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  • We must stick with the lockdown, because any attempt to ease off it risks a Coronavirus second wave with which the NHS won’t be able to cope.  So a relaxation could blow the Government’s most solid gain from the crisis – the protection of the health service – while doing little to revive the economy, and necessitating second and further shutdowns that might not be enforceable, causing further deaths and leaving Boris Johnson and his team discredited and marooned.
  • We must ease off the lockdown, because the NHS is only workable if funded by a functioning economy, which is already seriously wounded, and to which an extended lockdown would deliver the coup de grace.  In any event, it’s far from clear that the healthcare gains from the shutdown are greater than the healthcare losses, and then there are the broader economic costs to consider.  Public opinion will soon turn and render the lockdown unenforceable, so Johnson must get ahead of it while he can.

These contrasting summaries are as fair a snapshot as we can manage of the cases for and against a relaxation of the lockdown.

And it seems to this site that Boris Johnson, or his team if he is still recovering from illness, must make a decision which route they want to take by shortly after the first May Bank Holiday at the latest.

Crucial to it will be the view of Conservative MPs, who ultimately have the power to fire the Party leader – which would have the knock-on effect of disbanding his top team.

We are about a million miles from any such prospect at the moment, but neither the Prime Minister nor his “war Cabinet” will have forgotten it.

Parliament is now back in virtual form, and although most MPs aren’t at Westminster, and there will be few if any opportunities to vote on the lockdown before mid-May, Johnson must now be more mindful of them than before.

So we present below the sum of an unscientific ring-round of the best part of 20 Tory MPs.  We wanted them to speak off the record to aid candour, but also want readers to have a rough idea of the distribution.

We’ve therefore gone as before with the broad categories of Northern, Midlands and Southern.  There are more of the last category below than the other two.

But the Party is still better represented in the South in any event, and as we use the category it’s very broad, stretching from the Essex coast all the way to the Cornwall one.

Picking out a theme is a bit like trying to pick out a tune played by a sheetless and conductorless orchestra.  Nonetheless, we pick out three key points.

  • Claims of a split between a right of the Party that is pro-ending the lockdown and a left which is pro-keeping it are simplistic – views are mixed.
  • Reports of Wednesday’s 1922 committee meeting, which was critical of the lockdown, must be seen in context.  The meeting was essentially one of the Executive Committee, which consists of under 20 people, carried out both live and virtually.  So the 250 or so-stromg What’sApp Group referred to below, in the absence of a big meeting of the full committee, which every Conservative MP is entitled to attend, is more reliable guide to the mood of backbenchers.
  • That said, the stress in the responses below is for easing off the lockdown in the near future.

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MP representing a Northern seat

“Generally I think we’re doing the right thing. I don’t think that we should be looking at any sort of exit strategy yet. I think that’s just completely over the top – I think we’ve just got to get on with it, and then as things unfold, respond accordingly. It’s grim – and I’d rather not be doing it – but I think generally I’m quite happy with the strategy that’s in place… The public are generally compliant in most cases, and responded to it relatively well.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“At the moment people are still being patient and understanding about the need for restrictions, and morale is generally high. Yet I detect growing unease amongst both businesses and taxpayers about the long-term economic damage and how it will be paid for, and there is no doubt that extended incarceration is bad for people’s physical and mental health. Ministers should be giving businesses and sporting venues the chance to devise their own plans for re-opening and operating safely – for example by rationing places at golf courses and swimming pools and instituting rigorous cleaning regimes. We must avoid a second spike in infections, but not be so cautious that the Government ends up playing catch-up when it comes to finding practical solutions.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“As the Government has repeatedly said, our priority must be protecting the NHS and saving lives. However, we need to recognise that further economic damage needs to be minimised. I will be pleased to see businesses getting back to work as soon as it is safe to do so. This should happen in a controlled manner so that we can track and trace any resurgence of the virus. I know that many of my constituents are itching to get back to work but their safety is my top priority.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“I think it’s an awkward one because for however long the entire outbreak has been going on, we’ve been saying that we will follow the scientific advice – and to now try and change that argument now: if that’s the case, why are we even having lockdown in the first place? So whilst I personally want to see the lockdown go pretty quickly – I miss the pub, I miss socialising, I miss everything else, as everyone else does – it needs to go on as long as it needs to. If the numbers start falling and we’ve got the five tests; they have to be met first, otherwise it just feels like everything we’ve done and all the pain the country’s gone through – it’s almost been for nothing.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“In my constituency there is still strong public support for lockdown – the police have reported very few problems and out of hundreds of emails my office receives every week, only a handful have asked for an end to restrictions. Yet there is no doubt that these circumstances are very difficult for some people, so I think the Government should be looking for small ways to relax the rules that produce big benefits. This includes things like allowing garden centres and churches to re-open, with appropriate social distancing in place, and letting small children go back to school. But most important is avoiding the absolute disaster of a second peak and a return to lockdown later on.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“The Government needs to start being honest with the public. The only long-term solutions to Covid-19 are a vaccine, a cure, or herd immunity. It simply isn’t realistic to expect to be able to stamp it out: we aren’t even close to the sort of infrastructure we’d need even to try, and lockdown simply cannot go on that long. Every day, I get calls and emails from people whose lives and businesses are falling apart, and local NHS services are under-used because people who need them have been scared away. We need to start lifting restrictions sooner rather than later and adopt better-targeted measures, such as shielding for the over-70s, to protect vulnerable groups. Ministers have a responsibility to lead, not simply be led by public opinion.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“We risk killing 100,000 people if we ease off the lockdown now.  But we may well be able to do so within the next three weeks.  The reason for this is that we don’t yet have the data that will help us to understand transmission properly, but my understanding is that we will do so very shortly – so it’s therefore important to wait until the position becomes clearer.  We’re also closer to finding an antibody test that works than is usually being reported.  So while I’m not at all unsupportive of relaxing the lockdown, I don’t want to see it done in a way that means that the Government almost immediately has to try to reimpose it, perhaps unsuccessfully.

