So many local people have been in contact with me offering many different viewpoints in respect of the package of tougher measures to tackle the spread of Coronavirus which was set out by the Prime Minister on the 31st October, which includes a second national ‘lockdown’ that will run now until the 2nd December. I am really grateful to everyone who has taken the time to get in touch with their considered contributions to the debate, and will respond individually to them, but I thought it might also be useful to set my views out more widely here.
First, I just want to say this - I have read all the correspondence I have received carefully and I am enormously sympathetic to much of the sentiment expressed. Like everyone, I hate this situation and I wish we were not in this position. Rather like the whole country, I am utterly fed up with restrictions on our day-to-day lives and as someone who passionately believes in freedom and the upholding of our right to go about our business unhindered, as long as we are not doing harm to others, some of the steps we have had to take since late March run against every last fibre of my political instincts. These are not votes that I cast lightly in Parliament and I am under no illusions about the impact of restrictions on people’s businesses, jobs, families and wider relationships.
Against that context, I voted to support a second national ‘lockdown’ in England, as did the vast majority of MPs. I want to explain my reasoning for having done so and I hope that by the end of this post, even those who disagree vehemently will at least appreciate why I felt I had no choice in the circumstances, and that they will at least try to put themselves in my shoes, even if only for a moment. I would also just add that these are my own words and not some centrally produced ‘line’, as I really do want to get across just how difficult these decisions are and the various mitigating factors involved in my thinking.
As the Prime Minister has said, in less than a year, this disease has killed almost a million people worldwide and has caused havoc to economies everywhere. In March, we all pulled together in a spirit of national sacrifice and community. Acting together, for the benefit of all, we ensured the NHS was protected and thousands of lives were saved.
Unfortunately, the evidence shows that the virus has recently started to spread again exponentially and it has become clear that in England, as it has in Europe, the virus has returned with the same vigour as before and our strategy must follow the data. Currently, the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advisers. Models now suggest that unless we act now, we will see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day - a peak of mortality far bigger than the one we saw earlier this year. Despite being better prepared than before, the virus is doubling faster than anyone would like and that is why the Prime Minister has acted - in a way that undoubtedly goes against his instincts too, but he genuinely believes he has no viable alternative and I know without question that he has not gone down this route lightly.
Quite rightly, we initially tried to tackle these rising figures with a tiered framework designed to simplify local restrictions and enable targeted action to be taken in areas where the number of cases was increasing significantly. However, when it became clear that cases were increasing in all regions, the Government 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. The legislation is time limited and when this new ‘lockdown’ period ends, I believe that the tiered framework already in place will continue to enable the Government and local authorities to work together to target regional outbreaks on a more localised basis, that better takes into account local circumstances.
During recent weeks, all seven Northamptonshire MPs strongly argued against local efforts to move our area from tier one to tier two restrictions. I did not see a compelling case locally for that action at that time and urged that, instead, increased effort should be made to educate and inform and to ensure compliance against the existing rules. We won that argument, which has no doubt been helpful to local businesses and to ordinary people in going about their daily lives. I think it also gives you a meaningful steer in practice as to the view I take instinctively on these matters.
However, as I have set out, nationally, things have moved on and the picture is now bleaker. The incidence of infection is increasing significantly and hospitalisations and deaths have risen. Indeed, in advance of the vote that many local people have contacted me about, I wanted to understand precisely what the up-to-date local situation was with regard to hospital capacity and so I made enquiries on this to better inform my understanding.
Now, there are two issues that are pertinent here - one directly COVID related, and one non-COVID related. However, the two are inextricably linked. For obvious reasons, the more COVID patients in our local hospitals at any one time, the closer our hospitals get to capacity, with all the difficulties that presents.
Fortunately, treatments have seemingly improved dramatically in recent months as we have learnt more about the virus, and that welcomely has, and should help to, as I understand it, reduce the number of those dying from the disease. However, for those that are seriously ill with Coronavirus, their survival will often rely upon access to sophisticated hospital treatment that can only be provided in that setting.
