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Local health and care heroes nominated in NHS Parliamentary Awards

The NHS Parliamentary Awards, sponsored by Fuji Film, were set up for the NHS’ 70th  Birthday to recognise the massive contribution made by the individuals who work in and alongside the NHS.

This year, more so than ever before, the NHS Parliamentary Awards highlight how health and social care staff continue to put others ahead of themselves to protect our community.

I was among over 260 MPs in England who put forward outstanding nominees who have innovated, impressed and made a real difference to how local health and care services provide care for patients.

I’m pleased to have nominated Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice team for the Excellence in Healthcare award. The hospice team went above and beyond during COVID-19 to keep loved ones together and make sure vulnerable individuals were supported. I have to commend not just the team but the many volunteers who stepped up during this period in their work with Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice.

I am also pleased to have nominated Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust for the Wellbeing at Work award and Kate Hudson, Lead Dementia Nurse Specialist for the Care and Compassion Award. As individuals and as a team employees at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, these amazing key workers went above and beyond to offer online support services and staff wellbeing support during COVID-19.

Everyone in Erith and Thamesmead is rightly proud of our local NHS and care services, The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the determination and bravery of thousands of NHS, care and key workers across Erith and Thamesmead and so I’m delighted to be taking part in the NHS Parliamentary Awards as a way of thanking and recognising the people who work in or support those services.

Nominees put forward by MPs across England will initially be judged by senior local and regional NHS experts to find regional champions in each category, which will be announced later in November and will be featured in The House Magazine.

These regional champions will then be judged by a national panel made up of senior clinicians, union leaders, former winners and patient representatives, with the overall winners announced at a special awards ceremony held in Parliament on Wednesday 7 July – the week of the NHS’ birthday.

 

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Updated COVID-19 Measures for gyms and places of worship in Erith and Thamesmead

On Wednesday I joined my colleagues in voting to support an England wide lockdown. Valuable time has been lost when Labour’s call for an earlier circuit breaker would ultimately have benefitted the public health and the economy.

Whilst I am in support of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed this winter, there are many questions that the Government must answer.

Once again, these new measures were announced via different news sources causing anxiety and confusion for people across England. When the Prime Minister finally addressed the country on Saturday his announcement was lacking basic necessary information about support available for businesses and individuals.

If the public’s health is to be protected then the Government must address the ongoing mental health crisis which has been exacerbated throughout 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Constituents have rightfully raised their concerns about the closure of places of worships, gyms and sports clubs.

For so many people, attending collective worship is an act that serves multiple purposes. It can be a respite from everyday life, a chance to engage with a like-minded community and an opportunity for spiritual connection. I know that around Erith and Thamesmead, faith leaders have been working incredibly hard to ensure that their places of worship are safe places to meet and worship.

Similarly, I know gyms and sports clubs have spent months putting safety measures in place to ensure people can remain active in a safe way. Gyms and sports clubs provide a vital service for people to engage in activity that is beneficial for the physical and mental wellbeing.

The decision to close these places should not be taken lightly and yet the Government had no communication with faith leaders and gym owners prior to announcing the England wide lockdown.

The lockdown measures came into force at midnight on Wednesday 4th November and remain in effect until at least Wednesday 2nd December. Where the Government did not communicate with these clubs and organisations before, they must now urgently begin discussions about an exit strategy.

Labour is calling for the Government to hold weekly meetings with the Places of Worship Taskforce to ensure faith leaders are consulted with and provided with support ahead of important festivals.

I will be urging for a much stronger level of communication between the Government and the public as well as a boost in access to mental health services to protect people whilst they are cut off from access to wider services and outlets.

 

Latest guidance for places of worship:

  • Places of worship (including non-religious buildings used for religious services) are to close from 5th November.
  • They may remain open only for individual/private prayer, funerals, for the broadcasting of services, and for the purpose of providing voluntary services such as foodbanks.
  • Funerals may continue with up to 30 guests.
  • Weddings are not permitted (except under the most extreme circumstances).

Latest guidance for gyms and sports clubs:

Leisure and sports facilities such as leisure centres and gyms, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, golf courses, fitness and dance studios, climbing walls, archery, driving, and shooting ranges are all included in the list of businesses and venues which must close.

