Mark Harper: Enjoy summer if you can. Winter is coming – and I fear that Covid restrictions will return

12 Jul

Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. 

There is little doubt that today will see the Prime Minister confirm the decision to remove most Covid restrictions from July 19th. As readers might expect, I welcome this decision.

Putting restrictions on our society and our economy is not the low-cost option some might have you believe. Covid restrictions have huge social, health and economic impacts over the whole of society and have remained in place far longer than they needed to, given the success of our rollout of very effective vaccines.

We learned recently that the decision to delay the June 21st unlocking was driven by modelling that has since been shown to be flawed, based on pessimistic assumptions about vaccine efficacy, by Warwick University’s Dr Mike Tildesley – one of the Government’s advisers on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Monitoring (SPI-M).

Given the critical role that modelling has played in driving Government decisions on Covid, it’s rather frustrating to keep finding out that the modelling on which these important decisions are based is flawed. Note – this is not a criticism of models, modelling or modellers – it’s the assumptions, provided by Government, that the models work off that are at fault.

Veterans of the so-called ‘Brexit wars’ will recall the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – referring to the truth that models are only as good as the assumptions on which they are based.

Even with accurate assumptions, models are inherently uncertain and should therefore be only part of the decision-making process. Ministers need to ask tough questions about models at the right time – before decisions are signed off.

Regardless of how the decision was reached, most restrictions are likely to be removed from July 19th. It is, therefore, baffling that the rules on self-isolation for fully vaccinated contacts aren’t being changed until August 16th. Even Ministers can’t really explain why.

If case rates are to approach 100,000 per day, as the Health Secretary has indicated, varying estimates of those who would have to self-isolate as a result of contact are between two and 4.5 million people.

For those millions of people, this will feel like lockdown by the back door.

If you do manage to avoid getting pinged by the NHS Covid app, or legally instructed by Test & Trace to self-isolate, you can enjoy a summer that’s as close to normal as can be.

However, it’s only a number of weeks until the autumn arrives and the inevitable, seasonal, rise in respiratory diseases in circulation. Unlike last winter, we now have very effective vaccines, the vast majority of the adult population will be fully vaccinated and booster jabs will be there if needed – so we won’t need to have Covid restrictions anymore, right? After all, we were told that the removal of restrictions would be “irreversible”.

For many Conservative members, October means Conservative Party Conference. The first test of the Government’s intentions for the winter will be if Conference is anything other than completely normal – “cheek by jowl”, as the Prime Minister said.

If Party Conference is in a ‘hybrid’ form, part online, part in person with capacity limited in any way at all, this would be a worrying signal.

If even the governing party doesn’t have the confidence to host their own Party Conference in normal conditions at the beginning of October, then what confidence will the country have that we have returned to normal? The knock-on effects from this will be considerable.

As UK Music’s Jamie Njoku-Goodwin pointed out last week, any hint of autumn/winter restrictions means organisers of events won’t have any confidence to plan events beyond summer.

Anyone who thinks I’m being too pessimistic should take a look at the small print in Government documents, which offer more than a hint that the Government is intending to reintroduce restrictions this winter.

SAGE documents, which Ministers have had since April but weren’t published until last week, talk of “keeping some level of measures in place both through summer and beyond” and in the autumn and winter when “stronger measures may be desirable”.

There’s also an emphasis on retaining a low prevalence of cases “even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination” which doesn’t seem very far away from a Zero Covid strategy.

What’s more, buried deep in a Government document released recently lurks a clear intention to extend the Coronavirus Act powers into 2022, when something that was supposed to be ‘emergency’ legislation would have been in force for two years.

The Covid Recovery Group was set up to ensure the Government was asked the right questions at the right time, especially given Labour has been largely AWOL on Covid matters. I had hoped that by this point ahead of the summer recess, our work would have been done. However, I fear that our efforts will be required this autumn and winter to ensure that proper Parliamentary scrutiny of key Government decisions takes place. Winter is coming.

Mark Harper: Lockdown 1) Why I will vote against it today

4 Nov

Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. 

Today, MPs are being asked to approve the law that implements the England-wide lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday. This is one of the most significant decisions MPs will be asked to take.

Originally, the Government was only having a debate on this for just 90 minutes in the Commons. I made the point strongly to the Leader of the House on Monday that this was far too short for such a big decision and I am pleased that the Government has reconsidered this, doubling the length of the debate to three hours.

It was also important that MPs be given access to the information required in order to make an informed decision on behalf of our constituents. Many MPs requested this information both in private and on the floor of the Commons. The Government has, albeit quite late in the day, published quite a bit of information, which is welcome.

Until last Friday, the Government made a very strong case which I still support that, given the variable levels of Covid-19 across England, a tiered regional approach to restrictions makes sense.

The argument given for moving to an England-wide national lockdown by the Prime Minister on Saturday was that modelling by the Government suggested very significant numbers of daily deaths from Covid-19 and the likelihood of NHS bed capacity being exceeded by Christmas – even in regions with a low level of Covid-19.

These points were illustrated in Saturday’s press conference by a number of graphs.

In Gloucestershire, and in my constituency of the Forest of Dean, I have been closely monitoring the level of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic and, whilst we have seen an increase in prevalence, the level of virus in the over 60s remains low and, in recent weeks, has either been flat or falling – this means that the risk of hospitalisation or death is low.

Regular meetings that Gloucestershire’s MPs have with our fantastic local public health and NHS colleagues have not substantiated the concerns referred to by the Prime Minister.

