Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. As the final Back-Bench speaker this evening with no votes on a one-line Whip, we could call this the graveyard shift, but I am grateful to be called.
Government policy in 2020 has been to strike a balance between conflicting priorities, and I publicly commend the Government for what they have done. For any journalists who may be watching, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but I recognise resilience, pragmatism and unwavering dedication, having done a few tough jobs myself, so it is a big tick for the Government from me.
The macro imperative this year has been to keep people safe in line with public health advice, and that is entirely right, but I want to sound a few notes of warning. First, the Government’s support during the pandemic, notwithstanding the 3 million excluded—I am still concerned about them—has been excellent, with more than 1.5 million new claims of universal credit, 9.6 million jobs furloughed under the job retention scheme and claims totalling £41.4 billion. The massively generous coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme has provided 78,000 loans worth £18.4 billion, and we have also had £300 billion or thereabouts from the Treasury to support the country at this difficult time. It has got to come back. The important thing is that we as individuals need to learn to live alongside the virus and not hide from it, so we have got work to do to get back to normal, putting the money back into the Treasury and carrying on next year alongside the virus.
Christmas is welcome for all of us, and the Government’s relaxation of rules over the festive period, which I welcome, does show how they understand how important it is to the mental health of the nation and how far we have come in a short period of time. Welcome steps have been taken with the launch of visitor testing, visits regardless of tier and indoor visits to care homes—the list goes on. I am grateful for what has been done, but these enhanced freedoms are effectively a gift; the risk of a third wave or further lockdown in the new year cannot be the price that we pay for losing our resolve and will over Christmas.
This morning I visited the Lexicon shopping centre in Bracknell. It is a fantastic example of what can be achieved—a £240 million regeneration project, supporting the “Christmas Wishes” campaign. The Lexicon is doing everything possible to attract shoppers into its fantastic set-up. I was struck by how vibrant and busy it was today; the car park was full and people were also parked on the high street. The important thing is that it was safe. People were wearing masks. Excellent measures were in place in shops and there was clear distancing down the aisles. I am really grateful to Bracknell Forest Council for everything that it has done to ensure that supporting our high street can be done safely. Given the very low rates in my constituency over the last few months, it would be easy to complain that Bracknell is being put into tier 2 rather than tier 1, but by the same token we have to be pragmatic, because the rate next door in Slough and Reading is much higher. Of course, our own rate in Bracknell is rising too, so there is no time at all for complacency.
I want quickly to plug Brants Bridge, which is a medical facility in my constituency. I really welcome that the Government are setting up a new covid-19 Lighthouse laboratory at the walk-in urgent care centre at Brants Bridge—one of two in the country. It is expected to process 40,000 tests a day at full capacity, from drive-in centres and home tests across the south-east. It is part of Britain’s largest ever network of diagnostic testing facilities, and will create 300 new jobs for local people: 170 in logistics, 100 scientists, and 30 supervisors and managers. It should be open in January, running 24/7 and hoping to reach full capacity by February. It is a result of a collaboration between the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, the Royal Surrey County Hospital, and Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust—a fantastic example of what can be achieved. I also thank the East Berkshire Clinical Commissioning Group.
The vaccine really gives us hope. It is being rolled out in Finchampstead in my constituency from tomorrow, with a capacity of more than 500 per day, and more broadly in Bracknell from next Monday. It is really exciting for the Bracknell constituency and beyond. Bracknell is pretty well served by hospitals. We have three hospitals on our doorstep, Wexham Park, Royal Berkshire and Frimley Park, all of which are serving my constituents brilliantly. I thank everyone working in the NHS and all key workers.
As I wrap up, I want to thank the people of Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and Wokingham Without for their pragmatism, social responsibility, patience and community spirit. We do not say thank you enough in this place. Without being glib, I am proud of what has been achieved locally, and I am grateful; merry Christmas to you all.