June 2020 E-Newsletter

We are emerging from lockdown to face not only a more complex set of challenges in respect of the management of the coronavirus, but the economic consequences, the reality of how Britain – indeed, the world – has changed fundamentally, and the need to understand both what has gone right and what has gone wrong with the way the pandemic has been handled.

The dedication and courage of those who have served us in both public and other key services is beyond doubt. The NHS rose to the occasion magnificently. Hundreds of thousands of people-many in the lowest paid sectors, from care services to retail to public transport, went beyond the bounds of duty. Some suffered and died as a result of the work they did. Equally, huge numbers of people responded to the call to help their communities as volunteers, and across the country, bonds were strengthened which we can only hope we can now maintain.

Yet we have ended up with one of the world’s highest death tolls. Analysis of excess mortality carried out by the Financial Times has found that 61,920 excess deaths have occurred in the UK during the pandemic. The situation in our care homes has been particularly dreadful, despite the Government’s promise that a ‘protective ring’ would be thrown around them.

The testing and tracing system necessary to help us out of lockdown is still not fully operational, though we were told we would have a ‘world class’ operation in place by June 1st. It is now clear that the government’s decision to abandon contract tracing in March was a huge mistake. The Dominic Cummings affair sadly also did nothing to increase the public trust and confidence which is so necessary to what must inevitably be a system based on mutual cooperation.

We also now know that Black and minority ethnic communities are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 and we need urgent answers as to why, and action to deal with the underlying causes. Yet a public health threat such as that posed by coronavirus may hit some people and communities more than others, but it also shows very clearly that we cannot insulate ourselves from the world around us. If we are to protect ourselves effectively, it is in all our interests to tackle the inequalities in our society.

I want the Government to succeed and to get this right, so more lives are not lost and the longer term damage to our country and our economy is minimised.  My Labour colleagues and I supported the lockdown and we’ve always argued that restrictions need to be eased gradually and in a safe way. The Government’s actions over the past ten days have made difficult decisions more risky, and a week or more of mismanagement has made a difficult situation 10 times worse. So ministers have got to get a fully functioning test, track and trace system in place. We called for an exit strategy, what we appear to have got is an exit without a strategy. We want to see society reopen, but that has to happen safely. It seems that at precisely the time when there needs to be maximum trust in the government, confidence has collapsed. Ministers need to accept that mistakes have been made and do everything they now can to reduce the risks to public health. That should include three things:

  • a reiteration of the Government’s commitment to follow the science and take immediate action if scientists start raising the alarm
  • flexibility to allow restrictions to be rapidly reintroduced, both nationally and locally, if we see an increase in the r-rate
  • a redoubling of efforts to ensure we have a fully functioning and effective test, track and trace system in place as soon as possible.

This is going to be a critical week for the country and a key test of the Government’s strategy. Keir Starmer has put the prime minister on notice that he has got to get a grip and restore public confidence in the Government’s handling of the epidemic. If we see a sharp rise in the R rate, the infection rate, or a swathe of local lockdowns, responsibility for that falls squarely at the door of No 10.

For information including the latest guidance from the Government and the NHS, financial support for the self-employed and businesses, an update on working tax credits, as well as advice on benefits, housing, energy bills and consumer rights. Please click to the guide on my website. There’s also a section at the end about volunteering and making donations to our local foodbank.

In addition to some of the usual updates in this newsletter, I have at the end also included a copy of what I have sent out to the many hundreds of people who have been in contact with me about the killing of George Lloyd and Black Lives Matter, in case it is of wider interest. As always, your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Coronavirus health update

As of early this week, Imperial were caring for 95 inpatients positive for Covid-19. Twelve of these patients were being cared for in intensive care and were on a ventilator. 881 patients have recovered from Covid-19 after being cared for within the Imperial Trust, and have been discharged.  417 patients positive for coronavirus have sadly lost their lives.

Once again it is worth restating our heartfelt thanks to all the member of the NHS family, whose have provided such a dedicated service to our community, at considerable risk to themselves.

