This has not been a normal week, and for all of us this is the most incredibly challenging time. My thoughts are with all my constituents across Chelmsford as they face the changes and challenges ahead. I am trying to keep people up to date with the most recent news via my Facebook page but please do also use the Government website, Gov.uk, for detailed news. At this difficult time, I think it is also important to try to keep as much routine, albeit in different ways so here is my week in the life of.
Monday 16th March Into the Department of Education for our weekly meeting with ministers and key civil servants. It is clear that Coronavirus is becoming a bigger and bigger concern. The Secretary of State asks ministers to take responsibility for contacting key stakeholders across the country to keep communication open with those on the front line. I organise a meeting of all the key officers leading on the issues that I cover; Early Years, Children in Care or in Need, Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and School Food. We go through their planning for weeks ahead. At this point we are still hoping schools will be able to stay open until Easter Holidays. The team are hugely professional and are working to try to resolve questions as quickly as possible.
I am in the House of Commons when the Prime Minister announces that people are to start social distancing urgently, and that all people should work from home if they can. An eerie quietness falls across London. I tell my constituency staff to work from home and not to come to London. They will help to support constituents by email and phone.
Tuesday 17th March Walking into the Department it is empty, the first six floors which are normally buzzing are completely silent. All staff have taken their laptops away and are working from home. On the seventh floor the minister’s teams are all busy, we know there will be more work ahead. I have long conference calls with stakeholders, including many representatives of preschools, nurseries and child minders. I’ve managed to get extra financial support for the sector so that if schools do shut, they will still be paid for the Government funded hours of childcare. They are pleased, it makes a difference.
With my ministerial team I triage what other work we need to do at this time. Clearly coronavirus is going to be our priority, we can’t drop all the other work we are doing but we must re-prioritise and defer some projects until another time.
In the evening I am in the House of Commons listening to the Chancellor explain the next level of financial support for business when my phone goes. Can I urgently come back to the Department. The Secretary of State explains that he thinks we need to close schools and is going to make the recommendation to the Prime Minister in the morning. None of us want to do this, but we know it needs to be done. We discuss logistics and planning for the days ahead.
Wednesday 18th March Start the day with a long conference skype call with parents of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities across the country. We are looking at the review of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. We also discuss what they think support for these children should be if schools close. They are enormously helpful and thoughtful. I have a call with the leaders of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, we are discussing many different matters that are affecting them but of course we are all thinking about the virus. We hear that the Prime Minister has decided to close schools for all bar children of key workers and vulnerable children. I’m looking at the definition of Key Workers and pressing to make sure social workers are on the list. We need them to care for our most vulnerable. I am asked to go to a mini Cobra meeting discussing the support for people with the most severe medical risks. An enormously serious and solemn meeting but very thoughtful and considered.
Before the news about schools is announced I have some quick calls with the leaders of preschool networks that I spoke to yesterday to warn them, and with the Children’s Commissioner. She is so grateful that we are keeping school places for those most vulnerable children with a social worker. This is to keep them safe.
The Secretary of State comes to tell MPs the news that schools are to close, he asks me to sit on his right and the schools minister on his left. As he takes questions from MPs, we help give any detail from our briefs to help make sure the answers are clear.
Thursday 19th March Working from home and a series of calls to stake holders, including a long call with the team that run the Foster Carers network. It is extremely helpful to hear their feedback from foster carers across the country. These are the sorts of families that are going to have huge challenges. Everyone wants to know what the key worker list will look like and I take questions from MPs all day. Officials are working night and day to get guidance agreed. I help to work on a new voucher scheme for free school meals, and on guidance for caring for children in unusual settings such as Residential Special schools. We also work on guidance for caring for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. There are many decisions to make. None of them are easy. By Skype I meet the officials who are working on the emergency powers bill next week. It is extremely important that this is passed quickly so that the country can continue to run in these difficult times, but there are lots of issues to cover. I will be helping to get this through the House of Commons next week, so I need to be on top of the details.
Friday 20th March At home again as we have cancelled face to face meetings where at all possible. I start the day with a very helpful catchup call with the local mid Essex MPs and our NHS leaders. We hear about plans to cancel non urgent operations and treatments, to get more ventilators and PPE. Again, the questions are serious, but the health team are extremely professional and calm. We agree this will be a weekly call.
I then take another conference call with the officers leading on each element of my responsibilities. They are deeply focused, and we discuss the many issues that are arising on the ground. We walk through these and I give my own thoughts especially on the importance of getting food to children who usually get free school meals and on making sure children in care have as much stability as possible.
I then join a conference call with the leaders of Local Authorities across England, who are preparing to help support the 1.5 million people with the most severe risk. I speak about the school closures, care for vulnerable children and the work we are doing to get them guidance. It is very sombre.
After lots more calls with MPs and worried colleagues I jump in the car. My son has been stranded in Edinburgh where the university has shut down. I drive north, taking calls from MPs, constituents and those working to support Chelmsford as I go. I listen to the Prime Minister and Chancellor announce the new package of support for workers. It will reassure many people.
Saturday 21st March It is so good to collect my son, and I think of the many families who are separated during this crisis. We have a long journey back home. When I return, I make calls to church leaders and community leaders in Chelmsford, as well as the Leader of Chelmsford City Council. There is so much to do. Some voluntary organisations are stepping up to give help, others are struggling. Please do sign up to support the volunteers.
Sunday 22nd March Spend Mothering Sunday on the phone and email. Starting with a Cobra meeting about supporting the vulnerable. The planning and thinking is huge and I am so impressed by the Chief Medical Officer, NHS bosses and ministers from across Government.
There are still many questions from constituents about food, supermarkets, financial support and volunteers. I try to answer with the most up to date information. Thank you to everyone who is helping. We will get through this, but it will be a hard time ahead.