It was only a few weeks ago that we experienced that first outbreak of coronavirus in our community. That seems a lifetime ago now doesn’t it.
Back then I was in constant contact with the Chief Medical Officer’s team and numerous other public health officials. I understood the strategy they were using inside-out and I had faith in it because I was able, on your behalf, to ask dozens of difficult questions directly to people making the decisions affecting our health and wellbeing.
Bare in mind how effective that early strategy was when we look back. We had seven confirmed cases of Covid-19 but none of them passed in on to a single person. It was a stunning achievement but I saw close-up just how big the operation to achieve it was.
Back then the hardest thing for me was that I had managed to understand the strategy but government itself were really bad at explaining it. I tried my very best, but really you should be hearing it from government and the experts directly.
The thing is that some of the advice is counter-intuitive and confounds common sense. For example, I had a really hard time explaining why some staff in a local pub that had been visited by someone with the virus had to self-isolate, but none of the other customers did. And specific students were asked to self-isolate from some schools but the schools themselves remained open.
But the experts were right at that moment because spread of the virus in that outbreak in our community was halted. At the same time in Italy a so-called ‘super-spreader’ was present in the Lombardy region but couldn’t be found and we can see just how devastating the consequences of that have been. By dealing so effectively with that initial outbreak our country has brought valuable time to prepare and thankfully we’ll never know what the consequences would had things worked out differently.
In all the calls I had with senior health experts one stands out. When I got the call to say the final patient had returned home and the outbreak had been contained, we talked about ‘what next’. I was told that we would continue in this way for as long as possible but it was probable that Britain would see widespread infection and cases going into the hundreds of thousands. Why, I asked, can’t we just carry on eliminating it just as we did in Brighton and Hove? The person I was speaking to was one of the world’s most accomplished virologists and he said that in a country as connected as ours and with a virus that is as virulent as this, it is simply impossible to prevent its spread but our best hope is to limit its damage, protect the vulnerable, and delay its ‘peak’ for as long as possible in order to prepare our public services and learn the lessons of other countries.
I’ve read everything I can lay my hands on about Covid-19 and one raw statistic illustrates why it has wreaked so much havoc around the world: seasonal flu is, as we all know, pretty infectious. After ten ‘infective cycles’ – one person passing it on to the next ten times – 14 people will have been infected. Now compare that to Covid-19. After ten infective cycles, Covid-19 will have infected 59,000 people (this assumes no mitigation measures of course but it shows what we’re up against). This tells us just how remarkable that operation in Brighton and Hove was to halt infection last month and also explains why experts believed that an epidemic across Britain was inevitable.
Our community in Brighton and Hove is uniquely vulnerably to the impact of an epidemic of this kind. Our economy is dominated by three sectors: hospitality and tourism, higher education, and commuting to London. We also have the highest numbers of micro-businesses and sole-person businesses per capita in the country. The very second that initial outbreak was tackled I switched to finding ways to understand the needs of our local economy in the challenges we’re now entering and doing my best to get it heard by ministers and government.
Covid-19 has now spread across the country. It is estimated that 55,000 people have it now and almost 80 people have lost their lives as a result of infection. This loss of life is tragic and as the most common source of infection is a family member, I am acutely aware that many deaths will carry with it a very complex and heartbreaking element that we must be very sensitive towards as we support families through this terrible time.
The experts and government have now asked every one of us to change our behaviour. In some countries this has happened in one fell swoop, in Britain they have decided to do it in stages.
As with that very first response to the outbreak in our community, this has caused a lot of anxiety. It’s been so frustrating for me that government have been so bad at communicating the reason for the decisions they are making. They are not explaining why they have settled upon this particular strategy well enough. The people in Number 10 are the same people who did the communications operation that delivered the referendum result and last year’s general election, but seem incapable of communicating effectively during a national crisis from a position of power.
I’ve tried my very best to understand why the British response is different to some ofter countries. There are some key differences between what happened in China and Italy and how things are unfolding in Britain. In Italy the main outbreak occurred overwhelmingly in one area and the contagion occurred incredibly rapidly which resulted the total collapse of regional health services there. In Britain the epidemic is more evenly spread and occurring – so far – at a different pace. This has resulted in our scientific experts making different recommendations as to what interventions to make and, crucially, the timing.
They have told me that if they ‘lock-down’ Britain too early then they might have to keep us in quarantine for a very long time and once we emerge it will only take a few residual cases to reignite the epidemic. If they leave it too late then our health services will become overwhelmed. I do not doubt the pressure that decision-makers are under in their quest to make the right judgement.
For now we are being asked to work from home if possible; to avoid public transport and not to go abroad; not to go for a night out or even to gather with small groups of friends at all.
We also need to really look out for older people too. Last weekend my family gathered just as we always try to do on a Sunday, but we did so electronically on a video-call. This was for the benefit of my dad. He’s spent a lifetime looking out for me and our family, now it’s time we did the same for him.
If any of us develop a fever or persistent cough then we must return home. We need to stay there for a week if living alone or two weeks if you live with others. In the latter instance everyone in the household must remain home for the full two weeks too.
Right now there are tens of thousands of people all over the country who are isolating themselves at home. This is having a profound impact on the economy and individuals and it’s only going to get worse.
If you work full time then you will be entitled to statutory sick pay during the period of isolation. I really hope your employer offers more because the statutory minimum is £96 per week and few of us can live off that. I have repeatedly asked for this to be increased to the match the living wage.
If you have a mortgage you will be entitled to a payment holiday during any time of economic inactivity due to self-isolation or Covid-19 issues that take you away from work.
