Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor 4:48 pm, 18th November 2020

It strikes me that, as MPs, it is our duty to make difficult decisions. We must face head-on the life and death challenges that very few people would wish to face in their daily lives. We must make contested judgments, and this debate and the response to covid is a case in point. Whether it is going to war with Iraq, which was before my time in this House, military operations in Syria or the very painful issues surrounding Brexit, we have a duty to reflect carefully and responsibly when confronted with complex challenges. It seems to me that our response to covid demands a similar level of reflection to reach our best judgments.

There are a multitude of variables involved in this decision making. Given that thousands of lives are being lost to covid, thousands of lives are being lost with covid, and thousands of lives are being lost by our response to covid, it is no easy judgment. Businesses are being forced to close across my constituency and across the country—businesses that people have spent their lives building up. Jobs and livelihoods are being wiped out. Civil liberties are certainly under threat, freedom of speech is threatened, freedom of assembly has been all but washed away in the short term, and even Parliament—even with your efforts, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the efforts of Mr Speaker—is not necessarily functioning as it should during a crisis such as this.

Looking back, I suspect hon. Members will agree that the first lockdown was absolutely the right thing to do. In March this year we were confronted with an unknown enemy: a deadly virus determined to secure its own survival by infecting as many people as possible, with sometimes fatal consequences. With incomplete information from China at the time, we did not know the fatality rate. We did not know the vectors and means of transmission, or which age groups were worst affected, or about its ability to mutate or the type of mutation that may take place. We did not have a ready treatment available for the symptoms.

That was back in March, but today we know so much more. We know that healthy children are hardly affected by the virus, and that is a godsend, considering illnesses and diseases from the past. We know now that the overwhelming majority of adults are reasonably safe: perhaps 80% will not necessarily even notice any symptoms. We know that people over the age of 65 and those with pre-existing conditions are, sadly, most likely to suffer the serious effects of the virus. We know that the virus is transmitted by touch and by being in close proximity to others, and that washing hands and maintaining social distance largely prevent transmission.

We also have far more PPE than we had when we started, thanks to the efforts of the Government. Even if we have overdone it with PPE and end up at the end of this pandemic with millions, if not billions, of pounds’ worth of spare excess PPE, that will be a good sign: it will be a sign that we prepared effectively, and it may be of use to other nations in the future.

We also know that modern treatments can halve the death rate. We know that vaccines, particularly the two new ones, can stop the illness by generating antibodies. We know that our NHS, if fully staffed, can treat those affected, provided that the inflow of patients is moderated over time.

We can see from data that the tiered local approach is having an impact. Data that we have seen over the past week or two is to do not with the current lockdown but with the previous regional measures. That is a good thing, because we can see that we can control this virus to some degree.

Of course, there is still much more that we do not know. That is why we will be forced to make a judgment at the end of this month, but that judgment must be an informed judgment. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to giving Parliament a say on future restrictions and regulations. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s desire to try to avoid restrictions in future, if it is considered safe to do so, and I very much welcome the Minister’s comments earlier about the progress we have made in tackling the disease so far and our prospects to do so in the not-too-distant future.

To move forward I believe we need to recognise the costs of the restrictions in addition to the benefits of future restrictions. I urge the Government to do three things. First, I ask them to prepare a clear cost-benefit analysis of any future proposed regulations, in terms of both the health and the economic costs and benefits in the short and the long term. Clearly, the two are intricately connected, but it is very important that MPs in this House—the decision makers—have clear sight of the overall costs and benefits.

Secondly, I ask the Government to ensure that the latest data is available from the NHS on hospitalisations, intensive care unit beds and their occupancy, and death rates from all causes, very carefully categorised, perhaps against a five-year baseline. This summer we have seen that the modelling can, let’s face it, get a bit out of control and, on occasion, be more like conjecture than reality. When we make the decision at the end of this month, it is important that we are in a better position to see the real data and perhaps to reflect on it ourselves.

Thirdly, I urge the Government—