March Bedford Independent Column – Why I’m voting against the Police and Crime bill

The tragic death of Sarah Everard and the Met Police’s handling of a vigil for her has instigated a national demand for action to tackle violence against women and girls and sparked a renewed focus on the crime legislation introduced to parliament this week.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a huge document.

There is a lot to support in the Bill. Many of my Labour colleagues had a hand in developing new laws around the Police Covenant, Assaults on Emergency Workers, The Lammy Review, Whole Life Orders extended to cover the premeditated murder of a child, toughening sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving and widening laws which prevent adults in ‘positions of trust’ from engaging in sexual relationships with young people under 18.

But I will be voting with my Labour colleagues against the Bill as there are whole sections of the document that have been hastily drafted and poorly thought-out which will introduce some of the most draconian measures this country has ever seen to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest, particularly targeting the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the country.

The right to protest is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The new measures are chilling and totally unnecessary as there are already laws within the Public Order Act 1986 to deal with protests that cause disorder, damage, disruption, or intimidation.

The Government wants to widen the conditions that the police can intervene on static protests, to match existing police powers to impose conditions on marches.

This measure will enable the police to impose conditions such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels on static protests – even if it’s a single person protest.

The Government argues they aren’t suppressing protest but under these new laws, you will only be allowed to protest without fear of arrest if you make no noise, make no impact and not annoy anyone, especially the government at Westminster – a long standing British tradition.

There is also a penalty in the Bill for someone who breaches a police-imposed condition on a protest when they “ought to have known” that the condition existed which would have the effect of criminalising people who unwittingly breach conditions.

This is the true cancel culture – on a statutory footing.

There is no better example of how out of touch and pandering to the ‘culture wars’ this Government is, than introducing new laws to protect the statues of dead men, whilst not including a single law to protect women.

So, I completely understand the outcry of people asking how on earth we got to a point where you can be sentenced for 10 years in prison for damaging a statue but the current minimum sentence for rape is five years.

Just last week, I heard my colleague Jess Phillips reading out the 118 names of women who have been murdered in the UK this year, where a man has been charged or convicted, but there has been no specific action from the Government on violence against women and girls despite the fact rape and sexual violence prosecutions are at their lowest ever level in England and Wales.

Rather than using legislation to try and divide the country, the government should seek to unify people to support long overdue protections for women against unacceptable violence, including action against domestic homicides, rape and street harassment.

And we must tackle the misogynistic attitudes that underpin the abuse women face.

One statue of a slave trader was brought down, and new laws have been introduced. To protect statues. Whatever anyone thinks of that event, surely, we can all agree that protecting life and deterring violent crime against women is more important.

February Bedford Independent Monthly Column – The virus exposed an unequal economy: we will not go back

Keir Starmer gave his most important speech yet laying out Labour’s vision for the future.

“The Conservatives say they want to build back. But I don’t want to go back. You can’t return to business as usual. And certainly not back to an economy rooted in insecurity and inequality,” he said in a powerful and optimistic speech today.

It’s a message I know echoes with a lot of people.

The pandemic has been very difficult for everyone. All of us have made huge sacrifices and far, far too many have paid the ultimate price.

But while we all want the colour and joy back in our lives, we don’t want to return to the rat-race – to a society that was so divided, insecure and unequal.

We need a re-emphasised moral commitment to fighting social injustice; to protect families and children and businesses by reversing the planned £20 cut in Universal Credit; reverse the key worker pay freeze; provide councils with the funding they need to prevent huge rises in council tax; extend and update the furlough scheme to provide businesses with breathing space; by tackling business debt; and extending the business rate relief and the VAT cut for hospitality and leisure.

Keir’s plan to introduce a new British Recovery Bond will provide financial security for millions of people and help to rebuild communities and businesses across the country.

The Chancellor will deliver his Budget on 3 March. It’s likely to be a day of reckoning for the economic costs of the pandemic.

The big question is, who is going to pay for it, and will the burden be fair?

