Luke Evans: While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal

22 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Four months ago, around the start of the Coronavirus lockdown, the Editor of ConservativeHome contacted me to ask whether, as both a GP and a newly-elected backbench Member of Parliament, I would like to write a weekly diary about how Covid-19 would come to affect my constituency.

Of course, as any newly-elected backbench MP would, I jumped at the chance. It would hopefully be a way to give an insight into what goes on at the grassroots of backbench business.

But far more importantly, I saw it as an obvious opportunity to assess Covid-19’s impact on my constituency of Bosworth on a weekly basis.

I would have to step back and think for a couple of hours before picking up my laptop. That’s vital time which helps you to reflect and strategise about what you do next.

A space to breathe in a fast flowing, ever-changing situation.

So as Parliament breaks up for its summer recess, it’s a good time to reflect on the past four months – to ask what went well and, of course, what I could have done better as a new MP.

A chance to gather my office together. After all they have shouldered the load with me, and without their dedication, tenacity and expertise the situation as a new MP would be nearly untenable. Four weeks to simply focus on the constituency; clear the decks, reset, and prepare for the next phase.

Until September an uneasy hiatus, as we’re nowhere near the end of the Coronavirus story I fear.

I recognised right at the very start of these columns that I was fortunate to come from a medical background. I was able to understand the data, the system, the clinical constraints on staff and hopefully ask pertinent questions at the Health and Social Care Select Committee – and in the virtual Chamber of the House – while also raising ideas that were fitting to ministers and their departments, and where possible offering solutions.

That experience as a GP, I hope, meant that I was able to communicate those aspects effectively to my constituents. As we were learning about the virus at a rate of knots I was able to record videos about the differences between social distancing and shielding, and – even now the most effective weapon in our fight against the virus – good hygiene.

But it quickly became apparent that while this period in our history has been driven by a global virus, with far too many lives tragically lost, the medicine has only been one part of a much wider crisis.

Where I was comfortable in discussing the science the role of an MP is seldom that of a specialist. I had to gain knowledge in supporting businesses on the verge of collapse, constituents losing their jobs and – certainly not least – a world-renowned zoo fighting for survival.

Anyone entering politics really does need to know that at base backbench level, to serve your constituents you quickly need to become a problem-solving generalist. It should come a surprise to no one that in the past month I’ve asked as many questions about the economic impact of Covid-19 as I have about the medical one.

But as Parliament breaks for the summer our minds turn to what comes next.

Like everyone else I’m eagerly watching the promising medical breakthroughs that we have heard about in the past two days and hope that they come to fruition. While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal – this can be construed as a positive or negative, and we all have an active role in the preponderance to which it is.

Although we all have to be working for the best, we also have to be preparing for the worst. We must be mindful of the economic impact of the virus, how we begin to pay it back and the absolute need to protect younger people who may well bear the brunt through unemployment. All balanced with the plan to deliver on what we promised as Conservatives that lead to a large majority in the House.

I’m proud of how this Government has responded to the greatest threat to us all in living memory. Of course not all has gone to plan, and there will no doubt be lessons to be learned, but to be here with one of the best health services in the world and a growing economy is a huge testament to the work of the Cabinet.

So I leave Parliament for recess with a thought stuck in my head: what do we want our virus legacy to be?

I believe a question the public, businesses, politicians and Government all need to think long and hard about and actively make a choice. As a crisis creates opportunity now is the time to harness it for good.

I hope to return in September, rested, refreshed and ready to articulate a positive future for Bosworth and the country.

Luke Evans: We must protect our shop workers from violent crime. Not ask them to police the wearing of face masks.

15 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Last Friday, a shop worker in my constituency was walking across the car park of the Co-op branch where he works after taking his break. The employee at the Markfield store saw a man acting suspiciously in the car park so asked if he could help him?

At that point the man became ‘very angry and verbally aggressive’ and started shouting abuse at the employee.

Without any provocation, the individual in question physically assaulted the shop worker knocking him unconscious, and subsequently rolled him on to his side stealing the employee’s phone, before climbing into his car and making his escape.

The Central England Co-operative Society have rightly decided to take a firm stance in respect of the incident, they are seeking both to ensure that their employee recovers from the ordeal, but are also doing everything in their power to ensure the perpetrator is tracked down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The details of this incident are shocking, they are also – sadly – not particularly surprising.

The latest edition of the British Retail Consortium Retail Crime Survey reveals that there are 424 violent or abusive incidents against retail employees every day – an increase of nine per cent on the previous year; the use of knives is becoming an increasingly concerning factor; and over 70 per cent of respondents described the police response to retail crime as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

It’s very easy to forget all of the events of Covid-19 pandemic, especially the astonishing contribution made to the national effort made by shop workers.

