Latest newsletter and Coronavirus updates from Karen Buck MP: Updated May 15th
We are 7 weeks into lockdown, 2 months into the biggest public health emergency in many decades, and just beginning to grapple with the consequences for the economy- and the millions of individual jobs and incomes which make that up. There have been close to 40,000 officially recorded deaths arising from Covid-19 in and out of hospital, although the number of excess deaths over the expected level is significantly higher. Every one of these deaths is a personal tragedy, leaving behind relatives and friends denied even the small comfort of being with or marking the loss of, their loved ones in the usual way. In these most terrible of circumstances, health, care and other key workers have risen to the occasion magnificently, sometimes at the expense of their own lives, and we owe them our unqualified gratitude and support. Yet even as it is becoming clear that this wave of infections and deaths is past its peak, very tough new challenges are also becoming clearer.
We begin the first tentative steps towards releasing lockdown, it is more critical than even that we act to minimise the risks of a second wave. Mistakes were made earlier on in this crisis. The Government was slow to implement the lockdown, slow on testing, slow to get PPE to frontline workers, slow to recognise the unfolding problems in our care homes. We need to learn from those mistakes, and we have to be honest about the challenges ahead, possibly over many months, or longer. Our priorities have to be keeping people safe, by developing a national safety standard for businesses, schools and other public services; protecting key and essential workers by publishing a national plan to ensure supply chains are developed that guarantee personal protective equipment and facial covering to those who need it and the mass expansion of community testing and tracing by stating when the Government will hit its daily testing target of 250,000 and recruiting 50,000 people as contact tracers, alongside the use of any workable apps and technology.
The role of local councils will remain critical in all this. Central government funding was cut by a half over the last ten years, and councils now face a £10 billion shortfall as they try to provide critical services like adult social care, children’s social care, public health and environmental health. Making sure councils are properly funded is crucial.
It has also, of course, become clear that whilst Covid can be caught and transmitted by anyone, the effects are not being experienced equally. The government should also take further action to address and support people who are being disproportionately affected, including older people and those in Black and minority ethnic communities.
Alongside the public health emergency, the scale of the economic damage is now being widely felt, and my emails are full of cases of individuals anxious about job security and lost income. Whilst it is welcome news that the furlough scheme has been extended and additional schemes are coming into effect for small business and the self-employed, it remains the case that many people fall just outside the scope of these schemes- such as certain categories of freelancers. We are certainly going to need greater flexibility and imagination in how we support people over the coming months, with strong sector-specific work to support areas like hospitality and the cultural and creative economy. My colleagues and I are raising all these issues with Ministers, but I fully understand the anxiety and frustration many people feel because answers are not always coming as quickly as they are needed.
But it also has to be said again that we have seen the best in so many people in recent weeks, from key workers to community volunteers. You may find this report interesting, since it shows the scale of the community response in North Westminster-
In the rest of this newsletter I cover some of the things I have been doing, updates from local agencies and Government advice, and the usual list of numbers and websites where you can go for advice and assistance. My staff and I will continue to do our very best for people who need my help, too.
Wishing you good health and strength as we work our way through this.
Latest news from our local NHS
I’m continuing to have regular virtual meetings with the local NHS to hear how they are managing. These are the key points:
As of yesterday Monday, Imperial were caring for 159 patients with coronavirus, and they believe there has broadly been a levelling out of new admissions. 53 patients were on a ventilator in intensive care, of whom 43 had coronavirus, which means we are now well within our pre-Covid intensive care capacity. Tragically, 400 patients are reported to have died with coronavirus at Imperial to date. As of Sunday 10 May, 683 of their patients with coronavirus had recovered and been discharged.
They are also making plans to care for the increasing number of patients with other urgent and emergency conditions and to resume planned care, whilst minimising the risk of further infections and being prepared in the event of further peaks in coronavirus infections. This all includes looking at adaptations to buildings and the introduction of more patient and staff testing in order to separate care pathways for people who definitely don’t have coronavirus from those who do or might have and to keep everyone as safe as possible.
The message continues to be: do not put off seeking treatment for other, non-Covid health conditions!
Working with our local police
I continue to raise issues with the police on virtually a daily basis, since, whilst there have been fewer of some crimes, like burglary and robbery, there has been a marked increase in domestic abuse, neighbour and anti-social behaviour cases and speeding. All this is on top of the new requirement to police the Coronavirus laws introduced. It is unsurprising that certain patterns of criminal and anti-social behaviour are increasing with the pressures of lockdown, but they sadly remain complex and often difficult to resolve. However, my small staff and I do our best to assist where we can, taking these issues up with the police, landlords and the council to try and find resolutions.
