Monday 4th January Today was meant to be the last day of Parliamentary Recess, before the House of Commons returns after the Christmas break - though this has now been pushed back for another week. I’ve set up a lot of personal things I need to do, visiting the house I’m buying with a builder and going to the dentist with my student sons before the return to Uni. But my phone keeps pinging with messages from MPs who are concerned by the ever growing Covid cases across the country.
The streets are empty as I walk along Duke Street to pick up the keys from the Estate Agent, and I find myself sitting outside the dentist in the car dialling into a briefing call for Essex MPs from our local Director of Public Health. The concern is the very high rate of “positivity”, nearly one in four of those taking a Covid test are getting a positive result in parts of the county, its over 20% in Chelmsford too. I swiftly arrange calls with groups of lead officials from across the Department of Education getting updates on levels of sickness amongst social workers (still quite low, thankfully), feedback from Early Years, nurseries, childminders and pre-schools, plans for delivering free school meals. Everyone is working at pace, knowing the situation is getting worse again.
It is 8pm when the Prime Minister makes his announcement. We are back in Lockdown, schools all across the country are to move online except for vulnerable and key worker’s children. Parliament is to be recalled to vote on Wednesday, and a statement from the Education secretary. My constituent inbox keeps pinging, and I work late into the evening responding to questions from Chelmsford residents. My sons’ spirits are low as they realise their return to Uni is postponed.
Tuesday 5th January Early start, reading through updates that have come in overnight and briefing call with the Health Secretary. Many MPs are asking why we have kept early years education open, so I give the key reasons: Early years is the most crucial stage of a child’s education when they develop the communication skills that set them up for life – this can’t be taught on line, the impact of early years on community transmission is much lower than that of schools and the current data shows that very young children are still the least likely to have Covid.
I have a detailed call with representatives of Early Years sector before heading off to an online catch up with the Secretary of State for Education. We agree to restart the Free School Meal voucher system, but back this up with more funding for food parcels as it’s so much better for children if they get parcels not vouchers – particularly because it means that schools stay in closer contact with vulnerable families and can help safeguard children. There is a lot of work to do to get this all finalised before his statement tomorrow. I catch up with those working on our review of special educational needs and disabilities, and our children’s social care teams before joining an evening call for Education Ministers to brief MPs and answer questions, and then another briefing call, this time from the Prime Minister.
Wednesday 6th January Up at 6am to drive to Westminster. It is damp and dark. Teams have worked through the night to agree contracts on free school meals. Ministers meet to discuss schools and exams. We talk about Special Schools as I do want to make sure those with special needs and disabilities are well supported in lockdown, and also want to make sure that those young people whose mental health and wellbeing was most impacted by the first lockdown can still attend school.
The Education Secretary’s statement is finalised, and we head off to the House of Commons where I sit beside him as he speaks and help to field some of the questions on Early Years and vulnerable children.
The corridors in the House of Commons are quiet, as most MPs are taking part online, though Ministers still need to be present. The vote for the national lockdown is passed. It is late and dark again when I drive home. I want to minimise contact with others, especially as my doctor Husband is back working on the hospital frontline.
Thursday 7th January Back at home, working from the kitchen table. I join a call with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services who represent all the local authorities across the country. I am keen to get more testing for staff in Early Years and children’s homes so that we can help keep them as safe as possible.
Sara Britcliffe the MP for Hyndburn has invited me to do a virtual visit with one of the special schools in her constituency. The Headteacher is enormously helpful. It is one of the areas that has had the highest Covid levels during the autumn term and she takes me through the support that they have been giving disabled children and their families, as well as the challenges. Their most vulnerable children are back in school, and they are working with families who want to keep their children at home during the lockdown. I meet the MPs from Luton, who are concerned about children’s services. The local council there has extra challenges as they usually get a lot of their income from the airport.
Teams have been working on new guidance for schools, early years, special schools and school meals. Usually guidance takes weeks, or even months to prepare, but during the pandemic we need to act so rapidly and everything needs to be approved by public health teams and other departments. I’ve become used to speed reading, focusing on the most challenging areas and rapid turnarounds.
I join the Secretary of State for another call with Early Years Providers, they are concerned that if many parents don’t send their children to nursery or preschool then the settings may become unviable. We are watching the attendance data very closely to see if more support is needed and have arranged for them to have a call with SAGE and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. I meet the Head of Adoption UK who are doing great work helping adoptive families. We discuss Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, latest data shows that this affects at least one in four adopted children. There is good news that research shows early help can have a huge impact. I promise to support them on getting more of that support.
Friday 8th January My Chelmsford day – but this time all online. I work through the emails with my small team of assistants who have been flat out all week. It is good to hear that many of our oldest residents have been getting the vaccine. I’ve had a few queries from patients at Sutherland Lodge Surgery so I arrange to speak to the Practice Manager. They have had teething problems with their new phone system and two of their reception staff are off sick, but she tells me they now have permanent staff for all their clinicians (excellent news) and that they are recruiting more reception staff. They are also working on the vaccination program, in a team with four other Chelmsford surgeries. They are also putting more details online, so that people can get questions answered without needing to make a phone call. I hope this will help the new phone system settle.
I catch up with the Prisons Minister on education for children in secure offenders units. We finalise the details on our free school meals plans, and guidance for Early Years settings. It is so important to get this guidance out to those in schools and settings. The working week ends, but I know it will be a busy weekend, and a very challenging few weeks ahead.