Bella Wallersteiner: As a parliamentary staffer, I’m appalled by the double standards on who has to wear a mask

25 Jul

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

After England moved to step four of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid restrictions, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that face masks were no longer mandatory for Members of Parliament from July 19. Instead, MPs are being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while moving around the wider Parliamentary estate.

Unfortunately, the same discretionary freedom has not been afforded to parliamentary staff for whom mask-wearing remains compulsory. Unions have been quick to point out the unfair and divisive nature of one set of rules for MPs and another set of rules for people working in the engine room of our legislature.

Before the summer recess, a significant number of Conservative MPs celebrated “Freedom Day” by ditching face masks in the House of Commons for the final Prime Minister’s Questions. And who can blame them? Many of us are desperate to say good-riddance to masks, tear down the bossy and infantilising signs which remind us to practice good hygiene (like washing our hands), remove the pointless one-way systems (we all know how to maintain social distance after 16 months of practice) and dismantle the entire edifice which has given birth to a micro-industry of excuses for disruption “due to Covid”.

And, yes, I am aware that we have all been through a lot since the pandemic started, and need to respect personal choices as not everyone is ready to return to “normal”. If wearing a mask makes some people feel safer, then that is their right and I would not belittle “brainwashed sheeple” as some freedom crusaders have done.

My concern is that once again our legislators seem to think that it is acceptable to have one rule them, another for Parliamentary staffers who must continue to wear face coverings. Until now, the decision to wear a face covering has been a legal requirement, not a matter of personal choice.

All this changed when the Prime Minister told the public that they are no longer legally required to wear masks from July 19 (in spite of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Office for England, advising that masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”). A confusing miasma of different rules in different settings means that transport operators and some shops have decided to make face coverings mandatory which could bring them into conflict with equality legislation.

The Government has succeeded in making the face covering a daily battle ground between libertarians and those who believe that it is irresponsible to dispense with all protection at a time when nearly 50,000 people a day are testing positive for Coronavirus.

I have stopped wearing my mask in virtually every setting – but as a parliamentary staffer I will be required to carry on wearing one at work. This is just another example of how Covid “guidance” has broken down and become illogical. The Government needs to make up its mind – wearing a face mask should be either mandatory or discretionary, it cannot be both.

I drew attention to this contradiction on social media and Steve Baker, MP for High Wycombe, wrote to the Speaker about this blatant discrepancy in the rules. The Speaker confirmed the House of Commons’ position which is that the Speaker has “no power to prevent democratically elected members from coming on to the estate or in to the chamber when the House is sitting. As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on members to wear a face covering.” Sadly, he would not be drawn on the issue of Parliamentary staff being required to wear face coverings at work. In solidarity with staffers, Baker will continue to wear a face mask around Parliament.

The next battleground in the fight for freedom and equality will be the so-called “vaccine passports” for domestic events. The Speaker has rejected the use of Covid passports for MPs around Parliament, but has made no mention of staffers. Vaccination passports will discriminate against people based on decisions they have freely made and threatens the foundations of our liberal society. I have been vaccinated against Covid-19, a personal choice, but I would never stigmatise anyone who is unable to be vaccinated to or chooses not to be vaccinated.

But rules are there to be interpreted in subjective ways as we saw when foreign VIPs were exempted from the burden of travel quarantine to attend the Euro 2020 finals. Who can forget the scenes from the G7 gathering in Cornwall where any pretence of following social distancing rules were dropped quicker than you can say “Build Back Better”.

Fortunately, there are MPs willing to stand up to this discrimination and unfairness. Rumours of a vaccine passport being a condition of entry for the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October have led to a number of Conservative MPs saying they will boycott the event. I have already confirmed publicly I will not attend conference if such discriminatory measures are in place.

The Government so far has presented the pandemic as an “all in it together” chapter of national solidarity. However, this has led to people being branded selfish for visiting family members living overseas or simply going abroad with their families for a summer break after 16 months of self-incarceration. This sort of intolerance is harming the UK’s reputation for nurturing a culture of individualism and self-regulation.