Despite successive Tory leaders’ rhetoric on creating change, tackling the “burning injustices” or “levelling up”, it never goes beyond the soundbites. The Tories have already pointed to big council tax rises.

Under Tory policy, the poorest always pay more.

It is already the working class, the small business owners and young people who are bearing the brunt of the Tories’ biggest fiscal policy in a generation – Brexit.

It was the poorest in society who paid for the banking crisis, whilst the bankers got off scott-free with bailouts from public money. Public money paid for by 10 years of austerity that broke families and decimated our public services, including the NHS, now battling valiantly against the virus yet chronically underfunded and dangerously understaffed.

The pandemic has shone a light in every crevice of society revealing the extent of inequality and lack of life chances.

As we emerge, we must seize this moment to address the deep inequalities and injustices in our country.

Labour want to take Britain forward to a stronger, more prosperous future through a new partnership between a supportive Government and enterprising business.

The Conservatives can’t build back better because they do not believe in the power of the state to deliver social justice and equality.

That’s why they will always be led by the short-term demands of the market and never puts the welfare of people first.

March’s Budget is a moment to take the road less travelled – to equip Britain for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

This is no time for a second wave of austerity or tax rises on businesses and families. That would waste the sacrifices of the last year, it would choke off our recovery and ensure that the next decade was wasted like the one just gone – with so many suffering at the hands of a failed and cruel economic policy.

We have a choice as a country: do we allow the Government to take us back to a society where public services are on their knees, where people work more for less, or do we take the opportunity to live in a fairer, more secure and less divided society that invests in our communities, looks after nature and understands that equality and prosperity go hand in hand?

January Bedford Independent Column – Environmental protections post-Brexit: the race to the bottom begins

The watering down of workers’ rights, standards and environmental protections was at the heart of my concerns over Brexit.

Just weeks after our final ties with the EU were severed and my concerns are already being realised.

The Government has had discussions with select business leaders and is understood to be drawing up plans for a post-Brexit overhaul of UK labour markets to rip up worker protections enshrined in EU law, including the 48-hour week and a change in the calculation of holiday pay.

But it is on environmental protections, the Government has moved fastest to dismantle.

Three years ago, the EU introduced a European-wide ban on the use of neonicotinoids (neonics) a type of pesticide that has proved deadly to bees and aquatic life.

At the time, the UK Government supported the ban and confirmed that it would maintain these increased restrictions post-Brexit.

Just weeks after Brexit however, the Government is showing what deregulation will look like, reintroducing the deadly pesticide much to the horror of wildlife organisations.

The Government acquiesced to the demands of the Farmers Union and UK sugar who were secretly lobbying the Secretary of State for DEFRA, George Eustice to allow neonics to be reintroduced after Brexit.

In a memo to sugar beet farmers in December sharing their plans, the Union told its members to “Please refrain from sharing this on social media.”

They all know how unpopular this move will be with the public, as my postbag testifies.

Although the Government say the use of Syngenta’s Cruiser SB is for emergency, “limited and controlled” use, they also admitted that the risks to bees would not allow its use under standard approval and that “risks to birds from consuming treated seeds were not demonstrated to be acceptable.” DEFRA approved it anyway.

It’s the thin end of the wedge.

There will always be bad weather events, insects and other factors that will damage crop yields and therefore its likely many other worthy appeals will be made to use the dangerous pesticides – ‘just this once’.

Already the gate for further approvals is open.

The Government’s statement on the decision notes states that neonics may be needed for three years until 2023 despite the fact this authorisation is only for 2021.

With a cross-party group of Parliamentarians led by Caroline Lucas MP, I wrote to George Eustice deeply concerned by his decision to authorise this use.

Although we all empathise with the multiple challenges faced by farmers, including responding to this Government’s damaging Brexit policy, authorising the use of neonics is regressive and risks disastrous long-term consequences for our environment and particularly vital pollinators.

I have also supported an amendment to the Environment Bill to recognise the fact that the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in rural areas is from the continued use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals on crop fields across the UK.

