We needed some good news, after 8 months of restrictions, lockdowns and all the health and economic devastation caused by the pandemic – and the hope of the vaccine is exactly what we wanted to hear.
There is some way to go, firstly in completing the safety checks and secondly in overcoming the massive challenge of actually vaccinating tens of millions of people, but at least we have something positive to look forward to.
In the meantime, we are not out of the woods yet – three weeks into the autumn lockdown there has clearly been stabilisation in the rate of infection but not yet a settled period of reduction. It also remains true that infection rates can surge very quickly indeed, and the very last thing we can afford to do is risk another spike in hospitalisations in January and February – the point in the winter when the NHS is always most stretched.
Unfortunately, Westminster is trailing much of London in terms of the number of tests being carried out. There are also understandable worries that we may not do as well on vaccination either, as inner London doesn’t perform brilliantly on screening and vaccination for other illnesses. The wider we can spread the message about testing and take up, the better and the quicker restrictions can be lifted. I’ve listed our local testing centres below and there is lots of information available on www.gov.uk/coronavirus and www.westminster.gov.uk/coronavirus
At the same time, my colleagues and I continue to make the case for more government support to businesses and to individuals to minimise the hardship and the economic damage. The government have made clear that they did not intend to negotiate over the level of restrictions ( the ‘Tier’) regions- including London – will be put into but they must make sure that their decision is backed up with help- for our crucially important hospitality sector, for the many people who are self-employed/freelancers who fall outside the existing support schemes, for those people who need to self-isolate but can’t access the payment to cover lost earnings. Along with the Mayor of London, my Parliamentary colleagues and were pressing for London not to be subject to Tier 3 – which has now been confirmed.
As always, I’m very aware that the situation may have changed in the time between writing this and it reaching you, but I thought it would be helpful to share with you some local information from our health service and others, and an update on some of the other work I have been doing in recent weeks.
Further down there is some information about the work I’ve been doing in Parliament on Human Rights and government legislation, on Black Lives Matter, on getting a fair deal for transport in London which kept our travel concessions and blocked the government attempts to extend the congestion charge zone, on the funding crisis affecting Access to Justice and more…
In my role as Opposition Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, I have been speaking in Parliament on pensions, maintaining the temporary uplift to Universal Credit, extending help to those who are long term sick and disabled, and making changes to help people who have savings and find themselves not entitled to help. I’ve also been catching up with the Federation of Small Business on help for the London economy, raising the plight of leaseholders facing huge bills for the removal of cladding, touching base with local organisations serving the community and getting weekly briefings from the London Recovery Team.
Locally my Labour councillor colleagues and I have also been pressing Westminster Council on extending free school meals to local children during half term (they refused), and pulling services together to resolve problems of anti-social behaviour and serious youth violence in several parts of North Westminster. And of course my small staff and I continue to do our best to help with the hundreds of requests for help, advice and information which arrive in the office pretty much daily, from tax and benefits and business grants.
It won’t come as any surprise to constituents that I see one other shaft of light amidst the winter gloom as being the election of Joe Biden. We now have an American President-elect who is committed to tackling climate change and taking the US back into the Paris Climate Accord which Donald Trump withdrew from. It remains the case that the greatest challenges we face require international co-operation to resolve.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, we still do not have a Brexit deal despite the end of December deadline, despite all the evidence of the economic damage a ‘no deal’ Brexit would inflict *on top* of Covid, and despite all the promises made during last year’s General Election that a deal was ‘oven ready’ and would be the ‘easiest deal in history’. And this week, the independent Office of Budget Responsibility spelt out that a ‘no deal Brexit’ will hit the economy even harder than Covid, raising prices and cutting our national output by 4%. To say this is all being cut fine is the understatement of the century…
Anyway, here is a local health and Parliamentary update, sent with all good wishes,
Here’s the latest information and guidance from our local NHS
Imperial NHS Trust- including St Mary’s and Charing Cross hospitals were, as of November 19th, caring for 86 patients who tested positive for Covid-19 on their current admission to hospital. Twenty-six of these patients were being cared for in intensive care, 21 of whom are on a ventilator.
During the week commencing 9 November, they opened up the additional intensive care capacity in 11 South ward at Charing Cross Hospital and four extra beds within intensive care at Hammersmith Hospital, primarily to support wider sector pressure, mainly at Northwick Park. They have not opened up any further ‘surge’ capacity since but the situation is being kept under close review.
