19th July. Freedom day? Perhaps not, after all. But more of that further down. Parliament and politics have been gradually returning to normal since well before 19 July, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, slowly but surely.
So encapsulating in the form of an ‘end of term’ report all I have been up to in recent weeks will see me resort to bullet points or else I will be writing a novel rather than a bulletin:
* Marked NHS Day at the Park Club in Cleveleys, commemorating those members they had lost during the pandemic, and which they hope to make an annual event.
* Met with the new vicar at St Andrew’s in Cleveleys, Graham Young, both to welcome him, but also discuss some of the anti-social behaviour we have seen in the local area.
* Visited a constituent’s hives where she keeps her bees – a bit uncomfortable because of the clumsy outwear required, but fascinating in seeing how orderly, co-operative and rational a beehive is. Maybe they could run the country?
* Was ‘anointed’ regional Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities champion – basically a role which involves promoting better disability policy round the world, and encouraging more disabled people around the Commonwealth to stand for public office.
* Went along to Blackpool Zoo to see not only how they had fared during the lockdown - they may not have had any visitors, but the animals still needed fed and watering – but also how the reopening has gone, and their future plans for investment, as well as their desire to be much more at the heart of Blackpool’s tourism planning. If you haven’t been for a few years, do make the effort, as you might just be surprised.
* Spoke in a debate I had called on consumer financial debt after the pandemic – you can watch me [link removed] or read me at [link removed].
* Also spoke in the second reading of the Building Safety Bill on an amendment I wish to bring forward, working with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents on ‘stair safety’ and the need for a mandatory national standard. Once again, you can watch me here or read me at here.
Two events are worthy of a little more explanation to do them justice.
Firstly was a visit to the local parrot sanctuary run by the Birdman, which is just off Dickson Road. You may not have been aware of its existence, but it is a noisy and colourful contributor to the local streetscene. Many hundreds of birds, from the smallest budgerigar to the largest African parrot, reside within, waiting for rehoming in many cases.
Why was I there, other than out of curiosity? Well amongst a vast range of animal welfare measures the Government is currently introducing, one will relate to the regulation of animal sanctuaries. This might seem an unnecessary measure, you could think, since surely these well-meaning organisations should be encouraged and not constrained.
Yet many sanctuaries, the Birdman included, actively seek registration. In the case of parrots and other birds, there are too many unscrupulous individuals who set up ‘fake’ sanctuaries, I was told, so as to mass their preferred collection of birds before then shutting up shop. When an African parrot can cost £2,500, there is a clear financial motive here.
We see similar problems in horse and donkey sanctuaries. The well-meaning, who establish sanctuaries with the best of intentions, may not always have sufficient funds, or capacity, to sustain that sanctuary. More established sanctuaries – Penny Farm on the edge of Blackpool being one such – then find themselves having to accommodate dozens of horses and ponies in one fell swoop, putting pressure on their own provision.
It seems registration of sanctuaries for all sorts of animals is a sensible and proportionate measure – and one I shall make sure we get right.
Secondly was a fascinating morning spent with the Wyre Rivers Trust looking at their landscape interventions on Burn Naze and off White Carr Lane which have sought to increase flood storage areas to slow the flow of water through the environment and increase resilience to floods in the Wyre catchment. They are not just holes in the ground, but fully-formed wildlife and nature sanctuaries, with dragonflies buzzing over the surface, and sticklebacks in the water.
We all know that ‘once in a hundred year’ rain events are happening much more frequently, and we have seen the local flooding consequences each time. The Trust has constructed two storage ponds (with more planned on the King George Playing Fields) at the far end of the Burn Naze Industrial Estate, and the low lying area adjacent to the McDermott Homes development off White Carr Lane.
At times of heavy these will now accommodate several hundred cubic meters of water, reducing the likelihood of watercourses such as Royles Brook and Hillylaid Brook overflowing in residential areas, and also reducing the pressure on the pumping station at Stanah.
It’s a good example of showing how the most effective flood interventions can be the ones you don’t see.
Now I was going to pass comment on the Government’s social care proposals. Only I can’t, as the ‘pingdemic’ has claimed both Prime Minister and Health Secretary who have rightly been packed off into self-isolation. You may have read what I have read, but I better await the final detail to pass comment as ‘we never comment on speculation’ is a bit of a political cliché.
What I can and should pass comment on is the latest covid outlook. My overall view is conditioned by something Jonathan Van Tam said at a recent press conference: “Nothing reduces the risks to zero other than standing in a meadow completely on your own ad inifitum with nobody coming within three metres of you”.
Nonetheless, here are some concluding thoughts for you to mull over:
* The most critical thing to avoid is the next wave occurring in the winter when hospitals are likely to be fuller with non-covid patients – we should not be making winter more difficult than it need be. By opening up now, although we accept infections will rise, they do so at a time when the NHS is under less pressure, and that vaccinations means far fewer are hospitalised, and those who are hospitalised are there for shorter times.
* I don't believe we will ever 'return to low infection rates' but rather regular waves of differing intensity, but whose impact in terms of hospitalisation and serious illness death will diminish, and it will resemble the usual outbreaks of flu, for which we may actually take more precaution over in the future than in the past.
* Mandating masks on public transport and/or in shops only sends out an inaccurate message that somehow these are the most dangerous locations, and thereby deters people from going out, but also makes people think they do not need to take precautions in other more genuinely dangerous locations such as poorly-ventilated domestic settings. Local waves of infection until now have all been driven by transmission within families in the family home - if we were to deploy mandatory masks in the most effective location, it would be at home, but no-one, I note, is proposing that.
* The longer the pandemic has gone on, the more we know that it is the poor circulation of airborne particles which is the greatest risk, rather than surfaces. So the switch to emphasising personal responsibility is all about recognising any situation could require mask wearing if it were crowded, or poorly ventilated. A family group of 8-10 meeting in a living room might be far riskier than 2-3 people on a bus at the same time, for example. It is impossible to fashion an enduring set of rules or guidance for mask wearing that can endure – the riskiness of a location is about ventilation and space, and we will have to judge each and every interaction in our daily lives against those standards, and err on the side of caution in my view. We do not legislate for people to put a hand across their mouth when coughing or sneezing, it is an established social norm, and we need new social norms to emerge from this pandemic.
* It is also the case that we have now had over 18 months to learn how best to minimise the risk to ourselves during this pandemic. I am not sure how sustainable it is to maintain restrictions until such point as covid is negligible – since this will never be the case, sadly – nor as a proxy response for other viruses such as the annual flu virus.
* The most troubling trend of the last week is that fewer young people are turning up for their first vaccinations – it is amongst this age group that the virus will now spread, leading to high case numbers. I would be keen for the BBC to start putting case numbers and deaths in the context of the wider health picture – the trend of deaths in recent weeks has been below the annual average for the past decade.
* The vaccination programme has driven the covid-19 fatality rate down from 0.8% of estimated infections to below 0.1%, which is actually less than the average seasonal flu epidemic.
I am sure there will be others who disagree – and I accept there just as many counter-vailing arguments. I will keep wearing a mask for the moment when in shops and other crowded areas, or when doing so might make others around me less uncomfortable. But I will also try to ensure I continually think about hygiene generally to reduce infection, covid, flu or otherwise.
I hope people have as peaceful a summer as is possible amidst these changing and unpredictable times.
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Paul Maynard MP
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