Lifestyle

We HAVE to start living our lives again, writes DAVID BLUNKETT

No more doom and gloom! We HAVE to start living our lives again, writes former Home Secretary DAVID BLUNKETT

Freedom to travel where you want is a fundamental democratic right. 

But in recent days it feels as though anyone who wants to book a holiday abroad ever again is either a weird Covid denier, a sociopath or a vaccine sceptic.

The country is desperate for some hope and optimism.

Nothing symbolises that better than the prospect of a good summer, with a couple of weeks away either in the beautiful surrounds of this country or overseas.

Yet that notion, so vital for mental wellbeing — and something that underpins the multi-billion pound travel industry — is suddenly being treated as criminal.

At the same time, Government ministers and their advisers are issuing a series of grim proclamations.

Freedom to travel where you want is a fundamental democratic right. But in recent days it feels as though anyone who wants to book a holiday abroad ever again is either a weird Covid denier, a sociopath or a vaccine sceptic, writes DAVID BLUNKETT

We are being warned to put up with a miserable, puritanical regime for the foreseeable future — and any dissent is treated as irresponsible at best, and quite probably downright treacherous.

What is going on? Where is the upbeat outlook of just a few weeks ago? 

We all remember how the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, wept on television as he announced the rollout of the vaccines that promised an escape from this pandemic.

The Government repeatedly assures us that the vaccinations are on schedule, and that nearly all the most vulnerable people in our society have now had their first jab.

Scientists, who often disagree with each other, seem confident to tell us that the emerging Covid variants can be supressed with the vaccines.

Death rates as well as new cases are falling, and transmission levels (the R-number) are down too.

If this is all true, as we all fervently hope and believe, then the talk has to be of lifting restrictions within weeks and months — not years. We need a government with the courage to lead us out of this.

Instead, what we are seeing is indecision, inconsistency and contradiction. This is a terrible combination.

The message from the top needs to be strong and clear: we are going to get the population vaccinated, reduce the death rate and put the country back on its feet as soon as possible. People have to be free to start living again.

That is not an extremist agenda. It is the only way to save our whole way of life. 

I would understand the pessimism pouring out of Whitehall if the vaccines had been a failure. 

That would be a catastrophe, and one that offered a very poor prognosis for Britain’s future. Thank God, it is not the case.

The country is desperate for some hope and optimism. Nothing symbolises that better than the prospect of a good summer, with a couple of weeks away either in the beautiful surrounds of this country or overseas

We cannot continue to concentrate on Covid to the exclusion of all other health problems.

Lockdown is affecting people’s physical and mental wellbeing in countless other ways — the soaring rate of untreated cancers, for example.

Yesterday it was revealed that nearly 225,000 people have waited more than 12 months for routine hospital treatment — the highest number since April 2008.

It seemed until the beginning of February that the targets were clear: get the virus under control, protect the NHS from collapse.

But every new day seems to bring new targets, the latest being an apparently arbitrary decision by some health advisers that the number of new Covid cases must fall by 99 per cent, from 750,000 to just 7,500, before we can even consider the relaxation of restrictions.

It seems incredible to me that the same ministers who, like Michael Gove in 2016, were dismissing the advice of ‘experts’ as over-rated, are now thrown into panic every time a scientist raises a flutter of concern.

Many MPs, especially on the Tory back benches, are becoming restive, and as a former senior member of a Labour government I have to say I share their concerns.

It is not often I agree with Charles Walker, the deputy chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee.

But I found myself nodding in agreement when he said on Wednesday that the goalposts haven’t merely been moved — they appear to have been taken off the pitch altogether. 

From all sides we hear conflicting, contradictory guidance. The Health Secretary says he’s planning to go to Cornwall for a summer holiday.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, advises that all travel should be halted where possible — yes, that’s the Transport Secretary, of all people.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, seems in favour of locking down our borders completely for as long as possible.

And a new law is imposed that threatens a ten-year jail sentence for anyone who arrives in Britain and attempts to lie about where they have been.

The attitude now emerging, that we should ban citizens from leaving their own country for a prolonged period, seems sadly reminiscent of a totalitarian dictatorship. 

Lord Blunkett was Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004

Britain is historically a hub of international trade and travel, more so than ever since Brexit. 

We are not an Iceland or a New Zealand, well placed to retreat from the outside world until the danger has passed.

We are a tolerant nation. When the going is tough, we bear up and accept it. It’s plain from the polls that people are supportive of the Government’s measures, because they want to support our beloved National Health Service and protect the millions of vulnerable people in society. 

But we must never allow our tolerance to be taken for granted, or abused.

Anyone who thinks we can shut our borders and still continue to feed ourselves is deluded.

The aviation industry is on its knees — and if our capacity to continue flying disappears, so too will our ability to import many perishable goods.

We must sustain our airports and our airlines, which in turn make much of our freight industry possible. 

That means a return to international travel is imperative in the near future.

Though there has been much individual suffering, we have as a nation not yet started to feel the economic pain of lockdown. 

That will come, I’m afraid. Paying back our phenomenal levels of borrowing could take decades.

The Governor of the Bank of England is clear that we will be able to write down the debt, but only if economic growth exceeds the repayments. 

That means we must get back to work, trade, travel and entertainment as soon as possible.

The Government has to show us the way out now.

This means that a week on Monday the Prime Minister must do more than announce the scheduled reopening of schools from March 8, critical as that is.

The road map or plan to gradually unlock the country might remain cautious and tentative, but unlock we must. 

That is why we rejoiced at the successful rollout of the vaccine.

And that is why we must set aside doom and gloom, and look forward to an optimistic future. 

Lord Blunkett was Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004.

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