So here we are again. I share with everyone else the irritation and concern of facing another 6 or 7 weeks of ‘lockdown’, and with every other parent of school-age children the frustration of more home-based learning and the worry about its long-term effects on education, especially for those students who have exams this year. It is particularly annoying to see last-minute changes of policy and we should sympathise especially with school staff who have spent much time and effort preparing for a full return of pupils on Tuesday that was cancelled on Monday night. I have been critical too of the imposition of previous restrictions inappropriate for the virus rates in our area, but it is clear that the situation both nationally and locally has changed. The new variant of COVID-19 is very much easier to catch and is spreading fast, leading to higher percentages of positive tests and more hospitalisations. The overwhelming of the NHS and significant loss of life are once more real prospects and I support the actions the Government are taking now to protect the vulnerable, but also access to healthcare for all of us should we need it.
However, we need more than ever to see the way out of this. The advent of 2 workable and approved vaccines remains a real source of hope and perhaps the only realistic path to taming the virus and returning to more normal life, but some clarity is required. I understand the new variant of the virus is easier to catch, but not necessarily more harmful than the original version. All the evidence still indicates that it is the elderly and those with other health conditions who will, overwhelmingly, be the ones who become seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. Vaccination is therefore being carried out prioritising those most vulnerable groups. If that strategy is followed through, then there will come a point where all or almost all of those most vulnerable to the virus have been immunised from it, and then the balance of risk between protecting public health on one hand and protecting livelihoods, education and a variety of other health needs, both physical and mental, on the other, must change. I believe we must be less coy about this. This national lockdown will be tougher than the last, not least because of the time of year and the weather. It comes at the end of a long period of struggle with the virus and its consequences, not at the beginning, and restriction fatigue is a factor. Compliance is made more likely if we all understand not just the reasons for the restrictions, but also the triggers for lifting them. For that reason I hope Ministers will be more definitive that when we have vaccinated the most vulnerable groups in our society, restrictions will be lifted for all of us. Some risk from the virus will remain at that point, but there is risk too in allowing the restrictions to run on indefinitely, including to the NHS which depends on the tax revenues a working economy generates.
As to how quickly that can happen, to some degree that would be up to us. The quicker the vaccination process proceeds, the quicker restrictions could be lifted. That will depend on the manufacturers of vaccines meeting demand, on the efficiency of the national and local networks delivering it effectively and on the skill and industry of the people who will staff them, but we can all do our part. Please wait to be contacted if you are eligible for a vaccination, but be ready to go if you get the call. If you have medical training and you are not needed elsewhere, your practical help may be increasingly valuable as the rollout continues. And for all of us we can recognise that the faster the virus spreads, the harder the vaccinators’ job gets, and comply with the restrictions in place until that job is done.