As a result, immediately after the Saturday press conference, I requested the data on which the graphs and modelling were based. Late yesterday, this information was finally published by the Government.

Reputable scientists outside government such as Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, have already demonstrated that the modelling underpinning the graphs is based on data from at least three weeks ago, which we can now see is overestimating the actual position – one of them by more than a factor of four.

Also, the published data does not substantiate the Prime Minister’s claim that hospital capacity in the South West would be exceeded in a matter of weeks. Indeed, there is no projection of the usage of regional hospital capacity in the published information at all.

The leaked Cabinet Office slide from Friday’s meeting of the ‘Quad’ about regional hospital capacity being exceeded has notably neither been published nor substantiated by data or modelling.

In addition, I have a fundamental objection to the use of reasonable force to enforce these regulations by agents of the state who are not properly trained to safely use that force. As a former Home Office Minister, I have seen that when reasonable force is used incorrectly, it can lead to unnecessary deaths.

Despite reassurances from Ministers at the Despatch Box that this matter was going to be resolved, regrettably it has not been. These Regulations give the power to use reasonable force to PCSOs and, most worryingly, any “person designated by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this Regulation”. My view is that the use of reasonable force should be limited to police officers, who undergo a significant amount of training in both when and how to safely use this power.

In light of the above, I do not believe that the Government has made the case for a change away from the tiered system and in favour of an England-wide national lockdown.

The published information also confirms that the modelling has not taken into account the introduction of the system of Medium, High and Very High tiers. It is clear that the Government has not given this strategy enough time to demonstrate whether or not it was effective.

For these reasons, and for only the second time in my fifteen years in Parliament, I will regrettably be voting against the Government’s regulations later today.

Mark Harper: The office paradigm has shifted – here’s the future

13 Sep

Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.  He was Immigration Minister from 2012 to 2014.

Last week, we got another reminder that coronavirus has not gone away. The epidemiologist with a slight cult following – Professor Jonathan “don’t tear the pants out of it” Van-Tam – described the recent uptick in cases across the country as evidence that people’s vigilance has been “relaxed too much”, and that the virus must be taken seriously or the UK will face “a bumpy ride over the next few months”.

We have heard lots about the need for people to ‘get back to work’. It is important to note that many have been working in their workplaces throughout the pandemic, such as those in food production, essential retail, health and social care and many other designated ‘key workers’. Many sectors that did have to close during lockdown have gradually reopened over the summer.

The big debate at the moment is about those who work in offices and about how quickly they should return to the office full time. Having spoken to a number of businesses of all types in my own constituency over the summer and looked at survey evidence, I have a slightly different take.

First, employers have a duty to operate in a Covid secure way and that means big reductions in office capacity. Most office workers can’t go back to the office full time even if they and their employers wanted them to. This is going to continue until we have an effective vaccine or treatments, which means at least until spring 2021.

Second, I think the experience of the last few months will have caused what my former employer Intel (co-founded by Andy Grove, a man admired in Downing Street) would have called a “paradigm shift”.

Even when we have a vaccine and treatments, where some workers are back in the office full time, some will work from home full time and most will do a mixture.

Why do I think that? During lockdown, businesses were forced to do things in new ways. They tested the limits of technology and remote working, and many of them found that large parts of people’s jobs can be done very effectively remotely and indeed, in many cases, productivity went up. There are of course important reasons why people need to be in the office, whether it’s for training or working collaboratively on projects but this will only make up a percentage of their role.

A recent audit of big companies found many are not planning for the majority of workers to return to offices until at least towards the end of the year, with only 25 per cent of firms surveyed planning to bring staff back by the end of this month.

Such companies as RBS, KPMG, Google and Facebook are keeping the vast majority of their UK office staff working from home until next year. Some companies like Unilever and Vodafone have said that they expect a hybrid style of office-based and remote working to become the new normal. After all, this is effectively what MPs do – working for part of the week in Westminster, and part of the week in their constituencies.

There are groups who have found that working from home can be advantageous – those who have caring responsibilities who need a more flexible working routine and disabled people who can benefit from using the technology to carry out their work tasks.

Whilst it is appropriate for Government to set out guidance, based on the best scientific and public health advice, for how workers can operate in a Covid secure way, it is for businesses to decide how to manage and deploy their staff whilst complying with that guidance. As a Conservative, I don’t believe another layer of ministerial micromanagement helps anyone.

As companies adapt accordingly, there is going to be a significant change in cities where large numbers of office workers used to commute to work every day.

Businesses that provided services for those workers will have to adapt, as we have seen with Pret A Manger developing a delivery service. In some cases, businesses will not exist in their current form. Sadly, that’s going to have an inevitable impact on jobs.

One of the ways that the impact on the domestic labour market can be limited is by using immigration policy more effectively, particularly once the EU transition period ends on the 31st December.

The sectors most impacted by this change are those which have been very dependent in the recent past on large quantities of migrant labour, particularly from the EU. For example, 14 per cent of the retail, hotels, restaurants workforce are international migrants, with about half a million EU nationals employed here. Nearly one in every four tourism workers in London are non-British nationals, while one in five are EU nationals.

In sum, we must not be complacent. We are going to be living with Covid for some time and must be able to get on with our lives while keeping the virus under control.

Most office workers aren’t going to be able to return until there is a vaccine or treatment and, even then, I think the new normal will be an office-remote working hybrid.

The regrettable but necessary impact on jobs can be minimised by using the extra control we will have over migration once we leave the EU transition period at the end of the year.