In business questions today, the Leader of the House brushed off my suggestion for a specific debate where the Government could present their evidence that the closures in and restrictions on the hospitality, sport and leisure industries would have a significant impact on the course of the pandemic. I was trying to be helpful. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was asked:
“is there a scientific basis for the 10 pm rule?...If there is a basis, why do the Government not do themselves a favour and publish it?”—[Official Report,
The industry would not necessarily have been happy with that, but it would at least have been comprehensible. Indeed, had it been published earlier, things may have been even better because those in the industry would not have had to spend considerable sums on changing their premises, only to have that disregarded. They may have the slightest suspicion that the evidence is non-existent or at best very thin, and that the policy has been driven more by the desire to be seen to be doing something, but at huge cost to this industry, which is not only a huge part of the economy, but part of what makes our country stand out in the world. What a vast industry we are talking about: pubs and clubs; restaurants and cafés; betting shops; bingo halls and casinos; cinemas and theatres; gyms; music venues; wedding venues; football and rugby clubs and racecourses—the list goes on—as well as the myriad suppliers and transport companies that service them. There are hundreds of thousands of businesses, some international brands, but most small businesses whose owners have invested their life’s work, dreams and savings in them. They have been hanging on, hoping for better times. The Government’s response is depriving them of that hope. Of course they need relief and the belated help that was announced today, but they also need customers and trade.
That is another reason why the Chancellor’s contribution today was disappointing. There seemed to be no recognition of the Government as a customer—a major purchaser of goods and services. The Government could have a big impact on employment and economic revival. There was no indication of any sense of urgency in Whitehall for that.
As an example, the order for fleet solid support ships has been hanging around with the Ministry of Defence for years, and they are needed. This week, the Defence Secretary announced that the MOD will be inviting bids for a British-based contract, but it will not issue the invitation until the spring. Why further dither and delay? Get a move on. Get industry gearing up. The same goes for buses, trains, cars, trucks, hospitals, schools, road and rail fares—the list is endless. What that means in the end is jobs, jobs, jobs. Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister claimed to be channelling his inner Franklin Roosevelt. Well, let him take a lesson from the Works Progress Administration in the US and get real projects—the output but also the work—rolling fast.
The Secretary of State talked about suppressing the virus until we get a vaccine, but let us be clear: we have only ever eliminated one virus—smallpox—and that after many decades. We face significant harm, here and around the world, from viruses, bacteria and fungal conditions, but even with a vaccine, thousands die of flu every year. We all acknowledge the incredible efforts of the scientific community here and around the world to create a vaccine, but they rightly warn that they cannot be sure of success. As the PM himself acknowledged, after 18 years, we still have not found an effective vaccine against severe acute respiratory syndrome. Furthermore, if we do get an effective vaccine, it will not be effective for all—no vaccine is—and that is before we consider the constraints of production and the need to overcome resistance from anti-vaxxers. As I have said before, we probably will have to learn to co-exist with the virus while maintaining the economy and society. The sooner we face up to that, the better.