Emily Carver: Why ministers were wrong to overrule official advice on vaccinating school pupils

15 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.

This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.

The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.

This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.

The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.

The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.

However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?

Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.

The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.

In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.

According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.

More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?

The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.

However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.

Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.

It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.

“We have prepared a Plan B”. The Health Secretary’s Commons statement – full text

14 Sep

“Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.

Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.

Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.

Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.

There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.

Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.

This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.

As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.

Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.

The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.

Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.

Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.

Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.

The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.

Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.”

Bim Afolami: The big question facing Johnson. What does fiscal conservatism mean in an age of the big state?

12 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Over the next few months, the Prime Minister and his Government will set out the key policy choices in two key areas – the spending review and planning reform. The political choices made here will tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister’s brand of conservatism, and therefore where the Party is heading.

The Spending Review that takes place this autumn will set out departmental spending for 2022/2023. The easiest option for the Prime Minister, especially bearing in mind our new political coalition (which includes many more voters of lower and middle income than under previous governments), is to plough as much cash into public services as possible to build back better after Covid.

The NHS faces a huge challenge over this winter not just with Coronavirus, but also with treatment backlogs piling up. There are challenges with education catch-up funding, as well as local government shortfalls. Any government seen to be failing on those fronts would face a major problem come election time.

However, the medium term fiscal challenge is daunting. The UK saw the fourth largest increase in government borrowing (as a percentage of GDP) among 35 advanced economies in 2020 (after Canada, Norway and Singapore). Even if our economic bounce back is stronger than originally thought (and there is evidence for this), there are real risks to the Government’s fiscal plans from the fact that the increased government spending, due to Covid, means that some departments will have less money to spend for the rest of the parliament.

Compared to the spending plans pre-pandemic, in autumn 2020 spending totals in government departments were cut by £14.5 billion a year. At the same time, overall public spending is still forecast to be higher as a share of GDP in the medium term than it was pre- pandemic.

The fundamental choice is this: is the Prime Minister going to be a Conservative who wants to continue with a high level of public spending, accepting higher borrowing and higher taxes; or will he seek to pare back the state, introduce more private sector funding where possible, and take on those who seem to want higher spending for everything at every turn?

Although the second course is one that many traditional fiscal conservatives (and the Treasury) would favour, let us not underestimate the sustained political effort that would be required to make that argument at this stage.

Not increasing government spending, or indeed at times cutting it, is not popular. During my four years in Parliament, I have seen numerous instances of Conservative governments trying to hold the line on spending and suffering real political damage (i.e: concern over school funding in 2017/18).

Yet seeking to keep higher levels of spending and borrowing not only increases the risk of inflation (which is creeping up anyway due to global macroeconomic factors), but it also cuts to the heart of why so many people vote Conservative – an understanding that we are careful stewards of the public finances and will maintain good economic conditions.

Throw in the wider commitment to increase spending in order to “level up” the North, and many traditional Conservatives will start to take flight. My view is that the only way to help square this circle is to rediscover our concern for the importance of public service reform – to work on improving the public sector so that it can produce better outcomes without huge increases in spending. Without the ability to achieve better outcomes in public services, at a time when the state is a bigger part of people’s lives than since the 1960s, we will suffer badly at the next election.

Planning reform looks no easier. Even leaving aside the Parliamentary reality that many southern MPs are yet to be persuaded of the merits of reform, the decisions made will have a huge impact on the perception of who this Conservative Party is for. Who are our people?

In many areas of the Home Counties, where the increases in housebuilding will be the most politically salient, many traditional Conservatives regard significant housebuilding nearby as an attack on their sense of place and home. Even a cursory look at the results in the last local elections and the Chesham and Amersham by-election makes it clear that housing has the power to be electorally explosive.

Ultimately, there will need to be some more house-building in the South East (there already is!) and across the country. There may be a short term political price to pay for doing so in certain areas – that is the nature of being in government and having to take tough decisions.

