Members of Parliament are sent to Westminster to make difficult decisions. Since I arrived there, over 15 years ago, I have had to make many such decisions, but never a more difficult one than Wednesday’s. MPs were called upon to approve regulations that would consign the whole of England to a lockdown lasting from 5 November to 2 December, in an effort to control the COVID-19 virus.
The coronavirus has, of course, blighted the lives of people in this country and across the world throughout 2020 – a year that will not be easily forgotten. Over a million Britons have been infected by it and, sadly, over 47,000 have died. Clearly, eliminating the virus must be the principal public health priority of every nation in the world. That is unlikely to be achieved until a vaccine has been discovered and deployed. Until then, it is right that the Government should do everything proper to try to limit the virus’s spread.
We have, of course, previously endured a lockdown imposed on the whole of the United Kingdom. That was in the early days after the virus was first identified, in the spring of this year. At its peak, during the first lockdown, the pandemic claimed the lives of over 1,000 Britons per day. It was a dreadful time.
When considering whether or not another lockdown should be imposed, the starting point should, of course, be to ask ourselves in what circumstances it can ever be right or acceptable to deprive an entire population of law-abiding citizens of the liberty that every man and woman in this country takes for granted. Liberty is precious and should not be lightly constrained.
The last lockdown was draconian in the constraints it placed on that liberty. People were forbidden to leave their homes, save to shop for food or other essentials and to take a brief period of exercise once a day. It was perhaps fortunate that the lockdown coincided with a period of particularly fine spring weather.
Many elderly and vulnerable people living alone found the experience particularly harrowing, deprived of any significant human contact for months on end. Children were prevented from visiting parents in care homes, to the distress of both. The lockdown’s impact on mental and physical health has yet to be assessed, but will probably be found to be very severe.
The economic consequences of the lockdown were also severe, and also yet to be fully assessed. The Government, commendably, has done its best to limit people’s financial pain through measures such as the furlough scheme, mortgage holidays, an increase in Universal Credit and numerous business support initiatives. Nevertheless, widespread redundancies have already occurred and will increase.
The financial cost to the country is appalling; the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the Government will have to borrow £372 billion for the current financial year, not taking into account the further cost that will undoubtedly be incurred as a consequence of any further lockdowns.
Businesses across the country are failing as a consequence of the economic interruption. This is particularly true of hospitality businesses in North Wales, which in addition have had to contend with the October and November shutdowns imposed by the Welsh Government.
Lockdowns, in short, have had a devastating effect on the mental and physical health of huge numbers of people and a similarly detrimental impact on the economic wellbeing of the nation and of businesses, large and small, across the country. Nobody would want a repetition of the events of last spring unless there was a compelling justification for it.
The Government has been wrestling with a resurgence of the virus in certain parts of the country since September. Large cities in the North and Midlands have been particularly impacted, while other parts of the country, such as Cornwall and the West Country, have been less affected.
In an attempt to suppress the virus, the Government has imposed Tier 3 restrictions on cities such as Liverpool, Blackpool and Manchester. Almost 10 million people in the North of England are living under Tier 3, and the Government’s own figures show that the restrictions are having a positive effect. Indeed, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, acknowledged in an appearance before the Science and Technology Select Committee on Tuesday that the “R” number could already be below 1 because of the localised restrictions.
Professor Carl Heneghan, of Oxford University, said on Monday’s Today programme that Covid-19 cases in Liverpool had dropped from about 490 to 260 a day and that the R number was “well below 1”.
Furthermore, Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London, who developed the ZOE Symptom Study of over 4,000,000 adults, has also said that the R number is below 1 and that the country has passed the peak of the second wave.
Against that background, it is hard to see the justification for a second national lockdown, when localised lockdowns appear to have been successful.
The Government’s decision, of course, has been based upon the advice of the SAGE advisory group, including the chief medical officer, Professor Whitty, and the chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance. At the press conference last Saturday, charts were produced suggesting that England could experience 4,000 daily deaths next month. However, the modelling used to produce the charts – produced by Cambridge University – was so out of date that it suggested that we should now be experiencing 1,000 deaths a day. The average of deaths last week was 260.
Cambridge has since produced much more up-to-date projections, which are far closer to the deaths actually being recorded.
This is not to say that any number of deaths is tolerable. However, if the Government is asking Parliament to take the extreme step of ordering the entire population of England to be deprived of their civil liberties, it should provide compelling evidence of the need to do so. The evidence that has been produced is obsolete and therefore unreliable. More up-to-date evidence from respected sources suggests that the local lockdowns are working and the transmission rate is falling.
I could not in good conscience vote to deprive so many of my fellow citizens of their essential freedoms on the basis of such unreliable evidence. I would prefer to see the continuation of the localised Tier 3 measures, which should be kept under constant review. That is why I voted against the measure.
In the event, the motion to impose the lockdown was passed, with the support of Labour MPs. The measure will return to the House in early December, when I will once again weigh my decision very carefully.