Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 1st December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons) 1:38 pm, 1st December 2020

I did not hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister make the promise that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he made. I think my right hon. Friend is being perfectly honest with the House on this. I think it is very difficult, and I will come to that point, but I want to concentrate on what we agree about.

We all agree that we want to keep the R rate below 1, while minimising the restrictions on people’s lives and limiting the economic damage. If the R rate rises above 1, it becomes much too difficult to predict or control. It has a multiplier effect, even if the R rate remains constant. It is perfectly legitimate for colleagues on the Conservative Benches to press the Government for more clarity about why the Government believe the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed. Data for much of the country does not suggest that at the moment, but it is not uncommon for hospitals to become overrun during the winter months, even without the addition of covid. It is also reasonable for Government to anticipate that the rising rate of covid infections would lead to exactly that in some areas, or much worse, unless we can keep R around or below 1; and that is all that these measures can be expected to achieve.

It is right to press the Government for more analysis of the economic impact of these measures, but maybe the Government were wrong to raise the expectation that they could provide that degree of certainty where so much uncertainty exists. Equally, it must be agreed that it is impossible to predict the economic consequences of a rapid spread of the virus. I understand the frustration of representing a low-virus constituency included in a tier 2 area, and the need to provide the right support to business that is being badly hit, but such frustrations are not about alternatives to the fundamentals of this policy, which I believe the Opposition are trying to avoid.

The real question—it is also a legitimate question—is will the tiers be enough. I hope that tier 2 will keep Essex below the R of 1, but there is doubt: tier 2 did not work before. We must look upon this period as a further period of transition to when vaccines begin to become available. We should look ahead at the challenges that the vaccine programmes will present, and give thought to how reassurance is provided that the vaccine that each person is invited to accept is right for that person. In the meantime, the challenge is to ensure that we can move down the tiers, and not just into tier 1, but to remain in tier 1, even if it takes time for the vaccines to become effective and to be rolled out at scale. That will depend on how we all behave, the example that we set, and what we do to encourage confidence and co-operation with test and trace operations.

There is much to ask the Government that time does not allow today—about how to improve trace and isolate operations, particularly at local level, and about how the community volunteer hubs could help support people who should isolate. That is vital work now.

The last thing I want is to vote for these restrictions today, but until there are better alternatives we have no alternative, and should support them. I am sorry that Her Majesty’s Opposition are trying to avoid that truth. The Government have also the opportunity to learn by continuing to listen, and to gain public confidence from that.