Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:07 am on 15th December 2021.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 11:07 am, 15th December 2021

My Lords, I will start with a quote:

“It always suits Governments … to scarify the population.”

This was specifically about the ID cards Bill in 2005, when

“only a handful of principled Tories stuck up for liberty, and they were duly overwhelmed by the Government.”

The same person promised to “eat” his ID card if asked to show it to an official—so I expect that noble Lords will recognise the author of the quotes, who was then the Member of Parliament for Henley and editor of the Spectator.

Roosevelt famously said in his 1933 inaugural speech during the Depression—others had said it before—that

“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

So what is going on? Why are the Government scarifying the population and stoking fear?

We know that omicron has caused far fewer deaths in South Africa than delta—in a country with only approximately 29% of its population vaccinated and a much less good health system than ours. On Monday, apparently, there were 11 Covid deaths in South Africa, down from a weekly average of 578 at the height of the delta variant infections.

Dr Coetzee, who identified the variant last month, said in a newspaper article yesterday that she was

“astonished by the extraordinary worldwide reaction in the days that followed, with Britain and some other European nations imposing heavy travel restrictions on flights from across southern Africa, as well as imposing tighter rules at home on mask-wearing, fines and extended quarantines.”

So could my noble friend tell the House, and indeed publish, what evidence the Government have that has led to these restrictions? For instance, how many deaths has omicron caused in this country? Yesterday we were told it was one, so could the Minister also tell us the age of that unfortunate, tragic patient, and whether they had underlying health conditions? Could he tell us how many people have been hospitalised and are in ICUs because of omicron? We were told—yesterday again—that there were 10 extra patients in hospital with the variant.

This appears to be—although God knows, I do not pretend to be an authority—a less dangerous variant: I have been told that viruses will mutate in this manner. So, as omicron replaces delta, surely that is a good thing. So why are we now restricting freedoms in this way?

The impact of these restrictions includes, first, the immense damage to the economy, especially hospitality, the airline and travel industries and retail. The restrictions have led to the imposition of the highest tax burden for 70 years, and a debt burden that our children and grandchildren will spend decades paying off.

The second impact has been on our children’s and grandchildren’s education, from reception, delaying development and social skills, all the way to universities. Schools are already restricting children: I am told they are closing early for the holidays.

The third impact is isolation and loneliness. The latter particularly affects the elderly living alone, but the former is ghastly for children out of school. Yesterday another child murderer was convicted of killing her partner’s two year-old daughter. As in the case of that poor child, six year-old Arthur, it happened because of evil people—but social services have not been able to do their job properly because of lockdowns. Isolating children is madness.

The fourth impact is the consequences for mental health and the fifth is the impact on normal NHS work, with rocketing waiting lists and thousands of cancer referrals being delayed or missed. Some 5.8 million people were waiting for hospital care in September, which is the last month for which figures are available. The number of those waiting over a year for treatment has increased 237-fold in the last two years. Since April last year there have been more than 4 million fewer elective procedures. That sounds rather bland, but anyone who has been in agony waiting for a new hip will understand that it is not bland at all.

So could my noble friend tell the House what estimate the Government have made of the damage to the economy? Some reports suggest it may be between £2 billion and £4 billion per day. Is that true? How many schools have closed because of this new variant? How many children are now out of education? What estimate has Her Majesty’s Government made of the number of excess deaths because of untreated conditions since March last year?

The Prime Minister is apparently talking about another mandatory lockdown, yet we were repeatedly told that the excellent vaccine programme—for which I pay tribute to Kate Bingham and Nadhim Zahawi—would protect the nation and take us out of this nightmare. Of the two SIs against which I have put down amendments, one is about mandatory face masks and the other about Covid passports. I have asked before for a peer-reviewed, conclusive study or evidence that these flimsy face masks limit infection. Last year we were told by government advisers that they were pointless—by Patrick Vallance, Jenny Harris and Professor Van-Tam. The last said that there was

“no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well, affects the spread of the disease in our society.”

We were even warned that masks might “trap the virus” and cause people to breathe it in, so were not a good idea. Views have changed since then, but I would like to see the evidence that changed them. I say to my noble friend that, if shown reasonable proof, I will not press my amendment.

Many Ministers have spoken against Covid passports in the past. For instance, Nadhim Zahawi, when he was Vaccine Minister in September, said that they go

“against everything I believe in”.

That is a different matter. I ask, “Why?” To the lawyers I say, “Cui bono?” Yesterday, Chris Whitty said that vaccination does not prevent infection, so those with this passport can still spread the virus. What does it achieve, except to create a sense of crisis?

I can see from the SI that

Plan B includes measures aimed at helping control transmission”,

but, according to the Chief Medical Officer, this will not, so will the Prime Minister eat his Covid passport, as he promised to eat his ID card? What exactly is the point of them, apart from further scaring people?

I suspect that isolating people through lockdown did slow down the spread of the virus, but it certainly has not contained it. According to official statistics, there have been some 10 million cases in the UK. My view is that there have probably been two or three times more, but we can certainly conclude that the virus has defeated the restrictions. Overseas, it is the same story. So, I ask my noble friend: do lockdowns work? The idea, of course, was borrowed from China. Has hand-sanitising worked? It has now largely been discredited. Has social distancing helped? The Government are being entirely illogical in their advice and policy. For instance, could my noble friend explain the logic of encouraging people to work from home, but saying that Christmas parties are fine?

The Opposition, from whom we will hear shortly, will say that we must go further. I am afraid that it is a trait of authoritarian parties and regimes, from both the left and the right, to want to cow and scare their populations and make them more compliant and manageable. I fear the Labour Party always wants more laws to tell people what to do, although some of us believe we should be free to make our own decisions. One might have thought that the Liberal Democrats would be more freedom-loving and liberal, but they disappoint, showing that the name really is an oxymoron. The Conservative Government should be worried when their opponents support them but their own parliamentarians do not. I fear that my long-standing scepticism has now been replaced by cynicism.

I started with the Prime Minister. Let me close with the Health Secretary, who said, not six months ago on his appointment in June, that we must

“restore our freedoms—freedoms that … no Government should ever wish to curtail”,

and that

“restrictions on our freedoms must come to an end.”—[Official Report, Commons, 28/6/21; cols. 45-46.]

On 3 July, he spoke of two challenges:

“The first is how we restore our freedoms and learn to live with coronavirus… The second is to tackle the NHS backlog—something that we know is going to get far worse before it gets better…

The economic arguments for opening up are well known, but for me, the health arguments are equally compelling. The pandemic has hit some groups disproportionately hard. Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people’s mental health.”

I agree.