Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. He is Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group.
There is little doubt that today will see the Prime Minister confirm the decision to remove most Covid restrictions from July 19th. As readers might expect, I welcome this decision.
Putting restrictions on our society and our economy is not the low-cost option some might have you believe. Covid restrictions have huge social, health and economic impacts over the whole of society and have remained in place far longer than they needed to, given the success of our rollout of very effective vaccines.
We learned recently that the decision to delay the June 21st unlocking was driven by modelling that has since been shown to be flawed, based on pessimistic assumptions about vaccine efficacy, by Warwick University’s Dr Mike Tildesley – one of the Government’s advisers on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Monitoring (SPI-M).
Given the critical role that modelling has played in driving Government decisions on Covid, it’s rather frustrating to keep finding out that the modelling on which these important decisions are based is flawed. Note – this is not a criticism of models, modelling or modellers – it’s the assumptions, provided by Government, that the models work off that are at fault.
Veterans of the so-called ‘Brexit wars’ will recall the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – referring to the truth that models are only as good as the assumptions on which they are based.
Even with accurate assumptions, models are inherently uncertain and should therefore be only part of the decision-making process. Ministers need to ask tough questions about models at the right time – before decisions are signed off.
Regardless of how the decision was reached, most restrictions are likely to be removed from July 19th. It is, therefore, baffling that the rules on self-isolation for fully vaccinated contacts aren’t being changed until August 16th. Even Ministers can’t really explain why.
If case rates are to approach 100,000 per day, as the Health Secretary has indicated, varying estimates of those who would have to self-isolate as a result of contact are between two and 4.5 million people.
For those millions of people, this will feel like lockdown by the back door.
If you do manage to avoid getting pinged by the NHS Covid app, or legally instructed by Test & Trace to self-isolate, you can enjoy a summer that’s as close to normal as can be.
However, it’s only a number of weeks until the autumn arrives and the inevitable, seasonal, rise in respiratory diseases in circulation. Unlike last winter, we now have very effective vaccines, the vast majority of the adult population will be fully vaccinated and booster jabs will be there if needed – so we won’t need to have Covid restrictions anymore, right? After all, we were told that the removal of restrictions would be “irreversible”.
For many Conservative members, October means Conservative Party Conference. The first test of the Government’s intentions for the winter will be if Conference is anything other than completely normal – “cheek by jowl”, as the Prime Minister said.
If Party Conference is in a ‘hybrid’ form, part online, part in person with capacity limited in any way at all, this would be a worrying signal.
If even the governing party doesn’t have the confidence to host their own Party Conference in normal conditions at the beginning of October, then what confidence will the country have that we have returned to normal? The knock-on effects from this will be considerable.
As UK Music’s Jamie Njoku-Goodwin pointed out last week, any hint of autumn/winter restrictions means organisers of events won’t have any confidence to plan events beyond summer.
Anyone who thinks I’m being too pessimistic should take a look at the small print in Government documents, which offer more than a hint that the Government is intending to reintroduce restrictions this winter.
SAGE documents, which Ministers have had since April but weren’t published until last week, talk of “keeping some level of measures in place both through summer and beyond” and in the autumn and winter when “stronger measures may be desirable”.
There’s also an emphasis on retaining a low prevalence of cases “even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination” which doesn’t seem very far away from a Zero Covid strategy.
What’s more, buried deep in a Government document released recently lurks a clear intention to extend the Coronavirus Act powers into 2022, when something that was supposed to be ‘emergency’ legislation would have been in force for two years.
The Covid Recovery Group was set up to ensure the Government was asked the right questions at the right time, especially given Labour has been largely AWOL on Covid matters. I had hoped that by this point ahead of the summer recess, our work would have been done. However, I fear that our efforts will be required this autumn and winter to ensure that proper Parliamentary scrutiny of key Government decisions takes place. Winter is coming.