Just as the imposition of the Lockdown caused all kinds of controversies, so will its lifting. Should primary schools (partly) reopen on 1 June? What about pre-school care which is so essential to so many working couples? What about secondary schools and colleges? If you can work from home, then do so (and good to see local company Avon Rubber reporting record productivity with their office staff all working from home.) If you cannot work from home (construction, manufacturing), then go to work, but only if proper social distancing measures are in place. When should shops reopen? Why should DIY stores and garden centres be open but not Department stores? The litmus test is a very simple one: can whatever it is happen with no, or at least limited, risk to all of those taking part?
So what about Parliament? The purpose of the House of Commons, let it never be forgotten, is to hold the Government to account; to hold Ministers’ feet to the fire; to make it difficult to do things which the voters would not want. We must not be used to rubber stamp what Ministers are predetermined to do. We are not there for ‘virtue signalling.’ The reality is that while I salute the House authorities for creating a virtual Parliament of a sort, (and the remote voting system works particularly well), it is also right to admit that it is simply not doing its job. You cannot link 650 MPs all keen to represent their constituents via the web and hope to achieve any worthwhile scrutiny. The virtual main Chamber is not only a waste of time; it also risks giving a false impression that Parliament is working.
So we need to get Parliament back properly in Westminster. It is true, nonetheless that I do have great reservations about the decision that we should all reappear in Westminster on 2 June. If you cannot safely get us all into one Chamber, and into the thirty or so Committee Rooms around the Palace; if we cannot get together in the tea rooms and libraries to talk over the great issues of the day; if our staff cannot be there; if the public are excluded; if we cannot sensibly vote in the Lobbies anyhow, and if only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time; if all of those things must happen, then how will it all work in reality? That’s why I abstained in the vote. I want Parliament up and running properly, but I cannot really imagine how that will be done.
I have volunteered to chair some of the Bill Committees, and the Select Committees seem to be working reasonably well virtually. So I will be there, and will report back on how it’s working.
However, I suspect that it will only restart for real when the virus has passed, or at very least when we have a vaccine, or perhaps a reliable antibody test. And that seems unlikely before the Summer. So let’s do what we can for now, but perhaps not fool ourselves that it is going to be full-blown scrutiny nor law-making. More important than that, let’s cancel the Party Conferences, and plan to start properly around 1 September when the schools go back, and then work right through until Christmas non-stop. We must nor risk being seen to be mucking about, and giving a wholly misleading impression that we are operating properly. We are not. Parliament is not there to legitimise the Government; but to scrutinise it and hold it to account. We cannot do that half-heartedly.
There is a very powerful argument that when we as a Nation face a challenge like Covid-19, we must pull together as one. That is pretty much what happened under the Government of National Unity during the War. We have a common enemy - this dreadful disease which has claimed so many lives - and we must unite in defeating it; and to a pretty good degree that is exactly what we have been doing. Most of us are obeying the Social Distancing rules; most of us accept that everything the Government has done, and will now do (watch out for the PM’s Broadcast to the Nation on Sunday) is done for the best possible reasons - to save lives, look after our NHS and preserve as best we can the economy and businesses. That is the delicate tightrope which the Government, and especially the Prime Minster, are walking gingerly along; and most people would accept that they have done a reasonable job of it. We must all hang together or we’ll all hang separately.
Against that background, I am disturbed by a few emails and letters I have received, and the comments of a few observers in the media, which seem to me to be seeking party political advantage from this crisis. The SNP, for example, come close to confusing their foolish determination to secure independence for Scotland with what is actually best for their people. Other political parties here in North Wiltshire have risked being a tad party political in their comments and questions, (which, in actual fact, Keir Starmer has largely avoided in PMQs so far.) Some people have used the crisis to advance their business interests, or very often their long held ideas or prejudices. Some, for example, have allowed racist xenophobia to show through in their comments to me. Others are increasing subscribers to a variety of conspiracy theories – especially aimed at the Chinese Government. There has been an outbreak of arson attacks, for example, (not here but elsewhere in England) against mobile telephone masts, in the mistaken belief that they may have Huawei technology in them and that somehow or another destroying the masts may protect us all from the Covid Virus. Some people really are very odd.