 

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Update on London COVID-19 restrictions

London has been placed into Tier two COVID restrictions in response to the rising number of cases.

I met with Government Ministers and Scientific Advisors today, 15th October, and can assure you that the following information is up to date and correct.

Please be advised that these restrictions apply to all constituents in Erith and Thamesmead.

We are now in Tier Two of the Government’s three tiered approach to local lockdown. This means we must all adhere to the following rules:

  • you must not socialise with anybody outside of your household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • You must not socialise in a group of more than 6 outside, including in a garden or other spaces like beaches or parks (other than where specific exemptions apply in law)
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law
  • Certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors. These will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with or share a support bubble with, or for youth or disability sport
  • You can continue to travel to venues or amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but should look to reduce the number of journeys you make where possible

Full details about the restrictions are in place if you live in an area where the local COVID alert level is high. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/local-covid-alert-level-high

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London Challenge Poverty Week – we must act now

This week is London Challenge Poverty Week and it is, unfortunately, clear to see that London, alongside the rest of England, is moving backwards in tackling poverty.

In Erith and Thamesmead 41% of children are growing up in poverty which has a devastating long-term impact on children’s mental, physical and education well-being. This cannot be acceptable, and it cannot be ignored.

In 2019, Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that millions of people in the UK are struggling to access their basic human rights, highlighting how so many have been forced into extreme poverty. The report found that women, disabled people and children are disproportionately impacted by poverty.

The impacts of long ignored poverty have been felt even harder during COVID-19 and it is clear that the most vulnerable in society are being hit the hardest. I released a report in August detailing the impacts of COVID-19 on protected characteristics in Erith and Thamesmead after receiving hundreds of emails from people seeking help.

One constituent emailed me due to facing the risk of eviction, they said:

“I am writing this email seeking for support regarding housing because myself and my son are being threatened with homelessness.

I have been going through some housing issues with my landlord’s son since last year who requested that I vacate the property… I was then issued with a Section 21 notice after the end of my tenancy.

My current rent is lower than the normal rent value and getting another accommodation that is affordable has been challenging because I am on low income.”

The average private rent in Erith and Thamesmead consumes 75% of an average single woman’s earnings. The affordable housing crisis and lack of support for renters throughout the pandemic is just one way in that vulnerable people are being pushed further into poverty.

The Trussell Trust anticipate giving out six parcels every minute between October and December this year. However, poverty if not a new phenomenon in London caused by COVID-19, it is an issue that has been massively increasing over the past decade.

Food bank use has doubled across London over the past five years and 72% of families living in poverty are in work.

Despite these startling figures, the Government has refused to accept that urgent action needs to be taken to tackle the growing poverty rates and issues surrounding them.

In June I called for a pay rise for public sector healthcare workers, arguing that poverty contributes to worsening mental health in the workforce; but this was denied by the Government.

In September the Conservative Government was forced into a U-turn on providing children with free school meals over the summer holiday amidst growing child poverty concerns.

Last year London spent over £733m on temporary accommodation for the 57,000 homeless households, including 80,000 children, while over 125,000 homes were either empty or unavailable for rental/purchase across the capital.

It is clear that the Government are ignoring their responsibility to protect people in the UK by allowing millions of vulnerable families to fall into poverty, homelessness and hunger and now more than ever the Government must step up to protect people.

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Pre-budget statement offers little hope for people in Erith and Thamesmead

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, detailed his plans to protect jobs and boost the economy today but despite big spending pledges the announcement offers little support for people in Erith and Thamesmead.

Concerned business owners and employees in the creative and beauty industries were expecting to hear details about when they can expect to see business get back to normal today, but the Chancellor’s package managed to completely ignore these important issues. Instead of offering flexible support packages to businesses still closed or operating a reduced service, the Chancellor has offered bonus’ to those that manage to survive the crisis.

Rishi Sunak MP clearly hasn’t had to read the hundreds of emails a day that myself and many other MPs are receiving from business owners on the brink of collapse and constituents struggling to feed their families.

