Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
A lot of constituents have been in touch with me about the renewal of the Coronavirus Act so I thought I would set out my views.
There has been considerable criticism, which I share, of the Government’s approach to Parliamentary scrutiny of this emergency legislation. After pressure from MPs and very rare public criticism from the Speaker – who said the Government had treated MPs with contempt – ministers have now given a commitment to change approach. In future, they will bring national measures under the Act to the House of Commons (except where the need for urgency means this is not possible) so that MPs decide whether they should go ahead. The Health Secretary also announced that he was removing the part of the Act which had allowed people to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act on the say so of just one doctor. These are steps forward.
I did raise with the Secretary of State the question of prosecutions under Schedule 21 of the Act which gives the police and other authorities powers to detain people who are “potentially infectious”. Every prosecution so far under this section has been found to be unlawful. Matt Hancock said that the Crown Prosecution Service has now issued new guidelines and he is satisfied that they will avoid these problems occurring in future, but we will have to see whether this is, in fact, the case.
None of the amendments that had been put down were selected by the Speaker for debate, including the Labour one, and any amendment, even if passed, would have had no statutory effect on the Act itself. It was, in effect, an all or nothing choice. I did not vote for renewal of the Act because of my concerns. On the other hand because the Act contains provisions that are still needed – eg enabling suitably experienced people, such as recently retired NHS staff and social workers, to return to work, reducing the number of administrative tasks they have to perform, enabling local authorities to prioritise care for people with the most pressing needs, allowing key workers to perform more tasks remotely and with less paperwork, managing the deceased with respect and allowing individuals to receive Statutory Sick Pay from day one – I did not want to vote against, so I abstained, as did the Labour opposition. The actual motion carried was that the “Temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.”
Leeds has recently been put under new restrictions which mean that families won’t be able to see anyone else in their homes. It is the rising rate of infections in our city that has made this inevitable and we all have to do our bit, but the longer this goes on, the more we should debate whether we have got our response right.
In most people, Covid causes no symptoms or a relatively mild illness. But for a small proportion it can lead to hospitalisation and in some cases death. The older we are, and the more medical conditions we have – like diabetes and heart disease – the greater the risk we face. Some of those who get it are left with long-term problems. And because we are social beings, someone who catches the virus and may not even realise it can then pass it on to someone else who may be put at serious risk. That is the argument for trying to limit the spread of infection.
The original lockdown did lead to a reduction in the number of cases but the economic cost of doing so was enormous, and governments around the world are grappling with how to balance the threat to health and to the economy. Some sectors are in a state of despair – eg aviation, theatres, conferences, sport, the arts and weddings. A very large number of people who rely on those sectors for work can see no means of earning a living in the near future, while the support, if they have been getting it, is now being reduced. Unemployment is rising sharply and lots of families are finding it hard to pay the rent or the mortgage. The Government must look after those affected which is why as the Opposition we have been calling for months for support targeted at those sectors that are viable but currently have no income because of the restrictions. Simply to abandon them, as the Government has largely done, is not good enough. People and businesses need help to see their way through this.
Some people have written to me to argue that we should be following the example of other countries. Back in March, the questions were “why haven’t we already locked down like France and Spain?” Six months on, people say we should follow Sweden which has had fewer restrictions, but whose death rate per head of population is not far behind ours. What about the apparent contradictions? It’s apparently OK for people to sit in a relatively crowded pub and watch a football match but they can’t go into a socially distanced stadium to do the same. And the ever-changing rules cause confusion.
There’s a multiplicity of scientific voices which have different views about what to do. This is not surprising given that there’s a lot we still don’t know about the virus, but for those taking decisions it’s quite difficult. I am not a scientist but as Members of Parliament it is our responsibility to look at the scientific views being expressed and at the data. There is no doubt that at the moment the number of infections is rising along with hospitalisations and deaths, and the Chief Medical Officer has said that the figures are heading in the wrong direction.
Having said that, there are some basic things which our Government has got wrong. The original lockdown was too late, care homes were not protected, there wasn’t enough PPE to start with and the testing system has left worried families waiting for tests. This isn’t good enough because swift results and track and trace really do help contain the spread of the virus.
On the question of our freedoms, some people say that the Government has no right to tell us what do, and they protest against masks and even vaccines. I don’t understand the fuss about masks as they seem to me to be a prudent step to restrict the spread of the virus, and if an effective vaccine is found then I think we should make use of it to protect people. At heart, is the moral question. Should the freedom of one person to do what they want extend to giving the virus to someone else to whom it may cause serious illness or even worse? Parliament’s job is to strike the right balance, although there is no denying the great toll of the restrictions in terms of loneliness, mental ill health and economic impact. Meanwhile, we are seeing some progress because doctors now understand more about the illness they’re dealing with.
Hilary Benn MP