Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.
Today, MPs are being asked to approve the law that implements the England-wide lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday. This is one of the most significant decisions MPs will be asked to take.
Originally, the Government was only having a debate on this for just 90 minutes in the Commons. I made the point strongly to the Leader of the House on Monday that this was far too short for such a big decision and I am pleased that the Government has reconsidered this, doubling the length of the debate to three hours.
It was also important that MPs be given access to the information required in order to make an informed decision on behalf of our constituents. Many MPs requested this information both in private and on the floor of the Commons. The Government has, albeit quite late in the day, published quite a bit of information, which is welcome.
Until last Friday, the Government made a very strong case which I still support that, given the variable levels of Covid-19 across England, a tiered regional approach to restrictions makes sense.
The argument given for moving to an England-wide national lockdown by the Prime Minister on Saturday was that modelling by the Government suggested very significant numbers of daily deaths from Covid-19 and the likelihood of NHS bed capacity being exceeded by Christmas – even in regions with a low level of Covid-19.
These points were illustrated in Saturday’s press conference by a number of graphs.
In Gloucestershire, and in my constituency of the Forest of Dean, I have been closely monitoring the level of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic and, whilst we have seen an increase in prevalence, the level of virus in the over 60s remains low and, in recent weeks, has either been flat or falling – this means that the risk of hospitalisation or death is low.
Regular meetings that Gloucestershire’s MPs have with our fantastic local public health and NHS colleagues have not substantiated the concerns referred to by the Prime Minister.
As a result, immediately after the Saturday press conference, I requested the data on which the graphs and modelling were based. Late yesterday, this information was finally published by the Government.
Reputable scientists outside government such as Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, have already demonstrated that the modelling underpinning the graphs is based on data from at least three weeks ago, which we can now see is overestimating the actual position – one of them by more than a factor of four.
Also, the published data does not substantiate the Prime Minister’s claim that hospital capacity in the South West would be exceeded in a matter of weeks. Indeed, there is no projection of the usage of regional hospital capacity in the published information at all.
The leaked Cabinet Office slide from Friday’s meeting of the ‘Quad’ about regional hospital capacity being exceeded has notably neither been published nor substantiated by data or modelling.
In addition, I have a fundamental objection to the use of reasonable force to enforce these regulations by agents of the state who are not properly trained to safely use that force. As a former Home Office Minister, I have seen that when reasonable force is used incorrectly, it can lead to unnecessary deaths.
Despite reassurances from Ministers at the Despatch Box that this matter was going to be resolved, regrettably it has not been. These Regulations give the power to use reasonable force to PCSOs and, most worryingly, any “person designated by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this Regulation”. My view is that the use of reasonable force should be limited to police officers, who undergo a significant amount of training in both when and how to safely use this power.
In light of the above, I do not believe that the Government has made the case for a change away from the tiered system and in favour of an England-wide national lockdown.
The published information also confirms that the modelling has not taken into account the introduction of the system of Medium, High and Very High tiers. It is clear that the Government has not given this strategy enough time to demonstrate whether or not it was effective.
For these reasons, and for only the second time in my fifteen years in Parliament, I will regrettably be voting against the Government’s regulations later today.