One constituent has been in contact with me with concerns about their beauty business, they said:

“My profession, my reputation and my business is at stake. The action of reopening my beauty business is not from a profit perspective, it’s survival.”

Knowing that if they survive and manage to retain staff for a further 6 months they can claim £1000 from the Government, will offer little solace to many small business owners across Erith and Thamesmead at this point.

Plans announced for the hospitality and tourism sector today, one of the few industries that were acknowledged, reveal a Government that does not understand the extent of the health and economic crisis we are in. The Chancellor’s 50% off meal deal does little to support a hospitality industry that were looking forward to a robust new deal.

The Government’s failed contact tracing app and confusing messaging throughout the crisis has done little to calm public fear regarding the spread of the virus, with a second wave still a looming possibility. The hospitality and tourism industry is unable to re-open at the capacity levels needed to sustain struggling businesses without a thorough test and trace system – none of the Chancellor’s measures address this.

Millions of job losses are predicted for the coming months and whilst plans to create new jobs are welcomed, many will still find themselves on Universal Credit for the first time. Over 12,000 jobs have been furloughed in Erith and Thamesmead and unemployment rose by an unprecedented 2% between March and April.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been promised a £1 billion investment to support schemes and services which help people back into work. Again, this will offer little comfort to the thousands of people applying for Universal Credit for the first time who will be expected to survive on a reduced household income. The return of benefit sanctions, whilst vulnerable people remain exposed to the virus and businesses remain closed, demonstrates the lack of understanding and compassion offered by the Government to those struggling financially from the crisis.

If people in Erith and Thamesmead are to feel the benefits of government investment and feel supported through the upcoming period of economic instability, support needs to be targeted locally, with a net-zero target in mind and with long lasting benefits. The Labour Party are calling for four tests to be met in regards to economic support:

  1. Projects must involve local firms, upskill the local workforce and lead to material improvement in the quality and availability of local employment
  2. The Chancellor must rebuild economic resilience right across the entire country and protect those institutions, like local authorities, that can help deliver that resilience
  3. Every single project must be consistent with the drive to net-zero so we can build the green jobs of the future
  4. Any benefits of investment now must be cancelled out by poor decisions later. The Conservatives promised at the last election there would be no rises in income tax, national insurance or VAT. We need the economy to bounce back from the crisis, so there’s money in the coffers to protect public finances.

The people of Erith and Thamesmead deserve a better economic deal for jobs from the Government, to survive the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Parents and students give their views on schools re-opening in Erith and Thamesmead

Following the announcement that Primary Schools would be expected to re-open to some students on June 1st, I reached out to parents and students to ask for their views.

Greenwich and Bexley NEU had previously expressed their concerns that “it is not safe to begin a wider reopening of schools on June 1st”. I also met teachers from schools across Greenwich and Bexley to discuss concerns about lack of additional resources in the case of illness, lack of space to implement social distancing and a lack of clarity about safety guidelines.

The debate around schools re-opening attempts to weigh up the concerns around the safety of students gathering in close proximity with the overall effects on young people’s education. As we near the three month mark of schools being closed, there are concerns that the already large attainment gap between students from different backgrounds is widening.

I am aware that there are lots of safety concerns regarding schools re-opening but I feel those affected by the decision are best placed to offer advice on how to proceed. I’ve been able to talk to unions and teachers and thought it was equally as important to hear from parents and guardians and local school students about their thoughts.

Almost 600 people took the chance to express their views in the online surveys, with a majority raising concerns about schools re-opening. Of the 305 parent/guardian survey responders, 65% said they did “not think it was safe for children to be back at school” or needed more “reassurance about safety”. Of 250 local school student responders to the survey, 50% said they were “concerned about schools opening” and only 21% said that “schools should be opening”.

The survey also asked about experiences of home schooling – 78% of parents said they had a relatively positive experience of home schooling and 65.3% of students said they were looking forward to returning to school.

I’m pleased that so many people took part in the survey and I will now be able to accurately reflect the general feeling about schools re-opening in Parliament. The survey has shed light on some issues, such as concerns about future exams, effects on mental health and a decline in the amount of time young people have spent studying.

