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.

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.

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.

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