[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to be able to debate the economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns, because so often during the pandemic we did not have the opportunity to question key decisions that were taken. In those early days of covid, much was done in a rush. Although it was understandable then, with the passing of time analysis needs to be done of the measures and decisions taken. No matter how painful and difficult the conversations will be, we need to have them. Open and frank conversations are made more difficult by the fact that the vast majority of MPs voted for continued lockdowns and most of the media was reluctant to question them.
Although everyone supported the first lockdown—March to June 2020—no one knew what we were confronting. As knowledge of covid and medical treatments grew, so should the debate have grown, particularly about subsequent lockdowns, but that was not the case. Prior to March 2020, how many of us had heard of the concept of lockdown? Blanket, stay-at-home policies were an unknown and unevidenced method of trying to control the virus.
Although lockdowns will have saved lives from the virus, many experts predicted from the start that they would also cost lives, through the unintended collateral damage they inflict. A Government report in July 2020 found that more than 200,000 lives could be lost due to lockdown. Well-rehearsed pandemic protocols, including those endorsed by the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health and Social Care had not previously recommended lockdowns because, quite simply, they are a blunt instrument.
In addition, it was felt that such drastic restrictions would not be tolerated by western democracies. As Professor Neil Ferguson infamously put it, after observing entire communities in China in lockdown,
“We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”
That poses a question. If people assumed that the UK population would not tolerate lockdowns, was messaging hardened and questions against lockdown not tolerated, in order to force compliance? We might never know the answer. Ongoing lockdowns were achieved, but at what price? Interestingly, only the other week, Andrew Gilligan, a former No. 10 adviser said on GB News that, looking back, the ongoing lockdowns were wrong, but politically we could not have got away with not doing them.
Why was that? How was an environment created in which even asking questions and providing alternative suggestions could get someone demonised? And those people were. I wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in November 2020 saying, regretfully, that politicians had been guilty of a dereliction of duty. Instead of just listening to the one-dimensional approach of Public Health England and the scientists, they should have factored in all competing consequences. They did not and ploughed on, without questioning those other factors.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, during the pandemic and lockdowns, Parliament was not given the opportunity during certain phases to debate the impact lockdown was having on our constituents, and that we should never lockdown Parliament again?
My hon. Friend and near neighbour raises an important point. This House is about debate and questioning things, and I am afraid that that did not happen. As he rightly says, we should ensure that Parliament never closes down again, as it did under the pandemic. Even back then, the figures from the Office for National Statistics pointed out that lockdowns and anti-covid measures would lead to the deaths of 200,000 in the medium to long term, due to missed treatments, under-diagnosis, loss of jobs and tax revenue, with disadvantaged people suffering the most. Bristol University in 2020 put that figure much higher, at 560,000 deaths.
Debates are now occurring on the unintended consequences of lockdown, from the mental health issues suffered by our children, to increased deaths of dementia patients, and the lack of visiting rights in care centres and hospitals still happening, even now. A big thank you has to go to the academics and scientists who initially raised concerns in those areas, including Professor Townsend, Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Robert Dingwall, who asked those all-important questions.
Today, however, our focus is on the economic consequences of lockdown: rising financial hardship; increased poverty levels in the UK; the hundreds of thousands of people since lockdown now classed as economically inactive; the impact on them, their families and local communities; and the economic impact on the next generation’s wealth and earning capacity. It is estimated that school closures and lockdowns will lead to £40,000 being lost from lifetime earnings for each individual. A report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank finds that students now risk
“losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, or the equivalent of 14 percent of today’s global GDP, as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures”
and economic shocks.
Let us look back at some of the economic shocks of lockdown. The House of Commons Library notes explain that
“The magnitude of the recession caused by the pandemic is unprecedented in modern times.”
GDP declined by 11% in 2020, the steepest drop since consistent records began in 1948 and, based on less precise estimates of GDP going back further, the contraction in 2020 was the largest since 1709. During the first lockdown, UK GDP was 26% lower in April than only two months earlier in February. More than 8 million workers were furloughed during April and May 2020, peaking at 8.9 million—roughly a third of all employees—in May 2020. Overall, 11.7 million jobs were furloughed.
In response, the Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.1% and more than doubled its quantitative easing programme by £450 billion, taking the total value of assets it owned to a peak of £895 billion by December 2021. The total amount of public money calculated to have been spent on tackling the pandemic ranges from £376 billion by the National Audit Office in June 2022 to £407 billion by the International Monetary Fund in September 2021. In 2020-21, Government had income of £794 billion in tax receipts and other revenues, which is £79 billion less than forecast, and spent more than £1,107 billion. The budget deficit was £312 billion, or 15% of GDP, which is a peacetime record. The financial cost for every man, woman and child in this country has been estimated at £5,500.
Former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, writing in The Daily Telegraph on 18 November, said:
“Compare the modest financial hit experienced by Sweden, the only European country to see through the hype by which other governments sought to justify their measures. Sweden operated a largely voluntary system and refused to lock down. Pandemic-related measures cost 60 billion kronor in 2020 and 2021, according to government figures. This works about at about £460 a head, less than a tenth of the UK figure. Yet their results in terms of both cases and deaths were a lot better than ours.
We are paying the price of panic, populism and poorly thought-out knee-jerk decision-making. At least the current Prime Minister can point to his warnings as chancellor that lockdowns were unaffordable if extended over any significant period of time. Boris Johnson’s indifference to mere money ensured that the cost was not even considered. All that can be said in his favour is that, if the Labour Party had had its way, the lockdowns would have been even longer and more costly.”
