Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:22 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Conservative, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland 3:22 pm, 1st December 2020

When I last spoke in one of these debates in September, I urged real caution about the imposition of tighter restrictions in the Tees Valley. We are all conscious of the costs of lockdown to the economy, to our public finances and, of course, to the wider physical and mental health of our constituents.

Two things, above all, concerned me. First, there was no clear route out of lockdown—that is to say, no consistent criteria against which areas such as mine could assess their progress. Secondly, it was a situation of potentially indefinite duration. I am glad to say that, in both regards, the situation has fundamentally changed. The Government are right to end the national lockdown tomorrow. It is a crucial feature of the system that will replace it that it is clear which metrics need to be going down for an area to move from tier 3 to tier 2, or from tier 2 to tier 1.

I will turn to the situation in the Tees Valley in a moment, but the other thing that has changed affects us all. In the last fortnight, we have received the wonderful news that we have not just one, but a range of vaccines that we know to be highly effective at stopping the spread of covid-19. We know today, in a way that we did not in September, that the long national nightmare will draw to a close in the early months of next year. We know today that we are buying time against a definite target, as opposed to simply the hope of national deliverance.

To my mind, that makes a crucial difference to the logic of a tiered set of restrictions and the balance of risk that applies to our actions over the next three to four months. I can look my constituents in the eye in a way that I struggled to do earlier in the autumn and say that this is a terrible time—my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker put it well—with terrible sacrifices inherent in it in terms of what we are asking of our constituents, but we are now entering the final phase of the battle.

The Government will have my support today. My focus is not so much on whether tiered restrictions are the right thing, but on how we ensure that we move the Tees Valley from tier 3 to tier 2 as rapidly as possible, potentially as soon as the review date in the middle of the month. I am glad to say that the figures from the Tees Valley are now showing sustained improvement. In Middlesbrough, the number of positive cases fell by 40% in the week to last Friday, including a 25% fall among the over-60s. Pressure on South Tees NHS is easing, both in terms of covid occupancy and staff absence. The proportion of people testing positive has fallen from 13% to 8%, and, having stood at around 500 cases per 100,000, the headline rate in Middlesbrough is now 169.5 per 100,000. In Redcar and Cleveland, it is down to 140 per 100,000, so having not been a realistic candidate for tier 2 as the system was being established, I believe that there is a very important conversation for us to be having with Ministers over the course of next week, and I will argue strongly for this if the data continues to support it.

I want to make an additional point about the merits of mass testing. I was delighted that my right hon Friend the Health Secretary referred to Redcar and Cleveland specifically in his press conference yesterday as being one of the authorities that is actively seeking a roll-out of mass testing. I believe that this is important. Alongside the emergence of a vaccine, it will go to the heart of making sure that we can get our community out of these restrictions, which are causing so much harm and suffering, as rapidly as we possibly can. My hon. Friend Jacob Young and I are as one in saying that we want to see this happen in our area.

I also pay tribute to the fact that a new support package has been rolled out for the pub sector. There is more to be done in the forthcoming Budget, because wet-led pubs, in particular, have suffered. I will close on that note by simply saying that I think that this is an ongoing conversation, reflecting the fact that, as we know, there is going to be a large piece of reconstruction on the other side of this national effort.