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Parliament’s pathetic Covid response At times of national crisis, shouldn't our MPs hold Government to account?

Will no one dare question the PM? Credit: Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Will no one dare question the PM? Credit: Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

September 22, 2020   5 mins

Has there ever been a time when our Parliament was more supine, more compliant, more irrelevant? Has it, on any major issue, been less willing to question the wisdom of Government policy, than it has the decision to impose some of the most severe restrictions on our civil liberties ever experienced in peacetime?

When it implemented the coronavirus lockdown in March, the Government acknowledged that some of the measures were unprecedented and would require us to make huge personal sacrifices. But they were necessary, we were told, to help flatten the curve and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. Then we could get back to something resembling normality.

It meant that people couldn’t be by the side of their loved ones as they lay dying; weddings and well-earned holidays were cancelled; treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses was delayed; the healthy were forcibly quarantined, protest was outlawed, the national church locked its doors, and our children’s education suffered. It also meant that the economy would eventually tank and millions of jobs would be at risk. All in all, it was a colossal price to extract from the nation’s people, and one that surely demanded the most rigorous scrutiny before it was paid.

Parliament's pathetic Covid response

By Freddie Sayers

Yet how did Parliament react to this extraordinary power grab by Government? Was there a forensic debate on the merits of such an approach, with ministers called upon to justify their actions by a chamber of obstreperous and interrogative MPs? Were searching questions asked about the likely long-term impact on the health and prosperity of the nation resulting from such an authoritarian strategy? Hardly. Instead, Parliament meekly nodded through the repressive legislation before effectively shutting itself down.

Sure, there were questions later, and from afar, from some of these MPs about the failures in other areas of the Government’s response – the lack of PPE, poor rates of testing, and so on. But the overarching policy of lockdown went largely unchallenged by our political representatives. The deep unease felt by some of their constituents at the policy was left unarticulated.

Is it that today’s MPs are less enquiring merely because they are less capable, or because they are so hidebound by the culture of conformity that predominates in the public debate over coronavirus? Perhaps both. What other explanation might there be for the fact those most of them refuse to put up any serious resistance to a policy whose sheer incoherence becomes more apparent with each passing day?

For here we are, six months from the implementation of the first lockdown restrictions, with the curve duly flattened and number of daily deaths now mercifully low — notwithstanding a recent rise in the number of infections caused by a variety of factors. The NHS seems to be in no more danger of being overwhelmed than is usual for this time of year, the Nightingale hospitals remain empty, and there appears no serious prospect of the second wave matching the first. Yet still the nation remains bound up in the straitjacket of draconian laws, with a panicked Boris Johnson threatening every day to tighten the straps yet further. It seems the Government’s objective now is to keep us in some form of lockdown until the virus disappears from our shores completely – an absurdly quixotic ambition and a sign of the obvious mission creep that has occurred.

While it is true that a handful of Tory MPs have now begun to voice their concerns, you can’t help but feel it’s a case of too little too late. For its part, Labour remains slavishly loyal on lockdown. When asked for his view on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend, Sir Keir Starmer went as far as to declare that he would support “whatever measure the Government takes” and would be willing to “reinforce their communications”.

What a contrast this blind obedience and docility represents to years gone by, when Parliament recognised that even – perhaps especially – at times of national crisis, perceived or otherwise, its role was to hold Government to account, challenge assumptions and test policy to within an inch of its life. Consider, for example, the Falklands War and the interventions of the magnificent Tam Dalyell and others who understood that no matter the apparent degree of consensus throughout the country, it was necessary to ask the tough questions about unintended consequences and endgames and exit strategies.

It’s hard to believe there exists a single MP among the current crop who, if we were at war, would, like Dalyell, be brave enough to defy the mood and harry a prime minister over her decision to sink an enemy cruiser in violation of the rules. Can one imagine the response of heavyweight parliamentarians like him or Denis Healey or Roy Jenkins or Enoch Powell or Michael Foot or – dare I say – Margaret Thatcher herself if, at a time of national crisis, they were told, as today’s MPs were, to clear their desks, go back to their constituencies and prepare for impotence?

And for what? For a virus that, while undoubtedly unpleasant, represents a serious threat to a relatively tiny number of people, many of whom will have other underlying conditions. That doesn’t mean this small minority should be considered expendable: on the contrary, we should protect them aggressively, and far better than we have managed so far. But place the rest of the population under effective house arrest? Cripple our economy? Impose alien measures, such as compulsory mask-wearing, which fundamentally alter our relations with each other as human beings? Such a response has surely proven to be disproportionate in the extreme.

One might have a little more sympathy with the lockdown approach if it had demonstrably saved lots of lives. But there appears to be little evidence of any correlation between the severity of a nation’s restrictions and the impact on the number of excess fatalities. All too often, those who implore us to “follow the science” seem not to have studied the science themselves.

It didn’t have to be this way. A Government of a calmer disposition, and one courageous enough to take a long-term view rather than be in thrall to the 24-hour news cycle, would have seen that a policy which erected a shield around the elderly and infirm while defending the freedom of everyone else to go about their normal business, albeit with regard for sensible hygiene measures, was the wisest course. Even now, we might look to Sweden, which, in taking a more relaxed approach – no hard lockdown, no compulsory masks, no mass panic – seems not to have fared worse than many countries. Moreover, with current infection rates among the lowest in Europe, the country looks well-placed to come through the crisis swifter than most.

Instead, Britain is in the grip of a collective national hysteria, unleashed and prolonged by a Government that flails around dementedly, petrified of negative headlines, afflicted by short-termism, imposing extreme and counter-productive measures utterly out of proportion to the problem we face, trashing ancient liberties along the way, and all with disregard for the appalling economic consequences.

Sooner or later, ministers are going to have to start treating us as grown-ups who are able to assess the coronavirus risk for ourselves and make an informed choice about how to behave. The current madness cannot be allowed to continue. Because, if it does, a national crisis will quickly turn into a national catastrophe.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker


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