tier, and that was not forthcoming in the documentation provided very late in the day yesterday.
In Dorset, we went into lockdown with very low numbers, and we came out of it with even lower numbers. In the last two weeks, the numbers fell by one third, yet we end up in tier 2. The number of covid patients in Dorset hospitals has gone up a little bit, but we have empty Nightingale hospitals across the country. There is an argument that they cannot be staffed. I have checked with the Ministry of Defence. There are 2,000 medical personnel ready to be MACA’d up if we request them to do so. Let us not use that as a reason to push places like Dorset into tier 2 unnecessarily.
I say this carefully, and I have stressed it from the beginning. We have a peacetime Government construct, with a Cabinet system that works well and is tried and tested, but we should have moved to a war footing. No. 10 is overwhelmed. There is not the bandwidth to cope with everything that is going on. There is covid-19, the economic intervention, Brexit, the integrated review, preparing for COP26 and then the G7 presidency as well. The people dealing with that are friends of mine, but I am afraid they are not trained in crisis management, strategic planning or emergency response. All the more reason why this place needs to do its job. Let me be the first to say—I say this cautiously—that we need to reconsider the five-day opening up over Christmas if we want to take advantage of the hard-fought gains that we have developed over the year.
The weight of opinion that has been heard today should make the Government think twice about the direction they are taking. The fact that the Prime Minister had to come here today armed with an assurance that the thing we are voting on will be changed in a couple of weeks should tell him that he has got it wrong.
Asking Members of Parliament to choose between following exactly the approach that the Government are taking and having no restrictions at all is the height of irresponsibility. A number of Government Members have said that they cannot support the Government’s approach but are not advocating no restrictions at all. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, in Chesterfield our rate is now down to 118 per 100,000. The rate in London is considerably higher than that in many areas. We are told that the Prime Minister intervened to prevent London from going into tier 3 because he did not want the economic cost, but he was happy for that economic cost to be paid by restauranteurs, pub owners, café owners elsewhere and all those workers whose jobs are jeopardised by this approach.
I do not believe that the Government’s approach on tiers is joined up or that it enjoys public confidence. I do not believe that the public think it is fair or believe that the tier system is being done on the basis of the medical evidence; they think it is being done on the basis of the Government wanting to keep London in a different tier.
Tier 2 is focused on the hospitality sector, but there is little evidence that it is the cause of the major outbreaks. There has been too little strategy on testing and tracing in schools. We have seen care homes, hospitals and workplaces without a strategic joined-up approach. When the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked whether people who were told that they would be able to stay with elderly relatives over Christmas could get a test if they want one, we were told that they should get one only if they have symptoms.
We have a testing regime that is not fit for purpose and a tier system that does not enjoy public confidence. The support package for the hospitality sector is edging up day by day—there is another thousand quid here—but it is inadequate in the context of the losses that the sector faces over the Christmas period. The package is changing the whole time, which is a sign that Government realise that they have not got it right. What about all those other businesses that are not closed but support the hospitality sector, such as those food service companies that supply to hotels and restaurants, and the drinks providers that supply pubs? A whole array of businesses are jeopardised by the Government’s approach, which is why I will not be supporting it tonight.
On a lighter note in a deeply serious debate, my wife had to come in for a bit of House of Commons work today and we sat down at the same table. We were immediately told by a member of your staff, Mr Deputy Speaker, to sit at separate tables. It seems that in covid Britain a person can sleep with a woman for 37 years but cannot have lunch with her.
That raises a more serious point. We do not want to return to the controls of wartime Britain. People romanticise it, but there is a deep attack on civil liberties throughout our country, and we are here to defend the civil liberties of our people. That is our primary duty.
People in West Lindsey are obviously aggravated and upset that they are now in tier 3 when they are right on the national average. Other areas in Lincolnshire have a far lower infection rate. As I said to the Prime Minister, Market Rasen, where I live, has only six per week while Newham has 40, so clearly there are injustices. There is no doubt about that and we all accept it.
I have a commitment from the Prime Minister that he wants to look at a more granular approach. With other Lincolnshire MPs, I went to see the Health Secretary yesterday. He wrote to me just now and said, “I understand the force of your arguments. I know that you made them in the best interests of your constituents, as you always have done. As I made clear in our meeting, we will formally review the data and tier allocations for all areas across England on 16 December.”
So what am I to do? The fact is that this virus does not care whether an area is represented by a Labour or a Conservative MP and it does not care how we vote—all it knows is that it attacks people, particularly the frail and the elderly when they congregate together.
I am a libertarian to the core. I hate, with an absolute passion, what is happening in our country, but those who want to vote against the Government must have an alternative plan. I put that question to the Leader of the Opposition. He cannot answer it, although I suspect that his alternative plan is a complete and total lock- down, which we had in April, when every school closed. That is the only way in which we are going to defeat this virus entirely, so we have a compromise, and it is not ideal.
My personal philosophy is human dignity. Every time I vote in this place, it is on the issues of right to life, whether it is abortion, euthanasia or unnecessary wars. How can I vote against this measure tonight when there is no alternative plan—when the result of my vote tonight is that frail and vulnerable people will die? That would be the effect. Although it is with deep reluctance, although I am a libertarian, and although I recognise that West Lindsey has been put in tier 3, having been given that commitment by the Prime Minister, I will vote, reluctantly, with the Government tonight.
This is a dangerous moment in the life of our country. People feel they have been pushed too far, pushed about too much, and pushed too hard; they have suffered too much. We think first, of course, of the coronavirus patients who have died and their families and friends, and the NHS staff who have cared for them, with all the mental health issues they have suffered. We think of the long-covid patients who have been squeezed out of hospital by coronavirus. Let that be understood—by coronavirus, not by lockdown. We think of businesses that were shut down by the Government and have lost custom, because of coronavirus, not lockdown, but also patients who did not attend hospital because they were afraid to do so. People have experienced alcohol and drug misuse, reduced physical activity, malnutrition, self-harm, domestic violence and suicide. One can talk to anyone in their 20s or 30s who is single and feels they have been missing out on one of the best years of their life.
Quantifying these wellbeing issues is the, I am afraid, dreary task of health economics. People like me have not just been looking for economic analysis; we have been looking for serious analysis of the harms and benefits of the Government’s policies in terms of coronavirus so that we can see seriously, but bearing in mind all the factors at work, the Government’s policy in the context of the right way forward. The Government’s analysis should have compared, let us say, the John Snow memorandum or the Great Barrington declaration with where the Government stand. I have provided the Government with a plan that lies between them and Great Barrington. The point would be to show proportionality, the effects, the achievements that would come, and the benefits, to allow serious judgments. I have here the analysis of a QC provided to me, where he says that the Government’s analysis does not allow the test of proportionality to be answered.
That leaves us with a problem, because the Government are asking us to vote on these measures not knowing whether they are proportionate. Looking at some of the models that were provided to us, such as the DEFRA projection, Government scientists presented it to us and then would not stand over the figures, and it turns out that they were right not to do so.
Apologies for the interruption, but I saw the so-called impact assessment and I have to say that it would not pass through the boardroom of a small business. It really was not up to it. Does my hon. Friend share that view?
I do agree with my hon. Friend, who is well qualified to say that.
The hospital capacity projection from the SPI-M-O medium-term modelling, which was leaked, says that it “takes three weeks for non-pharmaceutical interventions to have any impact on hospital admissions, therefore the window to act is now”—in bold and underlined. The trouble is that drawing a vertical line on it through 21 days after 5 November, we find that three hospital trusts should have been exceeding surge capacity, including the Nightingales, and it just did not happen.
We now need to start having a serious look at modelling. I provided a paper to the Government on how to reform modelling. We also need to have a serious look at how we deal with expert advice in this complex, contested field. I have provided a paper to the Government on how to do that. I believe that we need a new public health Act that can allow us better to balance the need—the absolute need—to infringe people’s civil liberties with people’s fears that they are being infringed too much, again to show proportionality.
Again, I have reached out to a judicial expert in the field, and he provided us with a one-pager, which I have given to the Government, on what should be done. I have also, by working with independent scientists, come up with that more liberal plan that stands between where the Government are and moving in the direction towards a freer system. Again, that has been provided to the Government. No one can say that I or anyone working with me have not done our duty, but here we stand in a profoundly dangerous moment, heading into infringements on our liberties and on vaccination and testing that we would never normally tolerate. Therefore, I find, with huge reluctance, that I am going to have to vote no tonight, to send a message to the Government.
In this pandemic, the Government have always been behind the curve—too slow to take the necessary decisions, too slow into lockdowns and not making the right decisions in a timely way—which has led to this terrible double whammy of one of the highest per capita death rates in the world and the largest recession in Europe. There seems to be no forward-looking strategy to get ahead of the virus and the kind of issues that we know from the modelling are going to come up. Inadequate support has been provided to those who need to be supported. Instead, we have heard vainglorious announcements about moonshots and world-beating systems, and then a failure to deliver on that kind of boosterist language; there has been hyperbole and not enough delivery.
There has been a lack of trust in the rules, not least because they keep being changed; there are eight different iterations of the furlough scheme. There is no certainty with Government support, because they cannot stop fiddling and changing it, sometimes within weeks of announcing it. That has caused uncertainty and cynicism, and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that in the Prime Minister we have the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. This Government need to lead by example, so Dominic Cummings should have been sacked immediately for ignoring the lockdown rules, and that would avoided an awful lot of cynicism that came in the aftermath of that terrible decision.
The Government need to reward good behaviour, not punish bad, so they need to enable isolation by paying proper sick pay and supporting those who have to isolate. The £500 payments are not adequate, and they are running out in some areas of the country, with no guarantee that they will be increased. They are barely reaching one in eight of those who have to isolate. This gives people who cannot afford to self-isolate an incentive not to download the app, not to take the tests and to hope it will be okay. The Government need to work with the grain of public requirements, necessities and behaviour, not against it.
The Government need to tell the truth, not to keep the truth from us in this assessment we have had, which is full of weasel words. The Government also need to show moral leadership: stop setting up VIP lanes for Tory donors and their mates and spending £18 billion of public procurement on this. The Government need to help the 3 million excluded people, who do not want to hear that £200 billion has been spent on the economy when they have not seen any of it and are in desperate need. The Government need to be honest and up front, and then they will get support.
