York Press column – Omicron must not spoil a normal Christmas
December 15, 2021
As Christmas looms, I appreciate York residents may be feeling a sense of ‘déjà vu’, with rising virus cases again leading the government to tighten covid measures for the festive season.
However, thanks to our vaccine shield and booster rollout, the situation is vastly better than December 2020, with ‘Plan B’ rules proposed to tackle omicron nothing like the disruption to family gatherings and premises closures we saw last year.
Nevertheless, this cannot blind us to the substantial economic pain they will cause our city, and that this represents a further shift towards a semi-permanent state of emergency whenever a new variant appears. Compulsory indoor masks and ‘work from home’ guidance are big gestures that will have a chilling effect on business confidence, and cut down normal work and social interaction, placing York jobs at risk just when the city needs to cement its recovery.
I am all the more struck by this having recently visited Skelton Garden Centre to promote ‘Small Business Saturday’, with small enterprises precisely the sector than cannot afford a further period of suppressed demand from government diktats. The chilling effect is already obvious for York’s battered hospitality sector with the cancellation of Christmas parties, and I am now hearing from the city’s struggling small travel businesses about the blow dealt them by new anti-omicron flight bans and testing rules.
Although at the time of writing the exact form in which the regulations will be presented to MPs for a vote is not clear, I will certainly vote against any proposals to introduce vaccine passports/ negative covid test result certification for large events and nightclubs, because I fear conceding this could prove the ‘thin end of the wedge’, inviting further division and discrimination across society. As one of 36 MPs who voted against omicron self-isolation requirements last month because government wanted this power for too long, I think it is important there is some pushback against official attempts to endlessly impose emergency measures, especially as this rebellion has now produced a result, with Ministers now substituting daily testing for suspected omicron cases in place of self-isolation.
I am unhappy with the signal sent by wider mask rules, but am willing to grudgingly support the extension of this to all indoor public settings because hospitality has been exempted, and this requirement seems a proportionate step to keep premises open safely.
However, if rather than having separate votes, the government try to bundle the mask requirement with the proposals for ‘vaccine passports’ I will vote against the whole package of measures. I have consistently opposed any move to vaccine passports, and signed a public declaration to resist them earlier this year, because I fear this as a divisive step that could exclude people from participating fully in society. A legal requirement to show health information or lose access to amenities would set our society on an authoritarian course, precisely when we need to be moving in the opposite direction towards the liberty that produces prosperity.
Controversy over alleged covid rule breaches in 10 Downing Street offices last year understandably damages the government’s authority to impose restrictions, and I share the view of many constituents that the public deserve clear answers, with consequences for those responsible. The head of the civil service has been asked to investigate, and the outcome of his enquiries is vital to maintaining public trust.
Vaccination was meant to provide our escape from covid restrictions, and I think ramping up this programme, rather than new rules, is the best way to beat omicron. I will be having my own booster this Friday, and am reassured by progress in York, with nearly 54,000 boosters and third doses already administered across our city by 3rd December.
Nationally, we have provided more boosters than any other country except China and America. This world-leading position recalls the huge success of the British Oxford vaccine and vaccine rollout from early 2021, which saved over 120,000 lives and prevented 24 million infections. This should give us confidence that human ingenuity can beat the covid menace, and return us permanently to normal life.
I wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas, and a brighter New Year.