Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) [V]
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak on this issue, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for setting the scene so well. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and I thank him for his contribution.
The delicate balance of withdrawing from lockdown is never easy to find. The Prime Minister has outlined a very specific road map for England, but in Northern Ireland we are finding it very difficult to provide steps out, and that is beyond frustrating for very many people. We have spent much of the last year under restrictions that do not sit well in a community that treasures freedom, yet we have done so because we were asked to do so.
We have all sacrificed to protect those we love. However, there is no doubt that it has taken a huge toll on relationships within the home, relationships outside the home, working relationships and, worryingly, mental health. Mental health issues are important for everyone, and wellbeing is critical. I am fortunate to live on a farm, which means that whenever I go home, I can go for a walk every day. I have had the opportunity to do that, but many people are stuck in a house or a flat with family living on top of each other. It must be extremely difficult to try to make do.
One hon. Member referred to suicide, which has been unfortunately prevalent in my constituency. There was a story in The Mail on Sunday yesterday about suicides among young men in particular. We express great concern about that, and we look for what must be done to try to make things better.
Today, I am speaking out on behalf of those who own gyms and boxing clubs, and I particularly want to mention dance classes. One of my constituents, a young lady called Hannah McKillen, started her dance class about six months before the lockdown came in. It was quite a move for her. I understand very clearly the issues for her and what we need to do. I hope and believe that we will come out of this very soon—the sooner, the better.
A constituent who is a dance instructor wrote to me today. She is surviving on universal credit. She just bought her house before lockdown, and she finds herself financially restricted in what she is able to do. We really need to have those things back in place.
I received an email from a 77-year-old constituent, about golf. He says he cannot understand why he is unable to take part in a sport that is socially distanced and essential for his mental as well as physical health. He writes: “I am a 77-year-old golfer. I am really disbelieving when golf courses can open on 1 April, but only allowing for two-balls. Four-balls from two families is really, in 99% of cases, a two-ball. On the golf course we are keeping social distancing. Only one person to a golf buggy. Flags stay in the hole and no one handles them. Bunkers are in play but there are no rakes for players to touch. Only one person at a time allowed to the pro shop. The clubhouse is closed. Players arrive 10 minutes before their tee time, so there are not a number of players queueing up, and at the end of the game they touch elbows, fully clothed. We do not exercise, and I believe the golf gives me (a) exercise and (b) something to look forward to.”
That came from a very fit 77-year-old who clearly understands what it means to get exercise. It is difficult for me to explain the situation to such constituents—there are many others like him—who credit their great health in their later years to their games of golf. They also say there is a benefit to their mental health, in terms of preventing isolation. I believe that a reasoned approach such as the road map needs to be utilised more fully, and consideration should be given to such sports as outdoor swimming that provide benefits with little risk of transmission.
I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful job that has been done on the roll-out of covid vaccines throughout the UK. I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for taking good steps at the right time, unlike other nations. Now we are reaping the benefits, and the economy will shortly reap them as well. We may be in a unique position, coming out of all the lockdowns. We have vaccinated our most vulnerable and, indeed, the roll-out for 50-year-olds is fairly well advanced. Success is seen with the decrease in deaths. While the goal remains nationwide vaccination, I believe that the completion of vaccination of the vulnerable gives us the freedom to allow sensible steps. I think that people want them, and I hope that they come sooner rather than later, to allow all children back into schools, golfers back on the course with safety measures, and sea swimmers the safety of swimming close to others.
We need to look towards telling shopkeepers they can open, with strict number guidelines. The economy needs that, and it can be done as safely in a shoe shop as in Tesco. We can take those steps because of the success of the roll-out. Now is the time, as we come into the milder weather, to map out carefully how we can safely go forward. People are waiting for direction and for the return of normality. Sweeping generalisations are not enough. They need the detail, and I believe we and the Government must provide that for them. They all need to understand the logic behind all the decisions and the timescale for the much-awaited return.