You can watch Hilary’s contribution to the debate here.

I have been contacted by lots of constituents about the new Covid restrictions that came into effect on 2nd December after the vote in Parliament.

I did not vote for the measures – I abstained as did most Labour MPs – because although there is a continuing need for restrictions given the threat to health and to the NHS from the pandemic, the Government has failed to provide enough support to the many businesses in Leeds, and especially in the city centre, which have been so badly affected along with their staff. However, given that infection rates in Leeds are now falling – because of the restrictions we have had – I hope we will be able to move into Tier 2 at some point.

I am only too aware of how difficult things have been for many people and their jobs, for businesses and for mental health and welfare. Some people are really struggling with reduced incomes as the bills mount up. We need to support those who find themselves in this position so the Government must keep the £20 increase in Universal Credit.

We all want this to end, but Covid remains a risk to the clinically vulnerable and the elderly. Most studies have suggested that Covid kills between 0.5% and 1% of people who catch it compared to seasonal flu which kills about 0.1% of people affected.

The decision to introduce the November lockdown was both inevitable and necessary given the growing number of Covid cases in Leeds at the time and the increasing pressures on our NHS, including at the LGI and Jimmy’s. There have been more Covid cases in our Leeds hospitals in this second wave than there were in the first wave in Spring.

Many of you, including in hospitality, have understandably asked about the extent to which certain activities may spread the virus in seeking to find an answer as to why particular businesses have been required to close. The science on all of this is imperfect and I don’t think we will ever get to understand the precise contribution of each activity to the pandemic. But a basic truth holds – namely that the more contacts we have in the course of a day, the greater the risk that the virus will be passed from one person to another and on to those we live with. Therefore, in order to reduce the total number of contacts, society must decide which activities are going to be restricted while allowing certain things – like children attending school – to continue. To put it bluntly, we had to act back in October because we were losing control of the virus.

Some of you have called for all restrictions to be scrapped or asked why a different approach isn’t being taken; for example, shielding the elderly and the clinically vulnerable while everyone else gets on with their lives. The problem with this suggestion is that I have seen no practical proposal as to how this could be done with multi-generational households. For example, if a family lives with an elderly parent then either the family or the parent are going to have to move out of their home to go somewhere else to shield or else there is the risk that the virus will be passed on by those family members who have been at work, for example. How exactly could this be done? And would it be right anyway to separate out families and members of our society on the basis of their age or medical condition? That is not to say, of course, that those of us who are at greater risk shouldn’t take the greatest precautions. That is simply common sense. And if we look around a lot of the rest of the world you will see broadly similar approaches being adopted to the control of the virus.

Having said that, there are aspects of the previous lockdown regulations that I felt very uncomfortable about including the ban on church services (which has now been lifted) and the restrictions on the right to protest, although I was very disappointed to see that some of those protesting recently were arguing that no-one should have to wear masks. I don’t think that wearing a mask in a shop or on public transport is a denial of our freedom; instead, I see it as a simple common sense measure to protect ourselves and others from passing on the virus. It’s about mutual obligation.

The other point I would make is about freedom and how we exercise it, which some of you who have written to me have raised. Freedom can never be absolute and one of the tests we apply as a society is whether the exercise of freedom by one person will cause harm to others. For example, there is a legitimate issue for society if we don’t get a sufficient level of vaccination because the virus may continue to circulate more than it would otherwise do. In those circumstances some people will catch it, some of those people will become ill enough to require hospital treatment and some of those people in hospital will sadly die.

Finally, the good news. We do now have the Pfizer vaccine which has now been approved for use in the UK. It will not be compulsory, and we must provide information and facts to enable people to weigh up what they have heard, to talk to their GP and decide. Having said that, the more of us who get the vaccine the better the chance we have of overcoming the virus.

We now have a means of starting the journey back towards a more normal life for businesses and families and it can’t come soon enough.

I do hope this is helpful.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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