March Bedford Independent Column: Public health crisis

We are living through a global emergency. Governments throughout the world are struggling to deal with this public health crisis – the like of which has not been experienced for a century.

There are no easy solutions.  My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died, with those who have contracted the virus and with the keyworkers and all the frontline workers including the incredible staff at Bedford Hospital who are working around the clock to keep us safe.

For most of us, the illness will be mild but for others, particularly for those over 70 with underlying health conditions, it can be fatal.  All of us who do not fall into an ‘at risk’ group have a duty to act in the public interest, to keep those who are vulnerable safe and strictly follow the social distancing guidelines if we develop symptoms.

Many of you are writing to me with me concerns about how your business is struggling, or how you will cope if you are off work sick.

People are already losing their jobs and businesses and wondering how they will keep a roof over their head. Renters are worrying about the threat of eviction due to loss of income.

No-one should be forced to choose between health and hardship – between working a zero-hours job with symptoms, or self-isolating without access to sick pay, potentially struggling to make ends meet.

A quarter of the vital staff we need to support us in this crisis, such as cleaners and care sector workers, are working on zero hours, low-paid contracts.

The further announcements laid out by the Chancellor yesterday include a statutory sick pay relief package for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England, small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief and a grant funding of £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with property with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000.

However, the package isn’t good enough to meet the scale of the crisis and lacks the certainty required amidst growing public anxiety. It goes nowhere near far enough in protecting workers, renters and those who have already lost their jobs.

The Government must give confidence now to the two million people who work in low income jobs or are on zero hours contracts, including a quarter of social care staff and almost half of home care workers.

They must commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers, paying at least the level of the Real Living Wage, so that people are not pushed into poverty by doing the right thing.

The Government must also: raise the level of ‘new style’ Employment Support Allowance (ESA) payments; suspend all sanctions, rather than providing an approach based on the ‘discretion’ of work coaches;  introduce rent payment deferment options and ban any evictions of tenants affected by the outbreak; remove the requirement to attend an appointment at a Jobcentre Plus for Universal Credit, suspending sanctions and reducing the wait time for first payment down from five weeks; and support local authorities working with food banks in the purchase and distribution of food stocks.

We will get through this if we look after ourselves and each other. I am so proud of Bedford’s community response.

So many of you have volunteered to support vulnerable people and families through the crisis.

Bedford Borough Council has created a new community hub so do get in touch if  you can offer or ask for help.  Community Voluntary Service (CVS) Bedfordshire.

You can read the article here on Bedford Independent’s website