‘This article was first printed in the Newbury Weekly News on 19/03/2020. Some information may be out of date.’
Covid-19 presents a real and significant challenge to the way we live. The Prime Minister has said that we are now “entering the steep part of the curve” – a period when he expects the rate of infection to rapidly increase. Everyone in the nation is advised against non-essential contact by working from home, avoiding clubs, pubs and restaurants and that advice is emphasised for those who are over-70 or pregnant. Moreover, there is no set timeframe for when these measures will come to an end.
In the course of the last week I have been contacted by local businesses in desperate need. Demand and supply shocks are profoundly impacting the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors in West Berkshire and their survival is under threat. Constituents who are self-employed are reporting significant contractions in their work and among those who are employed the challenges of managing the household budget on statutory sick pay or worse, facing mass redundancies, is becoming a grim prospect. I have been in constant contact with the Treasury all week and strongly welcome the emergency measures announced by the Chancellor in the House last night. This includes £330 billion of Government-backed credit to support British businesses, suspension of business rates across all affected sectors, and substantial cash grants for businesses with a rateable value of less than £51,000. This is not the end of the matter. The Government response will remain versatile and dynamic – creating a strong safety net beneath British businesses and those whom they employ. As the Chancellor has said “We will do whatever it takes…”.
I have been working to support constituents return home from holidays in places like Morocco and the Canary Islands where they often found themselves without flights, hotels or any clear information about their right of return. We have now got everyone home except one whose case we are optimistic we will resolve this week. However everyone should be aware that the Foreign Office is now warning against all but “essential travel” for the next 30 days. In simple terms this is because many countries are closing their borders and we can no longer guarantee our ability to secure their safe return.
There is much that I have been able to do locally. First I have spoken to management teams at the Royal Berks in Reading and Great Western in Swindon, both of which are likely to be used by West Berkshire residents should the need arise. Both have advanced plans to deal with increased demand including creating separate wards and obtaining extra beds and ventilation equipment. Whilst both raised issues of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing turnaround times (which I am working on with the Department of Health) the secondary care response is in good shape.
Second, I have contacted all the main supermarkets in the area to find out what measures they are putting in place to prevent panic buying. The answer was variable and I am of the view that retailers would benefit from some clear Government guidelines on how they should prevent stockpiling and protect the most vulnerable shoppers. I intend to raise this matter in the House.
Finally, there are community groups popping up across West Berkshire to provide direct assistance and keep in touch with those who are self-isolating or vulnerable groups who may experience particular hardship. The Greenham Trust and West Berkshire Council are coordinating a response and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has mandated flexibility in local government spending to maximise their scope for responding efficiently to the challenge. Pubs and cafés all are now entitled to offer food on a takeaway basis without having to complete formal applications to change their use.
Lastly my office will remain open. Whilst constituent surgeries will be primarily convened on the telephone I can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01635 551 070. We will get through this together.