Ministers have enjoyed wide public support even from those horrified by a level of authoritarianism which has not been seen in this country since the time of Oliver Cromwell. It has been borne on the belief that it would be temporary and, once the vaccines were rolled out, dispensed with forever.

But now an “us vs them” dynamic has emerged which is threatening to upset public trust and Parliament is just a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Credibility and honesty will be critical in completing the immense effort we have all undertaken in response to this crisis. Dominic Cummings has shown us what happens to a government’s health message when those responsible for it fail to adhere to their own rules. We have stopped people from leaving their homes and seeing their dying loved ones in the name of being “all in this together”. The Government must restore confidence by pressing ahead with releasing all lockdown restrictions for everyone.

Freedom Day was supposed to be the moment when the country would be liberated from the tyranny of Covid. Instead, we are in danger of entering a two-tiered Orwellian society where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Bella Wallersteiner: I attended the Freedom March yesterday. I’m no anti-vaxxer, or conspiracy theorist. I just want a return of common sense.

30 May

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I attended a Freedom March in central London with thousands of others. I am not a Covid denier. I am not anti-vaccine. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I want a return of common sense and fundamental freedoms. The British people are growing increasingly angry; unless there is a dramatic change to the UK’s Covid situation, restrictions must end, as planned, on June 21.

The Coronavirus Act which received Royal Assent on March 25 2020 gave the Government sweeping emergency powers to combat Covid-19. The Act gave the Government full authority to suspend civil liberties: public gatherings have been stopped, freedom of travel curtailed, individuals suspected of either having the disease or being in close proximity to someone who may be carrying the virus have been forced to stay at home. Never before in peace-time has there been such an egregious infringement on our basic human rights, culminating in multiple nationwide and regional lockdowns.

In times of national emergency draconian measures are sometimes necessary. However, we now know a great deal more about the virus and how it behaves than we did in the spring of 2020. There is a strong argument that the Government needed to take decisive preventative action to stop the virus from spreading and hospitalising the elderly, the vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions. The disastrous decision to release hospital patients into care homes illustrates why the Government became more cautious in its’ approach and subsequently adopted stricter measures. But we now need to reassert our rights, take back control and find a way back to normality.

More than 38 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a Coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine rollout is being delivered at an impressive speed with four million doses a week being administered. This week, people in their 20s are expected to have their first jabs, while the over-50s complete their vaccination cycle with their second jab.

Hospitalisations are falling in every age group over 55, with the most up-to-date data showing the most significant reductions in those aged between 65 to 74 as the protection from second doses takes effect. The same data shows a small increase in case rates in all age groups, reinforcing hopes that the link between infections, hospitalisation and deaths has been broken.

The current localised response to the uptick in infections, linked to the Indian variant, is the right one: speed up the roll-out of vaccines to the over-18s, coupled with surge testing, in the affected areas. Given the compliance of the population thus far we will soon see the Coronavirus hotspots such as Bedford and Bolton return to much lower levels of viral transmission.

The Government must not deviate from its course because there is a new variant of Coronavirus; the clue is in the name ‘novel Coronovirus’ and there will always be threatening mutations as this is what viruses do to ensure human to human transmission.

The fact that the Indian variant is now the dominant strain is irrelevant as we will have many more variants in the years to come and the Government should ignore Neil Ferguson’s gloomy prognostations which have already caused the UK to lockdown three times. ‘Professor Lockdown’ has warned that a full re-opening of society on June 21 now “hangs in the balance” and this downbeat view is supported by Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who says the prospect of opening up “looks a little bit risky”.

You would be forgiven for thinking that our vaccine does not work against the Indian variant. However, data from Public Health England shows the vaccine is doing its job.

Of 5,599 people in England found to have the Indian variant, only 177 had received both vaccine doses.

Across the country, 60 per cent of cases are among the unvaccinated. The majority of the remainder have only had only had a single dose, with just three per cent of cases, and two per cent of A&E cases, involving those who have received both doses.

This should inspire confidence in Britain’s vaccine rollout and allow the restoration of all liberties on June 21.

The Government insists that it is still being “guided by the science”, but there has been a failure to consider alternative of scientific opinions. Instead worst case scenarios, such as Ferguson’s modelling, are still being used to justify some of these most draconian restrictions.