In the early days as most of us were advised to stay at home, we have to remember that, alongside NHS and care workers, it was shop assistants who continued to go to work, putting their own lives at risk, to ensure we could all continue to put food on the table.

In a very real sense, our shop workers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

Incidents like the one which happened last week in my constituency should not happen. I’m supportive of the principle behind Alex Norris’ Private Member’s Bill calling upon certain offences against retail workers in the course of their employment, such as malicious wounding, to be classed as aggravated offences.

But I would suggest that those protections are needed now more than ever.

This virus has a habit of exploiting weaknesses in our society, and I am about to use it to highlight another.

For not only do we have the year on year increasing level of aggression against shopworkers we also now have their potential role in enforcing the mandatory and controversial wearing of face coverings in shops and supermarkets from 24 July.

In the same way as we must now wear face coverings on public transport, it is the police who will be able to enforce non-compliance in shops. But whilst we have to make clear that protecting our shop assistants is a priority, demanding that they act as quasi-police officers themselves never should be.

Shop assistants asking customers to put on a face covering will unavoidably put themselves at greater risk of being attacked.

With what is very clear legislation we must expect local police forces to act quickly and robustly in order to educate, change behaviour but most importantly protect those shop workers who were prepared to place everything on the line for us just four short months ago.

There is an ongoing debate about enforcing mask wearing, and I see both sides.

The mandatory wearing of face coverings isn’t primarily about protecting yourself, but about protecting others, and shop workers must be included at the very top of that list. It’s quite possible that there will be a second wave of coronavirus infections. I have heard multiple witnesses from Asia, in my role on the Health Select Committee, stating that one of the reasons countries in Asia have fared better is due to the culture adaption of virus reducing behaviour, learned through SARS, MERS and now Covid-19 – and mask wearing is an important part of that.

I see mask-wearing as a symptom, a time-limited intervention to deal with a specific problem. What we mustn’t forget however is those who will suffer because of this introduction; the deaf who lip read and possibly the high street as the advent of masks may deter shoppers.

But the wider point is simply this: frontline workers deserve to be protected, be it from assault or a virus – and we shouldn’t forget or negate that.

Luke Evans: Snapshot from Leicestershire. We haven’t beaten the Coronavirus. But nor are we letting it beat us.

8 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

I left you last week on something of a ‘columnist’s cliffhanger’.

The County of Leicestershire, and the city of Leicester that lies in its centre, had gone through days of speculation about the possibility of a local lockdown, and subsequent uncertainty about exactly where lines would be drawn. On a personal level, that included working out whether my own constituency of Bosworth would be affected, and if so how, and what that meant.

As it transpired, in the end Bosworth remained free from local lockdown. Even the areas which may loosely be described as the outer suburbs of the city were left untouched.

The focus for my own constituents quickly, and understandably, changed from fear that they could be part of a Coronavirus spike with all the implications which that brings, to concern that, especially as nationally enforced lockdown restrictions were being lifted, what might be the implications of Leicester residents escaping their locked down city to enjoy the pubs and restaurants of Hinckley and Bosworth?

After I left you last week, a great deal of time was spent trying to answer exactly that question.

I held several meetings with our local policing unit commander and two further ones with the County’s Chief Constable.

County MPs, all Conservative, met virtually to discuss strategy; and, as you would expect, I stayed in close contact with council leaders, chief executives and the head of our local resilience forum.

Not least, I spoke with councillors, especially those whose wards lay nearest to the city, and whose concerns were entirely understandably at their most heightened.

There were serious discussions about whether, even at an informal level, the lifting of lockdown restrictions should be postponed. Should I speak with publicans and ask them to stay closed? Should they take a further hit to their livelihoods to ensure that the heightened spread in the city could not be brought out to our rural communities?

As with so many other things there is seldom a binary choice when it comes to protecting health and livelihoods and inevitably, as with crime, there is a significant difference between the fear of what might happen, and what actually does.

It was interesting to see that research published by YouGov last Friday indicated that in this case the fear of what might happen was substantially greater than the likely reality.

In one of those oddly specific polls that the YouGov panel seems so proficient at producing, regular pub goers, regular prior to lockdown that is, were asked how soon they would return to their locals after July 4th.

Just four per cent of regulars said they would venture out on the day itself, and another four per cent in the first week, but not on Saturday.

Of course, that type of research certainly doesn’t mean that city dwellers would definitely stay at home but it does indicate that whatever happens it wasn’t going to be likely that pubs, and the police, would be inundated.

