I was hoping that this would have been a week off, as Parliament is not sitting, but it has been a busy one again: Monday 26th October The morning started very early with a call with officials before joining BBC Essex for their morning show. Giving me a chance to update listeners on the position on Free School Meals. No-one is planning to stop Free School Meals, indeed we have enabled more groups of children to claim them than any Government in the past 60 years. The issue is how best to support those that need extra help in the school holidays, both for school age children and others. This is why we have provided additional funding to local authorities to those in need of food and other essentials. I have continued to work on this through the week with numerous calls and meetings.
I had a virtual meeting with an outstanding nursery in Staffordshire to hear from them about how they have been supporting families with very young children during the pandemic. Early on in the pandemic we announced that we would change the eligibility for claiming the 30 hours of funded childcare so that those who have suffered a drop in income at this time will still be able to access this childcare. This was originally supposed to end at the end of October, but I have now managed to secure an extension in order to support families.
Tuesday 27th October It is national Care Leavers Week and I have been working with my colleague in the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government on new support for young people who are leaving care or have recently left care. I am so impressed by the resilience of so many of these young people, but without a family support network to fall back on they can be extremely vulnerable and often find themselves homeless as they start off in adult life. The new plans include bespoke guidance of local authorities to help support care leavers into their first homes and thereafter. I hope that this will help protect our young people from finding themselves homeless and sleeping rough. It’s good to be able to announce this positive news this week. I have a busy day catching up with messages from constituents and in the evening join MPs for a discussion on social mobility and improvements to the benefits system.
Wednesday 28th October I catch up with members of the Girl Guides from Chelmsford who are recording a radio interview for Parliament week. They are a great group of young people who talk to me about their passions for making positive change. One of the guides has just turned 17 which is the age at which people can become blood donors. We discuss how to encourage more young people to come forward as blood donors, especially at this time. I promise to raise this with the Department for Health.
Thursday 29th October I drop into the Holiday Activities project that is being run by Essex County Council for children in the Chelmsford area. The kids are having a great time, doing yoga and martial arts as well as playing football. They are from a wide mix of different schools across the City and I am told how children can be referred by their school or by family services. The project is free for those on lower incomes and other parents can also join for a small contribution, but there is actually a very low take up. We talk about plans to expand this next year and the children tell me that the lunch is great!
I join ministers across government for a complex meeting on supporting those groups of individuals who are most impacted by the virus. My role on calls like this is to make sure that children and those that work with children are represented. I then join other colleagues to discuss holiday activity programs for children next year.
In the evening I read through new draft guidance that is going out to Special Schools on safe operation during the pandemic. Clearing guidance is often a balance with on one hand not wanting to overwhelm schools with lots of new information, but on the other hand wanting to react to developments and make sure staff have the most up to date view on best practice. There is a concern that some therapists such as speech and language experts have not been back in face to face sessions with children and this is hampering their education. I am glad that this element of the guidance has been cleared.
Friday 30th October I start the day at a virtual coffee morning with the businesses that sponsor Essex Cricket. This is a diverse group of Essex based companies and it is extremely helpful to get their feedback, both on the government measures that have been taken to support jobs, and also of the economic situation on the ground. It is good news that footfall in the City Centre is still at about 80 percent of pre-covid levels, and that this has been a busy week for shops over half term. However, the hospitality sector is having a very challenging time, especially bars clubs and restaurants as so much of their annual income usually comes in the late autumn and through Christmas. One of the companies asks what more they can do to support people, and we discuss the Kick-start scheme to help encourage young people into jobs and the Life-Skills program which is will help people of all ages to access training opportunities.
I spend the middle of the day working with the Department for Education on holiday programs for next year before joining another business call and an update from the Director of Public Health for Essex. Essex County Council are working on getting new grants out to businesses especially on making sure that more of the hospitality sector will be able to have customers outside so that people will still be able to meet with those from other households at this time. I do hope this will help people to meet friends and help local businesses.
Just as Friday evening comes the What-App messages start flying in. It is rumoured that the PM is going to announce another national lockdown. No one wants another lockdown, but we are told the rate of growth of the virus is now running ahead of even worst case scenarios.
Saturday 31st October I pop into High Chelmer to visit the British Legion Poppy Appeal stall and collect my wreath for Remembrance Sunday. It is clear that we will not have the usual services this year, but it is so important to support this appeal as the Legion do so much good work to support veterans. All day the messages keep coming with lots of questions and discussion amongst MPs. I join a call with ministers and the Health Secretary and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. They take us through the latest projections on the virus, it is clear that the second wave is coming fast and unless action is taken hospital staff will yet again be overwhelmed which will impact on other patients such as those needing cancer care and other urgent treatments. Just before the press conference starts the PM sends all government MPs a message apologising for the way this announcement has been made on a Saturday due to the press leaks. His tone is sombre, it will however be different from the spring as schools, colleges and pre-schools will remain open. This is so important for children, young people and families.
Sunday 1st November A day spent answering questions for constituents and colleagues, and a moment to see two of my student children before the lockdown starts.