Coronavirus is a threat to every one of us and presents our country with the biggest challenge since the end of the Second World War.
Combatting the spread of the virus is taking a huge national effort. The actions and behaviour of every individual across the country are as important as the vital leadership and support that only the Government and Parliament can provide. This really is a time for us all to come together with a common commitment: to control the spread of the virus so that we can return to living our lives freely and the nation can get back to work.
As individuals we can slow the spread of the virus by staying at home and only going outside for food, health reasons or work (when this absolutely cannot be done from home); staying two metres (6 feet) away from other people and washing hands regularly. As the Prime Minister says, the key to beating Coronavirus is to Stay at Home. This will mean we can stop its spread, protect the capacity of the NHS to deal with those of us who have contracted severe symptoms and save lives.
Throughout this crisis, the Government has been determined to make decisions based on the best scientific advice. Because we learn more about Coronavirus every day, based on experience across the world, the advice we receive changes rapidly and so the government is having to make decisions at great speed. Policies which in normal times would take months to develop are having to be put in place in a matter of days or sometimes hours.
As Schools Minister I have been part of the team planning how to respond as the virus has spread. The decision to close schools, for all but the children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children, was difficult. But the scientific advice became clear: reducing the spread of the virus would be helped by stopping millions of children travelling to school each day. Within days we had to implement plans for school closures, announce that exams and SATs wouldn’t be held this year and develop ways to ensure that students who would have been taking GCSEs, A levels and other qualifications will be awarded grades in as fair a way as possible.
Teachers and other staff in our schools have been truly heroic in the way they have responded to the crisis. As have the doctors and nurses, emergency workers, the millions of people who make sure we don’t run out of food, that our gas, electricity and water supplies are maintained, that we can all use the internet and many many other workers engaged in essential tasks. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.
The restrictions the government has put in place to help ensure we can control the virus have put huge pressure on businesses across the country. Overnight many have closed and people who thought they had secure jobs have been laid off or their hours severely reduced. Other businesses have moved their operations from offices to the homes of each employee and now millions of us are relying on technology to work from home, while juggling the demands of family life including looking after the children.
The measures the Government has had to put in place have put a great strain on individuals and on the nation’s economic well-being. Over the last few days I have been helping constituents get home from overseas and I know that many elderly and vulnerable people have been struggling to get food and groceries delivered to their home. I’m glad that supermarkets are now urgently addressing this issue.
Over the last few weeks the Government has announced a raft of measures to protect the economy including:
- The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme offering grants to employers who promise to retain staff covering 80% of the salary of retained workers.
- The deferral of VAT payments for businesses until the end of the financial year.
- Measures to help businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, including business rate relief, which are of great importance in an area like ours.
- Increases to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by £1,000 a year.
- Nearly £1 billion of support to help people who rent their homes and relief for mortgage payers.
- A Business Interruption Loan Scheme to help small and medium sized businesses.
- Support for businesses to cover the costs of paying statutory sick pay from the first day of an employee’s illness.
As I am writing this the Chancellor of the Exchequer is about to announce a package of support for the 5 million self-employed people across the country to help them through the crisis.
The Bank of England has cut interest rates twice and taken measures to support the liquidity of larger business. This is the most ambitious programme of support for the British economy in our nation’s history. And there will be more to do.
This is an anxious time for everyone. As your MP, I am here to help with any problems you are facing as a result of the actions the Government has taken to help combat Coronavirus. I am still holding surgeries (by telephone) and responding as swiftly possible to emails and letters. If I can help, please do get in touch.