Meanwhile, of course, people continue to need health care for other reasons, and it is essential that they do not put off the treatment they need. Imperial say:

Work to separate the patient pathways into ‘Covid-protected’ and ‘Covid-risk-managed’ areas is under way. Each clinical specialty is developing proposals in collaboration with the site operational teams and it is anticipated that an optimal strategy would be for Hammersmith Hospital to be primarily Covid-protected, St Mary’s to be essentially Covid risk-managed and for Charing Cross, Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea and the Western Eye to be a mixture of the two. This approach would, ultimately, require some service moves which would need to be informed by more analysis and internal and external engagement. In the meantime, the clinical teams’ proposals set out what can be done in the near term to make pragmatic changes that allow as much planned care as possible to be resumed. This will still involve significant adaptations to buildings, new testing and screening approaches and a strong emphasis on personal protective equipment.

Staff antibody testing

A Covid-19 antibody testing programme has been launched for staff and patients this week. Demand has been huge, with over 5,000 online request forms submitted so far. Any member of staff who would like an antibody test will be able to book a slot to have a blood sample taken at the three main Imperial sites over the next 6-8 weeks, starting on Thursday 4 June.

The NHS is going to be changed permanently as we emerge from the pandemic (or at least, this phase of it).

Along with other MPs, I joined a briefing on the broad direction of change, given by the West London Clinical Commissioning Groups. There is no objection to the underlying principles-improve access to services outside hospital where possible, for example. However, the devil is always in the detail. We need to be sure that there is proper democratic debate about how health services are shaped, with strong partnerships between health providers and local government being especially important in the light of what the coronavirus has exposed about the pressures on social care.

More generally, the extent to which government has sidelined local councils has been shocking. Councils have taken a massive financial hit, with increased demand and a falling off of income from parking charges, for example. They have not been properly compensated and have been cut out of the process for testing and tracing as part of the coronavirus response, even though they know their own communities far better than Whitehall.

In assessing the current Covid-19 infrastructure and identifying innovations to be carried forward, it is essential to note that many of the improvements we are seeing depend on three factors not mentioned in the proposed ‘Journey to a new NHS:

The significant reduction in hospital attendance by the public; the increase in out-of-hospital capacity, including community capacity led by local authorities; and a significant increase in NHS funding. Without these in the future, many of the improvements will not be replicable.

We regret that Journey to a New NHS consistently omits the importance of working with the public in identifying and delivering service improvements at all levels. The coronavirus crisis has led to an extraordinary upsurge in local, self organising volunteer groups and it is to be hoped that both the NHS and local government can make better use of this incredible resource in future, so local people can genuinely shape the services they receive.

Whilst the Covid-19 crisis has shown us the absolute best of the NHS, it has also thrown into stark relief some of the underlying problems. A shortage of beds, equipment and staff, failures of coordination (exacerbated by fragmentation, outsourcing and privatisation), a top-down ethos and a lack of authentic local partnership, even without reductions in funding, have all contributed to the severity of the problems currently confronting our health and care system. The lesson is not that we should simply refine the pre-crisis

NHS Long-Term Plan but should look at how to address some of the structural weaknesses which have developed in recent years – and consider how the NHS might be structured differently in the future. This certainly demands a further review of such factors as London’s changing demography, the social and economic impact of Covid-19, the effects on NHS staff of dealing with Covid-19 and the vulnerability of BAME people, who make up a large proportion of NHS staff in London.

GETTING AROUND LONDON (1): Changes to Tfl services – what they are and why they are happening

Transport for London has been just one of the many public services hit by a catastrophic drop in income as the pandemic took hold. It was inevitable that a deal would need to be done with government. A Government funding package to allow TfL to continue to run public transport safely in London for the next four and a half months was finally agreed ten days ago, and the conditions of the deal were very harsh for Londoners.

