My Lords, I saw a notice recently outside a restaurant. It read: “If you’d like to know how it feels to be in the hospitality sector during this Covid pandemic, just remember the ‘Titanic’ when it was sinking and the band played on.” Well, we are the band. Here we are, 21 months on, and it feels like we are going backwards.
Let us take a short trip down memory lane. Covid arrives, and it is March 2020. The Chinese authorities already knew that there was a problem several months before but did not decide to tell the WHO until the December—but there we are. So we go into lockdown. There are daily press conferences. There is new language: “Protect the NHS”, “Hands, face, space”, “Stay at home”, “We need to flatten the curve”. We needed to do that, but it would be for only a few weeks and it was for the greater good—quite right. “Go out once a day, but only for essential goods.” Spend hours queuing in Sainsbury’s car park, two metres apart, in the rain. “Close your businesses, do not travel, do not visit your neighbour, but it’s just for a short time.” “Don’t see your boyfriend—it’s for the greater good.” “We need to close all the schools.” “Teach your children from home.” “You won’t be able to see your loved ones in a care home, but that’s also for the greater good.” And we went with that, because it was for the greater good. But we are where we are now. Finally, it was: “You can’t see your GP if you’re ill. It is too dangerous.”
So what do we do next? We tried to comply. Of those who did not comply, some were arrested. They were arrested for sitting on a bench, having a cup of coffee. Perhaps they had already been out that day. But that was not the answer. Nevertheless, we looked ahead. I am nothing if not optimistic. There was a temporary release over summer, and, by autumn, it had started again. “But it’s okay; it’ll be fine for Christmas. The vaccines are coming, so please bear with us. It’s for the greater good.” And we did, and I am a huge supporter of the vaccine programme.
But families were still separated. Millions were home alone. Meanwhile, the economy went into freefall. Mental health issues have been raised. The number of suicides increased, and NHS waiting lists have grown and grown, with people becoming more and more ill. Then it arrived; it was the silver bullet, and it was such a relief. This vaccine programme has been fantastic; I am a huge supporter.
When the vaccine arrived we were told that, once we had got the over-70s jabbed, we would start to get back to normal. But then it was the over-60s. Then we had to wait for the over-50s, the over-40s and the over-20s. Then it was the 12 to 15s.
So, 21 months on, we were looking forward to Christmas again, but then the omicron variant arrived—talk about bad timing. “But don’t worry,” said the chairman of the South African Medical Association, Dr Angelique Coetzee, “you’re the most vaccinated country on the planet, the symptoms are mild and not one practitioner has prescribed oxygen.” But here we are. We feel as though we have been marched up the hill, as though we have taken one step forward and two steps back.
The headlines roared. Mainstream media have gone into overdrive. We have 10 cases and one death, but, as my noble friend asked, what were the causes? Did that person die of it, tragic though it is, or with it? We would like that information. There are approximately 10 cases a day. But we have also had the modelling figures. By April next year, we could have between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths, and 200,000 cases a day. They are the modelling figures, which sum up where we are. It is a very difficult situation. The question is: where will it end?
We cannot keep people in perpetual fear and we cannot knee-jerk from one day to the next. The hysteria is flooding the airwaves, and the consequences on the public are horrific. With a heavy heart, I find it difficult to support the Motions today, but I urge the Government to seriously rethink how we take this forward. I ask my noble friend to do that because, finally, coercion can never be the answer. Persuasion is much better. If we can have a frank and open discussion and hear arguments from both sides, that is how we will move forward.