The Duke of Wellington, Consett

There is a lot of fear out there. You don’t need a poll to know – you just need to hear about the takings at my local pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.

Talk to Tog, the landlord of “The Duke”, see the scores of emails from constituents, hear the consistent messages from my zoom calls over the weekend with landlords and restaurant owners. The restrictions that have already been taken have had a severe effect on local businesses across the North East. As several owners have now put it to me: for us, it’s now just a question of how we reduce losses.

The local restrictions are pretty severe, and are squeezing both ends of the hospitality sector. The business meetings, afternoon coffees between friends, retired lads meeting for a pint at the club – all have gone with the ‘no socialising’ rule, so lunchtime and afternoon is even deader than normal. And the 10pm drinking-up time has cut the legs off the evening trade.

With Coronavirus numbers continuing to spike, it’s clear that it is back with a vengeance both here and abroad. Hospital admissions are rising, and what had been feared – namely, the numbers among the under-35s spreading to the over-60s – sadly looks as though it is happening. Chris Whitty, Patrick Valance and the others tell us we’re less than three weeks from surpassing the number in hospital at the height of the outbreak and, from what we can see across the channel, with numbers rising similarly it’s just a matter of time.

However, since the “local restrictions” started being put in place there has been a growing tide of reluctance to follow new measures.  Last week in Parliament, I was one of a number of MPs calling on the Government to address a handful of clear concerns my constituents have.

Firstl, these have been about information. Whether the matter in question is the 10pm pub lockdown or the broader measures, there is clearly a feeling from people that they have not been informed of the science behind individual measures. This creates a real touch of anger, as well as harming the credibility of measures, and it is vital that, whatever future decisions are taken, information to back them up is clearly available.

The second point of contention is that the multitude of different measures – how you get into enhanced local measures, and how you get out of them – is also causing concern. For colleagues who have seen their constituencies in and out of local restrictions since the end of July, there is a sense that the current approach, with  dozens of different local regulations, needs to be simplified and clarity restored – perhaps even with a category that no part of the country is currently in, of a low caseload, which gives all something to aim for.

Finally, like the pubs in North West Durham whose landlords I held group chats with on the phone this weekend from my Consett office, there needs to be a package of support to help businesses that are directly affected by the measures that are put in place.  We cannot have a situation where we’re telling local businesses that we’re restricting their ability to do business – or even closing them entirely – without significant assistance.

And that goes for my local small breweries too. They almost exclusively supply pubs only, but if these are closed they have no sales. The supply chain in specific areas needs to be able to access support too.

There is bound to be scepticism about further restrictions in some quarters but, given the rise in cases among the over 60s and rise in hospitalisations, it’s clear that something has got to give.

Currently my constituents are, in large part, staying in and voting with their feet.  They’re abiding by the regulations, but they deserve to know the detail behind them, and to know that there is a clear way out for the future too.  As for the firms that are severely affected, Rishi Sunak’s announcement of further help is, sadly, necessary. It just needs to be broad enough to capture all  those affected.

I don’t want to see my constituents and myself placed under further restrictions, but what I know what they fear more at the moment is a toxic combination of winter flu and a virus on the rise – killing the vulnerable and killing local jobs.

We have to level with people, give them support and offer them something to look forward to. It’s going to be a very difficult autumn and winter but we’ve got to keep faith with the voters and allow them to keep faith with us. Only clarity, consistency, and a comprehensive support package will do that and it’s got to happen very soon.