Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:38 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet 7:38 pm, 14th December 2020

It is good to have the floor for more than the 180 seconds that was allowed in the debate before the last lockdown, which only gave us time to say our name and serial number.

I pay a very great tribute to the Government for what they have achieved. I think one of the crowning glories of what has been achieved in some of the testing data is the granularity of borough-by-borough data, which I will refer to that a little later. We have rolled out polymerase chain reaction—PCR—testing to a higher percentage of our population than anywhere else in the world. I had some doubt that we would ever reach 100,000 a day, let alone half a million, so this has been a real triumph in flexibility that our country has been able to achieve. We are now seeing the roll-out of lateral flow testing. Thanet schools will have the mobile testing units landing very shortly, as will other parts of Kent.

We have had a level of financial support that is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world. Of course, some businesses have not got what they thought they deserved, but we have to accept that this was new ground; we did not know what was around the corner and different support schemes had to be rolled out very quickly.

Then, of course, our own MRHA, the council that approves medicines, has rolled out at high speed but with absolute safety the first of the vaccines for licence around the world—the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine—and there are others coming round the corner. The one that we all hope for is the home-grown Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine—a rather more traditional vaccine, which is easier to store and administer. What is coming out of the billions that have been spent around the world in a very short time is this new messenger RNA-style of vaccine. Once we are out of covid, there could be—maybe, doubtless, possibly—a similar type of pandemic in years to come, and we will be better armed to respond rapidly to it, so hopefully our planet will not be in this situation once more.

We look at the vaccines as the way out of this, but we have to tell some truths. Some are being rolled out as we speak: my father of 86 is getting his vaccine No. 1 this Friday, and tomorrow vaccinations are being rolled out locally from GP surgeries in my Thanet constituency. That is all great news, but there are 66 million people in this country, and we need two vaccinations. We have limitations on the delivery of the vaccines and there is global demand for exactly the same product, so we need honesty about how we will scale it up and deliver it. It is not just about the numbers; it is also about the availability of staff and those who are able to vaccinate. It is a major undertaking.

We must pay real tribute to the NHS staff who have stepped up to the plate, shown massive flexibility and kept the show on the road. We all have fantastic communities that have been looking after the old people in their streets, church groups that have done their bit, and food banks and similar organisations that have risen to the challenge. The Minister, who is looking at me intently, can be quite sure that that is the end of my unalloyed congratulations for where we have got to thus far. I still have a number of fundamental concerns about the moving science that we are living under, and I aired some of them in the previous debate.

We had the ridiculous situation that, as we approached lockdown version 2, we pretty much banned everything. We banned swimming, gyms, golf courses and non-essential shops. We had what I then called the Wilkinson conundrum: the big shops could open, but the small shops selling some of what the big shops were selling were not allowed to open at all. We could not have group worship. Thankfully, under tier 3 and tier 2—obviously, 99% of the country is now under tiers 2 and 3, and the whole of Kent is under tier 3—some common sense has prevailed. All those shops can open, and we can indulge in group worship and do quite a number of the things that we could not before. That indicates that there has been some granularity of thought about these things—funnily enough, exactly what I was saying some months earlier—and it determined that those things were not so dangerous after all.

I am not here to be part of the difficult squad. I know I am in the Covid Recovery Group. I am attempting to be a serious critical friend of the Government, but we still have our hospitality industry, which many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned this evening, and I suspect that more following me will do so. I feel that, because we are getting somewhat desperate to get out of this mess, we are losing sight of what works and what does not work. I find it hard to believe that we will all be going Christmas shopping. I am sure the density in our supermarkets will be that much higher over the next 10 to 12 days, as we scramble around for the cranberry sauce and the turkey. That is allowed. The nail bars and the hairdressers, thankfully, are allowed. [Laughter.] Well, my nails are not looking too bad. But we are not allowed to go to a well-managed location of hospitality, and I just cannot see the sense of that.

I still have my concerns about the economics of tier 3 and lockdowns. I think London will suffer greatly over the next couple of weeks. We still have not really seen the analysis of what other deaths may be caused because people are too fearful of going to health locations. Macmillan Cancer Support said just this morning that lockdown version one is likely to have led to 50,000 people not seeking the help for an early diagnosis that they might have sought. That means that once they are diagnosed, their cancer may have advanced to a higher level and treatment will be more invasive, more expensive and more unpleasant—and there will be deaths.

I am not sure we are considering the effect on mental health sufficiently. I know that has been mentioned on the Floor of the House many times. There is not just one example, but I think very much of the multi-generational family business of some standing, with a bit of a status in the community, that goes bankrupt through no fault of its own. I worry about the likelihood of suicide in such instances.

