My final column of the year was published in today's Sentinel - the text is below.
And so farewell to 2021. Another year dominated by Covid, which makes it grimly appropriate that I am writing this column whilst in self-isolation at home. Somehow I had managed to evade all the previous waves and variants, even when my wife caught Delta during the summer, but this Omicron wave managed to infect first my children and then me.
None of us have been seriously ill, though it has made for a much quieter Christmas than usual. Children have generally had milder experiences throughout the pandemic, but I put my relatively light experience (I only had one really bad day, Boxing Day) down to having had my booster jab recently.
Because Omicron has quite a number of differences to the previous variants, the vaccines only offer moderate protection against catching Omicron, but they do continue to offer excellent protection against serious illness and death. Figures coming from some London hospitals – where the Omicron wave first took hold – are that 80 to 90% of the patients requiring intensive care had not been vaccinated. It is this that is putting severe pressure on our NHS and running the risk that it might be overwhelmed.
So please, please, please take up the offer of the vaccine and the booster, to protect yourself and your loved ones – especially elderly relatives – and to protect the NHS so that it is there for everyone who needs it, when they need it.
The sheer transmissibility of Omicron has led to case numbers on an unprecedented scale, but the silver linings appear to be firstly that the variant is itself milder, and secondly that it appears that not only are Omicron cases displacing Delta, but that infection with Omicron offers protection against Delta. This may mean that, together with the impact of our world-leading booster program, we collectively end up in a more sustainable position once the wave has passed.
The challenge will be navigating the peak of the wave. We will still need more data as to whether any further restrictions may be required in the New Year, but it looks to me like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Mark Drakeford in Wales may have jumped the gun. As we learn to live with Covid, I would much prefer to trust people to make their own decisions as much as possible, based on government guidance and their own circumstances. Legal restrictions should be kept to a minimum, and removed entirely at the earliest safe opportunity.
Locally, 2021 was also dominated by the scandalous emissions from Walley’s Quarry, which rose to totally unprecedented levels in February, at which point Councillor Simon Tagg and I had been giving the Environment Agency ample warning of the problem for months.
We then had the capping works mandated in April, which did not do nearly enough to reduce the odour. Subsequent new gas wells and further capping have meant far more gas is being captured on the site, and this had been reducing both the number of complaints and the amount of gas detected at the monitoring stations. However, these rose again in November and earlier this month, so further explanation is needed, and potentially further work.
Most recently, the Environment Agency announced that they were formally investigating alleged criminal activity at sites operated by Red Industries. I know the community will welcome this step and I hope that the investigation will proceed rapidly in the New Year. I will continue to press both for a swift resolution to this investigation and also for stronger regulatory enforcement to finally Stop The Stink.
2021 also saw the first projects funded by the £35m of Government investment into Newcastle getting under way. The WorkShop – our employment, training and skills hub – opened in Lancaster Buildings, and the subways were given a spruce up with some fantastic artwork. The bigger projects are underway as well, with the demolition of the Zanzibar (complete) and the old civic offices (ongoing) preparing the way for major construction projects in 2022.
It has been an honour and a privilege to serve as Newcastle’s MP for another year. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for a peaceful, prosperous and (perhaps most of all!) healthy 2022.