What we can learn from 2020
What a year to review. On Thursday 12th of December 2019 I was re-elected with over 51% of the popular vote in Northampton South. It had been a disagreeable campaign on the part of my most prominent opponents and the size of the victory was therefore all the more pleasing, locally and nationally. My Party achieved a convincing 80 seat majority in the House of Commons. Political representation in this country was transformed with large numbers of industrial and urban towns in the Midlands and the North turning blue, some for the very first time. I therefore had high hopes for a calmer and yet more productive period in British politics, with some of my own priorities, such as reform of adult social care, greater state / independent school cooperation, devolving powers to local government and a big push on housing looking likely to proceed. However, over 5,000 miles away, a deadly virus was infecting people in Wuhan, central China, and the biggest global crisis since the Second World War gathered pace.
On the 1st January 2020 Wuhan central market was closed, identified as the epicentre of this unexplained virus. This was when I first became aware of it and a week later the Chinese authorities identified the illness as a new type of coronavirus. By 14th February, we had our first death in Europe, a Chinese Tourist in France. An 11th March communique from the World Health Organisation declared the virus outbreak a pandemic and thereafter this virus completely engulfed us. The world economy shut down and vast swathes of the global population were – in a what was then a new phrase, now one known, alas, to us all – lockdown.
As an urban and diverse seat, Northampton South is always a busy one in terms of constituents’ affairs anyway, but as the pandemic set in, the volume of correspondence in my office skyrocketed and my small dedicated office team struggled to keep up. Community groups in every part of Northampton sprung to life. Where they did not exist before, they were created. It was an inspiring sight to behold. Food was distributed to those who had to isolate as they were extremely vulnerable. The local authorities, police and local health organisations mobilised on a scale not seen since wartime. Emergency plans were dusted off, re-calibrated and brought to life.
Whilst the peak of the virus was 12th April and thankfully even the most recent death rates during the second lockdown have been a shadow of the first, we have had to endure great restrictions and radically alter the way we undertake our daily work and home tasks. Some call this the ‘new normal’, some even suggest that elements of the Covid restrictions and impingements may become permanent and not all of it is necessarily bad, phrasing it as an opportunity to ‘rebuild and reshape’. I do not. I despise the expression the ‘new normal’, at least when it comes to controls over our lives and when it is used as an excuse for more regulation on a permanent basis. This will be a significant area of contention for MPs into 2021 and especially after the vaccination programme nears completion.
However, ‘new normals’ in terms of working practices and – another dread phrase – ‘lifestyle’ are a different matter and here there is, it is hard to contest, irrevocable change to be seen. Working mainly from home is normal now for millions of workers; video appointments with your GP is too. Managers have found that they can manage flexible working. Primary Health Care is having to be more responsive and agile. The demise of dominant high street retail giants like Debenhams and Topshop is forcing us to re-think and readapt our response to the future of Northampton town centre. It will force us to accelerate our plans and that is not a bad thing. As I write, the Town Centre funding plan is being sent to central government by Northampton Forward, whose board I sit on. The plans afoot to transform the old M&S building on Abington Street into homes is a good example of new and honest reappraisal of future needs. The new unitary councils that come in next year in our county provide an additional opportunity for a reset.
Technology is also driving our solutions. It has been key in the almost miraculous race to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. In Northampton we are setting up business premises in the old Vulcan Works to incubate and grow local digital businesses. Other digital hubs are in planning. There is the possibility of Barclay’s Eagle labs having a base here and Digital Northampton is giving all this a voice and momentum.
Covid has in many ways defined this part of our history, but I wonder whether we will make relentless reference back to it in the years ahead or whether we may prefer to regard it with a shudder and look ahead and move on, much as the Spanish ‘flu epidemic after the Great War seemed to slip below the waves of historical reference until recently? We have spent a lot of our children’s money getting through this most awful of times, and a great many people have suffered not only from the virus but from the economic consequences – and will continue to do so for some time after the vaccination programme is completed. We owe it to them to ensure the sacrifices have not been in vain.
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