Last week I sent out a newsletter focusing on the current emergency. A week later, with the country in lock-down, needs are growing rapidly and services are changing all the time. I thought it would be helpful to keep you updated with sources of help and information, ways to help and some of the issues my office and I have been dealing with. It can’t cover everything, but I hope it is of some use.
Here is the latest information on sources of advice and assistance:
If you need help, or are asking for help for another person in Westminster:
Call the hotline on 0207 641 1222
Or use the Coronavirus pages on the Westminster City Council website:
Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau:
including Universal Credit and benefits advice:
0300 330 1191
Official Government Advice
Coronavirus (COVID-19): what you need to do.
National Health Guidance
Guidance and updates from the NHS on the coronavirus outbreak.
Mayor of London
Get the latest information and guidance for those living and working in London.
Get coronavirus support as an extremely vulnerable person.
My staff and I are at work as usual, working remotely, replying to emails and picking up phone messages. We are not experts, let alone lawyers, so often have to refer people to other sources of help. We are also too small an office to be an emergency service, but we will continue to do our best to help with constituents. I’ve also been in Parliament asking questions, writing to Ministers and working on my Select Committee.
Here are some of the issues I have been raising and dealing with this week.
Parliament has now backed the the Coronavirus Act, a huge and far-reaching law of that gives the state more power than at any time outside war that any of us can remember. There is hardly any area of life it does not affect. Of course emergency powers are unavoidable given the scale of the emergency, but I did not think these powers should last for 2 years. I was, therefore, a lead signatory on an amendment put forward by my committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to limit the Act to 6 months without new Parliamentary authority. I am pleased to say the Government agreed to this.
The Government also agreed to an amendment requiring local authorities to consult with faith groups particularly in respect of burial arrangements for Jewish and Muslim communities, which I know was a huge concern for many people locally.
People trapped abroad
I have had constituents, or their families, contact me from Australia, Peru, Morocco, Spain, Kosovo and from cruise ships…My staff and I have been working with the Foreign Office and consulates abroad where possible to help them return.
The self-employed, freelancers and people working in the ‘gig economy’ on zero hour contracts
The Government rightly introduced a package of measures to help employers keep their staff on payroll where possible by underwriting up to 80% of wages (up to a cap) but I and my colleagues have been pressing hard in Parliament for a similar scheme to help those who are in other types of work. People whose incomes were already precarious are now finding themselves with no money at all. We now expect some proposals today and will be studying them in detail.
Private tenants and protection from eviction
Westminster has a higher % of residents in private rented property than anywhere else in the country, so I have been working very hard on the campaign for better protection against eviction for people whose income has been cut or lost due to coronavirus. The Government proposal only delays evictions by 3 months, and although I welcome increases in housing support and Discretionary Housing Payments we will need to do more.
Claiming social security benefits
Meanwhile half a million people have been forced to claim Universal Credit this week alone as unemployment is increasing dramatically. The Government have rightly increased the generosity of the payments. I know queues are very long and some people are struggling to make their claim.
A USEFUL TIP- if you are unable to complete your claim in one go because the system is overloaded, and worry that you may lose out because of this TAKE A SCREEN GRAB or print the screen in an email as evidence for back-dating.
Many temporary changes have been made to help people claiming or receiving benefits, details of which are here:
My colleagues are I are continuing to press for other improvements to the system, to improve the administration and make it more generous.
Self-isolation and overcrowded households
Many Westminster families are overcrowded, with 4 people in a 1 bed flat for example. Many are working, with key workers and NHS/care staff amongst them. Self-isolating is virtually impossible and following the guidance when one or more person gets sick is equally hard. Together with Meg Hillier MP I have called for a housing package on the lines used during previous crises, when Housing Associations could lease empty and unsold properties to relieve some of the pressure. This call has been backed by the National Housing Federation.
I met with Imperial NHS last week and am confident of their outstanding skill and expertise. However, there are many wider concerns about aspects of the Government’s preparedness, including the availability of testing, of adequate supplies of protective equipment, and pressures on staff generally. These have all been raised in Parliament and we will continue to check on progress.
All of this drives home the essential point: stay home and follow Government guidance on movement so we can slow down the spread of this virus and make sure the NHS is not overwhelmed.
We do, of course, want to reduce the impact on the economy as much as possible whilst giving priority to the importance of controlling the spread of the virus. Yet a number of constituents have been telling me about non-urgent renovations and other construction activity which is causing noise and distress to those self-isolating, adding to the pressure on the transport network and potentially risking the health of builders who can’t practice safe distancing. I’ve written to the Minister and this issue has been raised in Parliament.
Tube use was down 88% on a year ago today and the number using buses down 76%, so the message is getting through – let public transport be safe for NHS and other key workers wherever possible, and for others, try to avoid rush hours.
Support for small businesses
Boroughs will be responsible for distributing some key grants for businesses. On Monday the Government issued new advice on these grants to help small business and the retail, leisure and tourism sectors. The grants amount to £10,000 for small businesses and either £10,000 or £20,000 for retail and leisure sector businesses. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has published updated guidance for local authorities which is available here.
Food supplies and price hiking
The Government are confident about food and other supply lines being maintained so there is no need for panic buying (although it is worth mentioning that some extra demand on stores reflects the closures of all the cafés and places where people eat out, school meals etc).
Some shop owners have behaved badly in hiking prices for scarce items and we are flagging this with the Council’s Trading Standards officers (though be aware they are very stretched). The Competition and Markets Authority is also warning of action in cases of profiteering.
Here are some useful ways to report examples you come across:
Westminster Council Trading Standards – via their Report It app on the website
National Consumer helpline 0808 223 1133
Competition and Markets Authority 0203 738 600
School meal replacements
I have also heard from constituents whose children ordinarily receive free school meals who are concerned that they will struggle to provide an alternative whilst schools are closed. The current Government advice is that schools will have different approaches to how they currently provide free meals to disadvantaged children, using one of these routes:
· an in-house catering team
· a local authority catering service
· a private catering provider
Therefore the steps taken to support pupils during the COVID 19 crisis might be different depending on the individual circumstances of the school. I have contacted Westminster Council and asked them to do a review of what provisions are being made and any additional assistance that may be needed.
It may also be helpful to know that the Government is also currently developing a national approach to providing support through supermarket and shop vouchers. Updates on this scheme will be provided on the Government website: www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance-for-schools
I have also been contacted by the food sharing app ‘OLIO’ who have developed an initiative to assist families ordinarily reliant on free school meals and others who may be struggling during the crisis. To ensure local families are fed during this difficult time. OLIO has launched a global #Cook4Kids campaign and you can find out about taking part here: www.olioex.com/cook4kids/
This emergency is bringing out the best in so many people – from our incredible NHS and care workers and other public servants to those who are volunteering and helping neighbours to the key workers keeping the country going, keeping the food supplied and served to us, and much more. We applaud them.
Unfortunately it is always true that some others will take advantage and use people’s vulnerability to commit fraud, so please do be aware of the risk and, if you are helping out, check the guidelines for safeguarding – the One Westminster website is very useful.
Finally, some more numbers and websites which might be helpful, and some ways to help or donate if you have the ability to do so:
Mind: 0300 123 3393
Samaritans: 116 123
Childline: 0800 1111
Domestic Violence hotline: 0808 2000 247
Talking to children about coronavirus:
North Paddington Foodbank
NHS Volunteer Army
Volunteers needed to help vulnerable people stay safe and well at home.
Sign up here
Donate to our local NHS
Donate to the Imperial Health Charity to help our local hospitals fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Wishing you all the very best through this difficult time.
Karen Buck MP
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