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

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.

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.

Black Lives Matter

Many constituents are contacting me about the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m appalled by the killing of George Floyd and distressed to see the violence escalating across the USA, which has caused shockwaves across the world and here in the UK.

Sadly, it is a reality that racism is still endemic across the globe, and whilst I’m proud to be Bedford and Kempston’s first BAME Member of Parliament, representing residents long since proud of our multiculturalism and diversity, there is still racism in all our towns and cities.

Whilst the most obvious acts of overt racism may be less common in UK society today, more subtle forms of racial bias are still prevalent. What is clear from the strength of feeling across UK communities distraught by George Floyd’s death, is that if a person can lose their life because of their race, then we are still very far from achieving equality.

I am pleased that Labour leader Keir Starmer used Prime Minister’s questions last week as an opportunity to express our anger at the death of George Floyd and ask that the Prime Minister uses his relationship with President Trump to call for urgent reform. Despite the lack of an answer from Boris Johnson, it is my sincere hope that the Government will use the UK’s influence to demand change.

Until we can be sure no more BAME individuals will face discrimination, when there is no chance of being murdered because of the colour of your skin by somebody in a position of power, we must keep pushing for the complete elimination of racial bias across all institutions, workplaces and the community, and combat this ignorance through discussion, education and legislation.

It is shameful that the UK continues to supply tear gas and rubber bullets to the USA which were used by the police against peaceful protesters. I have signed a letter from Dawn Butler to the Government calling for an immediate suspension of all export licences to the USA that are linked to riot related items, and signed the Early Day Motion #520 with the same call to action. Emily Thornberry MP has written to her opposite number Liz Truss, the Shadow International Trade Secretary on the same issue and you can read her letter in full. We as a country must take a stand against injustice.

More widely it is important that we continue to support the BAME community. The publication of the report into the effect of Covid 19 on BAME individuals showed that people from minority backgrounds are more at risk to the virus. I am concerned about the lack of recommendations in the report. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has said that his department will now be looking at practical solutions but this is yet another delay. I can assure you that my Labour colleagues and I will press for these recommendations to be released as soon as possible.

I urge those who are feeling the desire to act, to channel this determination into a force for good. It’s always been simple and should never be controversial, black lives matter.

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.

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