Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. He is Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group.
The newsflash on your phone. Another weekend press conference by the Prime Minister. A new variant. That pang of dread. I know I wasn’t alone when I thought ‘oh no, here we go again’.
Before we go any further, there are a number of reasons to be cheerful, optimistic – even ‘boosterish’!
The UK has one of the highest vaccine take up rates in the world, with the booster rollout gathering pace.
On Saturday, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, was optimistic that existing vaccines should be effective at protecting against serious disease caused by Omicron and that it would be “extremely unlikely” that it would cause a “reboot” of the pandemic.
The former head of the Vaccine taskforce, Clive Dix, echoed this, telling us that “if we boost and also make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, we will be OK with this particular variant”.
The arrival of Omicron is the first Covid test our country has faced, with a substantial portion of the population vaccinated. Covid and variants will be with us forever, according to the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. We must act accordingly. The Government must not default to imposing restrictions every time there is a distant cough from some desk in a dark corner of the Department of Health and Social Care.
ConservativeHome readers may recall that in July, as the Commons rose for the Summer recess and restrictions were lifted, I said that the Covid Recovery Group would stick around. Why?
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. My colleagues and I were concerned that our efforts would still be required this autumn and winter to ensure that proper Parliamentary scrutiny of key Government decisions takes place.
The days since the Prime Minister’s Saturday press conference has demonstrated that our role remains essential.
During his Sunday broadcast round, the Health Secretary – who has brought much-needed integrity to that role since his appointment – said that there would be a vote on Regulations enforcing new Covid restrictions within 28 days. Not ‘next week’, or ‘as soon as possible’, but merely within 28 days.
I made it very clear on Sunday that it was vital MPs got the chance to debate and vote on new legislation at the earliest opportunity.
I was pleased that, on this occasion, the Government rapidly changed its stance, giving the House a chance to debate and vote on the new restrictions on Tuesday, albeit after they had already become law by decree – signed into force by a Health Minister’s pen.
Trust levels between the backbenches and Ministers are not in a good place – damaged by the Government’s sorry handling of the Owen Paterson matter, a misjudgement many of my colleagues will not forget.
In the event that the Government wishes to introduce further restrictions after the House goes into recess, I asked the Leader of the House of Commons whether the Government would recall the Commons for those restrictions to be debated on and approved by MPs in advance.
Sadly, he could not rule out the possibility of the Government simply signing stricter restrictions into law by decree, without a debate or vote. This was a disappointing answer from someone I respect and who used to be a champion of Parliamentary scrutiny when he was on the backbenches.
This brings me on to the regulations considered on Tuesday.
The regulations enforcing masks for a time-limited period, until 20 December, was not a big deal in my view. Although it is disappointing that we’ve moved back to a situation of mandating mask wearing by law, given it is only for a three-week period, I didn’t oppose them.
However, the Regulations bringing in beefed up self-isolation rules concern me greatly. Despite assurances by Ministers that this package of measures would be time-limited for three weeks, these Regulations do not expire until 24 March 2022.
They also fail to adequately define how someone is “suspected” of having the Omicron variant. This is a recipe for chaos. My concern is that if this strain is more transmissible, we will be very quickly back to a pingdemic, where swathes of people will have to self-isolate despite not having Covid and being fully vaccinated. It will lead to great damage to education, the economy and people’s lives.
Some might read this and think ‘well, both votes passed with hefty majorities – what’s the point in you guys even turning up to work if you know these things are going through anyway?’
Yes, both measures passed – helped along the way by Labour once again giving the Government a blank cheque.
However, if no one stands up to ask the Government important questions about wide-ranging laws that will affect the constituents we are paid to represent, we undermine the foundations of our Parliamentary democracy. It is those reasonable questions that my Covid Recovery Group colleagues and I will continue to ask in the weeks and months ahead.