St Mary’s are also working hard to improve access to non-Covid services which were inevitably affected by the crisis- and they are keen to stress all that has been done to make the hospital safe and how important it is for people to continue to attend appointments and get non-Covid conditions treated. As of the end of October, 74% of patients were being treated within 18 weeks of their referral (an improvement from 68.5% in September), and 33% of patients were waiting over six weeks for a diagnostic test (an improvement from 40.5% in September).
The primary care services – including GPs – are also now reporting to MPs regularly, and have told us this:
Advice from North West London NHS
We are planning for how the NHS rolls this out in NW London; with initial plans for staff to be vaccinated first.
The vaccine has undergone months of rigorous testing and is safe and effective. Safety and effectiveness will continue to be monitored after the vaccine is introduced.
The NHS will offer a COVID-19 vaccination once it has been approved by MHRA, the official UK regulator. Health and social care professionals have been identified as a priority group to receive the vaccine first.
NW London update
While we have seen a rise of those in hospital, our position in terms of the numbers of patients in beds does seem to be fairly stable. Northwick Park has seen the largest volume of patients as part of this second wave, but their position is also currently stable and resources are in place to care for those who have been admitted.
At this stage all our hospitals are seeing patients as normal, but if cases continue to rise we will need to take further action to increase our capacity to deal with Covid cases, which will have a subsequent knock-on effect elsewhere.
Key messages for local residents:
Please follow the national guidance and stay home. Protect each other, the NHS and save lives.
The NHS is open – continue to access NHS services if you need them. We want our local residents to know that no matter what your concern may be, our NHS services are still available for your use:
- If you have a health concern speak to your GP or NHS 111 right away.
- If you have been called for an appointment, it is because you need it. Please make sure you attend if you are asked to do so – it is much safer to attend than to not come in due to misplaced fears.
- Rigorous measures are in place across our services to keep both patients and staff safe, including separating people who may have Covid-19 from those who do not.
- Many of our services are also being offered virtually, by telephone or video call.
New national NHS campaign on mental health
Help Us Help You – access Mental Health services
A national mental health services campaign launched this week as part of the NHS ‘Help Us Help You’ campaign. We know mental health needs are increasing as a result of the pandemic and we want to reassure people that the NHS is here for mental health, and that help is available.
- The NHS is asking anyone facing feelings of anxiety and depression to come forward for care.
- Just talking can help – and NHS talking therapies are an effective way to address mental health issues.
- NHS Talking therapies can be delivered safely even during lockdown, with appointments available over the phone and online. Face to face appointments are also still available, and services have implemented new measures to limit infection risks.
- Download and circulate the new resources to local residents and help us reach as many people as possible.
Access to North West London mental health services
You can refer yourself to the North West London IAPT service or speak to your GP or another healthcare professional for a referral. Visit: www.westlondon.nhs.uk/service/iapt/ or www.talkingtherapies.cnwl.nhs.uk/.
Clinically extremely vulnerable people.
The Government advice to people who are defined on medical grounds, as clinically extremely vulnerable to coronavirus are advised over the period of the new national lockdown to work from home.
The new guidance adds two new groups of adult patients to the criteria, adults with:
- stage 5 chronic kidney disease (not on dialysis or with a renal transplant – these patients should already be on the SPL)
- Down’s Syndrome
Key messages for local residents:
- You are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, but are encouraged to go outside for exercise.
- If you cannot work from home you are advised not to go to work and may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
- The full guidance is available here and the Government is writing to this cohort to set out detailed advice while the new restrictions are in place.
- If you think there are good clinical reasons why you should be added to the Shielded patients list, discuss your concerns with your GP or hospital clinician.
There are three testing sites in Westminster, run by the Department of Health
The semi-permanent, walk-through testing centres are open seven days a week, from 8am to 8pm. They can be used by anyone with symptoms or who has been asked to get a test. A test must be booked in advance at NHS online or by calling 119.
- Greenside Community Centre, 24 Lilestone Street NW8 8SR
- Grosvenor Hall, Vincent Street SW1P 4HB
- Lydford Community Hall, 74 Fernhead Road W9 3EW
There are currently no known capacity issues at testing centres so appointments should be readily available.
Key messages for local residents:
- If you have symptoms, book a test online or call 119. Please do not turn up to a test site without a booking.
- Download the NHS COVID-19 app, part of the NHS Test and Trace programme.
