How can we trust politicians to decide on our lives when they behave like this?

MPs queue in Westminster Hall to vote on banning electronic voting in the House of Commons: UK Parli

MPs queue in Westminster Hall to vote on banning electronic voting in the House of Commons: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Many people have long since given up on the idea of MPs setting any kind of good example to the country, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the comedy scenes we saw this week of them queuing up to disenfranchise MPs who are ill and find new ways of spreading Covid-19 among themselves.

The queue stretched outside the Palace itself. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Leader of the House Jacob

The queue stretched outside the Palace itself. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg were among those waiting to vote: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire - Credit: PA

At the very start of this pandemic I wrote a piece berating them for ignoring social distancing by crowding on to the benches of the House of Commons. A few days later this was followed by news that half the cabinet and many MPs had gone down with the virus. The Prime Minister almost died.

And yet they appear to have learned nothing and this week voted to ignore government policy (that those who can work at home should do so) to decide they know better than all the experts and voted to return to the old way of working.

Yes, they’ll try to use social distancing in the Palace of Westminster if they can. But how will they get there? We’re told not to use public transport or taxis and the government doesn’t want us driving in the heart of cities. Are they all going to walk or cycle? I don’t believe that for a milli-second.

The voters of Harlow and those of any constituency that had the temerity to elect an MP aged over 70 have been disenfranchised by this ridiculous vote.

Dr Dan Poulter was furious about the decision to ban electronic voting. Picture: DR DAN POULTER

Dr Dan Poulter was furious about the decision to ban electronic voting. Picture: DR DAN POULTER - Credit: Archant

Why was it so imperative to go back to the Palace? Most people watching the online Parliament recently felt it worked as well, or better, than before. It didn’t have the braying, childish antics that we’ve got used to. It actually looked like an efficient 21st century workplace.

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I can understand the fury, and that’s the only word I can use to describe his mood, of Central Suffolk MP Dr Dan Poulter who returned to Westminster from the hospital he has been working at only to find his political colleagues ignoring all the good practice his medical colleagues have been using for the last three months.

Dr Poulter is usually one of the calmest MPs you’ll come across. When he starts using words like “utter madness” you know he’s got some real concerns.

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Because the fact is the country does need MPs and ministers to set an example. They have to decide the way forward in this crisis. The scientific experts should be expected to give very good advice – but it is the politicians, with our democratic mandate, who have to take the decision.

More on the coronavirus crisis

This week there’s been a lot of debate about whether we are coming out of lockdown too fast. That’s an incredibly difficult, and nuanced, debate. It has a major political dimension – but it is about far more than politics.

When some easing on June 1 was announced, attention was focussed on the fact that more people would be able to meet up (keeping two metres apart) and they could meet in someone’s garden as well as in a public space.

That was good news, I felt. My wife and I went to meet family members in their large garden for three quarters of an hour on Monday afternoon. It was good to see them and talk to them again in person after several weeks of phone and zoom calls. Was there any extra danger in that?

The schools issue is more complex and doesn’t directly affect me. Our children left primary school 15 years ago! But I can see both sides of the argument and I suspect that if we were in that position there would be intense discussions within the family about whether they should return.

Will reopening car showrooms and markets from Monday increase the danger of the disease spreading? Will people being able to go into Debenhams and Primark from Monday week be dangerous?

The fact is we don’t know. All that we can do is listen to the advice and act on it as we feel is best.

Government ministers have a harder job, they have to listen to advice and then come up with new regulations or guidelines – and that is a potentially very tough call.

I’ve seen and heard the scientists from the SAGE committee who have lined up to say this week that lockdown is being eased too soon and that it risks a second spike. They’re clearly eminently sensible people who know what they’re talking about and deserve to be listened to.

But scientists are there to advise ministers – not to make the final decisions. They can present the evidence and ministers should certainly take it into account. But it has to be the democratically-elected government ministers that take the final decision.

Scientists are, in a sense, bound to be cautious and present the dangers that exist in and decision. But ministers have to weigh their advice against other factors.

Everyone would maximise their personal safety if they stayed at home 24 hours a day 365 days of the year and never went out anywhere. That is clearly totally nonsensical. We have to make judgements. That is what ministers have to do now.

They have to judge the risks of relaxing lockdown: Does opening up shops and schools and easing restrictions on who we can meet increase the risk of the virus too much? Does maintaining a strict lockdown make it more likely that hundreds of thousands more jobs will be lost forever, forcing more people into poverty and potentially sparking an even greater health crisis?

It is an incredibly difficult judgement and one that I’m glad I don’t have to make.

The problem is that if politicians’ judgement is so woeful when considering their own safety, how can the rest of us trust them on decisions that involve ours?H

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