MPs who are far longer serving than me say this lockdown vote is the hardest they have ever made. It is a life and death issue, but so much more than that – it is about people’s livelihoods and liberties, and the sort of country we live in. I share the anger and frustration of the hundreds of people who have been emailing me. To those constituents who have written to me directly on this matter, I will be responding in the coming days.
Since we became aware of the national lockdown as a possibility on Friday, I have argued strongly against it behind the scenes, with MPs, ministers and cabinet ministers and Number 10. I have discussed the lockdown with many medical experts, local hospitals and most importantly, local constituents. I have done my utmost to engage with as many people as possible and to analyse the local and national data.
South Cambridgeshire has had just two Covid deaths in the past five months. Infections in October were about 10 times higher than in summer, but throughout October were on a downwards path. I have seen myself all the effort and investment that local businesses and organisations have put into making their practices and premises Covid safe, like our local pubs installing marquees and making sure they are Covid secure. I have spent the last few months doing what I can to support the many entrepreneurial businesses we have in South Cambs, as they struggle for survival. I have spent my adult life promoting economic growth, and have been involved in many small businesses myself, and I find it stomach-churning every time a local company tells me they have come to the end of the road and are closing up for good. I have been speaking to hundreds of constituents, and know how hard many are finding it. I understand the impact on mental health. South Cambs is a beacon for the rest of the country, not just because we have one of the lowest infection rates, but because our businesses and institutes have been leading the battle against Coronavirus, from producing vaccines, doing DNA mapping, developing drug treatments and rapid mass testing. I pay tribute to the University and Addenbrooke’s Hospital for leading the way nationally on mass asymptomatic testing, helping ensure that both have been able to quickly identify and isolate any infections. And yet despite doing all the right things, and the virus not being a significant threat to life for the vast majority of people, we will be hit by Tier 4 restrictions, the national lockdown, which will close down our shops and pubs and cafes. How can that be fair?
As a trained mathematician, I am well aware of the short comings of the various bits of modelling the government has presented to the public. A scenario is not a forecast, it is just a line on a graph put there by modellers when they have no evidence for their predictions. There is evidence, from cities such as Liverpool, that the local tiered approach is working. We could have given the local approach more time to prove itself. What right does any government have to say who we can see, what we can do, and how we can pray? Better treatments mean that the virus is becoming a lot less deadly than it was just months ago. And finally, the government’s handling of the whole announcement was - let’s not beat about the bush – shambolic.
But there are many counter arguments. It is absolutely clear that the epidemic is taking off nationally at a very rapid pace (but less rapid than the first peak). Numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths are all rocketing up. Yesterday (as I write this), there were 20,000 people who tested positive, over 11,000 Covid patients in hospital, of which over 1000 are on ventilator beds, and 397 died with Covid. It is as certain as night follows day that hospitalisations and deaths will follow the upward trajectory of infections, just with a time lag. Across the UK, NHS hospitals are terrified of soon being overwhelmed by COVID patients, and having to limit treatment to the extent of deciding which patients to save and which to let die. Addenbrooke’s is probably in the best position of any hospital in the country, but it will end up taking overflow from other hospitals elsewhere that cannot cope. Despite diligent planning, Addenbrooke’s has been very concerned about the trajectory, and certainly finds the lockdown a relief. It is also welcome that in this second lockdown, the young can still go to school and university. To carry on denying them education would be totally unacceptable.
I have spoken a large number of constituents, and also asked them what they think in a survey. Over 700 people replied, and although it is entirely unscientific, it is pretty conclusive: 60% are in favour of a second national lockdown, and only 34% against (the rest are “don’t know”). This public opinion is a big factor in my thinking.
I have been arguing for a more aggressive localised approach. If there is a need to close pubs, restaurants and shops, why not just do it in those areas where infection is highest? Why close our pubs in South Cambs when the infection is far less of a problem here? The pushback to this argument is that R – the rate of infection – is now currently above one in every region of the country. With the exception of the North East, infections are going up week on week in every region. Those areas with the lowest rates – with the least restrictions – are seeing the biggest increases. But also, studies show we are one of the most interconnected countries in Europe, with a very high population density, a very high proportion of people living in one area and working in another, with large numbers having second homes, with millions of students travelling regularly between their home and university towns. With this amount of mobility – unmatched almost anywhere else – it is not possible to contain an uncontrolled outbreak in one area on a sustained basis.
The other issue is what is the second lockdown for? Clearly a cycle of lockdown-release-lockdown-release is not just unsustainable but utterly destructive of the economy and indeed society. There is no point doing it if we are just putting off the inevitable. But we really are within touching distance of three things that change the whole dynamic of the disease. Improved treatments are already reducing the fatality of the disease, so fewer who get it die, and those treatments will certainly improve further. As Addenbrooke’s and the University have shown, regular mass asymptomatic testing helps control the infection, and we are now in a position where we can start rolling out such a system nationally, starting with the entire city of Liverpool. Thirdly, behind the scenes, there is incredible optimism that the extraordinary programme to develop a vaccine is paying off, and a vaccine can start being rolled out around Christmas time. Vaccines are not 100% effective and it will take a long time to roll out (not least because it will almost certainly require two doses), but even so it will reduce the risk for many, particularly the most vulnerable. All this means that as we come out of the lockdown, the whole pattern of the pandemic will change in our favour. Combined with the passing of winter, there are huge reasons for optimism in the New Year.
For all these reasons, not least representing the majority views of my constituents, I have on balance and with very heavy heart decided to support the Government. The lockdown legislation is supported by all three major UK parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – and so the result is a foregone conclusion. I take some solace in knowing that additional support for the self-employed, extending the furlough scheme and allowing schools to remain open will help mitigate some of the adverse effects. Finally, it is worth noting that any rebellion against the Government in this vote will be symbolic only. I believe my efforts can be better directed to ensuring that the Government is doing everything it can to guarantee that the new restrictions are lifted as soon as possible.
Given the lockdown is a certainty, it is most important now to focus on what happens next: what happens on December 2nd. I want to give all of my constituents the firmest possible commitment that I will use the next four weeks to campaign with other MPs to ensure the lockdown ends at the beginning of December, that we move back to a tailored localised system, and then lift all restrictions as quickly as possible. We must have a different approach.