We must not normalise invasive and discriminatory restrictions
Over the last 20 months, we have kept families apart, banned people from going to work, denied children education, plunged people into poverty and condemned thousands to die alone. We’ve spent £400bn and delivered over 100m vaccinations.
And yet, despite expending vast resources to try to control the pandemic, we seem to have come full circle. Now we are facing a new Covid variant that Ministers believe could result in a surge in hospitalisations.
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The Government’s response to this threat, to be voted upon by Parliament tomorrow, is to bring back restrictions including masks, working from home, vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers.
As I sat in the Chamber last Wednesday listening to the Health Secretary announce these new measures, I felt a sickening sense of déjà vu. Back in June, ‘Freedom Day’ was delayed, I wrote here that we were setting a dangerous precedent.
Ministers have always said that we are not pursuing a Zero Covid strategy, that life would return to normal once the vulnerable were vaccinated and that we must learn to live with Covid — and its inevitable alphabetic variants — as we live with flu.
We have unquestionably met all of those aims. Covid is still circulating, but deaths account for a small fraction of overall mortality. 95% of UK adults have antibodies and Covid now has a case fatality rate comparable to influenza.
But a dangerous precedent has indeed been set and so inevitably, with the discovery of the Omicron variant, we are to be plunged into another period of invasive and discriminatory restrictions.
Though it may be futile in the face of Opposition support (I use the term ‘opposition’ loosely), I will vote against the regulations tomorrow for three reasons.
Firstly, the collateral damage to wider society will be high. Many people have written at length about the appalling costs of lockdowns and restrictions and evidence of permanent damage continues to emerge.
Secondly, there will be a further undermining of confidence in the rule of law. Good laws are clear and based on consensus; they should not be difficult to interpret or adhere to or make criminals out of ordinary people. Far from uniting us, these regulations will invite conflict, judgement and segregation.
But perhaps most significantly, the new measures threaten to cement a permanent shift in the balance of power between the Government and the British people that has been brought about by two years of ‘hokey cokey’ restrictions on our freedom. This is a shift that is no doubt being celebrated by those on the Left, but it should chill Conservatives to the core.
Do we want to live in a society where Ministers can — at no notice — impose serious, damaging restrictions on individuals instead of trusting us to behave responsibly? Do we want a society where people are judged and discriminated against by their health status? Or where the state, far from being a stabilising force, becomes an unpredictable and overbearing menace, perpetuating a climate of fear?
I don’t believe that the Government has deliberately set out on a road to authoritarianism, but we must acknowledge that this is the path we now tread.
That is why I and many other Conservative MPs will vote against the new restrictions tomorrow. Now that we have done everything reasonable to mitigate against the effects of Covid-19, we must strive to return to a society based on freedom, tolerance and personal responsibility before it’s too late.
Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge