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.

Chris Green: We are following a failing Covid strategy and its costs are too high. That’s why I quit the Government.

16 Oct

Chris Green is MP for Bolton West and Atherton.

Resigning from a position of Parliamentary Private Secretary is, in practice, like taking a small step down from the lowest rung of the Parliamentary career ladder. It is not momentous, but is still enormously difficult and you better have a good reason for it. I think I did.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has been a shock to the political system as much as it has for the country. The ambitions of the Prime Minister, following his stunning election victory, have been made more difficult. They are perhaps even more pressing today than they were in December. The greatest focus is in tackling Covid-19, which is an event we had not prepared for and barely understood – at the beginning.

We now know so much more and, especially over the summer when the virus had been suppressed, we had the opportunity to pivot to a different approach from that of the first six months, or to set out why the price of carrying on in the same way outweighed the cost.

The national circuit breaker which lasted three months should have been enough to control the disease and enable a focused and highly able track, trace and isolate system to work. It has clearly failed – otherwise we would not now be speculating on what the patchwork of the new tiering system will look like. I am anticipating a comprehensive series of regional circuit breakers that may have the characteristics of a national lockdown in all but name.

Greater Manchester has had a ten week ‘local lockdown’ and Bolton has had three weeks of a more extreme economic lockdown on top. The latter has meant the closure of bowling alleys and close contact beauticians, whilst pubs, restaurants and cafes can only sell takeaways, which has effectively shut most of them down too. This lockdown was far tougher than the top tier of the new lockdown regime.

From the beginning to end of this period, reported positive test results have rocketed up as though the virus had no care for the rules. The lockdown has failed in its own terms, but has had wider impacts that we have yet to realise the extent of.

There have been 20,000 fewer GP referrals to hospital in Bolton when compared to the last year. We can only imagine what the national figure is. The Department for Health should do a comprehensive assessment of which treatments have not been carried out. Health Ministers should explain to the Commons the impact that this has had for each medical category.

We know the extraordinary financial cost of Covid but when will we know the full health cost of missed medical treatment? We are beginning to find out, but many will be suffering for years to come. By sharing data, the Government will have the opportunity to win people to their course of action. The experience of my constituents in Bolton made me realise that we are following a failing strategy and that its costs are too high.

Is there an alternative? Yes, I think there is and, when I could not make any headway with it privately, I resigned. dThe principal points are:

  • The understanding of the disease and how to treat it has advanced since the pandemic first hit us. Existing safe drugs and medical techniques are now being used to treat people in hospital effectively, which means that the threat of the NHS being overwhelmed has diminished.
  • Some of the data being used is not as clear as it should be. For example, we are now doing twenty or more times as many daily tests than during the peak of the pandemic and, had we done this number of tests then, we would expect to see 100,000 positive outcomes. The official graphical presentation does not reflect the massive increase in testing.
  • Society has changed – people accept ‘low density socialising’, the use of hand sanitiser, social distancing and the wearing of masks. These measures dramatically reduce the rate of transmission.
  • We are now in a better position to judge the threat from Covid-19, and a far better place to understand the threat to our health and wealth from the lockdown. We had to make difficult decisions in a certain ignorance at the beginning, but we can now reflect on our own experience and that of other countries.
  • Conservatives believe in a free society. We are better placed to assess our own risks, and this is now true with Covid-19. Is it morally right to keep a man or woman isolated from their children and grandchildren for months or years? To have them waste away in misery during their final years as we wait for a vaccine to come to the rescue. A vaccine that cannot be given to babies, is likely to be relatively ineffective for the elderly and may not be that good anyway. Some vulnerable people will want to shield, and we should do all we can to support them but let others enjoy their lives with their friends and family.

We need to start trusting the people or the people will lose trust in the politicians and their advisors. There is another way, and it is not about letting the virus rip.

Burnham is trying to face both ways on lockdown restrictions

15 Oct

Andy Burnham, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, is a shrewd politician. Within a few months of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, Burnham concluded that the hard Left were destined to prove themselves right in their long-standing contention that there is “no Parliamentary road to socialism.” Rather than sit on the Oppositiion benches, if he wanted to exercise power it would require a new role. Given that at the General Election last year, his constituency of Leigh was gained by the Conservatives, it’s unlikely Burnham has any regrets.

Given his political experience, Burnham is familiar with producing forms of words designed to reconcile what are irreconcilable positions. He certainly wishes to disguise, if possible, a split in his stance and that of, Sir Keir Starmer, his Party leader.

Yet when it comes to his stance on the lockdown, Burnham’s efforts to maintain contradictory positions surely leave his credibility in shreds. At present, Greater Manchester is at the “Tier 2” level of restrictions. Burnham argues strongly that it would be wrong to increase it to “Tier 3” the level being applied in Liverpool. He has gone so far as to threaten legal action against the Government over such a proposal. The logic being such an imposition would be unnecessary – or even counterproductive. Yet at the same time, Burnham has indicated his support for a new national lockdown – which would be far more draconian than the situation currently being applied in Liverpool.

One of the criticisms of the Government’s approach to local lockdowns is that the areas they cover are too wide. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, was among the signatories to a letter which argued that as “decision making must balance difficult trade-offs. This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).” There is a strong case to be made for greater targetting. But would a fullscale national lockdown constitute a “more nuanced approach”?

Thus we have this statement from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which sought to combine the messages that the restrictions went too far – as well as going not far enough.  It starts off:

“We do not believe we should be put into Tier 3 for two reasons. First, the evidence does not currently support it. The rate of Covid infection in Greater Manchester is much lower, at 357.6 cases per 100,000, compared to Liverpool City Region which is in Tier 3 at 488.0 cases per 100,000. Plus our hospital admission rate is much lower than in LCR as Deputy CMO, Jonathan Van Tam, highlighted in his press conference this week. Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 7-day rolling average Covid patients in beds is at around the 225 mark and in Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust it’s at the 100 mark. Second, the financial package accompanying Tier 3 is nowhere near sufficient to prevent severe hardship, widespread job losses and business failure.”

But it continues:

“If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the Government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that Tier 3 areas will need, then a number of Leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option. This would create the conditions for a re-set of the Test and Trace service into a more locally-controlled operation which, with cases driven down to a lower level, would be more likely to succeed.”

Note the reference to “a number of”. It was a reference the Labour leader missed at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Sir Keir stated:

“I think the Prime Minister is behind the curve again. He probably has not noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he just quoted, including the Mayor and the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, said in a press statement that they support a circuit break above tier 3 restrictions—keep up, Prime Minister.”

Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Leader of Bolton Council has made clear that he was misrepresented by the Labour leader. Why has Sir Keir not apologised?

How long would Burnham be willing to back a “circuit breaker” lasting for? The statement doesn’t set a limit. Sir Keir has proposed that “two or three weeks” restrictions would include all “non essential” offices being closed, as well as pubs and restaurants. What if case numbers don’t fall? Would Burnham favour another two or three weeks? What if they fell a certain amount, but SAGE advised that rather than full liberalisation, certain areas – such as Greater Manchester, perhaps – should be on Tier 3? Would Burnham agree?

As Burnham is willing to support a “circuit break” of undefined length, what if he finds that there is a difficulty for The Treasury in stumping up the “required financial support” he so breezily calls for. The statement refers to “a furlough scheme of at least 80 per cent of wages offered to all businesses forced to close or severely affected.” But the idea that funding for a second national lockdown would be as generous – or more generous – than provided for the first one is fantasy.

There is a serious case to be made for more restrictions. There is a serious case to be made against. Burnham’s tortuous efforts to put forward both cases at once are a dire failure of leadership.