Mark Harper
© David Rose
Mark Harper: 'Covid is a deadly disease, but we must give equal regard to the most lethal killers we face today – cancer, dementia, heart disease and, for under 40s, suicide and mental health'
On Monday, we got the first glimmer of hope about a possible Covid vaccine. But as the Prime Minister cautioned, there is a long way to go before we know whether it is safe and how effective it is, let alone roll it out to the population. So we've got to start bringing some balance to the debate about how we live with the virus.

Lockdowns and restrictions cost lives, whether in undiagnosed cancer treatments, deteriorating mental health and missed A&E appointments - not to mention the impact they have on young people's education, job prospects and our soaring debts.

Last week, I voted against my party for only the second time in fifteen years. The country is badly in need of a different and enduring strategy for living with the virus that doesn't require us to keep living under a series of damaging lockdowns and seemingly arbitrary restrictions.

That's why my colleagues and I, representing a diverse range of intakes and opinions from across the party, have launched the Covid Recovery Group, underpinned by "Three Guiding Principles" for how we move forward.

First, the Government must undertake and publish a full cost-benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis. Lockdowns and restrictions cause immense economic, social and non-Covid health damage.

Covid is a deadly disease but we must give equal regard to the most lethal killers we face today - cancer, dementia, heart disease, and, for under 40s, suicide, to people's mental health, and to the health implications and consequent mortality of falling GDP. Restrictions should be removed immediately if it cannot be shown that they are saving more lives than they cost.

Second, it's time to end the monopoly on advice of government scientists. Everyone is working under tremendous pressure and we are learning more about Covid every day. But prevailing expert scientific opinion must be challenged by competitive, multi-disciplinary expert groups. Government should publish the models that inform policies so they can be reviewed by the public.

Fundamental methodological issues with epidemiological modelling could be avoided if a range of competing expert groups are given a seat at the table and if the Government ensures that all critical Covid-related policies are underpinned by at least three independent expert opinions, all of which are published ahead of the next vote on restrictions in Parliament.

Finally, we must improve the measures we already have to tackle the virus, including significantly boosting the performance of NHS Test and Trace by shifting resources to local public health teams to lead contact tracing, and by expanding the NHS' surge capacity.

The current system has been reaching only 48 per cent of the contacts of those who have tested positive, yet SAGE says that for the system to be effective, it needs to reach 80 per cent. We must transform the effectiveness of NHS Test and Trace so that we have another tool to help prevent repeated cycles of damaging lockdowns and restrictions.

At the moment, the cure we're prescribing runs the very real risk of being worse than the disease, and it's important that we base all our decisions as a country on informed scientific, economic and health data.

We are all hoping that the positive developments this week lead to a safe and effective vaccine being rolled out across the population in the next six months. In the meantime we need some much needed balance in this debate, to avoid further lockdowns and unnecessary restrictions, and to start living in a sustainable way until we get there.