We think that we have been through a lot over the last few months. And many of us have. Those who have suffered from this terrible disease, those who have lost relatives and friends to it; nurses, doctors, care workers in long-term residential homes and so many others must feel as if they have been through the mangle.
Yet for most of us- so far – it’s been a series of (embarrassingly not too unpleasant) phases. Back in March there was a sense of shock, then a kind of Dunkirk spirit, typified, perhaps by the volunteering and the weekly clapping. Then, as the virus seemed to recede, and life started to get back to something resembling normal we had a mixture of relief; together with a worry that it might be a false dawn. Philippa and I had a very jolly dinner at that excellent pub, The White Hart at Ford, and said a word of thanks to Rishi Sunak for the £20 he saved us. It was my last meal out before a 2-week period of self-isolation prior to my hip operation on 19 August.
Then we had national debates over face masks, social distancing, whether or not the Government had got it right; then we started to realise the awful economic consequences of the Pandemic and attention turned to what we can do to save jobs and livelihoods. The very odd debate between schools and pubs is typical of that.
And now, with a sinking feeling, we watch the second spikes developing on the Continent and elsewhere; we see travel restrictions on Spain being reimposed; we hear about local outbreaks - in Leicester and the North of England, and now even a very localised one in Swindon. We see irresponsible folk cramming onto beaches; and we hear horrifying thoughts of everyone over 50 years of age being put into some kind of mad lockdown. (Will the PM be locked down in No 10 or in Chequers?) We are not through this one yet; and it is vitally important that everyone abides by the rules and regulations to a ‘T’ if we are to prevent the virus reviving itself and causing untold pain and misery and death over the Autumn.
The words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘rollercoaster’ are much overused. Yet a glimpse of true horror in Beirut should make us glad to be alive and living in relative peace prosperity and security. Lebanon is virtually bankrupt, Beirut totally so. They have 1 million refugees from Syria; that murdering organisation Hezbollah runs most things; they have had a most horrifying level of Covid infection; and, of course Syria and Iraq are just a few hundred miles away. Things are pretty bad in Lebanon as a whole, and Beirut in particular. And now into all of that comes this horrific explosion, the massive loss of life and injury from it; and the destruction of that essential lifeline for an import dependant city like Beirut, its port.
I sincerely hope that it’s a result of some kind of industrial incompetence from the unsafe storage of Ammonium Nitrate (why?); but if it were in any way to be connected to terrorism or warfare, the consequences for the whole of the Middle East could well be horrifying and long-lasting.
So we may think it’s bad here. We may have our grumbles. But it might just be sobering to contemplate what life is like in Beirut. It makes our rollercoaster look pretty tame by comparison.
It’s with something of a sigh of relief that Parliament has finally risen for a (much shorter than usual) Summer Recess. It really has not been working properly, and I for one am glad to see the back of it, in the fervent hope that when we start again on 1 September the House and the Palace as a whole may be able to operate something closer to normally. We shall see.
What a rollercoaster 18 months we have had. Remember Brexit? Theresa May? 21 Tories losing the whip, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the leadership battle and Boris’s victory, the General Election and Tory triumph? It has all been blotted out by the Covid Pandemic which has been our overwhelming political and personal fixation for the best part of six months now. Add to all of that Boris’s near-death experience; his engagement, the new baby, moving into Downing Street and a whole host of other things. What an astonishing 18 months it has been.
All of that risks obscuring our successful delivery of Manifesto promises- on the biggest ever cash boost for the NHS, on recruiting 13,500 more nurses and 7,800 more doctors, with 40 new hospitals and upgrades to 20 more, and £200 million for new cancer screen machines. We have kept our promise on more police officers – recruiting 4,000 more officers; on schools funding – increasing funding for every child, with £14.4 billion over three years and set out a £1 billion rebuilding programme to transform schools in every region of the country. We have kept our promise to boost local transport connections – confirming a revolution in local transport, backed by £5 billion to improve bus and cycle lines. We have started reversing the Beeching cuts and announced funding to fix 50 million potholes. We have kept our promise to help those who need it most – giving the lowest paid a pay rise by providing the largest ever cash increase in the National Living Wage, and giving inflation-busting pay rises to teachers, prison officers, doctors and other vital public sector workers. Not a bad record for a Government fighting the pandemic and doing its best to keep the economy on track.