We all want to see only the minimum level of restrictions necessary to keep this virus under control and to support those suffering real hardship because of the virus. I welcome the extra support for the hospitality sector that the Prime Minister set out today. There is no question but that we have to keep this virus under control. So far this year, there have been nearly 80,000 excess deaths. It would take more than four months to read out the names of all those people one after another, because this is a killer virus and it can escalate very quickly.
During the second wave in Leicestershire, the numbers of people hospitalised by coronavirus escalated very quickly and remain above the level we saw even in the spring peak. However, after the national restrictions came in, we saw the infection rate turning around, and we are starting to see the hospitalisation rate turning around, too. The measures we took came just in time to allow life-and-death services such as cancer treatment to keep operating throughout the time we had gone through the peak. If we had waited or done nothing, doctors at our local hospitals are clear with me that those life or death services would have shut, so we took action just in time.
All developed countries have taken unprecedented measures to try to control the virus, and I am glad we are taking action earlier in our second wave than our neighbours in France. I am also glad that we have secured more access to vaccine shots than many of our neighbours, which will help us get back to normal faster next year. Things will get better next year, but with the vaccine so close now, people dying unnecessarily in the last days of the pandemic would be truly tragic. It seems to me that a tiered approach is the right one when we have the virus under control, making restrictions proportionate to the problem locally. Again, there is a contrast with France, where the Government have simply shut all restaurants until next year, and all bars are shut with no date to reopen.
Some people in this debate have supported making the areas more granular as we go through the reviews. I support that, and I want to see more rapid testing in my area to drive down the virus faster, but now that we are making progress, both nationally and locally, it would be tragic to throw that away. What is happening in Wales, where infections are now rising again, is a warning about loosening up too quickly.
There are many myths circulating at the moment. Covid is not just flu, and it is not just displacing flu. It is not the case, as some Members have claimed, that 90% of tests are false positives. In fact, the number is microscopic. Nor is it the case that those who have died would have done so anyway. In fact, a study by academics at Glasgow University suggested that on average, victims had 10 years left to live, and that is a lot. The relationship between protecting lives and helping the economy is not a simple trade-off. We can see that countries such as Sweden, which had a more liberal approach, had both a worse hit to their economy and a worse public health outcome, with more than 10 times the death rate of their near neighbours, yet we still see people online advocating that as a good way to go.
Arguably the best policy to control the virus is also the best policy to protect the economy. This has been a very tough year, but things will get better next year. Until then, we have to protect people’s health and protect lives, so I am supporting the measures we are taking tonight.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of everyone who lives in my constituency, we have been able to bring down the number of cases by half in the past couple of weeks. Despite those huge decreases, Tory failures to take the right action as far back as March meant it was inevitable our area would end up in tier 3 when we exited the lockdown.
The number of cases in Stockton is now nearly double the national average, and we are a long way from where we need to be. In a covid briefing last week, a Health Minister, who was clearly trying to be honest and open, said it was unlikely that our area would be brought into tier 2, even after the two-week review. I do not know whether the Prime Minister’s view is on that, but he must know that these tier restrictions will be with us for a while longer.
A glance at my inbox this morning revealed a multitude of emails, including from people wanting to visit their granny in a care home and on the desperation of businesses crying out for clarity and proper financial support and the devastating impact on young hockey players’ mental health, who want their ice rink to reopen. There was an email from a family who run a small pub and who have been serving our community since 1981. They are worried they will not make it through the winter, even if we did enter tier 2, because they do not serve food. The Prime Minister’s £1,000 does not, as he claimed, recognise how hard they have been hit, particularly when the average weekly profit of a wet pub in a rural area is twice that figure, and more than five times that figure in an urban area.
What about the letter from the mother sick with worry for her daughter, who, when she became self-employed, set up a limited company on the advice of her accountant? She is now excluded from accessing support from the self-employment income support scheme. Hundreds of thousands of people in the same position have been demanding action since March, and still nothing. The gaps in support are stark, and many more have been pointed out in the House today. However, they have been pointed out to the Government for many months, yet they still refuse to take action to close those gaps.
Across the Tees valley, we have already lost 12,565 extra jobs since the start of the pandemic, and the Government’s failure to provide full and sustained financial support to businesses in tier 3 will surely mean that more good jobs in our community will be consigned to the scrapheap. Once again, this Tory Government have failed to put in sufficient protection and support for businesses. For every job that has been announced locally over the past three years, we have lost five in the past six months. We have to look to the hospitality sector in particular and the people who find themselves out of work and give them the support they need. The Government have failed my constituents at every turn in this pandemic, and sadly the handling of support for those in tier 3 is just another failure to add to our tally.
Before I make my brief remarks, I am reminded of the quote by Teddy Roosevelt, who spoke of the person in the arena. I rather feel that my hon. Friend the Minister is that person at the moment, while everybody else around her carps on without any particular responsibility. My apologies to her on a personal level if I now fall into that category.
Many people have been in touch with me, as I am sure they have been in touch with us all, to advance all kinds of wild conspiracy theories that seem to abound about covid. I will have no truck with them whatsoever. There has been an outbreak of armchair epidemiologists, for sure, in the past eight months or so. There is no conspiracy. In my brief experience of it, the British state has never been competent enough to mount or organise such a conspiracy. Indeed, if it were so, in the present climate plans for that would have leaked already, so we would have been well aware of that issue. [Laughter.]
That is a very important point, amusing as it is. Those of us who have seen behind the curtain know that my hon. Friend is right not just about the British state but every state. They do not have the competence or capability to run a conspiracy.
We are told that non-essential retail can reopen—hurrah! But I am not quite sure why we would express great surprise—
I will give way again, very generously.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making light of some of these issues, which is amusing. However, there is a dangerous agenda behind some conspiracy theories. A lady was quoted in the Daily Mail yesterday, who, when one looks at her Facebook feed, is celebrating the burning down of Jewish-owned banks. She is presented as someone we should be listening to on public health. Does he think that is right?
Absolutely not. This has brought out the number of lunatics in the country, quite frankly.
Non-essential retail is to reopen. Why on earth was it closed in the first place? A Secretary of State beamed at us from the pages of The Daily Telegraph yesterday to say, “Rejoice! You can go out and shop around the clock.” We express surprise that so many of our high street retailers are going into administration. I was not particularly aware that the clothes rail at Dorothy Perkins was ever a particular vector of disease. This all links into the proportionality of the proposed measures.
Leaving aside my levity in opening, I have always believed the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 would have been a far better vehicle for implementing measures. We have talked about this huge statutory instrument before us and some of us have said that we are going to withhold our votes or vote against on the basis that we wish we could amend it. Well, we could amend it if it was done under the Civil Contingencies Act. Perhaps that is the reason why it was not used. That Act, of course, contains a 30-day review period, as opposed to a six-month period under the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Government have nothing to fear from greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny leads to better government, and it should be accepted as it is proposed.
To come on to parochial matters relating to my own constituency and tiering decisions—to sound like a broken record, from what we have heard this afternoon so far—I strongly contend that Stockport should not be re-entering tier 3. It was in tier 3 before the lockdown, but it should more charitably be placed in tier 2, because its levels of covid per 100,000 population are now below that of Cheshire to its south, which was put into tier 2 last week.
Briefly, I am concerned about decision making and the so-called gold command. If one believes what one reads in The Sunday Times—sometimes a leap of faith in itself, but on this occasion I am minded to believe it—the decision on tiering for London was taken on the basis of 50,000 jobs being under threat if it was placed into tier 2, as opposed to 500,000 jobs if it was placed into tier 3. My constituents deserve exactly that consideration as well. I do not believe entirely in the north-south divide—a conspiracy theory that abounds in this House—but when we have such decisions, one cannot but help wonder if it might be true.
The Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, which I have the pleasure of chairing, wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last week to ask for further evidence on the five tests. My concern is that the fifth of those tests—that is to say pressure on the NHS, including current and projected occupancy—will trump all other considerations. The data and information on that are not freely available, however, and no answer has yet been received to that letter.
If the measures are arbitrary and there is no exact science behind them, I would sooner that the Government admitted that, because at least it would be an honest approach. As they have not done so, I cannot support these measures this evening.
My constituency has been placed in tier 3 restrictions along with the rest of the north-east. Although I was disappointed by that decision, I can accept the need for the measures to protect public health. However, I cannot accept the lack of support from the Government, the regional inequality of the restrictions and the complete lack of an exit plan.
The support currently offered to businesses is simply nowhere near enough to protect our local economies: £20 a head in business support for the duration of tier 3 will be of little comfort to businesses in the north-east which have been under increased measures longer than most other areas. Without genuine support, businesses will go under, jobs will be lost and people will be pushed further into poverty. Covid-19 is a great threat to public health, but there is no greater cause of illness than poverty. To place the north-east in tier 3 without genuine support for workers and businesses is to condemn thousands to poorer health and worse life chances. To support that would be to abandon my responsibility to my constituents.
In addition, the Government have repeatedly refused to fund local contact tracing properly. It is far more successful and cost-effective than the Government’s shambolic centralised system, which has mainly served to help to line the pockets of the Government’s friends in the City. Without a functioning test and trace system, a cycle of lockdowns is inevitable until a vaccine can be properly rolled out. The Government have had eight months to sort that and they have failed. They desperately need to step up.
The Government advocate a regionalised approach to covid-19 restrictions, yet insist on dictating restrictions to local authorities, ignoring their advice on contact tracing and withholding the necessary funding. If the Prime Minister wants a regionalised system, he needs actually to support our regions.
My constituents want to know how we can reach tier 2. Local authorities need to know what the infection rate targets are and how the Government will support them to bring them down. Currently, that is as clear as mud. Unfortunately, as the Government do not have a plan B, hon. Members must choose between inadequate restrictions and no restrictions at all. These measures will hurt our communities, yet we also know the damage that the virus will cause if left unchecked. In their current state, the restrictions would be deeply damaging to Durham, and the financial support is not there to mitigate that.