Her Majesty’s Treasury is very capable of modelling almost anything—it certainly tried to model Brexit over many years—yet it seems incapable of properly modelling the economic impact of these ongoing lockdowns. We had the spending review and the Office for Budget Responsibility report just a couple of weeks ago, which suggested that, at the mid-way point—a sort of tier 2 point—there is a permanent 3% scarring of our economy. Obviously, tier 3 has to be a little worse, if not a lot worse. As we have discussed on the Floor of the House over many years, there are reports from diverse organisations that say that long-term poverty, and the scarring of our economy that this will cause, will lead to worse life opportunities, fewer life chances and shorter lives. None of that has been factored in at all.

Let me turn to a couple of points that I hope the Minister will take away. I mentioned how useful the granularity of borough data has been. I think we all watch that avidly. Strangely, Thanet, part of which is in my South Thanet constituency, was at the very highest level of infection rates per 100,000 a few weeks ago, despite having been in the very lowest league at the end of the summer. I cannot explain that; I do not know why. We have our backs to the sea, and we do not have a community that mixes like a big city may. Thankfully, though, it is the only borough in the whole of Kent where the figures are now just on the way down. We are at 425 per 100,000 today, whereas we were at over 500 just a couple of weeks ago. That compares with a national average of 181.

My concern as we go forward is that we have seen that the tiers only get stricter. We have these five bases on which we are trying to interpret whether an area should go up or down. We have the pure numbers—that rate per 100,000, which we have all become very familiar with. I do not know what the threshold is between tier 1 and tier 2; it seems to be around 200, but I am really not sure. The shape of the graph is important: is it going up exponentially, or is it plateauing and going down? There are also the bases of the rate of infection among the over-60s, the most at-risk group for obvious reasons, and the positivity rate and whether that is going up or down. I have no idea about positivity rates—whether a rate of 2% is good or 10% is bad. Then, of course, there is the pressure on the NHS.

Concentrating on the pure numbers, however, I think that could be one of the tools by which we keep a lid on this—squash the sombrero and bide our time until we get to the vaccine. I do not know about any other Members in this House, but those numbers have really worked on me. At the end of the summer, when Thanet numbers were low, we had a spring in our step; we were not quite so worried—we were quite happy to walk down the high street to go shopping, and if we saw somebody without a mask on it did not really worry us too much. However, as those numbers have got to very high levels, I know that my behaviour has changed. If I see someone in the supermarket without a mask on —thankfully, it is a pretty rare event these days—I give them a very wide berth, of not just 2 metres but perhaps 3. I think we just do more careful things, too: we carry our hand sanitisers with us on a daily basis when our local numbers are high. I have the feeling that those numbers could be the most powerful tool in affecting behaviour.

Of course, the last of the five bases that we have to consider is pressure on the NHS, and I have a number of concerns about that. The community can affect the other bases—people can do something for themselves—but they can do very little, I am afraid, about what is happening in our hospitals.

I am very concerned. Last week a number of hospitals were reporting the percentage of their in-patients who had acquired covid within the hospital location. If our hospitals are under pressure, that creates more pressure for them. I find it hard to believe that this—the so-called nosocomial infection rate—cannot be solved. It was reported last week in The Daily Telegraph that 10,000 patients could have been affected, and we are all hearing about this. I am afraid I am hearing about it far too often; I hear about when patients go in for a routine treatment and are placed in a hot ward—in a mixed ward with others who are covid-positive. Last week, I watched ITV—national ITV—report on a situation at Medway Maritime Hospital. Few things really shock me these days, but this really did. A chap called Paul Tucker, aged 57, went into hospital with a serious condition that was nothing to do with covid and he died because he was in a mixed ward with covid-positive patients.

I can give another example, about someone I know: an old gentleman who broke his leg and went in for treatment. He came out solved, but he had had a covid test the day before discharge and no test result came forward. He went home for five days, and in those five days he had up to five carers attending to him every day—he is a gentleman on his own with no family living nearby—and on day five the hospital rang and said, “Ah, really sorry, but the test was a bit late: you’re positive.” Five carers every day had been attending a man they thought was covid-negative, and those same carers would be going out to possibly 10 different clients on a daily basis. The declared hospital-acquired infection figures that we are hearing do not count infections that have been created by such new spider’s webs because of a failure in a hospital. If there is a takeaway from tonight, Minister, it is that I beg you to get infection control under control in our hospitals.

I think I will leave it there, Madam Deputy Speaker, but these are serious times. We are not going to be out of this immediately or any time soon. Rolling out 66 million vaccines, times two, will take time. We need to live with the virus in a sensible way, and going in and out of lockdown, with the damage to health, the economy and mental health, must form part of the balance sheet of how a nation deals with this infection.

I give the Government great credit for their achievements. They are world class. Very few nations in the world can say that they did it as well and as rapidly as we have tried to do it. It is all very well being the specialist after the event, saying what might have been or what we could have done that might have been better, but the world is not like that. I give top marks to the Government, but there are some takeaways that could make it even better before we are fully out of the woods.