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.

Peter Lampl: To build social justice and get the economy working, schools must open fully in September

1 Jul

Sir Peter Lampl is founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation.

Pubs, pubs, pubs. If you were to believe most of the ministerial and media rhetoric during these last few weeks, you would conclude that getting them open was the biggest priority to revive this country post-Coronavirus.

While no doubt there are many out there thirsty for a pint, this is a huge distraction. The fact is that the single best way to both kickstart the economy, and to fix the damage that has been done to our social fabric, is to guarantee that schools open in full this September.

There can be no ifs and buts. The damage that was done by the (quite understandable) decision to close down our education system is so wide-ranging it is almost inconceivable. The cost to both GDP and the life prospects of our children will take an age to recover.

And so we must be absolutely clear that, as ministerial focus pivots from the immediate emergency, the threat to the NHS and saving many thousands of lives, on to the economic crisis opening up before us, the education system must share equal top billing.

The damage done to educational outcomes and to social mobility is frightening. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – which I chair – has estimated that some ten years of progress closing the attainment gap between our most deprived young people and their wealthier classmates has been reversed by closing schools for three months.

The efforts of most heads and teachers has been heroic, but the provision of online teaching has been patchy, and the ability of school staff to reach those children most in need of their help has been stretched at best. A University College London study found that 20 per cent of pupils (two million) still do less than one hour of schoolwork a day at home, or none at all, while many private school students are doing six hours.

Research from the Sutton Trust, which I also chair, showed that of the work that is received back from pupils, 50 per cent of teachers in independent schools report they’re receiving more than three quarters of it.   This compares with only eight per cent in the least advantaged state schools.

And during this crisis, there have been too many people playing politics. The Government has said one thing, heads another, unions another, councils another. Parents have been left in the middle baffled – while their kids lose out to a frankly terrifying degree. Messages have been mixed and this has undermined confidence in the system.

No more.

The Department for Education, the Treasury and Downing Street must speak with one voice on this. The economic revival they so desperately seek goes hand in hand with nurseries, primaries, secondaries, colleges and universities reopening to the greatest degree possible.

We can’t get parents back to work without their kids being looked after in primary or nursery schools. And we can’t hope to achieve growth unless schools and colleges and universities are producing people ready to work. In the longer term, the cost of the damage to the country’s wider prospects of the education system misfiring will be in the billions.

The building blocks are starting to be put in place. The announcement last week of £1 billion to spend on tutoring, and on catch up support throughout the summer and into next year, is really welcome. Both the EEF and the Sutton Trust are excited to be working with the Government to make sure this money has the greatest possible impact.

And the announcement of a change in social distancing from two metres to one metre – although again, framed to allow pub, restaurants and hotels to open – creates a great opportunity for schools. No longer will heads be restricted to 15 kids in a classroom. At one metre social distancing – and recognising that, especially in primary schools, the risks are very low indeed – we can, and must, move towards having all or almost all children safely back into schools.

No-one – principals, lecturers, heads, teachers, students, parents – can be left in any doubt that the Government will be laser-like in its focus on this. The promise of support, funding, and clear, timely advice to all parties must be forthcoming.

Ministers must also be clear about the extent of their ambition: this must not be a half-way house. All schools must be open, all lessons taught by teachers, exams must be sat, sports fixtures played, uniforms worn, and extra-curricular activities enjoyed.

It is to be welcomed that we are going to have a detailed plan at the end of this week to achieve this ambition. We hear that the Prime Minister is “deeply frustrated” that we haven’t had as many kids back in yet. But government rhetoric must be matched by action, and steadiness of nerve.

There is a long time to go between now and September. The Government will experience many huge problems in the coming months. It will find itself fighting many economic and healthcare crises, and it will be forced to publish many more no doubt horrifying financial figures. There will continue to be vested interests arguing that we must remain on pause, or that we should focus on other areas instead.

The DfE must ensure that education does not get lost in all this noise. Where efforts are required across government, this must happen. Ministers and senior civil servants must fight for the attention of Downing Street and the Treasury. No one can be allowed to forget how much rides on getting school gates open at the end of the summer holidays.

I’ve spent the past 20 years working to improve social mobility and on transforming the life chances for young people. We cannot allow this virus to deflect us from this most important agenda. There is no time to waste: schools and their students need certainty about September now.