If the Prime Minister had wanted Labour Members to vote for the measures, he should have presented something that we could actually vote for. It is not the Opposition’s job to vote for bad legislation or to pass the Government’s business. I urge the Government to give businesses and workers the support that they desperately need, to fix track and trace, and to start treating the north fairly.
It is rather apposite that we are having this debate on World AIDS Day; many hon. Members are wearing its symbol. We should consider what we did in the 1980s, when AIDS was the pandemic and the risks were very much there: we told people to change their behaviour and we had very strict messaging, but we did not take away liberties, fine people or close down the pubs that were obviously a place where future infections may have started.
Today, Thanet District Council in my constituency has a very high level of covid-19 of 448 per 100,000, which is in the top five in the country. I understand that the Government are having to make some tough decisions to buy time to bridge to a vaccine, but we need some honesty about how rapidly it will come. The Daily Telegraph is chirruping away that it is coming, but it is not quite in sight yet.
We are waiting for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to approve the vaccines. It will then be a large logistical exercise to roll out 66 million vaccines, times two, in a period of time when, currently, the NHS manages to roll out 15 million seasonal flu vaccines every year over four months. It will be a major undertaking and it will take time. The Government need to lay out very honestly that we will be living with this virus for some time to come.
It is to the great credit of the Government that we have a massive amount of testing and that we have granular regional data on the level of infection per 100,000. That is the most powerful tool that the Government have. That is the driver of good behaviour—when people see that their infection levels are higher, they innately do something more sensible. We are, however, subject to short-termism and to the precautionary principle, which has perhaps infested our lives too much.
We have to ask: what about personal liberties? We have not heard that much about that this afternoon. Yesterday, I had an email that touched me particularly. In September, a chap had sent me a photo of his father in an old people’s home. He was not unwell, but frail—he looked bright and well, and had that sparkle in his eyes still. The son sent me another photo yesterday. There is nothing wrong with the man. Nothing has changed; there are no more health conditions, but he looked broken. That is the worry. We are breaking older people where there is nothing left to live for. Are we assessing all the health outcomes properly?
Obviously, we want to put more money towards those in hospitality, but surely it is better to get them covid-ready, so they can open again—they do not want the money. It is easy to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, but they need to be at a higher level than that. Tonight, I cannot support them.
Yesterday, I received an email from Alison, who runs the Bears Paw pub in the Frodsham part of my constituency, the town where I live. That historical pub is at the heart of the community. The family and staff work hard. It has great food, a good atmosphere—in usual times—and very good beer. It is a great place to go to watch the football.
Like many pubs in my constituency, the Bears Paw has introduced every covid-secure measure under the sun to keep customers, staff and, importantly, the community safe. Those at the pub have sacrificed so much for the greater good. They have given to and supported local food banks, and helped schoolchildren when they needed support with school lunches. Collectively, they have done their bit to help curtail the spread of the virus. Infections and, I hope, death rates are now coming down in the Cheshire area. I looked at the figures today, and for Cheshire West and Chester there 100 infections per 100,000. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) referred to Stockport, which is at 155 per 100,000—again, progress right across the patch.
As someone who grew up in a pub, I know how much the Christmas trade means to pubs and, importantly, as has been mentioned across the Chamber, to the supply chain, such as breweries. I have Chapter Brewing on the edge of my constituency. I have lost touch with how many variations of business support packages have been shaped so far, always at the last minute, which makes life and business planning incredibly difficult in our communities up and down the country. If our hospitality sector is to survive, including small breweries such as Chapter, they need more support in tier 2 and tier 3 areas. Scotch eggs, plates of chips and £32.50 a day will not save the day, the week or that lost year.
Along with people on the Opposition Benches, and others, I cannot support the measures before the House. I hope that that acts as a clarion call from constituencies right across the land. We need more targeted support for our communities, and we certainly need—I keep asking for this—test and trace facilities in our local authorities to get things working, and quickly.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), because this debate shows what a challenging, difficult decision many Members have to make tonight. I have listened to many of the contributions, and many have portrayed a choice between lives and livelihoods. As constituency MPs, however, we all know that behind that are stories of personal tragedy, sadness and death, and of people struggling to keep businesses running and of jobs being lost. We face a challenging decision this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said a few moments ago that—it is particularly the case when we get to the 50th speaker in the debate—much of what he would say had already been said. I apologise to friends and colleagues, because some of the things that I shall say have already been said.
Last time we debated this issue, I said to the Secretary of State that I hoped that if we gave the Government the chance to put national restrictions in place, the time would be used wisely. There have been some really impressive successes and I think the same applies tonight. If I use my vote tonight to ensure that the Government can put these tier restrictions in place, my ask of the Government is that they treat us as colleagues and make progress during that period.
These points have been reiterated several times, but they are my three key asks. First, the Government should trust us with the data. Yesterday, a cut-and-paste document was produced. Paragraph 3.20, on the economic impact, said that it is
“not possible to know with any degree of”
certainty about forecasts, and yet we learn this morning from a leak that there is a document with better forecasts in it. Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House tonight that we will be able to see that data, so that in future we can make more informed decisions?
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, we need sensible decisions. I feel a bit like a pariah as a London Member in the House being told that there are regional inequalities and that London is getting the benefit of all of it. I can tell the House as a London MP that most of my constituents do not think that the decisions being made on tiering reflect either the economic or the health realities in their borough. I ask yet again that the Minister takes back to the Prime Minister that we want to see these decisions being made borough by borough, on a more localised basis, because mass testing will now allow that.
Finally, so that we do not have the Christmas docu-drama of “The Case of the Scotch Egg”, can we ensure that the hospitality industry is governed not by behavioural scientists, but by reality? We want it to be there to enjoy that drink when the vaccine kicks in next year.
In the north-east, we had been under restrictions for some time prior to the national lockdown, particularly in Northumberland, Durham and Tyne and Wear. We have been tackling the problems in a proactive way, with local authority leaders coming together to see that we reduce the rate of infections. We were plateauing before lockdown, but it has been hard—hard for constituents not able to meet family and friends or to see their relatives in residential care; hard for businesses that have seen their trade or business reduced; and hard for those who have been excluded from support through the job retention or self-employed support schemes and who are facing dire straits.
Nothing that I will say today will be a surprise, as I have been banging on about this for the last couple of months at every possible opportunity, but just to go over it again, we need effective local test and trace. We needed it weeks ago and we need it still. It could have helped us to reduce the spread of covid-19 so much more effectively and get out sooner. We need real, effective support for those who may have to isolate but do not qualify for the £500 isolation payment or, indeed, any other payment—any sick pay. It is absolutely essential to stopping the spread of covid-19, and we have to give real, realistic support to our local businesses, which have already been hit so much more than in many other regions. It is their busiest time of year and they are not able to trade. The money announced today, they tell me, does not go near addressing their losses at what would be the busiest time of year, so I ask the Government to look yet again at that support and help those businesses.
Covid-19 hits hardest those communities who already suffer from health inequalities—communities like those in the north-east, communities like those in my constituency. We have been hit hard by this virus and hit hard by the lockdown. The impact on our local communities has been severe. Those concerns must be addressed. We have to learn that we must restore the funding to public health services to make sure that this does not happen again and that public health is able to respond effectively. My constituents and those across the north-east deserve no less.
A lot of my constituents are asking questions about why London is in tier 2 and we are in tier 3, and they perceive that they are being treated differently, so it is really important that the Government undertake to review these figures weekly, rather than every two weeks.
I want to start by thanking the Prime Minister for steadfastly battling to get us through this crisis. Anyone in his position would have no option but to take the measures he is proposing today, and he has my support.
Each and every one of us in this place cares passionately about the lives and livelihoods of our constituents, and in a liberal democracy such as ours, it is right for MPs to challenge accepted narratives, explore alternative perspectives, examine the facts and seek to form an opinion. In so doing, we are serving our country and our constituents, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). It is our right and our duty to engage in critical thought and to come to different conclusions, and then feel free to speak in this place.
Throughout lockdown, it has been a repeated assertion about those who question the science and refer to the terrible costs of lockdown and its impact on our communities that, “They just want to let the virus rip, kill granny, prioritise profit”, and about those who want the hardest possible lockdown, “They’re the good, responsible people who care about lives”. This has become a divisive narrative, which is inhibiting proper debate. We must be free to take different perspectives, and we must not demean those who do. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that this place is a bastion of free speech. Whatever other freedoms covid has taken from us, we should not let it take that.
The state has sought to control the minutiae of our daily lives with the arbitrary, the capricious and the prescriptive—whether we can eat chips or beer, or who should cook the turkey at Christmas. The more arbitrary the rules, the more inured people become to rule breaking, and when it comes to the really important rules, like isolating when we get a positive test, these rules too become much easier to break. If the Prime Minister were not such a libertarian and if he were not the freedom-loving man I know him to be, I too would find it very hard to support these measures this evening, but I firmly believe that anyone in the Prime Minister’s shoes would have no option but to bring forward these proposals.
I would just caution the Minister, for whom I have huge admiration: please can we show some humility? We are not going to be getting everything right. We are doing our best. We are doing everything we can to get the country through this time. Our constituents understand that, and it does not diminish our standing to show some humility. It shows our humanity. I should be grateful to her if she would take that back to her Department. This is a new science and we do not have all the answers.
My city, Coventry, has made enormous sacrifices as this invisible disease has turned our entire world upside down, and I would just like to pay tribute to all those who have lost loved ones during this difficult time.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have persistently reminded this Government of the Chancellor’s promise in March, when he said “whatever it takes” to support people out of the crisis. Instead, last week, the Government exacerbated the economic crisis in communities such as mine by putting Coventry in tier 3 and announcing a spending review that fell unacceptably short. Key workers will have their pay frozen. There will be cuts to universal credit. Our NHS, police and schools will be completely underfunded. There are no plans for jobs and no plans to upgrade skills. Hard-working people will be hammered by a council tax bombshell handed down by the Government.
