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.