Let us look at the inflationary pressures we are now suffering from. As the country and world opened up after lockdown, there were sharp increases in the cost of essential goods and energy as the world emerged unprepared for such rapid demand, putting prices up, from the fuel pumps to the goods on supermarket shelves.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her speech. Although I do not necessarily subscribe to all her views about lockdown, she is right to say that the hospitality sector in particular is suffering dreadfully from energy price increases. I bring to her attention a particular case in my constituency, where we have many pubs and restaurants that are suffering. The energy bills of a large country house, which is open to the public, have gone from £16,000 a week to £60,000 a week. That is entirely and totally unsustainable. Does the right hon. Lady agree with me that the Government have to do something now to ease the pressure on the hospitality sector?
I welcome my hon. Friend to this debate today. He might be one of those who voted for continuous lockdowns, but it is important that we are all together in a sense of open debate and conversation. The point he raised is correct. If subsequently, after the Government had intervened to close things down, there were effects on otherwise viable businesses, the Government had to step in and support them. Indeed, the Government have given unprecedented support, but I wish we could have had discussions beforehand so that when people voted for lockdown, they knew what would befall them. At the time, too many colleagues did not want to do that.
May I ask the hon. Lady a question about a comment she made a few moments ago? She talked about populism and said that was a factor in deciding to implement lockdowns. I am confused by that because lockdowns were, at best, tolerated; they could never be described as appealing to populism.
I was quoting Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court judge, who was talking about the way governments were led at that time—those were his words. What we need to take from them is the question of why those decisions were not questioned or challenged by Members of Parliament. Why were those decisions not challenged? If we look at the record of the House, the decision appears popular because MPs voted for it pretty much unanimously, when there should have been greater debate.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that Lord Sumption was right, although maybe not according to the common use of the term “populism”? First, the use of fear encouraged people to think, “There is no alternative. I have got to do this.” Secondly, the lack of any examination of the measures by the media ensured that there was not any contrary point of view, so listening politicians heard people saying out of fear, “You’ve got to do something”, and the media, when questioning that, saying, “This is the right thing to do.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. That is why I quoted Neil Ferguson at the start of the debate, who said that he never thought a western democracy would lock down, and why I posed the question about whether a campaign of fear was then brought forward, creating an atmosphere in which no one could dissent or ask questions. Going back to the question raised by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), there appeared to be a giant consensus across all political parties, leading to that word “popular” at the time.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the point made about fear? When people look at Parliament or much of British life, it appears that we have returned to normal, but not all British life has returned to normal yet, which is having a continuing impact on our economy.
My hon. Friend makes the point eloquently; I hope he will make a speech later, fleshing out his comments.
By February 2022, inflation had already surged, with the consumer price index hitting 6.2% in February, after which, without doubt, the war in Ukraine added to the problem. As it stands today, we have unprecedented inflation and costs of living.
None of that should come as a surprise. In fact, the Imperial College report of March 2020 that recommended lockdowns specifically said that the
“economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound.”
While many people talk about the cost of covid, it is actually the cost of lockdown and lockdown rules that need to be questioned.
The Government have spent in the region of £400 billion on the covid-19 response, which has taken the national debt to over £2.1 trillion. To make matters worse, we know vast sums of money were wasted. For example, seven Nightingale hospitals were built in England, which was an impressive achievement completed in record time. However, most of them were hardly used in the way intended and they cost more than £530 million. The Yorkshire Nightingale closed before ever seeing a patient. Elsewhere, an eye-watering £673 million was spent on unusable personal protective equipment items.
The £70 billion spent on furlough and £84 billion on business support schemes softened the blow for a while. However, the Federation of Small Businesses still warned of a ticking time-bomb, with 500,000 owners of small businesses—the backbone of our economy—at risk of going bust within weeks.
In my city of Coventry, many small businesses were hit considerably by covid and are still being hit because of the cost of living crisis. Does the right hon. Lady agree that in order to continue to support our small businesses given the turbulent year that they have had, we need to reform business rates and invest in our high streets, and we also need to ensure that our small businesses are given the support needed for them to be able to compete effectively with online giants that have been able to make hay during the covid-19 pandemic?
I am a massive fan of small businesses, enterprise and those people creating wealth in their communities, and we will have to support them. Also, I will pause for a moment to reflect on all those small businesses that did not get support during the pandemic, which are known as Forgotten Ltd, and they also need support going forward. We again have to create a dynamic world and a dynamic UK for these private enterprises.
Vacancies are now at a record high as people elect to resign from the labour market, which is known as “the great resignation”, and because there are those other people who are now classed as being economically inactive. This is something that we could not have foreseen as we furloughed and closed the country down, but again it is a consequence of the lack of debate, probing and questioning at the time.
It is finally time to publish the much talked-about but still missing cost-benefit analysis that led to the nation being locked down, and to have full disclosure about the facts that were available. Let us review the list of experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, and on other advisory committees. Going forward, let us ensure that there is transparency about the members of these groups, as we have for MPs, such as their political affiliation and the financial support they receive.
All eyes are on the covid-19 inquiry for impartiality and a diverse range of experts to give evidence. We need integrity and clarity, and the policy of lockdown needs to be assessed honestly and fully. However, today I call on the Minister—the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith)—to release the much-awaited cost-benefit analysis of lockdown.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), both on her speech—the vast majority of which, if not all, I agree with—and on bringing this matter before the House. It was not only during the time of covid that we did not debate covid enough; since the end of lockdown, we have not debated the consequences of the policy decisions taken during covid.
I will just go back to what the Government said at the start of covid; it is always better to go back and examine whether those things actually happened or were honoured. The first thing the Government said at the start of the crisis was that they would follow the science. They did not follow the science. I can give a large number of examples where they did not follow the science, but I will just concentrate on two or three important examples.
