Neil O’Brien is co-Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.
I can’t believe they’ve gone. One, a local businessman. Not much older than me. Full of plans, things to do, a business to build. The other, a party supporter. Retired, but larger than life, and full of fun. Coronavirus got them both before their time. There were tens of thousands like them this year.
Tomorrow night, we face a choice about how we handle the final months of this pandemic. We still have a lot of winter and spring to get through until mass vaccination, the time when the NHS comes under most strain. And we must avoid a third set of national restrictions.
If we start from rules strong enough to keep driving down transmission of the virus, we can relax later. In contrast, going in the other direction will test the patience of voters.
Nor do we want to grind along with infection rates stable but not falling. We want infections coming down decisively, so we can loosen up. With the vaccine so close, people dying unnecessarily in the final months of the pandemic would be tragic.
And though polls show strong support for the measures we’ve taken, it would be much better to head towards the finishing line with good news about infections and restrictions falling.
Every MP wants to make sure restrictions in their area are as limited as possible. As infections fall, we’ll have regular reviews. But overall, we have to stick together, and stick to the plan. With Labour and the SNP not voting against, the new Government’s new regulations will pass. But we should remember the electorate brutally punishes divided parties.
Of course, there are a lot of legitimate debates about policy. Some ask whether restrictions do more harm than good. It’s a reasonable question, but I think sometimes the arguments are put back to front.
For example, during the second wave here in Leicestershire, the numbers hospitalised shot up, rising above the level we saw in the spring peak.
But after the national restrictions came in, the infection rate turned round, and started falling. Hospitalisation rates turned round too. That meant that while non-urgent procedures were postponed, the measures we took came just in time to allow life-and-death services like cancer treatment to keep running throughout.
If we’d waited or done nothing, those services would have been forced to shut. Restrictions saved not just coronavirus deaths, but other patients too.
It’s wrong to assume current restrictions are having the same effects as the emergency measures in spring. And some claims are wrong: it’s said suicides have shot up, but the best data suggests that’s not true.
People ask what the economic cost is of restrictive measures. The difficulty here is knowing what the counterfactual should be. For example, if we’d let the virus rip in spring, pretty much all MPs acknowledge that the NHS would have been overwhelmed.
With TV news showing people dying in hospital car parks across the land, how many people would still have been heading down to the pub? Or out to work? Any estimate is guesswork.
We can see that countries like Sweden which went for looser policies had a bigger hit to their economy than their neighbours, as well as much worse health outcomes. So it isn’t obvious that there has been a trade off between the economy and controlling the virus.
Sweden has had ten times the death rate of their Scandinavian neighbours, with a dramatic second wave and 397 Covid deaths in the past nine days. “Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” says Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist. The country’s Prime Minister recently made a rare televised address, and has been forced to introduced a “rule of eight” on gatherings plus locally tiered restrictions.
And Sweden is far less densely populated than the UK, with more people living alone than any other country, two massive advantages. So what has proved merely disastrous in Sweden, was arguably never even really an option for us. So what’s the counterfactual?
Some arguments are over. Media pundits pushed the idea that we had hit “herd immunity”, and that rising cases were just “false positives”. They’re still peddling these ideas, but we can now see how badly they got it wrong.
In June Toby Young wrote: “there will be no second spike – not now, and not in the autumn”. He claimed 91 per cent of cases were “false positives”: claims repeated by some MPs. In reality, according to the Office for National Statistics, true number is microscopic.
Alistair Haimes, a Covid-sceptic, wrote in August that “it’s over”; and in September that there was “no second wave.”
Leading Covid-sceptic Michael Yeadon wrote that thanks to “prior imminuty”: “the pandemic is effectively over.”
Sunetra Gupta, a lead author of the “Great Barrington Declaration”, promised in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country” … “due to the build-up of immunity”.
In August, Karol Sikora, another Great Barrington leader, said “The gloom and doomsters are predicting another wave of it. Where’s that going to come from? I just don’t believe it.”
With over 2,800 now dying a week with the virus, we can see these rosy theories were catastrophically wrong. Other myths pushed by the media include the idea that flu has “disappeared”, or that Coronavirus is just displacing it. That’s simply not true.
Others say the victims are “dying with” the virus, not “dying of” the virus. But the Office for National Statistics looked at the data, based on doctors’ assessments, and found: “of 50,335 deaths between 1 March and 30 June… 46,736 had Covid-19 assigned as the underlying cause of death.” That’s 93 per cent.
The argument I most dislike is that the victims of the virus were all old or would have died anyway. It’s true older people are more at risk. True that many people who died had other conditions. But a study by academics at the University of Glasgow suggested people typically had over a decade to live based on their age and prior conditions.
A decade is worth a lot. For my parents, the last decade involved the wedding of one son; the birth of two grandchildren; two others becoming young men; adventures exploring Europe and hiking with my sister; learning French and how to drive a canal boat; amazing summer flowers in their little garden; charity work, friends – and being here for everyone who loves them; like my daughter (four).
An angry man emailed the other day to say I was obsessed with “saving granny”. Well, I want to live in a culture where we value older people, not belittle their worth or regard them as an inconvenience. A culture that would kick the old and ill into touch on grounds of efficiency would be a profoundly ill culture.
We’re close to the end of this thing now. Let’s not fall near the finish line. No-one wanted to have to bring in these tiered restrictions. But they are more tailored than countries like France, where all restaurants everywhere are shut till next year, and all bars are shut with no date to reopen.
Yes, we must keep supporting those for whom this year has meant hardship. But there’s been more than seventy thousand excess deaths linked to the coronavirus here since mid-March. If you read out all those people’s names one after another, it would take you more than four months.
We have to see the bigger picture. We have to finish the job, and beat this killer virus.