But how do we limit the political damage and get the houses we need? We must ensure that development happens in the right way: protecting and enhancing our environment, sympathetically extending communities or creating new ones, and with local support. Neighbourhood Plans are a good feature of our current planning system which enable residents to set out what developments in their area should look like. We must ensure that these form a key part of the new process so that residents have more control over their local environments.

Modern conservatism will always treasure our past and champion the future. We have no future as a party – or indeed, as a property-owning democracy – if younger people cannot get on the housing ladder. But even if we achieve a large increase in the number of new homes, the evidence shows that it won’t put more than a small dent into affordability. As George Osborne’s former economic adviser Rupert Harrison said last week: “a decade of effort might knock two or three per cent off prices at best, just a few months of price growth at current rates. The reality is that high house prices — and indeed high prices for all assets — are a global phenomenon, and for almost 40 years there have been much more powerful forces at work: a huge fall in the interest rates set in financial markets”.

To improve home ownership amongst the young, we need to do more than just build more houses. We also need to change the mortgage market to allow for longer term (over 20 or 25 years) fixed rate mortgages which help solve the affordability problem for young people without much of a deposit. If we can do this and genuinely show younger people we are governing to help them get on in life, this will be recognised by them and (hopefully) by their parents and grandparents. If we allow the broken system to continue as it currently stands, we many retain the support of the few but be increasingly resented by the many.

These choices are not just normal mid-term difficulties. How the Prime Minister approaches them will determine the shape of how the modern Conservative Party is perceived. What does fiscal conservatism mean in an age of the big state? How will we push all levers to ensure that younger generations will be able to afford a decent home of their own whilst retaining our existing support?

McVey, Walker and Wragg. The most rebellious Conservative MPs in our survey of major votes.

22 Jun

Last week, ConservativeHome published a list of the 49 Conservative MPs who voted against the Coronavirus Regulations. As we said at the time, it was the biggest Covid rebellion since December 2, and a reminder that even if a Government has a huge majority, it can easily be rocked about by unprecedented events (a pandemic).

From 2020 and 2021, we have been keeping track of rebellions. It’s worth adding that rebellions can take various forms – Chris Green resigning as a ministerial aide, for instance – and that there have been many minor ones, so there may be one MP who is technically the most rebellious on less prominent issues. However, for the purpose of one article we’ve focused on major voting events. So who exactly has pushed back the most?

First of all, here is a list of the rebellions we tracked – with a nickname and link to recap on what each was about:

And without further ado, we can reveal that Esther McVey, Charles Walker and William Wragg are joint first in our “most rebellious MP” league table – with nine rebellions to their names. Here’s how they rebelled.

Esther McVey:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Third lockdown
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

Charles Walker:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

William Wragg:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus Regulations

MPs who have rebelled on eight occasions:

Graham Brady:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Philip Davies:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Richard Drax:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Andrew Rosindell:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Genocide Amendment
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Desmond Swayne:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on seven occasions:

Philip Hollobone:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus Regulations

Tim Loughton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Anne Marie Morris:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Henry Smith:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Robert Syms:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. 10pm curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on six occasions:

Peter Bone:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Christopher Chope:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 1
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Davis:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Tiers
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Stephen McPartland:

  1. Huawei
  2. Lockdown
  3. Tiers
  4. Third lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

John Redwood:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Warburton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Tiers
  3. Third lockdown
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations
Some more notes:
  • We have stopped with MPs who have rebelled a maximum of six times during this period (out of 10 in total).
  • It’s interesting to note that some “familiar faces” when one thinks of a Tory rebel aren’t included in our league – Mark Harper, for instance, who leads the Covid Recovery Group.
  • Lastly, there are some new faces to our rebellion list: Siobhan Baillie, Karen Bradley and Miriam Cates were some of the MPs to recently vote against Coronavirus regulations.

