Peterborough MP: "I would like to see government talk about the science more"

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MP Paul Bristow (photo: Paul Bristow)

When Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act in March it gave the government special powers to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic such as closing down pubs and postponing elections - but only for six months.

On Wednesday MPs will be asked to renew these powers at the House of Commons, but there is growing concern that the entire House should have more influence on decisions - leading to Sir Graham Brady tabling an amendment that would give Parliament a say over any new national restrictions before they are brought into force.

Peterborough MP Paul Bristow is one of the signatories of the amendment - alongside more than 50 other Tory 'rebels'.

He told Peterborough Matters: "One of the things that drives me in politics as a Conservative is allowing people to do what they want to do, and a belief in social liberalism. 

"So when we're taking away the ability of people to do what they want to do for public health reasons that's always going to be difficult - and I think MPs need to have their say and be able to vote.

"It will take the burden away from the government making unilateral decisions. If MPs can be responsible by voting, that's a good thing.

"I'm my own man but still loyal to the government doing the right thing for the vast majority of the time under incredibly difficult circumstances."

Peterborough has faced its own challenges, with several warnings of a local lockdown if cases did not drop - which made Friday's news that the city is no longer an "area of concern" on the Government Covid-19 watchlist after a period of dropping case numbers so welcoming.

"I know there will be frustrations with the new restrictions after thinking we'd got through it, but we've just come off the watchlist, and that's an incredibly positive thing. I hope people realise what an achievement the people of Peterborough have made.

"I don't always praise them but Peterborough City Council has done a remarkable job. Every community has made an extra effort. It's not over by any stretch of the imagination and we need to keep going.

"But for a big city like Peterborough, with all the issues associated with inter-generational households and people living on top of each other like other cities, not to have a local lockdown or special status, makes me incredibly proud.

"There will be isolated incidents, but generally this shows the rules work, and we should be proud."

With further restrictions in place, and the ever-present threat behind the scenes of another national lockdown many companies are now looking at October as a pivotal month when the furlough scheme winds down. 

From October 2 for a month the government will pay 60% of wages (capped) until the Job Support Scheme is introduced from November 1, running for six months.

The government will then contribute towards the wages of employees who are working fewer hours than normal - employers will continue to pay the wages of staff for the hours they work, but for the hours not worked, the government and the employer will each pay one third of their equivalent salary.

Mr Bristow said: "I didn't vote to end the furlough scheme - that was a Labour motion that has no basis in law. All opposition day motions seek to divide and create political opportunities and I voted against that.

"What has happened to businesses has been unprecedented. In Peterborough 13,000 jobs have been supported through the scheme, which is the biggest support package of any government in the world. That has kept people in employment.

"I understand there have been more restrictions now in place, but businesses are still open. Peterborough is still open. I have seen that they are expecting Queensgate to be as busy as it ever was in October. 

"The furlough scheme has to come to an end at some point, but with the job retention bonus and the job retention scheme the average worker in Peterborough will be on 60% average wages of someone on furlough, and that is an incredible thing to continue for the next six months. 

"On top of some of the self employed support income scheme that will be extended, this is probably one of the most generous packages in the world."

Still though many workers do not feel enough has been done, and an online campaign for the #ForgottenLtd has gained traction for those who have set up their own businesses shortly before Covid-19 struck - and found themselves ineligible for help.

"The people I feel very sorry for are those self-employed for a short period of time because they've averaged income out over two years. 

"On top of that there are those who own limited companies who have been taking work through dividends. There is a view that that is not the appropriate way to recompense people who own businesses. I'm never going to be a hypocrite like that because I did it myself before I became an MP - I owned a business and paid myself through dividends.

"I have been campaigning on behalf of those people and have enormous sympathy for them. But those businesses have still hopefully received some of the emergency grants the council have been able to administer and my offices have helped scores of local businesses get either £10,000 or £25,000 depending on what businesses they are. The bounceback loans have also helped companies.

"It's been an incredibly generous scheme, but for those who have slipped through the cracks, I do get it."

When Johnson introduced the 10pm restrictions for bars and restaurants it was designed to try to stifle the mingling that occurs late at night, which also presumably leads to easier transmission of coronavirus. There is a theory that it has actually unintentionally done the reverse, with footage of people pouring onto the streets at 10pm in hordes.

In addition many well-known landlords, restaurateurs, worker and owners from Peterborough have complained that it has affected trade for entire evenings, let alone around 10pm. 

Ploughman landlord Andy Simmonds has been heavily critical of Boris Johnson posting pictures of his empty pub on Twitter while Tesco can sell alcohol nearby until 11pm. Warren Allett of Charters sent a letter to Mr Bristow detailing how the changes have affected trade, while table service has pushed up wages

Mr Bristow said: "This is a tightrope between trying to protect the economy and keep hospitality open, and trying to do what's right. 

"After a few beers social distancing is incredibly hard to enforce. I've seen the videos in Nottingham, Liverpool and wherever - at least those people are outside rather than inside. The risks are far less outside.

"I would like to see the government talk about the science more - they said they're led by it, so let's talk about it more and take the public with us.

"It was good to see (chief scientific advisor) Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief medical advisor Prof Chris Whitty speak at last week's conference but it's the politicians who get the scrutiny, so that science needs to be explained more so that when we are questioned we can tell them we are convinced by the arguments."

The Government has been accused of U-turn on several aspects of battling the coronavirus since March, including working from home, face masks and school meals to name but three. 

"Every government is accused of U-turns all the time on all sorts of things. Margaret Thatcher once said 'The Lady's not for Turning' but everyone accused her of U-turning all the time.As long as you're not doing it on the big things like the levelling up agenda, or Brexit, that's what's important.

"On something like this pandemic, the biggest challenge for this country since World War II, I think most people forgive the government for listening and changing its mind occasionally to do the right thing

"As long as they've got the general balance right between protecting the economy and public health, I think the vast majority of people are with us."

Keep an eye on Peterborough Matters for Part two of our interview - on Brexit, crime, flytipping and more