One of them has already been mentioned: children losing their education. It was clear from the very beginning of this disease that it was primarily a disease of the elderly and of people with other co-morbidities. It was clear early on that there was essentially no danger to children or anybody else from opening schools, but they were not opened quickly enough. Anyone who goes into schools and knows young children can still see the damage that was done to them both emotionally and educationally because the science was not followed.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) will remember that Greater Manchester, which had a two-tier system of lockdown, was put into lockdown before Merseyside. The Government’s statistics on infection rates and the R number were higher for Merseyside than they were for Greater Manchester, but the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who is better occupied in the antipodes than he was in this House as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, decided that he liked the Mayor of Merseyside rather more than Andy Burnham, so Greater Manchester went into lockdown and Merseyside did not, even though the statistics suggested otherwise.
More trivially but importantly for those who like a drink was the decision to close pubs at 10 pm. When we questioned the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on the Science and Technology Committee, they openly admitted that this was a ministerial decision with no science behind it whatever. So the Government did not follow the science, and I do not think they ever had any intention of doing so.
One concern I had from the very beginning of the pandemic was that we had the Prime Minister, professors, doctors and Ministers saying, “This is the scientific evidence. This compels you to do as we are saying. We have the weight of evidence behind us.” However, not long afterwards—in fact, within days or weeks—it was clear that there was no scientific basis for the 10 pm curfew. That undermines people’s confidence when the scientific and medical establishment tells us to take the necessary precautions.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Most politicians are not scientists—there are very few; I do not think we even have an epidemiologist in the House—or scientifically trained.
Dominic Cummings came to the Science and Technology Committee and made an extremely good point: members of the Government are not experts, so when scientific evidence was being given to them, it should have been challenged, and other scientists should have been brought in to challenge it—so-called red teams. That challenge would have helped the Government to see that there was a debate. Many scientists were frustrated because they had a different view of the evidence presented—sometimes they even had different evidence—and it should have been considered. However, that internal debate did not happen in Government, and the debate in the House of Commons, as the right hon. Member for Tatton said, also did not happen as it should have done.
What did happen was that the Government decided on lockdown. My view is that once Italy, China and a number of countries in south-east Asia had locked down, the Government believed that lockdown was the politically safe thing to do. It was not scientifically the right thing to do; it was not the most effective way of dealing with the covid epidemic.
There are two reasons for locking down. The first is to eliminate the disease very early on to stop it spreading at all. That position had passed a long time before the Government locked down. After that, the reason is to stop the NHS being overwhelmed by too many infections at once. The Government’s other slogan—apart from that they were following the science—was that they were going to protect the NHS. They did that in a very simple sense, because it was not overwhelmed by covid. However, since the start of 2020, there has been effectively no NHS for many people. During covid, hospitals were empty and GPs could not be seen. The fact that deaths are now about 10% higher than normal shows the impact of people not being able to access GPs or get cancer care and of elderly people suffering from dementia not getting any support or human contact.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government’s approach appeared to be to use the precautionary principle to protect the Government rather than to protect people, and to say, “If we lock down and do the restrictions, no one can blame us for what comes out from it”? In contrast, the Swedish approach was to give people good advice and take only the necessary measures.
The hon. Gentleman puts it in an interesting way, although there is another interpretation of the precautionary principle. Some people interpret it as meaning that we should be as cautious we can be, but it actually means that we should not take action until we are certain of the facts. It does not mean that we should not do anything, which is how the Government interpreted it.
The right hon. Member for Tatton made a good point about the Government’s position on lockdown. Gavin Morgan, who was a member of SPI-B, the sub-committee of SAGE, said that behavioural psychology was weaponised and that there was an exaggerated threat. We got into a vicious feedback loop: the Government frightened people, so people demanded more lockdown from the Government. That was bad for health and the economy.
That is the health side of it, and we are suffering from it now, with 6 million-plus people on the waiting lists for elective surgery. However, this debate is primarily about the economy. The Government say that the war in Ukraine is the prime reason why the economy and the Government’s finances are in difficulty.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the IMF’s estimate that £407 billion was spent on covid. Some of that money was spent really well. Some of it was spent on developing the vaccines and on the vaccine taskforce, and that work was brilliant and very effective—I congratulate the vaccine taskforce—but much of it was wasted. The National Audit Office estimated that the bulk of the £37.5 billion spent on Test and Trace was wasted because there was no communication between the centre and the public health teams. That is a huge amount to waste, and that was just the budget.
Money on personal protective equipment was wasted not only because it went to friends of the Government in pretty dodgy contracts, but because it went on pretty dodgy personal protective equipment that did not work. All that has had a disastrous effect on the Government’s finances, and therefore the economy, because it is preventing the Government from spending money where they should.
I will finish on two points. I could go on for much longer, but other Members want to speak. There was no proper debate inside or outside the Government about the science. Just before Parliament went to sleep, it passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. One would have expected that Act to be used, but it was not. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 was the Act under which the Government mainly enacted the decisions that they had made. That Act allows less scrutiny in Parliament, and we lost many of our civil liberties for no good reason at all. I am still shocked that, when I left the House to go back to Manchester after the House had started sitting again, and I was going into Euston station, a police officer asked me where I was going. This is not Nazi Germany in the late 1930s; this is the United Kingdom of free people. I am not going to tell police officers where I am going. We need to look at that issue.
Finally, there is a great deal of hope that Baroness Hallett’s inquiry will get to the bottom of many of the issues we are discussing all too briefly today. Like other colleagues who have spoken, I have written to Baroness Hallett setting out my worry that she is disproportionately asking for evidence from people who naturally supported lockdown and not from businesses that have gone to the wall because of lockdown or from people who cannot access health services because we are still suffering the impacts of lockdown. I am worried about the way that that inquiry is structured.
I will finish on a figure from Professor Thomas of Bristol University, who has pointed out one of the issues I raised in the debates that took place when I was asking for an economic as opposed to a health analysis: poverty kills—not just covid. Professor Thomas thinks that 2.5 million life years have been lost because of the loss of GDP so far. It is a statistical factor, but it gives an indication of the economic damage and the impact that lockdown has had on people’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who brings his scientific background to bear on the Science and Technology Committee. I congratulate my near neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), on securing this timely debate on the economic impact of lockdown.
