Here in Cheltenham, we can be forgiven for getting weary. Weary of not being able to hug our friends. Weary of not being able to go to Whaddon Road to watch the football. Weary of worrying about jobs and livelihoods. Weary of not knowing if our children are going to be in the next bubble sent home from school.
Like a distance runner who hits the ‘wall’ half-way through the race, physically we want to stop. But mental toughness and sheer bloody-mindedness spur us on. With infection rates and hospital admissions surging, those are the qualities we must show now. Just look at France, where intensive care units in the south of the country are starting to struggle.
At the same time, we should not forget that we have time on our side. Although the figures are moving in the wrong direction, we are still some weeks ahead of virus levels at the time of the March national lockdown. Despite COVID patients again being admitted to Cheltenham General and Gloucestershire Royal, the numbers are still relatively low.
As a minister, I am not able to sign petitions or shout noisily on social media. But the quiet, firm, argument I am making is for a hyper-local approach when it comes to restrictions. Manchester’s infection rates reached 529 cases per 100,000 people yesterday – more than ten times ours in Cheltenham. What’s right for the North of England, may well not be right for the South-West. I know how hard restrictions, particularly in hospitality, affect local traders. They must not be expected to pay the price for outbreaks hundreds of miles away.
Let me end by paying tribute to the organisers of the Cheltenham Lit Fest. I have been following much of the programme, mainly via their Instagram feed. But what a joy it was to hear live poetry in the tent in Imperial Gardens. The pouring rain outside couldn’t drown out the appreciation of the audience. For us, in that moment, the COVID weariness was gone.