Tag Archives: Covid-19

Vaccine breakthrough takes our eye off the ball

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Forgive me if I seem the pre-Christmas Scrooge, but I can’t get as excited as everyone else at the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that has sent share prices rocketing (or falling) and a member of Sage saying we’ll be back to normal by the spring. I feel we are in danger of taking our eye off the ball.

The tendency when any of us are faced with a big problem is to see if we can solve it with minimum effort. It’s understandable; our lives are fairly full, so problems are irritants. But sometimes a problem requires a structural rethink, demanding root and branch reform rather than just tinkering with a failing element of the whole.

Issues like Covid-19 and climate change are problems that demand root and branch reform of the way the world does business, yet we are treating them like irritants. With climate change, we know our lifestyles are warming the planet to dangerous levels, yet we cling to the hope that some technology – like electric cars or planes running on biofuels – can be invented to stop us having to confront how we live and allow us to go back with a clear conscience to the life we know.

It’s the same with Covid. Although we don’t know for certain what caused it, the most likely explanation is our breaking down the barriers between the human and animal realms, to the point where bats, pangolins and perhaps even mink mingle with humans and cause a highly contagious killer virus. We need to look at our global lifestyle and re-establish that barrier, among other things through eating less meat and leaving forests intact – measures that will also help in the fight against climate change.

Yet instead, we hope for the magic wand of technology in the form of a vaccine. To me, it has long felt like lazy journalism or lazy politics to throw in the half-sentence “until we have a vaccine” to any thought about the coronavirus. It’s as if we don’t want to face up to the need to address the fundamental failings in our modus vivendi, and that can be dangerous.

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Welsh Government News: Education Minister announces Christmas travel plan

A message from Kirsty Williams: –

Universities are working together to help students make safer plans for the end of term.

New covid-19 lateral flow tests, designed to diagnose people without symptoms, will be provided to students who are planning to travel home for the holiday.

Universities across Wales will also end face-to-face lessons in the week ending 8th December, allowing anyone who tests positive for coronavirus to self-isolate for 14 days before travelling home for the Christmas break.

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LibLink – Vince Cable: Is Rishi Sunak about to go from hero to zero?

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Writing in the Independent, Vince Cable says that ‘the chancellor’s rapid transition from spendthrift to Scrooge has not yet been noticed by the admiring public but a change has undoubtedly occurred’:

One of the hot stocks of 2020, British chancellor Rishi Sunak, is starting to look seriously overvalued. His political allies, having talked up Sunak earlier in the year, tipping him for the top job, are now hedging their bets. The hero of the spring offensive may be on the brink of becoming the zero of the autumn retreat.

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Why hygiene, testing and shielding are better than lockdown and furlough

We need the current argument between Westminster and Manchester on the best strategy to tackle coronavirus. The issues involved need wider informed debate than has so far been allowed. Both government and science should accept challenge, and refine policy accordingly.

We are told that policy is science-led and evidence-based. But extensive use continues to be made of blunt lockdown and furlough measures, without scientific evidence of their efficacy. These are both clearly extremely harmful in themselves. Here is an evidence-based case for the superiority of infection control, testing, and shielding.

1. Infection control works

After extensive mortality in March-May, UK care homes have reduced both infection and excess mortality rates to zero.

Source

This has been achieved through rigorous infection control procedures. Note that the initial increased mortality affected all elderly people, not just those in care homes.

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Wendy Chamberlain reminds Boris about the Scottish border

Wendy Chamberlain got to question the Prime Minister this week. She asked him to sort out the issue that means that she and other Scots travelling between Scotland and England, and everyone living in the Borders, who may cross from Scotland to England several times a day, to sort out a problem with the respective English and Scottish test and trace apps.

Anyone crossing the border has to manually switch between apps. It doesn’t happen automatically. So you might think that your app is working, but it isn’t if you haven’t made the change between them.

See Wendy in action here:

Boris Johnson sounded pretty clueless in response, as you would expect. He did say he’d sort it, though.

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Cancel the 2021 GCSEs to save our future

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The government has turned crisis into catastrophe by deciding to retain the 2021 GCSE and A Level examinations and institute rigorous mock exams beforehand. It displays a woeful ignorance of teaching and learning, combined with a total failure to learn from past mistakes.

Students have not been at school for six months and their return this autumn is marked by further periods of absence due to Covid-19 outbreaks and quarantine requirements: something highly likely to increase as autumn turns to winter.

The current pressure on both students and teachers to catch up on missed learning, while managing ongoing disruptions in attendance, is doubled by a requirement to revise for their mocks what they may have not yet sufficiently covered in class, and then for exams that may still have to be cancelled – whatever the government says.

