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

No deal Brexit: National Audit Office warns of risk to medical supplies

On the 5th September this year, I asked the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay what level of mortality he would consider acceptable in the event of a No-Deal Brexit. He dismissed my question, answering that the medicines industry had gone above and beyond to ensure sufficient supplies. I am sure that both suppliers and our NHS have been working flat out to plan for No-Deal, but it’s not enough.

Now we’re just days before we are due to leave and we’re nowhere near ready. This report from the National Audit Office today on NHS readiness and the potential disruption to medicine supplies makes extremely worrying reading, but it’s not a surprise.

The report acknowledges that there is no way of knowing what may happen at the UK/EU border when the UK leaves the EU, with ministers asking government departments to be prepared for a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’.

This is based on assumptions that the flow of goods across the channel could be reduced to 40-60% of current levels on day one, not returning to close to current levels until 12 months after leaving the EU. Over half (7,000) of all medicines are estimated to come to the UK from or via the EU, with a further 450,000-500,000 different types of medical supplies that are used by the NHS and distributed to hospitals, care homes, dental practices, pharmacies and individuals at home.

The Treasury will be allocating £150million to the Department for Transport to secure freight capacity from October, to prioritise medical supplies amongst other critical goods, however the procurement process to employ the necessary companies to operate this service is still ongoing. I’m greatly concerned that the report warns that there is limited time available to complete the procurement process: it has started later than anticipated, and now depends on the process ‘running smoothly’. Beyond that, there is further uncertainty and risk whether the successful operators will be able to mobilise quickly enough, and it is acknowledged that only some of the service will be ready to operate in time, with much of it only ready a month after leaving.

So much uncertainty; with departments having to work on the basis of untested assumptions determined by ministers, it’s clear that leaving without a deal presents a level of risk that no competent or moral leader should ever remotely consider. A no deal Brexit could spell disaster for the most vulnerable people in Britain.

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

Stalled discussions over the merger between Bedford Hospital and the Luton & Dunstable were revived at the start of August by a promise of investment.

It’s not hard to see why Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make such an announcement at this point  – the threat of a vote of no confidence when MP’s return after the summer break looms, and giving money to hospitals might seem like a way to secure support from MPs.

But this is not a new pledge.

The money for this merger was bid for and promised a long time ago – it’s just that the treasury wouldn’t release it.

For Bedford Hospital, the announcement ends years of uncertainty, and will be good for staff morale and retention.

I am pleased that services will be retained at Bedford after what has been a long and hard-fought campaign, and I will hold NHS bosses to their promises to keep A&E, Maternity and Paediatrics at Bedford.

But these merger plans don’t offer much in the way of enhanced facilities for Bedford, with most of the capital earmarked for upgrades to the Luton site.

I now want to see real investment in our healthcare facilities locally; for a return of inpatient mental health beds, for better access to primary care and better facilities for our GPs, and for enough money to keep essential services like our hydrotherapy pool running.

It’s not just acute NHS services that will need extra cash if we are to tackle the burgeoninghealthcare crisis either.

If more money isn’t provided for social care, hospitals will continue to pick up the slack. Bedford Borough Council are particularly good at ensuring seamless transfers of care, but the system is undoubtedly struggling.

The workforce shortages we see throughout the health and social care system will significantly worsen if strict post-Brexit immigration rules force lower income workers to leave the UK.

If Boris Johnson is serious about our nation’s health, he’ll provide some genuinely new money for the whole system.

He’ll scrap his dangerous no-deal Brexit plans that further threaten the stability of our health and social care workforce and would likely disrupt medical supply lines.

And he’ll reverse short-sighted Public Health cuts so that people can be helped to live healthier lives. Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper. But perhaps he doesn’t think he’ll be PM for long enough to see the benefits.

Read the article here at Bedford Independent

Protect The Protectors

Several constituents have contacted me regarding the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill 2017-19, and I was pleased to support the Bill, which today passed its third reading in the House of Commons. My full speech is printed below.

The Bill would, for the first time, make it an aggravated offence to attack an emergency worker. With 169 police officers assaulted in Bedfordshire last year, and 37 NHS workers assaulted in Bedford Hospital in 2016 (the last year official statistics are available), this law aims to help deter people from assaulting the workers who protect our public on a daily basis, and to ensure those that do face tough sanctions.

The new law has support from the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Fire Bridges Union, the Police Federation, The British Transport Police and the GMB union.

I am backing the Bill to #ProtectTheProtectors because I believe it’s unacceptable that the hardworking men and women in Bedford’s NHS, Fire and Police services face serious assault and abuse simply for doing their jobs. Any assault on emergency workers is unacceptable, and it’s time the law reflected the seriousness of attacks on people working for the public good. Assaults on emergency workers should not be viewed as an occupational hazard.

Society owes a debt of thanks to our emergency workers. Parliament now needs to give them the support and protection they need, and that’s why I supported the Bill today.

“In March I received a letter from Kathryn Holloway, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire explaining why this Bill was so important to protect our emergency workers.
In Bedfordshire, a police officer who has been assaulted is contacted by a member of the Senior Team within 72 hours or less of the assault.

Sadly, such calls are a weekly event.

24,000 police officers were assaulted in the year 2016/17 and over 70,000 NHS staff in England alone.

Assaults on emergency workers should not be viewed as an occupational hazard. While some judges will add an additional penalty if an assault on an officer is proven in court – it is not automatic.

