Pandemic risks break up of Britain; here’s why – David Blunkett

A VERY Happy New Year to all readers – and a much better one than 2020. Congratulations also to all those who received recognition in the New Year Honours.

I’m afraid that when it came to honouring Yorkshire women and men, the New Year reflected the inequality and blatant discrimination of the old.

Even the village of Ambridge on The Archers, Radio 4’s long running 70th anniversary soap, managed one MBE. In the Sheffield City region, covering a population of almost 1.4 million, there wasn’t a single honour above OBE, and even then there were only two of those. Mind you, West Yorkshire managed four CBEs.

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But on to the most serious issue of the moment – the national lockdown.

How can the Covid vaccine programme be speeded up?How can the Covid vaccine programme be speeded up?
How can the Covid vaccine programme be speeded up?

There is undoubtedly a critical challenge for all of us with the new variant of the virus.

I, for one, understand the necessity of a very simple message, but I remain convinced that it is possible to hammer home the seriousness of the situation whilst maintaining a nuanced and common-sense approach.

Not least in getting face-to-face teaching up and running again as quickly as possible, and certainly not after what would be a 
nine-week period through to after the February half-term.

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If Yorkshire, with the same population as Scotland, had the same freedom as the Scots to decide on local measures to combat the virus, would we not wish to debate what would be right for our children?

Ralph Evans, 88, gives the thumbs-up as he receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.Ralph Evans, 88, gives the thumbs-up as he receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Ralph Evans, 88, gives the thumbs-up as he receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Not least because the disparity in attainment between London and the South East and large parts of the North is so extremely worrying.

And our infection levels average 20 per cent of the rate in London. It is absolutely certain that if we had some say over our own destiny, we would have had one of the mass vaccination hubs that are becoming operational from next week.

There will be seven around England, three serving London and the South East, but none in Yorkshire straight away.

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Of course, the New Year not only ushered in the current lockdown but also the end of the transitional period following our exit from the EU. Both have implications for the UK constitution and how we conduct our politics.

What extra help should be given to children missing out on their studies?What extra help should be given to children missing out on their studies?
What extra help should be given to children missing out on their studies?

Free from the customs union and the single market. That is, of course, if you don’t count Northern Ireland which remains in the single market, and is, to all intents and purposes, a member of the European Union – but, of course, a “rule taker”; not a “rule maker”.

Interestingly, after the vote in the Commons and Lords between Christmas and New Year, a deal was reached in relation to the territory of Gibraltar. As members of the Schengen travel area, the border can remain open with Spain, and Gibraltar can carry on, as though nothing had changed.

I mention all of this, not as some sort of throwback to past arguments, but just to show how complex life can be, and what the implications might be for the future.

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Implications in relation to devolution, a reconfiguring of the UK constitution and the danger of fragmentation.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict that within the next 25 years the island of Ireland – in one form or another – will be united. Probably in some sort of federal system which will build on the new border between Britain and Northern Ireland and the open border with the Irish Republic.

Regrettably, it also doesn’t take a genius to see how the SNP in Scotland will take the deals done in respect of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, and continue to demand a second referendum on independence.

Crazy as it would be for them – not least taking the example of the eye-watering borrowing on the international markets to save the economy – they are almost certain, in the present climate, to vote to go it alone.

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All of this is relevant to devolution in England: powers and responsibility to city regions and elected mayors and how collaboration across the historic county of Yorkshire could provide us with a loose but important partnership of Combined Authorities, traditional local authorities and engagement with both business and higher education to forge a new way forward.

So far, as I pointed out in my column in December, levelling up has morphed into levelling down which is why education is so critical.

I have been calling for some time for the use of the Armed Forces in helping to organise testing in schools and providing their logistical expertise delivering the vaccine – I was encouraged by the words of Brigadier Phil Prosser at the No 10 press conference.

That is where optimism is at its maximum – the ability to protect us from the virus rather than letting the virus determine the measure of damage we do to ourselves and to future generations by the nature of our response.

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Maybe, just maybe, for the Birthday Honours this summer, we could see enthusiastic recognition for those who have continued to do a phenomenal job in all aspects of our life which have continued – and must continue. With the stepping up of vaccinations, we are at a moment of hope. Let us grasp it with both hands.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and a former Home Secretary.

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