Covid Decision Time

Every change to the Covid precautions produces a torrent of correspondence. It’s a topic on which virtually everyone has a view, some better informed than others, but all expressed in pretty extreme language. How have we all become such experts on epidemiology, parliamentary constitutional procedures, libertarian philosophy and economics under a pandemic? Most of us could probably write a book about it. Some of my regulars have done.

The reality is that there are four strands to every decision about Covid.

First is the Nanny State versus Individual Responsibility debate. Yet no matter how libertarian may be one’s instincts, the reality is that many of our fellow citizens are nowhere nearly as responsible as we are. The young, for example, perfectly reasonably argue that they are unlikely to die or even be very ill, so why should they not be allowed to get on with their lives? Indeed so, but you lot will then infect your elders.

Second is the Livelihoods versus Lives debate. If current restrictions go on for much longer, the consequences for the economy may well be so harsh and possibly permanent that it will cost many more lives through unemployment, suicide, poverty and starvation than would an uncontrolled pandemic (vide Sweden).

Third is the allied argument about freedom versus dictatorship. The Social Contract dictates that we give up only those freedoms necessary for the greater good of the greatest number. We sacrifice our liberties to the State because we accept it is overall to society’s benefit. But what happens when we disagree with what the government has decided? If we are of the view that masks are a waste of time, do we just ignore the regulation that we should wear them?

And fourth is the Government versus Parliament debate. Who is really in charge here? The Coronavirus Act is pretty totalitarian, allowing HMG to do more or less whatever it wants. Its six-monthly review is due next week. Should we freedom lovers support its extension for another 6 months? I have seconded Sir Graham Brady’s amendment which would require each decision to be endorsed by a vote in Parliament. Its legislative powers are being questioned.  But right now, a Zombie Parliament because of its various Covid-related procedures and the Covid Act means that people really have very little say as to what life should be like. That explains the frustration in some of their letters.

Now each of those debates is capable of clear and strong argument on either side. Yet there is no simple answer to any of them. They are the arguments which the Government, or the PM in particular, are constantly weighing up, and each decision tries to take account of them. My own view is that since just about everybody is objecting to one or another aspect of the rules and regulations, the Government have pretty much got it right with a pragmatic middle road.

The statistics - of infection, hospitalisation and death - will tell us how right they are, and also how much the general population have accepted the rightness of the rules and abided by them. The Government will not hesitate to tighten them up if not. So let’s stick with it for now in the hope they do not have to do so.

Our intense domestic fixation- with Covid and its handling, and with Brexit; with the minutiae of our own lives and criticisms of our perceptions of how the Government are to blame, risks blinding us to the wider world.

Yet there is an awful lot happening out there. What is China’s 200-year game plan? (That’s the kind of timeframe they think in.) What are the true consequences of their Belt and Road initiative? What are their long-term plans for Taiwan and the South China Sea? Are they likely to be an overt (or more probably covert) dominating force over the entire world within a generation? Was Covid intentional (surely not); or are they learning lessons from Covid for future use of Pandemic as a weapon of war? What of Russia? Are their cyber capabilities developing as fast as China, and might Cyber become a potent weapon of war in the near future? The Middle East seems to have gone quiet of late; and Islamic terrorism less visible; but we take our eye off that ball at our peril. Europe is going through a period of profound change- economically and politically, and not solely because of Brexit. And the outcome of the United States election in a couple of months’ time could well have consequences for us all (irrespective of which way it goes.) All of that is without touching on South America, Africa and India, large parts of which are in Covid meltdown. And over and behind it all is the ever-present threat of Climate Change, melting polar ice and weather extremes. The world is a dangerous place indeed.

The Government are nearing the end of their Comprehensive review of Foreign Policy, defence and overseas aid. There are some conclusions emerging already. I personally support the amalgamation of the aid department with the Foreign Office. Overseas aid should be an instrument of diplomacy as well as a humanitarian necessity. Then there seems to be a strong message emerging from discussions that our defence posture is out of date. Some traditional aspects of warfare (e.g. main battle tanks) may well be replaced by attack helicopters, and cyber, intelligence, special forces operations will replace more traditional infantry and gunnery skills. The Royal Marines may well see some real changes; and the Royal Navy and Air Force face deep cuts.

I personally wholly accept the need for us to reassess what our role should be in the World and alter our defence and diplomatic stance as a result. But that must not be camouflage for deep defence cuts for example to cover some of our Covid costs. That risk may alone make this the worst possible time for any such review.

