Inevitable it may have become, but no less dreadful for that. Yesterday afternoon 516 elected representatives of the English people voted to put England back into lockdown, following the other home nations into this dreary stasis. The aim? To suppress temporarily and with no obvious strategic purpose a disease which over 99.7% of people survive. The excuses of March relied on by many at the time – that not enough was known about the virus to permit any alternative – were no longer available. Seven months down the track and ignorance is no longer a defence. We know far more about this virus – its virulence, who is vulnerable to it, how to treat it, how it responds (or doesn’t) to restrictions, and what it does in places where restrictions are eschewed – to make properly informed decisions. Yet MPs were instead presented with already falsified, out-of-date models predicting imminent catastrophe. The working and assumptions for these dubious creations were only published just before the vote.
Just 39 MPs voted against the lockdown. 34 were Tory rebels voting against the Government. Here is the Roll of Honour:
Adam Afriyie, Steve Baker (teller), Peter Bone, Sir Graham Brady, Steve Brine, Sir Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Jonathan Djanogly, Jackie Doyle-Price, Richard Drax, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Marcus Fysh, Chris Green, James Grundy, Mark Harper, Gordon Henderson, Philip Hollobone (teller), David Jones, Tim Loughton, Craig Mackinlay, Stephen McPartland, Esther McVey, Huw Merriman, Anne Marie Morris, Sir Mike Penning, John Redwood, Andrew Rosindell, Henry Smith, Sir Desmond Swayne, Sir Robert Syms, Derek Thomas, Sir Charles Walker, Craig Whittaker, William Wragg.
There were also four DUP MPs: Paul Girvan, Carla Lockhart, Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson. And one independent: Julian Lewis. To any of our readers who wrote to these MPs, take a bow. There were also a number of abstentions, most notably Theresa May (though some were because they were Scottish MPs or paired).
The 90 minute debate saw MPs lay mercilessly into the Government’s handling of the epidemic. These MPs at least did not let us down.
One of the surprise heroes of the debate was Theresa May, who has become quite the hardened sceptic (though oddly she then abstained in the vote). As she stood up Boris actually walked out of the Commons (watch here), to audible surprise from MPs. May just shrugged and carried on.
She said the prediction of 4,000 deaths a day “was wrong before it was even used”. We need proper analyses, she said. “We need to know the details behind these models. We need to be able to assess the validity of those models.”
She raised concerns about a lack of data on the costs of lockdown, including on mental health, domestic abuse, non-Covid treatments, “possibly more suicides” and to the economy: “Jobs lost, livelihoods shattered, businesses failing, whole sectors damaged. What sort of airline industry are we going to have coming out of this? What sort of hospitality sector? What sort of small independent shops will be left?” After watching her performance, you couldn’t help but wonder if we would have been better off during this crisis if she’d been in charge.
Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, asked why Matt Hancock had “failed in this task” of sorting out test and trace before now. He said: “Instead of building that capacity and sorting out test and trace properly, he has been spending far too much of his time seemingly relishing the power of seeking to micromanage every aspect of everyone’s lives.”
It is “perfectly clear” lockdowns do not work, he added, but they do damage the economy and people’s mental health. If they worked, “we would have solved it months ago”. And yet the Government “still persists with this failed strategy”. But the public “no longer has any faith” in what they are doing. He asked how many job losses it would take before Mr Hancock accepted it was the wrong strategy.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee and MP for Altringham and Sale West, said he “fully accepts” the sincerity of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock. But he will vote against the lockdown “with greater conviction than I have in casting any vote in those 23 years” he has served as an MP. He says the impact assessment should be published for the sake of MPs and the public and it should be available for ministers to base their decisions on.
