No one is ever likely to forget 2020. But if the coronavirus cast a very dark shadow over the spring and summer, autumn has arrived with a new set of shocks.
We always knew there was a risk that Covid infections could rise again as lockdown ended and so it has proved, bringing a renewal of restrictions even as schools, universities and workplaces re-open. The balance we strike between protecting ourselves from the virus, looking after our physical and mental health in all other regards, preserving liberty and rebuilding the economy and saving jobs will be highly disputed. Until and unless we have an effective vaccine, we will have to accept a high degree of uncertainty, I fear.
By and large, people have coped remarkably over this first phase- supporting each other and appreciating the difficulties in responding to such a vast, rapidly-unfolding set of challenges. A huge amount has been learned, too, with the NHS much better placed to deal with the coming winter based on the experiences of the spring. Nationally, the furlough scheme and support for business has saved many firms and jobs, although there are significant gaps.
But it is also vital that we understand what hasn’t worked well, what the key pressure points were/are, what will be different this autumn and winter, not least as we face the deepest economic crisis in a century. And one thing we absolutely don’t need is a new crisis.
If we are to minimise the impact of further restrictions on daily life, with all the human and economic damage these can do, the effectiveness of the ‘test, trace and isolate’ process is absolutely fundamental. Yet despite having had months to prepare and to learn from the events of the spring, it is obvious that the system is buckling under the strain as queues soar and some people are being referred for tests hundreds of miles away.
What has gone wrong? Well, it hasn’t helped that the testing service has been set up in parallel to the NHS, contracted out to companies like Serco without drawing on the local knowledge of different parts of the country. Rumours that testing will It also seems like the schools going back and the encouragement for workers to return to their offices has caught the government by surprise, when it should have been obvious that this would lead to increased demand. As infections rise again, the government has to get a grip of this.
However, Central London Clinical Commissioning Group, the body responsible for planning and arranging the supply of health care in our area, is continuing to advise people:
Testing is free, quick and vital to stop the spread of #coronavirus. So let’s get tested and get back to the things we love. Book a test online at http://nhs.uk/coronavirus or by calling 119 #LetsGetBack
You can read the CCG’s latest ‘Covid newsletter’ here.
Generally, our local NHS has performed brilliantly from the start.
Here’s the latest from Imperial NHS Trust, which covers St Mary’s
As of Wednesday 16 September, we were caring for 15 inpatients who have tested positive for Covid-19 on their current admission to hospital. None of these patients needed to be on a ventilator in intensive care. And as of Tuesday 15 September, we have helped 1,548 patients recover from Covid-19 and be discharged. We have reported 430 deaths of patients positive for Covid-19 via NHS England.
Implementation of new high, medium and low risk pathways and move away from Covid-protected and Covid risk-managed areas.
We are implementing new national guidance across our hospitals for the remobilisation of services within health and care settings, including updated infection prevention and control recommendations.
Instead of having completely separate Covid-protected and Covid risk-managed areas, we are moving to caring for patients within one of the following three pathways:
high risk (patients have Covid-19),
medium risk (patients may have Covid-19),
low risk (patients are very unlikely to have Covid-19).
We will be able to be more flexible about providing care within the different pathways using our existing facilities and lay outs, including separating patients on the different pathways through the use of bays and side rooms and greater use of enhanced cleaning protocols.
We will use symptoms checks, screening and testing to determine the most appropriate pathway for each patient. All urgent and emergency care pathways will initially be high or medium risk as patients won’t have been tested or self-isolated beforehand. Most planned surgery will be low risk, as patients will generally have had a test around three days before they come into hospital and been asked to self-isolate from that point. Outpatient services will be primarily medium risk as patients will be screened – but not tested – beforehand, though we will also be continuing to offer telephone or video consultations wherever appropriate. There will be additional measures to protect patients who are at higher risk of harm if they become infected with Covid-19. This may include greater separation of care pathways, and longer self-isolation periods before and/or after planned care.
Inpatient testing will move to testing on admission for non-elective admissions, followed by testing every seven days for all (elective and non-elective) patients who remain in hospital.
