Sir Graham, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, said he thought the government had handled aspects of the pandemic well, including the “standout” success of the vaccines and the Treasury’s furlough scheme. But other elements had overstepped the mark, he said, suggesting no administration should dictate “whether you can see your family or whether you can start a new relationship with somebody”.
He added: “I’ve always taken the view that government is there to serve the people, not the other way around.” The MP for Altrincham and Sale West said he found other measures – such as prohibiting outdoor sports – “incomprehensible”. Sir Graham said he understood and supported many of the initial interventions, when the severity of the virus remained unknown.
But talking to podcast Sketch Notes On Sir Graham said he worried the absence of Parliamentary scrutiny – caused in part by Westminster not sitting in person through much of the early pandemic – had meant the measures were not properly discussed. Sir Graham, who remained in Parliament when possible, said this had affected the tone of the argument.
He said : “I think one of the things that happened, with so many people participating remotely, the numbers wanting to speak in debates went up quite a lot and that led to very short time limits being applied to speeches in most of the debates.
“So I think in some of those really big, important debates on national lockdowns, for instance, we might each have had up to three minutes to make our points, which does sometimes mean you’ve got to be a little bit punchy, and maybe a little bit more controversial than you might otherwise be.”
Decisions such as the extension of the first lockdown were taken by government alone, rather than after Commons debate, he said. He understood that fear of potential disaster would make the administration plan for the worst case scenarios, making a nimble government attractive.
But he added: “Some of those powers were extreme, you know, the power to make it illegal for people to see their children or grandchildren, the decision to make it illegal at one point to leave the country, something for which there’s literally no public health argument. So, you know, [it is] really critically important that Parliament should be watching and prepared to flex its muscles at those times.”
He stressed that many of the interventions – including the furlough scheme – were exemplary. He said: “I think credit has to be given to the government and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps especially, for some of those measures, the furlough scheme, the support for businesses, which were put in place, and they really I think have paid off in terms of businesses surviving and people remaining in employment. “
But he pointed the prohibition on meeting families had hit his constituents particularly hard and had caused “a lot of people a lot of pain – a lot of psychological pain and suffering”. He said: “I know people in their 80s and 90s who were very happy to just Zoom people, and they thought, ‘no, we’ll stay away from people quite a lot’, and that’s fine. That’s their decision.
“I also know people in their 80s and 90s who said, ‘you know, I’m going to die sometime, I want to die happy, and I’m not going to miss the chance of seeing my grandchildren for the next year, or whatever’.
“So I think the idea that people ought to be empowered to make those choices for themselves, not have government imposing them on people, especially at that most fundamental personal level – whether you can see your family, whether you can start a new relationship with somebody. These are things which government really shouldn’t be involved in.”
He also criticised “casually imposed” measures, such as the ban on outdoor sports, which the government re-imposed in later lockdowns. The matter was raised in the Commons and the response was that if government “let people do those things, they might decide that they could do other things as well”.
He said: “I’m afraid this illustrates a really fundamental difference of view about what government is andwhat the right and proper powers of government should be. And I’ve always taken the view that government is there to serve the people, not the other way around. So the idea that government would decide, without any compelling reason, that it would ban people from doing some things which they enjoy, which help to keep them sane, keep them fit and healthy, and for which there was no reason for them to be stopped, seemed to me just utterly incomprehensible.”
Asked why he thought these decisions were made he replied: “I think it was over-zealous public health advice, I think the intention being to try to keep people in, not leaving their houses very much at all, and I just think some of it was clearly counter-productive.”
Sir Graham said he was aware of academics and medics being “put under quite unpleasant pressure” for speaking out, and said more safeguards were needed. He said he had met scientists “of all disciplines” and had been told some had been warned not to say certain things.
He said: “I think that that is a worry. We need an open culture where people can express concerns, can raise other ideas and challenge things, and it’s very dangerous if you only have one set of ideas that governs everything.”
A favourite slur was to deem someone “anti-science”, he said. “As somebody who’s always quite vocally supported the vaccination programme – I think it was the standout success of what the government’s done over the last 20 months or so – I then have had some people seeking to suggest that I am opposed to vaccination, and it’s as though this is a way that they can suggest that somebody has got a kind of anti-scientific viewpoint.”
“I have raised concerns about vaccination for children, in that I think these should be decisions that are made by parents, and I think that the decision should be based on the welfare of the child themselves, rather than the potential welfare for the wider population, and I do think that people should be able to make these choices personally.”
He said care homes suffering in his own constituency meant he was opposed to mandatory vaccination for social care staff. But he went on: “I’ve raised some of those concerns, and when the response is to say that you’re doing it for a reason other than the reason you’re doing it, I think there’s something a little bit worrying there.”
He feared an “extraordinary groupthink” in public health and some sections of the media had led to the view that it was wrong to ask questions – “a very worrying place to arrive at”.