Everyone will have been shocked and saddened by the appalling accident on the A-4 between Calne and Chippenham over the weekend, in which four young people were tragically killed. Their friends and family will be consumed with grief, and perhaps more gnawingly, with self-doubts as to if there was anything that they could have done to prevent it. All of our hearts go out to their parents and friends.
It would be wrong to speculate on the reasons behind the crash, and I will certainly be looking very carefully at whether improvements can be made either with regard to speed limits, or to the design of what really does seem to be a dangerous patch of road.
Young people have been disproportionately affected by the events of the last few months. Lockdown must have been a bit of nightmare for at least some of them. They want to be out and about seeing friends and doing stuff. Not having to go to school must have seemed like good fun to begin with; but I am certain that most of them now deeply regret it and are yearning to get back in the new term.
The fiasco (of policy and even more so handling) of the A Levels and now GCSE results must have made things so much worse. They were prevented from taking their exams, and now some algorithm has decided that they may not be able to go to their University of choice. The whole thing is descending into a shambles, and I have written to the Secretary of State both to raise some tragic individual cases from my constituency, but also to let him know that I cannot accept his stance on the subject.
The only way out of it now seems to me to be to accept the recommendations of the teachers, realising that that may well result in ‘grade inflation’- a matter which will make Universities’ entrance procedures a great deal more complex- but which we can sort out in subsequent years.
Add to all of that the fact that they cannot travel overseas (do you remember the inter-railing and backpacking we used to do?); that there are still real restrictions over what they can do within the UK; that with the Pandemic economic collapse of recent weeks, the jobs market will inevitably be affected; and that anyhow, they seem to have less clarity of direction with regard to career than we did; throw into the mix the angst and hormone changes that we all experienced in our teens and you have a pretty toxic mix.
So it may not be great getting older (although it is better than the alternative!); and as you read this I will be under the excellent surgeon’s knife putting right some bits which seem to have worn out. But it is, at least for now, a lot better than being young again. If only we could be young, but with all the wisdom and benefits, and relative wealth we now enjoy in later life. I guess it was ever thus….
The MP for North Wiltshire, James Gray visited Malmesbury School on Friday to hear about the students’ experiences during the Covid-19 outbreak and see how they found remote learning. Mr Gray was given a tour by Heads Tim Gilson and John Barrett to see how the current arrangements are working, and met with students in Years 7 and 10 to hear how they had found the experience. The school was also able to highlight the plans that they have in place for the new term, when the whole school will be returning.
James Gray said:
“I was extremely impressed with the excellent arrangements and plans put in place by the school to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and the hard work shown by the members of staff. The students all had a very positive attitude and had clearly worked hard, despite these very difficult circumstances.
I know that teachers and parents alike will no doubt be looking forward to schools opening fully in September, and it is great to see that Malmesbury School have put all the necessary measures in place to ensure a safe return. I have heard from a number of constituents over the lockdown period who were also very impressed by the help provided by the school and I am very grateful for their hard work during this time.”
None of us yet know the details of what Mr Cummings did, nor why. It may be that more will emerge in the coming days to justify (or to condemn) his behaviour.
But for now I believe that at a time when thanks to his advice we are all going through Lockdown, our personal circumstances very often being a great deal worse than his, it most certainly does look like a double standard to apparently ignore his own advice.
That is without question the perception throughout the Land.
I therefore do think that unless and until he can justify what he did, he should face the consequences of it and give up his role as a Government adviser. Having him continuing at the heart of Government undermines our credibility and the strength of our message. Over the next few difficult weeks and months we need the full confidence of the people if they are to agree to the steps which will be necessary both for their lives and for their livelihoods. And for that to happen they need to have full confidence in the Government which is asking them to do it.
So it is my view that Mr Cummings should at very least step back from Government with no further delay.
Over the weekend I was one of the Conservative MPs who called for Mr Cummings’s resignation or sacking. Of the 1000 or so emails I received, nearly all spoke of their outrage at what Mr Cummings had done; at the contrast with ‘ordinary people’ who were religiously observing Lockdown; of the tragedies and misery that many of them had had to endure as a result. I could feel the very real frustration and anger that Mr Cummings might be about to ‘get away with it.’ I had - and have to this day - every sympathy with those views; and as a representative MP made sure that the Chief Whip, Chairman of the Party and Prime Minister were well aware of them.