I have been contacted by countless small businesses and self-employed people, understandably heartbroken by the Government’s decision. They include pub owner Libby Payne, whose own pub, the Aardvark, in my constituency has felt the weight of lockdown. She has always operated in covid-safe ways, within the guidelines, and she has never had a customer question her practices. She describes her business as her “customers’ living room,” and many of her customers unfortunately now live alone in isolation, unable to see the people that they class as family. Libby has had zero cases linked to her business, yet she feels penalised—all because her postcode is in Coventry, not London. That is exactly what is happening to our pubs up and down the country, which we all regard as the heart of all our communities.
I cannot in good conscience actively support a tiered system that, although intended to protect my community and protect lives, deprives my constituents of the chance to see loved ones in the run-up to Christmas, adversely impacts my constituents’ mental and physical health, cripples my local economy and starves the livelihoods of both men and women who have done nothing but the right thing since the beginning of the pandemic, yet have had their sacrifices routinely overlooked by the Government.
All these measures are due to pass today, and I urge the Government to review the allocation of the tier system on a sub-regional level. I am glad that the Prime Minister said he was considering that, but it is a rather long time to wait until February. In the meantime, I would ask the Government to implement mass lateral flow testing, provide the support that our public services need, provide the financial support that our businesses and my constituents need, and reverse the council tax bombshell on my very hard-working residents.
When I spoke in the debate on 5 November to determine the lockdown that we are about to emerge from, I said that we needed a plan to enable us to live with the covid-19 virus in the longer term and keep the R rate below 1 once we had reduced it, so that we could continue to reopen the economy and, most of all, give Eddisbury residents and businesses the normality, certainty and hope that they crave. The good news is that since then we have got R below 1 and there is real hope, in the form of viable vaccines homing into view. However, as the Prime Minister often and rightly reminds us, we are not there yet—nobody is. So that plan is still needed.
To that end, when looking at any realistic alternatives that are likely, in my view, to lead to intermittent lockdowns, there is logic to a tiered approach that best reflects the most effective restrictions for each particular tier. The question is, however, whether we are confident that the measures proposed, and the geography and proportion in which they pertain, are indeed the most effective. That includes looking carefully, consistently and at times courageously at the evidence for and impact of measures placed on specific parts of the economy, not least, as virtually every Member who has spoken has highlighted, the hospitality sector—pubs, restaurants, hotels and, as I have raised on numerous occasions with Ministers and in the House, the £10 billion-plus wedding industry. Irrespective of tier, it remains restricted to just 15 people at its venues, despite equivalent indoor events and business conferences now being able to operate at 50% capacity, or up to 1,000 in tier 2 or 2,000 in tier 1. That is decimating what was, and can still be, with the right approach by Government, a thriving and growing sector. Northern Ireland has shown that socially distanced weddings and receptions are not virus spreaders, so please, please can Ministers enable weddings in Cheshire and across the country to operate to socially distanced capacities, before it is too late?
With lockdown ending, the House has to make a decision this evening on the measures now needed to control the virus while enabling as much normality as possible. While recognising the often invidious conundrums facing us, I am not sure that in all circumstances that balance is yet right, and I have real sympathy for those living with some of the apparent anomalies that exist. But this continues to be a public health emergency, so I will support these regulations, albeit with a similar ask to that of colleagues—that we work together to find the best and most effective path to prosperity.
Putting further restrictions in place is not what anyone wants. I think we all understand why some level of restrictions is needed, but I cannot support these restrictions and I do not support the way this tiered system breaks the backs of the very poorest in communities, such as my own in the Jarrow constituency.
When we were last in the three-tier system, my constituency started in tier 2. It then went into the national lockdown and we are now going into tier 3. It simply did not work, which is why I call on the Government to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and that no area is left behind. It is irresponsible of the Government to insist that those in tier 3 put up with further hardship, while at the same time encouraging a national knees-up during the Christmas period. This irresponsibility is likely to lead to another devastating national lockdown in January.
There is no point in having devastating restrictions on the hospitality sector if people across all sectors are going into work with covid symptoms simply because they cannot afford to live on £95 a week, or do not qualify for the test and trace support payment due to the strict criteria in place. If people are not self-isolating, it is not because they are selfish or bored, but simply because the Government are not supporting them to do so.
Many in communities such as mine live financially week to week, month to month. If they are forced to self-isolate for two weeks, it means a further slide into debt and rent arrears. Making it financially possible for everyone with covid symptoms to self-isolate must be a priority now for the Government.
It is also grossly unfair that local businesses in my region are set to lose out compared with areas of the country that have spent less time in restrictions. The one-off nature of the £20 a head business support grant means that local authorities must stretch out funding for as long as they are in tier 3. And the tier 3 restrictions are devastating for community pubs such as the Red Hackle in Jarrow, which has been doing great work in supporting kids in our community when the Government refused to fund free school meals over the half-term period. I pay tribute to Lee and the team there.
Unfortunately, the £1,000 grant announced today for wet pubs will barely touch the surface. It demonstrates just how out of touch this Government are with the struggle that the hospitality industry is now facing. I support restrictions in principle, but we need a greater financial support package that includes adequate grants for businesses, full pay for those who need to self-isolate, an uplift in social security, and financial support for the excluded. It is time for the Government to change their strategy. Along with an effective vaccine, only by having—
Order. Sorry, time is up.
We have now had 253 days of restrictions of one form or another—days of uncertainty, of mental strain and of hardship. My vote today will affect many. Hardship will continue. The aim of the Government is to suppress the spread of coronavirus and, thanks to the work of so many, that is happening. I accept reluctantly—but I do accept—that, while much progress has been made, there is much more to do.
These measures are not welcome. Any restriction on everyday life is not welcome, especially at this time of year. Nottinghamshire is set to enter tier 3 tomorrow—hopefully not for long, but its covid rates, while thankfully falling, remain high among the over-60s, the most vulnerable group, and the number of covid patients in hospital beds is also high.
Against that background, I understand that further measures are necessary to prevent a deterioration of the situation and to ensure that any future relaxation will be safe and made at a time when levels of the virus are low enough so that restrictions will not have to be reintroduced at a later date. All parts of society are affected by these measures, but I will, if I may, focus the time that I have on an aspect of the hospitality trade that will be affected in Gedling. I know that many pubs, such as the Robin Hood & Little John in Arnold and the Cross Keys in Burton Joyce, had hoped to reopen in a covid-secure way in the run-up to Christmas, which is an important time for them, and those in tier 3 will not be able to do so. George Orwell, in his essay “The Moon Under Water” described his ideal pub thus:
“If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me…is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.”
Man is a social animal.
So many have been deprived of social contact this year, and at the heart of our communities are our pubs, which also provide incomes and livelihoods for so many. It would be a tragedy if this virus, which has run through the wet markets of Wuhan, were to destroy the wet pubs of England. It would not be an England in which I would want to live.
I know that there are limits to the power of Government, and there are certainly limits to Government spending. I welcome today’s announcement, but I trust that the Government will realise the scope of the problem and what might potentially be lost, and continue to provide support. Orwell said that the perfect pub has
“the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century”;
we should do all we can to ensure that they survive well into the 21st.
’Twas the night before Eid, 116 days ago. That evening, the majority of people in my constituency were preparing for the next day and kids had gone to bed thinking they would wake up to Eid. But Eid was cancelled—it was done on Twitter by our Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. We had to scurry around and give out all the uncooked and cooked food to neighbours, friends and family. Now, we are approaching Christmas and we are still nowhere.
The end of the road is nowhere in sight for us in Bradford West. It has been 116 days so far. This morning, I spoke to the chief nurse at my local hospital, Karen Dawber. Before I tell the House what she said, may I put on the record my thanks to the doctors, nurses, support workers, cleaners and supporters of my local hospital in my constituency for all their hard work and for the long days ahead that they are going to be working?
Karen told me that the hospital has had an increase in numbers, so it is absolutely right that we support the restrictions, and I do support them, because our hospital does not have the capacity. There is a north-south divide: we have been underfunded. We should not be in this position where we do not have the capacity and cannot change the tier system despite the fact that, because we have put in our own resources, Bradford Council is reaching 90% of test and trace contacts. That is much more than Serco managed—it was reaching 40% for nine weeks and is still not meeting the 80% target. We have reduced infections by 24% but we are still nowhere near the end of the tier system or these restrictions.
How am I supposed to support the Government? Like many of us in this Chamber, I have repeatedly asked the Government for financial support for my constituency and for businesses in my constituency. The simple fact is that this is unfair. It is unfair that somewhere that is in tier 3 gets the same amount of funding if they have been in it for only 30 or 40 days, while we have to string it out for 116 days with no end in sight. It is not fair for Bradford West or for the businesses in Bradford West, and the Government still are not meeting the needs of those who are excluded.
Havering is in tier 2 with 269 cases per 100,000, yet Bradford has 256 cases per 100,000 and we are in tier 3. Neither the lives of the most vulnerable nor the jobs of the poorest in society are expendable, so I will not support these measures until the Government step up for the businesses and people in my constituency of Bradford West, because they deserve better.
When I declined to support the regulations on the national lockdown on 5 November, I did so on the basis that they were disproportionate and went beyond what was necessary and justified by the evidence. I said that I would support regulations that were proportionate and based on the evidence. Unhappily, the regulations before us are not; they are disproportionate, still, and they go beyond the evidence, still. I had hoped very much that I would find in the briefings and analysis something that would persuade me to support them, but it is not there.
The impact assessments are frankly inadequate, particularly on the economic side, and I am concerned generally that there remains a lack of economic rigour in the decision-making approach that has been adopted on this matter. We all want to protect the NHS and we all want to protect those who are vulnerable, but we do not protect the NHS by doing fundamental damage to our economy without having set up the most rigorous arguments to convince us that that is necessary and that there is no other option to achieve the desired objective. I am sorry to say—it is a matter of real regret—that that has not been achieved.
Proportionality requires an assessment of the beneficial effects of any restrictions against the harm they will cause, and a judgment can then be made on that. The analysis documents that we have seen do not include an accurate assessment of those benefits or the harms of the tiers.
The tiers themselves are, frankly, arbitrary in many cases. I happen to live in a London borough in one tier; many of my friends live just in the county of Kent, in a part of Kent that has very low infection rates, but because of the rigid application of tiering by top-tier authority, rather than by a more nuanced approach, they are dragged disproportionately into restrictions that will seriously damage friends and families of my constituents and businesses that feed into the business chains of my constituents. That is not justified upon the evidence.
