Community organisations, neighbours and friends have been amazing during this look down, especially at supporting those who are lonely, vulnerable or afraid. It is important to try to find ways back to a newer normal. Young children, in particular, are missing out on the interactions with others which are vital for early development. I’ve helped launch a new NSPCC campaign to raise awareness and to encourage people to report cases where they are concerned a child may be at risk of harm. As Minister for Children much of this week’s work has been looking at different options for the reopening of nurseries and pre-schools as part of the planning for the Prime Ministers “Road Map” announcement which is due on Sunday. None of the decisions are easy, and the scientists work hard to model the impact each of potential scenario in order to make sure that the risk of a second outbreak of the virus is minimised.
Monday 4th May I start the day, as always, catching up with by constituency case work team, going through the many emails we are receiving from Chelmsford residents and working out how best to give advice and assistance. Then “over” to the Department for Education. On Tuesday it’s our turn to take “Orals” – these are the daily questions from MPs to each department, which are now taking place in the new half-virtual House of Commons. I will be answering questions about Early Years childcare, so I spend much of the morning checking for the latest news and thinking through what questions might come up. Two of our ministers will be in the Chamber, but the rest of us will be answering the questions on-line from home. This is a new experience, and new experiences are always nerve-wracking. I catch up with all the officials working on the impact of COVID on children’s issues in the twice weekly “Stocktake” meeting. This is so helpful. I’m pleased to hear that hundreds of thousands of people are logging onto the NSPCC campaign. Social workers across the country have been visiting families most at risk, some face to face some virtually and we are launching a new survey of local authorities to find out which areas may be struggling so we can get them support. I have a phone call with the Head of the Social Mobility Commission who has had to step down due to her increased work with another charity. I close the day with another call with the CEO of Edenred, the provider of the free school meals voucher system which we set up a few weeks ago. They have been working on their technology all weekend and I’m pleased to hear that the waiting times for schools and parents have reduced dramatically. So far over 3.5 million weeks worth of meals have been distributed via this system, but there are still problems. I asked the CEO to bring in outside tech experts to accelerate the improvements and am glad to hear this is now happening.
Tuesday 5th May Surprisingly nervous morning getting ready for the Orals session, in a “Zoom” waiting room and wondering if the technology will hold up. But, when the moment comes it works fine and I answer my four questions, including getting in an important announcement that parents who are usually entitled to 30 hours of free childcare will not lose their entitlement this term even if they are having lower income than normal. This will help many families.
Whilst I’m “in” Westminster my assistant is on a conference call with Mid Essex hospital leads and local MPs. It is good to get the feedback that Broomfield, Southend and Basildon hospitals have maintained strong services, with enough PPE, during the peak of the virus on their wards. Thank you so much to our incredible hospital staff. A&E is open for emergencies, and we are asked to remind people to go to get treatment if they need it. I host a round table with foster carers, catch up with the Chief Social Worker for England, call various MPs who have specific questions about children’s social services and do an online interview for Channel 4 news.
Wednesday 6th May Long conversations with officials about the research and modelling of potential scenarios to consider about school opening, detailed discussions with the lead on children’s services from the Local Government Associations, and another with the Children’s Commissioner. We have been working on getting funding for a wide range of Children’s charities across the country, and I’m glad that our bids have been successful.
Thursday 7th May I meet with the Home Office Minister who is also working on projects to protect vulnerable children and reduce domestic violence. These weekly calls have been extremely helpful. We are also working to re-start the registration of births, as these have been on hold during lockdown – but many babies are being born! I Zoom into the Chelmsford “English for Women” group which brings together Chelmsford residents from many different countries. It’s lovely to hear their stories and plans for VE day celebrations. I’m particularly impressed to hear how the Alzheimer’s society has been supporting one of the members who is caring for her husband with dementia.
Detailed conference call with the Essex Chief Constable and the Police, Crime and Fire Commissioner, Roger Hirst. We hear how the Essex Resilience Forum is helping hospitals, care homes and vulnerable residents. I join colleagues for an inter-ministerial meeting chaired by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. We are looking at the current situation for PPE and plans ahead. This is important for any plans regarding schools. I host a round table for Head Teachers of “Alternative Provision” schools. They have some of the most challenged students, and those most at risk. Catch-up with the Head of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, another call with the CEO of Edenred and record an interview for Anglia TV. A final team call with my constituency case work team to make sure all messages from Chelmsford residents have been answered before the long weekend.
Friday 8th May It’s the 75th anniversary of VE day, and not the celebration we thought we were going to have but so uplifting to see pictures of people celebrating on their doorsteps across Chelmsford. I think of my late stepfather who fought at D-Day and died last autumn aged 94. He would have loved this celebration. Well done everyone.
Saturday 9th May Quiet day interspersed with calls and messages as the various options for schools and early years get narrowed down ready for Sunday’s announcement.
Sunday 10th May Like many others across the country I listened intently to the Prime Ministers announcement. There are no easy ways to manage the pandemic, hence each next step must be conditional on continuing to reduce the spread of the virus. I am mindful of the many people who are also struggling financially, despite the many government support schemes. This is why the message is balanced - work from home if you can, but also help those who cannot work from home to get back to their jobs safely.