Today, MPs faced one of the most divisive votes of this Parliament, namely the measures relating to the Omicron variant. Having been repeatedly asked how I intended to vote, I have spent much of the week reading the correspondence that I have received, counselling widely and taking advice. Given that all arguments are deeply polarised and that opinions vary wildly, this has not been easy.
After expressing my concerns to the Government about the lack of evidence presented to date and need for greater certainty, it is reassuring at least that rapid action is being taken. Yet a clear conflict exists between the imperative to maintain our recovery and keep people safe against this new and unknown type. I would therefore have been comfortable voting against the Government had I felt it was the right thing to do but it is with a heavy heart that I have decided to support the measures.
The Omicron variant is incredibly infectious, with rates doubling in the UK every 2 days. We know that a booster jab offers a huge increase in protection, with the vast majority of those who are currently in hospital with Covid being unvaccinated. Our world-leading scientific and medical community has also built-up huge experience of Covid over the past 18 months and their advice is the best available, along with that of the DHSC, NHS, SAGE, the JCVI and other eminent experts.
So, alongside the accelerated booster programme, I believe that the measures being proposed are reasonable, proportionate, present no loss of individual autonomy and will serve as a precautionary step whilst we gather data on Omicron and get jabs into people's arms. I accept that this will not find favour with everyone, but my reasons have been carefully considered for reasons of public health. It is also imperative that we protect the NHS by minimising the preventable spread of a virus which could needlessly occupy capacity that is required for people requiring emergency treatment and waiting for other procedures. We all have a collective responsibility to each other too.
Plan B brings three key measures to help slow the spread of Omicron, flatten the infection curve and minimise the R rate, whilst also bringing additional time for people to get their boosters. Whilst little here is new from what has been implemented in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and beyond, I remain clear that no restriction must be in force for any longer than is absolutely necessary:
- From 10th December, face coverings are compulsory in most public indoor venues, such as cinemas, theatres and places of worship. Some exemptions apply, including pubs and gyms.
- From 13th December, those who can are asked to work from home. Those who cannot do so can still go to the workplace and there are no restrictions on travel across the UK.
- Covid-19 passes will be introduced from 15th December for entry into nightclubs and other larger settings. This includes unseated indoor events with 500 or more attendees, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees and any event with 10,000 or more.
For constituents who are concerned about vaccine passes, I empathise greatly with the counter logic, but I need to set the record straight. The NHS App has already been used with success and is simply a record of vaccination; it is not a 'passport'. And for those who cannot produce a pass, the Government will still allow unvaccinated people to attend large events and nightclubs if they show proof of a negative lateral flow test, regardless of vaccination status. This is something that larger venues and events have already been doing since the Summer on a voluntary basis so it's not new. These tests are widely available from gov.uk, local pharmacies and even sent direct to your home.
Contrary to perception, there is no 'medical apartheid' or marginalisation here as the new measures are in fact a pragmatic way of maintaining normal activities at a time when other countries are seeking to curtail them with more draconian and risk averse measures. And people who have received a double vaccine won’t need to take a test, boosters are not required for the pass and the under-18s remain exempt, so the measures are deemed to be broad, fair and inclusive.
Implementing Covid status certificates therefore allows a more permissive and collective approach by keeping the community safer with fewer restrictions. Given that no constituent will be barred from specific settings due to their vaccination status and given that lateral flow tests are freely available on demand, I believe that few freedoms are being taken away. And it may even be that certification can help to avert lockdown, perhaps returning all sectors to normal much earlier.
Even with Plan B, we will have fewer restrictions than most of Europe due to the success of our vaccine rollout. I am adamant too that the case for any tighter restrictions must be irrefutable and those we do have must not remain in place any longer than necessary: this is an issue that I have continually raised in Parliament over the last few months. Even if Omicron is less severe in the UK, this could still lead to large numbers in hospital if people get sick at the same time. But noting that the jury is still out on what this variant does, we must again protect the NHS and get jabs in arms.
So, given the latest briefings on Omicron, the emerging data, expert advice, need for caution and the fact that Plan B restrictions will not discriminate against anyone, I decided to reluctantly support the Government's position, albeit with the provisos stated. This tough decision was taken alongside the vast majority of my colleagues on both sides of the House, where broader consensus has been achieved. And for the avoidance of doubt, these measures are not indicative of a totalitarian state but a Government simply wanting to keep people safe and adopt some caution before we know more. I appreciate once again that this will not please everyone, but this is a sensible step to ensure that we can enjoy the festive season and not have to again shut down key economic sectors.
Lastly, I would urge everyone to get vaccinated if not already and to please get your booster at the first opportunity. Given the preliminary data that three jabs do neutralise Omicron, it is imperative that we all get boosted now and protect ourselves, our loved ones and the wider community.
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