While certain changes have been advantageous to the hospitality sector, such as the end of the 10 pm curfew, it is still disproportionately affected, and I have not yet seen any justification. I am sorry to have to say that; I would have hoped that the Government would have gone away and done more work on this.
The counterfactuals that were set up were of no regulations. That is not a realistic counterfactual; the counterfactual should have been of a more proportionate set of regulations that were more nuanced and more targeted. In the absence of that, and therefore in the absence of evidence to balance against the potential economic harm, I believe that there are better ways of protecting lives and protecting the NHS than these regulations. So, again, I cannot support them tonight.
The Government’s response to the pandemic has been incompetent, shambolic, arrogant and, alas, corrupt. The centralised, top-down approach they have enacted would be the envy of any former Soviet bloc country during the cold war. Local directors of public health have been sidelined and ignored, making way for expensive management consultants and members of the Conservative party’s chumocracy. The £12 billion test and trace system has failed. The Prime Minister and Ministers keep trumpeting out figures saying that we have got more tests done, yet what is important is not the number of tests but what we do with them in terms of tracing people, and the rates for national test and tracing are below 60%, compared with local test and tracing rates of 90-odd per cent. Clearly, therefore, the system has failed.
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked what the solution is. Well, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) gave the answer: what we need is locally based strategies for test and tracing. We do not need mass lateral flow testing, because there is no evidence at all from the Liverpool experiment that that has worked and the logistical exercise of implementing that across all the required tier 3 areas would prove impossible.
On the vaccine, the Government have put the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), in charge; well, nothing can go wrong there then, can it? What has he actually done? He has threatened people who do not have the vaccine with not being able to go to pubs and offered a supermarket voucher for people who have it, instead of doing what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, which is to make the argument and work with local government to deliver it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) is right: people have lost faith in the tier system. The Prime Minister and Ministers said that science would dictate the agenda, but it is not doing so; politics is. That is why London is in tier 2 and the north-east is going to be put in tier 3. So much for the levelling up agenda of this Government. The north-east is this country’s poorest region; the idea that jobs there mean less to this Government than jobs in London speaks for itself. That is why I cannot support these measures tonight and will be voting against them.
Most of the east midlands is in tier 3 due to the vast number of cases in the second wave. Applying the five criteria to my constituency, we have had above national average rates in all ages and above national average rates in the above-60s, yet our rates have fallen significantly and our positive rates are falling. However, pressure on our local NHS is still high, as rates are 30% above the peak in covid cases in April, and there is a serious risk of further suspension and cancellation of non-covid services. When I voted for the national lockdown, it was to protect the NHS nationally from being overloaded, and the same logic applies locally.
However, my concerns are wider than that and what happens in two weeks. My first concern is being coupled with Leicester. The second is the model applied on 16 December. Since the announcement of the tiers, my Leicestershire colleagues and I have argued for Leicestershire to be decoupled from the city. This is not covid nimbyism but an evidence-based approach. How can I be sure? Because Leicester and Leicestershire are living proof of a model that worked for us before. We did it in the summer. If a blanket approach had been taken, Hinckley and Bosworth would have been entering 154 days of higher lockdown measures, like the city. It was unjustifiable then, and it is unjustifiable now. I have taken heart from the assurances I have received privately and in a letter from the Health Secretary, in which he stated:
“We will again assess each area individually, including Leicestershire, on its own merits.”
That leads me to the second part: moving tiers. The Prime Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) that he would be taking as “granular” an approach as possible. On 1 September, the Health Secretary said to the Chamber:
“We are driven by the data.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 36.]
Taking those two points together, Hinckley and Bosworth have categorically proved that my community can apply the rules and maintain tier 1 while neighbours are in tier 3. This is unequivocal, real-world data for a borough-based model in Leicestershire.
My ask of the Government is this. Let the people of Hinckley and Bosworth be the masters of their own destiny. Empower them to follow the rules and drive the rates and hospital admissions down. Give them the chance to again demonstrate, as we did in the summer, that we can control the virus. In return, come the 16th, provide them with a lower tier and a tried and tested borough-based system for Leicestershire, so that we can save lives and livelihoods.
I start from the fundamental principle that we do need restrictions across the country in some shape or form. I remember earlier in the year being howled at by various lunatic journalists who told me angrily that the idea that we would ever get to 200 deaths a day this autumn was preposterous and based on false science. Well, we have seen 400, 500 and, on occasion, 600 deaths a day, so we have to take these matters seriously.
As Advent always leads to Christmas, and as Christmas always leads to Epiphany, so lower restrictions always lead to higher transmission rates, and higher transmission rates always lead to problems for the local NHS. That is true in every country in the world; there is no way of avoiding it. Government Members would be daft to listen to the blandishments that they have heard from the Prime Minister over the last couple of days. I would bet that not a single area goes from tier 2 to tier 1 before Christmas, simply because tier 2 does not work—it does not bring the numbers down. There might be some areas that go from tier 3 to tier 2, but there will not be any that go from tier 2 to tier 1, and the Government know it.
There will not be any more nuanced rules and granularity when it comes to the second week of December or the end of February. One thing that has been really difficult for businesses in the hospitality industry is that they are endlessly being told to switch on and switch off. Someone who runs a pub buys in the beer and then has to pour it all down the drain. Incidentally, they are not allowed to pour it down the drain any more. They have to make special provision for it, and that does not mean bringing all their friends round and drinking it. There is a real problem in the brewing industry, and every time we switch on and switch off, it makes this all the more difficult.
I say to the Prime Minister: stop with the metaphors—I am sick and tired of them—and no more over-promising, because when he under-delivers on those promises, it means that the nation stops believing in him. Let us also not be parochial. I am sorry to say to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) that he was being precisely nimbyish. He was saying that he does not want Leicester in his backyard—that is nimbyism. The truth is that we are all in this together, and we have to take this forward as a national enterprise, not a parochial one.
I call Steve Brine.
I said to the Prime Minister earlier that my area has seen a drop in the seven-day average of 55%, yet we emerge from the national restrictions in tier 2 having entered them in tier 1, so we could be forgiven for asking, “How so?” In truth, I cannot answer that one. MPs were not consulted about that decision and, according to our county and our director of public health, nor were they. That begs the question, how will that change ahead of the 16 December review point, and what exactly needs to happen among the five stated data points outlined in the Secretary of State’s written statement last Thursday to get us down to tier 1 in very short order? I am hopeful.
It is obvious that consultation with local government leaders and MPs has been woeful.
Woeful? It has been non-existent in many instances. I am not reassured to hear that that has been happening across the border in Dorset as well; I am not surprised.
I need to hear from the Government how this will change in the next two weeks and, to echo the calls in this respect today from many speakers on both sides of the House, I need to see a much more localised approach rather than a regional approach. My constituents are perfectly capable of knowing where they live, be that Winchester, Alresford or Chandler’s Ford in the Eastleigh borough, and of course we would go into that arrangement with our eyes wide open. We would know full well that it could work in our favour if our rate went down, every bit as much as it could work against us if the rate went up. My message to Ministers is: “Please treat us as grown-ups. Involve us in your decision-making, because by that route, you might just find that we are able to help build some consent and compliance with whatever it is that is decided.”
The reality is that for many of us, tomorrow will feel a lot like today—working from home, bans on meeting friends and family, and many other restrictions on our lives—but for many of my bars, pubs and restaurants, not so much. They are in a terrible place. I know from talking to some of them in the last 24 hours that it is not the substantial meal point that is killing them; it is the fact that tier 2 prevents any household mixing indoors. They can open, but the trade just is not there, and because they are in tier 2, the financial support is not there either. It is the worst of all worlds.
We are told that that very household mixing is where the danger lies. To quote the Prime Minister in his letter to MPs on Saturday:
“It would not take much loosening for the transmission rate to rise again”.
So why on earth—no matter how much I understand the desire not to be the modern puritans, and no matter how much I want a normal Christmas this year—are we relaxing the rules for five days at Christmas? To echo a phrase—I am sorry to say this—would that not be to trip on the last barbed wire and blow it just as the cavalry, in the form of the vaccine, comes into view? My hunch is that many people will have already decided for themselves to avoid seeing family and grandchildren over Christmas this year. Frankly, I salute their good sense in doing so.
The record shows that I did not vote for lockdown 2.0 on 2 November. Nothing that has happened since has told me that I made the wrong decision then. The tiered system, while not perfect, for some of the reasons I have outlined, is far better than a national lockdown, which, for the record—I am bored with saying it—was never a lockdown. But we are not just recreating the tiered system here this evening, because schedule 4 of the tiers regulations lists exactly where each area falls. That makes it very hard for me to support them this evening.
In closing, I will just say this. Let us just get these vaccines over the line. The MHRA is tough and will do its job as it should, but let us get them over the line and get them rolled out with the sort of British efficiency that we are supposed to be good at. Then—guess what?—the annus horribilis of 2020 will go away and these Hobson’s choices that we are being forced to make will go away as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the metaphors of the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I agreed with much of what they both said, and with what many said before them.
First, to reflect the tone of so many of the emails and letters that we have been getting, people are fed up. They are completely fed up. There are also devastated, but I find that the letters that hit me hardest are the ones that are now almost pleading. They are pleading with the Government to get it right. There is a local bar that anyone who might have gone to Oxford would know well—I will not name it—that is about to go under. Its owner said that the tier 2 restrictions on pubs and bars are going to be absolutely devastating, and that “a company is simply not an economic organisation; it is a group of people who strive together, and the new measures will put all of our company at risk.” We are now at the point where the Government do not have the confidence of the people who are writing to me, and that is deeply concerning.
I have concerns about the restrictions, which is why I and the Lib Dems will not be supporting them today, but it is not because they are wrong in and of themselves. We need restrictions, but the package around them has not been working right. The restrictions are predicated on what I believe is a false dichotomy: that it is health or wealth, that it is lives or livelihoods, and that there is a balance between the two. It could work if we had all the variables in front of us, knew what every single one was and kept them in a fine balance in real time, but the uncertainties are so huge that, as we have seen from the tier system so far, it does not work. The Secretary of State himself said at the Dispatch Box that tiers 1 and 2 do not really work. They do not bear down on the virus; they stop the spread from happening as fast. Tier 3 seems to hold steady, and tier 3-plus and lockdown does depress the virus.