 Not only am I strongly committed to increasing our defence spending and strengthening our forces; (and representing an area like this that is perhaps hardly surprising); but I am also very much of the view that the only certainty in warfare is uncertainty and unpredictability; and that we put all of our defence and foreign affairs eggs in one basket at our peril.

I am spending a couple of days at the magnificent Defence Academy at Shrivenham leading 50 MPs and peers on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, of which I am Chairman. We will be hearing from the greatest experts on all of these matters and quizzing them on it. The discussion will become faster and hotter as we near the outcome of the review. I will be firmly holding the Government to account over it.

We all know, pretty much, what it means to be alive. Humans and animals are alive; so are plants and trees in a different way; rocks are dead. But are there different degrees of being alive? Is the life of a fit healthy 35-year-old, for example, more or less valuable than a premature baby or a 105-year-old person? Not in my view it ain’t, which is why I have always been so opposed to both abortion and euthanasia. A human life is a life; is a soul; and we must honour and preserve it no matter who it may be.

But is a human life more important than an animal? Of course it is. I am a meat-eating countryman and have no shame that every steak I eat, every rasher of bacon, means that an animal somewhere or another has died. Yet I swerve like mad to avoid hitting a pheasant on the road. Despite that I strongly support the right of countrymen to shoot them for food; and if that’s too controversial for you, almost no-one objects to a trout being caught and killed for supper. Dogs and horses are sacred to me, but I am only too pleased to kill a rat, of which we have had a minor infestation lately; and all of us would gladly swat a mosquito, or trap wasps in homemade jam jar traps. So leaving aside Buddhists, life is, at least to some degree, comparative rather than absolute.

I feel the same about Lockdown. It’s been a strange old time; and life is nothing like normal. We Brits particularly have made the best we can of it; we have tried to find the benefits from the enforced stay at home; but it has not exactly been very full-blooded. We can’t go on this way.

The Government are walking a delicate tightrope between honouring all life for what it is- a life; keeping everyone safe as best they can; yet at the same time they have to get life back to some kind of vague normality. They have to get the economy going again, get students back to school and University. It takes baby steps along that tightrope- comes close to falling off from time to time; finds itself walking backwards occasionally. But by and large it is inching towards a solution to the greatest National crisis in a generation.

Parliament’s back, although the current structures and procedures seem to me to be lifeless and to risk failing to hold the government to account or scrutinise legislation properly. I am still working at home for another week or two recuperating from my op. But I am also puzzled by the notion that we should all congregate in London, risking spreading the disease (aided by the Extinction Rebellion youths lurking outside); but that we should not be able to do our jobs properly when we get there because of social distancing rules in the Palace of Westminster. I am doing as good a job as I can remotely from Wiltshire; my constituency work is as ever fully up to date, and I am influencing as best I can from afar. I am not clear that a physical presence in a barely functioning Parliament would make that any more effective.

We all just need to keep on keeping on. Do what we can to live as normal a life as we can. Take little risks to nudge life along, while always observing the Covid rules without which we could quickly spiral back into a crisis. Determination, doggedness, Vera Lynn, Dunkirk Spirit- these are the old British instincts.

Or in the old words of the Bee Gees:-

“Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.”

There has been a great deal of sound and fury over Brandon Lewis’s remark that if we seek to vary the terms of the Northern Irish Protocol to the Brexit agreement, then we will “be in breach of International Law.” It is perfectly true that every time you try to vary any international treaty it is a technical breach of the law. All that is happening is that we have spotted a fundamental flaw in one aspect of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and this Bill seeks to correct it.

It would only have effect if we fail to come to a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by the end of the year- which I still hope we will be able to do. But the trouble is that this particular aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement actually incentivises the EU NOT to make any such trade agreement. After we have finally left the EU, the UK Government may decide to help certain sectors of business in various ways. It may be that we would try to create a high-tech hub rather like Silicon Valley, very probably much of it in this area. Electric cars, for example, may well be an attractive idea, perhaps to replace Honda. Perhaps we will seek to support one or other aspect of farming. These things are known as ‘State Aid’, and under the Withdrawal Agreement they can only be done with prior approval of the EU - for all time to come. It’s ostensibly in case any of the State Aid supported goods went via Northern Ireland and into the EU market; but that is cover for banning State aid on the mainland of GB as well. And the EU of course would never agree to it.

