Sir Bob Neill is MP for Bromley and Chiselhurst, and is Chair of the Justice Select Committee.
I do not naturally sit on the libertarian wing of our Party, and neither am I an adherent of the Great Barrington Declaration proposals that some of my colleagues embrace. I am very much a One Nation Tory and, like my Bromley predecessor, Harold Macmillan, not adverse to state intervention in the right circumstances.
And yet, despite those differences, I find myself agreeing with the view of many who fall into these two former camps: the Government’s approach to this pandemic is not only increasingly clumsy and ill thought through, but in itself, potentially dangerous.
I reach that conclusion based not on ideology but instead, like a growing number of my colleagues, through a frustration that what the Government claims it is doing – targeted local interventions based on the evidence, something I wholeheartedly support – and what it is actually doing – taking a broadbrush to lockdown great swathes of the country – are two very different things.
Our response to Covid-19 should be firmly rooted in empiricism. That was a much harder task in March when far less was known about the virus, how it spreads, who is most at risk, and how it is best treated. Seven months on, and thanks to the genuinely inspiring work of those researchers and experts toiling in the field, we find ourselves in a very different position.
Let me be clear: I have the upmost respect for our medical and scientific advisers. They are tasked with providing their honest and truthful assessment to ministers, including on worst case scenarios, and I give short shrift to anyone who criticises them for doing so.
But, just as it is their job to say how they see it from their particular area of expertise, it the job of politicians to mediate between, on the one hand, the feedback they are receiving from SAGE, and on the other, the very real evidence, seen on every high street and in every city centre, of businesses in free fall. That is no easy balance to strike, but we are elected to make tough decisions.
Regrettably, by moving the entirety of London into Tier 2, the Government is widely missing the mark. As the Prime Minister knows well from his time as Mayor, our capital is a vibrant patchwork of different communities – just one of the things that makes it perhaps the greatest city in the world. From the calm of Richmond Park to the hustle and bustle of Brick Lane, and with a population over three times the size of the UK’s next largest metropolitan area, it’s as diverse as it is big.
Why then is it deemed acceptable to assume that what is necessary in one area will be suitable in another? The London Borough of Bromley, a part of which I am proud to represent, is a case in point. Bordering Kent, and twelve times larger in size than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with our large parks, ancient woodlands, and even an open farm or two, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were just a 25 minute train journey from Charing Cross.
Although cases are rising in Bromley, like many suburbs in the south of the city, they remain considerably lower than in other parts of London (at the time of writing, Bromley has roughly 70 cases per 100,000, compared to 144 in Ealing).
When I made that case to the Health Secretary, the significant number of commuters in our capital was given as the reason for the pursual of this blanket strategy. But again, that simply isn’t born out in the evidence. As of this week, even by the Government’s own statistics, tube journeys are only at 33 per cent compared to the same time last year, and bus journeys 59 per cent. Overground train commuting is also reckoned to be down to 10 to 15 per cent of pre-Coronavirus levels.
The Government should be in no doubt: this one-size fits all approach will have real repercussions, not just for businesses, especially those in the hospitality, events and arts sectors, but also for hundreds of thousands of isolated, elderly or vulnerable people (did anyone consider that Bromley is home to more pensioners than any other London borough?). Additional and targeted support must now be provided.
I do not for one second underestimate the seriousness of this virus or the need to protect the NHS, nor am I against strict interventions, but a far more localised and nuanced approach, as Germany and others have shown is possible, should be the way forward. Clobbering businesses in London to make admittedly difficult political decisions elsewhere more palatable is not.
And finally, if we are to continue to take the public with us, we have to be honest about the broader costs and trade-offs involved. Failing to control the pandemic obviously has serious health consequences, but missed hospital appointments and medical tests for other conditions (some themselves life-threatening) does too, as does isolation and separation from family and friends. The same risk to mental and physical health is there with increased unemployment, or the stress of seeing the collapse of a family business built up over many years.
Of course, we want to protect the NHS, but we will not do that in the long run if we wreck the economy and destroy the tax base that funds it. Sad to say, I do not think we are always getting that balance right.