Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:53 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 3:53 pm, 1st December 2020

The people of Sedgefield respect the difficulties and challenges involved in how best to control the virus. We understand that we must look after our vulnerable, and we understand that the picture is complex. As hon. Members would anticipate, I have had representations ranging from, “We shouldn’t be allowing anyone to do anything until we have a vaccine” through to “We’re infringing human rights by impinging on civil liberties.” We understand that this is complex. We also understand that the simpler the message, the more clarity can be delivered and therefore the more likely it is to be acted on.

Unfortunately, there are also things that we do not understand. The north-east has been grouped as a region with an edge running through the south of my constituency and all the way up to the Scottish border—a distance of 136 miles and a geographic area of 3,344 square miles. Sedgefield as a constituency has only 140 of those square miles and a population of 85,000. Its population density of 600 per square mile reflects the County Durham figures. However, we are also linked to towns such as Newcastle, which has a density of 6,100 per square mile. That is 10 times as much, and poses a very different risk. Our concern is the agglomeration of this mass. Sedgefield sits in the middle of this. It does not have a city centre. It has many rural villages and a small town. The only reasons people are leaving their communities and travelling are for work and retail, and that is the same across all tiers.

Our hospitality is primarily village pubs and a few hotels. A number of those, such as Walworth Castle, Redworth Hall, and The County in Aycliffe Village, are among those that have made representations to me. They deal almost exclusively with food and meals, with limited accommodation demand other than from workers, and need whatever opportunity Christmas spend would bring. The risk of inter-community transmission from tier 2 restrictions here would be extremely low, but we are tier 3.

I welcome the extra support for hospitality, but we should recognise that these businesses are the lifeblood of these communities and desperately need help and to be allowed to open economically—and not just them, but their extended supply chains. I would like to see rural areas considered differently from cities when it comes to hospitality rules. I would like to see non-food venues evaluated by their risk profile, perhaps by local councils, so a wet pub or private club—be that a golf club or what was previously known as a working men’s club, such as the Big Club in Newton Aycliffe—that has been able to introduce covid compliance could open. Instead, we are grouped into a mass that includes city centres with significantly higher risk profiles, and an exit is difficult to see.

Hope and optimism are the key to getting us through these winter months. The Government should enable those that can provide controlled environments to do so. We need to communicate personal responsibility, in that the rules cover a broad church and we all have to look after our friends and relatives, particularly those that are vulnerable, and we should not max out on our options.

Regionally, numbers are trending well. I support the concept of tiers, but I find it very difficult to accept the size of the regions and the current application across diverse and separate geographies. Please can we see some light on our journey? Can we have some hope for our collapsing hospitality trade? Please reconsider the gravity and pressure of tier 3 on these low-risk enterprises and provide signals as early as possible of any opportunity to trade. It is no good telling them on 16 December, “You can open for Christmas.” No stock, no staff, no bookings—