Bees pollinate up to 3/4 of crops which makes the use of this pesticide incredibly counter-intuitive.

Neonics are known to damage bees’ brain development, immune systems and can even leave them unable to fly.

With 40 percent of insect species in danger of extinction and bee populations in severe decline it presents a disturbing picture for pollination and crop yields.

Instead of taking the easy option, allowing only recently banned pesticides, the Government must invest in innovative and non-chemical alternatives to pest management.

When the UK pledged to back the ban, Michael Gove, then the environment secretary said: “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry… We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”

Yet that’s exactly what his Government has done.

Another deceit to be added to the pile of broken Brexit promises.

December Bedford Independent Column: Tier 3 restrictions but there’s light at the end of the tunnel

It’s sad that we end this darkest of years in Tier 3 restrictions after so many months of huge personal sacrifice and disruption to our way of life.

So many in our community will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one, lost to the coronavirus before their time. My thoughts and prayers are with those families and of course to everyone whose lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic.

But there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Against all the odds, we have a way out.

I know some of you are worried about taking the vaccine. Some have asked how could a safe vaccine be created so quickly?

But scientists have been working on a Coronavirus vaccine for years – they were not starting from scratch. And this year, science, industry and governments around the world focussed on one endeavour.

Billions have been invested in the research and resources needed and scientists worked around the clock to create the vaccines we’ve all heard about. Britain’s regulator managed to approve the vaccine first because it examined the data along the way.

That’s how a process that might take a decade, took just 18 months. But no corners were cut in designing, testing and manufacturing. This is an example of what can be achieved when the world works together, and a bit of luck!

One vaccine, Pfizer/BioNTech, has been approved as safe for use for all but two categories, a small group, such as pregnant women and those with extreme allergies.

Others are expected to follow including the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine. This, if and when passed for safe use, will be the real game-changer for the UK, as it’s much easier to store, and to transport.

Some are concerned about the potential long-term effects of taking a new vaccine. But long- term adverse effects from vaccines are extremely rare, and vaccine developers have said that any adverse responses show up very quickly – that’s why they were able to almost immediately identify that those with extreme allergies would not be suitable to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Covid-19 is a disease that has killed over 65,000 people in the UK alone and debilitated many thousands of others. So many are now living with longer term conditions such as extreme fatigue, respiratory problems and organ failure.

This illness has had a devastating effect on public health, the economy and the NHS this year.

The only way for us to return to anywhere near normal life is for us to reach a point of community immunity – and a vaccine delivered to the highest possible number of people is how we get to that point.

I don’t believe that any vaccine should be mandatory. It must be a choice, but an informed choice. I am concerned about the levels of misinformation circulating about the vaccine, particularly on social media – and that this is frightening people and deterring them from making a decision that could save their life or that of a loved one. Please only share information from trusted sources.

And when you are offered the vaccine, please take up the offer – I know I will.  If you’re worried, contact my office and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

I know that Bedford Borough Council and colleagues in Health are working hard to ensure that vaccines are distributed as quickly as possible.

They expect the first vaccines to be available in Bedford and Kempston very early in the New Year, and I understand that plans for rolling out at scale are at an advanced stage.

Your GP will contact you when it is time to book in for your vaccine, so please be a little patient, but I will share details soon as I have them.

November Bedford Independent Column – Universal Credit is not fit for purpose

I have long argued that Universal Credit is not fit for purpose. Sadly, I’ve seen countless examples of it failing my constituents since it was rolled out in Bedford and Kempston in 2018.

Numbers of claimants in our area have risen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as people fall through the gaps of the Government’s support packages.

It’s a hard reality that job insecurity will be a feature of the slow economic recovery when we are finally able to put Covid-19 restrictions behind us.

Last week, a long-recognised error in the UC system finally led to the Department for Work and Pensions putting in place new regulations following four single mothers winning a legal case against the Government in June.

Many claimants who work, but whose employer’s pay dates clash with the set-in-stone UC assessment period dates, have repeatedly had their benefit incorrectly calculated resulting in wildly fluctuating payments, often by hundreds of pounds a month.