Another U-Turn is required because teachers need whatever time will be available to concentrate on teaching and to support students who are undergoing the biggest disruption to education since World War II.

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Passing the buck on Coronavirus

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Opposition parties are right to challenge government mismanagement of the coronavirus epidemic. Competence is crucial to saving lives, maintaining wider public health, and not unnecessarily constraining personal liberty. So far, the UK government has got it spectacularly wrong on all these counts.

The twin major government failures in managing the pandemic have been

  1. Insufficient PPE in March. As a result, many thousands of people died. Care homes have since achieved zero infection with full PPE.
  2. Insufficient tests in September. As a result, thousands of uninfected people are now subject to 14 days avoidable quarantine, losing their liberty and their work.

Germany shows how to do it far better, limiting mortality to 115 deaths per million population compared to the UK rate of 627. People arriving in Germany from UK and EU take a test and are not quarantined if negative. All very sensible and effective.

Not only government ministers, but also their medical and scientific advisors, share responsibility for this UK failure. Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty gave a presentation (text here), on the current level of threat. But this fell short of being the ‘best science’ by lack of any peer review, scrutiny, or questions.

Vallance claimed that the increase in infection is not due to greater testing, but to increased positive test outcomes (quote ‘Could that increase be due to increased testing? The answer is no.’). He’s wrong. The current huge increase in infections must be partly due to increased testing. Vallance should have attributed increased infections between these two causes.

Having long dismissed international Covid comparisons because they show the UK in a very bad light, Vallance then presented current infection data from France and Spain, whilst ignoring the German outcome which requires their scientific explanation. This matters, because it determines best policy recommendations.

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Observations of an expat: Trump, Covid and me

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Donald Trump and I have something in common. We are both on steroids. And I can tell you from personal experience, that heavy doses of steroids can affect you mentally – and physically.

It can make you angry and a shade irrational. Just ask my wife. In fact she says I should delete the word “shade”. In my case it affects my feet and hands as well; swelling the feet and making the hands shake.

The reason for these changes is that steroids dramatically and rapidly push up your sugar levels. It is a bit like suddenly swallowing a kilo of the white stuff in one 10 second sitting. You become hyper. I have also become a steroid diabetic. As President Trump weighs about 20 kilos more than me, it is possible that he has suffered the same or similar fate.

In my case, I have to take steroids for a chronic cancer called Multiple Myeloma. The bad news is that the nature of the cancer, the steroids and a bewildering cocktail of other drugs, means that I will be boring you with this column for many years to come. Steroids affect your behaviour and your quality of life. But they save lives. They don’t end them.

Your body also adjusts to the initial onslaught of steroids and the chemicals that accompany them. In my case it took about four months and a reduction in steroid intake. I have no idea how long it will take Trump to physically and mentally acclimatise. But, I can assure you that a weekend at Walter Reed Hospital – no matter how good the doctors are – is insufficient.

Of course, Donald Trump’s behaviour was erratic in the extreme long before he swallowed his first dose of dexamethasone. He stands apart as a person who refuses to accept that the laws of nature and man apply to him. Facts, historical records and evidence of our own senses are an irrelevancy as far as Donald J. Trump is concerned.

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The NHS Track and Trace app is here to stay, what should Liberals say?

The NHS Track and Trace app is here to stay. Even if Covid-19 were to disappear from the planet tomorrow, there is no turning back from this point; track and trace apps will become a permanent fixture of the health service. And now that we know what an app should be able to do, why would we rely on one for Covid-19? If it helps to save lives, then surely an app could help us to guard against annual winter flu pandemics; what about chickenpox and a whole host of other infectious diseases? Thinking ahead, it is not inconceivable to imagine that we will have all be required to have a permanent mobile app, which can be used to track our exposure to deadly diseases, but also hold our personal medical records.

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Brexit: Heading for Disaster or Brinkmanship? Part Two

The Irish Border was always going to be the stumbling block to BREXIT. Part of the problem is that the House of Commons is not representative as the 7 Sinn Fein MPs have not taken up their seats as it would mean them taking the oath of allegiance to the Queen. The people of Northern Ireland voted to “remain” whereas the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs favour BREXIT. A border down the Irish Sea would not be acceptable to the DUP any more than a border in Ireland would be acceptable to Sinn Fein.

All parties agree that a “no-deal BREXIT” would be disastrous for the economy in that 44% of our exports go to Europe (with only 18% of Europe’s exports coming to Britain) and a further 20% of Britain’s exports go via trade agreements with Europe. Most of our food comes from Europe, and Spain in particular, and the World Trade Organisation Tariffs could add up to 10% to prices. No amount of trade deals around the world could compensate for the loss of trade with our nearest neighbours. The recent deal with Japan replicates the deal the UK already had with Japan via the EU.