The Government insisted that TfL fares are increased above inflation next year – bringing an end to the four year fares freeze, they insisted that the scope and hours of the Congestion Charge are widened – as TfL has now done, that free travel for Freedom Pass and 60-plus card holders is temporarily suspended during peak hours, and that free travel for and Under 18 pass holders is suspended at all times. After lobbying from the Mayor, the Government has now agreed to allow disabled Freedom Pass holders to continue travelling for free at all times. The Government has also insisted that, unlike the deals done with every other transport authority in the UK, TfL takes on £505 million of additional debt. This will undo the hard work put in to fix TfL’s finances over the last four years. Before the lockdown, the Mayor had put TfL in a much firmer financial footing than he inherited. He had reduced the operating deficit of TfL by 71 per cent and increased cash reserves by 16 per cent. The loss forecast for TfL was just over £200m before COVID-19 hit, down from nearly £1.5bn – excluding the Government grant – when he became Mayor.  London has been the only major city in western Europe that hasn’t received direct Government funding to run day-to-day transport services since it was cut by the last Government.  That’s why this deal is just a sticking plaster. The old model for funding public transport in London simply does not work in this new reality – fares income will not cover the cost of running services while so few people can safely use public transport. Over the next few months we will have to negotiate a new funding model with the Government – which will involve either permanent funding from the Government or giving London more control over key taxes so we can pay for it ourselves – or a combination of both.  TfL is running as many services as possible with so many staff still off sick, self-isolating or shielding. TfL has introduced new signage, foot markings and announcements at TfL stations and stops to encourage social distancing at stations, and for Londoners to wear non-medical face coverings on the network. More than 100 British Transport Police and additional stewards are deployed across the network to encourage social distancing. However, it remains vital that Londoners do not to use public transport unless absolutely necessary.  The Mayor is asking Londoners to continue to work from home where possible, to walk and cycle when they can, and to wear face coverings throughout their journeys when on public transport.

Here are some of the practical details:

  • Changes are in accordance with the funding and finance agreement between TfL and Government and will help conserve space on public transport for people who have to use it to return to work.
  • Disabled Freedom Pass holders are unaffected and will still able to travel at all times using their pass
  • From Monday 15 June, changes to the ticketing system will mean Older Person’s Freedom Pass and 60+ cards are automatically set not to be valid during the morning peak period (0430 to 0900) Monday to Friday.
  • Older Person’s Freedom Pass and 60+ card remain valid after 9.00am on weekdays and at all times at weekends and Bank Holidays
  • All passengers are reminded to only use public transport if absolutely essential and maintain two metres social distancing wherever possible

.For more information – please visit www.tfl.gov.uk/fares/find-fares

I am clear that we should continue to press the government to change its mind on travel concessions for the under 18s, and to recognise that many over-60s continue to need to travel for work and for other important purposes.

You can sign our petitions here.

GETTING AROUND LONDON (2): improving our streets for everyone

We have a unique opportunity to embrace bold changes to how our roads and public realm is designed. The aim should be to implement quick changes in the coming days and weeks to pave the way for lasting change to maintain the very low levels of air pollution we’ve enjoyed in recent weeks. Indeed, a strategy that assumes there will be a medium-term reversion to ‘business as usual’ is both unlikely to reflect the long-term impacts on behaviour and risk missing the opportunity to deliver more long-standing positive change. As well as needing to be bold, we should also be sensitive to local context in how changes are made. What works in one neighbourhood might not work in others. A one-size-fits all approach – where a blueprint that is predetermined and is imposed on areas without regard to local factors that make each area and street unique – won’t work. A flexible and experimental approach should be adopted.

We should embrace the concept of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) as a framework and apply it with flexibility. The LTN framework means traffic is severely reduced within neighbourhoods. Traffic should instead use the main arteries (e.g in a place liked West End Ward the surrounding main roads like Regent St, Tottenham Court Rd., etc.). The objective is to stop rat-running within neighbourhoods – only those vehicles that meet the necessary requirement are allowed into neighbourhood streets.

Exceptions should include delivery and refuse collection vehicles for businesses (on this note, there should be freight consolidation following the example set in New Bond St and elsewhere to minimise road use), residents’ vehicles, and taxis or other vehicles for vulnerable and disabled people.

