Lockdown - the need for a moral consensus
On Monday Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care introduced a debate to consider COVID-19. Matt made the point that this coronavirus is a communitarian disease that passes from person-to-person among those who are closest to one another, so the best way to tackle it is as a community. My contribution to the debate focussed on this notion of community and how important it was that future lockdowns take account of the need for a moral consensus alongside any scientific consensus.
It is with a heavy heart that I decided to vote in favour of the new 28 day lockdown.
I am acutely aware of the damaging effect that the restrictions are having and will continue to have on families, jobs and businesses in our constituency and I fully understand the feelings of the many constituents who have contacted me to say that they don’t think that another lockdown is the right way forward.
But, while I am deeply reluctant to see another lockdown, I supported the measures for two reasons. Firstly, while the picture is mixed across the UK, Barnsley Hospital is one of the worst affected hospitals in the country and we must do whatever we can to stop local healthcare becoming overwhelmed. Secondly, from the vast number of conversations and briefings I have had, with the Secretary of State for Health, Government scientists and this morning with Sir Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust Director, I believe that we can have a good level of confidence that advances in testing technology and vaccines will enable us to substantially reduce restrictions in the next few months. If this is the case, then this short-term lockdown can be justified to get the infection back under control.
"I do not envy my Government colleagues who have had to make such difficult decisions over the past few months. Although the first lockdown was drastic, it was justified by our lack of knowledge of the disease, how it spreads and whom it affects. I commend the Government for making rapid, bold decisions, and we must not forget just how much was achieved in such a short space of time: expansion of testing capacity, the building of the Nightingale hospitals, the logistical achievement of delivering PPE to thousands of new locations and, of course, huge packages of financial support. Those are significant successes, and I take issue with those who fill the airwaves with a constant stream of negativity and criticism.
No new challenge is met without bumps in the road and to overcome them, we must observe, reflect, change, adapt and persevere.
That is what this Government have done. None-the-less, there is no doubt that, although the first lockdown slowed the spread of the virus, it caused huge damage to society. That is why I so deeply regret that we must face such measures again, although from the data presented by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I do see that we must act.
I want to make three requests of my colleagues in Government for whom, as I have said, I do have the greatest of respect and admiration.
Firstly, I ask that we keep schools open in all circumstances. Unlike in March, we now know that COVID-19 presents almost no danger to children, but missing out on education is dangerous. Not only have children fallen behind alarmingly, but the social and developmental costs to our children are huge.
Secondly, I urge the Government to use this second lockdown to make plans and preparations to avoid subsequent lockdowns, whether that is further expansion of the NHS, additional plans for shielding, or further testing. We must make sure that we never have to take this action again.
Lastly, I ask that we begin a national conversation about our future response to the pandemic that is based not just on data, evidence or science, important though those things are, but on morality and values.
We have to face the fact that this virus may be circulating for years to come, that we may never find an effective vaccine and that testing may never control the spread. In those circumstances, how will we respond? This disease primarily affects older people, yet young people will bear the economic cost, perhaps for their whole working lives. Right now, we must protect the NHS and save lives, but, in the context of existing generational inequality, we must ask: is this morally acceptable in the long-term?
More than half a million people die each and every year in the UK. The majority of people who have died this year have not died from COVID, but they have spent their final year separated from friends and family, unable to do what they love, and watching their loved ones lose jobs, businesses and opportunities. In the short term, that has been necessary, but for how much longer is it morally justifiable?
Since the beginning of human history, gathering together has been essential for our wellbeing. In every religion and culture, festivals, meetings and family relationships are central to tradition, because our relationships define us and outside of relationships we cannot flourish. It is not good for man to be alone. Loneliness kills, yet right now, many of us are alone. For how long is that morally acceptable?
If this lockdown and our endeavours do not reduce the spread of the virus enough to permanently lift these restrictions, we must seek a moral consensus on the way forward, not just a scientific one.
As I have said, I do not envy those with such a heavy responsibility at this time and the nation owes them a huge debt of gratitude, but let us use this time to keep schools open, prepare ourselves further and find a moral consensus for the way ahead."