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?

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.

Second Lockdown

Following the Government’s announcement on Saturday, England will be entering a four-week lockdown from Thursday 5th November.
 
I know that both people and businesses are rightly concerned about what this means. The guidance is as follows:
 
1. Stay at home except for specific purposes such as going to work (if your workplace remains open), attending a medical appointment, shopping for essential items, or exercising.
 
2. You cannot meet indoors with family or friends unless they are part of your household or support bubble.
 
3. All non-essential retail, entertainment venues, personal care facilities, and hospitality businesses must close. However, click and collect and takeaway services can continue.
 
The full guidance can be found here.
 
This length of lockdown was entirely avoidable. If the Government had followed their own scientific advice from SAGE and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer’s calls for a two-week circuit breaker to coincide with half term, we could have avoided these difficult measures. Sadly, Government delay has seen infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths continue to rise and have the potential to overburden our NHS. The deaths that have resulted from this delay cannot be forgiven or forgotten, but the focus now must be on working collectively to bring down the “R” and reduce Covid 19 infections to save lives.
 
The extension of the Furlough Scheme is welcome, but this has come too late for many employees who have already been made redundant due to the expectation that the scheme was coming to an end. Therefore, my Labour colleagues and I will be calling on the Government to ensure that jobs and businesses are protected. We need targeted support packages for businesses, flexibility in the Furlough Scheme to ensure that those that did not qualify previously are not excluded now, and more support for the self-employed whose businesses are now having to be put on hold again.
 
The British people have sacrificed time and time again and the Government must give people the support they need in order to follow the rules and reduce the spread of Covid 19. Please stay safe, follow the law, and follow Public Health guidance to protect each other.

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

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.