The paradox is the problem. On the one hand we hear about the truly phenomenal success of the UK’s vaccination programme which – despite some inevitable local messiness – continues to reach more and more people. But on the other hand we know the pandemic is now worse, in terms of virulence and lethality, than it was last spring. We can see the end in sight, via the fabled herd immunity that we will reach when enough of us are vaccinated; but then we see the possibility of successive future waves of further, vaccine-defying mutations and further lockdowns.
I had a call on Friday with the council and local NHS leadership. The infection rate in Wiltshire is slowly declining, with 330 per 100,000 currently infected. But this is still far higher than the rate we had through most of last year and we are not expecting to get below 100/100,000 until March. We expect a peak in mortality in early February before this also starts a slow decline. The closure of schools is having some effect, with infections down among 15-19 year-olds, but the rate among young people in their 20s, who mostly work in jobs they can’t do from home, remains high. The NHS are very worried about capacity in our local hospitals. Salisbury District Hospital is especially critical, and are now ‘bedding up’, as they put it, their gym and a day patient unit to cope with the influx of Covid cases.
Local evidence suggests that compliance in Wiltshire is good. People are seeking tests and self-isolating if positive. 90 per cent of people’s contacts are being successfully traced and contacted, which is testament to the effectiveness of our local system.
One issue the council asked me to raise is people bending the rules on exercise with others. You can go for a walk on your own with one member of another household. Meeting up as a couple with another couple, the men walking a few metres behind the women, doesn’t count! I know, I know, it’s odd, but there it is; the rules are there to protect us all.
A final point from my call with the council: they’ve only heard from about half the local businesses eligible for the Local Restrictions Support Grant, a payment to firms affected by lockdown. They estimate around 2,000 businesses might be missing out. See here for more information.
I mentioned last week my call with primary school head teachers and the challenges their staff face delivering both in-school and online lessons. I do believe that it is possible to do both well, because a lot of schools manage it. Nevertheless, each school is different, with differing staff numbers (including those self-isolating at home), differing demand for in-school places, and differing physical space. For this reason I think it’s important that parents concerned that their children are not getting enough live teaching online raise their concerns with the school itself before complaining to Ofsted. I made this point in the Commons on Monday (see here) and the Education Secretary confirmed in his reply that Ofsted is the last resort. However, I would welcome communication from parents with concerns about the provision of remote learning and will gladly discuss the issue directly with the relevant head teachers.
The responsibilities of the state continue through the pandemic. One public service we have heard little about over the last year is the justice system. Despite initial anxieties that Covid-19 would devastate prison populations, the Prison Service worked incredibly well to limit its spread in jails. And though the work of the criminal courts was mostly suspended at the first outbreak, trials were quickly resumed last summer. Nevertheless, there is a significant backlog of cases and the Opposition raised an Urgent Question about this in the House this week. I used my question (see here) to point out the opportunity for a real transformation in the justice system, with technology enabling quicker and better justice.
Speaking of tech and crime, somehow the Home Office managed to delete a lot of data from the Police National Computer database this month. I asked a question in the Commons about this too (see here), and was reassured that the data is not lost after all.
One blessing of this lockdown, compared to last year’s, is that church services are allowed. This is a real achievement of campaigners (not including the Church of England’s leadership I’m sorry to say) who protested about the unnecessary and, as I said in a debate in November, arguably illegal and unconstitutional ban on congregations meeting in the flesh. However, many people do not want to attend church in person under present conditions and it’s vital we increase the capabilities of vicars to deliver online services. I asked the Church Commissioner (the excellent Andrew Selous MP) about this in the Commons and he told me that, to its credit, the Church of England is indeed investing significantly in online resources and vicar training (see here).
There’s been a tremendous response to my call for vaccination volunteers i.e. drivers to take people to their appointments with the jab. I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has got in touch with Samantha Lloyd at Community First (firstname.lastname@example.org) to offer some time as a driver with one of Wiltshire’s local LINK schemes. More information here.
On the subject of helping the community, may I make another plug for the Devizes Constituency Community Fund? I have established the DCCF with the Wiltshire Community Foundation to raise money for local projects helping people affected by the pandemic and the lockdown. This is a totally non-political endeavour: if and when I lose my seat I hope the new MP will carry on its work. But it chimes with my belief in communities helping each other, and my huge appreciation of the way people in Wiltshire already do this. Please do support the DCCF, which you can do via this link.
On a more partisan note, we are still expecting local elections in May. Whether these go ahead on time or not, they are hugely important in setting the direction of local government for the next four years. If, like me, you broadly support the approach of the Conservative-led Wiltshire Council, please consider volunteering to help the campaign effort. And if you live in Marlborough or Devizes, the party is recruiting Conservative candidates for the town council elections – how about it? If either campaigning or standing for election appeals, please get in touch and I’ll link you with the team.
I’ve been reading about Great Cheverell, on the eastern edge of the constituency. Nathaniel Chute, rector there around 1700, said of the place, ‘Now as for the inhabitants they live friendly and neighbourly and are ready to assist each other upon occasion. They are generally industrious in their husbandry affairs and thrive by their industry.’ Records of that time show a remarkable economic diversity: here were fulling, brickmaking, millwrighting, tool making, sheep bell making, and of course a lot of domestic weaving. If we could make sure the broadband worked, and fix rural transport, and build more affordable homes, and improve our skills training, and make it easier and cheaper to source local supplies, and encourage people to buy local… Great Cheverell and everywhere like it could thrive by their industry once more. I do believe the inhabitants still live friendly and neighbourly.