We went through a very difficult period during covid. It was unnerving and nerve-racking to see the broadcasts coming from China and what happened in Italy. There are so many lessons to be learned from understanding and interpreting a little better what goes on in other countries and from reflecting on what we should do in the United Kingdom.
I have always put the concerns I had over covid and the lockdowns in four categories. Following on from the point about civil liberties, it was extraordinary to see drones following people across the Derbyshire dales and hikers being told, “If you’re carrying a coffee, that counts as a picnic, and therefore the police will intervene.” There was a whole series of different things in the civil liberties area that constrained people’s activity.
One thing we know now, and which we had a good sense of fairly early on, is that good health is immensely important when we come up against any disease. Vitamin D and exercise are important, and obesity is one of the greatest problems when facing covid. Someone who is obese is more likely to be hospitalised or suffer a serious condition. Despite that, what the Government did on civil liberties was to restrict people’s access to normal healthy activities, such as walking—even if they were socially distanced because they were on top of a mountain or they were being sensible and following the guidance—or sunbathing in a park. Civil liberties are very important, and educational exclusion is also immensely important.
There is also the wider health impact of denying the routinely expected service of being able to see a GP. Shortly before the second lockdown, I flagged to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), my concern that there were about 20,000 fewer GP-to-hospital referrals just in Bolton borough over the lockdown period—a relatively short period of time. If that is in Bolton alone, just think of the millions of people that that means over the whole of the country. I do not know what that means in terms of life and death, but if a GP thinks something is serious enough for someone to need screening, more diagnostics and then treatment—perhaps serious and urgent treatment—then how many people right across the country with a life-threatening or life-changing condition could not see a hospital consultant or someone else to get what, in so many circumstances, was basic medical treatment?
In many ways, we can understand and appreciate the decisions we made—we did have to change our approach to healthcare and to have more controls in place—but my concern was about getting the right balance. When I wrote to the then Prime Minister about that before the second lockdown, I was expecting that he would actually explain it, perhaps with a cost-benefit analysis or an impact statement. In my letter, I asked, “Is the impact of the cure worse than the disease itself? Are the measures we are taking to protect us from covid worse than the impact it is having on our society in terms of civil liberties, education, healthcare and”—the focus of this debate—“the economy?”
When people talked about the economy early on—a good distance into covid and lockdowns—they were shouted down for that. We were shouted down for talking about money. When we have those conversations today and talk about the money, how expensive covid was and the disruption to businesses—whether large businesses or small businesses, which, as was rightly pointed out, have borne more of the brunt of this—we can see the dramatic economic impact. Who would now say, “Don’t talk about it. It’s not relevant. We have to focus only on the disease itself”? We are talking about these things all the time now.
I appreciate that the situation with Europe’s biggest energy producer invading Europe’s biggest food supplier has had a dramatic impact—we cannot get away from that—but we know, and we knew very early on, that the impact of lockdown on the economy would be enormous if we went much beyond three weeks. No one actually said, “It should be for three weeks”—there was no direct expectation—but the words of the Prime Minister at the time, suggesting a three-week period, did give people reasonable cause to think at the beginning, when Members of Parliament were voting on the first lockdown and the Coronavirus Act, “Three weeks? That would be great. If it is a little bit longer, it will be bad, but that gives us a framework for the timescales.” The longer a lockdown goes on, the worse the impact on the economy, the more demands there are for furlough and other economic support, and the greater the impact on healthcare access.
However, my particular interest is education. The schools that I visit now are actually quite grateful that we got out earlier than we might have done, because a fourth lockdown was being lined up. They are looking at the impact on children, especially from poorer backgrounds, and it is far more profound than anyone was talking about at the beginning. No one was talking about the impact on those children, but the outcomes will be devastating. Even after they have gone back to school and we have pumped a few billion pounds into the education system, they will never get back the experiences they missed or the exams they would have taken. The rest of their school career will be held back. Their results will be worse, and their opportunities for further education—for higher qualifications and the jobs that go with them—will be taken away.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly mentioned the £40,000 of lost earning opportunities. However, some people will not get that job—they will not get the step up that would have led to horizon-broadening educational experiences and the work that goes with it. That has been taken away from so many children, and it has reverberated right across the system. We have been through a bit of political turmoil recently, but a recent Prime Minister and an Education Secretary have both said that we should never have locked down the schools. It would have been nice if that argument had been presented—or at least if the consensus had been challenged—right at the beginning. The people least affected by covid were the most affected by the lockdown. Many of the impacts on children can never be changed or redeemed.
I have an interest in medical research. I used to work in the mass spectrometry industry in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton for nearly 20 years before becoming a Member of Parliament, and I think about the medical research side of things.
Absolutely, and the place I worked at, AstraZeneca, is a huge contributor to the British economy, not just through its manufacture of drugs, but through its research and development effort. The pharmaceutical sector is a vital part of the British economy. This goes broader than the big pharmaceutical companies, however. Smaller organisations, especially medical research charities, are an important part of the British life science sector. What did the disruption to their research effort mean? There are many rare medical conditions that need treatment. That research contributes to the economy, and the landscape in which the sector operates is a significant factor in our economy. If a lockdown disrupts medical research at an early stage, when the charity is raising money for research—perhaps recruiting a researcher and getting people on to clinical trials—it takes a long time for that medical research charity to regain those funds. Perhaps funds were raised through sporting events and other activities; that money has to be got back. They then have to recruit a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to look into getting the clinical trial started. There are many other aspects to it, too. The process takes a very long time.