- If you are going into hospital for a planned procedure or you are taken into hospital in an emergency you will be tested.
All GP practices in NW London continue to offer face to face appointments to patients but provide a telephone call back in the first instance to reduce the spread of infection where possible. Patients will then receive a video or face to face appointment dependant on their need. GPs are also providing same day emergency care.
Some patients are still apprehensive about attending an appointment in a health setting and we are keen to work with local MPs to convey the message to their constituents that hospitals and GP surgeries are safe and people should attend appointments and seek help when needed.
Key messages for local residents:
- hospitals and GP surgeries are safe and people should attend appointments and seek help when needed
- you can still see your GP face to face if required.
This winter, the NHS in North West London is reminding residents of the range of healthcare services available to help them. Here’s a list of things you can do locally, online and over the phone that will help you stay well this winter.
- Call your GP
- Contact NHS 111
- Speak to a pharmacist
- Access wellbeing and psychological support
- In an emergency call 999 or go to accident and emergency (A&E).
- Don’t forget to get your flu jab
The flu jab will be available for 50-64 year olds from December
Key messages for local residents
- If you’re aged 50-64, your GP will contact you about getting your free flu vaccine from December. Please wait until you are invited by your practice to come forward for your flu vaccine, unless you are in a vulnerable group.
For more information, visit: www.gov.uk/government/news/free-flu-vaccinations-rolled-out-to-over-50s-from-december “
- Your GP will contact you about getting a vaccination or you can contact your pharmacy.
- Your GP practice and the pharmacies in your area will have a range of measures in place to keep you safe from COVID-19.
Fatwa on flu
The British Fatwa Council/Karimia Institute has issued a fatwa (a formal ruling or interpretation on a point of Islamic law) which concludes the nasal flu vaccine containing porcine gelatine is permissible for Muslims to use read more: www.britishfatwacouncil.org/2020/10/fatwa-on-flu-vaccine-containing-porcine-gelatine/
Key messages for local residents:
- The NHS has taken every precaution to provide flu jabs in a COVID-safe way.
- If you are invited for a flu jab, it’s important you book and attend your appointment at your GP practice or local pharmacy.
- If you are eligible and have not received an invite, please ask your GP.
And in other news:
Working in Parliament to uphold Human Rights
A lot of work in Parliament is done in Committees, whether cross-party ‘Select Committees’ or the committees which go through proposed laws line by line. My Parliamentary Committee – the Joint Committee on Human Rights – continues to scrutinise a range of government business, including Coronavirus legislation, and you can find all our work on the Parliament website.
In the last few weeks we have produced several reports which you can see here.
The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications, read here.
This has also been an important month for our work on the Black Lives Matter movement, which inspired an inquiry and a report into Black people’s experiences of racism, including in respect of policing and the NHS
Black people, racism and human rights
The Mayor of London has also published a plan for London’s policing to better reflect our city and strengthen relationships between the Met and our diverse communities. Policing is a tough and sometimes dangerous job- the tragic case of Sgt Matt Ratana, who spent some time working locally with Safer Neighbourhood police teams in Harrow Road and Westbourne, and who was killed on duty last month is a powerful reminder of that. We owe our police a debt of gratitude. Yet it is also true that the most effective policing works *with* our communities, based on trust and consent- and that one essential way to develop that is to improve recruitment
Our other reports covered the Internal Market Act, Covert Human Intelligence and the Overseas Operations Bill:
Legislative Scrutiny: Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill
Getting a fair deal for London Transport
As many of you will know only too well, the number of people using the buses and trains has plunged since the start of the Covid crisis – at one point, ridership was down to levels last seen in the late 19th century! As fare income is a large part of the budget, this hit Transport for London’s finances hard. Unlike the bailout to the national train services, the government was trying to force Londoners to accept some very harsh conditions for extra money to keep the service running. These conditions included scrapping free travel for younger and older Londoners, higher fare increases and the extension of the Congestion Charge zone to the North/South circular roads – and all in the middle of a severe economic contraction. These conditions were all set out in a letter to the Mayor from the Transport Minister – which I challenged him on in Parliament.
After some very tough negotiation, and a strong public reactions against the plans, these proposals were defeated. A six-month deal means that £1.8 billion of Government grants and borrowing will be made available on current projections to Transport for London (TfL) to keep services running until March 2021.