My conversations with the police were clear. They had planned, and part of their planning meant having more officers on duty than they would typically have on New Years Eve – but they weren’t expecting a day of mass rebellion.

I was delighted on Monday morning to be able to share a tweet from the Chief Constable stating that over the weekend in Leicester ‘the was huge compliance with the lockdown rules’, whilst in the county the ‘vast majority of residents were acting responsibly and adhering to guidelines’.

Of course, we always knew there would be incidents, which with a camera to hand and a media willing to share them will always gain penetration.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of decent people within the city and county are doing all that they can, and all that they have been asked, to beat this virus. I keep coming back to the same point that when the majority stick together we will win this fight.

Last weekend wasn’t the end of the local lockdown and it isn’t the end of the lifting of restrictions. We know that there are going to be outbreaks, people testing positive leading to the need to track and trace and temporarily close pubs. Indeed there have already been such cases.

But those cases aren’t indications that lifting the restrictions are failing but rather signs that this new normality is working.]

We haven’t got to the stage where we can say we have beaten Coronavirus, but by the great majority of us following the rules we can at least say we are not letting it beat us.

Luke Evans: My Coronavirus report from near the Leicester lockdown front line

1 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

As I sit down to write this week’s column I hope that you will excuse it’s slightly erratic nature and its stream of consciousness tone. Forgive me.

As a Leicestershire MP, the last 48 hours have been taken over by the news of the Government’s local lockdown of Leicester and, at first, considering the approach which should be taken should any of my own Bosworth constituency be included in the lockdown area; and subsequently what steps we may have to take locally now we know that we are not.

Over the weekend, rumours started circulating in the media that ‘Leicester’ might become subject to the first localised lockdown since the imposition of Coronavirus legislation. There is a cluster of outbreaks – which must be taken seriously.

Like many cities, ‘Leicester’ is quite difficult to accurately define. Did rumours relate solely to the local government area that is the ‘City of Leicester’, or could it include the suburbs which stretch out towards the rural areas which are covered by Leicestershire County Council’s jurisdiction, and of course the constituencies of our seven Conservative MPs?

I set out on Monday morning to do my due diligence by speaking with regional public health leads, our chief constable and the chair of our local resilience forum, to get the actual facts on the ground.

During the day, it became increasing clear that a local lockdown would be imposed imminently, and I was invited to a Zoom call with other Leicestershire MPs, the elected Mayor of Leicester, the Leader of the County Council, Dido Harding, senior leaders in Public Health England and Nadine Dorries, the Health Minister.

During the course of that conversation, it became quickly apparent that the data is worrying enough in Leicester to make a local lockdown was inevitable; with an R rate stubbornly stuck at one, it was clear that, unless something was done now, this outbreak could get considerably out of hand…and quickly. To be safe, lockdown would include parts of the county – potentially including my own constituency.

Although incidents of Coronavirus are showing a marked national trend downwards, it is obvious that this isn’t the case in parts of Leicester. Nationally, for every 100 people tested for Covid-19 – that is those displaying symptoms –  two receive positive tests; in Leicester, that figure increases to ten.

Leicester now accounts for 10 per cent of Covid-19 admissions nationally and, crucially, the trend is not downwards.

Clearly, it is important that we understand why the trends in Leicester are so different from the national ones. The health specialists were in agreement that it is not due to the national release of lockdown (otherwise you would expect hot spots popping up all across the country), so something else must be going on.

At this point, the uptick appears multifactorial, and plenty of work is going on to establish categorically what these factors are, but right now our focus is much more about practicalities and what to do.

How do we guarantee health safety, effective enforcement of lockdown, protecting businesses and support for livelihoods? How do we communicate all of this to the public, preventing spread and make best use of shared working?

Questions like these all immediately sprung to mind, and were evidently shared by all fellow MPs on the call.

Post-meeting, it was straight onto a statement from the Health Secretary, and then my first step was to speak with members of my team with a plan, followed by courtesy calls to councillors whose wards and divisions were likely to be affected and local leaders.

I’m very conscious that an MP never works on their own, and I very much rely on my team and local activists. I said in my maiden speech that healthcare taught me that “empowering those who can and helping those who can’t” is critical; this situation ably demonstrated this again.

In the wake of the Secretary of State’s statement, as you might expect, calls continued well into the night.

Yesterday morning started with a very early meeting with the Health Minister and Leicestershire MPs to digest the news, update and then talk about practicalities.

As Tuesday progressed, further questions come to forefront.

With worried residents, particularly those living in the city commuter belt, it would have been preferable if a map of the lockdown area had been produced far quicker than it actually was. There are many questions about how we can prevent those living in the lockdown area from visiting areas, including my own, where restrictions are being lifted this weekend.

