CORONAVIRUS – NEW RESTRICTIONS
5th November 2020
Thank you for contacting me about the package of tougher measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus which were set out by the Prime Minister on 31 October and subsequently supported by the House of Commons.
I know that there are very strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and equally that many constituents believe that some particular restrictions – notably on religious services, on the closure of gyms and leisure centres, and on the suspension of grass-roots sport, particularly for young people – are unwarranted and could themselves be harmful.
The purpose of this 28-day lockdown is to minimise social interaction, so that by early December the R-number is below One, pressure on the NHS is reduced and, in combination with testing developments, the month of December and Christmas are able to revert to something more like normal, socially and economically. If the restrictions on social interaction were less rigid, the impact is likely to be less effective. That is why the exceptional reasons for which someone can leave home are very limited, though not as tough as last Spring. Lessons have been learned.
As the Prime Minister said, this disease has killed almost a million people worldwide in less than a year and caused havoc to economies everywhere. In March, we all pulled together in a spirit of national sacrifice and community. That ensured the NHS was protected and thousands of lives saved. Regrettably, the evidence shows that the virus is now spreading again in an exponential way, as it is in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Germany, and that is why the Prime Minister has acted, accepting the need “to be humble in the face of nature.”
The regional tiered framework previously announced was designed to simplify local restrictions and enable targeted action to be taken in areas where the number of cases was increasing significantly. As Member of Parliament for a constituency where the infection rate is relatively low and relatively stable, I supported that approach, not least because I was increasingly driven to the conclusion that with the virus endemic in the community, and as we learn more about this disease and improve treatments, we have to adapt as a society to find ways to live with the risk.
However, when it became clear that cases were increasing in all regions, the Prime Minister reluctantly took the difficult decision to put further restrictions in place across England, asking people to stay at home as much as possible for four weeks. Schemes to support employers, employees, the self-employed and businesses have been extended accordingly, to protect jobs and livelihoods.
One of the key reasons for this second package of restrictions is that the NHS is increasingly under pressure – indeed, the Chief Executive of NHS England has announced that it has moved to the highest alert level, after a significant rise in desperately sick Covid patients in intensive care. In his words, the situation is already three times worse than in a usual winter. The purpose of his move is to ensure that all services – Covid and non-Covid – are supported appropriately. It is all very well saying, as some do, that it is only the older age group who are likely to suffer; the reality is that people under that age group are contracting it, often asymptomatically, and passing it on.
Here in the South West, case numbers remain low but the R-number is among the highest in the country. At the same time, our hospital capacity is designed with the capability of caring for our relatively small population and could therefore be overwhelmed just as rapidly as in metropolitan areas where case numbers are much higher, but which have much larger hospitals. The most worrying aspect is that if the NHS is overwhelmed by Covid, then any of us suffering a heart attack or stroke or needing cancer treatment might not get the urgent NHS help we need at the time we need it. With no vaccine yet available, we would be risking impossible pressure and intolerable loss of life if we were to let the disease run its course in the community.
In my view, the Prime Minister and his Government face an impossible task. If infections now fall, those opposed to the lockdown will say it was happening anyway, as a result of earlier restrictions. If no lockdown were imposed or if we had waited longer and the number of hospitalisations and deaths were to continue to rise exponentially, then the Government would have been accused of dither and delay, costing lives. Even when this is over, we will probably never know what the right call was – this is one of those situations in public life where decision-makers must act in the absence of a definitively right or definitively wrong response. I would ask my constituents who are critical of the Prime Minister and his Government to think about how impossibly difficult these judgement calls are.
What is clear is that the legislation which has now taken effect is time-limited – it expires on 2 December. Any further restrictions after that date would need to be the subject of a fresh vote on in Parliament, and I am in no doubt that Parliamentarians would need to see compelling evidence if Parliament were to be asked to consider further national measures. That said, I appreciate that we are trying to follow the science as much as that is possible, given the science is divided and competitive in its response. But following science isn't the same thing as listening only to the same few people.
I appreciate that these stricter measures impact on everyone’s way of life - I am desperately sorry for businesses that were starting to turn the corner and who now feel they are back at Square One. I also have enormous sympathy for all my constituents in coping with what some believe to be an assault on the freedom that we hold dear. But we must comply and play our parts in saving lives and protecting vulnerable people. What we must remember is that, unfortunately, one person’s mild cough can be another person’s death knell. We must act together to suppress this virus again to save lives.
I nonetheless entirely agree that measures must continue to be proportionate to the risk the virus poses, and the impact on the economy, livelihoods and personal freedoms must be proportionate. The cure cannot be allowed to become worse than the disease. I will bear in mind the views you have raised and continue to ensure that the concerns of people in Bournemouth West are understood by Ministers.
In the meantime, I urge all my constituents to observe the restrictions so that we succeed in suppressing the virus and so make this further sacrifice as effective as it can be.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.