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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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World Mental Health Day: Students’ mental health should be a government priority

Today is World Mental Health Day and I am pleased that we are able to talk about mental health much more openly than ever before. However, this recognition of the need for mental health support has failed to be translated into funding for mental health services over the past decade.

It is especially important that mental health services are given the recognition and funding they need at this concerning time for people across the UK. I am especially concerned about students, in schools and universities, who have had to continue their education under stressful and unprecedented conditions with very little additional support.

Earlier this week I questioned the Minister for Health and Social Care on why schools have not been given additional mental health provisions upon returning after the COVID-19 lockdown.

In a survey of over 200 students in Erith and Thamesmead, 19% said they felt like their mental health had been negatively impacted as a direct result of COVID-19.

Schools returned in September but social distancing measures remain in place and children over the age of 12 are required to wear masks. These new measures will undoubtedly be a cause of worry for young people and schools should have been prepared with additional mental health provisions to help students deal with the added pressures of COVID-19 restrictions.

I first raised concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health in April after the majority of in person mental health services were stopped. Analysis by Young Minds reported that 80% of young people with existing mental health needs found that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.

Health Minister, Nadine Dorries MP, said on Tuesday that the Conservative’s Government mental health support investment “translates to 345,000 children and young people who will be able to access mental health support via NHS funded mental health services”.

We were already facing a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 60% of people referred to mental health services receiving no treatment at all.

One in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017, according to official NHS statistics – that is roughly three children in every classroom. The Government’s own figures fall short of providing support to all children and young people with mental health illnesses, leaving around 700,000 children who need it with no access to support.

The longer the Government ignores the need for more funding and better access to mental health services, the worse the crisis will go. I will be continuing to push the Department of Health and Social Care to act on this until everyone can access the support they need.

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Why I couldn’t support the Coronavirus Act

I have been contacted by dozens of constituents about the Coronavirus Act that was debated in Parliament yesterday. I fully understand and echo your concerns about many areas of this Bill, such as the suspension of the Care Act and Children and Families Act and, the extra powers afforded to police.

During the previous six months I have worked closely with local organisations and constituents to fully understand the impacts of COVID-19 on different communities and protected characteristics. In my report ‘Leaving Nobody Behind in Erith and Thamesmead’, published in August, I detailed the appalling impacts of the suspension of the Care Act for disabled people.

My report also details the impacts of fines and extended police powers under the Coronavirus Act which have disproportionately affected Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people.

The public have been overwhelmingly supportive of restrictions brought in to tackle the virus but a lack of clarity and constantly changing rules has seen cases rise again across the UK. Moving forward we need effective communication from the Government about how the public can continue to act in the best interests of everyone’s safety, not an extension of a Bill which removes people’s rights.

I am pleased that Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has announced that he will consult Parliament and hold votes where possible regarding future measures relating to COVID-19. I am also pleased that Matt Hancock MP confirmed that easements in the Mental Health Act have not been used and will not be used in the future.

However, the Government have failed to provide a level of confidence needed to be entrusted which such extensive powers. MPs were denied the opportunity to vote on amendments which would have removed dangerous Schedules from this Act such as Schedule 21. We were also constrained to a 90 minute debate meaning I was unable to represent the views of the many constituents who have contacted me in Parliament.

Whilst I wholly agree that legislation is needed to introduce restrictions in response to rising coronavirus cases, this legislation mandates for far greater powers than is necessary. Not only has this legislation created a situation where people’s rights are removed without debate, it has also removed their access to justice where these powers are misused.

I met with Inclusion London earlier this week who raised serious issues over the consequences of the inclusion of Schedule 12 and Schedule 15 of the Coronavirus Act.

Over the previous six months, eight local authorities in England officially declared easements under the Coronavirus Act. No assessment has been made of the effects of these easements on disabled people and, the Local Authorities failed to provide any evidence that the high threshold for turning on the easement in their area had been reached.

Inclusion London have collected further evidence which shows that Local Authorities have suspended care services without officially declaring easements.

One man who has PTSD and agoraphobia had an operation in February but was offered no care “because of the virus”. His cleaner stopped coming and he was forced to sleep on the settee and to urinate in a bottle.

The Government was warned time and time again that the introduction of this Act would see the rights of disabled people removed. Yet still no measures put in place to assess the impacts of the suspension of the Care Act on disabled people and ensure that those impacted had access to legal routes of complaint.

A lack of clarity around legal requirements and access to justice is a running theme in complaints about this Bill. Earlier this week I met with the Law Society who recently carried out a report into the impact of emergency COVID-19 measures on access to justice for vulnerable people.

People have been threatened with or issued fines for failing to follow regulations which are unclear and which Members of this Conservative Government have failed to follow themselves.

These fines have been disproportionately targeted at Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, the same group that have failed to be protected from the virus by this Government.

I agree that some measures in this Act are necessary to ensure public safety going forward but many are dangerous and wholly unnecessary. It is for this reason I could not support the Coronavirus Act in full and abstained on the vote.

I have followed up my concerns with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and asked that he guarantees that easements of the Care Act and Children’s and Families Act will not be turned on again in the future.

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Get Ready For September – Thanks for taking part

The Get Ready For September summer programme has come to an end after a successful month of online events and discussions.

Earlier this year, I reached out to students, parents and teachers to ask your views on the impact COVID-19 was having on education. I received hundreds of responses in which the majority of students said they felt their education had been negatively affected. Over half of you also said you felt unprepared for upcoming exams and almost 20% said they felt their mental health had suffered.