Claimants are now able to check their UC payment calculations online ahead of payment and challenge errors so payment is automatically recalculated.

Whilst this is a better outcome, I am hugely frustrated that the DWP’s solution still puts the onus onto the claimant to check their payment is correct, rather than fixing the crux of the problem and moving assessment dates so that they no longer risk clashing with pay dates.

For the many claimants who have fallen prey to this issue, it has been a nightmare.

Through no fault of their own, rent arrears have been amassed, homes have been lost and people have been forced into debt they struggle to repay.

Some have had to give up work to avoid losing their homes – that way, at least their monthly income would be predictable. So much unnecessary and avoidable stress and anxiety for so many people, all to protect a system that was always unfit for purpose.

On paper, Universal Credit is sold as a benefit that allows people to work, to avoid having to sign on and off each time their job circumstances change and in theory enables claimants to budget in the same way as anyone else working and receiving regular payments.

In practice, the UC system failed to recognise that a double work payment was being counted during one assessment period, leading to a low or even zero payment, which resulted in a person’s life being thrown into chaos.

I urge anyone who claims Universal Credit who is either aware that they have already experienced this issue, or thinks this might explain fluctuating payments, to ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration of any payments where this might have occurred.

Find out how to do this

Also in recent days, yet another shocking loophole in Universal Credit regulations was exposed, following a court ruling that the DWPs policy in operation since 2013, which meant disabled students have been unlawfully refused a work capability assessment and therefore couldn’t claim the Universal Credit to which they should have been entitled. It’s been estimated 30,000 disabled students may have been adversely affected.

Anyone who applied before 5 August, when the Government closed the loophole, may ask for the decision to be challenged.

Now more than ever, we need a benefits system that provides a genuine safety net. There should be no gaps for eligible people to fall through.

To get there, the Government must put the needs of claimants first, close all loopholes and admit policy failures rather than sacrificing those it’s meant to protect.

The published article can be read on the Bedford Independent’s website

September Bedford Independent column – Track and trace has failed at its first real test

“We will have a test track and trace operation that will be world-beating, in place by 1 June” promised the Prime Minister on 20 May.

Four months on, the system is failing its first real test and appears to be on the brink of collapse. Just a week or so after the new school term started, when it was obvious seasonal cold and flu symptoms would mirror those of Covid-19, the system isn’t coping with the inevitable rise in demand for tests.

Up and down the country a growing number of people, including frontline workers who are supposed to be prioritised, are unable to access Covid-19 drive in tests, walk in tests and home test kits.

Not because there is a problem at the testing sites but because the labs to process the results are overwhelmed.

Bedford residents are telling me they are finding it very difficult to get a Covid test or are being asked to travel miles away to access one.

It’s been clear for months that we had to capitalise on the gains we’d made on infection rates after lockdown over the summer and to ensure not just testing capacity, but crucially lab capacity, were massively increased to enable us to return to a more normal way of life.

It was the lynch pin that would allow us to go back to work or an educational setting safely.

But the Government has blown it!

£12 million wasted on a Government test and trace app that never materialised, only to be replaced by the Apple/Google app, still not launched, that experts advised the Government should have used in the first place.

And following the Urgent Question this week raised by the Shadow Health Secretary, it would appear the Government are still no closer to a solution after saying the problems will take weeks to resolve.

Matt Hancock has blamed problems with the testing system on too many people booking tests, after months of telling us “if in doubt, get a test”.

Now we have a backlog of around 180,000 tests waiting for analysis – some being sent to labs abroad and test results too often falling way short of the 24 hours return time promised by the Government.

The impact of this is huge.

Today, countless people with symptoms who are not able to get a test – or unable to drive 100s miles to do so – are sat at home missing out on education, pay or getting back to work, which is so important in getting our economy back on track.

Worse still, some parents feel they have no other choice but to send kids into school who may be ill, and other adults are going into work with symptoms, because they can’t afford not to, risking the further spread of Covid-19, and potentially leading to avoidable school and workplace closures.