“I do think it is sensible to wait just a little longer.” The Prime Minister’s Covid statement. Full text.

14 Jun

“When we set out on our roadmap to freedom a few months ago, we were determined to make progress that was cautious but irreversible. And step by step – thanks to the enormous efforts of the British people and the spectacular vaccine roll-out we now have one of the most open economies and societies in this part of the world.

And as we have always known and as the February roadmap explicitly predicted – this opening up has inevitably been accompanied by more infection and more hospitalisation. Because we must be clear that we cannot simply eliminate Covid – we must learn to live with it. And with every day that goes by we are better protected by the vaccines and we are better able to live with the disease.

Vaccination greatly reduces transmission and two doses provide a very high degree of protection against serious illness and death. But there are still millions of younger adults who have not been vaccinated and sadly a proportion of the elderly and vulnerable may still succumb even if they have had two jabs.

And that is why we are so concerned by the Delta variant that is now spreading faster than the third wave predicted in the February roadmap. We’re seeing cases growing by about 64 per cent per week, and in the worst affected areas, it’s doubling every week. And the average number of people being admitted to hospital in England has increased by 50 per cent week on week, and by 61 per cent in the North West, which may be the shape of things to come. Because we know the remorseless logic of exponential growth and even if the link between infection and hospitalisation has been weakened it has not been severed.

And even if the link between hospitalisation and death has also been weakened, I’m afraid numbers in intensive care, in ICU are also rising. And so we have faced a very difficult choice. We can simply keep going with all of step 4 on June 21st even though there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue that could otherwise have been avoided.

Or else we can give our NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.
And since today I cannot say that we have met all four tests for proceeding with step four, I do think it is sensible to wait just a little longer.

By Monday 19th July we will aim to have double jabbed around two thirds of the adult population including everyone over 50, all the vulnerable, all the frontline health and care workers and everyone over 40 who received their first dose by mid-May.
And to do this we will now accelerate the 2nd jabs for those over 40 – just as we did for the vulnerable groups – so they get maximum protection as fast as possible.

And we will bring forward our target to give every adult in this country a first dose by 19th July that is including young people over the age of 18 with 23 and 24 year olds invited to book jabs from tomorrow – so we reduce the risk of transmission among groups that mix the most. And to give the NHS that extra time we will hold off step 4 openings until July 19th except for weddings that can still go ahead with more than 30 guests provided social distancing remains in place and the same will apply to wakes. And we will continue the pilot events – such as Euro2020 and some theatrical performances. We will monitor the position every day and if after 2 weeks we have concluded that the risk has diminished then we reserve the possibility of proceeding to Step 4 and full opening sooner.

As things stand – and on the basis of the evidence I can see right now – I am confident we will not need any more than 4 weeks and we won’t need to go beyond July 19th. It is unmistakably clear the vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the vaccine roll-out has made our position incomparably better than in previous waves.

But now is the time to ease off the accelerator because by being cautious now we have the chance – in the next four weeks – to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people. And once the adults of this country have been overwhelmingly vaccinated, which is what we can achieve in a short space of time, we will be in a far stronger position to keep hospitalisations down, to live with this disease, and to complete our cautious but irreversible roadmap to freedom.”

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.

The Government should give MPs more votes on the Coronavirus Act

27 Mar

When the Commons voted this week on extending the provisions of the Coronavirus Act (‘the Act’) many MPs focused on the apparent contradiction of the Government seeking to extend most of the regulations by a further six months even whilst ministers continued to insist that the nation is on-track to unlock in June.

This doesn’t mean that they have to run that long. The Act empowers ministers the date at which its provisions lapse by regulations. But it means that should they decide for whatever reason to try and extend lockdown until the autumn, Parliament would have no easy route to stop them.

