Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
The case for sticking with the lockdown for a little longer
One of the great drivers towards ending the lockdown, as I wrote in my last Conservative Home column, is a love of liberty and an instinctive scepticism towards the State.
Libertarians don’t like big government deciding whether or not we can leave our home to go about our daily business as a free citizen without a drone from the Old Bill checking whether or not we have breached our 24-hour curfew (one hour, of course, being allowed to walk the dog).
The second driver is not so much liberty, but the strong, British tradition of a stiff upper lip, stoicism and just getting on with things – treating this illness like any other.
The third, and perhaps the most important, is a genuine fear about the state of the economy and employment – or rising joblessness. Those with economic concerns believe that if the shutdown carries on much longer, the years of austerity since 2010 will look like a tea party, as we potentially enter a financial ice age.
Given the choice, I would prefer life to liberty. I think it is easier to defend that position, as I tried to do in my previous article.
As for the second driver, I would normally be on the side of the stoics – I always try to get to work, however run-down or ill I may be feeling.
But coronavirus is different; it is not about the I, but the he, she and we. All of us are walking hand-grenades. So whilst it may appear ‘brave’ in carrying on as before and going to work et al, it is, in fact, potentially incredibly thoughtless. This is because, although the individual may not even be unwell, he or she may be asymptomatic and become a Coronavirus superspreader.
Alongside that, the stoics always present “the car argument”; thousands of people die in road fatalities every year, yet we still allow automobiles and motorists on our roads.
I never have understood this line of reasoning. There may be thousands of car crashes, but it could be a lot worse if we did not have speeding restrictions, seatbelts and safety features in cars, such as airbags.
In other words, motoring deaths would be much higher, were it not for preventative measures from the State – just as that same State is taking as many preventative measures as possible to stop the Coronavirus death tally becoming even greater.
The third argument to end the lockdown (the economy) I understand the most. Millions of people across our country not only face worries about their health and that of their families, but also ever-increasing financial anxiety – even with the Government’s multi-billion business package and furlough scheme.
Surely, is it not better to stay at home a bit longer to knock this disease on the head once and for all, so that rather than having a so-called “phased un-lockdown”, we can get back to normal as soon as possible?
How much better it would be to give all our businesses the confidence that when we think this disease is over, it really is over? Which is better, to have a partial re-opening and risk a second wave, reverting to a second lockdown, or bearing the pain now, in order to be really free once again. The longer we stay in lockdown, the closer we are to a vaccine, and testing will be in the many of hundreds of thousands a day.
New Zealand, which appears to have eliminated Covid-19 completely, has had the toughest of lockdowns, a fair whack of testing and tracing and has closed its borders to stop people bringing the virus from overseas. The impressive Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, said that she recently extended the lockdown stating that “the extra short-term cost, will give much greater long-term health and economic returns”.
I am not advocating that the lockdown continues for many months to come: I just think that it is better to be cautious for a few weeks more, be clear that we are over it, and are not risking a second wave now, or during the winter.
The one thing that really worries me is that if we listen to all those who want to get back to normal now, we may do so too early, and have to return to full lockdown again. That really will be structurally damaging for business and society. In fact, I suspect the country might have a collective nervous breakdown.
Voting Online does not mean the end of Parliament as we know it
I love my Conservative MP colleagues (almost all of them), but I really cannot fathom why there is so much outrage at the introduction of online voting.
Not only do I find it quite exciting (yes, it is true I have been at home for almost seven weeks and have cabin fever, so welcome even the smallest of pleasures), but it is an extraordinary feat of technological ingenuity that the architecture of online votes has been built in the space of a few weeks, in the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic.
The web technology behind this is remarkable, with even a Division Bell sounding on our computers when there is a vote.
And yet, for some reason, this online hybrid Commons is seen as ‘a slippery slope’, ‘a weakening of scrutiny of the Executive’ and ‘an end to Parliament as we know it’.
This is in contrast, of course, to voting for five amendments from 10pm on a Monday evening which can take 90 minutes or more, and of which most of us are not even sure what the amendments are about!
I accept completely the arguments about the usefulness of the voting lobby in getting access to Ministers and asking colleagues to sign petitions and the like. Apart from possibly the Commons tea room, there are few substitutes.
However, at least this online system ensures that we do not only have ‘a Parliament of the fittest’, so that MPs and Peers who are ill, self-isolating or shielded can take part fully in proceedings.
We should be thanking the Commons officials and techno wizards who made this possible and examine whether online democracy could be expanded from Parliament to the people. But that is an argument for another day, lest I upset my more traditional MP friends even further…