I then watched Mr Cummings’ extraordinary press conference in the Rose Garden of No 10 (why was he granted that rare privilege?), and I did, to a degree, develop some sympathy for him in his plight. His wife was showings signs of Covid, as were many of his co-workers in No 10, including the Prime Minister. His house had been under siege from protestors and journalists, and he was concerned that there would be no-one to look after his four-year-old child in the event that both parents went down with the virus. I do have some sympathy with his concerns, and the way he expressed them in the Press Conference. He foresaw a potential catastrophe for his family, and he acted as he thought best.
I am also concerned by what has become a media circus - even a witch hunt - which has been deeply unattractive and may well be politically motivated. It does feel a bit like trial by the mob. I am conscious of Mr Cummings’ extraordinary (if sometimes controversial) capabilities as an adviser, his central role in Brexit (which I supported), and in the December 2019 General Election. His departure would be a sad loss for the PM, for the Government and, in reality, for the Nation as a whole at this very difficult time in our history.
Nonetheless, I do still have significant reservations about Mr Cummings’ conclusion that driving to his parents’ house near Durham was the best solution to his personal crisis, knowing as he must have done that this was, at very least, close to breaching the Lockdown regulations which he himself had helped draft. A great many people who have written to me describe far more harrowing circumstances, despite which they kept strictly to the Lockdown rules. There are a number of other elements of his statement which make me feel uneasy. I am less than convinced, for example, about his reasoning for his drive to Castle Barnard, and the stop in the woods on the way back.
I am therefore reluctant to modify the view which I expressed in emails and on my website over the weekend calling for his resignation. I remain unhappy with his actions, which I do believe breached the spirit if not the letter of the lockdown rules. And I do still believe that if everyone acted as he did, those rules would become entirely unenforceable.
It may well have been poor judgement rather than anything worse. I think he was rather foolish in his decisions, perhaps partly explained by the huge strain he was under in his job and his private life at the time.
But over the next few difficult weeks and months we need the full confidence of the people if they are to agree to the steps which will be necessary to safeguard both their lives and for their livelihoods. And for that to happen they have to have full confidence in the Government which is asking them to do it. Mr Cummings’ questionable behaviour has undermined that trust. It can only be rebuilt if he now departs the scene.
As the Prime Minster starts to lay out some very baby steps towards ending Lockdown, we are all quite naturally beginning to turn our thinking towards what it will all look like post-Covid. When will we go back to work/school, when can we visit our relatives, when can we go the pub for a pint, or the restaurant for a decent (English) steak? All of those are, of course, perfectly reasonable questions, which will become increasingly clear as the weeks wear on.
Yet without diminishing any of them, can I suggest a slightly different psychological approach to Covid? Surely we now have a great opportunity to ask not “what will it look like?” but: “what do we want it to look like?” In a very real sense, for the first time since 1945, we have a blank sheet of paper in front of us on which we can paint a picture of the Britain we all would truly like to see. It’s the Covid equivalent of the old JFK quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” What changes might there now be to our way of life - for the benefit of us all and of the generations to come after us? Here are a few ideas.
There are lessons to be learned from Lockdown about our way of life, family life, work/life balance. We can now see the great benefits of a slower pace than we have been indoctrinated to believe we need. If we can work from home we should do so, (and incidentally help the environment by cutting down on commuting.) There seems to be good evidence that many of us work better and harder and more effectively from home. I suspect that employers are finding greater productivity and of course foresee a reduction in workplace overheads as a result.
I hope that we have reminded ourselves of the importance (albeit with stresses and strains) of family life. Eating together, playing together, being self-sufficient within our own houses. I know that we have come to appreciate the outdoors, personal exercise and Mother Nature. We have been reminded in general both about what life used to be like in previous times; and we have been shown what we ought to want life to be like. Slower, friendlier, more sociable.
Second, we have been reminded about Community. It’s all got to do with the Dunkirk spirit. It’s about helping each other out; about volunteering; and being truly grateful to the people who make such great sacrifices for all of us - in particular the NHS, care workers, police, fire and ambulance, the armed services. How lucky we are in this country. We must do more to appreciate and preserve these great national services.
And third, Covid-19 has reminded us all how fragile life is. It can be snatched away from us at a moment’s notice. And that, I think, teaches us to appreciate the little things that are so good in life - family, friends, laughter and love. These are the things which truly matter- not money, not status, not power, not belongings. These things are transitory. Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is love.
So as Covid passes - and we all hope and pray that it is starting to do just that - let us ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Let us value the things which truly matter, of which we have been reminded over the last few months. Let us preserve the quality of life, the better environment, the new experiences and emotions which Lockdown has taught us. Let us not ask: “What’s the future going to look like?”, so much as “what do we truly want it to look like,” and “what can I personally do to make sure it happens like that?”
Britain can be a much better place post-Covid, and we can be better - and nicer - people all round.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.