One suspects that, once the crisis is passed, the legislative side of the pandemic will provide future politicians with more than a few pointers about what not to do. Some in Cabinet are reportedly arguing that it was naïve to allow the devolved governments to set their own public health regimes, forcing Westminster to try (and fail) to negotiate a ‘four-nation’ approach rather than simply delivering a one-nation one.

The long intervals on renewal built into the Coronavirus Act may be another. As it stands, ministers need only bring a motion before the House to get MPs’ authorisation to maintain its provisions every six months. If ever that seemed like a sensible timetable – and it’s important not to forget the environment in which the legislation was drafted – it seems excessive now.

For a Government with a majority of 80, the text of the Act is no barrier to remedying this situation. It ought to be perfectly straightforward to amend it so as to provide for parliamentary authorisation on a more regular basis. This would also be a gesture of goodwill towards the slowly-growing band of Conservative MPs opposed to the restrictions.

Should ministers fail to act, they may be able to ride the mandate of this week’s vote through the summer – but run into much more serious political difficulty renewing any provisions that might be necessary to combat a winter wave when the regulations come up for approval again in six months time.

Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve: Saturday’s vigil, its mishandling – and why we should be wary of this plan for more police powers

16 Mar

Steve Baker was a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Wycombe.  Dominic Grieve is a former Attorney General and MP for Beaconsfield.

Sarah Everard’s killing and the subsequent charging of a police officer with her murder are horrors which will have struck us all. Men need to relearn the basic courtesies that enable women to feel safe in public – including challenging those who continue to ignore them – and heed the message that so many women have tried to convey over the last few days.

In its aftermath, Saturday’s events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent and a vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law. Policymakers and lawmakers must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The police have been put in an invidious position by poorly enacted Coronavirus law. The police may consider that protests are banned, but as a briefing by Big Brother Watch explains that “whether or not protests are legally prohibited remains unclear.”

While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 contain a specific exemption on gathering for protests in Tiers 1-3, in Tier Four this exemption has been removed.

However, there is a credible argument that silent protest is still allowed as a common law right which has not been specifically banned. That has created an ambiguity which inevitably undermines Dame Cressida Dick’s claim in relation to the Clapham Common events that “unlawful gatherings are unlawful gatherings”.

Given the testimony to Parliament that there is very little evidence of outdoor transmission and no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, it is hard to see how it was a good policing decision at this stage in the pandemic to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force – a vigil attended privately earlier by the Duchess of Cambridge for very good reasons.

This serious fiasco has also become the context for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but it is not necessarily the right context through which to consider all the public order powers in the Bill. The willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt and by placing massive pressure on policing resources cannot just be ignored.

In January, Brandon Lewis clarified in the Commons that the Government did not consider Extinction Rebellion an extremist group. But others have suggested that some within it may aspire to undermine liberal democracy by mass protest of this kind, although it must be rather doubtful that this is the agenda of most of its supporters.

If the powers available to deal with such improbable radicalism in practice are really insufficient at present, then this may justify changing the law. But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.

The problem is that there is much in Part Three of the Bill to raise concerns that it may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance, and far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses – a practice of which our experience over Coronavirus ought to make us very wary.

In a free and democratic society, the right to protest in public is fundamental, and the presumption in favour of maintaining that right, even at the risk of its being occasionally abused, is paramount. The criticisms of this part of the Bill from many quarters should not be ignored, even as we ask critics to face up to new policing challenges.

The Bill, being so wide in its scope, also deals with many other issues unrelated to public order and demonstrations. Those voting against it at Second Reading, as the Official Opposition apparently intends to do, must explain and justify their doing so when there will be much in it that their constituents will want. South Buckinghamshire residents will want to deter unlawful encampments, for example.

Conversely, those MPs voting for the principle of the Bill today, because they wish to see parts of it enacted, must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties. Meanwhile, at this stage in the pandemic and the vaccination programme, the Government should proceed immediately to repeal all Covid-related restrictions on the right to protest, and remove the possibility of a recurrence of Saturday’s events.