Debates between Baroness Mallalieu and Baroness Penn during the 2019 Parliament

Covid-19: One Year Report

Debate between Baroness Mallalieu and Baroness Penn
Thursday 25th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Mallalieu Portrait Baroness Mallalieu (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, on 13 March last year, this country had a carefully prepared plan from the Department of Health, which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to. It was to be used in the event of a pandemic caused by a serious respiratory disease with a projected death toll of up to 750,000. It involved shielding the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable, but keeping life as near normal for the healthy and the working population. China had imposed a draconian lockdown; Italy, France and Spain followed and got away with doing it. Overnight, our plan was dropped into the wastepaper basket and we followed the others. Was that wrong? With hindsight, I believe that it was. Would I have made the same decision on lockdown then? Possibly, but knowing what we do now I would not.

Those who advised that decision, those who made it and those who subsequently supported it were doing their best as they saw it to protect the population from a highly infectious, deeply unpleasant and sometimes fatal disease. How did they persuade us to comply? How did we so readily and swiftly surrender our freedom? First, we were told that, if we did, we would beat the virus and, in the Prime Minister’s words, put it “back in its box”. Then, this nation’s affection for our National Health Service was employed mercilessly. The fact is that successive Governments have underfunded and mismanaged the NHS, so we have the lowest critical care capacity in Europe.

Fear and guilt were part of the Government’s strategy: Don’t kill your granny”, and the advertisement with the old man pictured in a mask, asking “Can you look him in the eye?” There were swingeing fines for trivial breaches and even a government Minister urging people to report their neighbours for any rule infringements, which was presented as some sort of praiseworthy, patriotic act. All this was set against a background of relentless media coverage of hospital crises and deaths. Of course we all wanted to help to beat this virus, but a great many people were also very frightened, many unnecessarily, and many still are.

The full consequences of that decision are now much clearer. I hope that it reduced the death toll, but ours is still one of the largest in the world. However, as a result of that decision, a health crisis has been supplemented by both an economic and a social one. Massive damage has been done to the education of our children and to our businesses, industry, court system, arts and culture. There is a massive backlog of people who are in urgent need of treatment for serious, often fatal, conditions, some of whom have died or will die for lack of it. Basic human needs and civilised rights were prohibited: the need to be with a dying relative, to hold a mother’s hand in a care home, to hug grandchildren. The toll on mental health is incalculable.

We were told then, and at each successive lockdown, that this would be temporary, until a vaccine came along. I am afraid that that has proved unrealistic. Now we are being told that the virus is endemic and we will have to learn to live with it. The vaccine has been brilliantly created in record time and is being superbly administered through the NHS. It may protect the vaccinated against the worst aspects. More and better treatments will also, hopefully, be found, but this virus is going to continue indefinitely.

Against that background, we must surely resolve never again to use lockdown in this way in a health emergency such as this. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was right. Parliament, too, must not allow itself to be sidelined again. We have had legislation with virtually no debate; we have had ex post facto debate on legislation already in force. We have had guidelines that have been accorded the status of law, with constant changes and uncertainty, so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, the public, police and even parliamentarians find it impossible to keep track of the latest rules and timetables.

The police, too, have been put in an impossible position, not just in policing lawful, dignified, peaceful protests but in trying to enforce legislation, some of it so petty in its application as to be laughable. I cannot forget the image of the elderly couple with their sticks, sitting together alone on a park bench, resting briefly during their one hour of permitted exercise, being made to move on by police. It is still going on: last week, an 83 year-old woman in Cheltenham was visited by two policemen at night, having been reported for having a cup of tea with two friends in the garden of her sheltered home. She was told that she would be fined if she did it again. If you enact bad law, people lose respect for it. Look out on the streets on any fine day, or at the beaches when it is hot, and you can see it. People are making their own decisions about the level of risk that they are prepared to take for themselves, their families and their friends. If those who have never broken any rule since March were asked to put their hands up, I do not believe that there would be many in the air.

Here we are again today, doing it all again, taking a few regulations away, adding more and changing the ever-moving goalposts. These provisions go through because there are not enough people in Parliament—too few like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—who will stand up and say, “Enough is enough”.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I remind the noble Baroness of the advisory time limit for Back-Benchers.