I would like to wish all my constituents a happy New Year. Like 2020, 2021 has been a difficult year for many.
I hope that 2022 will be far better - I also hope it’s the year where we truly learn to live with Covid, and finally, permanently, cast our backs on the kind of illiberal and destructive Covid restrictions we’ve become all too used to over the past 20 months or so.
I also hope 2022 is the year we are able to live our lives with much more certainty and optimism. I hope that, free of the looming Covid cloud, we are able to take back control of our lives and metaphorically grow tall again in the lives we lead.
This is what I hope for. I suspect the vast majority of readers will share this same hope. The key question is whether this hope is realistic. Am I being too optimistic in believing that this is possible?
The last month and the emergence of the Omicron variant will have been incredibly difficult for many. This year has brought uncertainty and stress for many businesses, in hospitality, retail, and across the board, which have been badly impacted by recent developments. I’ve spoken to a number of pub landlords and owners of bars and restaurants in the town who have experienced huge levels of cancellations at a crucial time of year: it is an important time of year for their businesses, made all the more significant by the havoc already wreaked by the pandemic.
I’m pleased that the kind of draconian restrictions that have been introduced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland haven’t been introduced in England. If they had been introduced, this would have had a devastating impact on many of these businesses, particularly ahead of New Year’s Eve, and would have put the employment of many Ipswich constituents at risk.
However, even the threat of further restrictions and the return of the Covid cloud over the past month or so has had major consequences for the mental health of millions of people up and down the country. I would even hazard a guess that for some, they’ve actually found the mental health consequences of the past month as bad as – if not worse than – during the dark days of full-on lockdowns.
Personally, I found the last lockdown bearable due to the emergence of the vaccine. I remember in the dark days of lockdown last year, seeing the images of Margaret Keenan, the 91-year-old Brit who became the first person in the world to receive her Covid vaccine, symbolising hope. Living through the lockdowns was tough but at least we all felt there was a definite light at the end of the tunnel. When the road map out of the lockdown was announced it was cautious, but at least there was one direction of travel, towards freedom and getting our lives back, however slow it may have been.
Yet now, despite a one of the most successful vaccine rollouts in the world, the spectre of lockdowns and restrictions on our lives, livelihoods and liberties returns. For many millions of people, this whole thing is beginning to seem like a never-ending nightmare. Is this what is going to happen whenever there is variant of concern in future? At what point can we start planning our lives with a degree of certainty again?
The mental health implications of even the last month should not be underestimated. The anxiety it has induced has been significant. I’m particularly concerned for young people, who though barely at risk from the virus, have already paid such a high price. Key moments in their lives have often been immensely disrupted, with key development opportunities missed. Most have gladly made these sacrifices to protect elderly relatives, but it would be wholly inappropriate to go on asking them to make such sacrifices when we already have an effective vaccine.
One of the things I’ve become frustrated with is people calling for tougher restrictions whilst at the same time showing a lack of comprehension of the costs associated with lockdowns. Only recently I remember someone calling for what sounded like a full-scale lockdown in response to Omicron and then in the next breath complained about how mental health support was being under funded. The reality is that a further restrictions would significantly add to the over £400 billion bill the Government has already racked up as a result of lockdowns: there would be less money around to fund things like mental health support. Add to this the fact that further restrictions would contribute significantly to the growing mental health crisis, and you begin to see the shortcomings of their argument.
With regards to Omicron, I’m pleased with the increasing evidence that it’s a milder strain of Covid compared with others. I’m also pleased that the booster seems to be effective at preventing individuals from contracting Omicron, as well as highly effective at preventing serious illness. The majority of those in hospital with Omicron, particularly those who end up in ICU, are unvaccinated. Due to the vaccine, we are in a totally different position to which we were in this time last year. Based on some of the coverage in the media, and the continued obsession with case numbers, you could hardly be blamed for thinking that things haven’t moved forward at all.
There will be other concerning strains of Covid in future and it’s important that the vaccine is continually updated to provide enhanced protection.
I’m pleased that this is echoed by Dr Chris Smith, a consultant virologist at Cambridge University: “So far in the pandemic, the country has been divided on how to deal with spikes in cases: there’s those who favour a light touch approach and those who want restrictions imposed. Perhaps now is the moment we can look beyond these arguments, toward a near future where Covid lives with us and we with it. What most people do agree on is that periodically pummelling our pubs and entertainment venues, paralysing the economy, denting education and destabilising the nation’s mental health to control outbreaks of variants with uncertain characteristics is just not a sustainable long-term proposition.”
I really do hope that we get to a watershed moment very soon where we see the total rejection of the kinds illiberal and draconian restrictions that we continue to see in other parts of the UK and around Europe. This nightmare has gone on for long enough. It’s time to live our lives fully.
This article was published also in the Star-
Pictured, Tom with Cllrs Richard Pope, former councillor John Carnall, and Cllr Eddy Phillips at the Broke Hall Carol Service earlier in December.