I (perhaps reluctantly) supported the Government on Tuesday evening in bringing in the new Tier system, despite plenty of siren voices beseeching me not to do so. I am particularly concerned about pubs and hotels, many of which are facing a bleak winter. And when I was showing my new Private Secretary Jenny Fleischer round the patch on Thursday, I was surprised how many pubs had opted to stay shut, substantial meals or not.
My reasoning for supporting the Government was very straightforward. According to the Secretary of State for Health’s latest Covid-19 Situation Report for the South West, the fact is that rates are rising quite sharply in rural Wiltshire. Purton, for example is (surprisingly) one of the worst hotspots in all of Wiltshire at least partly thanks to long term care homes in the area; while neighbouring regions such as South Gloucestershire and Bristol are in Tier Three – the highest level of restrictions. Both Swindon and Wiltshire hospitals are reporting increasing admissions. So I do fear that the restrictions even in very rural parts of Wiltshire really are necessary if we are to combat this virus and especially if we are to allow some slackening off over Christmas. I believe the Precautionary Principle applies here - if we act, we hope to avoid a likely disaster. If that disaster is imaginary, then we pay a price for it, but a lower price than we would pay if the predictions turned out to be true and we had not taken the appropriate actions. After all, if as a result of my vote hundreds of my constituents became infected, seriously ill or died, then I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.
What’s more, we have the vaccine to look forward to shortly, and I for one am very hopeful that life may well be starting to return to normal by about Easter. Pfizer and BioNTech's announcement that the vaccine they have been developing appears to be 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants was most welcome news. The Government is facing a massive logistical exercise in getting the vaccine out; and it will without a doubt take many months altogether. But it will be done, and we will be able to look back with thanks and gratitude to all of those who made it possible. In the words of the Royal Wootton Bassett motto, “We Honour Those Who Serve.”
I am especially concerned about the elderly, the sick, the bereaved or the lonely, who may well be facing a bleaker time than expected thanks to all of this. Our hearts go out to them and their families. All of the fuss which some people are making about what they can or cannot do with various branches of their families must be a bitter sound to those who have no families to fuss about. So, it may be a small thing, but if you happen to know of anyone who would feel a little better if they got a Christmas card from their local MP, then please do let me know with a name and address, and I will see what I can do. (I have quite a few left over from previous years which might be deserving of a good home.)
I will use any profit I might get from the sale of my new book, Wiltshire to Westminster - a collection of these columns stretching back all told to 1997 (but heavily edited I assure you) – to pay for the postage. So if you are kind enough to order one (and an early order will make delivery by Christmas possible), then you can also know that it is going to a good cause. Details are on my website, jamesgray.org.
Times are tough, and we are by no means through the worst yet. But the figures do seem to be levelling off, the Lockdown does indeed seem to have worked, and the early delivery of the vaccine, and its promised efficacy is something to look forward to. But we have to be strong until then and abide by the rules, difficult as it may be for all of us.
It may not be the Christmas season we hoped for but let us help each other through it as best we can, and things will be looking brighter with the New Year.
In the chaos and confusion which is today’s world, sometimes you are just reminded of what really matters in life. For me, it was the birth (at 6 AM) on Tuesday morning of my first grandchild, Frederick Evelyn Gray Barker. At a moment like that, somehow or another, nothing else matters.
Pandemics will come and go, the economy and spending review will sooner or later seem ancient history; little local matters like Dominic Cummings (good riddance), Priti Patel (who I support), Christmas bubbles (to which I am very much looking forward) - all of these things disappear into distant perspective by the arrival of this new little life.
My daughter, Olivia, gave me the great news by video call just a few seconds before I was due to chair the Environment Bill Committee, and I was glad to be only slightly out of order by announcing the birth when the little fellow was only 3 hours old. He can put the Hansard extract up on his nursery wall!
It was only then that the true importance of the Bill we were discussing came home to me - long after we are all gone; long after these political squabbles disappear under the waves; when little Freddie is 80 years old as we go into the next century; what we were discussing in the Environment Bill - one of the most wide reaching and radical reviews of our environmental laws and regulations in a generation - will still be of huge importance. This Bill is truly not just for now, not even for our children, but for our children’s children. So I hope that one day little Freddie will be pleased that his birth was announced during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Olivia should be anyhow - she is a committed conservationist and environmentalist.
