The past two years have been devastating for people across Dulwich and West Norwood: countless people have lost loved ones; thousands of people have lost jobs and income; children have been unable to go to school; and we have all experienced restriction on our lives and increased isolation. Throughout the pandemic, I have been working hard to ensure that the needs of our area are represented to Government and to provide support to every constituent who has been in touch.
It has long been clear in both the UK and across the world, that the best response to Covid-19 is to act decisively and quickly. However throughout the pandemic, we have seen a disappointing cycle of the Government waiting far too late to act and allowing the virus to spiral out of control. This in turn has led to increase hospitalisations and deaths whilst meaning harsher restrictions are necessary for longer. Along with my Labour colleagues, I have consistently called on the Government to follow the science and act sooner, for example by introducing a circuit breaker last October or reviewing the 2020 Christmas easing of restrictions when it was clear this would not work. It is extremely disappointing that the Government did not accept this advice.
I have also been pressing Ministers to act to improve the outsourced Test and Trace system. Identifying and isolating positive Covid cases and their contacts is essential in breaking the chains of transmission. Yet despite clear evidence that the outsourced system was not working and that local councils had a much higher success rate, the Government persevered with their privatised approach. As cases grew throughout the autumn it was clear that Test and Trace was overwhelmed by demand allowing many cases to fall through the gap. The Government cannot allow this to happen again.
I have repeatedly called for a long-term investment plan for the NHS and social care sector, funded by increasing taxation on the very wealthiest in society. The Labour Party is committed to investing an extra £37 billion into the NHS by increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners.
Thanks to the incredible work of scientists, the NHS and our local community we have made incredible progress since last year. However, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant across Lambeth and Southwark poses a serious risk. I will continue to closely monitor this situation press the Government to be led by the science and take the action needed to protect our community.
The vaccine rollout has been a beacon of hope for many people locally. I commend our local NHS for their incredible work to reach priority groups and deliver the vaccine at speed. I have visited local vaccine centres and it was great to see the fantastic work of staff and volunteers. The vaccines are our best chance of safely emerging from the pandemic. I am clear that the vaccine is safe and effective and would encourage all of my constituents to take the vaccine as soon as they are able to.
However, I remain concerned about the need for more work to reassure hesitant members of the public and to ensure everyone has access to the information they need to make an informed choice. Lambeth and Southwark have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country with many local people yet to come forward for their first dose. I have been pressing Ministers to invest in vital work to reach out to Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and to discuss any concerns about the vaccine. Our local councils in Lambeth and Southwark have arranged excellent outreach events and projects, but this vital work needs on-going support from the Government.
Staff at King’s College Hospital have worked tirelessly to treat Covid positive patients and maintain as many services as possible. I have been in close contact with leadership and union representatives at King’s and know how challenging the past year has been. At the start of the pandemic, I successfully lobbied Ministers to write off King’s debt to give the Trust more financial room to respond. I have also been pressing Ministers to ensure staff have access to the PPE they need.
As we emerge from the pandemic, I am continuing to campaign for the Government to give the Trust the long term sustainable funding it needs to plans for the future.
Care homes were left completely defenceless during the first wave of the pandemic following the Government’s catastrophic decision to discharge non symptomatic patients to care homes. Care home residents are at severely increased risk from the virus, whether due to age or disability. The Government’s reckless decision, whilst relieving immediate pressure on hospitals, allowed the virus to spread rapidly through homes. Alongside this staff had a much more limited supply of PPE and were struggling to access the testing and resources needed to isolate Covid-positive residents. This in turn led to a devastating number of deaths in the care sector.
As a co-chair of the APPG for Adult Social Care, I have met regularly with carers and care providers throughout the pandemic. It has been harrowing to hear their experience and I have been working to ensure their concerns are fully represented to the Government. I am clear that lessons must be learnt, and the care sector must now see the long-needed reforms to funding to protect social care in the future. Social care must also be put on a parity of esteem with the NHS: guaranteeing staff fair pay and conditions and recognising the vital importance of social care to our society.
Whilst I have no doubt that restrictions have been necessary, they led to many businesses being unable to trade for many months. This has led to severe hardship and lost income. At the start of the pandemic, the Chancellor was too slow to recognise the inevitable financial impacts meaning essential support, such as the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), was delayed. Since then, the Chancellor has stubbornly resisted extending support leaving my constituents in financial anxiety.
I have consistently called on the Chancellor to guarantee the schemes will continue throughout the crisis and provide much needed clarity long before schemes are due to end. We know that delays to extend the furlough scheme in October led to many avoidable redundancies. I have also been campaigning for action to support the many groups excluded from the furlough scheme and the SEISS. This includes freelancers, new starters and the newly self-employed, people who have taken parental leave recently, and the directors of small limited companies. I welcome the recent announcement of support for the newly self-employed, but this will still leave many of my constituents without help after a year of restrictions.
I am also lobbying the Government for more comprehensive support for the sectors most affected by restrictions. Industries at the heart of our local economy, including hospitality, entertainment and the arts, which have experienced the most disruption. These are valued local businesses which have a key role to play in our recovery. I have been lobbying the Government to provide tailored support which addresses the particular difficulties these sectors are facing and help them to bounce back.
Restrictions have been especially challenging for children and young people, who have seen their education and social lives upended over the past year. I have been in close contact with local schools throughout the year, and I know how hard teachers have been working to support their students. However, I am deeply concerned about the impact of these closures on the attainment gap.
Many students from low-income backgrounds have not had easy access to IT equipment and secure broadband to access remote learning. Since early in the pandemic, I have been lobbying Ministers to act to ensure every child has access to a laptop and the internet, but the Government has been shamefully slow to act. When I raised this issue in June 2020, shortly after schools briefly reopened, the Secretary of State dismissed my concerns refusing to even acknowledge the possibility of further closures. The Tories’ rhetoric was unfortunately hollow and wasted precious time to close the digital divide. I am proud that our local community and councils stepped up to crowdfund for devices, but the Government should not have abandoned vulnerable children in this way.
I was alarmed by the Government’s inability to plan ahead for the 2021 exam season. Before the shambolic release of grades in August 2020, I pressed Ministers to plan ahead for any disruption in 2021. Again, the Secretary of State rejected this suggestion repeatedly arguing exams would go ahead even when this was clearly highly unlikely. This left many students unsure of how they will be assessed, the content they would be expected to know or how to prepare. I wrote to the Minister many times on this issue and will continue to call for the action needed to ensure students are assessed fairly as Omicron continues to cause disruption in our schools.
As we emerge from the pandemic, students need support to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. Alongside additional tuition to cover missed learning, this must include intervention to address the mental health impacts of lockdown on young people and to ensure the pandemic does not leave an entire generation behind their peers.