The work of parliament this week has been dominated by consideration of further measures designed to restrict the spread of covid 19. Putting aside the strangeness of parliament determining, for perhaps the first time since the age of the Puritans, the detail of where and when we may all sing and dance, there are some profoundly serious difficult decisions to be taken here. I hear regularly from constituents who are deeply distressed that their lives are on hold, they cannot visit relatives in care homes in the way they and their loved ones need, or that the business they have built up or to the job they have done for many years is now at greater risk than ever before. I also hear from constituents, many with underlying medical problems, who are terrified of the effect of the virus on their health or that of boundaries. The underlying balance that has to be struck between protecting lives and protecting livelihoods remains as difficult for legislators as sees for government.
This week, there were specific decisions to make , and I want to focus on two in particular. The first is whether it is right to take a regional approach to restrictions rather a solely national one, I think it must be. Although there are risks and resentments and potential confusion in applying rules in one part of the country that do not apply to others and challenges in establishing logical borders for the areas affected, the expert evidence presented in the briefings I have attended, nationally and locally demonstrates clearly that the picture of infection and transmission varies significantly across the country. The situation in Merseyside is not (or at least not yet) the situation in Warwickshire. Implementing measures needed to control the virus in Merseyside across the whole country would have a disproportionate effect on the economy of Warwickshire without a convincing public health justification. It must also be right that, as the extent of viral infection changes in a locality, so should the response. Although that makes it harder for everyone to plan, the alternative is that restrictions are imposed too late, or left in effect for too long.
The second decision to be made this week by the House of Commons was on the extent to which hospitality venues and businesses should be able to operate. Again, the regional approach will have a bearing on this, with venues in areas of greater restriction consequentially able to do less, but some constraints apply everywhere. One of the most controversial is the so-called ’10pm curfew’, under which pubs and restaurants must in almost all circumstances, close by 10pm. This has a known impact on the profitability of those business but also, as many have observed, has coincided with scenes of many people congregating together on the streets as 10pm arrives. The complaint against this policy are therefore that it punishes businesses doing their best to operate responsibly and that the its public health benefits are undermined by the behaviour of those leaving them. I have considerable sympathy for responsible owners, licenses and managers who I accept are doing all they can do reduce the spread of the virus in their premises, but the inescapable logic of the virus is that it spreads more where people congregate. If schools are to be kept open, and the economy kept running in other sectors, restrictions have to be made elsewhere, assuming that we seek to restrict infection, as I strongly believe we must as the interests of those most vulnerable among us, who may well become infected by others. Of course, that cannot mean hospitality businesses obliged to open less or not at all should be left without compensation, on which there is much more to say elsewhere.
I sympathise too with the argument that the achievements of partial closure can be undone by irresponsible behaviour on the street but no policy will have perfect effect and the efficacy of the this one can be enhanced dramatically by responsible behaviour of the kind we should all expect in a period of public health crisis.
So, in both decisions we are choosing the least worst of imperfect options. On balance, I accept that the complexity of a regional approach is necessary to provide the adaptability that seeks to avoid unnecessary economic damage, and I accept that some time open for hospitality businesses is better than no time, which is the likely alternative. I therefore support the measures which are now in force.
I understand and regret that they will cause continued difficulty and upset for many, but I believe they represent the best way to preserve what economic activity we can, consistent with the serious threat to public health that covid 19 remains.