The life expectancy lost due to the economic disruption has been mentioned. We should also think of the pharmaceutical and other products that would have been produced in that time. People’s life chances have been hindered because the medical progress that we would have made during that period was not achieved. If we look at all the different parts of our society, including the high streets and medical research, the disruption has been profound. This is partly about jobs when people leave school, but also about jobs in businesses and industries. We should also consider the life opportunities for people receiving medical treatment, and their ability to maintain their position in the workplace, which might be taken away if they do not get medical support.
At the beginning of covid and the lockdown, people did not realise or appreciate their impact. I think of what happened as a pulling on the thread of society, and the breaking of the bonds that bind us. Knitting them back together is challenging and difficult. It is expensive and takes a long time. In the meantime, the problems are difficult. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on that. In future such situations, whether the issue is covid or something else that has come along, I hope the Government will do a cost-benefit analysis, and will ask: if we need restrictions, what will that mean for all sectors of society?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate, and I thank her for her sterling work in leading the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery. The APPG has delved into many issues that those who made or supported decisions that led to this situation would love to forget. There is a desire to put all this behind us, and to ignore the fact that there was controversy about the decisions made at the time. That controversy was submerged by a deluge of fear tactics and an unwillingness to debate the issue. The media played a big part in that. I did a number of interviews back home in Northern Ireland, and people who questioned decisions were regarded as almost not caring whether people lived or died. That was the atmosphere in which the debate was carried on. There was, in part, a deliberate attempt to squeeze people into doing and accepting things that naturally, in an open and democratic society, they would never dream of doing or accepting.
Everybody who has spoken was probably in the group of those in the House of Commons who were prepared to challenge. However, this debate is not about saying, “We told you so.” The debate is important because it ensures that the inquiry into the covid response, which is being carried out, will look at the side of the argument that was ignored, and of which full cognisance was not taken, when decisions were made. The inquiry is independent, but I hope that the Minister accepts that it is important to feed back to the inquiry the point that it must not simply reinforce all the decisions that were made. It must examine whether, when those decisions were made, decision makers sought full knowledge of the consequences that would flow from them.
We are here to look at the economic consequences. Of course, they were felt at the time, but they are still being felt today, as speakers have outlined, and will be felt for a long time. As the economy was locked down and we could not leave people without some kind of support, an immediate consequence was a huge amount of borrowing. The figures have been given today: £376 billion or £407 billion. Those are mind-boggling figures. Some of that went on support for healthy people who could have gone to work safely, and without any consequences for the health service or their families. Even people who worked outside—builders or farm workers—were unable to go to work, because they might be infected by those they worked with. There was the cost of paying healthy people not to work, when they could have worked.
Then there was the splurging on many national health issues, including the rush to buy personal protective equipment, hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of which we have never used. It is still being stored by the countries that were supplying it to us; we are paying them to do that.
There should have been a more focused debate about what was needed and the nature of what we were facing, as well as a willingness to listen to the other side of the argument. On many of the discussion programmes that I took part in, all the people brought in were on one side of the debate, even though the arguments on that side were well known. The media companies had researchers who could have dug out someone on the other side of the debate—the Government were certainly in a position to do that—yet they decided not to.
There was the immediate spending, and the impact on businesses. I can think of many people in my constituency who lost their dream of having their own business. The girl who used to cut my hair had a small hairdressers and employed three people. She obeyed all the rules. She spent what little capital she had on putting up screens and buying different instruments that could all be sterilised after use. She survived the first lockdown, but when it came to the second, she said, “I’ve no more money to keep the business going,” and she lost it. We all know of hundreds of stories like that in our constituencies.
One Monday, I had parliamentary business, and I chose to come in rather than do it by Zoom, because I believed that Parliament should be sitting. As I came through Leicester Square on a Sunday evening at half-past 8—I remember, because I took a photograph of it—I went into Burger King to get a burger; I was not allowed to sit in the place, but I could sit outside, and throughout the time it took me to eat the burger, I was the only person sitting in Leicester Square. How could hospitality businesses ever survive that kind of situation? It was not necessary.
The Government argued, “You’ve got to do these things to save the health service, save older people from death, and stop disease spreading.” Other countries chose different routes and had better outcomes. They did not do the damage that was done here, because rather than spread fear, they gave information that people could choose to act on. Most people, being sensible, would act on sensible advice. I would never have dreamed of going to see my mum and dad when they were alive if I had a bad cold, because they were vulnerable. If that meant I did not see them for a week or two, I did not see them for a week or two, and yet we felt we had to tell people, “You cannot do this because we can’t rely on your common sense.”
There were short-term consequences: businesses went under and huge amounts of debt were built up. The Government were left with a huge amount of debt, which has curtailed their ability to help with the current economic crisis. Then there are the consequences still felt today. If supply chains close down, firms go out of business. If the people supplying the goods that we rely on are no longer there, or cannot get the parts that they need because other parts of the supply chain have been affected, then of course there will be inflationary pressures. People who lived through the pandemic and saved money came out of it immediately wanting to spend, but the goods were not there to spend money on, so we started the inflationary spiral. I will not fall into the trap of blaming the Government for inflation, all the economic difficulties and the fuel crisis, but they have to accept some responsibility for the consequences of the choices they made.
There are other consequences. We had questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy today. There were questions about the difficulties that companies have recruiting. Why do they have those difficulties? Because the economically active workforce has declined. In some cases, having lived through furlough, people found that they could live on less. They decided to change their lifestyle abd just not work. They took early retirement or decided to work part-time, and there has been an impact on the labour market.
