My thoughts this week have been with those who are mourning loved ones taken by the virus, those who are sick, the worried and the lonely. Thank you everyone so much for staying at home, it is making a huge difference and slowing down the spread of the disease.
I am settling into a “lockdown” routine. I start and end each day with a catchup with my parliament and constituency office team to go through emails and queries from Chelmsford residents, working out how best to advise them and get support. The middle of the day is on my job as Children’s minister, where a huge amount of work is being done to protect vulnerable children at this time. Much of this has been long conference calls via Skype and Zoom, hearing from specialist organisations across the country to hear their feedback on the issues they see. Schools, social workers, foster carers and others working with children have needed clear guidance on how best to resolve these issues, so I am also spending much time agreeing and approving this guidance.
Monday The constituency email box has lovely messages from Chelmsford residents who have been stuck overseas and now returned home. I know how worried families are as my own niece is in Ecuador where she has been volunteering. There are very few flights. We email all those we think are still overseas and give them the latest foreign office advice – urging them to be in close contact with the UK consulates and embassies across the world.
The good news is that new Essex Resilience Service Hub to help those most at risk from the virus has now set up and started delivering food and medical supplies to those without their own support network. The service needs volunteers – and we share the Essex Welfare Service hotline 03003039988 with constituents who want to volunteer and those that need help.
I catch up with civil servants working on vulnerable children issues, including supporting children who need care and those with special educational needs and disabilities. Our call for retired Social Workers to come and help has been launched and we are finalising our plans for the new Free School Meal voucher so that the 1.3 million children who usually get a free meal will be able to access food.
In the evening I receive a message from my niece, she is booked on a flight on Wednesday. Huge relief.
Tuesday Very early morning trip to the supermarket as we are running low on food. Its good to see that people are keeping their distance and taking care to follow the guidelines. I am struck by how kind the staff and shoppers are to each other.
The Free School Meals voucher is launched! This has been a huge project to deliver in less than a fortnight. I spend the morning doing interviews for the children’s program Newsround and other organisations. It is so uplifting to be able to give some positive news at this challenging time.
I join a large inter-ministerial conference bringing together the different government departments that are involved with putting together the local resilience hubs across the country. This has also been a mammoth effort but the hubs are now active. I “meet” with the head of the Council for Disabled Children, she feeds back on concerns being raised by families of those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. It is extremely important that our residential special schools get access to PPE as they are often caring for the children and young people with most severe disabilities.
I call the Chief Executive of Chelmsford City Council. They are also launching a local Chelmsford Hub for supplies and support, please contact the Essex Welfare Service if you need help.
Wednesday On the constituency email box we are getting lots of queries from Chelmsford businesses – the banks are being very slow in agreeing new loans, a new process is needed. I feed this back to the Treasury team.
I join a conference call bringing together Social Work leaders from across the country. It is extremely helpful to hear their feedback. Social Workers are the incredibly important front-line support for vulnerable children. We are rapidly working on more detailed guidance for them, to cover a huge range of different issues they are seeing.
We launch a new #HungryLittleMinds campaign. This website gives a range of ideas and activities for families of children aged 0-5. It must be so difficult to be stuck at home with tiny children, so please do pass on this website to anyone you know in this position.
I have a very helpful and detailed call with the Secretary of State for Education about our review of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities system for children and young people. This is an important area of work and one that I am still focusing on, even at this challenging time.
Thursday Another Inter-Ministerial Group conference call, chaired by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock. It is so good to see him back and recovered from the virus. The meeting focuses on PPE across the country. Supplies are holding up for now and distribution has been improved since the army restructured the distribution system. We go through the priorities for where PPE is most urgently needed and I’m able to ensure that those caring for disabled children in residential special schools are included.
I have an online meeting with heads of Alternative Provision schools from all across England. Their students are often at a highest risk of being targeted by criminal networks, this is one of the reasons why we have asked schools to stay open for vulnerable children as well as children of key workers. The advice from the head teachers is very thoughtful and extremely helpful.
The chancellor announces a new Corona Virus Business Interruption Loan. Thank you, this will help many Chelmsford businesses
Friday Catch up with the Home Office minister who is also working on vulnerable children. Most local authorities have ensured that all the children at highest levels of risk have been contacted by a social worker, we are setting up support for those authorities that are most challenged.
I have a detailed call with the Health Minister about the issues raised by families with children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. It is important that those with the most severe health conditions can access the treatments and support they need at this time.
I catch up with Chelmsford Police, our local health service leads and our hospitals. They are all thanking everyone for staying at home. This is making a real difference to the pressure on our NHS.
In the evening I get a call from my niece, safely back at home. This is a very troubling time all across the world, but how lucky we are to have the NHS in the UK.
Saturday and Sunday I spend the weekend answering emails and calls, doing an update interview for BBC Essex and trying my first “Joe Wicks” online PE lessons – millions of children are doing this every day – thank you Joe!