Lockdown’s ‘grind down’ can be overcome by caring for others – David Blunkett

Local leaders should have a greater say over lockdown rules, argues David Blunkett.Local leaders should have a greater say over lockdown rules, argues David Blunkett.
Local leaders should have a greater say over lockdown rules, argues David Blunkett.
AT the beginning of last week, I had the opportunity to let off steam in the House of Lords. I was able to repeat my three strictures from last month. Confidence, clarity and consistency. 

On Radio Four’s Week in Westminster, I then had an interesting conversation with the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Andrew Mitchell, as a genuine debate begins about how our democracy has been working over the last few months.

Traditionally, the Conservative Party would be ideologically averse to the idea of the ‘big state’. Not just in terms of economic intervention, but also in terms of individual responsibility and libertarianism. 

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Please stick with me because this really matters. I count myself as a communitarian, committed to people being a crucial part of the democratic process. That does not simply mean engaged in voting or formal political activity, but having a voice in our whole democratic process.

Has Chancellor Rishi Sunak's 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme backfired? David Blunkett poses the question.Has Chancellor Rishi Sunak's 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme backfired? David Blunkett poses the question.
Has Chancellor Rishi Sunak's 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme backfired? David Blunkett poses the question.

At national level that voice is your local MP. But it is clear is that they do not believe that the Government is listening. My point? Well, I’ve long believed that the idea that we were moving into a brand-new era, of a Pollyanna-ish world where we would  “rethink’ our way of life after Covid, was frankly ridiculous. 

Despite the Prime Minister’s optimism, and all of us wanting something to cheer about, wind farms off the Yorkshire coast, and vague promises of a green tomorrow, don’t match the challenge. This was the man who said just a few years ago that wind turbines couldn’t ‘blow’ the skin off a custard.

But I have to be an optimist. I would not have been in politics for more than 50 years if I were not. But now I’m deeply pessimistic about what we’re facing in our social wellbeing and economic life.  

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Take, for a moment, public transport. Everyone rejoiced in April and May as they were able to breathe clean air in the major cities, traffic jams were non-existent, and people took to both bicycle and their own two legs, were exercising and enjoying birdsong and the joys of spring. 

Boris Johnson is facing mounting Parliamentary revolts over Covid-19.Boris Johnson is facing mounting Parliamentary revolts over Covid-19.
Boris Johnson is facing mounting Parliamentary revolts over Covid-19.

And now? My experience, both in London and in Sheffield, is very simple. The traffic is not only back to “normal”, it is actually worse. People are afraid to travel on public transport and in fact the Government message has been that, wherever possible, they shouldn’t.

Then, of course, we have the contradictions which abound around us. The ‘rule of six’ or blanket application of varying schemes of lockdown in regions of the country, including West Yorkshire, so complex that it is not surprising that the Prime Minister himself doesn’t know them. 

And the biggest contradiction of all, and the elephant in the room that got so little attention, is the Eat Out To Help Out subsidy scheme in August.  

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In this column, I expressed some scepticism about whether this would be a deadweight programme, with a temporary blip in economic activity without any long-term consequence. In one respect, I was sadly very wrong. The truth is, I believe, that instead of a long term and gradual return to some kind of normality and, therefore, economic recovery for the hospitality industry, we had a massive injection of what might be described as “economic adrenaline” with perverse consequences.  

Yes, restaurants and cafes who took to the scheme were overflowing. There were massive queues. The best of our restaurants imposed really strict measures of distancing and necessary precautions. But sadly, many did not.  

By the end of August, the number of admissions to hospital started to rise. In the first week of September, the growth in numbers testing positive for Covid and the spread of the virus, rose rapidly.  

The snowball effect, described so vividly by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser a couple of weeks ago, was obvious for everyone to see. 

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Restaurants, cafes and pubs are now feeling the backwash, as government imposition makes economic survival problematic at the very least. Restrictions on meeting friends or other members of the family, the 10pm curfew and the general atmosphere of restriction and retrenchment all add to the economic woes of those desperate to stay in business.   

So, can I repeat my own call for an alternative approach? A realistic but light touch set of proposals from Central Government. A much greater level of responsibility devolved to local authorities and city regional mayors, and to those running public health and health trusts.

A restoration of confidence in genuine localism, where conversations take place between those making the decisions and those expected to adhere to them.  We need consistency as well as clarity. We need people to know what they can and can’t do.

It is about how we link individual responsibility and self-determination with mutuality and solidarity. The two are not incompatible. This time they go hand in hand.

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Let us replace “lockdown to grind down” by “care for your future by caring for others”, or something similar.  This virus is not going away anytime soon. So, learning to live as normal a life as possible whilst living with it, is our only option.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Home Secretary.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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