MP representing a Midlands seat

“There is a balance between protecting the needs of the wider economy and protecting the lives of NHS staff.  That said, it’s evident that the lockdown can’t continue as it is indefinitely, so there needs to be a phased withdrawal of it.  It would begin with, say, garden centres and small retail and end with large meetings.  Social distancing of the over 75s will have to continue indefinitely, I’m afraid.  While there is still strong support for the lockdown I’m detecting some cabin fever among local Conservative councillors and a definite shift in the mood.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“There is no easy answer, but my instinct is we should start easing sooner rather than later. Following the publication of the police training guidance last week many, many more people are leaving their homes and travelling to beaches to picnic and walk dogs. If we are to remain in lockdown, we need clearer messages from the centre that it means everyone, not just those vulnerable to the virus.  Potentially we need the to give the police stronger enforcement powers, otherwise the lockdown will gradually drop off where the public think they can get away with breaking the guidance.  If locals are seen back on beaches having barbecues, then visitors will travel too.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“Obviously, I don’t like the lockdown at all, though my constituents are still very supportive of it.  But all this talk about coming off it makes me worry that the cure will be worse than the disease.  What happens if the Government announces a partial lifting of it, infection rates rise significantly above R, there’s a new rush of cases, the NHS is unable to cope and Ministers have then to struggle with a re-imposition of the lockdown?  I’m not sure that all my colleagues have thought it through.  The move to lift the lockdown is definitely stronge on the right of the party, although there’s a lot of crossover of course.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“My constituents are all for the lockdown, and not considering the wider economic implications at all, really.  I’m almost paralysed with fear at the prospect of this situation continuing. They don’t seem to grasp that some of those furloughed will be made redundant, that children on the vulnerable register aren’t being tracked at all, that real consequences follow from cancelling exams – and so on.  If there’s any shift at all it’s among the small businesses who are desparate to get back.  The mood on the MPs What’sApp group is a lot cooler than the reports from the 1922 committe meeting would suggest, and there are about 250 of us on it which is a lot of people.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“The lockdown should continue but it has to be limited. Government is about listening to expert advice and then making a political decision. That advice should certainly include medical advice but also advice on the economics. We do need to ensure there is not a second phase causing pressure for a second lockdown. Imagine how messy that would be? How would all the Government schemes work with people be re-employed but then be furloughed again? But any lockdown does rely on consent. Already I notice more people are out and about.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“The lockdown is a disaster. It needs to be lifted urgently. We need to get to where Sweden is chop, chop. Otherwise, the economic damage will be so great that the cure causes more harm than the disease. Already the lockdown has achieved what we were told it was for – creating enough capacity in the NHS. We need to open the economy up and trust the people. There could still be guidance for the vulnerable – such as the elderly to stay in isolation. But for the rest of us, we should rely on social distancing – people have got the message on it.
I’m worried about the boiled frog syndrome – that we are destroying the economy slowly and so letting it happen.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“We should start gradually easing the restrictions. Some should be lifted at once – for example, garden centres should be allowed to open. Generally, I’m favour less government and I’m strong for individual freedom. But we can’t ignore the scientific advice. So it’s a balance. I’m sure the Government is cognisant of the economic
impact. There is also the reality of human nature and people starting to get fed up. A phased approach would be responsible but give people some hope. For instance, opening primary schools but waiting a bit longer to open secondary schools. Once it is safe to go back to work we need some bold free enterprise reforms to boost economic recovery.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“Broadly I support the Government’s approach and it is still popular in my constituency. My hunch is that the mood could prove volatile. I do want to see some progress soon. Businesses are going to go bust. What about the harm to mental health especially for children who need to be able to socialise? I see these American demonstrating and I wonder how long before the mood changes here. I’m not saying end the lockdown at once. But it needs to end soon or there could suddenly be a lot of anger.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“It’s got to be on scientific advice clearly. But we know it’s not going to be just suddenly opened and we go back to normal. Government’s first priority’s lives, but second priority’s livelihoods and making sure the economy can work. So we’ve got to be prepared… People tend to be sticking to the rules on a whole. There’s a lot of noise in the media about it, but I think most people are cutting through that and understand the need to be safe – that seems to me what I’m getting.”

100 comments for: What Conservative MPs told us about the lockdown’s future. The consensus is for a gradual easing.

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