Despite all of that, there is of course a real and important place for scrutiny of the Government. Of course it is right that MPs and the media and people alike should question the difficult decisions which the Government are having to make. That happened, in fact, throughout the Second World War. Questioning and Parliamentary debates about a whole raft of actions and decisions were robustly argued out on the floor of the House of Commons. That is perfectly healthy. And it is why I feel very uneasy about the continuing absence of proper political debate and scrutiny in Parliament. I salute the efforts of the authorities to put some kind of virtual Parliament in place. But the harsh reality is that it does not really hold Ministers to account. It’s a sort of TV quiz show, which pretty much lets them off the hook. So I look forward to the time (which may well not be until after the Summer ) when Parliament once again sits as a whole House and does its job - of giving government ministers a hard time and holding their feet properly to the fire.
We want Unity in the face of the enemy; but that must not prevent proper scrutiny.
I was delighted to hear this week that of all of the 650 constituencies, North Wiltshire is number three in the League for the number of visitors to Parliament at 746 people. The only two higher were Westminster and East Ham. Given that North Wiltshire is 2 hours or more from London, it is not bad to be the number one non-London constituency. I have always gone to great lengths to welcome visitors, and I must say that my wife Philippa, is exceedingly diligent in making the arrangements, which can sometimes be complex. Many of the groups will be school, military, Rotary Club, Woman’s Institute or similar visits, and the dates and other arrangements can take a fair bit of juggling. I try to meet as many of them as I possibly can before they go off for a thoroughly professional (and entirely free) tour of both Houses, Westminster Hall and the bits in between. I hope that you will understand that I do NOT provide so much as a cup of tea – I would very quickly become awash with the stuff.
The reason that I have always encouraged these visits is not just so that people can see the magnificent building, the historic sites, our wonderful Chamber. The Palace of Westminster is not a museum, nor a stately home. It is a working building. 7,000 people work there; there are 50 lifts and staircases, 1000 rooms (of which, according to Churchill only two matter- the Chamber and the Smoking Room); and 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants. It is the throbbing heart of our magnificent democratic system; and it is great to welcome constituents and others to the Palace to see how Parliament works.
That is one of the reasons why I feel uneasy about the current plan to vacate the old Palace by 2025 for it to be restored. I worry that in doing so we will lose that feeling of an historic but working democratic hotbed. I would much rather that the work which is needed were done while the House is sitting, which may also make it less comprehensive and therefore less expensive. There are a number of alternative plans in circulation which would allow the preservation and modest modernisation of the Palace, yet preserving all that is best of it, not least for the many thousands of visitors who go through it every year.
Something of the same applies to the current ‘virtual’ sittings which started this week. Of course I accept the necessity for them. 650 MPs from all parts of Britain cramming together in a room designed for only 350 would of course be crazy. Social distancing is absolutely essential. So I wholly accept that some kind of electronic remote or virtual Parliament is absolutely essential while we are all in lockdown. And I think that it all worked reasonably well. It was very courteous, Sir Keir Starmer had a good first outing, and some difficult questions were asked of the Government. Yet it is just not the same. Very few of the 650 are able to take part in any meaningful way. And the very remoteness, the politeness, the clinical cleanliness of it all removes that hubbub of scrutiny for which Churchill designed the Chamber after it was bombed in the Second World War. So I accept that it has to be like this for now; but I long for a return to a fully functioning (and disease free) House of Commons. A vibrant democracy demands it.
There is something very touching - deeply moving - about the weekly Thursday communal clap. There’s something very British about it. Ordinary people up and down the land coming together (virtually of course), to bang their wooden spoons on their potlids, let off a few fireworks, play their trombones, but above all just clap and whoop and cheer to say thank you to those who are putting their lives at risk combatting this dreadful virus. It doesn’t actually achieve anything, of course, except for boosting our collective morale. It’s we Brits ganging together in the face of an enemy to show that we are not downhearted; we are not dispirited; we are not defeated. Far from it. We’ll show this silly disease what we think of it. After years of political polarisation and dispute, we are at one in this - together we will beat it.