It is time that the Government stood up to the pessimists on SAGE. They have kept the nation fearful and divided by far exceeding their remit. They do not consider the consequences of their actions nor do they have a grasp of how most people live. Every day of restrictions creates more of a dependency culture, the Government should not continue to ride roughshod over our long-held freedoms while pretending to defend them.

The Indian variant may have scientists worried, but the Prime Minister should stick to his  Rabelaisian libertarian instincts which are to return us to a pre-Covid ‘Merrie England’ of craft beer drunk in country pubs, village cricket and festivals for the young.

The dates and the data are in synergy and the Prime Minister’s roadmap should not be hijacked by ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ who would have us permanently muzzled and grounded. Not following through with the final stage of our unlocking on June 21 would be an epic betrayal of the British public who have sacrificed so much to get us to this moment of national liberation.

People won’t be silenced and that every week the numbers marching for freedom continue to grow: the media continues to peddle the lie that protestors are on the lunatic fringe of David Icke and QAnon followers – but the truth is that the overwhelming majority are hard-working, rational, moderates who just want their freedom back and to get on with their lives. These are the natural conservatives and we ignore them at our peril.

Bella Wallersteiner: Let the young work, play and be free of the rule of six – while older people learn to live with the virus

29 Sep

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The social compact is crumbling: for the first time since the 1960s young people are challenging the fundamental tenets that hold society together. This is not the sneering anarchy of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s or the solipsistic hedonism of the New Romantics in the 1980s, but the start of a new revolution as young people come to understand the scale of their betrayal by government and the media.

Having complied with lockdown, infantilised by their return to childhood bedrooms and enforced celibacy for six months, they accepted their loss of income from summer jobs, the imposition of travel restrictions and even the boredom and banality of online learning in the absence of lectures and seminars.

School leavers had the additional stress of Centre Assessed Grades and the application of a flawed algorithm, followed by a scramble for university places. In the blame-game which followed, no one has taken responsibility for this fiasco, there is no sign of an official enquiry and it is far from clear how exams will run next year.

During lockdown, altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected prescriptions, and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding. Many were inspired by the example of Captain (now Sir)co Tom Moore to raise funds for the NHS (usually the Government’s responsibility). They stayed away from beloved grandparents in the knowledge that transmitting the virus to the elderly could have fatal consequences.

Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating grit, resilience and kindness, young people are now being vilified. Students are being blamed for the return of Covid-19 – even though viral transmission rates rose dramatically in the weeks before schools and universities re-opened. The media is awash with sanctimonious reports of illegal raves, student house parties and the collapse of social distancing.

Now that universities have re-opened, students are blamed for local spikes in transmissions. The response has been to lock down halls of residence and cancel lectures, face-to-face teaching, and social gatherings. After months of subservience to the will of the state, young people are beginning to question the lazy rhetoric that we are all in this together, we must follow the science and Covid-19 kills indiscriminately.

Rishi Sunak has exhorted us to face up to our fears. He is right. We now know far more about this virus than we did in March. Public awareness of the risks, and how to navigate them, is also much greater. The truth is that the virus has revealed fault lines in society between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those with access to gardens and those who must make do with the local park. The science of epidemiology has proved as reliable as Jeremy Corbyn’s memory of being present, but not involved, in laying a wreath to honour members of the Black September terror group.

What we do know for certain is that this virus discriminates by race, weight, age, and overall health – it is racist, fattist, gerontophobe and Darwinian. Statistically, young people are relatively unaffected by Covid-19: the susceptibility of individuals under the age of 25 to the disease is less than half that of adults aged over 25. Not only are young people less likely to succumb to the illness, they have a lower propensity to show clinical symptoms when they do contract the coronavirus.

Neither is it clear whether spikes in cases among the young inevitably lead to increased deaths among the older demographic. Yet it is the young who are being told to self-isolate in student halls across the country, even after they have tested negative. Grinch-like finger-wagging authorities threaten to cancel Christmas unless students comply with increasingly draconian restrictions.Predictably, the laboratory for these policies is north of the border: where Scotland leads, England inevitably follows.

