I greatly appreciate the chance to contribute my local experience, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In my constituency, two more people died yesterday, thousands have caught the disease and it is getting worse, even in the remotest depths of rural Somerset. We face a vicious enemy that attacks without warning and has the power to exploit even the smallest human error. Let down our mask or hug the grandchildren, and we could—I am sorry to say it—die. No one likes lockdown, but obeying the rules is vital, and so is setting a positive public image.
It is a great pity that Somerset County Council is still planning to run public surveys about local government reform, while the daily death toll across the county continues to rise. The Government gave Somerset an extra £32 million to tackle covid; £10 million—I repeat, £10 million—went straight into the council’s reserves. It even had the barefaced cheek to shift almost £0.5 million into a savings fund for its own carparks. What a cheap trick! Words fail me at the lack of decency and care for people’s real interests and needs.
We all know that Ministers have long-term plans to reform local government, but it is no time for the county council in Somerset to be cooking the books to make themselves look like financial wizards. As for the county council wasting time on surveys, which it is now planning to do right through January and February, how dare it treat us with contempt? It will be pestering people who are frightened by a disease that is still spreading fast.
The county has put the districts in an impossible position. They would much prefer to leave this alone until such time as the pandemic is over, but the county council insists on wasting public money and running consultations, and the districts are seriously expected to carry on as though nothing has happened. The Government need to take the lead to completely freeze this whole local government reform programme.
So far, worldwide, almost 2 million human beings have been killed by covid. In this country, the death toll tonight is more than 82,000—the population of my constituency. One day, our descendants may ask, “What did you do in the pandemic?” I really do not believe that any self-respecting Minister will want to admit responsibility by saying, “I pushed ahead with local government reform.” It is irrelevant. It is an unnecessary sideshow while so many of our residents are desperately trying to protect their own lives and those of their loved ones.
We hope and pray for a swift roll-out of the new vaccines. Some teething problems are inevitable, and in Somerset there are elements that have been delayed, so I have a positive and constructive suggestion for the Minister. Why not report vaccines in the same way as infections: area by area, week by week, day by day? We would like to know exactly how many jabs have been given across our county and who is getting them. If the Minister could do that, it would make all our lives easier.