Pavements should be widened with the goal of encouraging more walking in the long-term, not just the short-term. Therefore, there should be flexibility to ensure that measures that are initially conceived of as temporary can become permanent if and where they are successful. There should be experimentation with temporary closure of streets. This can also pave the way for changes in the longer-term, with some streets currently open to cars closed off for good. It’s important to underscore the focus on experimentation because this will allow us to see where road closures work and where they don’t.

More cycle lanes and provision (including cycle parking spaces) should be put in place with sensitivity to context (some roads work better for cycling provision than others). This should go hand in hand with public authorities being more proactive in signalling the responsibilities that come with cycling (there is a small minority of cyclists who don’t always follow the rules of the road) to help pedestrians – in particular the vulnerable and elderly – feel safe.

Along with my Westminster Labour council colleagues, I have backed the call for both more cycle paths and Santander docking stations in the North West of the borough, which is particularly badly served at the moment. You can read more about our proposals here.

You can also find more detail about the Council’s changes to the streets and pavements here.

Air pollution and coronavirus

As Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Quality, I am also particularly concerned to ensure that we respond to the evidence that exposure to high levels of air pollution may increase the susceptibility to coronavirus. And given what we know about the levels of ill health and excess deaths attributable to air pollution anyway, we need to seize this opportunity to change our environment for the better.

You can read the full report here.

Supporting people through the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic

We are only just beginning to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic, with all that means for people’s jobs and incomes. Businesses, especially those not covered by the rescue packages, are really hurting after two months of lockdown. Supply chain firms in the hospitality industry have lost 100% of trade but don’t get the help other outlets do. Small limited companies, like those in the creative and service sector, are also losing out and there are real fears about the longer term future of music, theatre and similar sectors, which are not only economically important but vital to our sense of ourselves as a country. At the same time some big airline companies, like BA and Virgin, are using the crisis an opportunity to restructure and lay off thousands of staff.

The government has rightly extended the furlough scheme, increased flexibility to enable part-time working and gone slowly on increasing employer contributions, but , even the limited contributions required from August is likely to see significant layoffs in the hard-hit hospitality sector, in which an estimated two million employees are currently furloughed. All this is, of course, particularly important to the London economy.

I joined a number of colleagues in lobbying the Chancellor to extend the support scheme for the self-employed as well- and although this came quite late it has now been implemented. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, which has been extended by three months with a slight reduction in generosity, will still be very generous in many cases. Some self-employed workers hardly affected by this crisis are able to receive grants from HMRC worth up to £14,070 over six months – far more than the support for those actually losing their jobs will receive via Universal Credit.

Tough challenges lie ahead in protecting family incomes and helping people back into work, according to a major new report on how Universal Credit has operated published by the Resolution Foundation.

There were more new claims started in the first four weeks of the crisis (1.2 million) than during the first nine months of the last recession, and the challenge families face from the generosity of UC will grow as this crisis goes on. The majority (54 per cent) of new claimants surveyed had less than £1,000 of savings, and 80 percent are concerned about the state of their family finances.

There is also a huge gap between the generosity of UC compared to the Job Retention Scheme (JRS). A typical employee moving onto the JRS retains, on overage, 91 per cent of their net income. That compares to just 53 per cent if they move onto UC, even though the recent £7 billion benefit increases have raised the incomes of the poorest quarter of families by 5 percent on average. This replacement rate is even lower for single people moving onto UC (30 per cent) – who on average lose over two-thirds of their income.

With the UK set to face the highest unemployment in over a quarter of a century, and many households set to spend prolonged periods with UC as their main income source, the Government should prepare UC for the next phase of this crisis by:

Suspending the capital rules in UC that taper away support for households with £6,000 of savings, and remove it entirely for those £16,000 of savings;

Delaying repayments of advance loans in UC by six months to make it easier for claimants to bridge the five-week wait for first payments;

Significantly increasing staffing levels in Jobcentres so that DWP can manage a second claims surge when the JRS is phased out, alongside stepping up ‘back to work’ support that has rightly been abandoned in recent months;

Making permanent the £20 increase to UC, which would otherwise expire in April 2021; and prioritising couples and families with children in any further increases in generosity.