It was good to see the PM back in Downing Street on Monday, and I thought his little statement was courageous and clear. He’s gone through a tough time experiencing Covid-19 for himself. He looked death in the face and saw it off. There is a palpable feeling of relief that he is now back to lead us through the difficult weeks which lie ahead. And what wonderful news about the birth of his baby boy, I wish them all well and send my warmest congratulations.
All government, especially at a time like this, depends on the people as a whole - or at least an overwhelming majority of them - coming together in agreement that we will take a certain action. It may not necessarily be in our own immediate best interests; but we accept that it is for the good of the country as a whole. We would so much prefer to be back at work, shopping, going to the pub and the football match. Of course we would. But we realise that if that is to be our end goal, then we need collectively to go through some pain in the meanwhile. That social contract has worked well so far - most people have readily accepted that, dislike it as we may, lockdown is necessary to win the war.
That same spirit must underly any possible easing of lockdown. Those who are calling for it to be lifted totally and immediately, are risking tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet those who advocate remaining in total lockdown more or less indefinitely, or perhaps even tightening it, are ignoring the economic reality that that would create such a catastrophic destruction of our economy that it would take a generation or more to recover from it.
So what I would hope to see coming from the PM now that he is back at his desk, is a road map towards some degree of lessening of the social distancing and lockdown regulations. It’s a political decision, and only he can make it. Scientists on the one hand will be urging caution - predicting all kinds of death and destruction if we get it wrong; economists on the other hand foresee disastrous damage if we do not kick start our businesses. It’s a tricky tightrope for the PM to walk; and whatever happens you can be certain that he will be criticised for what he does. It’s one of those situations which you simply cannot win.
Collective agreement will survive if we can see a few baby steps towards getting back to normal. We need an ultra-steady hand on the tiller as we navigate the treacherous waters back to dry land.
“This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.” Despite the awfulness of the defeats and disasters at the start of the Second World War, those are the words- alongside “blood, toil, sweat and tears” which gave the British people some hope for the future. My instinct about the Coronavirus crisis may be about the same, especially here in the West Country.
It was only a month ago that we were fearing massive numbers ill and dying. There was a risk that the entire National Health Service would have been overwhelmed. We really had no clue about what the future held.
The Government acted, and acted decisively, both with regard to the Lockdown, which would of course have been unthinkable only a few weeks previously and social distancing in general. They put a financial package in place to tide businesses and people over the worst, and to try to give a foundation stone for the rebuilding of the economy once it’s all over. Hundreds of millions of pieces of Personal Protection Equipment were sourced and shipped, testing was increased, new hospitals built in a record time; an army of volunteers mobilised; and a whole host of other ideas and initiatives.
Now of course there are criticisms which can be made. No enterprise as big as this is ever free of error. The PPE should have been delivered to the front line sooner. It should have been delivered far more widely- especially as we now realise to the Care Home Sector. There should have been far more testing; more ventilators should have been ordered. Of course, there are things that could have been done better or done differently. Hindsight is a luxury for armchair generals.
But I am beginning to be encouraged by all of the weekly online briefings I am being given. The number of sad deaths is still increasing, especially if you include all of those in care homes and in people’s private houses, which are harder to collect as statistics. It seems likely that the 20,000 figure will very sadly be about right. But that could easily have been so much higher. It appears that the numbers being admitted to hospital are levelling off, which means that the death figures will at least level off and start to fall we all hope within a week or so.
In other words, the social distancing and the lockdown which has been so hard on so many people, really does seem to be working. There is still a great deal we do not know, of course. We really do not yet have much idea how we are going to get out of this and get back to some semblance of normal life. The Government are announcing a further three weeks of lockdown- which takes us through to 7th May or thereabouts. There is some talk of easing off some of the restrictions thereafter- perhaps starting with primary schools, thinking about whether or not more shops, perhaps garden centres, could open albeit with social distancing rules in place; whether or not public parks and so on would be better open for joggers and walkers, albeit 6 feet apart.
Its most definitely not the end; not even the beginning of the end. But I just somehow sense that it may be the end of the beginning. So now we must stiffen our resolve; stick to the rules; stay at home; and see this thing through.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.