Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con) [V]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 313310, 557167, 563904, 566718 and 567492, relating to the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 roadmap.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to lead my first petitions debate on an incredibly important issue: the easing of lockdown in the country. Collectively, the five petitions that we are debating gathered approximately 750,000 signatures, with more than 600 of those from my constituency.
Before I start, I thank the individuals who started the petitions: Paul Marton, James Roberts and Liz Terry. It was a pleasure to speak with both James and Liz last week. They told me of their frustration with gyms being closed in this current lockdown. As I reassured both of them, however, we have since seen a publicised road map out of lockdown in England.
I understand that the petitions have taken some time to be considered, so I apologise to the petitioners and signatories for speaking somewhat retrospectively. That said, it is important to highlight why the petitions were signed and what we should all take into consideration as we move forward and recover from this dreadful pandemic.
Let me speak first of where we are now with regards to the lifting of restrictions. The vaccination programme in the UK continues to make great progress: more than 50% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and hospitalisations are down to their lowest level since September. We all have an enormous sense of gratitude to our NHS and other health workers, who have been on the frontline of this fight for more than a year now.
The speed of the vaccine roll-out must relieve some of the fears of individuals who created and signed the petitions we are debating. Golf courses will reopen on 29 March. Many people will be relieved to know that gyms will reopen on 12 April. Most importantly, however, the Government plan to end all restrictions by 21 June. Equally, the signatories of the petition regarding gymnasiums being open in tier 4 should also be reassured, as the easing of the lockdown does not include a return to the tier system. While developments that we have witnessed since the setting up of the petitions are perhaps unhelpful in this particular debate, they are great news for the many thousands of individuals and businesses to have suffered from economic hardship, unemployment, loneliness and poor physical and mental health over the past 12 months. Despite developments, it is important that these petitioners have their voices heard. When the petitions were first established, these issues were extremely relevant and pressing to affected parties.
Although the lockdown measures were clearly necessary to save lives and prevent our health service from being overwhelmed, we must not ignore the fact that the restrictions were infuriating to many people. The general public are, after all, used to having the freedom to do what they want. It is important that Members of Parliament who voted for the restrictions understand that frustration. I certainly understand it, and over the past 12 months, I have seen many social media posts and emails from constituents expressing quite a lot of anger.
I must inform the Minister that many pointed out that they thought the restrictions were at times illogical, yet I personally understand that the Government had to work quickly in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. That meant that any restrictions were bound to leave certain people feeling wronged. As with all legislation that has to be rushed through, loopholes and peculiarities inevitably emerged. However, I commend the Government for continuing to listen to the concerns of the public and Parliament. As a Back-Bench MP, I can safely say that my concerns and those of my constituents have been heard and often addressed.
Frustration with the restrictions was acutely felt by golfers, who at times wrote to me to state that it was unfair that they could go for a walk with a friend, yet not have a game of golf on a golf course. To some, such complaints may seem trivial, but for many people, activities such as golf or going to the gym are daily hobbies that give joy and respite from the everyday stresses of life.
I have spoken to many people about the need for gyms to be reopened. I again thank Liz Terry, who began one of the petitions, for taking the time to speak to me. Like many of my constituents, Liz made the very truthful point that, along with underlying conditions and age, one of the biggest causes of covid hospitalisation is having an inactive, unhealthy lifestyle. There is no hiding from that fact. The Prime Minister himself said that his hospitalisation was due somewhat to his lifestyle choices. For that reason, I sympathise with the view of Liz and other gym owners that the Government should support gyms and help this country to build back fitter.
As covid-19 has reminded us of the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, would it not be a good idea for the Government to establish a programme similar to the eat out to help out scheme? There could also be a temporary reduction in VAT to 5% across the physical activity sector. That would massively help the industry, and it would help our NHS by ensuring the population is much healthier.
Let me go back to what the Government were trying to achieve and continue to strive to achieve. We all heard the lines: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. As I have said, the Government’s whole strategy focused on saving lives. This disease could spread only with human contact, and could spread especially quickly in indoor venues, so if we did not come into contact, it could not spread.
Trying to enforce minimal contact is not simple in a society and an economy as complex as ours. Even in a pandemic, some people have to go to work, such as NHS staff, our 999 services, our supermarket workers and their suppliers, the dustbin men, the postal workers, the bus drivers, the electricians, the plumbers and the social workers—the list goes on. In other words, our essential workers—the ones who keep this country running and churning away—could not stay at home. We needed them, so those of us who were lucky enough to stay at home were rightly told to do so.
Petition 566718 demanded that nurseries be shut. I understand that some members of staff in nurseries may be frightened of covid, but the evidence is clear: children aged five and under are much less likely to pass on the virus, and are not adversely affected by it. Equally, nurseries played a crucial role in enabling our key workers to carry on doing their vital work. Closing the nurseries would have forced many parents to make childcare arrangements or reduce their hours. That, I am afraid, would be wrong and unnecessary, especially as it is clear that nurseries are low-risk environments.
Throughout this pandemic I have had many meetings with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and Ministers. They have stated that their strategy was to supress the virus until we get a vaccine. While I sympathise that the petitioners will have different opinions on how this strategy went forward, having an opinion without ultimate responsibility is a luxury. The Prime Minister does not have that luxury, but unfortunately has all the responsibility. We must not forget that.
Over 130,000 people have died. That is not just a statistic; these are people’s mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Meanwhile, businesses have gone bust. Before being an MP, I ran my own business and I know what it is like for people to put everything they have into a business. I can only sympathise with those who have built up something themselves, only to witness it fail due to circumstances outside their control.
I am pleased that over the weekend the Government announced that they will provide £100 million to 266 local authorities to support the recovery of publicly owned leisure centres and museums. However, as that covers only publicly owned venues, I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to help gymnasiums through the reduction of VAT, to say 5%, or through a work out to help out scheme. As ukactive pointed out, such simple measures could stimulate growth in the sector, which was in a position of strength prior to the pandemic, and create a number of sustainable jobs to aid the country’s health and economic recovery from covid-19. Let us help our country not only level up, but physically get up and build back fitter.