To gamble with such a system—I would love to see the evidence that shows that it is going to work—at a time when we still do not have the vaccines is a big mistake on behalf of the Government. My plea to them, in the short time that I have, is for more transparency. Please can we have transparency from Silver, Gold and Covid-O and about all the decisions that are being made to local areas, not with them?
I think the tier system is an attempt at localism from a Government who do not seem to understand fundamentally what that is. Localism means that when there are difficult decisions to make, they need to be made as close to the people they affect as possible. Please do better.
I think that any decision the Government made tonight would have left them open to criticism. I cannot improve on what Lord Finkelstein said in his comment piece in The Times in October:
“If Boris Johnson persists with targeted measures for small areas, you can complain that the patchwork is almost impossible to understand and you would be right. Yet if he simplifies the whole thing, applying restrictions across big regions, you can…point out that he has bundled together places with different infection rates. And you would be right with that criticism, too.”
If he closes pubs and keeps schools open he is killing hospitality while the kids spread the virus through the playground, and if it is the other way round he is putting booze over education. The point is that there is no right answer. Every choice carries risk and causes collateral damage.
My constituents have made some very compelling points to me. Some say that in an area such as West Berkshire, where the rate of infection is 63 per 100,000, the risk is now exaggerated, but that misses the fact that between 1 October and 1 November the rate of infection quadrupled, mirroring the national picture. We learn from paragraph 3.5 of the impact assessment published yesterday that, by the end of October, England
“was on a trajectory to exceed total NHS capacity in England within weeks”,
with a mortality rate of 24% for all hospitalisations, so we cannot be complacent.
The second point that is made is that the cure is now worse than the disease. I treat with respect and deference the emails I have received from pubs from The Pheasant Inn in Hungerford in the west of my constituency to The Old Boot Inn in the east. They say that they were relying on their Christmas custom for their very survival. I will always fight for the livelihoods of those I represent, but I ask the House this: if the hospitals were overflowing, as they are in Naples, would people really be going out to meet their mates in the pub? If we got to January and had no choice but to enter another national lockdown, would that be better or worse? We know the answer.
I prefer the Government’s approach of slowly taking our foot off the brake. They know that they need to sustain their moral authority, and they must do that by providing a clear road map between tiers and working with local directors of public health. When we are on the brink of getting a vaccine approved—we now know that it is effective—in my view it would be a catastrophe to fall at the final hurdle.
I must admit that I felt quite irritated listening to the Prime Minister’s juvenile efforts to goad Labour over this vote earlier today. Does he not understand that this is not the time for smirking and posturing, or that, in part, we are in this mess because of his repeated failures? Perhaps a bit of sincerity and humility would not go amiss, although frankly I am not sure that he does either of those things. The simple truth is that people are fed up with the shenanigans, the stop-go policies and the overly optimistic and utterly outrageous claims, and they are sick of the contracts for friends of the Tory party.
I have to confess that I am tempted to vote against this proposal tonight because I am sick of the damage the Prime Minister has done to local businesses and to the hospitality sector in Birmingham, but I will almost certainly abide by our leader’s decision because I recognise that, as we approach the worst part of winter, this is not the time for a free-for-all where we let the virus run amok. But what I would like to know is, when that decision was taken to put Birmingham into tier 3 and London into tier 2, who were the Ministers who made the economic case for London? I do not hold that against them, but I want to know why there was no one there to speak up for Birmingham.
Earlier today, the Prime Minister waffled on about £1,000 for wet pubs. That is less than £33 a day for the rest of this month. What does he think they run on? Hot air? His hot air? I really want a situation where we are trying to look after the people who need help. Our hospitality sector is on its knees and it will be virtually wiped out come March. It is time we had real, immediate and urgent assistance to keep our pubs, clubs and restaurants open. We also need measures for those self-employed people who have been cast aside by the Government and are now virtually on the breadline. It simply is not right that the Government should take into account the economic consequences for London but apply a different set of criteria when it comes to places such as Birmingham. If the Prime Minister and the Conservatives stand by and let our hospitality sector be destroyed, the people of Birmingham and the west midlands will never forgive them.
We have heard some passionate speeches this afternoon opposing the Government’s measures, but I have to say that on this occasion I feel they are wrong. We have had much quoting of local infection rates, which of course is an important measure, but equally important is hospital capacity, and hospitals are not necessarily in the same constituency or council area as the relevant infection rates. Earlier I listened to the passionate and powerful speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who referred to his Market Rasen ward. Market Rasen is about 15 miles outside the boundary of my constituency, and people in Market Rasen go to Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Lincoln hospitals if they need treatment. None of those hospitals is in the same council area as Market Rasen.
We need to take note of what Peter Reading, the chief executive of Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust, said in a statement this morning:
“In common with all trust chief executives, I am concerned that some media reports in recent days have suggested the hospitals are under less pressure than last winter. We believe these reports misunderstand and grossly under-estimate what is actually happening and the huge impact that covid has had on operations and capacity in our hospitals”.
It is irresponsible not to take note of such comments.
Locally, my infection rate in the constituency has roughly halved over the past two or three weeks, so it is difficult to argue that the lockdown has not had some impact. We had a low infection rate in the spring, and people wanted to put up the shutters and prevent people from coming to our area. They also wanted strict enforcement. Now, they want equally strict enforcement because we have a significantly higher rate. Those who argue that the Government are taking too much notice of a small group of experts in SAGE and so on also have to explain why most major European countries are deploying similar policies. Are all their experts equally wrong?
We do need more support, particularly for coastal areas. Where the Government decree that businesses should cease going about their legal business, they need more support from the Government. I and my immediate neighbours will certainly be pressing the Minister for additional support. Like other hon. Members, I have doubts about the five days of relaxation for Christmas. We should be mindful of what could happen in the new year.
Order. Before I call Rachael Maskell, if anybody is on the call list who does not intend to take part in the debate and who has not withdrawn already, please get the message through to the Speaker’s Office so we can better manage the rest of the debate.
We need strong public health measures and strong support for our economy. Tragically, the Government have done neither to a satisfactory extent to rescue businesses that are on the brink or to safeguard us against the virus. As we have heard many times in today’s debate, with the vaccine in sight, we need to put that bridge in place now to get us through this difficult season.
I want to look at some of the measures that the Government should have taken during the lockdown that would have been game changing in addressing the pandemic. First, I will focus on local contact tracing. Across the world, we have seen how the power and precision of local contact tracing have made a difference. I can testify that in York, when we were heading into tier 3 due to the rapid spike of infections in our city, our public health team went the extra mile, got hold of the data, phoned people on a local number, knocked on doors and had that discussion as to why people should isolate.
The results have been phenomenal. Yesterday, there were only 14 infections in our city and the positivity rate has dropped dramatically to 5.79, so we know that it is having an effect. However, the team cannot get hold of the data until day three, four or five because Serco is holding it. I plead with the Minister to release the data on day one so we can lock down the virus and stop it entering our community, so we do not need to lock down the economy and people in future.
Secondly, I want the Government to take a more public health approach to the economy. With all health and safety matters, we inspect workplaces, we certificate them to say that they are safe, and then they can open. There is no reason why we cannot do that for covid. Again, I ask the Minister to look at taking that public health approach to the economy. If somewhere is not covid-secure, we should absolutely turn the key in its door, but if it is, it is safe to open if the public respect those public health measures.
Thirdly, on Christmas, new research came out yesterday that said that 22% of people will spend Christmas on their own. We know that 2 million people face severe issues with loneliness, and we need to address that. I urge the Minister to move heaven and earth, and to move the rapid lateral flow tests and our armed forces if they can assist, to ensure that people can access a test if that will mean that they will not be on their own at Christmas. We know that people will self-restrain, or else people will be given the present that nobody wants this Christmas, so I trust that we will have those tests available.
Much has already been said in this debate, so I will keep my points short. I am incredibly disappointed that Redcar and Cleveland is in tier 3 on the back of the national lockdown, but seeing that London was placed in tier 2 and shielded from the harshest restrictions made that consideration worse. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could say why when he responds. My constituents were rightly confused by the implication that they were more likely to catch covid on Redcar beach than on the tube in London, or that they were more vulnerable on Marske High Street than those who will flock to Oxford Street tomorrow.
That said, there is hope for us. I want us to move down the tiers at the review on the 16th. In Redcar and Cleveland, cases are now down to 140 per 100,000, which means that the number of cases has more than halved since the original tiering decision last week. So provided our numbers remain comparatively low, there is no clear justification for keeping areas such as mine under these high restrictions beyond 16 December. What I fear these tiers fail to represent is the differences between our communities. I represent two towns, Redcar and Eston, and a number of villages, and our decisions on tiering must reflect that, particularly when population density is much lower and people do not travel nearly as much.
Behind the tiering system lie the support measures we have put in place. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has done an amazing job in what he has achieved so far, and today’s announcement for hospitality is certainly welcome. But for our pubs, particularly our wet pubs, which are not likely to open in many parts of the country until February, we need to consider the real societal impact of losing these community hubs if we do not provide the right level of support to help them reopen when the fog lifts. I urge the Government to look at what further measures they can introduce to help those pubs get through this difficult period, such as cutting alcohol duty, VAT exemptions and re-examining thresholds once the national restrictions lift.
Finally, although some of my hon. Friends may walk through a different Lobby from me later tonight, at least we are making decisions. It is incredibly shameful that, once again, the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to sit on his hands and abstain on such an important decision. Far from new leadership this Christmas, we see this is another version of the silent knight.
This is the last haul, the final stretch before we reach the vaccine, which, combined with rapid mass testing, means we will finally able to get our lives back to normal. I will vote for the restrictions tonight, but we have to demonstrate that areas can move down the tiers. I look forward to discussions with the Secretary of State on how we can achieve that for Redcar and Cleveland.