Hundreds of thousands of people are not able to work because the health service cannot cope—the warnings were given—with all those who were not diagnosed during the lockdown. People were afraid to go to hospital; they were told not to go, and that their doctor would not see them. Now they find themselves unable to work because of sickness. We talk about long covid; we are suffering from long covid—the long-term economic effects of the covid decisions that we made. It is important to have debates such as this, in which we highlight the impact of those decisions. We must ensure proper examination of the decision-making process at the time, and learn lessons from the actions that we took.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in Northern Ireland, the impact has been even greater? In a population of less than 1.9 million people, about 400,000 people are on waiting lists. The cancer waiting list and undiagnosed cancers are at an all-time high. The ambulance service is in disarray, and people in our wonderful nursing profession are being left high and dry, despite their expectations. They will not be rewarded, after being told that they were the most valuable people in society.
The other aspect to this is the excess deaths that we now have. At the time, I did not support the daily death toll being announced on the news. I thought it was wrong to do that. It is strange; there are now excess deaths due to lockdown and its implications on the health service, but we do not publish those numbers. It is a daily reminder of what happened, however. Families across the country are sadly being reminded daily of the impact on the health service of the decision that lockdown was the way to go, even though in many cases the hospitals that closed down, and were not open for normal service, were not dealing with covid patients. I mention that because it reminds me of the fear that was engendered even among health professionals. Many health professionals would phone me and say, “I don’t dare speak out, because if you do, you can get struck off.” Such was the atmosphere of fear.
An issue that I have not yet mentioned is education and the long-term impact of the unnecessary lockdown of schools. Children could not easily become infected or pass on the infection. Even if they did get covid, it had very little impact on them, but they have not escaped the long-term educational impact of being taken away from school.
It has been mentioned briefly, but not enough, that the most severe impact has been felt by the least well-off in our society. I remember going into people’s homes—I probably should not have visited them during lockdown, but I did, because they were my constituents. Those living in blocks of flats did not have a garden to put their youngsters out into, and they were worried that they were not geared up to help their youngsters with their educational needs. They were worried about the long-term impact on their education, and on their social lives. I think we have forgotten that the people hardest hit were the most vulnerable and most needy. I hope that this debate helps to remind us that we should not go down that path again, and that all these issues should be considered.
I am pleased to participate in this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for bringing it forward. We have heard much today about the economic consequences of lockdown and the magnitude of the recession it caused, which was unprecedented in modern times. GDP declined by 9.7% in 2020—the steepest drop since consistent records began in 1948 and equal to the decline in 1921, according to unofficial estimates. The Scottish economy contracted by 19.4% between April and June 2020; that is the biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record.
We understood—how could we not?—that lockdown would of course bring significant economic cost. How could anybody not have anticipated that consequence? I have heard some Members talk about following the science; I am about as far from being a scientist as it is possible to be, but studies have shown that about 20,000 lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had been implemented a week earlier, according to research published by Imperial College London. I do not have the scientific expertise to challenge that, but when experts speak it is incumbent on us to listen. The research, incidentally, was published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, and also found that national lockdown was the only effective measure that consistently brought down the R number.
We must remember that we are speaking from the comfort of having emerged from covid, for the most part, despite the damage that it has caused on a number of levels. A Government’s first duty must be to ensure the safety of those they seek to serve. Surely we cannot forget the uncertainty during those dark days, and the need to do all we could to reduce our social contact, save lives and restrict the potential for infection. Of course there was a cost to that—nobody would pretend otherwise. How could we imagine that there would not be?
In a moment.
These were difficult decisions that were not made lightly. I thank the lord every day that I did not have to take the responsibility to make those decisions, which were so far reaching in their consequences. They had to be made at pace and err on the side of caution, because public safety had to come first. It is easy now to sit, with some distance behind us from those days, and commentate and look at things that could have been done better. Of course mistakes would have been made, and of course things may have been done differently, but in that context and acting at speed, we—I say “we” in a societal sense—had to put public safety first.
Consider for a moment the leaders across the UK who were responsible for making those decisions, relying on public health experts as they were. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, politicians are not often particularly scientific or trained in scientific methods. The leaders were relying on public health experts and understanding the weight of their responsibility—that, when it comes to public health, the buck stops with them. We can make criticisms about the decisions that were taken, and talk about possible wrong turns and the damage done; all those things are true, but the reality is that the priority had to be to keep the infection rate down and save lives.
I agree with elements of what the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said. Every single day that I was required to be in Parliament—Monday to Thursday, which is the norm—I came down here during lockdown. The reason I came was not because I felt invulnerable to infection. I came down here—it is quite a long journey, as Members can imagine—because postal workers, nurses and cleaners in my constituency had to go to their jobs. In that context, I felt unable and unwilling not to go and do my job. That is really important.
I also speak as someone whose mother-in-law was in a home with dementia. Again, I am not a scientist or doctor, but it is pretty clear that although dementia was cited as the cause of death on her death certificate, lockdown reduced her to a catatonic state because of the lack of stimulation. That does not mean that I think lockdown should not have happened, because the reality is that we cannot look at individual relatives or individual circumstances. We have to look at society in the round and make the best public health decisions, based on the scientific advice given across the UK and Europe, in order to protect the people we seek to represent.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful argument. One of the points that has been raised, which is part of the broader debate, is that we saw what was happening in China and Italy. People in Britain were already voluntarily choosing to restrict their activities and restrict going into work—
Order. I gently remind both speakers that we are talking about the economic impact of covid lockdowns. I also remind the hon. Lady that the shadow Minister and Minister have yet to speak, and I would like to allow at least a couple of minutes for the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) to sum up. Please bear that in mind.
Thank you, Mrs Murray; I will curtail my comments. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) has made his point, but we need to move on in the light of the comments from the Chair.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman used the name of the country, but Sweden took a different approach to lockdown. However, the House of Commons Library has done some work on the issue and has pointed out that, although there was reduced economic activity as a result of lockdown, as we would all expect, it is likely that had lockdown not been implemented—a number of Members have been critical of lockdown—people would probably have reduced their social contacts voluntarily anyway, as they did in Sweden.
