Monday 22nd June Up very early to get to Westminster. Each day in Parliament MPs get to question Ministers from a different government department and today it’s the turn of the Department for Education. During the pandemic this is now slightly more predicable for ministers as there is pre-agreed list of which MPs have been drawn to ask the questions. However, whilst some of them will let you know what they are going to ask about, others don’t. So I’ve spent a lot of time both trying to predict what might come up, preparing for every possible question. Given my brief covers vulnerable children, children with special educational needs and disabilities, children at risk of harm, school meals, early years, mental health and more this has been a lot of work.
The mood in the Department is buoyant given the announcement that all schools will be re-opening to all year groups in September.
When we get to the question time the hour goes very quickly. We are only allowed 3 Ministers in the Chamber at any one time due to social distancing, but five of us are taking questions so we have a lot of swapping in and out and rapid foot work! I answer questions on online harms, nurseries and preschools, missing children and special needs. Long day.
Tuesday 23rd June Packed day in the Department for Education including an important meeting with all those involved in safeguarding children. This includes Ministers from the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care as well as police leads, the Chief Health Visitor and the Chief Social Worker. It is extremely good news that health visitors have started seeing mums of new babies again, as this has been very, very challenging time for them. We are putting a large amount of support into children at risk of harm, so it was very helpful to bring everyone together.
Wednesday 24th June Long and helpful discussion with the Children’s Commissioner. I meet her regularly and this time we were discussing how to improve the adoption system. Very thoughtful stocktake discussion with all the officials who have been leading our Covid response work on children.
In the evening we have a tricky debate on a motion on testing for NHS staff, care workers. To be very clear I am not against regular testing of NHS staff. I am in favour of the NHS staff testing policy as advised by the Chief Medical Officer. However, the motion put down by the opposition party called for all NHS and social care staff to be tested weekly. Around 3 million people work in the NHS and social care. This would require 3 million tests per week. We are already way ahead of other countries in testing over 200,000 people each day. However, I am sure you can understand from the numbers that to test all NHS and Social Care staff each week would require moving tests from other key areas and may not be appropriate where, for example, some of those staff are working from home remotely.
The current approach signed off by the Chief Medical Officer is that NHS and care staff are prioritised for regular testing. This includes continuing to prioritise testing of all NHS staff with symptoms, regular testing of asymptomatic staff in situations where there is an incident or outbreak, and regular surveillance testing of staff. We have a targeted approach to this testing, so that it is focused on the most high-risk areas. Staff working with patients on wards, for example, will benefit from regular testing far more than NHS staff working in offices or administrative roles where they do not come into regular contact with patients. This approach is crucial as, when prevalence of the virus is very low, the risk of misleading results is higher. This can undermine the value of testing. I support this approach and not the unworkable blanket “all” staff approach set out by Labour.
Thursday 25th June I call together all the senior staff who work on vulnerable children issues for a big Zoom meeting. This is a call to arms, to thank them for what they have done so far as everyone has been working so hard. But it’s also to set the sights on what is coming up in the future. I’ve been set the challenge of reviewing both the Care system and the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities system. These are vital pieces of work and I don’t want to lose momentum. I’ve never done a “managerial” meeting like this before, especially not online, but it goes well and it is great to get positive feedback that this has helped re-energised. I meet the Head of the Family Courts to discuss the work they are doing to manage the backlog of court cases that has built up. I join other Ministers from many different departments on a cross Government task force on mental health and well-being. Lots of positive things going on and it is good to hear from the senior lead on mental health from the NHS.
Friday 26th June Wonderful virtual constituency day. One on one calls with the Headteachers of Great Baddow High School, St John Payne and KEGS who are full of smiles about how uplifting the return of Year 10s and 12s have been. We discuss the logistics of the September full return, exam worries, university applications and well-being. I finally catch up on some missed constituency emails (we’ve replied to over 4,000 individual emails since the beginning of lockdown, but I do apologise for any delays). Some lovely calls with Chelmsford residents who needed a chat with their MP. End the week talking to the Essex Cabinet Member for Children’s services about some of their plans to help vulnerable children over the summer – very uplifting!