This has been such an unprecedented week and we know that the weeks ahead will bring further challenges. A massive thank you to everyone in Chelmsford for staying home, staying safe, protecting our NHS and helping care for vulnerable friends and neighbours. My NHS doctor husband is now very much on the frontline, slowing the spread of the disease is so important to keep the hospitals coping.
Even at this time, I find it can help to have a sense of normality so here is my “week in the life of”.
Monday 23rd March I drive down to London. Whilst I want to follow the social distancing rules and stay at home, MPs need to be in Westminster to pass the Coronavirus Bill. This is vital to keep the country running. Clause 4 and 5 of the Bill allows for doctors and nurses who have left the profession to be added back to the register. Thousands have already done so. Clause 6 gives the same for Social Workers. They are often the unsung heroes of our public services.
As Children’s Minster, I know that Social Workers are our frontline when it comes to caring for those of our children who are most at risk. This is an incredibly important role and will be even more as families feel pressure in the weeks ahead. I work in a nearly empty Department for Education, setting together a plan to support Social Workers. I have long calls with the Children’s Commissioner and the Council for Disabled Children talking through what we are doing to reduce the impact on vulnerable children.
In the evening I work in my office in the House of Commons, staying well away from other people, whilst we wait to see if a vote will be needed on any of the amendments that have been tabled to the Bill. Thankfully not. Late in the evening I speak to constituents from the Ambulance Service about getting them more PPE. I make contact with a senior doctor from Broomfield who is stuck overseas and promise to try to get him, and others back home.
Tuesday 24th March Still in London for the second day of the Bill. I am working on support and advice for those with children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, and a letter to nurseries, preschools and childminders. Many of them are working extremely hard to continue to care for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. It is so important they stay open to do this, even if only for a few children. I join a conference call planning the “Local Resilience Hubs” that are being set up across the country to support those who are at most severe risk from the virus. They are being asked to “shield” themselves for 12 weeks so these hubs will provide food and prescriptions to those who do not have their own support networks. I join a conference call with the Leaders of Local Authorities to update them on news and guidance about supporting pupils.
It is a huge relief when we hear that the Bill has passed its Commons stages. I drive home, where I will now stay, so that I minimise the risk of bringing the virus backwards and forwards as my husband will be in and out of his hospital.
Wednesday 25th March I set up morning and evening calls with my small team of constituency assistants as we are receiving a large number of emails from constituents, especially those stranded overseas and many looking for advice. I join other MPs on a conference call with the heads of Broomfield, Basildon and Southend MPs to get an update. They talk calmly about the planning they are doing to make sure that many more patients can be treated at our hospital.
I’ve also been setting up working groups to bring together specialists in different areas of children’s services. I speak with heads of Special Schools across the country. They care for the children with the most severe disabilities and needs. They give excellent advice and we discuss their needs for PPE and guidance to staff. We agree to work together to deliver this.
On the emails offers of help are coming in. I catch up with the Essex County Council team who are setting up the local hub in Witham to support those in the “shield”. They are making rapid progress.
Thursday 26th March A long call with those running nurseries, preschools and childminder organisations, it is so important that those working in our hospitals and key workers can still get childcare. I then speak with those supporting children in Care and Care Leavers, many of these children and young people will be feeling most isolated. I am working to get them extra support. I get updates on what is happening at schools across the country, the vast majority are getting food or food vouchers out to the children who usually get free school meals. My team are working hard on a national voucher scheme, this will be rolled out next week.
The Chancellor makes an announcement about more financial support for the self-employed. This is a huge help to many Chelmsford residents who have emailed me.
Friday 27th March I speak to the leader of Chelmsford City Council about the work they are doing to help rough sleepers get places to stay. I then join Essex MPs for calls with our local NHS who explain that PPE is being delivered to GPs and other health providers across the county. And then a second call with the County Council leaders working on increasing social care capacity and setting up the Local Resilience Hub. They are doing a huge amount of work.
I do another digital conference, this time with the heads of Children’s Charities to get feedback on what they are hearing from Childline calls and other hotlines. We discuss the new guidance that I have worked on for schools and parents about safeguarding children at this time. This has helpful tips for parents on keeping children safe on-line, and mental health support. I have calls with the ministers at the Department for Local Government and the Home Office who are also working on protecting vulnerable children.
Saturday 28th March and Sunday 29th March I continue to work over the weekend, supporting constituents and fielding calls to make decisions on advice for children. I also spend a lot of time checking in with friends and family. I find “normal” tasks like cleaning the house and doing a pile of ironing are strangely relaxing and enjoy switching off the phone to do the large jigsaw puzzle that I bought at a Chelmsford Cathedral coffee morning last month.
I’m pleased to get feedback that the supermarkets in Chelmsford seem much calmer and better stocked than last weekend. Thank you to everyone who is working so hard there. I catch up with our Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, Roger Hirst. The local Fire Service will also be supporting the most vulnerable. Thank you to them. As the week finishes, I receive a happy email. The Broomfield doctor who was stranded overseas is now back at home and will self-isolate for 14 days before getting back to work. Stay safe everyone.