Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 3:43 pm, 1st December 2020

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were flying blind. The number of tests we could administer—a few hundred a day out of a country of 60 million—was so inadequate that we were in the chilling position of being able to monitor the speed of the spread of the disease only by counting the sick and the dying in our hospitals. It meant that only the crudest of measures could be taken to control the spread of the virus—a national lockdown. But now it is different. We can test over half a million people every day. We publish the results on a national website—so much so that many of our citizens can tell us exactly the rate of infection in their area day by day. The whole purpose of this eye-wateringly expensive system is to allow local forensically directed action and be free of crude, blind, massive-scale impositions. That is why there is such outrage in Kent. We are the biggest county by population in the country. Everyone in my borough of Tunbridge Wells knows that the level of infection is low—at around 79 per 100,000 per week, it is less than half the national average, and it is falling—yet people in Tunbridge Wells are being ordered to comply with tier 3 restrictions that are known by everyone to be completely inappropriate.

Everyone also knows that the movements in and around my constituency are within the area, across the border into East Sussex and up and down to London, with only a very small proportion going to the areas of Kent that are most affected. That means that pubs, cafés and restaurants risk being boarded up, in effect for the winter, when the level of infection in my constituency is closer to that in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight than it is to that in north Kent. Livelihoods are being damaged unnecessarily.

I call to the House’s attention the letter from the excellent leader of Kent County Council, Roger Gough, who said: “It is hard, if not impossible, to justify why businesses in such areas should be subject to further perhaps irretrievable damage.” He is the leader of the whole county, but he recognises the nature of the differences within the county.

There is a way out, which I put to the Prime Minister earlier. The way to resolve this situation is if the Government will commit to apply, in the review in a fortnight, the tests that they have set—the five different criteria—but apply them borough by borough. If the borough of Tunbridge Wells meets those tests, the Government should allow it to go into Christmas released from the highest tier of restrictions, which bridle so much against the lived experience of people locally. If the Government gave that commitment today, I think my constituents would broadly welcome it.