I am disappointed to learn that the Prime Minister has announced a further continuation of restrictions and loss of liberty, one week before the expected and much anticipated full return to normal life, despite the rapid and successful rollout of the vaccination programme. I will not be able to support the Government’s proposed extension of lockdown when it comes to a Commons vote on 16th June.
The vaccine programme was described as a game changer in our battle against Covid by the very people who now want to keep us in further restrictions. The effectiveness of our vaccines at preventing hospitalisation means we can and should “unlock” on 21st June. By then, those vulnerable groups that accounted for 99% of covid deaths and 80% of all covid hospitalisations will have been offered both doses of vaccinations.
Back in January, the Health Secretary Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP famously declared that once all the most vulnerable were vaccinated he would ‘cry freedom’. Yet that does not seem to be enough now and it points to a political choice being made that focuses too exclusively on Covid at the expense of other threats to health, especially mental health, and to the businesses that pay taxes and wages that allow the public sector, including the NHS, to function at all.
"This will be catastrophic for many businesses, currently struggling because of previous and current restrictions and equally devastating for business confidence and people’s health."
The logic of this ‘choice’ suggests a gloomy autumn and winter of further restrictions ahead when respiratory diseases increase and fill our hospitals again. Covid is not going away. Back in January Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer admitted that, “the world will be living with coronavirus, probably forever.” Variants may well appear for the rest of time and we will have to learn to live with it. If we cannot lift our restrictions now in the current situation, then we never will. That is the logic of the decision that has been made.
I fear we are now being trapped in a cycle of permanent seasonal restrictions and loss of liberty. Up until recently it was illegal to hug someone in the street or visit a loved one in a care home. This is not sustainable.
Some will say that this is only for four weeks longer and indeed the Prime Minister has described this sacrifice as ‘one final heave’ in the battle to combat covid. He said it was ‘one final push’ back in December and in January when we had the last big lockdown. Last time it was the Kent variant, then the South African and now the Indian variant. Last time it was to give space to vaccinate our most vulnerable and, not without concerns, I supported it. Well, we have achieved that and yet we are facing yet more continuation of restrictions and uncertainty.
The biggest and probably most damaging aspect of this decision to delay our opening, is, as my colleague Rt Hon Mark Harper MP articulated so sharply, that it will “send a clear message to employers and workers that, when Covid cases increase this (and every) autumn and winter, they cannot rely on Government to keep our society open.”
This will be catastrophic for many businesses, currently struggling because of previous and current restrictions and equally devastating for business confidence and people’s health. Our Government has asked a lot from us and we have delivered. The sacrifice has been great. It has cost some people their livelihoods, others their mental health and esteem.
We are expected to be grateful for the small number of ‘concessions’ the Government has announced, such as wedding numbers, at the same time as keeping the lockdown in place. However, this is to look through the wrong end of the telescope:
The window of opportunity to break the cycle of restrictions and lockdowns is closing. Our society is changing in ways which I – and many others – consider highly undesirable. The “precautionary principle” has taken hold and the idea that you can only take actions that the state sanctions, rather than not do those specifically prohibited, has seeped in to our society in a way our forefathers have long resisted, arguably since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
If risk was assessed this way in any other part of our lives then the motorway speed limit would be 20mph and nobody would be allowed to go skiing, rock climbing, take paracetamol or use gas cylinders. The state has demanded by law that people not travel, that they close their businesses and even – the greatest imposition of all – and it does not matter whether particular individuals ‘do not mind’ or not - cover up their faces. Such state demands can only be justified in the very most extreme of circumstances and for a limited time. That time should be over.