Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover 7:03 pm, 14th December 2020

I am one of a number of colleagues speaking from the Government Benches this evening who was elected for the first time a year ago. On that joyous night, I do not think any of us foresaw quite what we were about to face over the past year. I hope that we have done our best and served our constituencies to the best of our abilities, but it has been a sharp learning curve, and I certainly did not expect to have to start a speech a year on saying that I send my sincerest condolences to those who have lost their lives in my constituency and elsewhere over the past year. It has been a time of tremendous challenge and one that I hope I never have to live through again.

There have been a number of covid debates over the past few months and I have not always been able to get on to the call list, so Members should forgive me as I add my general thank yous to so many people who have stepped up and done amazing things over the past few months. I include, of course, our NHS workers. My constituency is blessed to be served by three fantastic hospitals: Chesterfield Royal Hospital; King’s Mill Hospital; and Bassetlaw Hospital. The overwhelming consensus is that those three hospitals have been absolutely superb and have served my constituents and others with tremendous distinction. The care home staff, many of whom I have spoken to, have done such wonderful things. Let me mention in particular the care home managers who were so forthright and so determined to keep their homes safe. Some of the most emotional phone calls that I have had over the past few months have been with those care home managers who have taken on this project so passionately and so personally.

I pay tribute to the community groups and volunteers who have stepped up and served so selflessly. They have made sure that people have had food to eat and people to talk to and have done such amazing work. I also pay tribute to all those who have shielded and who have sacrificed themselves to keep safe. Then, of course, there are all those who have kept working as well. We so often forget those who have kept going, so I pay tribute to those in manufacturing jobs; to the shopkeepers who have served their communities; to the supermarket staff; to our rubbish collectors; to our council staff; to our postal workers; and to so many others. There are too many to mention and to list, but it has been a profoundly moving experience to hear so many wonderful stories.

This has been a challenge for our nation, the like of which I have not known in my lifetime. It was back in February and March when what was happening with this virus really dawned on us. The news was filled with so many stories about having to start testing, and then having to secure PPE. It is quite amazing how far we have come in that time. The fact is that we now have national producers and manufacturers of PPE, which effectively means that we can be self-sufficient. We have warehouses full of the stuff to protect our NHS workers and it all happened in such a short space of time. Then there is the fact that we can now carry out more than 500,000 tests every single day. I remember when we were carrying out about 1,000 tests and when 100,000 tests seemed a mile away. There are so many people who have been involved in making that happen. Again, the list is too long to mention, but we must not lose sight of how far we have come.

Then, of course, we have the vaccine: to think that we have so many vaccines ready to come down the track, as long as we get the approval; to think that we were the first country in the world to approve a vaccine; and to think that, last week, we started getting that vaccine out to people across this country. What a moment of hope and pride that was for this country.

So much nonsense has been written on social media and allowed to circulate about this vaccine and about its so-called evil effects. I am sure that Bill Gates is over the moon that he controls us all, day in, day out, but we must not let that nonsense put people off from having this vaccine, because it will save lives. Everybody who can have it, should have it. It is incumbent on every Member of this House and every right-minded person to say, “That is absolute nonsense. This vaccine is safe.” It has been tested to the highest possible standards, and we should not circulate anything other than that—sorry, Mr Gates.

We should also remember our economic support and quite how much has been pumped into our economy. The level of Government action and support that we have seen over the past few months is unprecedented. I appreciate that there are Members in every part of this House who will say, “What about x sector, what about y sector?” I have tremendous sympathy with some of those arguments, but we must not lose sight of that bigger picture.

I share many of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend Adam Holloway, because there are two particular sectors that need highlighting. One is the events industry and the other is pubs and hospitality. I agreed with Emma Hardy when she said that pubs are at the heart of northern and midlands communities, and that they play a special role. We are asking certain industries that are reliant on people coming together to suspend that for the moment, which is a tremendous challenge. We need to look at those particular industries again and question whether we are doing all that we can for them.

We had a wonderful moment in Derbyshire on Saturday, when the Government announced the local authorities that will begin community testing. I am incredibly grateful to the Minister. I have spoken to her and several of her colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we get community testing in Derbyshire. The plan at the moment is that Derbyshire County Council will roll out five testing sites across Bolsover. This is a vital step in making sure that we eradicate the virus locally. Lateral flow tests have an important role in that.

I cannot thank the Department enough for its proactive engagement. I place on the record my thanks to Derbyshire County Council and my fellow Conservative Derbyshire MPs, who worked together consistently and for very many hours over the past few weeks to ensure that our bid was as tight as it could be. The fact that testing is being rolled out in the next couple of weeks says an awful lot about the quality of the bid that was put together. It is a hugely important step for my constituency.

It is hard to overstate how difficult this period has been or the sacrifices my constituents have made to help us get the numbers back down and to help us in our bid to get into tier 2. I doubt there is an MP in the House who does not want to get out of tier 3 if they are in it. I understand that the Government will look at a wide range of data. I spoke to the Minister last week about my hope that the data will be made publicly available and that the decision will be made as transparently as possible. I also understand that the Department is rightly filled with a cautious bias: it understands that Christmas is coming and that that might have a certain impact, so it wants to take the safest possible course of action. However, I am sure I speak for all Derbyshire MPs when I say that we are desperate to get out of tier 3. I imagine that will be heard from other Members.

Finally, I want to touch on the impact this period has had on people’s mental health. It is hard to overstate the impact that taking away people’s daily routine and normal social contact has had. Those intimate moments that people have with their friends and family have been replaced with a climate of fear and uncertainty—fear of catching the disease and becoming ill; fear of what might happen if one of their relatives or friends catches the disease.

It is striking to find how many people I have talked to seem to have been impacted by this period. We are very lucky in that we get to come to this place of work. Many people have not had that and have spent many months being incredibly scared. I spoke to one young lady in my surgery on Friday called Cara, who spoke passionately about her love of ice skating. Not having ice skating in her life had taken away her entire routine, her social group and the structure that she is used to and loves. That is just one example of many conversations of that nature.

Yes, the Government have done remarkably well given all the circumstances; yes, I would like pubs to get more support; yes, the vaccine offers a source of hope that we all need, but I think we will be living with the mental after-effects of this disease for some time to come.