Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 7:55 pm, 14th December 2020

Point taken, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much for calling me.

This has been the most peculiar of years. When we look at the media coverage of where we are with the virus, the vaccine, all the political issues that go alongside that, and the challenges over how the Government are handling things—well, badly or indifferently—many of us overlook what an appalling tragedy this has been and continues to be. Sixty-four thousand people in this country have lost their lives. Around 600 people or more in my county have lost their lives, and I knew dozens of them. One thinks about those people for whom Christmas will be not just lonely, difficult and challenging because of the restrictions we are all under, but a time of deep distress because they have lost someone close to them in the last nine months. When we see debates about the necessity of lockdown or restrictions of one kind or another, we need to remember what it is we are seeking to do: it is to save lives, and it will continue to be to save lives.

The tragedy that has hit my community, as it has every other community, feels almost too much to bear. We are a community where the average age is 10 years above the national average age in the United Kingdom. We are an area that, after London, is the next most visited place in the United Kingdom—the Lake district. Arguments are made about whether that meant that we had a higher than average incidence of the virus early on. We do not know that; what we do know is the way in which communities have responded to the virus.

In community after community, whether in our large town of Kendal, in Windermere, Grasmere, Ambleside and Sedbergh or in smaller places like Dent, Coniston, my own village of Milnthorpe, Arnside and Grange—everywhere I could mention in my patch, which is bigger than Greater London, and by the way I could mention another hundred—people have stepped up to take responsibility and have been desperate to meet the needs of their neighbours, though their own needs may be very significant. I pay tribute to every single one of them. I am proud to represent the south lakes and to represent those communities. Diverse though they are, they are also utterly determined to support one another.

There are so many within those communities who deserve our thanks and support, such as those working in care homes. I talked to one lady who worked in a care home, and not even a particularly large one, in my community. Back in April, on one night she saw nine residents lose their lives—in a single night. That was a tragedy for every single one of those people and every single one of those families. What does that mean? What does it feel like to be somebody who works in a place like that, administering love, care and concern for people as they go through their last moments? What is the cumulative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people working in those communities?

We say thank you very often, and it is right that we do so in this place, but I want people who work in care homes, personal carers and those who work in the health service to know that we are not saying it glibly—we really, really mean it. We are utterly in their debt for the way they have cared for people at their moment of greatest need.

I think also of another group of people in a community like mine, where unemployment has gone up nearly sevenfold over the period of the pandemic: people who work for the Department for Work and Pensions in the jobcentre. They are people who serve people—people who perhaps were living in a state of relative comfort back in February or March, and then discovered that everything had collapsed around them. They are there for people at a moment of desperate need. They are not the only people, but I just want to draw them to the front of our attention. I thank those people on the frontline who have been supporting others who found themselves in need of benefits when they never thought in advance that they would.

I could say so many things about those who have stepped up to the mark at this time, but I also wish to pay tribute to those who have ensured that we have got to a stage where a vaccine is imminent—it turns out that we do need experts, after all. I am utterly indebted to those people, be they in this country or elsewhere, who have used their expertise and brilliance to do in 10 months what we would normally expect to take 10 years. Here is the thing that concerns me: we are close, potentially, to seeing light at the end of the tunnel and we can almost sense people beginning not to dip for the tape but to just let their guard drop. On behalf of everyone in this Chamber and beyond, I just want to say that this is the moment for utmost vigilance.

My dad was sharing that very thought with me the other day and he made the analogy with those tragic people who fell in the hours before the guns stopped on 11 November 1918. What a particular tragedy it was to be those who died at the end when the end was in sight. That is what we have ahead of us now, which is why if we need to tighten up restrictions over Christmas, miserable though that may be, we must think, “For pity’s sake, don’t we want our loved ones to see summer? Aren’t we prepared to make some restrictions now?” We know we are not going to have to live with this for years and years. We know that the light at the end of the tunnel is now visible. That is a glorious thing we can cling on to, but it is not an excuse to let our guard down—in fact, it is the opposite of that.

I want to encourage Ministers to think carefully about how the vaccine is administered. Of course, it should go first to those who are the most vulnerable, and those working in care homes and in the national health service. I have talked about the scale of my constituency, so it is great that we are likely to have a centre in Kendal and in Windermere, and we are looking at centres being rolled out through the primary care network, through GP surgeries and the like. I encourage the NHS within Lancashire and south Cumbria to ensure that there are centres in places such as Grange-over-Sands and Sedbergh, and other more rural, remote parts of Cumbria, so that this is not hard to access, particularly for people who are older and more vulnerable.

A community such as mine, which relies so heavily on tourism, with half the workforce working in tourism, has been deeply hit by the coronavirus. We operate on a feast and famine basis in hospitality and tourism, with the winter famine and the summer feast, and then back to the winter famine. The problem for us is that we have had three winters in a row. The Government’s investment in hospitality and tourism early on was of real benefit. Those £10,000 grants ensured that many businesses that would have failed were able to take advantage of the unlocking through the summer, so July and August were not a bad couple of months for hospitality and tourism in the lakes and the dales. I suggest to the Government that their failure at this point to repeat that grant support on that scale risks throwing away all the advantages they got from supporting hospitality and tourism in the early part of the year. What is the point of investing billions into it only to let those companies die in the next couple of months, so that when we are able to get back to some kind of normality, rather than having a hospitality and tourism industry ready to fight back and bounce back, we may have a bunch of dead businesses? So I encourage the Government now to repeat those £10,000 loans, to support hospitality and tourism.

I also encourage the Government to recognise the challenges faced in areas such as mine, which have been in tier 1 and are now tier 2, and are adjacent to tier 3 areas. The Lake District and Yorkshire Dales are in tier 2, but our neighbouring huge communities, the big population centres, are tier 3 So we are not compensated in the same way as businesses in tier 3 are, but we are massively affected by the fact that people in tier 3 cannot travel to take advantage of the wonderful facilities available in south Cumbria. I encourage the Government to consider making sure that support is provided.