York Press column – The challenges ahead as Brexit and COVID-19 return to the headlines
September 23, 2020
Since my last column for the York Press, two weeks ago, we have seen the re-emergence of two national challenges with which the Government is currently tasked with grappling.
The first is Brexit, which even after the parliamentary ups and downs of last year and our exit in January, is still proving itself to be a source of political controversy.
As the Government seeks to conclude negotiations on our future relationship with the EU before the end of the year, they understandably want to start applying pressure to ensure that we get the best deal possible. They also want to ensure that the legal framework is in place to allow us to adapt in all scenarios. The Internal Market Bill that is currently going through Parliament is an important part of completing an orderly Brexit process, returning powers currently exercised at EU level to the appropriate authorities across the country, ensuring businesses can trade unhindered across all nations of the UK through a united internal market, and allowing the government to provide funding for infrastructure, education and culture across the regions previously administered by the EU.
A small section of the Bill provides the government with emergency powers to depart from aspects of the withdrawal agreement with the EU, in the event no trade agreement can be reached, if the EU acted in bad faith, and sought to interpret these clauses disadvantage and divide the UK.
This has proved controversial, amid concerns that overriding the withdrawal agreement in this way could theoretically constitute a breach of international law.
As one of the 20 Conservative MPs who put their name to Sir Bob Neill’s amendment to guarantee a House of Commons vote on overriding aspects of the EU withdrawal agreement in the event of an emergency, I welcome the government’s announcement it will now incorporate this change into the new law.
Whilst I am confident that dis-applying parts of the withdrawal agreement in this way would only be considered as an extreme last resort, I believe that government should only have the power to take such a drastic step with the clear consent of Parliament.
I hope that Ministers will now focus on what the vast majority of people are rooting for, which is securing a good trade deal with our friends and partners in the EU going forward. This will provide businesses in York and elsewhere with the certainty that they need and will finally allow us to draw a line under the divisive debates of the last few years.
The second major issue facing the country is of course the on-going Covid-19 pandemic. After several months of an improving outlook, it seems that we now have to brace ourselves for an increased prevalence of the virus, both locally and nationally. It is therefore more important than ever that we follow the by now well known public health advice, neatly summarised in the latest government adverts as Hands, Face, Space. We know however that faced with a rapidly increasing rate of infection, this may not be enough to bring the virus under control. I will of course support the Government in whatever sensible measures that are deemed necessary, in following the best scientific advice. What I would strongly urge against however is any move to re-impose a full-scale national lockdown, which would be crippling for the thousands of small businesses who only just survived the first. I fear that the damage to our high streets in particular would be irreparable.
I know that at this uncertain time, many constituents are concerned about access to testing in the event that they have Covid-19 symptoms. I have already been taking action in response to residents’ feedback and have tabled written parliamentary questions to the Health Secretary via the House of Commons regarding testing capacity, and will ensure I get some clear answers. I understand that given the recent sharp rise in demand for testing, increasing over 60% June to August, testing resources are being focused at centres in areas where Covid-19 is more prevalent, which may have made it a little harder to access testing from somewhere like York, where virus prevalence remains relatively low.
I hope strains like this will be eliminated by the on-going massive expansion of testing capacity, from nearly 370,000 a day now to 500,000 by next month, and an increase in testing sites from 400 to 500, with a new lab at Newcastle to process test results faster for our region, and expect the government to make good on this.
If anyone in the York Outer constituency needs help or advice as the situation develops in the coming weeks please do get in touch.