This period of lockdown across the nation feels like that strange annual period between Christmas and New Year; little difference between the days of the week or the routine. The big difference is that there are no expected or unexpected visitors likely to call, and this period will continue beyond the usual week.
For me the routine has been conference calls with Kent NHS, local council chiefs and the police for updates and input as to the situation locally and across Kent. I’ve had a couple of ‘Skype’ Public Accounts Select Committee meetings which were strained given varying internet connection qualities across the MPs around the country – lots of frozen screens and drop-outs. The current proposal for Parliament’s return is for a digital system for daily questions. Whatever the wonders of this new virtual world, it doesn’t entirely work and is no substitute for real face to face interactions. How we’d vote is yet to be solved.
The volume of constituency work has been overwhelming but according to time spent is mainly across four categories:
- Concern about obtaining food and supplies by those who are the most vulnerable. These have been referred to the local council community team and known volunteer groups and have been dealt with efficiently. The details of the 750,000 NHS volunteers are filtering down to local teams and are starting their work.
- Enquiries about how the support schemes for employers, employees and the self-employed will work and when. Whilst the schemes work for the majority, there are many at the edges for whom these schemes do not quite fit. Those who had left one job to start another face difficulties. There is the problem for directors of typically smaller companies who have traditionally taken a small payrolled salary and then dividends. The self-employed scheme is more generous but has a hard all or nothing edge at earnings of £50,000 and above. The loan scheme whereby banks will be indemnified by the government up to 80% of the loan value has not, to date been working well. To their credit, the government had to construct schemes from scratch within a week and then roll them out.
- Repatriation of constituents stuck abroad. These cases have proven the most intractable. The government has created a £75m scheme to subsidise charter flights, asking people to pay some of the costs of repatriation where normal commercial operations have ceased. The giant Emirates airline stopped operations a couple of weeks ago causing huge dislocation with its status of monopolistic supplier across many unusual routes. I can only imagine the anxiety felt by many constituents stuck in a foreign country itself under lockdown. There has been no magic wand to solve these problems as no government can recreate an airline with hundreds of routes but constituents are gradually getting home.
- A huge variety of suggestions as to how the government has; got it right; got it wrong; the best way out of the lockdown and back to normality; the variety of oddities thrown up because of social distancing, abortion services being but one; complaints about the number of people out and about; the perceived lack of PPE at the frontline (a topic in itself); this shop or that had run out of a particular product line.
All are receiving researched and considered responses and information, but this is all far from normal.
We are obviously grateful that the Prime Minister, who had been seriously unwell, is now through the worst and recovering. This virus respects no boundaries or any person and so continuing the restrictions are the right thing to do until a plateau and decline of infections and deaths is clearly seen. I finish with a thought for those on the frontline working day in and day out to keep us safe and help the sick and vulnerable. They have earned the respect and thanks of the nation.