Food Banks

The Evening Standard has reported that one in ten families have gone short of food already since the start of this crisis – and that is certainly reflected in the pressure on our amazing local foodbank. I joined them with the Faiths United group last week, to acknowledge the generous donation of PPE being made by supporters from the Muslim and Jewish communities.

The number of people relying on emergency food aid from North Paddington Foodbank jumped from 208 in one week in February to 1,296 a week in May, which gives a sense of the scale of the challenge. As other voluntary organisations were also feeding people during the total lockdown period, it is clear that this is a massive problem which is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is disgraceful that the government has stated that vouchers will not be provided during the summer holiday period for children on free school meals, for example. We will be pushing this issue in Parliament, since whilst it is completely right that we are supporting businesses and helping to protect jobs during this crisis, we cannot neglect the poorest in our community.

Black Lives Matter

In the last week I have received hundreds of emails about the current crisis in America following the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter campaign and the issue of racism and discrimination more widely, including in the UK. Here I have tried to cover the key themes most constituents have raised with me this week.

In doing so, I am deeply conscious of my position and privileges as a white politician, and that one of my first tasks is to hear what is being said to me at this acutely difficult and painful time for so many people in my extremely diverse constituency. That I am very much concentrating on doing.

I forced myself to watch some of the video which showed the killing of George Floyd. My reaction as a mother, as a human being, was utter despair and revulsion at the brutality, the indifference to the value of his life. No one should die as George Floyd died. Justice must be done in his case, and be seen to be done. Yet his killing is only the latest in a series of police killings, disproportionately of black men. Worse still, the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men, as compared with unarmed white men, is even more stark than where either white or black people were carrying weapons. Yet even this most tragic manifestation of racism sits within a context of profound racial inequalities in American society, dating back to the legacy of slavery, the civil war, segregation, Jim Crow laws, the battle for civil rights and a continuing gulf in earnings and opportunities. The protests we are now seeing across America’s cities reflect all this. They are the most widespread since the mass civil rights protests of 1968, and reveal the deep seated anguish and frustration that has never been adequately addressed. Some unquestionable progress in some areas has, of course, also been massively undermined by the fall out from the financial crisis of 2008, the impact of coronavirus, and the behaviour and rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Of course I condemn the words and behaviour of Donald Trump – I was appalled and anxious when he was first elected and am even more so know. For all the frustrations and limitations of the democratic process, I still don’t think there is anything more important than defeating him in the presidential election in November.

I fear the consequences of public disorder for several reasons- the damage that gets done within black communities and to black businesses, the risk of a political backlash that Trump will exploit in his re-election campaign, the certainty that yet more young black people will end up inside the already bloated US prison system. But I hear and understand the sentiments I am hearing again and again – both the rage and the sense of tiredness, that the same battles have had fought again, over many decades, and that things simply can’t carry on as before.

Riot control equipment – Emily Thornberry demands action on US riot control exports

With respect to the supply of riot control equipment to America, I am very pleased that Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry has already written to the government minister responsible: You can read the full report and letter here.

Britain’s Colonial History and the National Curriculum.

As many people have pointed out in their emails to me, this is not exclusively an American problem and this is certainly not a new issue. The UK’s own history is also inextricably linked with racial inequalities and exploitation and this needs to be understood in terms of the legacy this has in our modern society. Yet I know I was never taught any of this at school, even though understanding the breadth of Britain’s history is crucial to tackling the injustices and racism in our society and around the world that persist today. The manifesto on which I stood at the last election acknowledged that ‘we must not only confront these injustices but commit to address the injustices of the past.’ We promised, if elected, to ‘conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacies to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule’.

