Yesterday, MPs took part in a lengthy Commons debate on Coronavirus. It’s clear from the breadth of the concerns they raised that managing the next stage of the crisis will be even more complicated than the first, not least because there is so much more information to go on – and thus positions have changed among MPs as to what’s the best strategy for Covid-19. Indeed, it was interesting to note that several mentioned columns in The Times and Daily Telegraph during the debate – as well as the articles of Dr Raghib Ali (published on ConservativeHome here), which were referenced by Steve Baker – as sources of inspiration for their evolving perspectives.
While ostensibly it looks as though only a handful of Conservative MPs are sceptical of the Government’s latest direction – Desmond Swayne said Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance’s recent graph had been “an attempt to terrify the British people” and Andrew Lewer criticised the “dystopian nature of some of these restrictions” – even the more moderate remarks indicate that a sizeable number of Conservatives are becoming increasingly wary of the Emergency Powers Bill, and the economic effects of lockdown. Without further ado, here are some of the criticisms that were made yesterday.
Tory MPs that took part in the debate:
Perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at the Government by Tory MPs is the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny in decision making:
“If the first duty of Government is to keep people safe, will the Secretary of State remember that the first duty of Parliament is to hold Government to account? I know that he wants to take public opinion with him, but will he therefore reassure us that he is also determined to take Parliament with him?”
“it is about not just scrutiny but the laws we are making. The laws that came in at midnight, for example, were 12 pages of laws, with lots of detail, criminal offences and duties not mentioned when they were set out in a statement last week…We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent, and not, I am afraid, just allow the Secretary of State to put it into force by decree.”
The original objective of the legislation has been achieved, but, as so often happens with regulation brought in by Governments, they want to keep it. They say, “Oh, we need to keep it just in case.” That is why, in an Adjournment debate on 2 September, I demanded that if the Government were going to keep the regulations, it should be on the basis that there were proper regulatory impact assessments for them. We do not have those regulatory impact assessments. It is all most unsatisfactory.”
“The dystopian nature of some of these restrictions has already caused a considerable deal of damage in society. I recognise the difficult balance and approach the Government had to take, but if we look at some other countries—Sweden, yes, but others too—it becomes evident that there are alternative approaches to controlling the virus without as significant an impact on civil liberties or as damaging an effect on the economy…. A bonfire of restrictions must be metaphorically set alight… This has been a national trauma.”
“I have huge concerns about how the Government want to progress with the extension of covid laws. I do not feel it is appropriate that Members of Parliament read about new restrictions in the press—restrictions that cover criminal offences, duties and penalties that can reach up to £10,000—and I am hugely concerned about the role of covid marshals. I am sent to the House of Commons to represent my constituents in Wealden, and I cannot do that if parliamentary democracy is suspended.
“I have supported the Government on the new measures that we have put in place as a country, but I feel that this Parliament should be sovereign and we should make some decisions. It is no good the Government, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State just saying out there, “We’re going to do this.” We need to ratify it and we need to agree with it. I probably would agree with it, but I would like to have a say in what we are doing. I have had dozens of constituents say, “Enough is enough. We want to be able to go and see our grandchildren.”
Others criticised the scientific evidence upon which decisions had been made:
“It is very uncomfortable being frightened to death by scientists presenting charts to the nation that they must know are wrong; that chart last Monday undermined public trust, as it was quite clearly pushing a worst-case scenario without telling us the probability of such a scenario occurring. Was it designed to instil fear in order to control the public? Is that how we want to govern?”
“I believe that the appearance of the chiefs last week should have been a sacking offence. When they presented that graph, it was with the caveat that it was not a prediction, but nevertheless it was clear that they presented it as a plausible scenario, with its 50,000 cases per day by mid-October based on the doubling of infections by the week… It was “project fear”. It was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they had not been terrified enough.”
And one MP said it was time to be honest about the lack of vaccine:
“Fundamentally, we owe it to the British people to be totally honest with them about the situation. Until we have a vaccine, we are going to be living alongside the threat of the virus and some of those we love may die… [given there is no vaccine), to return to a national lockdown would be not only untenable but wrong.”
There were also worries about the groups of society most affected by Covid measures:
“Many of the poorest members of the communities I represent are the ones who are suffering from lockdowns in different ways. Would it not therefore be right for this House to debate—quite rightly not to reject all lockdowns, but at least to debate—the different political choices that are being made as these questions are being asked?”
“we need more targeted support for women. Across the globe, women have been more adversely impacted than men by the coronavirus. We have record numbers of women in work in this country now, but we face critical problems with women, particularly pregnant women and new mums, being made redundant and not being able to get back into work because they are disproportionately represented in those sectors that have been hardest hit.”
Several MPs were more supportive of the Emergency Powers Bill.
“This country is facing an emergency. Even the most libertarian of us, and I count myself as such, have to recognise that, on occasion, the Executive must be given room to manoeuvre to make decisions in the moment. We already have checks, balances and safety mechanisms in place to ensure that decisions are appropriate and proportionate. What the amendment proposes is the equivalent of the House of Commons making Churchill come here to take a vote every time he wanted to send out Spitfires.”
And there were a few optimistic takes…
“we have many things to celebrate in this country about how we have approached the response to this pandemic—not least the brilliant scientific community in this country, which has produced the only known effective treatment for covid-19 and is doing great work on getting us closer to a vaccine. We like to beat ourselves up—or, rather, the media like to beat us up—but is not the truth that we have many things that the rest of the world follows us in?”
… even around contact tracing:
“Against all my instincts—and in the knowledge that I am not the Member of Parliament for dogmatic libertarians across the country, with whom I generally agree, but in fact the MP for Wycombe—I have done the right thing: I have, against my expectations, installed the contact tracing app. I ran out of excuses, I have installed it, and I am allowing it to run even as we speak. I hope that will be of some reassurance, even to those libertarians who might condemn me for it.”