I followed this up with a letter to the Education Minister Gavin Williamson MP, outlining concerns and suggestions. Unfortunately, it became clear the Government was not taking the impacts on young people’s education seriously. Whilst some students continued to struggle to access educational materials the Government oversaw the devastating A-Level results day scandal.

Where the Conservative Government has failed to step up, I’m pleased that the community of Erith and Thamesmead were willing to offer their support. Throughout August I partnered with dozens of local service providers to offer a series of online educational events to students and families in Erith and Thamesmead.

FlavRcise, a family friendly dance fitness class, offered free online lessons every Saturday throughout August to help get young people get active in their own homes. Paola Scandurra, from ScandurraConsulting delivered an excellent course on self-care and boosting your mental wellbeing. Funk Butcher, Tamara Hunter and Active Horizons joined us for an interesting discussion about Black Lives Matter and what it means for students.

Martha Mingay, a student and University teacher, stepped up to offer much needed support on results day with advice about applying through Clearing and what to expect at University. With future prospects in mind Cllr Anthony Okereke and Sochima Ikpa offered a group careers advice session and extra one to one support opportunities.

The programme, aimed at engaging students and families in educational events and discussions, was also targeted at students who have faced barriers in accessing education. Greenwich Council joined the programme to offer 1000 free printed worksheets to students facing barriers with technology.

The Get Ready For September summer programme truly echoed the community spirit we have seen rise during the past few months. As the Member of Parliament for Erith and Thamesmead I am pleased to have been able to harness the amazing talent and compassion in the constituency to provide students with access to spaces for learning and discussion.

Thank you to all students, parents, teachers and service providers who made this programme possible, enjoyable and informative. Best of luck to all students on your return to school!

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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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Our carers need us, we must Care for Carers

During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen the value and need for our care staff more acutely than ever before.

I am so incredibly proud and humbled by the dedication and hard work I have seen the NHS staff and care workers in Erith and Thamesmead display throughout this virus. They have been the people that have kept us safe in this pandemic, but for many this has come at a personal cost.

In 2019 nearly 5 million working days were lost due to poor metal health, up to 30% of NHS staff absence is stress related, the British Medical Association have stated that 41% of doctors suffer with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions relating to their work.

The people looking after us during COVID-19 deserve better than this. This is why I am supporting the Labour Party call for a ‘Care for Carers’ package of mental health support for 3 million NHS carers and staff.

A Care for Carers package would launch a new national hotline, staffed by paid professionals and available 24 hours a day. It would provide follow-up support, treatment and specialised help for people with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unless our staff are protected, they cannot continue their vital work of keeping us all safe.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis the Government failed to protect our Carers physical health with adequate PPE, as we move forward let’s not fail to protect their mental health.

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Events industry needs Government support to survive

Last week I requested to speak in the House of Commons chamber about the urgent need for Government support for the events industry. Unfortunately, I was not called to speak directly about the pressing concerns many constituents have contacted me to raise over the past two months. However, I am aware of your concerns and difficulties and I will be raising these with the Government at every possible occasion. 

A huge amount of people in Erith and Thamesmead have been impacted by the Government’s failure to offer economic assistance to the events industry during COVID-19.

From the very beginning of lockdown I have received daily emails about the events industry, theatres, the hospitality sector and the creative sector. People who have worked in these industries, contributing to the UK’s economy for years, have been completely abandoned by this Government.

Despite efforts made by myself and colleagues to raise these issues with the Government ask that more support be given, I have unfortunately had to respond to constituents informing them that there is no support package available and the Government doesn’t seem to want to support them.

The Government needs to provide a sector specific support package for the cultural sector; theatres, music, festivals, other live performance venues, but also tourism and hospitality sectors which are inextricably linked.

The events sector is worth £42.3 billion to the UK economy, there are over 25,000 businesses and it sustains 570,000 full time jobs.

There is a reason 35% of the UK visitor economy is accounted for by events. That is because the events industry pulls together the best talent in a whole range of areas. Behind every festival is a team of marketers, performers, hospitality staff, transport operators, event organisers and UK music venues.

Almost every UK music festival has been cancelled this summer, music venues across the country have been unable to open for three months and are unsure of when they can begin to open again, hundreds of thousands of hospitality jobs have already been lost and the industry has warned of thousands more.

What steps is the government taking to support venues which will be unable to open for the foreseeable future, such as music venues and theatres, and therefore unable to subsidise the furlough scheme from August?

If the Government doesn’t act to save businesses and jobs before they are lost we are going to see a huge hole in the economy where our world renowned events industry used to thrive. The Government must act urgently to support people in these industries to avoid a loss of jobs, talent and culture across the UK.

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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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We need free school meals to ensure ‘holiday without hunger’

I’ve called on the Government to fund free school meals this summer to ensure a ‘holiday with hunger’.

Today, on 15th June 2020, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education demanding he reverses his decision to withdraw funding for free school meals over the summer holidays as part of Labour’s ‘Holiday without Hunger’ campaign.

In Erith and Thamesmead 3,759 children are at risk of going hungry this summer as the government withdraws support for the provision of free school meals. The added pressure of the coronavirus crisis is plunging families into deeper poverty. Social distancing rules have also raised questions on whether holiday lunch schemes may run, leaving many families rightly concerned about how they will afford food during the summer holidays.

Children must not go hungry this summer, as the Covid-19 crisis hits family incomes and charities and food banks struggle to provide the same level of holiday support. The government has to continue funding free school meals throughout the summer holidays. It is callous that they are refusing to do so.

Labour’s ‘Holiday without Hunger’ campaign launched on Sunday 14th June. For more information click here: http://labour.org.uk/holidayswithouthunger/

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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.”