Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 5:30 pm, 11th November 2020

I pay tribute to all those in my own constituency who have helped our community through the pandemic—the medical and emergency staff, other key workers, our volunteers, and the neighbours who have made all the difference.

I want to say a few words about how we can ensure that public confidence in our policy remains high, but first I will make a few comments on the current lockdown. I reinforce my hon. Friend the Minister’s point that when we leave the national lockdown on 2 December, we are not going into a national free-for-all in the run-up to Christmas. Ministers must make it very clear that we are transitioning back to a regional tiered system, because over-optimism, just as if people believe that a vaccine coming means they do not have to obey the rules, would be very dangerous for public health.

But if we are going to move successfully back to the tiered system, we have to deal with some of the illogical rules that still exist despite the best efforts of Ministers. This is not frivolous—it is important in getting people to conform to the restrictions that are in place. For example, we want people to play sport, so do we really believe that a spaced round of golf is more dangerous to public health than people attending a supermarket? When it comes to religious observation, is it credible that people who go to church for private worship who are properly spaced are a greater danger than the same number with the same spacing who take part in a service? These issues are important to a lot of people out there. The Government need to deal with some of these illogicalities if we are to deal with conformity.

There is something that Ministers can do immediately, and that is about free testing for families of key workers. I have a constituent who is a key worker who has been sent home because her son has also been sent home from school to isolate. She cannot go back to work until her son has a negative test, but he does not qualify for free testing. In other words, she must pay to get her son tested before she can go back to a key occupation. That cannot be the right way to treat our key workers. I urge the Minister to look as quickly as possible at how we deal with these key members of our society.

May I ask the Minister to look again, through the Treasury, at those who were remunerated through dividends? Many of those people are hard-working and decent, not tax dodgers. They were able to get by for a short period of time, but as the lockdown goes on, it is becoming impossible for them and they are facing absolute undue hardship. I urge the Government to look again at them.

My main comments relate to our great maxim in medicine—do no harm. That means that the patient must not be worse off from the cure than they were from the original disease. This is a dilemma facing all Governments. How do we protect public health while ensuring the economic viability by which the funding for public services is generated? So far, the public remain very supportive of the Government’s position, but that cannot be guaranteed. Recent controversies over the use of data have made it more difficult for the Government simply to say that they are following the science. Sadly, there is growing resistance to the concept of lockdowns, which is inevitable as economic concerns rise to the fore. It is utterly irrational to say that one is against all lockdowns, because that needs to be a decision taken on the basis of the evidence at the time. However, we need to understand the anxieties and the frustrations if the Government want to keep their options open and retain credibility with the public.

So how can Parliament play its part in that process? Covid-19 is not just a health issue; it is also an economic issue, affecting welfare and employment and our personal and social wellbeing. And of course there is no such thing, actually, as “the science”; rather, there is a range of scientific views, and we need to understand what that range is and the weight given to the respective parts of it if we are to have faith in the outcome of the judgments that have been made.

Our current Select Committees are very good at looking at departmental functions and policy, but they are very vertical and do not look across the whole of Government. In 2012, after the banking scandal, David Cameron set up the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards; it was a full parliamentary Committee of inquiry involving both Houses. I believe we need the same now: senior but temporary, cross-party and with both Houses. Of course, the reaction from the Front Bench is likely to be, “No more scrutiny”—I have been there and done that; I have been on the Front Bench and know what all those arguments are—but I think it would be a mistake and something the Government would come to regret, because such a Commission would help show that across the whole of Government, advice and data had been properly scrutinised. It is an opportunity to reinforce public confidence as we face the covid pandemic into 2021.

Finally, there is another reason why we should have such a set-up. This will not be the last pandemic we face. In the era of globalisation, when in normal times, for example, we have 700,000 people in the air at any one time, we will face further pandemics, and although this has been a tragedy for every single case, it has not been a particularly lethal pandemic by historical standards. We must set up the structures that we will need to deal with future pandemics, and we need internationally to work out the protocols we will put in place when we have the emergence of new viruses and the metrics we will use to measure that, because we cannot have the disorganised and shambolic international response that we have had to this particular pandemic. Meanwhile, at home we need transparency, with all the evidence scrutinised, if we are to maintain public confidence and see off the political opportunists and the conspiracy theorists, and, with that transparency, we need that scrutiny in this House and we need it urgently.