Alongside the preparations for both whatever the coronavirus and other health challenges bring this autumn, we are about to feel the full impact of the economic fallout.
There are 15,300 workers on the furlough scheme in Westminster North- 30% of the eligible workforce- and 27,500 across the whole borough. Inevitably, this has driven up the number of people seeking help from the social security system, either because they have become unemployed or because they have become entitled to government help, such as Universal Credit. The figures are fairly astonishing:
- There were 5,885 actual claimants in Westminster North constituency in August 2020, which was 6.4% of the population aged 16-64. The equivalent UK claimant rate was 6.5%.
- This was 150 higher than July 2020 and 3,695 higher than March 2020, before the UK lockdown began.
- There were 870 claimants aged 18-24 in August 2020, 15 higher than July 2020 and 615 higher than March 2020.
The fear is, of course, that the end of the furlough scheme could make things much worse, which is why my colleagues and I are calling for the scheme to continue, targeted particularly on the parts of the economy that are not yet reviving, like hospitality, retail, the creative sector and others.
Over and above this there are an estimated 3 million people who aren’t able to draw on help because of their particular circumstances- many of them self-employed.
The government was right to make Universal Credit more generous during this emergency, with a temporary £20 a week top up amongst other things. However, it would be wrong to end this supplement in a few months- it needs to be made permanent, similar support needs to be given to disabled people who aren’t getting the same uplift, and other improvements have to be made to Universal Credit to help people through this terrible period.
I am only too aware of what an anxious and difficult time this is for so many people. My website features a lot of places to go for help and assistance – and my staff and I stand ready as well. Please seek advice as early as you can.
Parliament came back after breaking for August, still limited to 50 people in the main Chamber and with fewer opportunities to take part than previously as a result. Of course, the usual programme of debates on Parliamentary Bills is also limited by Covid, although there are a great many statements by Ministers and Urgent Questions forced by MPs, so we have been busy.
Here’s looking at EU (again)
What we didn’t expect at the start of the month was for the government to seek to tear up the EU Withdrawal Act, which was only signed a few months ago. Apparently, despite this deal being the basis of the Conservative’s campaign in December’s General Election- described as ‘a great deal’ ‘oven ready’ and the way to ‘get Brexit done’, it is now unacceptable. Conservative MPs told last year that they would lose the party whip if they *didn’t* back the Withdrawal Agreement are now being warned they will lose the whip if they don’t vote against the very same thing.
Suddenly we have the ‘Internal Market’ Bill before us, which even government Ministers acknowledge breaks international law. Amongst many problems with this (Should governments undermine the rule of law in this way?) are that after leaving the EU we will still need trade agreements with other countries. How can we be trusted if we are so willing to tear up the agreements we have already signed up to?Managing the virus – rules, enforcement and the Coronavirus Act
Also coming up shortly will be the renewal of the Coronavirus Act. This Act gave sweeping powers to Ministers to respond to the public health crisis without the normal level of Parliamentary accountability and was passed without a vote in March. If anything, these powers should mean Ministers take even greater care to explain and justify their actions. In practice, we have all too often seen regulations rushed out without the clarity and the justification they deserve. As I write, with infections rising again and new restrictions on activity coming in, we will need to once again balance the protection of vital liberties with the protection of public health.
My Parliamentary Committee- the Joint Committee on Human Rights- has been looking at the very important issues arising out of the Coronavirus Act and will be publishing a detailed report in the coming days. You can check on our webpage for details:
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also been looking at the issues arising exposed in after the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, and will be publishing recommendations on this very soon:
During the next few weeks, attention will be focused on the coming Budget and what steps have to be taken to get the economy going, keep people in work and support the creation of new jobs. I am really pleased that the Confederation of British Industry is joining the calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ which stimulates businesses and creates jobs in the area of the environment. We can achieve two positive things at the same time- make progress towards our goal of a zero-carbon economy and create good, skilled jobs
Because we know for certain that the climate crisis hasn’t gone away while we focus on covid. Inevitably the issue of climate change has been shunted down the agenda by coronavirus, but with California and Argentina burning and temperatures in the Arctic reaching frankly terrifying levels, we have to accept that we are fighting multiple crises at once, and can’t delay the action we need to prevent environmental devastation. To find a positive angle, many people now understand that the Covid crisis has forced us to confront the need to do things differently- and there is.
Many constituents have written to me about the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill currently being introduced into the House of Commons. The spoiler alert is that because it is something called a ‘presentation Bill’- and doesn’t have Government support it isn’t about to become law, but it nonetheless makes the good twin points that this Government’s targets for reducing emissions are not good enough and that it is not even on track to meet those.
What’s happening locally?
Government moves to tear up residents protection against planning decisions are not going down well.
My local Labour colleagues on the council have set out the arguments:
Fierce opposition is already building to the Government’s new ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals which would replace the current planning regime with a zoning system. These plans would hand huge powers to private developers, take away local people’s opportunity to have their say about new developments and further undermine the scope to build social and affordable homes for rent.
They have been widely criticised by organisations ranging from Shelter to the Royal Institute of British Architects, including the Tory-led Local Government Association. Even the Westminster Property Association questioned the White Paper’s ignoring the issues of “Good Growth” in central London.
At the moment, residents and local groups get a chance to fully comment on each individual development proposed for their neighbourhood. Under the new Conservative regime, new buildings which comply with a pre-agreed set of design standards would get automatic approval, no matter what the impact on local residents except in a few ‘protected’ areas.
In recent years Westminster residents have had the chance to comment on the new City Plan, local neighbourhood plans, regeneration proposals and many other initiatives but, quite understandably, most people don’t have time to get involved unless they are directly affected. The new system, which calls for democratic involvement only at the initial stage of drawing up detailed local plans will prove unwieldy and unworkable in Westminster, with its huge architectural and social diversity. Zoning requires every possible eventuality to be thought through and agreed in advance. No wonder the New York zoning resolution is 1,300 pages long!
Development in Victoria, Tottenham Court Road and Paddington could plough ahead with little no controls at all if they are nominated as “growth” zones. This would lead to a proliferation of tall, ugly buildings with much-reduced benefit for the local community.
Under these proposals, Westminster will be given legally binding home building targets but no requirement that any of these should be affordable. Indeed, the 84-page White Paper does not contain a single mention of social housing.
Incredibly the Conservatives are proposing that new developments of under 50 units should not have to make any contribution to affordable housing, meaning that luxury developments in Central Westminster valued at many tens of millions of pounds would not have to contribute at all!
The White Paper is worryingly silent on issues around residential amenity (such as light, sense of enclosure, noise and access) which are very important to residents in our very densely populated City. Important local groups such as Neighbourhood Forums and Amenity Societies are dismissed as “the usual voices” in a new process designed to shut local people out of the debate.
The White Paper also announces a new “Infrastructure Levy” property development to replace the Section 106 contributions and the Community Infrastructure Levy. Westminster Council needs to be given direct control over setting the rate of the levy (currently proposed to be determined by national government) and obliged to use the majority of the proceeds for social and properly affordable housing.
There is a real risk the Government will pressure local authorities to divert some of this money into its ‘First Homes’ scheme to reduce the sale price of private homes for first-time buyers, something that is still hugely unaffordable in central London. It may also undermine efforts to support mixed communities by diluting the requirements for new affordable homes to be built on-site, further exacerbating Westminster’s land shortage.
We need Westminster Council to stand up and tell the government how much damage these plans will do. The Conservatives promised us better housing – not a new generation of unsafe slums and an end to affordable housing. Sign our petition to remind the Council to fight for their residents!
Sign our petition
Following up on complaints about postal delivery
During the spring and summer, lots of local residents were raising concerns about gaps in postal delivery and I was taking these up on a weekly basis with the Royal Mail. Staff sickness and isolation, the need to introduce social distancing into the sorting office and limits on the number of people in the vans coming down from the centre were part of the problem. At the same time, while the number of letters in the system fell sharply, the number of parcels soared. I went up to our sorting centre in Park Royal to see how they have reorganised their workspace and talk to staff about the changes that have had to be made. Hopefully, most people now have a normal service restored and it certainly didn’t look like there was a backlog- but pleasekeep me informed.
Crime and anti-social behaviour: A difficult summer as lockdown eased
Back in April, I wrote to Westminster Council to set out my concerns around crime and anti-social behaviour both during and coming out of lockdown. Although overall crime fell sharply this summer ( albeit with some particular problems around emergency housing for vulnerable residents in areas such as Lancaster Gate), it seemed obvious that:
- Lockdown pressures would see a surge in domestic violence and neighbour nuisance/related anti-social behaviour
- There could be a resurgence of serious gang violence as patterns of control of the drugs trade were disrupted
- Unlicensed musical events had the potential to be flashpoints, as well as bringing noise and other nuisance
- Mental health would be significantly affected
- Police capacity would be very stretched with Covid and public order demands on top of existing duties
So I was not surprised that August saw some distressing levels of violence, with 4 murders of people either locally or with local connections. Particular pressure points have been in and around Harrow Road, Warwick estate, Elmfield Way, Queen’s Park, Church Street and Hall Place. I have been in constant touch with the police- including going out with police teams and spending a morning this week with the Territorial Support Group- and Westminster Council, in respect of their housing management, licensing and other responsibilities, and I am told by residents that there has been some recent improvement in places such as the Lydford.
However, the fact remains that we need more police capacity ( we lost 1/3 of our police numbers in Westminster after 2011, as £1 billion was cut from the Met budget, and this is only just being restored), support and activities for young people and help from housing management, including some design changes where necessary to improve security.
The future of London – and of Westminster
London is the powerhouse of the national economy as well as being where millions of workers make their living, working or running businesses. The country as a whole cannot afford London’s economy to falter too hard or for too long, whilst it is probably true that the shape of that economy will look very different in a year or two from how it looks now.
The Mayor of London is commissioning major new research into the future of central London economy whilst warning that the warns rise in cases in the capital is seriously concerning
- Major work to help understand emerging trends likely to affect the economy in central London and Canary Wharf area
- Work absolutely critical to planning for both challenges and opportunities facing central London
- Work commissioned in the context of the rise in COVID-19 cases that Mayor believes is “seriously concerning”
- Sadiq is chairing a meeting of international Mayors and leaders to discuss co-operation and information sharing to tackle the pandemic
- Mayor and London leaders set out bold ‘missions’ to support recovery, restore confidence in the city and minimise the impact on most vulnerable communities.
The economic situation has, specifically, placed the West End in a very precarious position which, if decisive action is not taken urgently, could threaten its survival as an economic engine for London and the rest of the UK as well as create serious problems for the local economy
Westminster Labour councillors have drafted a paper with a series of Emergency Actions that we believe need to be taken by the City Council in order to attract more families to the West End to replace the missing office workers and overseas tourists.
We have also set out a series of Actions for the City Council, the Mayor and Government to take.
Finally, this document also looks at issues which the City Council should consider if office workers, tourists and shoppers do not return to the West End in the numbers necessary to sustain the area’s economy in its current form.
There is a need for wide debate and discussion about the future of Westminster and we hope that this document will start the process and stimulate ideas, suggestions and thoughts from residents, businesses, community organisations, academia and anyone who has an interest in these important issues.
We plan to organise a ‘virtual conference’ in September to discuss these issues. If you would like to attend please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Try this benefits calculator to see if you are getting the right help
Westminster Citizen’s Advice Bureau should be the first stop for local people needing help and advice, but ‘Turn to Us’- a national charity, has a very helpful benefit calculator where you can check what you are and should be getting. The link below takes you straight to the calculator:
Coronavirus: What financial help can I get?
Fix my block!
This is a great new resource for people living in blocks of flats where there may be issues such as cladding or maintenance:
Is your rented flat properly licenced? Check here and you may be entitled to rent repayment
Westminster has the largest share of homes in the private rented sector of any council in the country, and while many are excellent, some are appalling.
I may not agree with Westminster Council on everything but I give them credit for this- a way for tenants to find out if their rented home should have a license but doesn’t, and how to get rent back if the landlord has broken the rules:
Finally, I welcome any feedback and comments you may have and please do continue to contact me if my staff and I can be of help.
Karen Buck MP