The Government is “reaching too far into the private and family lives” of the country, he said, observing “an arrogance – unintended perhaps” in assuming the Government has the right to tell people whether they can visit elderly parents, or their children or grandchildren. He told MPs that he “can’t be the only one” who has had constituents in “floods of tears” because of the restrictions. Does the Government have the right “for heaven’s sake”, he wondered, “to tell consenting adults with whom they are allowed to sleep”, to ban communal worship, golf or tennis.
He said Johnson’s argument, that despite the lack of evidence for each restriction the whole lot must be accepted as a package to avoid it unravelling, was not good enough. “We cannot vote for measures on that flimsy basis, which patently make no sense,” he said. “I have a fundamental problem with much of what we are being asked to do here.”
Sir Charles Walker, 1922 Committee Vice Chairman, told MPs that “freedoms are like the air we breathe” and are fundamental to the country, yet “once again we stand on the threshold of using the rule of law to undermine the rule of law”. He pointedly reminded members they are not asking people to do something “we have coerced them, we have coerced them through criminal and civil law.” The freedom to go about one’s business – and the freedom to protest – are “the oxygen of democracy”, he said.
Dismissing “sincerely held concerns as wanting to let the virus rip is deeply ungenerous and deeply, deeply unkind,” he added. Sir Charles said he wants people to live full, long, happy lives, but while our mortality is “our contract with our maker”, our freedom is a contract with Government. He said he would not support the “terribly unjust” lockdown, adding: “I will have no part of criminalising parents for seeing their children, and children for seeing their parents.”
Poignantly, former chief whip and Forest of Dean MP Mark Harper told the Commons he will vote against the Government for “only the second time in my 15 years in this House”.
“You will know, madam Deputy Speaker, from our shared endeavours in the usual channels that it is not easy for a former Chief Whip not to support their party,” he said. He stressed that in his part of the country infections are “flat or falling” and no concerns have been raised by local hospitals. He said the modelling that has been presented is “old data and we already know and [Theresa May] set this out very clearly that the most extreme of those is wrong… and wrong by a factor of four or five”.
“I simply don’t believe the Government has made the case,” he added, also flagging concerns about the burden enforcing the restrictions will place on the police.
Tory MP Huw Merriman (see his tweets here) asked the Prime Minister what evidence he has that more lives would be saved through lockdown than the restrictions will cause themselves.
Boris acknowledged this was “the crux of the debate” but argued MPs must “look at the immediate peril we face”. He stressed “the real risk of mortality on what I think would be a grievous scale which would stem from doing nothing”.
He says doctors and nurses would be forced to make “impossible choices about which patients would live and which would die” – a favourite argument of his, and clearly one which impacts him deeply, perhaps betraying his own fear of making difficult decisions. In reality, triage and prioritising patients for ICU admission is a routine part of managing the demands on the health service. Heads of ICUs make choices about which patients should live and die every day. Besides, he is surely aware that figures show hospitals are nowhere close to being overwhelmed, and that we are a long way from the kind of demand (and deaths) that were seen in England 1993-2000.
Yet he repeated the bizarre claim Chris Whitty made on Monday that the “existential threat” to the NHS comes from “not focusing enough” on coronavirus, which would deprive other patients of the care they need. There are mountains of evidence that it was the lockdown that decimated healthcare in this country, not the virus.
Labour leader Keir Starmer complained MPs should have had more time to scrutinise legislation and “iron out” inconsistencies, and criticised the regulations as “not in any way desirable or perfect”. Nonetheless, Labour would support them, he said, because the Government had “lost control”, betraying the sharp political edge to his manoeuvring.
“To anybody who disputes the trajectory of the virus, or what the cost of inaction would be, I would point out that when SAGE warned 44 days ago… there were 11 deaths from COVID-19,” he said, noting that on Monday 397 deaths were reported. “That is not graphs, not projections, that is the grim facts,” he said. “That direction of travel has been clear for some time.” But how many more deaths than normal does that figure represent? He didn’t say. Neither did he comment on the evidence that infections are plateauing rather than growing exponentially as R continues to fall.