Equally importantly, I am also acutely mindful of the need for those suffering from non-COVID related medical conditions to be able to access the hospital treatment and care they require too; but inevitably, the more COVID patients there are in hospital, the less chance there is of that happening. To illustrate the point, my understanding is that earlier in the year, fortunately, cancer treatment continued in our local hospital at Kettering, but bowel screening, for example, did not; in turn delaying possible detection and intervention. Essentially, the closer the hospital gets to capacity, the less realistic chance there is of being able to access the treatment you require for non-Coronavirus related conditions – as difficult choices around services end up having to be made.
So not only is there the direct challenge of tackling COVID-19 and treating those with the disease and preventing its further spread, but there is also a genuine capacity issue around at what point the NHS simply becomes unable to treat those who need care more generally - and in some cases critical care. Meeting those competing demands is undoubtedly a finely tuned operation across the NHS, day in, day out, and so a surge of COVID patients at any one time is problematic, and a big spike is potentially catastrophic.
Politics is all about tough choices. It is about balancing risk and doing what you think is right - even when it isn’t necessarily popular and at this point, I simply cannot ignore the advice I am being given both locally and nationally from the medical and scientific professionals who, frankly, know more about these matters than I do, given their wealth of knowledge and experience. When the facts change, you have to be responsive to it - particularly so in an unprecedented global pandemic.
Ultimately, the questions I had to ask myself were the following. At what point do you stop ignoring the risk and take action to address it, when all the top Government medical and scientific experts are saying there is a genuine chance that the NHS will become overwhelmed if more robust steps to arrest the spread of the virus aren’t taken? Can you live with putting doctors and nurses in the invidious position of having to make agonising decisions about who should live and who will die, because they have to ration the capacity that does exist in the system? Are you comfortable with a situation where some patients who need routine treatment, including lifesaving treatment in some cases, such as for cancer and heart conditions, might not be able to get it, because the system is overwhelmed? Do we really want to risk a situation where seriously ill and dying patients might be left on trolleys and in corridors like we saw in Italy earlier in the year, because there just aren’t the beds available?
If we didn’t act, how would you feel if it were your family, friend or loved one caught up in the sort of situation I have described above? I suspect you would ask me why the Government, and I, as your local MP, ignored the expert advice and demand answers - and to be honest, I wouldn’t blame you for doing so.
I don’t want another ‘lockdown’ in the same way we all don’t, but in the end, there are no ideal ways forward at this point. I would therefore urge people to follow the rules and stick with it both in letter and in spirit - not least because that maximises our chances of it having a positive effect in terms of getting the infection rate under control again and that means this can be a short, sharp, single intervention.
I should stress, however, that these new restrictions look considerably different to those we experienced back in the Spring in a number of important ways, in light of what we have learnt since then:
• Childcare, early years’ settings, schools, colleges and universities all remain open. Senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be. We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has done already and we should absolutely resist any calls for these to close;
• Churches and places of worship will remain open, albeit for private prayer rather than communal worship;
• Unlimited exercise is permitted, and single person households can form a ‘support bubble’;
• Guidance for the clinically vulnerable will be released imminently, which will be less restrictive, although it should be treated with the same level of seriousness and caution.
All that said, I am under no illusions that this remains hugely challenging for everyone and I am extremely mindful that it is particularly difficult for businesses, and with that in mind I strongly welcome the comprehensive package of support the Chancellor has put in place to help get them through this difficult period, and which he has substantially extended yet again to reflect these latest restrictions coming into force. You can find more details about that package of support, here: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus/business-support.
Understandably, many local people have asked me what the realistic prospect is of this ‘lockdown’ being extended further. Having looked into this and expressed my strong reservations about such a suggestion, I understand any further national restrictions would need to be voted on in Parliament again after the end of the four-week period. I have made absolutely clear my view that MPs would need to be given compelling evidence if Ministers were to come to Parliament again asking for further national measures to be considered. Specifically, I have been clear in saying that there needs to be much greater clarity around what the ‘exit strategy’ looks like and involves, and I have emphasised that these four weeks must be used effectively to tackle the virus head-on, to best prepare the system for the remainder of the winter challenges to come, and to ensure that day-to-day disruption to people’s lives can be minimised going forward.
