We face a difficult winter. Many areas of England are under heightened restrictions, including Elmbridge, part of which forms part of my constituency. We face the national challenge of a new disease, with a population that is largely unexposed to it and has built no immunity to it through either prior infection or other means, such as vaccination. It spreads easily and quickly, and can make people in high-risk groups, particularly the elderly, seriously ill. It can spiral out of control and overwhelm our health service.
I supported the first lockdown and I support the current restrictions. As an NHS doctor, I say with all my body and soul that we cannot let the NHS be overwhelmed. But lockdowns and restrictions are deeply harmful in themselves. The long-term effects will be profound—a higher burden of disease from poverty, with associated costs in lives; loss of livelihoods; misery and damage from isolation, and reduction in liberties. We need a way out.
My constituents are feeling it—especially those who are now in tier 2 restrictions in Elmbridge—and I pay tribute to them for their resolve. They rightly ask me, “What’s the way out? How does this end? How do we escape the cycle of lockdown?” The current strategy is to suppress until there is a vaccine, but what if there is never a vaccine? As people start to tire of lockdown, increasing coercion and punitive measures are being put in place. On my commute from Runnymede and Weybridge, I travel to Waterloo station, and I have seen the signs there change—from a £100 fine for not wearing a face mask, to £3,000, to £6,000—in the course of a few months. It is inevitable that greater coercion will be needed. When does that stop?
Coercion is illusory. It works briefly, but after a while it fails, unless we take people with us and they own the decision. Of course, in a public health response to an infectious disease, we cannot have a free-for-all, but at the same time, in my constituency, I see people at low risk from covid who ignore the guidance because it will not directly affect them and all they see is harm from restrictions. I see people at high risk ignoring guidance because life is short and they want to see their grandkids. I see people terrified of covid hiding away from the world. Day in, day out, people make decisions about their health risks, such as to smoke or not to smoke—indeed, given that 76,000 people die every year from smoking, probably more people have already died this year from smoking than from covid. People decide whether to put salt on their chips, or not to eat chips. We all make compromises and trade-offs, but rather than the state deciding those trade-offs, we must find a way to let people decide their own.