Philip Davies: If a measure’s compulsory, there should be proof it’s necessary. Where’s the evidence for state-enforced mask-wearing?

8 Jun

Philip Davies is MP for Shipley.

From the outset, the Governments Covid-19 restrictions have infringed on our freedoms. The majority of these rules, such as the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, have been entirely arbitrary, escaping the usual parliamentary scrutiny, and without any scientific basis at all. One of the worst examples of the suffocation of our basic freedoms – without any good reason – is the mandatory wearing of masks.

For the Government to make something compulsory – enforceable by law – there must be an overwhelming case for doing so.  Even by the Governments own admission, they havent come close to meeting that test.

It is now clear that masks are probably one of the most under-researched strands of the Governments Coronavirus response. If we begin to accept this kind of guesswork as law, who knows what sort of arbitrary authoritarian policymaking may be acceptable in the future?

Matt Hancock has said that masks increase [the] confidence in people to shop”, and that those who did not wear a face covering will be fined. However, the minutes of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies meeting, before the introduction of this policy, record that:

The evidence on effectiveness of masks for source weak. Evidence for protecting the mask wearer from becoming infected is also weak.

Public Health Englands conclusion in June 2020 was that:

There is weak evidence from observational and modelling studies that community-wide mask wearing may contribute to reducing the spread of Covid-19…”

In response to one of the Parliamentary Questions I subsequently tabled, the Government explained that Public Health England had undertaken an initial rapid review. It then conducted a further rapid review of facemasks after people were mandated, by law, to wear them. The reviews considered various studies many of which, it seems, provided limited evidence of the effectiveness of masks outside clinical settings where all other factors can be controlled.

Various reservations have been expressed about the usefulness of masks, including by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Cochrane Review on face coverings. Professor Robert Dingwall, one of the UKs leading sociologists and  adviser to British governments on pandemic policy since 2005, and Professor Carl Heneghan, a general practitioner and clinical epidemiologist,  have warned that the existing evidence is insufficient, and higher quality studies need to be conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of face coverings in the community.

As the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has also said, it is difficult to assess which interventions are effective at controlling the spread of the virus, given many are in place at the same time.

Since their introduction, face coverings have become associated with people doing their part to stop the spread of the virus and to protect others. However, the scaremongering that has led to this attitude may actually have an adverse effect, because facemasks also come with risks and potential harms.

Masks accumulate viral particles and become a hazard in their own right. Professor Tom Jefferson, the lead author on the Cochrane Review on face coverings, who has been studying respiratory viruses for 30 years, has pointed to the risks from handling them.  Putting on, adjusting or taking off a mask means we have to touch our faces. Virus particles are quickly transferred from hands to face and then ingested or inhaled. Masks are stuffed into pockets and handbags ready for constant reuse.  Some are discarded in public toilets or on pavements, where they also become an environmental hazard.

Professor Jefferson also argues that the sense of protection afforded by mask wearing makes some people less vigilant about touching. This is backed up by the World Health Organisations concerns about the potential harms of masks  which include giving a false sense of security to wearers. Some medical opinion even goes as far as to say that masks are actually a possible risk factor for infection and a higher incidence of Covid-19.

We have repeatedly been told that the Government is being led by the science during the pandemic as if all scientists share one perspective. Professor Heneghan says that without solid evidence, science is simply a spectrum of opinions. Professor  Dingwall adds that a common theme within the Governmentled-by-the-science approach is that, even if the evidence is weak, there is an insistence that we should follow these policies anyway. In a supposedly free country this is simply not good enough.

I believe that if people want to wear a mask – given the uncertainty about their likely benefits and risks  then they should be free to do so. However, if people dont want to wear a mask, they should be free to decide that for themselves too.

In the early days of Covid-19, all interventions, from social distancing to isolation and mask-wearing, went unchallenged by most because these measures were perceived to be temporary.  People probably thought there was more evidence, for example, to support wearing facemasks than turns out to be the case.

The Government cannot be allowed to introduce, and continue, a policy – enforceable by law – that forces almost the entire country to cover their face on the off chance it is beneficial. Yet as coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifting across the UK, those advocating face coverings are digging their heels in.

I have found it chilling how easily the public have been frightened (deliberately) into giving up their freedoms.  We cannot allow ourselves to sleepwalk into the kind of authoritarianism we would usually associate with Communist China.  It is time to get back to normal – and not the new normal that some have in mind for us.

Philip Davies: The Government must be careful to get gambling regulations right

9 Apr

Philip Davies is the Conservative MP for Shipley. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

The Government’s Gambling Review entered a new phase last week when the 16-week “call for evidence” launched before Christmas drew to a close.

As someone with a keen interest in the industry, the review is something I support – looking again at how the industry is regulated in a digital age is clearly important and necessary.

But as a Conservative, I am instinctively opposed to over-regulation. My message to ministers is a simple one: by all means introduce necessary reforms, but make sure you get them right, and make sure they are based on evidence and evidence alone.

Recent figures from Ernst and Young show exactly what is at stake. According to its report, betting shops, casinos and online gaming support 119,000 jobs and generate £4.5 billion in tax for the Treasury.

When you drill down into those numbers, you find that nearly one fifth of those employed in the industry are under 25, while more than half are under 35. With recent figures suggesting that young people have been hardest hit economically by the pandemic, these details are worth bearing in mind.

And of the 61,000 people employed directly by the regulated industry, 22,000 are based in the North of England and Scotland – something a government that wants to “level up” the North while also strengthening the Union should take seriously.

