Monday 18th January I set off before dawn to get to Westminster as it is the turn of Education Ministers to answer questions from colleagues in the House of Commons. After my tech nightmare of last week when I found myself unable to “unmute” when answering questions remotely, I have decided to that I will be in the Chamber in person when needed for a debate or a question. Driving into London I am struck that there is more traffic than in the lockdown of last spring, but the traffic is of a different nature to normal. There are more delivery vans – perhaps because so many people are ordering goods online, and more work vans – because this time plumbers, electricians and builders are able to carry on with their important work.
This morning our national free school meal voucher system is opening up again. We have been working with the supplier to make sure that the system doesn’t have the problems of last lockdown, but the launch is nail-biting. I get updates during the day, thousands of schools are placing orders, parents are redeeming vouchers, its working well. Our helpline on lunch parcels has been helping parents, but we have had very few inquiries – it seems that the parcels are working well now too.
Oral Questions in the Commons is frenetic, answering lots of questions on early years, nurseries and preschools, explaining why they are open to support our youngest children. I write to local authorities asking them to prioritise early years staff for the rapid community testing programmes. Then back to Parliament again in the evening, this time for a debate on School Meals and Laptops – we have delivered three quarters of a million laptops and devices to children and young people, more are coming as fast as the manufacturers can make them. It is nearly midnight when I get home.
Tuesday 19th January Back to working from home and a packed day starting with a meeting with a German Children’s Minister to catch up on how they have been supporting children with disabilities during the pandemic. More meetings on school food, our holiday clubs plans and early years, we are working to get more covid tests out to nursery staff. During the day I get a message from someone very close to me who has been working flat out in our hospitals. He has had the vaccine, such an overwhelming feeling of relief.
Wednesday 20th January The teaching unions call to speak about school based nurseries, it’s Census day tomorrow which is the time when all nurseries “count” their children for funding. I take them through the advice that children who are not attending temporarily, for example if the parents are concerned about funding can still count, provided the nursery is open for them. I work on our review of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and the Mental Health Action Group that we are setting up before joining a conference on the “Mocking Bird” project that supports foster families.
Thursday 21st January There are concerns about child trafficking in Nigeria, so I call the Chair of the All Party Group of MPs. I explain that we are going to put a block on international adoptions, but that these can still be approved on a one by one basis, for example if it’s a family member. She is very supportive of the decision and we discuss the very difficult situation of poverty in the country and how important the UK international aid is. I join a roundtable with adopted teenagers, they tell me about their experiences and I ask them what they would do if they had my job for a day - great ideas! I catch up with one of our local GPs who gives me an update on how the vaccine rollout is going in the surgery – goodness they are doing a superb job.
Friday 22nd January It’s the Army and Navy task force meeting. The work on planning the new junction has continued at pace through the pandemic and we now have detailed modelling of the impact on traffic, air and noise of each of the potential new solutions. A new flyover would need to be much longer in length which would push traffic jams further into the Odeon roundabout, it would also cause more noise, reduce bus lanes and take much longer to build. We decide to focus instead on the other solutions, including a “hamburger” style junction where traffic can go through the roundabout as well as around it.
I join MPs for a call with the Health Minister and then the Vaccines Minister. The good news is that cases of covid are coming down in the community, but it is still very high in Essex and sadly our hospitals are still very busy and many people are dying. My thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones, it is so hard.
I have a busy constituency surgery, helping local residents with difficult issues to resolve and catch up with some of our local nurseries. I finish the week with the Essex MPs speaking to the vaccines minister. More vaccines are coming into the area and more mass vaccination centres are starting up, all those in care homes are to be offered vaccines by the end of the month and the regulators are working to approve more of the different vaccine options. Thank you so much to everyone who is working so hard to get the vaccine out.