York Press column: One Year on from Lockdown
March 24, 2021
Yesterday marks the anniversary of the Prime Minister first instructing us all to ‘stay at home’ on 23rd March 2020. It seems difficult to believe that the normal lives we took for granted have been suspended for that long, and I think few of us would have believed anyone who had told us at the time that the pandemic would last over 12 months.
It has been the sad fate of current generations to have had this historic cataclysm strike during our short period on the earth, requiring close to a wartime level of endurance and disruption that we thought had been banished to history. Although the amazing success of vaccination is bringing hope and optimism, this anniversary will be an incredibly melancholy occasion for those families especially impacted through the loss or serious illness of loved ones, and it is important for us all to think of these households at this time.
We have also had a whole year during which the basic liberties that characterise a free society have been revoked or drastically curtailed. Although sadly necessary, this is not something we should ever be fully comfortable with, especially as citizens of a country that has played such a proud role in developing the ideas of parliamentary government and liberty under the law, and has always led opposition to authoritarian regimes.
I, alongside the overwhelming majority of MPs, have voted to give vast powers for months on end to Ministers and civil servants, allowing them to rule by regulation, rather than through Parliament. Although video-link parliamentary proceedings have been essential to ensure social distancing, there is no doubt that the ability of Parliament to scrutinise and challenge government across all areas, not just covid matters, has been damaged by the departure from in-person debates and questions.
Moreover, it is reasonable to ask whether we have all been too eager to allow government to remove everyday freedoms, given we are now grateful for the prospect of soon being ‘allowed’ to do things as normal as seeing friends and family, or going to the pub. This begs the question of whether there has been a permanent psychological change wrought by covid, and we may face calls for lockdown if in future we have a bad flu season, for example. Having accepted lockdown so willingly we may now see draconian restriction as the only way to handle other public health challenges.
However, the success of vaccine development, with efforts that would usually take decades telescoped into 300 days through extreme concentration of the world’s scientific resources shows how we may be able to avoid such difficult choices in future. Vaccination continues apace in York, with the Askham Bar centre delivering its 100,000th dose last Wednesday, which is a huge tribute to all the staff and volunteers involved.
We must never forget though that from the beginning of the pandemic we were told that our exit strategy from restrictions would be through a successful rollout of an effective vaccine. With a third vaccine being delivered in coming weeks, we must not allow the goal posts to be moved as we risk entering summer with greater restrictions than last year despite having higher levels of immunity.
Government grants and the furlough scheme cannot sustain businesses for much longer, so the only option to help our beleaguered hospitality sector is to lift restrictions and show our support to our favourite local bars, cafes and restaurants. Similarly, the travel industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic and I will not be able to accept keeping current restrictions on foreign travel for the foreseeable future. Families should be able to book foreign summer holidays with confidence that our inoculated population will make Britons much sought-after tourists across Europe and beyond.
By the time of my next column, undoubtedly another incredible vaccine milestone will have been met but these achievements must bring tangible change to our lives and how we tackle the diminishing threat of coronavirus. While caution is understandable, ‘old’ normal must eventually replace the ‘new’ normal as we move ahead leaving the threat of the pandemic as a memory of the last year. This way York can bounce back and thrive once again.