So of course it is true that a crucial part of reshaping attitudes and understanding our history as a country is our education system. Again, at the last election I stood on a manifesto that pledged to ‘Create an Emancipation Educational Trust to ensure the historical injustices of colonialism, and the role of the
British Empire is properly integrated into the National Curriculum and to teach powerful Black history which is also British history.’  We did not win that election but that does not mean the fight is over. Amongst other things, local councils, schools trusts and others can take action- and are doing so- even if the national government is not. The one and only positive that can ever arise from tragedies like the killing of George Floyd is when they are a catalyst for real change. I promise to continue to push for a more diverse and honest account of our national history to be taught in schools and I hope that the outcry and determination for change we are seeing this week will help this issue cement its place in the political mainstream.

The Government report into coronavirus and black and minority ethnic communities

Many of you have also raised the issue of the government report into the particular impact of the coronavirus on black communities.  The government blundered seriously by apparently delaying the publication of the investigation into why more Black and minority ethnic people have been dying of coronavirus than white people. It was initially suggested that the delay was because the government did not want to ‘inflame tensions’ in the light of this week’s protests. Inevitably, this suggestion was enough in itself to raise tensions and now the report has been published, although without recommendations, so we need to make sure this is pursued vigorously. What both it and the Oxford University report also published very recently shows is the extent to which Black and minority ethnic communities are hardest hit by Covid, and are heavily overrepresented in the mortality statistics. It may well be that there are some clinical explanations for the high level of vulnerability, and we do need to understand that and respond to it as a matter of urgency, but it is also clear that there are also issues of social and economic disadvantage at play too. You may or may not know that one of my main campaigning issues as an MP has been housing, from homelessness to over-crowding to bad housing conditions. I can tell you that work done by Inside Housing magazine confirms what I already knew – Coronavirus is at least in part a disease of housing, with an extraordinarily high overlap between the areas with the highest deaths, and those with the deepest housing problems. Additionally, of course, there is the extent to which Black and minority ethnic communities work in higher risk occupations, from transport to the care sector.

There’s some very good work on all this being done by a range of organisations, including the TUC, and my Labour colleagues and I are drawing on all this.

I’ve always made inequality and equalities issues a key part of my work in Parliament – from working on the Race Relations Amendment Act which followed the McPherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, introducing the first ever Parliamentary debate on Islamophobia and campaigning on policing, income and employment and, of course, housing. In recent years I have served on Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, which has worked on issues such as the impact of the Coronavirus legislation, children of prisoners, young people in detention and human rights issues affecting the supply chains of British businesses. For many years I have chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, with its strong focus on access to justice. I’m always open to ideas and suggestions, although it also needs to be recognised that individual MPs very rarely get to sponsor legislation (unlike in the US system) and as a Labour MP, my party has not been in government now for ten years and has never run the local council. Power is important, since without it you cannot make the law and cannot control the resources you need to tackle social injustice. I am acutely aware, for example, that many of our poorest communities, and the poorest people within them, have been hardest hit by the cuts in public services and social security since 2010. Here in Westminster we have lost much of the funding for our youth services, saw real term cuts in schools budgets, in social care for older and disabled people, cuts in housing support and reduced help for families with more than two children and more.

The one exception to a depressing pattern over recent years has been in respect of the Mayoralty. Although the Mayor does not make the law and has to rely on government funding for most of the budget, this role does really matter. I was proud to chair the campaign to elect Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London in 2016, and to be working with him on his re-election campaign- both because he is a Labour Mayor but also because diversity amongst our elected representatives does send a powerful message about who we are as a country.

Yet even within the limitations of opposition (outside the Mayoralty) we can continue to speak up, to make demands and hold those who do currently have the power to account. That includes a special responsibility upon those of us who are not black to listen to the voices of black and minority ethnic people, understand the anger, ask the difficult questions about structural racism and its symptoms, and most importantly of all we must act to challenge the injustices that do not directly affects us and practically support those working for change. Those in privileged position have a duty to go first – to attempt to grapple with those difficult questions, to accept where we have fallen short and to try harder.

I hope this is helpful in letting you know where I stand and I will continue to listen to the many hundreds of people taking the time to contact me.

Wishing you all the very best through this difficult time.

Karen Buck MP

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