I am pleased to see that the majority have had a positive experience with home schooling but I also know there are some who have found this experience very difficult and it will be extremely important that the Government supports teachers and families in easing students back into education.

I have since called on the Government to consider additional support for mental health needs and ensuring that a thorough assessment into the needs of vulnerable children and the attainment gap is given consideration.

It remains unclear when schools will re-open after new concerns have been raised that Secondary schools may not be ready to re-open by September.

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Carers Week 2020: making carers visible

An extra 4.5 million people across the UK have taken on unpaid caring responsibilities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This is on top of the 9.1 million unpaid carers who were already caring before the outbreak, bringing the total to 13.6 million.

Unpaid carers are consistently undervalued by the Government and unrepresented in health and social care policy changes. Carers save the economy £132 billion per year, an average of £19,336 per carer, with 1.3 million providing over 50 hours of care per week. According to Carers UK, 600 people give up work everyday to care for an older or disabled relative.

I am sure these figures will shock many people as they are publicised during this week but the realities of being an unpaid carer are lived everyday by millions of people. Being an unpaid carer can be socially isolating and cause physical and mental health problems.

  • 72% of carers responding to Carers UK’s State of Caring 2018 Survey said they had suffered mental ill health as a result of caring
  • 61% said they had suffered physical ill health as a result of caring
  • 8 in 10 people caring for loved ones say they have felt lonely or socially isolated

As well as the health and social challenges faced by unpaid carers, millions are also facing daily financial hardship. Carer’s Allowance is the main carer’s benefit and is £67.25 for a minimum of 35 hours, this equates to just £1.92 an hour.

No one should have to face the choice between caring for a loved one or receiving a fair living wage for their work, yet hundreds face this choice every day.

Unpaid carers contribute massively to the economy and to the lives of the people they care for but they need much more than our gratitude. They need a fair allowance to be able to support themselves and family members whilst still caring for loved ones. They need support from the Government, including a National Care Service so that everyone can access high level care for free.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for carers both employed in the care sector and those taking on unpaid care responsibilities. If we continue undervaluing care work and failing to provide support systems for people as they get older, we risk pushing more people out of secure employment and into unpaid caring roles.

This National Carers Week 2020, I am pledging my support for unpaid carers – across Erith and Thamesmead and beyond.

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Update on the Sikh ethnic tick box – Census 2021

Earlier this year I voiced my support for the inclusion of a Sikh ethnic tick box on the Census 2021 following support shown for the tick box by residents in Erith and Thamesmead.

Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith MP, has recently confirmed that the ethnic tick box option will not be included in the Census 2021, despite representations from a number of MPs.

The national Census happens once a decade and information on ethnicity is used to help understand and allocate resources to 40,000 different public bodies. In the last Census 2011, more than 83,000 Sikhs rejected the 18 existing ethnic tick boxes and chose instead to tick ‘other’ and write ‘Sikh’.

In my speech to Parliament on May 6th 2020, I said:

“The ethnic group question on the census was introduced in 1991 to help public bodies to assess equal opportunities and develop anti-discrimination policies. The data is used by 40,000 public bodies to address their legal responsibilities under equalities legislation and to make decisions about the allocation of resources and the provision of public services. We can therefore conclude that, if Sikhs do not have an ethnic tick box option, their needs will not be properly monitored and assessed by public bodies. Just because discrimination is not properly monitored does not mean that it does not exist.”

Chloe Smith MP has written to myself and other MPs that made representations on behalf of the Sikh community in favour of the ethnic tick box, regarding the Census 2021.

Ms Smith said:

“The ONS will promote the write-in option in the Census ethnic group question, and the ability to self-identify as Sikh, through their marketing and communications campaigns. This will include promotion via Sikh news organisations and social media, with additional local field support to ensure anyone who wishes to identify as Sikh is confident in doing so.

I can also assure you that the ONS is committed to ensuring the availability of data on those who identify as Sikh, whether through the tick-box in the Census religion question or through the write-in option in the ethnic group question.

The ONS is committed to ensuring this is the most inclusive Census ever, in which everyone is able to identify as they wish. I hope that you will be able to help with their Census 2021 campaigns to ensure the best possible data on Sikh populations.”