It is pleasure to make a short contribution to this debate, which has been compelling to follow. The constant thread we find, no matter which way people will vote tonight, is enormous frustration in all parts of the House, the roots of which are to be found in the fact that the Government have lost their way in tackling covid. There is a lack of coherent strategy and of route maps from one tier to the other. I say to those on the Treasury Bench that my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will not take part in the Division tonight; we feel it would be irresponsible to leave the country in a situation where we did not have regulation after midnight, but that should not necessarily be taken as a green light for the Government to continue to act in this way in the future.
I also hope that the listening extends not just to the Department of Health and Social Care, but to the Home Office. I am sure I was not the only Member who looked at the TV screens at the weekend and saw police officers in London enforcing the Home Secretary’s rule of two. People speak about the cost of the cure being perhaps greater than that of the disease and we tend to think of that in financial terms, but clearly the way in which we have tackled covid has a cost that goes well beyond that. I have little sympathy for those arrested on the streets in London at the weekend. I agree with almost nothing that they say, but it is important that in this House, of all places, we should be able to support their right to assemble, and to protest peacefully and within the law. We walk away from that at our peril, because these freedoms were hard-won and if we give them up, they will not be easily brought back.
I wish to say a few short words about the position facing the travel industry, which is in many ways the Cinderella service in all this. I have been speaking to travel agents in my constituency. In the early days they kept their doors open. They were having to work around the clock to process cancellations and the rest of it, making sure that people got refunds. Since then, they have seen their business fall off a cliff. There is lots of help out there for other aspects of hospitality, and rightly so, but these are people who are now being left with nowhere to go. These businesses work not in weeks or months, but in months and years, and they are being left behind. There are very few simple things that require to be done, but the Government have to listen to them now.
I share the concerns expressed by many Members about the lack of consistency in the application of tiering and how areas are allocated into it, but also about how particular sectors are subject to social restrictions on the most arbitrary of judgments. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) said, because these decisions are being taken on the back of a fag packet, but are destroying whole swathes of the hospitality industry. As a Conservative, it appals me that we are being so cavalier about jobs and wealth creation, and we need to think carefully about that, not least because so many businesses have invested thousands of pounds to make themselves more covid-secure.
The fact of the matter is that if we are not mixing having a meal with our friends or having a pint in a pub, then we are going round to each other’s houses. Our homes are a lot less covid-secure, which brings me back to some of the points that colleagues have made about the relaxation over Christmas. It seems to me that that is far less covid-secure than allowing the hospitality sector to thrive a little more, particularly given that November and December are make or break for so many hospitality and retail businesses.
I am actually very disappointed with where we have got to. It is not surprising that we are here, is it, because it is winter? At this time every winter, the NHS gets taken over by a collective anticipatory anxiety about what will happen over the next three months, because we never know. The NHS has to make the best possible plans without knowing the extent of a flu epidemic, for example. Add covid on top of that and it is not surprising that the NHS is being risk-averse, but it our job, and the job of Ministers, to give challenge and ensure that those decisions are proportionate.
We talk about protecting the NHS, but these decisions have not been about protecting the NHS; they have been about protecting hospitals and bed capacity within them. The NHS is more than hospitals; this is about everybody who works in the NHS, and I will just give a bit of a shout-out to our paramedics and ambulance crews, who, frankly, are bearing the brunt of the fact that so many GPs have still not reopened their surgeries. More and more people are calling 999, and because of isolate, test and trace, our ambulance crews are overstretched. So many are not in self-isolation, and so many are working very long shifts. When we talk about protecting our NHS, it is more than beds in hospitals. Let us make sure we protect the entirety of it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). I agree with many of the points she raised. We are on the cusp of vaccine roll-out, but the Government’s response must not underestimate the continued threat of the virus. We know that the previous three-tier system did not work, and we ended up in a national lockdown. Nobody wants a repeat of that. The Government should have learned from those mistakes, but it does not seem that they have.
Not only have the Government failed to fix test and trace during the lockdown, but they are recklessly ploughing on with the tiered system and the insufficient economic support package. The £20-a-head business support grant is only a one-off payment, and businesses are in the dark about the future of the furlough scheme. Furthermore, tier 1 areas receive the same support package for just 28 days of national lockdown as areas now facing many months in tier 3. The Federation of Small Businesses said that the spending review was
“a missed opportunity to help small business owners—not least those who have been excluded from support measures”.
I, too, am very concerned about the impact of these regulations on the pub and hospitality industry. The situation in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s alarming employment forecasts has been accelerated by the Government’s approach to the sector, which expects to have lost nearly 600,000 jobs by February 2021. That is in the space of a year. UKHospitality states that 98% of the hospitality trade will be in either tier 2 or tier 3 and will see a 70% drop in trade for the whole of December, representing £7.8 billion lost. The sector needs increased support to help it through the crisis.
The decision to allow pubs to open only if they sell food will devastate the industry across the country, and I have heard first-hand from pubs in Luton South about how the lockdown restrictions have damaged their business, but also about how wet-led pubs have implemented covid-secure measures to keep their customers safe, taking contact details, using table service and doing regular cleaning. I hope that the Government will publish the scientific evidence for closing the wet-led pubs, so that we can understand how the risk posed is any different from pubs that serve food or, indeed, going to the supermarket.
I fully support the Campaign for Real Ale’s call for fair treatment of all pubs, which includes publishing the scientific evidence, sector-specific support and parity between wet-led pubs and those that sell food. The Government have not learned from their mistakes, have not listened to SAGE on lockdown and have not introduced sufficient measures to protect public health or the economy.
It is difficult to say something fresh and original when you are No. 79 on the list, but I will give it a go.
I cannot support these regulations, and it is not because I am some sort of rebel or want to undermine the Government. I and many other hon. Members who have come to this conclusion want to look our constituents in the eye and to make a decision that we think is in their best interests. That is what we were elected to do. It is extraordinary that Labour Members are not here to look anybody in the eye on one of the biggest decisions we are being asked to make. It is a real cop-out, frankly. The debate is happening only on the Government side of the House.
When I look my constituents in the eye, I will have to justify why tomorrow we will be going into tier 2. I can trump everybody here, because Worthing in my constituency has a pandemic level of 28 out of 100,000, the lowest in the country. The figure for the other part of my constituency, Adur, is 45. Surrounding us are Arun with 55, Brighton and Hove—even the city—with 57 and Horsham with 67, which are all low, while the sea is hopefully zero. Worthing Hospital has four covid patients; last week it had eight. Our infection rates are falling and our patient levels are falling, yet tomorrow my constituency will be going into tier 2, having started the lockdown in tier 1 and having come down continuously in the right direction. Where is the logic in that?
I will have to look in the eye my pub owners, restaurants owners and those in other hospitality industries, on which we rely greatly in coastal constituencies such as mine. How can I justify that having a Scotch egg represents a substantial meal? Why is it safer for someone to have a Scotch egg with their drink than to have a quiet pint with their mate down at the pub? Frankly, after having waited for two weeks for a change of tier—it probably will not happen, because the chief medical officer suggested last week that it would not happen—it will be too late. This is the busiest time of the year, and an industry already on its knees desperately needs to try to get its trade back over the coming weeks. I have given up trying to explain to my constituents why Cabinet Ministers are saying that it is safe to play charades at Christmas, but it is very dangerous to play board games.
People have behaved themselves and have made great sacrifices, but they will still be penalised. We need to see the data, the evidence and the reasoning behind these decisions. I have always said that the Prime Minister needs to be straight with the people; if the Government publish, explain and make people understand the instructions, people will have confidence in them and get it. It was therefore really disappointing to get the document last night—frankly, it is a cut-and-paste job from the OBR from last week—which is a statement of the bleeding obvious. It is littered with terms about allowing the virus to grow exponentially, as if any of us wanted to let it rip; of course we would not. Nobody is suggesting no regulation, but we want proportionate regulation, and it may mean better, tougher regulation in some parts of the country.
We need logical, consistent, proportionate and fair regulations for people to have the confidence to follow them. These are not, and they will not follow them, and then it will undermine everything.
It is a pleasure to follow the impassioned and measured speech of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).
This Government have asked the British people to make immense personal and financial sacrifices over the past eight months, and they are now asking the vast majority to continue doing so for many weeks and probably months to come. As a Liberal, I strongly believe in and champion the importance of personal freedom, which is why I have struggled so much with the measures taken to date, but as a Liberal, John Stuart Mill’s principle of do no harm is critical, which is why I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues are very clear that, sadly, ongoing restrictions on our personal freedoms are needed to keep the virus under control.
We support the overarching principles of a localised approach, which crucially involves local leaders in decision making, but this Government are stubbornly refusing to do that. The execution of the approach, like so many aspects of the Government’s response to this pandemic, is deeply flawed. The British people have shown an enormous amount of good will and the vast majority have done the right thing, but that can be maintained only if the Government make sure that their decisions are transparent and evidence-based, fair and backed up with proper support. I want to focus in particular on transparency in evidence and, briefly, on support.
No evidence has been provided for the rationale behind the various contradictory and perverse changes in the new tier system. Why in tier 2 is it deemed safe for 1,000 people to attend an indoor event, yet two friends cannot meet for a drink in one of Twickenham’s pubs that have spent thousands on ensuring they are covid-secure? If we want to build trust and compliance among the public and provide motivation to stick to the rules to do the right thing, they need to understand what they are working towards, yet the Government have so far refused to publish details of how their five indicators are being applied or weighted. For a party that is supposed to believe in personal responsibility and encouraging people to do the right thing, the Conservatives seem very hesitant to equip people to be able to do so.
I have long argued, along with Government Members, for a full impact assessment that details not just the economic impact, but the non-covid health harms. The flimsy document published yesterday was, frankly, not worth the paper it was written on and it has left me none the wiser about the impact of the restrictions on my constituents. How does that help to build trust and buy-in to these measures?
On support, briefly, those of us making these difficult decisions do not need to worry about how we will pay for our children’s shoes, yet many of our constituents whose livelihoods are being destroyed do need to worry. They need far greater support—particularly the hospitality sector and the 3 million who have been overlooked to date. It is simply not good enough. That is why I cannot and will not vote for these measures.