Two days later Rishi Sunak had to give the Nation notice of some of the worst economic figures in generations as a result of the Pandemic. We are in the midst of an unheard-of economic crisis, and its effects will be with us for a long time to come. I welcome the various steps the Chancellor has taken to try to minimise its consequences in all of our lives. But we all know that everything ultimately has to be paid for one way or another. I very much regret, for example, the reduction in spending on Overseas Aid (although I was always opposed to it being written into law); and of course, I am sorry about public sector pay (except for the NHS) being frozen. But the Chancellor has to find the money from somewhere; and no source of funding to pay for the Pandemic is going to be popular.
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement is doing what it can to protect people’s lives and livelihoods. The fact is that there has been a sheer collapse in the economy, that unemployment will increase and people will feel the consequences in their everyday lives in so many ways. But what Rishi Sunak announced was designed to see us through the worst of it. It already has. Had we not had furlough, for example, from last March, we would be facing a far worse catastrophe than we are. So we need to plough on through it, pay the price, but try to keep the pain to its minimum. Keep our heads down. Battle through the storm and look to better times to come.
If you were that way inclined, you would be forgiven for being a bit gloomy right now. Second lockdown, disease and death, economic uncertainty, the world in turmoil. The time of year breeds gloom- the trees more or less bare; rain, fog. Even the wonderful Remembrance events in their truncated form are hardly designed to make us cheery.
Yet as Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” It is, after all in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars. And we do suddenly have some glimpses of hope to come.
The Pfizer announcement of a workable vaccine, and the NHS determination to get it (and the other vaccines in advanced state of development) out to patients as soon as possible; mass testing, and tests with more or less immediate results suddenly look possible; even the much maligned Test and Trace system is looking better. The figures are still pretty dire- especially for Covid related deaths. But they tend to follow the infection figures by two or three weeks, and the number of those becoming ill seems to have levelled off. Even the ‘R’ factor is looking better in most parts of the country. So the Tier system, followed by total Lockdown seems to be working.
A sensible plan to get all students tested and those who are clear allowed home for Christmas has been developed; the chances of having a decent family Christmas suddenly seem brighter. Even the economy is showing signs of recovery - 16% growth in the few months between Lockdowns, which shows the resilience of the Demand side of the equation. There will still be tough times to come but these figures show that a ‘V’ shaped Recession is at least possible. After all, our expectations and standards of living are the same as they were before Covid, and our means of supplying that demand pretty much still in place. So why should the fundamentals of the economy not be just as strong as they were this time last year? The Stock Market and money markets seem to indicate some confidence that that is indeed the case.
The wider world too is suddenly looking brighter. There will be all kinds of shenanigans to come with the Brexit negotiations - there always are with EU negotiations. But it seems to me very likely that there will be a final agreement by the end of the year, and we will leave the EU on good terms, and safeguard our future by it. I have my reservations about Joe Biden, but at least we can hope for a degree of stability in the USA. Do you remember ‘Chemical Ali’ declaring that Saddam had won the war just as the American tanks were rolling into Baghdad? Spin doctors should know their place (Messrs Cummings and Cain to note.) Donald Trump must now accept that the game is up and leave the White House with whatever shreds of dignity are left to him.
So my prediction is that in the New Year - or at least by Easter - Covid will be starting to recede; the world will be a calmer place; we will have finally left the EU closing the Brexit chapter; and the economy will be less dire than some predictions would have you believe. There is suddenly a speck of light at the far distant end of a variety of tunnels, and what we must do is cheer up and make it happen.
The overblown fuss about the long overdue departure of Mr Cummings just proves that the moment that the Spin Doctor becomes the story is the moment that he has outlived his usefulness. Barnard Castle was the beginning of his end. And the subsequent events of the week demonstrate his redundancy (despite the PM having to self-isolate in Downing Street). For there is plenty going on, and plenty to be very cheerful about.
There is suddenly a great deal of good news about the Covid vaccine - both Pfizer and Oxford, Astra Zeneca and others. It has suddenly become possible to imagine a world (or at least a Britain) without Covid. Ministers are wrestling with plans to allow a (relatively) normal Christmas, although there may well be a price to be paid in the number of days of Lockdown.