We will never to what extent that may or may not have happened, and we cannot know how the virus would have evolved had we not had lockdown. We could have found ourselves in a different situation all together. People can say, “At the time, I knew this and I knew that,” but the reality is that we do not know what the outcome would have been if the Governments across the UK had taken an entirely different approach. The impact could have been even greater than that which we suffered.
Everybody understands the effect of lockdown on education, on social contact and—it has not been mentioned—on mental health, but we were faced with an unprecedented situation in which we had to act at speed and try to take the pressure off the NHS. The right hon. Member for East Antrim said that people who supported lockdown want to forget it and act like it did not happen, but we cannot forget the context in which we were living. It was a time of great uncertainty, great fear and lots of unknowables, and we had to respond. I know that a number of Members are attacking the Government, and it is not often that I defend them, but this is not about the Government. This is about public safety and public health.
Businesses have struggled through lockdown, which was considered necessary at the time, and many have managed to survive and cling on to their livelihoods. They are now going through another wave of unprecedented difficulties. If the Government do not offer additional long-term support to businesses on energy costs, the initial money they invested to keep businesses afloat will have been wasted, because the very idea of that investment was to save businesses and jobs—that is what the investment was for. If the energy support is not sufficient, those jobs will disappear anyway, so the initial funding during covid will have been to no purpose. I want the Minister to think about that and comment on it when summing up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate, and thank hon. Members for their contributions. I am glad we have the opportunity to discuss this issue; I agree with the right hon. Lady that we need to have these frank and difficult discussions. The pandemic had a deep financial, economic impact. It is important to think about the future, and how we can grow our economy and improve living standards.
I was elected in December 2019, before the pandemic hit. I then saw at close hand the impact on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing, and I know that people are still struggling. A lot has happened since covid-19 first reached the UK: not one, but two toppled Governments; two Prime Ministers; the scandal of Downing Street Christmas parties; and more than 50 people issued with fixed penalty notices, including the current Prime Minister.
I want to take us back to 2020. On 23 January, the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. The first case of covid-19 in the UK was confirmed on 30 January, with cases steadily rising over the following weeks. On 6 March, the then Prime Minister said, during a visit to a lab in Bedfordshire,
“It looks to me as though there will be a substantial period of disruption when we have to deal with this outbreak.”
It was not until 23 March that the Prime Minister announced a lockdown—the introduction of new restrictions on everyday life and travel. We know that the delay in taking that decision risked many lives, harmed our economy and prolonged the pain. For the next 16 months, the Government yo-yoed in and out of lockdowns and new restrictions, with much dither and delay.
Some members of the Government thought it might be best to let the virus rip. The result was unclear messaging, decisions taken too late, and a death rate that was too high. The Government were too slow to lock down in March 2020, too slow to protect our care homes, too slow to save jobs and businesses, and too slow to get protective equipment to the frontline.
In the summer of 2020, the Government ignored warnings about the second wave. In September, a circuit breaker was introduced, against scientific advice, followed by a longer lockdown a month later. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, in December, when the scientific advice was that national lockdown was necessary, the Government dithered for nearly two weeks and ended up cancelling Christmas at the last minute.
The current Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, was not even in the country at that point. The Government shut down the economy at the height of the festive period, and was nowhere to be seen. He had to fly back from his California home after business leaders demanded that he plan a financial support package, following the mixed messages from Government. That indecision cost lives and livelihoods.
I pay tribute to our fantastic NHS and social care workers, without whom we would have really struggled. Many put themselves in harm’s way to slow the speed of the virus. I also pay tribute to the British people, who rose to the challenge and came together as communities to protect the most vulnerable. It was a time of national solidarity—a shared effort to face a challenge that most of us had never experienced before.
The right hon. Member for Tatton referred to the Labour party. Throughout that period, the Labour party called for quicker decision making and measures to protect jobs and businesses. The Government could have been provided targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors, fixed sick pay and eased the burden of business rates, whether that was on high street businesses, arts venues, café or hairdressers. So many businesses suffered from the lack of clear communication and decisive action.
We know that we were not all in it together. When much of the country was struggling, No. 10 was hosting parties. Sue Gray’s independent report said that senior leadership in No. 10
“must bear responsibility for this culture.”
“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart”—
I will take your comments on board, Mrs Murray.
We know that the impacts of covid-19—particularly the economic impacts—run deeper. Just this month, new information has been revealed detailing how some people, including a Tory peer, sought to use covid-19 and lockdowns for their own benefit. PPE Medpro was given £230 million in Government contracts after a referral to the VIP fast lane by a Tory peer. The extent of her involvement in PPE Medpro has now come to light, and tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money ended up in offshore accounts. The protective equipment produced by PPE Medpro was substandard: 25 million surgical gowns, which cost the taxpayer £122 million, were rejected by the Department of Health and Social Care after technical inspection because they were completely unusable. We also know that £6.7 billion was wasted on covid payments to businesses and individuals fraudulently or by mistake.
The economic impact of covid-19 lockdowns was immense, and was exacerbated by dither and delay in Downing Street, and hard-working businesses, families and individuals suffered as a result. It has left us with an economy that lags behind the pack. Wages are lower in 2022 in real terms than when the Tories came to power in 2010, and business investment is 8% below its pre-pandemic peak. The mini Budget from the short-lived Prime Minister and Chancellor crashed our economy.
The economic facts speak for themselves. We are now the only G7 economy that is smaller than it was before the pandemic. Other countries are still dealing with the economic impacts of covid-19, but we are doing worse. We are at the back of the pack, lagging far behind. The Chancellor said he wants to address the impacts, but again the economic facts speak for themselves.