So the UK Internal Market Bill is crucial to protect seamless trade and jobs across all four corners of the United Kingdom at the end of the Transition Period. It will: ensure that there are no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory; guarantee that businesses based in Northern Ireland have true ‘unfettered access’ to the rest of the United Kingdom, without paperwork; removes any possible legal confusion about the fact that, while Northern Ireland will remain subject to the EU’s State Aid regime for the duration of the Protocol, Great Britain will not be subject to those EU rules.

The Free Trade Negotiations are at a crucial stage. The EU wants to apply their State Aid rules to the whole of the UK; they want to apply fishing quotas to fish caught in our own territorial waters, and in a number of other ways they want to keep the UK within the EU in all but name. We cannot allow that. That is why we must make it plain that if we do not reach agreement on Free Trade, we will have taken steps towards an alternative- of which this Bill is a crucial part.

I am glad that the negotiators are being tough- it’s the only language which Mr Barnier and co understand. They need to realise that the people of Britain voted to leave the EU, to leave the single market, to leave the EU courts and structures. The notion that we would nonetheless be prevented from subsidising one or other of our business sectors in the event that we chose to do so, undermines and invalidates Brexit. This is fundamental to our decision to leave; and if the EU negotiators do not give ground, then we must be ready to walk away, leave the question of a trading agreement to another day; and be ready to trade under WTO rules just as much as we will do with the rest of the world.

School’s back, and ‘To wear or not to wear’ will (not) be the question debated in Malmesbury Academy which I visited over the Recess to see the preparations they are making for the whole school getting back next week, (a staggered return on 2/3/4 September). They – and I am confident all of the schools across North Wiltshire - have put in place carefully thought through plans for a fully operational timetable, with all due safeguards for students and teachers alike, and I salute them for the magnificent work they have done. Face masks, of course, are voluntary, leaving aside those areas of England in Lockdown where they are compulsory. My own view is that they most definitely should NOT be worn in classrooms but may well have a real or psychological utility in communal areas like corridors. Meanwhile the A Level crisis seems to have blown through, thanks to the Government listening to very real concerns such as those expressed so widely around here, although there is of course a knock-on crisis to be had in University Admissions Offices.

Parliament’s back next Tuesday, but we have yet to see whether we have been as sensible and well-prepared as local schools are. I have told the Whips that I do not approve of the mildly discriminatory arrangements we had in place before the Summer Recess - only 50 MPs in the Chamber at any one time, idiotic voting arrangements and so on. I have joined the Committee which arranges these things- the Procedure Committee; so they can expect some straight talk from the HM for North Wilts at the first meeting!

I will have to continue working from home for at least the first week back to finish my recuperation. The operation was a huge success- discharged after only 24 hours, which is a bit of a record (with some gentle persuasion, I have to admit.) Just got to be strict about my exercises now and I will be fighting fit in no time. Hip Hip Hooray, if that is not too corny!

I’ve been holidaying, recuperating and self-isolating right here in North Wiltshire, amongst other things doing a bit of research into Philippa’s ancestors. I am fascinated to have discovered one, Captain William Tucker RN, who commanded the Navy’s West Africa Squadron around 1840, combatting continuing slaving operations by the Portuguese and Spanish. The Squadron captured 1500 slaving vessels and emancipated 150,000 slaves as a result. Philippa’s great (x 5) grandfather then rather tragically drowned on his way home in 1842 when the merchantman, Reliance, on which he had hitched a lift hit rocks in the Bay of Biscay. “Rule Britannia. Britain never, never, never will be slaves.” Not only that but we should be proud of the role that our Royal Navy played in liberating so many, at a cost of 2000 British lives including Captain Tucker.

So yes - I’ll be singing it; and Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory as well.

Everyone’s had a bit of a break post-lockdown, and I really do feel that Parliament, schools, business, all of us, must now do what we can to try to get back to some kind of new normality. The PM, and Gavin Williamson alike deserved their holidays, and it is a shame that Boris’s midge and whisky adventure in the far North West of Scotland was prematurely ended by the paparazzi, tipped off no doubt by local people, who may well have their own agenda! No one thrives on 24/7 for the whole year, and no matter who we are we deserve a bit of a breather.

But for me- I’ve now had more than enough R and R and am champing at the bit to get back into discussing the vitally important issues facing the country as we struggle to recover from Covid.