I am sure that as the enforced measures necessary to restrict the spread of the coronavirus pandemic continue, we are all reflecting on how they have changed our lives and, perhaps, our perceptions. For many of us, the actions of Government rarely have direct and immediate effect. Over the last few weeks, we have all felt the direct and immediate effect of decisions made in Whitehall and, perhaps, begun to appreciate how difficult they can be. Everyone wants to get back to normal, and it is important to remember that for many of us, this lockdown is not just inconvenient but desperately difficult, injurious to mental health or making it harder and harder both to pay the bills now or to be confident they can be paid in the future. The lockdown must, therefore, last no longer than it needs to. On the other hand, the restrictions are there to save lives and ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed by a virus we do not yet properly understand. Nobody in Government anywhere in the world can act with complete confidence on what is the right thing to do or when precisely to do it. In my experience as a Minister, you rarely have all the information you would like before you have to make decisions, but in this crisis that phenomenon is obvious to all of us. I have every sympathy with all those – scientists, doctors and politicians – who are trying to judge the moment when it is safe to restore at least some normality.
I welcome too the truly massive interventions in the economy designed to protect businesses, their employees and the self employed. They have had to be designed quickly and they are not perfect. I have several constituents who are not covered by them and there are gaps in the schemes. One that I have sought to address, along with Parliamentary colleagues, is the predicament of those who started a new job in February or March and found themselves ineligible to be furloughed by their new employer under the Government scheme which would pay 80% of their wages. To the Chancellor’s credit, he responded to our request to extend the date at which eligibility for an employee begins, so more were covered, but there remains a problem for some. Eligibility for the scheme relies on the employer registering an employee’s details with HMRC and, as a matter of routine, some employers will not do this until the end of the first month of employment. This has meant for some that they have been in the job at the date which would make them eligible for the scheme but, through no fault of their own, they are still not eligible for it. I am among those pressing the Treasury to consider other forms of proof that an employee began their job in time to be eligible for the scheme so that they can be included within it as intended.
Of course no Government gets everything right and, when the crisis has passed, there should be a proper opportunity to explore the planning for it, including the ordering and supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health and social care workers and others who need it. What is needed now though is to get the PPE to where it will be used, and it is hugely impressive to see the efforts being made locally to do just that. Companies who make these or related products, or who can adapt their production lines to make it, have responded magnificently and we should all be grateful to them. Of course all this enthusiasm needs coordination to be most effective and I am also grateful to organisations like the Warwickshire Manufacturing Alliance who are seeking to ensure that all willing manufacturers have access to the standards and specifications they need to make the equipment the NHS and others need. Any business that believes it can help can contact the government at https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-support-from-business. Anyone who has offered help and received no response is welcome to contact me at email@example.com and I will follow it up.
As the objective of this incredible effort is to protect those working in the NHS and elsewhere on our behalf, it is vital that they can have confidence in the PPE they are receiving. I am therefore asking questions about the processes and resources in place to check the PPE which has been produced so that those who will use it know it works. These checks have to be done quickly and efficiently but the least we owe to those who are seeking to protect their own health as they protect ours is to avoid offering them false reassurance.
For those in need during this crisis, I continue to be grateful to all working and volunteering to help. Contact details for those who can help with food or medicine delivery, or just some friendly conversation, can be found at https://apps.warwickshire.gov.uk/covid19directory