As we face the prospect of a second wave, it’s unbelievable that the Government’s lack of preparedness once again leaves us so unprotected and under-prepared for what’s to come.

Despite what the Health Secretary says, we still haven’t got routine testing for health workers, care workers, and frontline workers in place across the country. And they are supposed to be a priority!

When challenged on the basics, the Prime Minister bamboozles us with data showing how great they are and what magic number of testing capacity they are going to achieve at some point in the future.

Last week Boris Johnson’s government offered grand plans for “Operation Moonshot”, an eye-watering £100bn project which it claims can beat the pandemic, with mass testing technology which has not yet been invented.

Rather than having their head in the stars, the Prime Minister might want to pay attention to what’s happening on the ground.

We don’t need the track and trace system to be world-beating, or endless promises of ‘jam tomorrow’, we just need a test, track and isolate system that works.

And that means, detailed, steady and unshowy work based on tried and tested public health methods that ought to be delivered by properly funded local public health teams rather than relying on fantasy technology and private Laboratories that aren’t coping and seeking help from the NHS.

This may not dazzle in a Government press release, but it does have the advantage of working.

August Bedford Independent Column: Government’s A-level results U turn was welcome, but questions remain

After a weekend of growing outrage and pressure from A-level students, teachers and the Labour Party, the inevitability of the Government U turn was clear by Monday lunchtime.

Students, put through agonies thanks to Ofqual’s remarkably unjust algorithm, would indeed be able to use their teacher-assessed grades.

The current pandemic crisis would have understandably put any Government through its paces, but it’s hard to fathom how any could be as unfit for the job than this one.

The latest of Boris Johnson’s inner circle to fail, whilst also failing to take any responsibility for his failure, is the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

Whilst I’m relieved that these students’ futures are no longer at the mercy of illogical downgrading, not only was the Government’s U turn once again inevitable despite resolutions to the contrary over the weekend, there are serious ramifications.

The announcement of A-level results sets off a chain reaction of time-sensitive processes and will have consequences even further down the line.

Under Gavin Williamson’s watch Ofqual used an algorithm to standardise A-level results despite statisticians and experts’ warnings of its inherent weaknesses.

Defaulting to the teacher’s assessments was the only other route possible after results day, hence the U turn, as it’s far too late to implement a fairer method of standardisation.

I’m pleased at the U turn for the sake of the students, but will this Government learn from their mistakes and act fast to minimise negative consequences?

Universities filled spaces on courses last week after the results were announced, so those students whose grades were upgraded may now miss out on a place this year. University admissions teams – at what is always an incredibly busy time– are having to pull out all the stops to work through several challenges presented by the Government’s policy change at this late stage of the admissions process, and still require urgent clarification and advice from government.

Universities with lower admissions criteria, already struggling for many reasons due to the pandemic, will face even more pressure if their classes aren’t filled.

Furthermore, the Government have ignored an entire group of students. Over the past week BTEC students have largely been overlooked amongst the furore, with thousands still waiting for their results, again potentially losing out on opportunities for their next steps.

I have been contacted by year 12 students, rightly wondering what all of this is going to mean for their own prospects when it’s time for their results next year.

Students will not return to school in September having experienced equal levels of education since schools first closed their doors in March, and yet the Government wishes to deny this is the reality.

Once again, the door is wide open to inequality – how can a pupil with access to a laptop, decent broadband connection and a full school week’s distance learning from the outset be anything but at an advantage against students whose learning has been patchy at best? – and whilst I would like to think lessons will have been learned, experience shows us this government is not one to reflect on its mistakes, but would rather bat away any suggestion of incompetence and put blame squarely on other organisations.

The Government still has time to protect the current Year 12 students, to ensure that none are put at an avoidable disadvantage – whether that’s in their preparations for exams, or having fewer spaces to compete for at universities whilst students missing out this year, defer their applications to September 2021- and my Labour colleagues and I will keep putting pressure on this government to act timely, and fairly.