That opportunity must not be wasted and pleasingly, there are grounds for optimism, as we know so much more about this virus now than we did back in March. Not only has Dexamethasone proven effective and shown that one in three deaths could be prevented among patients on ventilators, but the prospect of many millions of cheap and rapid turnaround tests is also within sight. Indeed, trials have shown how effective these can be. These tests identify those who have the virus and must self-isolate and those who can continue in relative normality. This programme will begin imminently.
And of course, there is the real prospect of a vaccine coming forward soon, with Pfizer and BioNTech’s announcement on the 9th November that the vaccine they have been developing appears to be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants, being most welcome news, and I congratulate the researchers who have been involved in this process so far. However, I agree with the Prime Minister that while one important hurdle has been cleared, there are more to go before we know for certain that the vaccine can be used. I know that the UK Government has ordered 40 million doses of this vaccine, as well as 300 million doses from five other vaccine candidates.
I also understand that the Joint Committee on Vaccination & Immunisation is looking into a range of factors, including the different characteristics of different types of vaccines, to work out the most effective way to protect as many people as possible and save as many lives as we can. They will work with the Government to determine the order in which people are offered the vaccination when it arrives. Provisionally, the ranking of priority groups combines clinical risk and age, as well as key workers like health and social care staff. Furthermore, I welcome the Secretary of State for Health & Social Care’s announcement that vaccination clinics, when established, will open seven days a week, in addition to an extra £150 million being made available for GPs to support this work. These measures will help to enable a mass rollout of the vaccination at the earliest possible time – all in all, an arguably game changing development.
In the meantime, I appreciate that these stricter measures have an impact on all of our lives in one way or another, but we must comply and play our part individually in saving lives and protecting vulnerable people. What we must remember is that, unfortunately, what is one person’s mild cough can be another person’s death knell – and that ensuring the NHS is able to cope this winter critically matters not just for COVID patients, but for us all who may find ourselves requiring treatment over the coming months. That said, the measures must continue to be proportionate to the risk the virus poses, and the impact on the economy, livelihoods and personal freedoms must always be taken into real consideration when making decisions on the approach.
As ever, I will certainly bear in mind the concerns that have been raised with me and continue to ensure local views are represented when these matters are debated in the House and during my discussions with ministerial colleagues. Local feedback has continually helped to shape the local and national response throughout this pandemic so far, in so many ways, and I am determined it will continue to do so, as we work to get it right and strike the best possible balance in what are impossible circumstances. Furthermore, myself and my office continue to be at my constituents’ disposal for the difficult months ahead and will assist in any way we can.
In concluding, I hope that the above has at least clarified why I reached the conclusion I did around a second ‘lockdown’ at this stage. Whilst some may still have grave reservations about it, I hope they might at least be willing to reflect on the dreadful predicament the current situation presents in terms of how stark some of the risks to NHS services genuinely are, and the gravity of their potentially catastrophic consequences on people’s lives. This situation is dreadful, in so many ways, including for the many reasons described so candidly in so much of the correspondence I have received, but the truth is that all of the emergency response is a very difficult balancing act, with freedoms maintained in one area requiring difficult decisions to be taken in others. The Government’s clear and justifiable overall objective is to minimise transmission and save lives in the absence of a vaccine, which I hope, like us all, will materialise very soon on the ground - but that inevitably leads to disruption and the curtailment of freedoms in some parts of day-to-day life now. I hate that in exactly the same way as everyone else, and I wish it weren’t so. Ultimately, however, there are no desirable routes through in the short-term and it is virtually impossible for the emergency response to be completely logical and linear, as the situation itself is so unprecedented and unpredictable, but without getting ahead of ourselves, at least there does now appear to be light at the end of the tunnel.