The first week of the coronavirus lockdown, and many of us are having to get used to the new normal of staying at home and maintaining social distancing on the few occasions when we do go out. It can be a stressful and quite scary time, especially for those who live alone or who are especially vulnerable. Thank you to everyone who is doing so much to support them through this crisis.
While I am also now staying at home, I’m in constant contact with constituents and businesses in Brighton, and - though remote means - continue to hold the Government to account on its response. If you’ve contacted me for help and support, please do accept my apologies for the fact that it’s taking slightly longer than usual to real - my office is inundated with queries and concerns, and I’m trying to deal with them in order of urgency.
Support for the self-employed
We finally learned this week what support would be given to the self-employed, an incredibly important issue in Brighton and Hove where so many people run their own businesses and are self-employed. I was pleased to hear the Chancellor honour the commitment to give self-employed people similar levels of support to employed workers, but it is deeply worrying that the system may not be operational until early June. That means those who lost most if not all of their income in early March will have waited three months for support. We know the DWP is struggling to cope with the spike in demand for Universal Credit (which itself is a flawed system), so I will continue to press the Government on what can be offered to self-employed people now.
I was in parliament to raise this directly with the minister. I also joined 18 other MPs from across the House in writing a letter to the Chancellor calling for action to support the self-employed – you can read the letter in the New Statesman’s coverage of the story.
One of my concerns about the response to coronavirus (and has been since the first outbreak in Brighton in early February) has been over the need for clearer and more widespread Government communication. I raised this with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in the Commons and was very unimpressed when he just dismissed my question and offered to send me a poster.
Questions to ministers
I continue to table written questions to ministers, asking for detail about the support available, and pressing them to fill gaps where necessary. The questions have covered a wide range of issues related to coronavirus including support for people who are homeless or sofa-surfing; how businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector can be assured of access to insurance; access to the benefit system for self-employed people who now find themselves out of work because of coronavirus. You can find the questions, and ministers’ responses, on my website here.
I’ve been lobbying ministers to try to ensure that personal protective equipment (PPE) is available not just to NHS frontline staff, but to carers both in residential social care homes and for those looking after vulnerable people in their homes.
I have also urged the Government to ensure renters are protected during this epidemic. Those with mortgages are getting a three-month mortgage repayment “holiday”. People who rent also need support and guarantees that they will not lose their home while this epidemic is raging.
Repatriation of people stranded overseas
I'm receiving many desperate messages from constituents who are stranded abroad, unable to get home because many countries have closed their borders and aren’t permitting flights in or out. Some are running out of vital medication. I have repeatedly raised my concerns with Foreign Office ministers, including with the Foreign Secretary in the Commons, asking that the FCO act with greater urgency to ensure the safety and wellbeing of UK citizens abroad. You can read more about this issue, and what I am doing, on my website
I’m keeping in regular touch with the Chief Executive and leadership team at the Council, and with NHS bodies, picking up urgent issues to raise with Ministers. I met remotely with the Council’s leadership team to discuss the immediate pressures and responses to Covid-19. We spoke about the care and support for vulnerable people in Brighton and Hove, including accommodation for homeless people, adult social care and the city's capacity to deal with the outbreak. I will be having similar calls every week for the foreseeable future.
Mental health services in the city
I also spoke to Sam Allen, the Chief Executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust about pressures on mental health services in Brighton and Hove. It really was amazing to hear how the incredible nurses, doctors, NHS support staff, carers and domestic services staff have adapted in the crisis and are working flat out to continue to provide care and support to those most in need.
Community response in Brighton
The response in Brighton has been brilliant. So many neighbourhood groups have come together to help their local community, and organisations across the city are working to make sure those in need get help. I spoke to one such group on Thursday, the North Laine Community Association, who have about 100 volunteers, a dedicated phone and email, and are really doing amazing work.
Another fantastic initiative is providing food and cooked meals for NHS staff, to eat on shift or to take home. It’s a partnership involving local cafes, restaurants (which have all had to close), food vans and food producers. NHS staff are working so hard to keep us safe during this crisis, so it’s wonderful to be able to say thank you in this way. If you’d like to support Feed Our Healthcare Heroes, there’s a crowdfunder here.
It was good to see Brighton and Hove Albion too take a lead by offering free tickets to NHS staff and their families when the Premier League starts playing again.
We are all so indebted to everyone working in the NHS and all those who work as carers, and it was heartwarming and inspiring to join the many thousands who came out of their homes on Thursday evening to join a nationwide round of applause.
The community response to coronavirus has been one of the few candles in the dark of this crisis, revealing who we really are, and what we are capable of when we work together (something I wrote about in the Huffington Post). I’ve been working with a number of groups on how we harness this in the future so that what we have seen in recent days and week – the recognition of the important role of the state, the need to protect the most vulnerable etc – aren’t forgotten when this pandemic has passed into history. The five principles for a just recovery from coronavirus are equally relevant and important for other crises we face and will face in the future.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations
Before Parliament rose (early) for the Easter recess, I was able to introduce the Future Generations Bill in the House of Commons. This is an incredibly important bill which I am sponsoring alongside the Big Issue founder, John Bird, who has introduced it into the House of Lords. Its aim is to put the wellbeing of future generations at the heart of all policy-making, giving them a voice in today’s decision-making. You can read my speech here. There was also a letter in the Guardian from the co-sponsors of the bill.
Among the proposals are a duty on Government to publish national indicators that measure progress towards wellbeing goals; a duty on all public bodies to balance the needs of the present with those of the future; a focus on preventative action; and a requirement on companies to consider how their activities relate to the wellbeing of the UK.
Introducing this Bill during a national health emergency was not ideal. But the response to coronavirus has shown us what we can do when we have a common focus and a common purpose. We will need both of those to tackle the challenges ahead.
Divestment from fossil fuels
I have campaigned for several years for the Parliamentary Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels – a move which is more important than ever with the accelerating climate. When the Pension Fund’s annual report came out, I was pleased to see that the investment in renewable energy had risen, but it is still investing in BP and Shell, which has to stop. It is almost a year since Parliament declared a climate emergency. MPs’ pension fund has to fall into line with this. The story and my comments were covered in the Independent and Guardian as well as other media.