An awful lot of people reading this will be contractors or self employed and I believe government’s response to supporting you falls way short of what you need and what I’ve called for. You are an engine of our local
economy and yet you’re told to register with the welfare system and apply for either Universal Credit or Employment Support Allowance. Surely you need far more help and support to keep your business alive and your family secure?
Today I took evidence from a range of representative bodies for employers and workers on the select committee I sit on. They were unanimous in their verdict that the welfare system as it stands is incredibly poorly suited for this kind of support. People who have never been on benefit before will find the process alien, and to many others it will not be responsive or generous enough to make the deference people need. I have fought hard for improvements to the way self-employed people and contractors are treated and I’ll continue to do so I promise.
And for people who rent their homes no support has been announced at all. I have raised this many, many times in the last week. I’ve worked with colleagues, I’ve lobbied ministers privately, and I’ve raised in every forum I can. Finally tonight the chancellor said that a further statement on this will be made ‘in the coming days’ and you can count on me being there to fight for the best deal for you.
If you’re running a business locally then it’s likely your business rates will be cancelled for this year. If your business rates are under £51,000 then you can apply for a government grant of £25,000. This sounds like a lot of money but if you employ more than a few people then it won’t go far if, as expected, the disruption to our society and economy lasts into the summer.
This is a challenge unlike any other. People are being made inactive by the need to isolate. The global supply chain has been severely disrupted so fewer products can make it to consumers. And people are being instructed to stay away from many of the places we spend money. It all adds up to an assault on our economy from many different directions and as always it’s the low-paid and vulnerable that suffers first and suffers most. That’s why government’s response needs to match the scale of the challenge.
The reason is simple: When Britain emerges from this crisis our shops will need to start selling again, our businesses will need to start trading again, and our manufacturers will need to start making things again. This can’t happen if they’ve gone bust. This can’t happen if they’ve had to lay off so much of their workforce that their enterprise doesn’t have the capacity to get going again at the same pace as before or, hopefully, even more.
The job of government right now it tough but it’s also very simple: to keep us safe and to keep our economy afloat so that when we emerge every single business can pick up where it left off without a second’s delay and without a single person having lost their job because of this wretched virus.
You’ll know that I have tried really hard to be a constructive partner to government through this difficult time. I’ve not opposed or criticised just for the sake of it. I hope that’s come across in this post too. At times in the last few weeks it’s felt like I’ve been out in the media explaining government policy more than ministers have!
But I do have criticisms too. Yesterdays’ announcement from the prime minister on the hospitality sector was botched and indecisive. We were told, in effect, that ‘pubs and cafes are unsafe, but we’re not closing them’. This mixed messaging is exactly what we don’t need in the midst of a crisis. If government feel that somewhere is unsafe then they should close them just as has been done all across the world. Right now it is customers and managers of small businesses who have to make the terrible decision and that’s wrong. Managers feel loyalty to their customers, and so many of these places are deeply rooted in communities and customers feel loyalty to the business. Rather than passing the risk down to them, the leaders of our country should take responsibility.
The testing programme is also falling way short. Last week the strategy changed without announcement. Those first cases in Hove were discovered because they called 111 and were tested within the community. From last week only hospital inpatients are being tested and worse still, frontline NHS staff and key workers are not eligible for a test. They must go home and self-isolate just like the rest of us. This makes no sense at all, we need these people to be tested and if in the clear returned to their essential jobs without delay.
I have raised both of these issues in the Commons and in the media this week.
Finally, we need to see much more from senior government ministers and the prime minister. I never thought I’d suggest seeing more of Boris Johnson but he is prime minister and he should be in the Commons far more. It is essential that daily press conferences happen, I called for this over the weekend, and he also needs to be there to answer questions in parliament from the people who represent communities up and down the country. It’s not a partisan point, it’s important. Today alone it was announced that citizens are to be stopped from making all non-essential trips abroad. This is an incredible announcement, unprecedented in peacetime, but it was incredible to me that the prime minister wouldn’t think it appropriate to announce this to the country in parliament and then be open to scrutiny and constructive suggestions from MPs.
Parliament must adapt to the new world we’re in. I no longer have staff in parliament and don’t invite visitors onto the estate. I believe that the Commons should run it’s usual programme of starting the day with an hour’s questions to ministers, then followed by statements from government or ‘urgent questions’ from backbenchers and then close.
Once a week we should have a general debate allowing MP’s to come and raise any issue in detail and present to ministers and the public the insight and questions they have gathered. I believe that the prime minister should make a statement at least once a week to parliament on coronavirus and the chancellor should make a statement at least once a week on the economy. Right now we need a ‘mini-budget’ every week until this crisis is over. But then the Commons should close.
The Commons is a packed place, it’s not just MPs it’s also the door keepers, police and security, Hansard transcribers, journalists, catering and loads of other people too. It’s not responsible to run a full programme but parliament must never be closed entirely, just adapt just as the rest of the country is doing.
Just as I publish this I’m going to head back home to Hove on a late train and remain there for the rest of the week. I’ll work from my office in Hove but there too we’ve adapted. I’m continuing with surgery appointments but doing them by phone. The team all sit more then two metres apart and we’re doing everything we can to be safe but make sure the service we give to our community is uninterrupted.
Things feel very otherworldly at the moment but the truth is we’re still in the foothills.
In the coming days and weeks there will be a shocking period when infections will rise very fast. It is inevitable that schools will close and there will be further restrictions on our movement. We will need to find ways to support elderly or vulnerable neighbours without putting them at risk. We will need to find ways to keep our morale up despite facing many worries.
In short, we’re going to need to look out for each other andd as always, believe me, I’m fighting for us with everything I’ve got!
Remember….wash your hands often and don’t touch your face! Yours, Peter