Gavin Williamson’s A-level result debacle is depleting teachers and school leadership’s valuable time and energy. Schools deserve every bit of extra support to navigate their way through these uncharted waters, not to be sent off course by sand bars and obstacles that can be seen miles ahead.

Whilst the U turn on A-levels is welcome there are too many questions that remain.

This Government must be held to account and if Gavin Williamson doesn’t resign, he should be sacked.

Members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet need the humility and self-reflection to recognise their many shortcomings, listen to the experts who see what’s coming ahead and work much harder at anticipating problems before they arise, for all our sakes.

The published article can be read on the Bedford Independent’s website

July Bedford Independent Column: A national disaster is unfolding

Coronavirus has claimed nearly 650,000 jobs since March. Sectors that were already struggling, like retail and hospitality, have little resilience to take such a blow.

A national disaster is unfolding, with vacancies at an all-time low and more jobs lost every day. Although the Government schemes have saved jobs, a cliff edge is only months away.

Instead of saving jobs with targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors like retail, manufacturing, aviation and a flexible furlough to save jobs, the safety net will be gone and mass unemployment, the like we haven’t seen for decades, will grip the nation.

And it’s not the only cliff edge.

We are five months away from Brexit and we still do not know what the future holds for us.

It was not supposed to be like this. Remember the election campaign? The Prime Minister told us as often as possible that he had an “oven-ready deal”.

But the Prime Minister doesn’t like the deal he baked. He didn’t even turn the oven on!

Leaving the EU on 31 January was only one part of the deal. The other was a future relationship set out in the Political Declaration negotiated by Boris Johnson with “no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”, that will safeguard “workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”, keep people safe with a “broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership” and to ensure the protection of the Good Friday Agreement through proper implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Commitments the Prime Minister made to a level playing field, to a non-competitive aspect is now something he seems baffled by.

Which is no doubt why after four rounds of negotiations, a summit between Boris Johnson and the Presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, and two subsequent weeks of meetings between negotiators, there has been no significant progress.

The opportunity was there to ask for an extension to the transition period, yet the Prime Minister chose not to ask for one.

So now the Prime Minister pretends a no deal would be “a very good option”, when the reality is it would be a monumental failure of statesmanship and a disaster for the UK economy and people already staring down the barrel of a gun at a deep and dark recession.

The problem for Boris is that the truth of the difference between the Brexit he promised – voted for in good faith by millions – and the one being delivered is emerging.

We’ve been short-changed!

The Government’s recently published Brexit Border Plan has revealed that British companies trading with Europe, according to the Financial Times, will have to absorb a post-Brexit bureaucracy burden and fill in an extra 215million customs declarations at a cost of at least £7bn a year.

Far from frictionless trade, we will be getting at least 12 new customs sites, similar to the giant 27-acre site in Kent soon to be transformed into a customs clearance centre for 11,000 lorries a day.

The International Trade Secretary, and Brexit supporter, Liz Truss expressed serious concerns about preparedness at the border. Her leaked letter set out four areas of concern: that ports might not be ready and therefore not secure for preventing smuggling, that the Northern Ireland Protocol may not be ready, and UK plans could be challenged at the WTO – the very organisation whose rules we fall back on in the event of a no deal.

The Government finally confirmed there will be checks on trade between GB and Northern Ireland, but the Government are yet to publish plans in order for preparations to begin on this most sensitive border.

Research from the Institute for Directors found that only one in four businesses are ready for Brexit. How can they be when they still don’t know what they are planning for?

The UK is plunging headfirst towards a Brexit where it has no deal with the EU, no deal with the US, and ever deteriorating relations with the world’s largest manufacturing economy.

With just five months left – in which we are already facing the biggest hit on jobs and livelihoods in our lifetime as a result of covid-19 – the Government should be doing everything in its power to mitigate that damage, not to add to it.

The Government will not be forgiven if they can’t broker a good deal. That was their promise to the British people, and it is on that they will be judged.

May Bedford Independent Column: Government is losing public confidence over return to schools

On 10 May the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return to school on 1 June.

Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have since expressed concern about the safety of classrooms and believe the Government is trying to shift the responsibility for safety in schools and community health, during a health pandemic, onto individual headteachers without a safe national framework.

Parents in Bedford and Kempston now face the agonising choice between the obvious benefits of their child returning to the school structure and environment versus the unknown risks of compromising the lock-down when the infection rate is still not under control.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still observing the lockdown and a handful of councils across England have instructed schools not to open more widely, for fear of the virus spreading again.

This is a novel virus, so scientists are divided on the risks to children. Some studies show pupils are less likely to become ill if infected and their ability to transfer the virus is low, while others show they are as infectious as adults, even if asymptomatic.

The Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted the Government’s plan could risk spreading coronavirus since there is a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit the virus less than adults.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove could not guarantee that teachers and pupils would not catch coronavirus. But when I asked the Secretary of Health if he could reassure parents and teachers it was safe for young children, unable to socially distance, to return to school he maintained that parents can be “confident that school is a safe environment for them.”

The Government is losing public confidence just when it’s most needed to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it’s been eroded by endless contradictory advice and slippery pledges made to fill front pages for a day, that are exposed as untrue soon afterwards.

When there are differences of opinion between scientists on what counts as safe, only honesty about what is uncertain earns political trust. But too often now, this Government’s bold pledges, including those on testing, PPE and their myth that they had “put a safety ring around care homes”, have been exposed as falsehoods. The horrific death toll tells the real story.

Now we learn that the tracing app, integral to the testing, tracing and isolation strategy and so vital in preventing a second surge, will not be rolled out before children in England return to school.

In a few weeks’ time, the picture may look quite different. We are all coming to terms with moving forward to live with a different level of risk until a vaccine can be found. Bedford Borough have committed to opening schools when it is safe to do so. But the Government must address teachers’ concerns, and put in place the plans to test, trace and isolate before teachers and parents can be confident that sending children back to school won’t trigger a second deadly peak.

Please note I have reinstated surgeries, which will take place virtually until further notice. I will be holding appointments for Zoom meetings from 3-5 on Fridays. 

April Bedford Independent guest column: Government’s response is an epic failure

I want the government to succeed in fighting the biggest crisis in peacetime history, to save lives and protect livelihoods.

As an Opposition MP, it felt important to provide constructive support to the Government, only challenging when we think serious mistakes are being made or something is not happening that needs to happen.

The Sunday Times report last weekend changed things.

The news that Boris Johnson skipped five emergency Cobra meetings on Coronavirus, ignored early calls to order protective gear and was dismissive of scientists’ warnings of the severity the threat posed to the security of the UK, confirmed an extraordinary complacency from a Prime Minister renowned for his disregard for detail.

We now know that the Prime Minister’s long weekend holidays, even during the winter floods, his requests to keep briefings short – otherwise he wouldn’t read them, and his two week holiday with his fiancée at a countryside retreat in Chevening were the backdrop to a sequence of failings in February that has undoubtedly cost thousands of lives.

NHS England had already declared the virus outbreak as a “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January, the first ever of this severity.

Lack of provision for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our health and social care workers is the story that has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis.

I’ve been written to by local doctors, care home providers and dentists, all raising concerns about PPE and testing.

Months on, and the deaths of at least a hundred frontline, health and social care workers later (according to a nursing website Nursing Notes), the cries from the frontline about PPE shortages are now deafening.

But the Government seem no nearer to securing a stable supply line to keep workers who are risking their lives to help us, safe.

And local authorities are bearing the brunt.

Last week, Bedford Borough Council contacted me to express “real concerns about the delivery of PPE”.

Although equipment is filtering through in fits and starts, deliveries have been late, incomplete or incorrect.

Bedford’s Local Resilience Forum and Bedfordshire Police are working flat out to ensure we do not reach a position of rationing, but the reality is that there is a big gap between what the Government is telling us and what is happening on the frontline.

The public policy void in the UK – where there should be a coordinated central direction – is now grossly irresponsible.