And despite everything, and ignoring the conflicting advice and complaints of the armchair epidemiologists, we have done our best to battle against the worst pandemic the world has ever seen. Sunday’s announcement of a closure of Spain, and compulsory quarantine for all returning from their holidays has been greeted by some as being too little too late; by others as an over-reaction. Some are puzzled about the travel ban to the Mainland, but not to the Balearics or Canary Islands; others welcome that slight easing to take account of regional differences within a country. I welcome the Government’s decisive action to prevent a second spike in the UK, and hope they will continue to be tough and decisive in the future.
The weather is a bit mixed, but staycationing has a great deal to recommend it; and will do much to help our embattled pub and hotel and B and B industry. I will be staying at my own very nice Cotswold Farm B and B near Corsham, at least partly because I am in isolation prior to my second hip operation on 19 August. So by the time the House is back on 1 September I should be leaping around like a spring lamb thanks to the genius of British medical science. Poor old Philippa’s the one who will get no holiday from the catering and laundry department. She will deserve a decent break as soon as all of this (hip and Covid) is over, and I promise that she will get it.
The next 100 years will see three Global geopolitical threats- from Iran, whose Shi’ite version of Islam will dominate the Middle East; from sub-Saharan Africa whose population by the year 2100 could be 6 Billion, or nearly half of the Global population; and from China whose growth, wealth and population alongside its Communist State is an ever-present threat to the World and liberal democracy.
That is why I rebelled in February against a very heavy ‘three-line whip’ and voted against allowing Huawei, who are as close to being the Chinese State as it is possible to be, from controlling our 5G networks. 5G will run every aspect of our lives- banks, public utilities, transport systems, data; and the notion of handing control of that effectively to China seemed to me to be patently absurd and wrong. I have paid various penalties since then for my rebellion, including being chucked off the Joint Committee on National Security and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. But that, I guess, is a price worth paying for our eventual (at least partial) victory announced this week that Huawei would indeed be banned from our 5G infrastructure.
China meanwhile runs concentration camps for the ‘re-education’ of up to a million Uyghur Moslems. They have imposed a form of repression in Hong King in blatant disregard of the terms of the 1997 ‘Joint Declaration’ under which we handed Hong Kong back to the Mainland. And while I am reluctant to listen to the many conspiracy theories about the origins (and intentions?) of the Covid 19 virus; I am nonetheless critical of the way China handled it and information about it, without which many western lives might well have been saved.
Meanwhile the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which sees Chinese control of ever-increasing parts of the developing world using their massive financial muscle must be viewed with some concern. As one example, they are seeking to monopolise the rare earths mined in Greenland. If they do so, they will then control of up to two thirds of the world’s rare earth deposits, one tiny part of which is necessary for every single computer and mobile phone in the world.
I am saddened by all of this, as I have been to China many times, and love large parts of their culture and their people. But there comes a time when, despite the consequences, we need to oppose things in the world which we believe to be wrong; and to counter long-term trends, like the growth of Chinese power, which may well threaten the peace and security or even prosperity of our children and grandchildren.
There will be consequences - whether in terms of a massive cyber-attack of one kind or another coming from unattributable Chinese sources; or trade attacks, as Australia have suffered since they banned Huawei. There are military threats- especially to Taiwan and the South China Seas; and I am glad about the rumoured deployment of our brand-new Aircraft Carrier, Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific region over the next year or two.
In the words of the old Chinese proverb: “Is it not better to sit up all night than to sleep with a dragon?”
The flip side of success and prosperity in any decent society must be concern for those less fortunate and a readiness to volunteer to help.
Some good news this week for North Wiltshire. Rudloe and Colerne based Airbus (Space) signed a £500 million contract with the MOD to extend and enhance their Skynet fleet of seven satellites. Funny to think that Britain’s satellites are controlled from right here (in aptly named Skynet Drive in Hawthorn); alongside all communications for all three armed services.
The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry (whatever that may be), tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system. The Skynet 6A satellite will join the Skynet constellation of 7 satellites when launched in 2025.