I have two further (socially distanced!) area visits planned with Westminster police over the next week, where we can see and discuss particular problems on site. This follows on from such a visit and walkabout in Church Street two weeks ago. I am enormously proud of the work our local police are doing, under considerable pressure and, as with all front line workers, at some personal risk.
Getting about in London
Whilst some restrictions on movement have been relaxed, and there is an understandable desire to get everyone back to work as soon as reasonably possible, we are still in lockdown and we still have to protect the NHS and save lives. All public transport providers face huge challenges around social distancing – with the number of passengers TfL can safely accommodate on Tubes and buses reduced by over 85 per cent, and likely to stay drastically below pre-Covid levels for some time.
I have been concerned by the lack of clarity about government requirements for people to wear face masks on public transport, and this was my question to the Prime Minister when I was able to take part in the Parliamentary statement on Monday. Link here.
In asking this question I was reinforcing the message from the Mayor of London. Here is his latest advice:
- The British public have put in a heroic effort to get us past the peak of Covid-19 – staying at home, maintaining social distancing and going above and beyond to help those in need. However, we simply cannot afford to be complacent and must now do everything possible to avoid a disastrous second peak which would be a hammer blow for our NHS and economy.
- The Government’s roadmap sets out cautious approach to ease London and the UK out of the current lockdown, while avoiding a disastrous second peak. But this will only be possible if the evidence shows that it is safe at every stage of the plan.
- Sadiq’s message for Londoners is clear: Lockdown has not been lifted. The overwhelming majority of social distancing measures are still in place. We all must continue to play our part and follow the rules to protect our NHS and save lives. You can read his latest op-ed in the i-paper here.
- Londoners must still stay at home as much as possible and keep a social distance from other people at all times. Public transport must only be used if it is absolutely essential, and everyone must continue to work from home if they possibly can.
- Sadiq and TfL are working incredibly hard to prepare our public transport network for the gradual easing of lockdown. Getting Londoners around our city while maintaining social distancing as lockdown is eased will be the biggest challenge in TfL’s history.
- The key messages for Londoners on public transport are: Please do not use public transport unless absolutely necessary – it must now be a last resort. Please walk or cycle if you possibly can. Please wear a non-medical face covering if you have to travel on public transport. All TfL staff and contractors are being provided with basic masks to wear at work. And please do not replace journeys previously made on public transport with car usage – otherwise our roads will immediately become unusably congested and toxic air pollution will increase.
- We are all going to have to change our behaviour and reimagine how we live in London to keep public transport safe. If you can work from home you will have to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Employers and schools will have to change their start times throughout the day to avoid busy peak times on the network – and we are working with the Government to enable this. We will have to spend more of our leisure time in our local areas.
- TfL is gradually restoring services to as close to pre-COVID-19 levels as possible, within the constraints imposed by high staff sickness, shielding and self-isolation levels. But we cannot magic additional staff pout of thin air. No one should expect to see a swift return to how it was before the crisis. The likely requirements for social distancing will simply make this impossible.
Changing our transport system for the better over the long term
- The coronavirus restrictions have meant fewer cars on the road and cleaner air, making it an ideal time to accelerate and prioritise plans to boost more active travel for those who can.
- The plans aim to encourage people to choose alternative methods of transport that promote a more sustainable lifestyle, with better choices for the health of individuals and the environment, whilst also staying safe on UK roads.
- The Mayor of London and TfL have launched StreetScape – the quickest and most ambitious reimagining of London’s road network ever. This is putting in place immediate and temporary measures to create new segregated cycle lanes and to widen pavements for socially distant walking. These temporary measures will be reviewed by TfL and could be made permanent.
- The government announced a funding package to for pop- up cycling lanes, wider pavements, safer junctions and bus and cycle corridors. It is intended that government and local councils, including TFL, will work together on these measures
Got ideas how to change our streets in Westminster? Westminster Healthy Streets is a local campaign collecting suggestions about how to improve our area. You can contribute here.
Postal service update
Whilst the number of complaints about delays in postal deliveries has fallen significantly, it is obvious that some areas continue to have problems. Royal Mail continue to say that they are doing their best to ensure a consistent service, whilst also ensuring staff safety and managing the impact of sickness and self-isolation. I will be having further talks with local operational managers in the next week to discuss outstanding issues, and of course, continue to raise individual complaints.
My work on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
The Contact tracing app- we want it to work, we need to protect privacy too.
Contact tracing and testing are central to the next phase of managing the Coronavirus, and helping us restore normality to our lives. The proposed contact tracing app now being piloted in the Isle of Wight has the potential to help with this. However, the app involves unprecedented data gathering, and that inevitably involves risk. My Parliamentary Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, took evidence on these issues and published a report last week, which you can read here.
We want proper scrutiny of the data gathering and use of the app, set out in legislation. Assurances from Ministers about privacy are not enough. The Government has given assurances about protection of privacy so they should have no objection to those assurances being enshrined in law.