It is disappointing that the Government did not take on board the comments made to Parliament making a strong case for the inclusion of the tick box. However, I am pleased that many MPs were able to shine a light on the great work by Preet Gill MP on the APPG for British Sikhs and that this issue has been given a voice a Parliament.

Despite the announcement that the Sikh ethnic tick box will not be included on the Census 2021, I will continue to listen to and support the Sikh community across Erith and Thamesmead.

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Erith and Thamesmead see unprecedented 2% unemployment rise

Unemployment has risen to unprecedented levels across the UK with Erith and Thamesmead seeing a rise in unemployment to 5.6% of the adult workforce, just above the average figure for the whole of London and the wider UK.

Centre for Cities, an independent research organisation, has been recording the rise in unemployment rates across the UK between March and April. Data recording the number of people applying for Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance shows and increase in unemployment of 850,000, taking the UK wide total to 2.1 million.

Between March and April 2020, an increase of 1,605 people applied for Universal Credit or Job Seekers Allowance in Erith and Thamesmead, a rise of 2%. The Royal London Borough of Greenwich has been affected slightly more than the London Borough of Bexley with a 0.2% higher uptake in this time period.

It is expected that the unemployment rates are likely to have risen between April and May but this data is not yet known. There are also disparities in the unemployment increases in different areas of the UK. London has an average unemployment rate of 4.9% compared with 5.6% in Erith and Thamesmead and 8.9% in Blackpool.

The reasons for differing increases in unemployment are not yet known but it is suspected that places that rely heavily on the most impacted industries such as hospitality, and where people are unable to work from home, have seen a greater impact.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to raise concerns about the rise in unemployment locally, I said:

“I am concerned that residents in Erith and Thamesmead will face increased difficulties compared to the wider region of London post-Covid-19 due to decreased local job opportunities and restricted travel routes around London. It is already evident that my constituents have felt more severe impacts compared with the rest of London, as unemployment has risen 0.7% higher than the London average.

Many local businesses have contacted me throughout this crisis detailing their financial hardship and inability to access the SEISS or Job Retention Scheme. As more businesses fall into financial hardship residents in Erith and Thamesmead will be faced with more job losses.

If the working age population in Erith and Thamesmead is going to recover from this crisis there will need to be a specific focus on boosting the local economy, improving transport links and supporting industries that have been hit particularly hard.”

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The Government must protect jobs in the aviation sector – starting with British Airways

British Airways announced they plan to cut up to 12,000 jobs as part of their response to economic losses due to COVID-19. I have joined London MPs in calling on the Director of IAG, Willie Walsh, to reconsider these plans and work with trade unions to develop a long-term strategy.

I’ve been contacted by several employees of BA, resident in Erith and Thamesmead, who are concerned about their future. It is irresponsible of BA to make these announcements at a time of financial hardship for many, without first consulting with staff, unions and local stakeholders. I have personally written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to ask that his department to make representations about these concerns to IAG.

Moving forward from the COVID-19 crisis we must look to protect as many jobs as possible and create a plan to help people re-skill and find new employment. The aviation sector has faced huge losses during COVID-19 as almost all flights have been completely grounded over the past two months.

I am pleased that MPs from across the political spectrum have been working hard on this issue and trying to engage the relevant bodies. However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, who is at the forefront of protecting jobs and businesses, do not appear to be as enraged as MPs representing constituents who will suffer if this goes ahead.

Huw Merriman MP secured an urgent question on June 3rd 2020, “to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on covid-19 and the economic impact on aviation”. Unfortunately, the Chancellor did not attend this debate to listen to concerns.

Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, raised concerns that more job losses were to come if we did not act, he said:

“This is a sector that contributes £22 billion a year to our economy, with 230,000 jobs across the industry and the manufacturing supply chain dependent on it. It needs to change to meet the challenge of climate change. So why did one industry leader tell the Transport Committee just a fortnight ago that the Government were ‘asleep at the wheel’?”

I will be continuing to make representations on behalf of my constituents and attempt to engage IAG and the Chancellor in this issue. In the meantime, if you have been personally affected by job losses in the aviation industry, please do get in touch at abena.oppongasare.mp@parliament.uk