Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 3:04 pm, 22nd October 2020

I draw the House’s attention to my outside interests. This is the first time I have sought to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in any of the covid debates. I want to express strong support for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He has an impossibly difficult job to do, which in my view he is doing very well indeed, and we should all support him. I also want to express my gratitude and admiration for the health facilities in my constituency, in particular Good Hope Hospital.

I want to encourage a few small changes—to use a nautical metaphor, an adjustment on the tiller—to be made when possible. I am pleased to see that my right hon. Friend is working far more with Members of Parliament. The wisdom from our constituencies, as we report back in the House from the frontline, is very important and should play a critical part in the Government reaching their conclusions. Working closely with local authorities and Mayors is not easy and not always elegant, but it is vital for my right hon. Friend successfully achieving what he wants to.

For many years, I have not had many nice things to say about Birmingham City Council, but the public health authorities under Justin Varney are doing an exceptional job under the regional Mayor, Andy Street, whose leadership we all admire. It should also be said that Birmingham City Council did a first-class job in dealing with the homeless at the start of the pandemic and ensuring that they all had somewhere to go off the streets. Politicians in the west midlands, who I think it is fair to say never agree on anything, have worked closely together since March and established a good working relationship. This is not a political crisis; it is a health crisis. We should all play our part in keeping the aggro levels down, and the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State set a good example today.

In the trade-offs that Ministers inevitably must make between protecting our health and the health service and protecting jobs, livelihoods and investment, I would push the tiller a bit more towards the economy and economic activities. I am lost in admiration at the ingenuity, impressive optimism and vitality of the private sector in Sutton Coldfield as I visit their businesses and hear their determination but also their anxiety.

I wish to mention two sectors. The first is the events and exhibitions sector, which employs 600,000 people and has a turnover of about £80 billion each year, which is roughly the same as the automotive industry. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Solutions2 in Minworth in my constituency, which previously had a £6 million turnover but since March has had a turnover of precisely £8,000. It has 36 staff, 35 of whom are furloughed. They showed me a map of Europe, which showed that there was activity in their sector across Europe and in the middle east and far east but not, alas, in this country. They pointed out that an exhibition had taken place in Dusseldorf for the caravan show, which 107,000 people had visited.

The second sector that I wish briefly to mention is weddings and the marriage industry, which is flat on its back in Sutton Coldfield. More could be done to relax the tight restrictions in favour of covid-sensible arrangements, and I hope that the Government can show some flexibility on this. Venues such as Moor Hall and the wedding car industry, for example, are being badly affected.

I think I know the Prime Minister well enough to say that he is a social liberal at heart who dislikes the massive extension of the state as much as I do—the framework of restrictions and ways of living; the language of authority, with curfews, lockdowns, compliance and bans; and the machinery of coercion, with informing, policing, snitching and fining. I was horrified to hear this morning that four students in Nottingham have been fined £10,000 each—more than a year’s fees—for breaching the rules. The lives and opportunities of young people in particular have been blighted by this dreadful pandemic. We probably need to protect the elderly and vulnerable a little more and shield and curtail the young a little less. It is about a touch on the tiller, being a little less didactic and a little more trusting in the good sense of social solidarity of the vast majority.

Finally, I am a former member of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health, along with Alastair Campbell and Norman Lamb—probably one of the best public health Ministers we have had since the war. We are facing a mental ill health epidemic. People who are, inevitably, not being seen really should be seen. We must keep this issue at the front of all our minds as this crisis continues.