Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:09 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 5:09 pm, 12th January 2021

As I was waiting in the Library for this debate to start, I happened to notice on the shelves a book about Edmund Burke, and as this debate is about the balance between the freedom of the individual and the authority of the Government, I opened it at random and I found this quote:

The Mass of Mankind are made to be led by others. Habits &
Customs are their support, because it would be impossible that civil Society could subsist long if we were all Philosophers. Subordination, therefore, is necessary for the human mind.”

My question is whether that is actually correct. I believe that conservatism—and I put the emphasis on conservatism as a philosophy; I am not just talking about the Conservative Government—is about freedom and trusting the individual and individual authority.

People ask me why I have gone along with this so far, and it is for one reason only: we are told that the NHS—because so many beds, wrongly, have been stripped from the NHS over the last 10 years—was in danger of falling down, so that should be the approach of the Government. If we are to restrict people’s freedom, we should only do it because we are worried that the NHS may lose capacity, and people may be arriving in hospital and there is not the capacity to treat them. We should learn the lessons from this pandemic. We should restrict civil liberties for as a short a time as possible and as little as possible, because that is fundamentally what we believe in, although it may be necessary for a short time.

What should be the approach now? It should be a tiered approach. It should always have been a tiered approach. Looking at every region and every hospital, we should ask ourselves whether the NHS was in danger of not having capacity in that local area, and then we should have brought in local lockdowns for that area. As soon as a vaccination programme rolls out, we must move to a tiered approach.

When next winter comes, we have to accept that there is a difference between morbidity and mortality. People do die: 20,000 or 30,000 people a year die, very sadly, from flu. Next winter we cannot close down the entire country. We have to have some regard for freedom and the ability of people to make informed decisions about their own lives.

The real risk of this pandemic is overwhelmingly to people who are over 80. They are the people whom we should be protecting and they are the people whom we should be vaccinating, and we have to allow the rest of society to get on with their own business and to preserve their freedoms.