COVID A Year On - South Cambs MP 'amazed' by pandemic response

South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne. Picture: Stephen Frost

South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne - Credit: Archant

South Cambs MP Anthony Browne has praised the country's response to a "horrendous" time, while reflecting on how we have adapted to the past year of lockdown life.

There are rare times in our lives when what we have come to know as normality is suspended, and there is a slightly out of body experience: 'This Is History'. The fall of the Berlin wall, the death of Princess Diana, but more historic by far is this pandemic.

As I have said to my children, they will talk about it to their children and grandchildren, but it is more than that: their great grandchildren will learn about it in school. The Great Global Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020/21.

If you said to me a year and a month ago that all pubs and shops and schools in Britain would be closed by law, I would have thought you were crazy. Like all of us, I remember where I was when the PM announced the start of the lockdown – in my Parliamentary office – and thought “Wow”. If you said then that a year later we would still be in lockdown, I just wouldn’t have believed it.

So how have we fared? Looking back over the year, I am actually amazed at how we have coped as a country and society. We were all so unprepared, and none of us had ever experienced anything like this before.

We knew nothing about this virus, or how people and society would respond to it, and have had to learn as we go along, the whole country working out how to adapt. It is like trying to re-engineer a plane in mid-flight, while trying to read the aeronautics instruction manual. It is inevitable that mistakes were made.

It is astonishing how we built up our national capacity. The UK basically had no PPE industry – we imported 99 per cent of it – and global supplies dried up. Businesses rose to the challenge, and now we have a major PPE supply industry, with 32 billion pieces stockpiled, 70 per cent made in the UK.

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We had no testing industry, but we built up the capacity, and now we are doing more than a million tests a day, far more than any other G20 country per capita. We had very limited vaccine production facilities – we did not just procure the vaccine, but we had to build up the facilities to make them – and are now leading on that.

Businesses showed how adaptable they can be, from the pubs that turned themselves into takeaways, to one South Cambs company that went from making textile inks to hand sanitiser.

We all learnt to do more online (oh, the pleasures of Zoom!), and the logistics industry exploded in size, with vans delivering essentials on a daily basis to every door. Teachers learnt how to give lessons online and educate children at home.

Healthcare workers – the real heroes of the pandemic – completely reconfigured how they operated, risking their lives to save as many other people’s lives as possible. We all learnt what the word 'furlough' means.

It is has been incredibly tough for so many people. More than 130,000 people have lost their lives, and so many have lost loved ones. People who spent 20 years building up businesses have seen them collapse through no fault of their own. The majority of people in the private sector have had pay cuts.

Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, and many have faced financial ruin that they could never have conceived of.

And yet even in these horrendous circumstances, it has brought out the best in people, communities coming together to make sure we pull through, particularly those least able to help themselves. We have ended up, so far, spending more than £400bn of your money to keep the whole country going.

In South Cambridgeshire, we have been less severely hit than most parts of the country, as I know from speaking to my fellow MPs. Our two biggest sectors are cereal agriculture, which has been barely affected, and life sciences, much of which has risen to the challenge. We have done well obeying the restrictions, and blessed with plenty of open space, so our infections and deaths have been far below the national average.

Many of our companies and institutions, from AstraZeneca to the Wellcome Sanger Institute, from Addenbrookes to the Royal Papworth, have played not just pivotal national roles, but pivotal global roles, in monitoring the virus, and developing vaccines and clinically proven treatments. I know how hard so many of our life scientists have worked over the past year, in difficult circumstances: unsung heroes.

We are not through it yet. The success of the vaccination programme – more than half of UK adults vaccinated so far – has meant we can see the light at the end of the tunnel dazzling so temptingly ahead of us. But there is still doubt and shadows, not least the grim news from Europe.

We need to keep pulling together. We need to focus on what we can do in the years ahead to repair the damage, to children’s education, to mental health and wider public health, to jobs, the economy and our national finances.

We need to learn the lessons, and there are lots. It has been a horrendous time, but as a whole, as a country, we have risen to the challenge. I am sure we will continue to do so.