There must be robust legal protection for individuals about what that data will be used for, who will have access to it and how it will be safeguarded from hacking.
Parliament was able quickly to agree to give the Government sweeping powers. It is perfectly possible for parliament to do the same for legislation to protect privacy.
(Here is last month’s report from our committee on the human rights implications of the Coronavirus Act, too. )
I have been hearing more and more over the last few weeks about the deeply distressing situation many British Airways employees have found themselves in following a decision taken to make 12,000 members of staff redundant.
I completely share the disappointment that BA have so far not made use of the Job Retention Scheme as it was intended – to keep employees in work through the lockdown period – but to force through redundancies and contract ‘renegotiations’. I am even more concerned at the suggestions that this crisis is being used deliberately as an opportunity to ‘streamline’ and move people over to much less secure working arrangements.
Being relatively near to Heathrow, a lot of Westminster residents work for British Airways, and it is distressing to hear from all the people whose situation has been made even more uncertain at a time like this because of these actions. Frankly, taking advantage of a global epidemic to restructure a vast company at the expense of its staff is morally deplorable, and as some unions are now starting to argue, potentially unlawful in some cases.
I have joined a number of my colleagues in writing to both Alex Cruz – the Chairman and CEO of BA – and the Chancellor asking for urgent intervention. I have also this week signed Wes Streeting’s Letter to Willie Walsh who is the Chief Executive of BA’s parent company asking them to reconsider the dreadful impact this will have. I believe that if BA are allowed to continue down this road unchecked, it would set a very worrying precedent as we start to face the true economic impact this epidemic will have.
I will do my best to keep you updated as and when my colleagues and I receive a reply.
As the Coronavirus dominates politics and everyday life, Brexit continues to be a major focus in Parliament. We have to replace hundreds of regulations upheld mainly in EU Law by time we leave and worryingly these relate to some of the biggest issues facing governments across the world right now, not least food production and safety standards.
This Wednesday the House of Commons considered the Agriculture Bill again. The Bill will ultimately establish a new agricultural system after Brexit and it is critical that it supports a form of farming that is both productive and protective of the natural environment.
As I did back in February the last time this Bill was discussed, I voted for an amendment that would have required imported food to meet standards at least as high as those required for food produced in the UK. Disappointingly, the Government opposed this amendment again on Wednesday and it was defeated. I am truly concerned that the Bill does not prevent our British farmers from being undercut in post-Brexit trade deals with countries with lower animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.
I also voted for an amendment that would have required a coronavirus emergency food plan to be published within six months of the Bill becoming law. Again, it was disappointing that the Government voted down this amendment.
The Bill, as it is, does not protect British farmers, the UK’s wonderful natural environment, the breakdown of the climate and there are no effective measures specifically addressing the current threat posed by the Coronavirus crisis. For these reasons I could not support this Bill and I regret that it has passed through the Commons at this stage.
Waterways and Boating Business
We have heard from a number of small businesses affected by the Coronavirus and subsequent lockdown measures. Most sole traders who earn under £50,000 can claim the Small Business Grant and whilst we have heard from some people who earn just over this amount who are unhappy with the rule, the biggest problem is for Limited Company Directors.
Another significant minority in this constituency is boating businesses who also find themselves falling through the cracks as they do not pay business rates. This means they cannot qualify for the Small Business Grant which is determined by a company’s rate-able value. In the Paddington Basin/Maida Vale/Little Venice areas of Westminster, along the Jubilee Greenway and Regent’s Canal, there are many restaurants, small bookshops, theatres and other fantastic, unique businesses that are receiving no support because of this loophole. I understand that the Trading License they pay to the Canal & River Trust is comparable to Business Rates and while the CRT have granted a suspension of this payment, they are receiving no financial support.
This week I was invited to a briefing on this as a nationwide issue and this is an important issue in many places, particularly those with large stretches of rivers and canals. The Broads and the Canal & River Trust are estimated at contributing around £1bn a year to the Tourism Economy and generate nearly 30,000 jobs. Whilst the Government have announced specific measures for other industries in this same loophole – such as fishing – there has been nothing yet for inland boating businesses.
I have written to the Government and asked for specific measures to support in-land waterways. In general the Government must continue to look at what more it can do to support businesses through this emergency. This support must be fast and accessible to all sizes of business. In particular, I believe the Government should consider the need to expand eligibility criteria for grant support currently targeted at the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, and whether more can be done to facilitate the urgent delivery of credit.
Returning to work
The latest Government guidance states:
For the foreseeable future, people should continue to work from home wherever possible.
- Workers who cannot work from home (for example those in construction, manufacturing, labs and research facilities) should consult their employers and if their workplace is open and COVID-19 secure return to work.