And CPS judges have historically viewed that an assault in the course of arrest is to some extent just part of the job.

We must not tolerate this any longer.

We must put legislation in place guaranteeing a tough line on anyone who assaults an emergency worker – and this must extend to spitting – a disgusting and aggressive attack – and sexual assault.

The Regional Crown Prosecutor for Bedfordshire advises officers and staff to give the same amount of attention to their own witness statements as to those of other victims, and to provide Personal Impact Statements to the court.

The Chief Constable of Bedfordshire police has agreed to supply a supplementary Personal Statement in the event of any serious assault, detailing its impact on the Force and colleagues, to add weight to the argument for the maximum penalty.

But this kind of good practice is weakened without the legislation to back it up. That’s why this Bill is so important.”

NHS Waiting Times Abandoned

A number of constituents have contacted me to express concern about the Government’s mandate to NHS England for 2018-19, which confirmed that flagship waiting times targets for planned and emergency care have been abandoned for another year.

I share these concerns about the Government’s sustained underfunding and mismanagement of our NHS. NHS England recorded the worst ever A&E performance this winter, with over 1,000 patients being stuck on trolleys for over 12 hours and a 515% increase in patients waiting over four hours, compared with 2011.

The Government’s mandate has not set objectives for either the 18-week referral to treatment target nor the four-hour A&E target to be met within the year. I believe this is a clear admission by Ministers that they are failing to properly fund and resource our NHS.

Despite the very best efforts of our brilliant NHS staff, patients and their families will understandably be concerned by the downturn in standards. It is completely unacceptable for anyone needing urgent treatment to be turned away – patient safety must be an absolute priority – yet ambulance diverts have reached record highs as A&E departments nationwide are under relentless pressure.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) has said patient care will continue to suffer unless funding for healthcare is increased on an urgent basis. In its report, Vision 2020, the RCEM calls for an additional 2,200 A&E consultants, 100 extra training places annually for four years, and more hospital beds.

Labour’s 2017 General Election manifesto pledged an additional £45 billion in the NHS and social care system to give patients the well-resourced services they need. The manifesto also outlined a long-term workforce plan to ensure safe staffing levels and to give staff the support they need. I believe this would have ensured the standards of service to which patients are legally entitled under the NHS constitution, prevented the routine breach of safe levels of bed occupancy, and guaranteed the four-hour A&E target.

I will urge the Government at every opportunity to give the NHS the funding it needs to ensure our health service remains a world class service all year round.

Alfie Dingley: Medical Cannabis Use Plea

A petition was handed in to Government on 20th March calling for six-year-old Alfie Dingley to be granted a special licence to use medical cannabis. I sympathise profoundly with the situation he and his family are facing, and with others who are in search of the most effective treatment or pain relief for medical conditions.

Alfie’s life is blighted by up to 30 violent epileptic seizures a day. He and his family travelled to the Netherlands where Alfie took a cannabis-based medication, which his family claim significantly reduced the number of seizures he experienced. It is understandable that his family want him to have whatever medication they feel will help him. I believe Ministers must ensure that all evidence relating to Alfie’s case has been examined and that all avenues of treatment are being considered to ensure that Alfie has the best possible quality of life.

This case is the latest in a long line of examples that have led to more calls for legislation to permit the medical use of cannabis, and while I do not agree with legalising cannabis for general use, I believe the Government should look carefully at the case for the use of cannabis or cannabis products as a medicine.

Currently, cannabis and cannabinoids are classified as a Class B controlled drug (depending on individual circumstances, Class B drugs carry up to 5 years in prison and an unlimited fine for possession, and up to 14 years and an unlimited fine for supply and production), and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 list cannabis as “a drug with no recognised medicinal uses outside research”. I believe that where there is evidence, the Government should consider the case for trials and the potential rescheduling of cannabis. This could enable its availability for use in healthcare in the UK.

The Government has said it is exploring every option within the current regulatory framework, including options of issuing a license to the family of Alfie Dingley. I will follow the Government’s progress closely.

Putnoe Walk in Centre

I have received many letters expressing concerns about the potential closure of Putnoe Walk in Centre.

The original proposal was for the creation of an Urgent Treatment Centre at Bedford Hospital to be completed in March , with the aim that this would be an enhanced walk in service in a more central location. They had intended to close the walk in element of the Putnoe Medical Centre as part of these plans.

Bedfordshire CCG tell me that they are required to provide this facility on the hospital site – it is ‘nationally mandated’  and has to be located next to hospital facilities– But providing an urgent treatment centre on the hospital site raises a number of questions to which I do not yet have an answer, including whether encouraging people to visit an already-crowded hospital site, with the Accident and Emergency facilities in the same area, would actual reduce the pressure on the existing A&E, and whether sufficient parking can be provided on the hospital site.

It would appear that the proposal to close the Walk in Centre, has, at least temporarily, been paused. The CCG are looking at how they can provide extended hour services for patients across the area and tell me that they have taken on board the overwhelming opposition to removing walk in facilities. Together with Labour Councillors, I am pressing for this facility to remain in Putnoe, and for other walk in facilities to be provided throughout the constituency. They are a vital service .

Along with Labour colleagues in Parliament, I will continue to make the case to Government that they need to tackle the crisis in NHS Funding and give our health service the money it needs to provide world class care, to stop privatisation and reinstate bursaries for trainee nurses, and to allow plans for the creation of Accountable Care Organisations proper democratic scrutiny at all levels.