Government was clear it was for local decision makers to decide the extent of the boundary, given that they are best placed to know natural geography, and how communities function in real life not just on a map. (The map is not the territory coming through here from last week!)

Ultimately, I see my role as being that of an honest broker in a fluid situation. I’m determined not to put information out because I want to be first with the news, but rather believe it is best to wait until updates are properly verified.

Instead, what are the worries of my constituents both regarding their safety and their livelihoods? My job is to do my best to secure both.

Over the course of yesterday, I had further meetings and calls with officials from the Department of Health, Home Office, Treasury and local leaders from the police, council and LRF, to name but a few.

Like any emergency situation faced, you want to deliver clear, accurate information, even if that maybe no further news, that is an imperative.

The situation reminds me of my early days as an A&E doctor. The relatives of a very sick patient will always want updates quickly, yet medical uncertainty about how the patient will respond is difficult, added to which the demands of my bosses might be altogether different; but at the end of the day you can lay out what you know, what you are doing and why, and how you expect the poorly person to respond.

The outbreak in Leicester city is no different….now we have two weeks to watch for signs of response, and I will continue to be communicating them to my constituents, working with all the teams involved to get the best outcome; a safe time to return the easing of lockdown.

Luke Evans: What social media says about the Government and the virus. And what my constituents actually said when I asked them.

24 Jun

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Like any other Member of Parliament Fridays are, for me – at least when the House is sitting – constituency day.

Most MPs will tell you it’s the best part of the job. Arguably, it is the bit that counts most. You get to hear about the lives of people in your hometown, the issues that matter to them and, hopefully, you are able to make a difference both in the casework that you do on their behalf and raising important causes in parliament.

Last Friday was my first constituency day since lockdown started – the first time I have been able to go out and speak with ‘real’ people face to face. It’s an experience which never fails to surprise.

I’ve written before about the difficulties facing Twycross Zoo in my constituency and, since it had opened its gates to the public for the first time last Monday, it seemed somehow fitting that my first visit should be to the same place that was one of my last before the Coronavirus crisis started.

What struck me? It was amazing to hear of staff returning, see families enjoying a day out, and witness first hand how many of the primates are enjoying human interaction once more (a serious point, the keepers were surprised that some seemed “depressed” by the lack of interaction – does that sound familiar too? Perhaps I digress).

My afternoon was allocated to a tour of recently reopened shops in Hinckley, the largest town in my constituency. During the week, I had raised the issue of supporting Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) as a potential vehicle to help increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies on the high street, to which I was pleased to hear the Government agree.

It seemed a perfect opportunity, then, to join the Hinckley BID, which arranges visits to shops and local businesses, to see how they are faring.

I thought that they would be inclined to paint a fair picture, especially when it transpired I would be being joined by a local Liberal Democrat borough councillor. The reason for this? I could avoid my own team hand-picking businesses which by their very nature might have been more supportive of the government: in other words, I wanted to hear how things on the ground really were rather than how I might hope them to be.

I’ve long subscribed to the concept that ‘the map is not the territory’ – there are always filters, some conscious and others less so, that affect our perceptions of reality.

It’s very easy to look at social media and see the distortion and anti-Government rage, and easily misinterpret that as the territory. I’ll be honest: I was more than a little worried about what I would hear when I spoke with independent retailers, whose entire livelihoods had been placed at real risk as a result of virus that is – at the end of the day – no one’s fault.

Of course, as I should know only too well by now, social media isn’t the real world, and the comments I met with were in no way representative of what Twitter or Facebook tell me that it is like.

I heard shopkeepers telling me of brisk trade; again and again independent retailers talked about cautious optimism for the sector – “shop local” seems to be resonating clearly.

And above all? A real gratitude that a Government, which by no means has been perfect, has supported them through the darkest of times; a Government responding to the greatest threat of our generation had given them the hope that they can return. The Chancellor’s promise to do whatever it takes had stuck with them, and had really meant something.

At a time when hope could have very easily been lost, that’s a really powerful thing to have done and won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Members of the public stopped me on the high street to talk about support they had and wanted to give to the local economy, a true sense of coming together to make the best of an international crisis.

I was taken aback. Of course, I fully appreciate that those comments are just a differently interpreted map of the same territory.

The only way we can make that map more accurate, of course, is by adding data and it seems to me that, in the bubble, we’ve become fixated on only adding the datasets that we can see on our mobile phones, and not talking to people.

As MPs we need to make sure that we place equally as much value on a conversation with our constituents as we do on 280 characters. Sometimes we all lose sight of that fact.