This week has been a parliamentary recess and with beautiful weather, I was rather hoping to spend some time with my Doctor Husband who, like me has not had a day off since February. However, as ever in politics, unpredictable things come up.
I’ve had a very, very large amount of correspondence from constituents about the current situation and have spent much of the week endeavouring to respond to each individual. I always prioritise those who have need of urgent assistance on individual matters, so sometimes it is a bit of a delay before others get a reply. I did however spend the bank holiday Monday with my family at home.
On Tuesday I joined members of the Essex Cricket Committee for a long and helpful discussion of the current situation. I joined the committee earlier this year and am hugely honoured to be a member. We discussed the challenging financial situation that they like other clubs face, and their hopes that some cricket will be able to resume at some stage this summer. Currently all the players are on furlough, but they have been busy volunteering and helping vulnerable people across Chelmsford and wider areas.
Later in the day I also joined the inter-ministerial meeting chaired by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock. We discussed and agreed the plans for launching the new Track and Trace system. This will be crucial in the effort to keep the spread of the virus down whilst also enabling more flexibility with the current lockdown. As Children’s Minister I was particularly pleased that the virus testing has now been extended to children under the age of 5. This is will be most reassuring for those parents who are planning to bring their children back to pre-schools, nurseries and other Early Years settings from next week.
Wednesday was a very busy day at the Department for Education. I met with the heads of the Food Foundation to discuss the work that we have been doing to get food to vulnerable people during the pandemic. In particular the Free School Meal voucher system which had been extremely challenging at the start but is now working well. Then a complicated meeting with the Leader of Kent County Council. Readers will doubtless have seen stories of increased migrants crossing the channel in small boats. Some of these are children and teenagers which is putting added pressure on children’s services in Kent.
I held my “stocktake” meeting with all the key officials who are working on issues affecting vulnerable children. These meetings have been vital in bringing together people from different policy areas and ensuring that there is a joined up co-ordinated approach. However, now that the peak of the virus is passed and we have established networks of support for different cohorts of children across the country we have decided we can now have this stocktake meeting weekly, not twice weekly. I also had a very helpful meeting with the Schools Minister to discuss funding allocations for schools next year and the mental health and wellbeing support for pupils, students and staff.
I had planned to keep Thursday and Friday as a quiet day for catching up on background reading. But a complicated decision needed to be made on making sure that the children of families who normally have no recourse to public funds don’t miss out on early education. Lots of reading of legal text. I also worked to try to get one of Chelmsford’s long standing pot-hole issue finally solved, and we spoke to a number of local Care Homes to get a clear picture of the current situation of access to Covid tests locally.
By Friday mid afternoon, I replied to the vast majority of emails and messages from constituents. Given the number of email and letters I have received, I am sorry if my reply does not address all of the points each individual has raised, and I thank you for your all for your understanding.
I know that across Chelmsford people have made so many sacrifices in order to maintain social distancing, and by doing so you have prevented others from becoming ill. In particular, I give my deepest thanks to those who have been at the frontline during this time, those in our hospitals, care homes and key public services and the many people who volunteer and help others. My thoughts and prayers are also with those who have lost people they love to this dreadful disease, many of these people have told me the heart-wrenching stories of their own personal tragedies. Families have been impacted hugely by this emergency and no one has been immune to the personal impact. Next week we will be back in Parliament – I think. There is still some decision as to how voting will actually take place. The electronic voting system and remote debating of business has been helpful, but it is far from perfect, and it is important that parliament can meet to properly scrutinise government and make decisions. However, it is also important to minimise contact with other people and keep reducing the spread of the virus.