York Press column – York’s route out of lockdown
May 27, 2020
As summer approaches, I know many residents will feel some frustration at the grinding reality of social distancing, tempered of course by the determination to safeguard the health of loved ones.
I hope the government’s provisional timetable to gradually relax lockdown in June and July, if the scientific evidence at the time indicates this is safe, gives people some hope that they may not miss out on all the normal pleasures of the season.
As a parent of school-age children, I am acutely aware that the planned reopening of some primary school classes from 1st June should only proceed if the risk is carefully controlled. I made contact with headteachers in my constituency prior to the June announcement to ask for their general feedback, and have had useful discussions with school leaders. I will also be speaking to the local leadership of the teachers’ union the NEU, and I think it is vital that the views of all teachers and parents inform ongoing planning for the gradual return of schools.
One of the big concerns around school closures was the potential disproportionate impact on learning for children from lower-income backgrounds. This is why I questioned the Education Secretary in the House of Commons earlier this month about the provision of laptops for home learning, after this was flagged with me as a concern by local headteachers.
Although coronavirus will remain the overriding priority for York’s NHS for the foreseeable future, I know residents who have had routine operations delayed as a result will appreciate clarification on the timetable for rescheduling them. Having contacted the Chief Executive of York Hospital NHS Trust, I have been updated that they are working to scale up non-coronavirus urgent services wherever possible over a 6-week period from early May to mid-June.
I have also tabled written parliamentary questions to the Health Secretary via the House of Commons, pressing him on when routine dental work can resume, with the necessary safety precautions.
The projected reopening of non-essential shops from 1st June, and some hospitality and leisure venues from 4th July when and where it is safe to do so, should allow for York’s hard- hit businesses to begin to regain some of their losses. As a bustling city, with a strong tourism industry, York will not be itself again until trading picks up.
The government’s vital furlough scheme, reassuringly now extended until October, is guaranteeing wage payments and job retention for 8 million employees, with a further 2 million self-employed people claiming similar income support, but as lockdown eases for businesses, I think it is important to adjust assistance to focus on the worst-affected sectors who will take longest to recover, such as our city’s large hospitality and tourism industry. This is why I have written to the Chancellor stressing sectors like this will need support for longer, and that resources must begin to focus on these, more than on businesses that can soon hope to safely reopen.
It is only right that Parliament should physically reopen as planned in June, alongside shops and schools. Although the video-calling ‘hybrid’ arrangements have been a considerable success, this is no substitute for face-to-face scrutiny.
The Agriculture Bill is a good example of the pressing non-coronavirus business MPs have to progress, creating a new UK farming and environmental policy to replace that previously set by the EU. I voted against the government line during the May 13th debate on this, supporting an amendment requiring that food imports under future trade agreements meet British animal welfare and environmental standards. Although this was sadly defeated, I helped send a clear message to the government that MPs expect it to make good on its manifesto commitment to uphold our high standards, and the current situation obviously demonstrates the value of maintaining a strong UK food sector.
Amid the gloom, this month’s news that the government has backed York residents by dismissing the developer’s appeal for permission to build near the irreplaceable Askham Bog site was a welcome relief. Earlier this year, I led a cross-party group of Yorkshire MPs in urging the Housing Minister to do just this, and I warmly praise the determination of local residents, which has produced this wonderful outcome.