Monday 2nd November My first meeting of the week is with MPs from Essex and Hertfordshire on a briefing call with Health Ministers and the regional Head of Public Health. No one wants a second lockdown but the rise in hospital cases is stark, and unless controlled will have a severe impact on treatments for non-Covid patients.
It is a beautiful autumn day as I walk from the House of Commons to the Department for Education, I pass volunteers on their hands and knees outside Westminster Abbey. They are planting a field of poppy crosses for Remembrance Day. In the Department teams are working flat out to get new guidance to schools for the national lockdown which starts on Thursday. Everyone is extremely focused on how we can support schools, colleges and early years providers to stay open safely. This is so important for the well-being of children.
On the positive side, we have learnt from the previous lockdown and how to make it less challenging. Unlike in the spring, playgrounds and mother and baby support groups will remain open, a parent will be able to take a toddlers for a walk with a friend, grandparents will be able to help with childcare by forming support bubbles, mums will be able to have their partners with them when giving birth and health visitors will be there to support new parents. We’re also working on a big package of winter support for families with food and other essentials.
In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister gives a statement on the new lockdown measures and takes many questions. I Zoom into a meeting with colleagues from across the UK and listen to their views.
Tuesday 3rd November I join a round table on Adoption which is being hosted by Number 10. Sadly, we have many children waiting to find adoptive families, whilst this has improved from previous years there is always more that can be done so an impressive group has come together to focus on how we reach out to potential adopters from different backgrounds.
I join the DWP Minister on a Zoom call with care leavers, they are an impressive group of young people who have helpful suggestions of improvements we can make to welfare services. I catch up with the officials working on reforms to Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, I am keen that this work continues at pace despite Covid, and then a meeting with ministers from the different departments making sure that support is available for victims of domestic abuse. In Parliament, MPs are discussing tomorrows vote on whether the lockdown goes ahead. I catch up with the Health Minister on support for the clinically extremely vulnerable, especially children and work late into the night finalising a speech for tomorrow’s conference.
Wednesday 4th November Back into the Department for Education for a meeting with ministers and officials, our guidance for schools is nearly ready to go out. I join another call for MPs with the Health ministers and senior NHS officials on the latest data on hospital admissions. MPs continue to debate the new Covid restrictions, when the vote comes, I support the measures as I believe we must take action to protect the NHS for all patients. The motion passes with a large majority. I strongly hope that enough action is taken to make sure that this is only a one month measure.
Back onto Zoom, I join the annual National Children’s and Adults Services Conference who have invited me to give a keynote speech. This is nerve wracking as it is very strange to give a speech when you can’t see the audience! However, I am pleased to be able to thank them for the work that is happening all across the country to help vulnerable families and announce some new projects to improve foster care services. We continue to vote late into the evening. Driving home I am struck by the amount of traffic on the road, clearly people are leaving London and moving away for the lockdown. Even though its November 4th , fireworks light up the sky as folks enjoy the last night before lockdown.
Thursday 5th November Back to the laptop and working from home. I meet a wonderful Headteacher from a special school for disabled children in Staffordshire who takes me through their work to support families as well as pupils. I catch up with other ministers to discuss elective home education. For some families and children this can be a positive option, but I am concerned that there has been an increase in children being taken off the school register and the impact this will have on their future. I meet up with representatives from the early years sector to discuss pre-schools and nurseries, and then with an inspirational group of Headteachers of alternative provision who work with children excluded from school or at risk of exclusion. I’m heartened to hear that the bespoke support we have put into this sector means more young people are staying on at college even in this difficult year.
Friday 6th November A Chelmsford day, but again online, starting with a big meeting of the One Chelmsford partnership that brings together health, police, local councillors, charities and businesses. I join a super Essex charity, Families in Focus who tell me about the work they do to support families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. I join local business for a round table update, this is enormously helpful to get feedback from the ground. They are pleased that the Chancellor has extended the furlough scheme and make some other recommendations of ways we could help recovery which I feed into Treasury ministers. At a meeting with Essex MPs and the County Council we hear from our local Director of Public Health. The good news is that it appears that the Tier 2 measures we adopted a few weeks ago may have helped slow the increase in the virus, but it will be another couple of weeks before we know for sure. My final meeting of the week Zooms me into the Hot Box music venue. They have received a grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund and are using it to book and pay live bands to perform in Chelmsford. The performances are all on line and tens of thousands of people are enjoying them across the country. What an uplift to the spirits.
Saturday 7th November Our Covid Winter food support package is about to be announced, so I brief stakeholders. This will be a huge package including a Covid Winter Grant to go to local councils to support families with food and essentials across the country and make sure no child goes hungry. I am delighted that the Holiday Activity and Food projects that we have run over the summer as pilot schemes for the past 3 years will now go live across the whole country next year, including next Easter and Christmas 2021. There will be additional support for parents with tiny babies too. Pulling this package together has been an enormous amount of work in recent months and will make sure those on free school meals get support over holidays in months ahead.
Sunday 8th November A quiet and reflective moment as I lay my wreath of remembrance at the memorial in Chelmsford. Usually this such a big occasion with hundreds of people joining to remember, even in this time of pandemic it is so important that we never forget those who laid down their lives for us.