In all, members of the Betting and Gaming Council contribute £7.7 billion to the economy in gross value added. With the country facing years of economic scarring as a result of Covid-19, these huge numbers are not to be sniffed at.

While we’re on the subject of reports, PWC produced one at the start of February which showed how the online black market – which has none of the regulated industry’s safeguards – is continuing to grow, something which should worry us all.

According to data collected during November and December last year, the amount of money staked with unlicensed operators has doubled from £1.4 billion to £2.8 billion since 2019, while the number of people using these sites has increased from 210,000 to 460,000 over the same period.

It also showed that in countries like Norway and France, where restrictions on licensed operators are tougher than in the UK, the size of the online black market is larger. Again, I’m not opposed to changes to regulation, but there is a danger of inadvertently encouraging customers to head to the black market if the Government gets them wrong.

We should also remember that the black market does not have any age verification or ID checks, meaning there is nothing to stop under 18s using those sites. This is in stark contrast to the regulated sector, which rightly has a zero tolerance approach to under-age betting.

The review is also looking at the role of the Gambling Commission, the industry’s regulator. In my opinion, the body as currently constituted is not fit for purpose and is ripe for major reform. The Gambling Review strikes me as the perfect opportunity to introduce some long overdue changes and to ensure a better distinction is drawn between what matters should be determined by Parliament and those that are rightly for the regulator.

The Government and the Gambling Commission should focus on ensuring targeted interventions are made for customers who are at risk of harm rather than blanket approaches covering every single customer. Not every player is a problem gambler and shouldn’t be treated like one. But let’s take this opportunity to make sure we better protect those who need help and support. The technology available and widely used by gambling operators is the best way to do this and should form a major part of the review.

The Government’s call for evidence may have closed, but the time for listening to that evidence is only just beginning.

Philip Davies: Our frontline staff are vital to our economic recovery, and we must do more to support them.

6 Dec

Philip Davies is MP for Shipley & Co-Chairman of the APPG on Customer Service

Ten months on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, we continue to face daily challenges as we navigate its far reaching impacts on our economy and society.

Since the start of the crisis, we’ve seen inspiring examples of the nation come together, with moving tributes to the NHS and those who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Yet, amongst these shows of support, a concerning trend has emerged across the country – with instances of hostility toward frontline staff on the rise.

Research from the Institute of Customer Service indicates that over half of customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the pandemic began. The worrying figures span every sector – from retail to public transport networks and even financial services. As we deal with the impact of new restrictions and the onset of the busy festive season, it’s more important than ever that we step up and protect our frontline workers.

The new localised tier system will, in itself, present new challenges, as increasingly frustrated customers kick back against restrictions. As customers looking to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities are told they can only enjoy their drinks with a “substantial meal”, and those looking for last-minute Christmas presents are presented with long queues as stores try to ensure social distancing guidelines are met, I fear that the dwindling patience of the public could put our customer-facing staff at even greater risk of abuse.

I am working with the Institute of Customer Service on a campaign, “Service with Respect”, which encourages businesses and the government to do more to protect these workers.

Alongside my colleague, the Labour MP Chris Evans, and over 100 big-name brands, including O2, Boots and Nationwide, we are calling for the introduction of a specific offence for anyone who abuses customer facing staff.

We’re also encouraging organisations across the county to invest in additional training for their employees, to ensure they are adequately prepared for the ever changing requirements of their roles as we continue to navigate these challenging times.

Through a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings, we have heard concerning and wide-ranging reports from across the nation – with instances ranging from verbal abuse, being shouted and sworn at, to more extreme cases of physical violence.

With 80 per cent of the UK’s employees working in the service sector, the scale of the issue is extremely concerning: and research shows it is not limited simply to face to face interactions. Those working in contact centres have reported occurrences of hostility through phone and online chat services. Combined with increased workloads as the number of vulnerable customers rises, the potential psychological impacts of such behaviour should not be ignored.

In Parliament, I recently asked the Home Secretary what steps her Department is taking to ensure that customer service staff are protected from abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In response, she outlined that any such abuse is unacceptable, and that the Government is working closely with the National Retail Crime Steering Group to deliver a programme of work aiming to provide better support to victims, improve reporting, increase data sharing and raise awareness of this crime.

Whilst this initial response is welcomed, and it’s encouraging to see the issue being taken seriously, I fear this narrow view on the retail sector alone does not go far enough. Our research has clearly shown that instances of hostility span multiple sectors, and the plight of those outside of retail risks being overlooked.

Any form of abuse, in all aspects of life, is completely unacceptable, but we should remind ourselves that these workers have been operating on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. They have kept our nation running in the most difficult of times – keeping our building lights on, shelves stocked and basic power and water supplies running. We all have a duty to ensure they have the training and respect they deserve to safely carry out their crucial roles.

With different tiered restrictions remaining in place across the country, the role of customer facing staff continues to expand, with many taking on additional responsibilities for ensuring social distancing measures are adhered to and hygiene requirements met. In the face of a progressively frustrated and restless customer base as we approach the busy Christmas season, there is reason that these concerning instances of abuse could continue to rise.

The pandemic continues to bring daily challenges across all aspects of our lives. Yet as we try to rebuild, customer-facing staff will be vital to our recovery, and we must show them they are a valued part of our nation. And this starts by enabling them to do their work safely, effectively and free from the fear of abuse.