While we wait for the roll-out of the vaccine, there are no easy choices available to the Government. The choice is between lockdown, a tiered system and unrestricted return to normal life. From an economic and social perspective, lockdowns are by far the worst option. Entering a cycle of lockdown, reopen and repeat does not amount to living with the virus; it is hiding from it, while causing long-lasting damage at the same time. People have put up with a great deal this year and are understandably desperate to return to their normal lives, but we know that the national health service comes under strain in the winter months in normal times and that these are very far from normal times. To simply reopen with no restrictions would be a huge gamble that could lead to the loss of tens of thousands of lives. That leaves the option of regional tiers, which I believe offer the best option for living with the virus while waiting for a full deployment of the vaccine. In acknowledging that, it is important to recognise that tiers are not a destination; they are a holding pattern.
As colleagues have said, the Government could do a great deal more in making transparent the evidential basis for decisions on tiers. I am not especially happy with my constituency’s tier. Orpington is part of the London Borough of Bromley and as such is part of Greater London. While Greater London has a range of infection rates, most are much higher than those in my borough. Greater London also has a very large number of hospitals. We know from Department of Health and Social Care figures that the NHS in London is now, at the end of the year, at only 76% of the level it was in spring. On that basis, it is possible to make the argument that the NHS has surge capacity to cope with a spike of infections in London and it could therefore perhaps have been placed in tier 1, rather than in tier 2. However, it is also possible to conceive of a situation where the virus could run out of control.
In addition, I note that the Government have listened to representations from colleagues on the Conservative Benches and across the House, and a range of activities can now resume in tier 2 that were not available during lockdown. However, as other colleagues have said, hospitality, in particular pubs, will be hard hit. While the existing measures and the additional financial support announced by the Prime Minister today are welcome, I call on the Government to have another look and see whether more can be done while we wait for the vaccine.
In closing, I must comment on the total abdication of responsibility offered today by the Leader of the Opposition. It is truly scandalous. It is all very well pointing to the faults of others, but a supposedly alternative Government must have an alternative plan. The moral vacuity of standing and saying, “I do not like what you are doing” but neither offering an alternative nor having the courage to vote on it is absolutely damning.
Speakers 82 to 84 have withdrawn, so we go straight to Rob Butler.
I hope that that is not a consolation. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Like so many hon. Members, I face an extraordinarily difficult decision today. The national restrictions were supposed to get a grip on the virus—a short, sharp shock of sacrifice so that we could start to return to a normal way of life in the run-up to Christmas. Instead, my constituents are being asked to come out of the national lockdown into a stronger set of local restrictions than they had before. That is a tough ask, not made any easier by the inadequacy of robust data to support the proposals in front of us; what data we have is frequently inconsistent. The arguments on both sides of the debate have been well rehearsed this afternoon. There is no perfect answer. There are nuances, doubts and what ifs, but the vote is binary—yes or no—and we are paid to decide.
Last week, I met local entrepreneurs who have recently set up restaurants in the town, exactly the businesspeople we need to make Aylesbury a place where people want to live, work, visit and invest. They are haemorrhaging money, despite the very generous support scheme set up by the Chancellor, because they do not meet the right criteria. I want to help those people.
Tier 1, however, was not enough to stop the spread of the virus. My local hospital is close to capacity, and only now are we able to catch up with the missed operations from the lockdown earlier in the year. I receive emails from constituents who are desperate for operations that have been delayed, and whose physical and mental health is in peril because of the wait. That is before the emergency cases—heart attacks, strokes, diagnoses of cancer, car crashes or other accidents.
I have therefore looked at the conflicting evidence and listened carefully to the arguments in the House today. I have carefully considered the views of constituents who have written with passionately held opinions, and I have spoken to doctors I know and trust. I do not have enough information to make a perfect decision. In that position, I must err on the side of caution.
I must ask myself a brutal question. In a month’s time, do I look in the eye of someone who has lost their job, or maybe even their home, because of the decision I have made and the vote I cast tonight? Or do I look in the eye of someone who has lost their parent, or who now has a terminal diagnosis because of the decision I have made and the vote I cast tonight?
I will vote with the Government—but never did I expect to utter those words with such a heavy heart and such reluctance. The restrictions go against my every instinct. I realise that many in Aylesbury will not thank me for my vote tonight. I appeal to the Prime Minister and others making the decisions to keep our time in tier 2 to an absolute minimum, to assess incredibly carefully whether the restrictions in each tier really are justifiable and proportionate, and to talk to local leaders, so that next time we are asked to vote, we can all look all our constituents in the eye and assure them that then we did the right thing.
I am glad that I came to the Chamber in good time.
I was one of those who voted against the national lockdown, because I am in a privileged position: I am a Cornwall MP and I represent the Isles of Scilly—and Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight are the only parts of England in tier 1. I will therefore be voting, if not enthusiastically, certainly in support of the Government, because the tier system is the right thing to have, in particular for Cornwall.
I want to raise a few things. As a libertarian, I do not want to say this, but it is an important part of a national effort to control the spread of coronavirus. Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and, I assume, the Isle of Wight are concerned about what might happen after today, right through to the Christmas break, because we are already attractive parts of the world and we have suddenly become very much more attractive. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State consider strengthening travel restrictions to ensure that travel from tier 3, for example, is only done when absolutely essential?
We will always welcome visitors to Cornwall to spend their money, but not when we are in a national effort to control the spread of the virus. I say that not just for my constituents, but for the whole of the country. We are seeking to battle the virus, to put an end to it, and to move into 2021 with, I hope, a brighter and more hopeful future.
Even a tier 1 MP, however, needs to make the case for hospitality. This year has been brutal for hospitality. Most of the businesses in Cornwall—as well as in Devon and across the country—depend in some way on tourism and on providing food, accommodation and entertainment for people. Despite the generous support so far, large parts of the sector are very unlikely to survive. Again, as a Cornish MP, so much of my hospitality can open, but it is still very curtailed.
I recognise that this is partly driving the restrictions that we have to vote on tonight: I long for the day, as I am sure millions of people in the UK do, when the NHS can return fully to providing the care that it usually would to people with long-term conditions. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for diabetes; it is a great honour and privilege to do so. A recent report from Manchester University with the Salford Royal Hospital demonstrates that, in April alone, there were twice as many deaths of people with diabetes during the lockdown as would normally be the case; and that there were 45,000 missed or delayed diagnoses of diabetes type 2. We know that, if diabetes is identified later, people’s life chances are reduced, their conditions are aggravated, and pressure of all kinds on the system of social care and the NHS is increased. Please may we do what we can to get the NHS to return to fully caring for those with long-term conditions?
I am not going to reduce the time limit, but I will say that if colleagues speak for less than three minutes, more people will get in.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We are faced with another difficult decision to make in this House today. As a Member of Parliament, I am here to be the voice of my constituents and, in the current situation, to defend their civil liberties as well.
In rural West Dorset, where the western tip is 55 miles from the key decision driver of Bournemouth, which has more than double the number of cases of covid, we, in our hospital in Dorchester, had just four covid patients at the end of last week. The case rate in Dorchester is now falling fast because of the diligent self-responsibility of local people. On 18 November, the case rate was 84.3 per 100,000, yet just a week later it was 45.2 and now it is 44.6. It is now at the lowest it has been since early October, and these numbers are lower than those in the Isle of Wight when the tier 1 decision was made. While I was greatly worried that, when we voted on 4 November for a national lockdown, this would be the case, our hospitals in Dorset are not overrun.
In West Dorset, 97% of our businesses are small or micro-sized. We have a high degree of self-employed. These people and businesses are taking the hit, and have done so willingly throughout this period. These businesses have spent considerable amounts to become covid-secure, and to restrict them to the extent proposed cannot continue any longer, in my view.
It cannot be expected of any Member of Parliament to lightly vote in support of removing these civil liberties. It is incredibly difficult to ever consider continuing support to keep small numbers of family away from their terminally ill parents, and as much as I am pleased that Christmas has some relaxations, I am concerned that the extent we are planning to do so can also cause unnecessary pain in the new year to our small businesses.
The Government have achieved much in terms of testing and reporting. They have achieved enormous amounts in terms of vaccines too. While I was deeply uncomfortable at the start of November to see the Government return to a blanket national approach, I do support the Government’s approach in returning to a more regional arrangement, but it should be going further and it should be more localised. Dorset should be in tier 1 of the restrictions, and in the absence of a detailed explanation as to why and how we are likely to get out of these restrictions, I shall struggle to support the regulations tonight.
I do not envy the Government in making this decision today. There is a lot of pressure, and no matter what decision one makes, it is always bound to be the wrong one with many across these isles. I agree with the concept of the tiering strategy. I even agree with our positioning in the tiering system, although there is a separate argument as to when the decision was made.
At its peak on 3 November, the borough of Bury had 605 cases per 100,000. As of 25 November, that figure has gone down by 60% to 251. That is a great achievement in the fight against coronavirus, and those numbers continue to fall. A 60% drop is something we should be proud of as a community. The timing of the decision needs to be reassessed. We should certainly be considered for tier 2 now, and even more so in two weeks’ time.
That leads me to the meaningful review on 16 December. Far too many times in this process, we have been told that we are having a meaningful review, only to be put in a Zoom conversation and be told by a Minister what our restrictions will be, with no input on policy matters or decisions. My plea to the Minister is to make this a truly meaningful discussion by involving MPs, directors of public health, council leaders and all key stakeholders. That is the only way that we will get all parties involved.
The sunset clause is too far off. It will potentially see Greater Manchester being in restrictions for 27 weeks—that is over half a year in restrictions that clearly have not worked, because we saw our cases balloon. I am concerned about the restrictions on hospitality. When jokes are made about some of the restrictions being imposed—for example, about what a substantial meal is—we devalue the restrictions that actually can make a difference. That is why I am really struggling to support the Government today. In tier 2, we are shafting the hospitality sector. In tier 3, it is dead. We need to do much more to support our pubs and hospitality sector.
I would like to close by talking about lower league football. We are essentially creating two tiers in the same division, and staff are having to be un-furloughed just to get players back on the pitch, with