The deal makes around £1.8 billion of Government grant and borrowing available on current projections to TfL in the second half of this financial year. Transport for London will itself make up through savings the £160million gap the deal leaves from the nearly £2 billion the organisation projects it will need to run the tube, bus & other TfL services for the remainder of this financial year.
As part of the deal, London will also have to raise extra money in future years. Decisions about how this additional funding will be raised are yet to be made by the Mayor, but some of the options that he and the government have agreed to be looked at include a modest increase in council tax, pending the appropriate consultation, as well as keeping in place the temporary changes to the central London Congestion Charge that were introduced in June 2020, subject to consultation.
Promoting Access to Justice
One thing we have learned from bitter experience in 2020 is that the coronavirus has not merely caused a public health crisis, it has, for many millions of people, driven an economic one. And as with health, so with the economy – this has not had an ‘equal opportunities’ impact. It is those who are already all too vulnerable – in insecure or causal employment, self- employed, badly housed – who are continuing to take the biggest hit. During a period of such uncertainty, such personal upheaval, people need access to advice, advocacy and representation. Many organisations have risen to the occasion magnifenctly, of course, with hard-pressed staff and volunteers alike working flat out to help people. Sadly, there are also far too many others who have exploited the crisis, used it as cover for bad behaviour, or simply failed to understand their own responsibilities as employers, or as landlords. Over recent months, my office has been deluged with requests for help dealing with everything from illegal evictions to bosses who are pressurising their staff to work in unsafe environments. My small staff team and I do our best, and refer people to expert sources of advice whenever we can, but all too often what is needed is legal advice.
As the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, I am helping to front an inquiry into the state of legal aid supported services, not least in the context of the Covid crisis. Legal Aid has been squeezed for many years now, but the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2012 has led to a drastic scaling back of help – spending is now £950 million a year lower than it was a decade ago. Whole areas of legal aid were simply removed, drastically reducing what was available to people needing help with employment, housing, debt and family matters. Large parts of the country have become ‘legal aid deserts’ where no legal aid providers operate at all. The future of many providers was already bleak, then Covid struck. Our inquiry has been taking evidence from the front line of the service – first on the criminal legal aid system, and this week from family law providers, helping people navigate such intensely sensitive areas as disputes over access to children, care and child protection proceedings. Here, the government’s stated aim of withdrawing state support for what should be personal issues has led to a huge increase in the number of people representing themselves in court, which has proved complex, costly and a cause of huge inequalities between those represented and those who are not. It has also led to a halving of the number of cases going to publicly funded mediation – the exact opposite of what was intended to happen.
If you have any interest in this issue, please do follow our inquiry through the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid website – we do really want to increase public awareness of this vital issue, and increase backing for re-investing in a system which makes sure everyone has access to justice.
Where to go for help and advice
Rather than try to cover all the sources of help in each newsletter, my website includes a list of organisations, phone numbers and links for where to go for advice – on housing benefits, debt and so on at www.karenbuck.org.uk/coronavirus-help-advice
You may also be interested in the latest programme from the Young Westminster Foundation on support for young people during the coronavirus at www.youngwestminster.com/help/
Don’t forget also that information in response to many specific questions about coronavirus rules, advice for employers and employees and claimants can be found on the coronavirus pages of the Gov.uk website.
The government has set up a dedicated support page where businesses can find the right support, advice and information to help with the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19).
- Extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS)
- Issue briefing update: How HMRC will continue to support customers and the economy
Extension to the Coronvirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS)
Employers in your constituency are now able to apply for CJRS online for periods from 1 November. They will need to submit any claims for November by 14 December.
What’s new in the support available
- CJRS has been extended to 31 March 2021 for all parts of the UK. From 1 November, the UK Government will pay 80% of employees’ usual wages for the hours not worked, up to a cap of £2,500 per month. This will be reviewed in January.
- Employers and employees do not need to have benefited from the scheme before to claim for periods from 1 November. Go to GOV.UK for full eligibility criteria.
- HMRC intends to publish details of employers who use the scheme for claim periods from December, and employees will be able to find out if their employer has claimed for them under the scheme.
- There are now monthly deadlines for claims. Claims for periods starting on/after 1 November must be submitted within 14 calendar days after the month they relate to, unless this falls on a weekend, in which case the deadline is the next week day. For further details go to GOV.UK.
- The Job Retention Bonus will no longer be paid in February 2021 and an alternative retention incentive will be put in place at the appropriate time.
- The launch of the Job Support Scheme has also been postponed.
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP