Statement on New National Lockdown

Parliament was recalled today for a vote on the Government’s new lockdown measures and a statement on education. I put myself forward to speak in the proceedings but unfortunately did not get selected, therefore I wanted to update constituents on what is happening.

The situation is clearly incredibly serious. Covid-19 is spreading rapidly across the country. Over the last week Newcastle hospitals have seen a dramatic increase in Covid patients, and too many have tragically lost their loved ones already.

Another national lockdown is immensely difficult for families across the country after everything they have already been through. But the scientific advice is clear that even the severe Tier 4 restrictions would not be enough to suppress the virus and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. The new regulations are by no means perfect, but I do not believe that is an excuse for allowing the virus to spread.

There are, however, serious questions for the Government to answer. At every stage of this crisis the Prime Minister has proved incapable of acting until the very last moment. It’s not good enough. If we are going to get ahead of the virus, we need the Government to make the right calls – and do so quickly.

The full guidance on the new restrictions is available here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay-at-home

Vaccination

Thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of scientists in the UK and across the world, there is a clear way out of this crisis.

The Government must use this new national lockdown to establish a massive and immediate vaccination programme across the country. Ministers wasted the time we spent in lockdown last year by failing to establish a proper track and trace system- we cannot afford for that to be repeated.

Government must be transparent about the number of vaccines we have available and how delivery is progressing so that we can have confidence in the process.

We should have vaccination centres in every local community, provide GPs and pharmacies with the resources they need and have our businesses and public services working hand in hand for the common good.

I would strongly urge anyone who has concerns about vaccination to speak to their doctor or trusted medical professionals, or read the information published by trusted sources like the NHS:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-vaccination/coronavirus-vaccine/

School closures

Primary and secondary schools will remain closed to all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers until at least the February half term. The Education Secretary today confirmed that the definition of vulnerable includes pupils who cannot access online learning or do not have adequate learning space at home.

The Government has handled this badly. The Prime Minister assured parents on Sunday morning that schools would open as normal and there was no need for concern, only to close them by Monday night.

The damage being away from school does to pupils’ mental health and achievement is well documented. The last thing I or anyone else wants to see is another prolonged period of school closure.

Unfortunately, with severe lockdowns already in place across the country, temporarily closing schools was one of the few options left following scientific advice that existing measures would be insufficient. The Government should have acknowledged this far sooner.

These closures should ideally be as short as possible, and the Government must immediately set out clear plans for every child to return safely to school and be honest with parents about the timetable for this.

It is critical that education is safeguarded throughout this period, and every pupil must be able to access education either through remote learning or at school. The Education Secretary’s pledge to get more laptops out to pupils that need them is welcome, but we should have been much better prepared for this already. This isn’t a problem that has come out of the blue – it was always possible another period of remote learning may be needed.

There are some great free resources available for those that want additional learning support beyond school, such as the BBC’s expanded educational programme (https://twitter.com/bbcpress/status/1346503479335014401) and established free education tools such as Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/).

The Government must work with schools and councils to ensure that vulnerable children are identified and supported to attend school. In meetings with Education Ministers yesterday, I also asked them to consider prioritising the youngest pupils, who cannot realistically learn remotely, to safely go back to school (https://twitter.com/CatMcKinnell/status/1346403417137274880).

Early years settings remain open, and the Government must provide clear answers on the safety of nurseries and childminding for staff and families, as well as reassurances on testing, vaccinations, and financial support. With some nurseries seeing big drop-offs in registrations since last Spring, it is essential that support is provided to prevent mass closures and job losses.

Exams

This year’s GCSE and A-Level exams have already been scrapped, as have SATS. Schools and Colleges have been left to decide if BTECs exams should go ahead or not. The Government really should have shown leadership on this and cancelled BTECs to prevent unfair grades.

The Education Secretary confirmed today that some form of teacher assessment would be used to calculate GCSE and A-Level grades but was less than clear about how consistency and fairness would be ensured across the country. Clearly an assumption was made that exams would go ahead, and little forward planning was undertaken. We cannot have a repeat of last Summer’s fiasco – I and colleagues will do all we can to press the Government on this.

Any replacement system must consider the huge amount of learning that has been lost by pupils. Regional differences in learning loss affect the North East, but the Government has put remarkably little thought has gone into how this can be remedied.

Even if we can design a fair replacement for exams, the learning loss children and young people have suffered is still very real and will affect pupils in their school careers and beyond. We need the Government to bring forward a more comprehensive package of catch-up funding as I and colleagues have previously called for (https://www.catherinemckinnellmp.co.uk/show-leadership-to-ensure-our-children-do-not-bear-the-brunt-of-this-crisis-catherine-mckinnell-tells-pm/), particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils who have lost out most of all.

Working Parents

Working parents face huge challenges in balancing work, childcare, and supporting their children’s education. They must have the support they need to do this.

The government, and employers, must clearly promote the use of the job retention scheme for those who cannot work because of childcare commitments, and emphasise the fact that this can be used on a flexible and part-time basis. Too many employers are still unaware that childcare responsibilities are an entirely legitimate reason to furlough employees: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/check-which-employees-you-can-put-on-furlough-to-use-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme#if-your-employees-health-has-been-affected-by-coronavirus-covid-19-or-any-other-conditions

Economic Support

We need to ensure there is an economic package that supports businesses through this crisis and reflects the severity of restrictions. For too long the Government’s economic strategy has been out of step with its public health strategy.

With the advent of the vaccines, we know the current period of extreme economic disruption will not be permanent. Not every business will survive, but we need to support people and businesses that are struggling.

The Chancellor has however said that no new announcements will be made until the Budget in March, but households and businesses alike face a series of cliff edges throughout the Spring as existing support programmes come to an end.

To provide the right support, the Government should immediately:

  1. Use the £2 billion handed back to the Treasury by supermarkets and other large shops to help hard-hit businesses, including those in hospitality, and the millions who have been excluded from support since last March.
  2. Amend the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme so people who have got new jobs since October 31st and are now at risk of losing them can be placed on furlough.
  3. Extend the bans on evictions and repossessions and extending mortgage holidays.
  4. Maintain the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and uprate the old-style benefits that Universal Credit is replacing by the same amount.
  5. Ensure all those who are eligible for the £500 Test and Trace Support payment know they can receive it and give councils the resources to properly cover discretionary payments for the scheme and improving Statutory Sick Pay.
  6. Confirm that the fourth Self-Employment Income Support Scheme will be set at 80% of pre-crisis profits.
  7. Look at ways to support suppliers in the hospitality sector and elsewhere. The current support measures are largely designed around jobs and rent but do little for those with large amounts of perishable stock and other fixed costs.

As difficult as this new lockdown is, it is so important that we all do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus while the country is vaccinated. This crisis will not last forever and thanks to the vaccines an infection avoided over the next few months may well be an infection avoided for good, and lives that would have been lost to Covid-19 will be saved.

I hope you all stay safe during this challenging period and whilst supporting any efforts to stop the spread of the virus, I will continue to challenge the Government where necessary and keep you updated as to further developments.

Catherine