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The shockwaves of the Coronavirus have entered nearly every part of our lives and have come, for now, to be our new reality.
Families are grieving the loss of beloved relatives and friends, and under circumstances that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago. People have lost their jobs, incomes and businesses, or at the very least, face crippling uncertainty about what the future will mean for them.
Extraordinary acts by ordinary people keep our NHS running, as well as other crucial public and private services, from home care to policing, driving buses to collecting rubbish, delivering supplies and serving in shops. Millions are trying to cope with the pressures of lockdown and some are understandably struggling, and will struggle, to cope.
And as the first phase – in which government, councils and charities raced to identify vulnerable people and ensure their needs were met- gives way to the longer haul through and out of lockdown, we will have to face the economic consequences. The Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that GDP could fall by a third, increasing the deficit by £220 billion, but there are still hopes that recovery could be both strong and fast.
There will be a vital debate to be had about the balance we strike when we prepare for the recovery- but for now the crucial task is to do whatever needs to be done to keep businesses in a position where they can resume their activity as quickly as possible, keep employees on the books and minimise unemployment, support self-employed people through the downturn and limit the hit on family incomes. We do not want to be finding our way out of the public health emergency only to have to cope with a crisis of debt, evictions and repossessions and all the physical and emotional stress that goes with it.
So while my Parliamentary colleagues and I support the Government on the broad direction of policy during the emergency, it is absolutely right that we continue to press for answers on:
- Public health, including progress on testing and the adequacy of the supply of protective equipment in all health and care settings. Community testing and contact tracing must be a key element in ongoing efforts to suppress the virus – using modern technology has to be part of that strategy.
- Getting help through to businesses to help them survive.
- Gaps in the safety net for the self employed
- Both the adequacy of, and the many flaws in the social security system, for Universal credit and sick pay to the free school meal voucher system.
What people are asking me about and what more needs to be done?
This is my 4th newsletter since the start of the COVID-19 emergency, and it is just to keep the list of sources of help and advice up to date and let you know about a few of the local issues I have been picking up in the last week. Scroll down for details of organisations who can provide help and advice on all aspects of COVID 19, benefits, housing, mental health as well as links to support and information for vulnerable people self-isolating at home, businesses and the self-employed.
Anti-social behaviour and the enforcement of the lockdown
On the positive side, there has apparently been a significant fall in crime, from burglary to serious youth violence, all of which is very welcome. However, police call-outs have increased significantly in the last weeks as a result of public concern over potential breaches, as well some as some hot-spot areas where there are pressures arising from housing for vulnerable people in the lockdown. I am in regular contact with the police and pass on concerns that are directed via me, although the specific actions taken are of course operational matters for them, reflecting both capacity and the interpretation of the powers under the Coronavirus Act. Nationally, police have issued 3,200 fines for alleged breaches of the laws designed to protect public health.
We are all as one in encouraging everyone to use parks and open spaces responsibly so they can continue to stay open as the weather improves – almost everyone in Westminster lives in a flat and we need the outdoors for our physical and mental well being.
As a member of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, I believe it remains essential that we continue to make sure that the response to the Coronavirus – now and as we move into the next stages, remains consistent with essential human rights.
You can see what work we are doing on this here.
Local health services
I keep in close touch with the team at Imperial, including St Mary’s, to hear how they are managing. I know we are all united in our thanks and gratitude to everyone working in the NHS and delivering care, and who, in some cases, have tragically now died whilst providing this essential service. Only this week we received the desperately sad news of the loss of Melujean Ballesteros, a nurse on the Douglas ward at St Mary’s since 2002- a reminder of the debt we owe to the many thousands of people whose front line work exposes them to such risks.
I am assured by Imperial that they continue to have capacity within the hospital, that stocks of essential protective equipment are good (though there is pressure on stocks of some items nationally), and they are continuing to expand the critical care capacity, including the number of ventilators.
Senior managers at Imperial also stress the importance of not delaying seeking hospital treatment for other, non-Covid related serious conditions.
Violence and abuse in the home
Sadly, the intense pressure of the lockdown is showing up in cases of domestic abuse, both in terms of police calls and at hospital. We urgently need a fuller package of support to help those at risk and fleeing violence, but it is also vital that we get the message out that support services do remain open and anyone at risk should ask for help.
A new campaign, under the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone, aims to reassure those affected by domestic abuse that support services remain available.
Further information is at www.gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help
The 24/7 National Domestic Abuse helpline, which offers support to victims and people affected by domestic abuse, is free to call on 0808 2000 247.
Call 999 in an emergency If you are in danger and unable to talk on the phone call 999 and then press 55.
Women’s Aid has provided additional advice specifically designed for the current COVID-19 outbreak, including a live chat service. Link here.
The Men’s Advice Line is a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and those supporting them. It can be contacted on 0808 801 0327.
If you are a member of the LGBT+ community, Galop runs a specialist helpline on 0800 999 5428 or email email@example.com.
Al- Hasaniya has a service for Arabic speakers 020 8969 2292
Concerns about non-essential building works
Having had a large number of complaints about on-going non-essential construction works, I took this up with the Government Minister responsible, and received this reply:
Construction plays a crucial role in supporting our public services, maintaining the nation’s infrastructure, and providing safe, decent homes for people to live in. Where construction sector workers cannot work from home, they should still go to work unless they are vulnerable or self-isolating.
However, the Government is clear that construction activity should only continue where it can take place in line with the social distancing guidance provided by Public Health England. The construction industry has issued Site Operating Procedures based on this guidance through the Construction Leadership Council to set out how this can be done. This document is available at: www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/news/site-operating-procedures-version-3-published/
Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the concerns of residents living next to noisy building sites, even when they are trying to self-isolate or are sick.
As neither Westminster Council nor they Mayor of London have any powers to close sites, all we are left with is this:
All sites in Westminster that are subject to Planning Permission will have a condition limiting the working hours from 08:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday, 08:00 to 13:00 Saturdays and not at all on Sundays or bank holidays
The Council’s Building Control Team are no longer servicing face-to-face Building Control Inspections. In place of visual inspections, sites must provide suitable and sufficient digital records (i.e. photos and videos) of the works. Building sites and their staff are subject to the same social distancing requirements as the rest of the population and should be taking these into consideration.
After hearing from Royal Mail about severe staff shortages due to self-isolation and sickness, I have been passing on details of postcodes in the constituency where residents have told me they have been waiting for two weeks or more for mail. This was with the intention of trying to make sure that, even if the service was reduced overall, we didn’t end up in a situation where some rounds simply weren’t covered at all. Judging from the number of emails in recent days, it seems as if the service is now stabilising but I will continue to raise concerns about particular streets or postcodes where these are brought to me.
I welcome any feedback from constituents on any of these services or on any other issue that is causing concern locally ( and, for that matter, on any positive experiences)
Help your local high street
It’s been a tough few years for retail in any case, with on-line shopping and the high costs of rent and Business rates but shops are going to face challenges on a scale they have never known before. This voluntary initiative is promoting small businesses that are still operating during the present emergency via vouchers, on line and similar services, in an effort to encourage and promote them. Do have a look:
We have set up www.helpyourhighstreet.org, a website that gives willing customers a simple way to support their favourite locals by listing businesses which are still selling gift vouchers, online orders, deliveries or takeaways. There are similar projects underway across the world, notably in California, New York and Germany. We are a volunteer run organisation and our services are entirely free to use; we make no money, and instead are driven by the desire to protect these smaller businesses that are a key part of our communities. Over 500 businesses are listed already, and more are added to the site every day. Shops can ask to be added to our list directly on our website and customers can let us know if their favourite shop is not included yet.
With our best wishes,
Merle and the Help Your High Street Team
Watch our for scams!
Sadly, whilst the majority of people are rising to the occasion during this emergency, fraudsters also see opportunities.
Westminster Connects are warning that some local residents are being called and asked for their bank account details by someone claiming to be from them. Westminster Connects will NEVER ask for your bank account details! Please be alert and spread the word.
HMRC have also said they have identified at lease 40 different scams where fraudsters claim to be from the government, mostly by text message. There is lots on their website to help you identify them.
- Genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN, password or bank details, or to withdraw money or transfer it to a different account.
- Don’t give out private information, reply to text messages, download attachments or click on links in texts or emails you weren’t expecting.
- Could it be fake? It’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.
- Check GOV.UK for information on how to recognise genuine HMRC contact and how to avoid and report scams.
- If you think you have received an HMRC-related phishing/bogus email or text message, you can check it against examples published on GOV.UK.
Furlough scheme dates extended
News just in: Several hundred thousand people were excluded from the Government’s furlough scheme, through which certain employers can claim up to 80% of their wages to keep an employee on the books whilst the business is unable to work. The cut-off date, previously Feb 28th, has now been extended to March 19th. It is understood that some 200,000 more people can now be covered by the scheme, although their employer does still need to have registered their employment with HMRC.
The Government’s business advice page has now moved to:
Meanwhile, my colleagues and I are continuing to press for further improvements to provision for the self-employed. I am very aware of the particular issues affecting London’s large creative sector, amongst others, and we must do everything we can to make sure this vital part of our national life and economy is helped to survive and recover.
Celebrating our volunteers and donors
One big positive from the last few weeks has been the generosity of so many local people, who have put their time, effort and where they can, money, into supporting their communities. Often this has been informal help for neighbours. Much is being done through our churches, synagogues and mosques. Others are formally organising through Covid Mutual Assistance Networks, the NHS volunteer programme and Westminster Connects. Still others are helping via a network of local groups, from the Avenues Youth Club to Queen’s Park Primary School, Queen’s Park Sports Hub and of course North Paddington Foodbank. I’ve been out myself helping deliver food and can see first hand how impressive this effort has been. A huge shout-out too to the Seashell restaurant in Lisson Grove and Ida in Kilburn Lane, both preparing and delivering meals to the NHS and the community- and I’m sure there are many others. All this will not be forgotten.
I wish everyone all the best through these intensely difficult times. My office remains open, with everyone working remotely and my staff and I are replying to queries and helping constituents as quickly as we can.
Wishing you all the very best through this difficult time.
Karen Buck MP
Where to go for advice and assistance
In the first instance if you need help or you know of anyone who needs help as a result of COVID-19: send the details to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7641 1222, open 8am to 10pm, 7 days a week. See the website here: https://www.westminster.gov.uk/westminster-connects
Go to them for help with:
- shopping for food/supplies
- delivering food/supplies to vulnerable residents
- picking up and delivering prescriptions
- having a friendly phone conversation with those at risk of loneliness when in isolation
- walking dogs for those self-isolating
- supporting with critical transport needs
- helping with digital skills coaching
If you are concerned about an adult who you think requires social care and support, or you have a safeguarding concern, please phone 020 7641 1444 or 020 7641 1175 or email email@example.com.
If you are concerned about a child and you have a safeguarding concern, please phone 0207 641 4000 or email AccesstoChildrensServices@westminster.gov.uk.
Where to go for advice on benefits, debts and bills, and more
Working age and entitled to means-tested benefits?
Paying the bills and keeping warm
Check this page from Citizen’s Advice.
Energy suppliers have launched an emergency package of support to ensure that customers are able to keep their gas and electricity supply. If you have Residents with pre-payment metres but can’t leave their house, speak to your supplier who can offer things like having a pre-loaded gas or electricity card sent to them in the post or having funds added remotely to your credit. If you are struggling with your bill, ask for help from your supplier. More info here:
Where to go for housing advice:
If you rent your home and are facing an eviction STAY PUT- no legal action can be taken to evict you for at least the next three months
But if you are homeless for other reasons:
Information in other languages
For general coronavirus information in many languages click here.
Which? has created a free dedicated consumer rights hub to keep people updated with useful information and advice. This includes what people should do about cancelled travel arrangements, postponed events and insurance issues; right through to helping people to spot fake news and scams, how to manage their finances if they find themselves in an uncertain situation, and recommending technology to help them stay in touch with elderly and self-isolated friends and family.
It is inevitable that many people will struggle with their mental health during this emergency, including with feelings of anxiety and depression- and sometimes for the first time. There are LOTS of useful helplines and sources of advice available:
Mind: 0300 123 3393
Mental Health Foundation
In a mental health emergency call: 0800 0234 650
Samaritans: 116 123 Childline: 0800 1111
Talking to children about coronavirus
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
Help with your business
Businesses struggling to find advice should contact Westminster’s Business Unit on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7641 2070. Officers can arrange a dedicated 15minute telephone consultations during usual business hours between Mon – Fri.
All the main websites for advice and information:
- Official Government Advice on a range of Covid-19 and other issues: click here – Government Advice
- NHS – guidance and updates from the NHS on the coronavirus outbreak: click here – NHS National Guidance
- Mayor of London – latest information for those living & working in London: London Guidance
- Vulnerable People – apply for support for an extremely vulnerable person: apply here
Working Tax Credit Uprating – Update
Working Tax Credits payments will be increased by £1,045 to £3,040 per year from 6 April 2020 until 5 April 2021.
The amount a claimant or household will benefit from will depend on their circumstances, including their level of household income. But the increase could mean up to an extra £20 each week.
The increased payments will come into effect on the 6 April, but individual payment dates will vary. Only contact HMRC if you have not received an increased payment by 18 May. Find out more about Working Tax Credit payments on the HMRC app or through a Personal Tax Account
Claiming Universal Credit
Nearly a million people have made claims for Universal Credit in the last two weeks- making this the biggest rise in social security claims ever. Many temporary changes have been made to help people claiming or receiving benefits, details of which are here.
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.
In the meantime, I will continue to press for further improvements to the social security system along with other Labour MP colleagues.
Ways to volunteer and to donate
If you would like to volunteer locally, you can register through the Westminster Council website:
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.
Where to donate locally:
North Paddington Foodbank www.npfoodbank.org.uk/
Our local NHS – Imperial Health Charity – Helping our local hospitals do more Donate Here