Monday 14th December Cases of Covid are on the rise again. As I travel to Westminster, I pick up the news that a number of Chelmsford schools have had to send year groups of children home to self-isolate, some schools have had to close. It’s the last week of the Parliamentary term and I know it is going to be busy.
From the Department for Education I meet the Children’s Minister for Norway and we exchange thoughts about protecting vulnerable children during the pandemic. I am interested in the Norwegian approach to helping children with special educational needs and disabilities as many more of their children attend mainstream, not special schools. Krish Kandiah comes into the department. He is an inspiring person, passionate about supporting children waiting to be adopted and encouraging more people to come forward as adoptive families. We have appointed him to chair the Adoption and Special Guardianship Panel.
My phone pings and I am invited to an emergency meeting with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock for London and Essex MPs. We are told that there appears to be a new strain of Covid. My heart drops when I hear the news that Chelmsford is to be placed in Tier 3. This is going to be hard for so many people, but I also know that the vast majority of people want to get on top of this awful virus.
I speak with the Directors of Children’s Services from all across the county, thanking them and their teams of social workers who have worked so hard to protect vulnerable children this year. I spend the evening online with the adoption and fostering organisation CoramBAFF, answering the questions that have flooded in from constituents and working my way through a packed “Red Box” which is full of decisions which need to be taken before Christmas.
Tuesday 15th December Some good news, the first of our brand new “suburban” trains has made its maiden journey from Chelmsford to London. This is a £1.4 billion project to upgrade all the trains on the Great Eastern Main Line, which will reduce delays and cancellations. There is a new phone system at Sutherland Lodge GP practice too, I hope this will make a huge difference to patients who often struggled to get through to book appointments.
I Zoom into a nursery school where they children are getting ready for their nativity play. They are in good spirits and looking forward to Father Christmas coming. Many small children struggled in the spring lockdown, it is so important for them to be with friends and peers. I join the Anti Bullying Alliance which brings together many specialist organisations, I am concerned to hear that bullying may be increasing during the pandemic. On the positive, we have now published our new Online Harms Bill. This will introduce a duty of care on social media companies to help keep people, especially children, safe when they are online.
In the evening the Prime Minister comes to speak to Women MPs. There are now 87 Conservative women MPs, up from just 17 a decade ago, but we are still a minority and he is keen to encourage more women to stand for election.
Wednesday 16th December There is concern in the Department for Education about the high levels of children missing school due to having to self-isolate. A new system for testing for Covid has been trailed in some schools and there are now plans to roll this out across the country. Lots of discussions are happening with health officials, military planners on how to make this work. I meet with advisors from all over the England who have decades of experience in helping children with special needs, and discuss support for vulnerable children with the Head of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. The Energy Minister is launching a new long term strategy to de-carbonise our energy and tackle climate change. He is really excited and we talk through some of the action. Another late night with lots of reading and decisions to make before Christmas.
Thursday 17th December My virtual tour of Special Schools continues, and I drop in to meet staff in Banbury and Bolsover. They have been working so hard to help children with special needs and disabilities. Then a difficult conversation with representatives of early years preschools and nurseries. Since the pandemic started the Government has bulk bought childcare hours at the pre-covid levels of attendance, but after long discussions with the Treasury I am not going to be able to continue that next term. We’ve agreed some safeguards, and they will be able to use the furlough scheme more, but next term is going to be hard.
The Head of Broomfield, Basildon and Southend Hospital calls me. Admissions of patents with Covid have taken off, especially at Southend and Basildon but numbers are rising at Broomfield too. Many of the hospital staff are off sick or self-isolating. This is not good news and I promise to talk to Health Ministers.
It’s the last day of the Parliament term and all across Whitehall officials and ministers are working flat out, any decisions that we need to inform parliament about need to be “laid” before the House of Commons “adjourns”. My role is to answer the final adjournment debate, and I am told that if the debate starts early, I will have to keep talking until 5.30pm so the work can be completed. Fortunately, the debate starts at 5pm. It is on period poverty and I have good news to report. Our new scheme that offers free period products to schools and colleges is working well. No-one should miss out on their education because they have their period. It is late when I finally leave London and head home.