Perhaps I am being a bit unfair to the current Chancellor and Government. They have quite a task on their hands. After all, for the 12 years in which their party has been in Government, low growth and low ambition have held our country back. What would Labour do fix the mess and grow our economy in the aftermath of covid? Back in January, we proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas giants—on the profits of rising prices and war. The Government ignored our calls and instead pressed ahead with their own windfall tax, which amounts to a huge giveaway of public money to the very oil and gas companies that are making record profits. Under the scheme, some oil and gas companies will pay zero tax this year, despite record global profits.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady. Some of us who turned up to Parliament during that terrible time voted against the Government’s proposals. I think I voted against every single Government restriction except one. The hon. Lady and her party, I think, voted for them all. There is a bit of complicity here: if somebody’s hands are on the steering wheel and they keep driving in one direction, it is hard for them to say in hindsight, “Something different should have been done.” This grates on me just a little because there were opportunities all along the road to say, “There’s a different course of action that can be taken here.”
I want to be clear that the Labour party did raise concerns throughout the pandemic that the Government were not looking at the scientific advice, and they took late action to address and deal with it.
To conclude, as we look to recover from the pandemic, we need an ambitious plan for growth. That is what Labour has presented and that is what we will champion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare).
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this debate and on her ongoing work in this domain. We have had a wide-ranging debate. I will not respond to every point as many of them are for the inquiry chairman, Baroness Hallett, to answer. Members should be reassured that, within scope, she will look at the points they raised about the scientific and public health advice and the impact on health outcomes, education and civil liberties.
My right hon. Friend was quite right to lament the fact that we in Parliament did not have the opportunity to ask questions at the time. It is to her credit that she continues to bring back this issue so we can learn the lessons of lockdown, which she rightly referred to as a blunt instrument. I am sure that no Member would wish it to be repeated. She was also right to remind us that under Labour lockdowns would have been longer and more costly.
I will not, because I would like to respond to as many points as possible. We have had a long debate about a wide-ranging set of consequences. We heard the hon. Lady’s perspective and, indeed, to the extent that it had a critique and a narrative it was that we did not lock down deeper, harder and for longer.
No, I have made it clear that I will not be giving way.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) mentioned the impact on the hospitality sector. I represent a constituency with a significant hospitality sector, and we know that the sector was affected disproportionately during the lockdown. He and other Members understandably raised the ongoing impact of covid. One or two Members, although perhaps not enough, also mentioned the impact of the war in Ukraine, and I thank those who did for putting it in the right context. My hon. Friend raised the issue of one hospitality business in his constituency the energy bills of which have gone from £16,000 to £60,000 per month. Clearly, he is looking at the issues that people are facing, and we hear that.
The economic priority during the pandemic was to stave off an economic depression, mass unemployment and the potential for rapidly deteriorating living standards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton talked about GDP falling to its lowest level since 1709. We are fortunate that the economy is now growing, thanks not only to the productive and entrepreneurial nature of the British people but to the unprecedented level of support provided. Ours was one of the fastest growing economies in recent years and that continues to be the case, and we came out of lockdown earlier than many other countries.
As all Members recognise, the attempt to limit the spread of the virus did mean the implementation of restrictions. Alongside those restrictions, the Government provided support for individuals, families and businesses throughout the country that were impacted by the virus. The two things went hand in hand. The Government could not manage that unprecedented situation. It is easy with hindsight—we have talked a lot about hindsight —and many Members have empathised with that.
I am grateful for the support from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who made some fair points about the uncertainty that was faced and the difficultly of the decisions. It is my belief that they were made in good faith and tried to do the best to protect people and the economy. We cannot know, but there is at least the possibility, which the hon. Lady raised, that the impacts could have been worse if it was not for the financial support in particular that was provided, along with the other measures.
For all too short a time I served alongside the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on the Science and Technology Committee. He was a ferocious interrogator and—if I may say so—very wise in the early, almost contemporaneous analysis of the scientific advice. His contribution was largely about the scientific advice, so I hope he will forgive me if I do not respond more fully to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) reiterated how vital it is that we do not lock down Parliament again, and I support him in that. Lessons will be learned and must have been learned. We here all have a voice. The reason why we are here today is because we have a voice to protect our constituents and to protect the economy from the ravages of things such as the pandemic.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West also talked about the compounding effect, not just of the pandemic. I am the first to acknowledge that the pandemic has an ongoing impact on the economy. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talked about “economic long covid”, which is certainly part of the context in which we sit today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West reminded us that at that time nobody anticipated—as I think he put it—Europe’s biggest oil producer invading Europe’s biggest food producer. That is one reason why the Government have once again come forward with an unprecedented level of support to get people through the winter and the energy crisis that we now face, with the same objectives as the generous support that was provided during the pandemic.
Along with other major economies, the UK is in the midst of a cost of living challenge that has been caused by global inflation as a result of the disruption of supply chains, as well as the increase in energy prices. This is a global challenge and we still see higher inflation in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. We are acutely aware of the pressures that households and businesses face. Several Members said that having been so successful in protecting the economy, jobs and businesses, it is clearly vital—this is a shared objective of Government—that we continue to do so again this winter.
Going forward, we will continue to place our people and our businesses at the heart of our policies. We are happy to make interventions, and as we debate the economic consequences of covid that is something we can all take forward.
I thank everybody for such a constructive debate, which was the start of our being able to look at the cost of lockdown in an open-minded way—being able to take challenge, being able to take rebuttals and answering things as honestly as possible—because when £400 billion is spent, we know that cannot be done without having long-term impacts.
We see the impact in the vulnerability of our country now—in the cost of living, the cost of jobs, the cost of inflation and the cost of poverty. We heard about the cost in terms of our health and our mental health. We should think before we ever introduce such profound policies again, particularly when the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health and Social Care have conceded that we should not use lockdowns because they are such a blunt instrument. We can never live in an atmosphere where just to ask questions is condemned. I thank everybody for participating in the debate.