- Workplaces should strictly follow social distancing measures and new “COVID-19 Secure” guidance* *
- Non-essential retail, restaurants, pubs, bars gyms and leisure centres will remain closed.
The Government have issued advice on health and safety in the workplace for people returning to work after lockdown. You can read it here.
A safe working environment is essential and people need to be clear about what to expect and what their rights are if they are concerned. The TUC have set out their concerns very clearly here.
Concerns about the safety of their workplace, these can be raised with Westminster Council, or the Health and Safety executive if discussions with an employer do not deal with them. It is also a good idea to join a union if you are not already a member.
Back to school?
Some schools have remained open for children of key workers and for vulnerable children. The Government’s intention is for nurseries and primary schools to begin a phased return from June 1st, involving early years, reception, and years 1 and 6, and for all primary school children in England should return to school for a month before the summer.
Obviously we all want children to be able to get back into education as quickly as possible, but this must be done in the right way, ensuring their safety and the safety of their families and teachers. There are still a number of unanswered questions and practical difficulties to be overcome. On 11 May, the Government’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that the Government would be consulting with teachers over the risks they faced as schools reopen to larger numbers of pupils. He said ‘it is very important that we have a proper debate around that’. Yet there is still no realistic guidance for how social distancing will be kept in place with the age groups that will return first, how staff and families of children will be protected, or how the recommended class sizes of fifteen will be achieved with the resources schools have. There must be constructive discussions with the teaching profession and education unions to create a workable plan for the reopening of schools when the science indicates it is safe to do so, and which has the confidence of all those affected, including parents.
Business and employment during a time of crisis
I was pleased to be able to take part in a virtual discussion group with the London Federation of Small Business last week, and to hear at first hand some of the challenges being faced. My emails confirm that the main specific concerns centre around CBILS, the business loan scheme, and support for the self-employed. A massive investment has been made by government to support jobs and businesses as the economy has shut down, but many individuals and businesses fall outside the scheme through any of a number of factors. The creative sector in particular employed many Londoners, but the way in which they were employed has left them outside the scope of existing schemes.
However, my colleagues and I in Parliament continue to raise these issues and changes are being made continually. For example, a discretionary fund for small businesses was introduced earlier this week to accommodate certain small businesses previously outside the scope of the business grant funds. Link here.
Additionally the support scheme for self-employed workers came into effect this week. The guidance is here.
These are the key issues Labour have been pressing on with regards to the pressures on jobs and incomes:
We are calling on the government to urgently act to protect jobs and incomes by:
o Preventing even more people being made redundant, by acting on those employers who
continue to refuse to furlough affected workers.
o Fixing blockages in the business loan schemes so businesses can access the support they
o Urgently clarifying the situation for those currently excluded from the Government’s self-employment
scheme and the furlough scheme.
o Turning Universal Credit advances into grants and considering additional changes to
o Making all workers, including low-paid workers, eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.
o Increasing the level of Statutory Sick Pay.
o Spearheading international coordination to prevent financial system-wide spillovers caused
by the crisis.
o Make public the proposed exit strategy to ensure economic measures remain appropriate
in protecting the long term future of businesses and workers.
Where to go for advice and assistance
Where to get help in Westminster
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 email@example.com, via the website or phone us on 020 7641 1222, open 8am to 10pm, 7 days a week (we are making improvements to our webpage and you will soon be able to ask for help online again.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 :
Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau
0300 330 1191
More about the new version of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) benefit for those who maybe self-isolating due to C-19 symptoms or have other ill-health or a disability: www.gov.uk/guidance/new-style-employment-and-support-allowance
There’s also the new Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) which they can sign up to: www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/covid-19-support-for-businesses
Or the Business Interruption Scheme for SMEs with income of <£50K : www.british-business-bank.co.uk/ourpartners/coronavirus-business-interruption-loan-scheme-cbils-2/for-businesses-and-advisors/
Working age and entitled to means-tested benefits?
You can also contact
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:
Westminster Shelter have stopped providing face to face advice, but anyone needing housing advice can contact them either by email at Westminster@shelter.org.uk or phone 0344 515 2048.
Westminster Council are strongly advising people not to visit the Homelessness office in Bruckner Street if possible. Instead anyone wishing to access the service should call 0207 641 1000 or complete the online form at www.westminster.gov.uk/homelessness.
Shelter’s national advice pages are also very helpful:
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 email@example.com 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:
Coronavirus (COVID-19:) what you need to do – click on the link:
Guidance and updates from the NHS on the coronavirus outbreak: click below
Mayor of London
Get the latest information and guidance for those living and working in London.
Get coronavirus support as an extremely vulnerable person.
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, my colleagues and I will continue to press for further improvements to the social security system.
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
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