It is about time we had an honest conversation about segmenting the population with more targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable. Young people should be actively encouraged to get on with life, build up some herd immunity and bolster our limping economy. Young people are the entrepreneurs, pacesetters, and problem solvers of the future – they will be vital to our recovery from this crisis.

But the consequences of not releasing this potential soon enough could be catastrophic. The impact of lockdown on mental health, especially among adolescents and young people, has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the removal of support networks and the cancellation of summer activities has led to an increase in the number of referrals for depression, self-harming and suicide.

In times of economic crisis, it is young people, with less experience, who are the first to be let go. Record numbers of young people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the economic impact of the virus on young people’s prospects is already starting to show.

Our response to Covid-19 could create a lost generation destined for long-term unemployment and mental health problems. It is depressing that those most vulnerable, the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are still at risk.

What is unnecessary, and indeed immoral, is to disrupt the lives of young people who could be released from the strictures of the Coronavirus Act. We need to stop berating the young for pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what is allowed and setting themselves free. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Let the young work and play, and even, dare I say, meet in groups of seven at their local Wetherspoons, while the rest of society adjusts to learning to live with the virus.

Bella Wallersteiner: A “Work Out to Help Out” scheme could boost the nation’s health and save our struggling gyms

3 Aug

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The two most memorable images of lockdown are a panic stricken Dominic Raab informing the nation that the Prime Minister had been admitted into intensive care juxtaposed with Joe Wicks exuding his irrepressible optimism while exalting the nation to join his daily workout. Joe Wicks has faded from our screens but the Prime Minister has had a Dasmacene conversion to lose weight and become as “fit as a Butcher’s Dog”.

There is a clear correlation between obesity-related conditions (those who have a BMI over 25) and patients in hospitals who require intensive care and intubation. Never has it been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health and thereby protect the NHS before the onset of winter when outdoor exercise regimes become more difficult to manage. The country will not be heading to their local parks on a cold dark autumnal evening in November.

It is all too facile for me as a relatively fit and healthy 25 year old to preach the benefits and merits of exercise to those who do not have easy access to open spaces and gyms. While it is amazing how much can be achieved by a simple work out in your average living room, better still is to leave your home, join your local gym and create a new daily work out routine.

Gyms are often maligned as intimidating spaces whose denizens spend their time toning their perfectly sculpted bodies in front of mirrors to reach the beach-ready, Love Island physique. The reality is very different as they have worked hard to become welcoming and inclusive spaces which encourage people of every shape and size in a national effort to increase fitness and reduce weight.

On March 21, UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres were closed for the duration of the lockdown and only reopened on July 25 as part of the Government’s third stage of the national recovery from Covid-19 restrictions. Will the one in seven of the population who used to have gym memberships continue to inject £5 billion on keeping fit?

If my experience of attending gyms in the fortnight since gyms reopened is anything to go by the public has yet to be convinced. Monthly direct debits to gyms are not being renewed and while I have enjoyed the luxury of an empty gym this is not sustainable. We will see a swathe of gyms and fitness centres closing; a permanent loss to local communities with thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

The Prime Minister wants to level up Britain’s left behind areas, he should also be urging us to get on our spin bikes and thereby providing a leg up to this struggling industry.

At a time when the Government has launched its Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, with a £10 voucher for every meal out, there should be a similar financial inducement to encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centres. A 25 per cent Government-backed discount on monthly gym memberships would incentivise people to join their local gyms and shed surplus weight gained during lockdown.

Comprehensive Government guidelines have ensured that gyms, pools and leisure centres have reopened safely. Measures include timed bookings to limit the number of people using a facility at any one time so that social distancing can be maintained, enhanced cleaning regimes which ensure that all equipment satisfies Covid-19 hygiene protocols and one-way systems reducing unnecessary contact between gym users.

The challenge now is for people to overcome their understandable reluctance to step back into enclosed spaces which have been caricatured as feted petri dishes for the spread of the Coronavirus. If we are to beat the pandemic the nation needs to be match-ready for the much anticipated second wave which could come sooner than expected.