De Profundis - out of the depths, I cry to you, and am certain that my cry will be answered.
The Government’s announcement of a ten-point plan to kick-start the green revolution has been welcomed by all bar the most committed of climate change sceptics. The expansions of protected landscapes, increased access to nature, stronger flood resilience, the creation and retention of thousands of green jobs, the announcement of new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as the Landscape Recovery Projects - who would not welcome it all? I am currently chairing the Committee Stage of the massive Environment Bill, which similarly lays out an exciting green future for the UK, as well as transferring all of the EU environmental safeguards onto the UK Statute Book. It’s a massive task - five hours a day in Committee on Tuesdays and Thursdays (shared with a Labour colleague) - wading through the minutiae of the Bill. It has 232 pages, 130 sections and 20 massive schedules, and every word can be debated. For example, there are at least 30 amendments deleting the word ‘may’; and inserting ‘must’ instead. It’s a great Bill welcomed by all sides, and I hope it will also be good law once it has been through this rigorous process.
Then on Thursday, the Government announced the biggest increase in defence spending since the end of the Cold War, which I very strongly welcome. Much of it is for ‘modern warfare’ – drones, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition; and the overall modernisation of the armed services. It may well still entail some painful losses - main battle tanks, for example, may be under scrutiny. So, some traditionalists may well be disappointed that their favourite bit of defence is a casualty of the modern digital era. But a 10% increase every year in defence spending is of huge importance in this new World of a Globally Focussed United Kingdom.
So, no-one is irreplaceable. The departing teenage scribblers from No. 10 probably thought (perhaps hoped) that the whole great edifice would come tumbling down without them. The week’s events and announcements demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth.
As a pretty dyed-in-the -wool libertarian, my heart strongly inclined me towards rebelling against yesterday’s Lockdown 2 Parliamentary vote. How can any free democratic government take actions which threaten the very livelihoods of so many of its citizens? How can it dictate who we see and when and how; how can it prevent families form visiting their old folk; how can it come between a husband and wife? These and so many other Covid-induced restrictions go against my most fundamental of freedom-loving instincts. And 30 or so of my colleagues did indeed vote against the Government, and others spoke out in the limited debate we were allowed on the matter. I salute them for the strength and clarity of their convictions.
And yet…and yet…. Opinions wax and wane about the models, figures and predictions which the scientists have used to persuade the Government to take this action; indeed there are ample statistics to be used by both sides of the argument to prove their correctness; but the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists, epidemiologists, statisticians alike is that if we do not do something about the dramatic explosion of the virus, then we will see mass infections across the Nation, hospitals will be unable to handle the numbers; death and misery will follow.
Now I am no kind of a scientist; but I do feel that we have to accept their conclusions. If my libertarian instincts had led to the Lockdown not happening, and if as a result of my vote hundreds of my constituents became infected, seriously ill or died, then I would be not be able to live with myself. How can any MP be expected to take an action which, if the expert advice is to be believed, would result in misery for hundreds of the people they strive to represent?
After all, if the scientific predictions turn out to have been incorrect (as some of the Covid deniers would argue), then there is of course a heavy economic and personal price to be paid for their error; but that is, in my view, less likely to be as catastrophic as if we accept their advice. In other words, the Precautionary Principle applies here - if we act, we hope to avoid a likely disaster. If that disaster is imaginary, then we pay a price for it, but a lower price than we would pay if they are correct in their predictions, but we had not acted to reverse it. We can put an unnecessary economic price right; we cannot reverse needless illness, deaths and misery which would be caused by our inaction.
So that is why I voted to support the Government- my heart told me not to; but on this occasion my heard prevailed. President Trump’s (likely) demise is rather similar. I instinctively support the Republicans and am deeply wary about the 78-year-old socialist, Mr Biden. Yet my head tells me that President Trump is a huge personal liability, and that there is so much about him which is simply unacceptable in a civilised and liberal democracy. His method of departure- through the courts- has all the hallmarks of the worst kind of bad loser. Hilary Clinton stands in sharp contrast- honourably and quietly withdrawing from the field after a bitter defeat. My head tells me that the World will be a better place under Biden than Trump, even if my natural instincts tell me otherwise.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.