Satellites orbiting the Globe are matched by volunteer drivers orbiting and criss-crossing Wiltshire.
In the same week as I heard from Airbus, I heard from Community First, a charity based in Devizes who inter alia run the 43 ‘Link’ schemes in Wiltshire. These are voluntary groups offering a transport and good neighbour service to local people who are in need, perhaps because they are elderly, disabled, isolated and lonely, single parents, or perhaps temporarily in need because of illness. It’s a vital safety net provided entirely by volunteers. Last year, for example, Link Schemes made 31,351 health related journeys and completed 48,027 ‘good neighbour’ tasks including collecting prescriptions and shopping.
However, because of Covid 19, the Link schemes are short of drivers since a large number of their existing volunteers are unable to drive because of age or vulnerability. So they desperately need to recruit volunteer drivers and helpers to maintain this vital service across Wiltshire. You get your mileage paid, so it’s just your time and energy that you are giving up to help people who so desperately need it. If you can, please ring 01380 722241 or email linkproject@community first.org.uk to volunteer to help.
Ours is a prosperous and successful area, and we hope to keep it that way. But there are all sorts of people who need our help. Let’s try to pay back our comfort by a bit of volunteer driving and general neighbourliness.
I may have spoken too soon about prosperity in the light of the bad news about 600 jobs to go out of 4000 Dyson employees. We do not yet quite know where these redundancies will occur but I understand it is on the retail side of things, as a result of the switch to online buying. One report indicates that there may be job losses in the customer service department in Malmesbury which, of course, is very bad news, and my team and I will do whatever we can to help constituents who may be affected.
One of the stars emerging from the Pandemic crisis must be Rishi Sunak. Both of his major statements have been ground-breaking stuff. Never can a Chancellor have had to undertake such very fundamental changes to try to preserve the Nation’s economic well-being. The Furlough Scheme alone was imaginative, essential, simple and hugely successful. That together with the other financial schemes he brought in have more or less seen us through the immediate emergency.
But there is so much worse news still to come. The economy contracted by a record 25% in March and April, and the depth of the collapse will be the worst ever seen since records began. One would need to look back to the Middle Ages - probably around the Black Death or the 100 Years War to see anything like it. And, of course, it’s not just us- it is absolutely Global.
Against that background, the war against Covid comes in three phases. Stage one was the first 100 days – lockdown; flattening out the curve; preventing the NHS being overwhelmed. There have of course been better bits and worse bits of that; but overall we have pretty much achieved what we set out to do. The second phase - which the Chancellor addressed on Wednesday - is a heroic effort to save jobs. Sadly, we will be facing a big increase in unemployment. Of that we can be certain. But the Chancellor’s new initiatives- with regard to young people, to job retention, to training and apprenticeships, to phasing out Furlough, to support for our pubs and restaurants and so much more that he was able to announce in his Statement will go a long way to limiting the pain, and to preserving the jobs which are so essential if we are to avoid a 1920’s style slump.
That will then lead very naturally into Phase three - rebuilding the economy, which will presumably form the central part of his Autumn Budget and simultaneous Public Spending Review. The hope will be that the deep and damaging collapse in the economy, may at very least be short-lived. It is important that we kick-start the recovery before too much long-term damage is done.
Looking at the fundamentals, I personally believe and hope and pray that that can be achieved. We in this country have the right essentials - the brains, the capability, the banking systems, the service capabilities, the legal systems, the time zone, for our economy to be just as stable and successful as it was before the Pandemic struck. Or to put it another way - we all want the same way of life, the same prosperity, that we had before. And if the demand is there, as it must be, then the supply will assuredly very quickly follow it.
An essential part of that must be confidence – confidence in the financial and business sectors; and consumer confidence that we can and will deliver the economy and prosperity which we all want. We need to be confident that life will get better, and that our jobs are safe. Without that we will be (understandably) fixated with safeguarding what we have got and never get the wider economy going at all. (Great news about half prices in pubs and restaurants over August - I am going to get very fat.)
And Confidence stems, at least in part, from a widespread confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that Rishi Sunak has secured that confidence.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.