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Brexit: Heading for Disaster or Brinkmanship? Part One

The Coronavirus possibly poses a greater threat to the human-race than did the second world war and the unleashing of nuclear bombs. The UK should have locked down earlier, worn masks earlier, had test and trace earlier, stopped admissions to care homes earlier, admitted people in care homes with symptoms to a hospital where they could have benefitted from oxygen, ventilators and intensive care. However, we are where we are and quite rightly when announcing further measures to combat Coronavirus (on Tuesday 22nd September) the Prime Minister put saving lives first (and I am delighted that people working in restaurants both in the kitchens and serving are to wear masks). Still, he also said he was keen to strike a balance in protecting the economy and jobs. Given that the Coronavirus is likely to trigger a world recession why then is he persevering with the “UK Internal Market Bill” which risks alienating our closest trading partners, undermining trust in the UK worldwide and scoring an own goal by inflicting untold harm on the economy with a potential no-deal BREXIT in January, whilst undermining the peace process in Ireland?

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LISTEN: Christine Jardine on Any Questions challenges government on Brexit and Covid

In a week when Boris Johnson’s government has reached “give the toddler a box of matches and a can of petrol” levels of irresponsibility, Christine Jardine challenged Employment Minister Mims Davies on both their inept handling of Covid-19 and their “specific and limited” breach of international law. They were on the BBC’s Any Questions programme last night and you can listen to the whole thing here.

“This is a treaty that your government negotiated and got through Parliament and now you’re reneging on it. How is that responsible?” she asked Ms Davies.

Christine pointed out that the Government is out of control, its moral authority inside and outside the country is plummeting and that Brexit is descending into farce.

She also attached the government for ending the furlough scheme, which has kept so many jobs going, as early as next month, pointing out that other countries are extending them for much longer. She asked the Government to extend it until next June at least.

This week in her first  Commons speech in her new Treasury brief, she highlighted why this was so important:

Earlier, on Talk Radio, Christine asked how on earth we could attack Russia and China for their nonchalant attitude to international law when we were guilty of the same thing.

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Ed gets his listening tour off to a great start by dishing out fish and chips

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Paddy did a listening tour back in the early 1990s. Because it was Paddy, it was very sleeves-rolled-up, get-stuck-in. And, of course, typical Paddy as well, he wrote a book about it.

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Jo Swinson on the impact of the pandemic on gender equality

Former leader Jo Swinson highlighted the ways i which the covid-19 pandemic could adversely affect gender equality in the workplace.

She was giving a lecture on the future of work to Cranfield School of Management which was reported on Personnel Today.

There are some inequalities there which might well be a lasting legacy of the pandemic, despite the fact that there are other elements which ought to make things better for people who have caring responsibilities, by making it more accessible to work flexibly and to work from home,” she said.

She set out her concern that marginalised groups may find themselves at the sharp end of poor employment practice:

Swinson was concerned that those in groups that are already marginalised, such as BAME workers and those with disabilities, will experience greater challenges in the turbulent jobs market that is likely to be seen over the coming months.

My fear is that employment prospects, which are looking pretty stark for the next few months particularly as the furlough scheme and support for jobs comes to an end… will be restricted as the number of applicants per job sky rocket. There is a danger that we will go backwards ,” she said.

In times where employers can recruit very easily there’s less of a market pressure for them to make sure they are valuing each employee. Good employers will recognise the benefits of doing that… but there’s no doubt there will be employers who will look for the opportunity to slash costs to the bone, to not treat their employees well, and easier to get away with it.”

But there may, said Jo, be a positive aspect from the new ways of working we’ve found during the pandemic.

However, Swinson thought that the new ways of working brought about by the lockdown have the potential to increase the employment rate among certain groups, such as those with long-term conditions or disabilities who are unable to commute or work long hours.

“The idea that everybody needs to be working the same hours will recede because if people are going into the office they still might prefer to go in earlier, or at half past 10 when the public transport will be quieter,” she said.

“In the UK we notoriously work very long hours – is that what people feel is required?”

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Exam Results and Gradings

Students and teachers are often disappointed with some or all of their grades, and this will always be so. Don’t let us be consoled by this and dismiss the anxiety over grades as a temporary, COVID driven problem requiring only an immediate, pragmatic solution.

I was for several years in the early 2000s, a senior A level examiner. I set papers, wrote mark schemes and participated in grade reviews before grades were published.

I participated in meetings that manipulated mark schemes after students had completed papers but before they were marked – also in the meetings which manipulated grade boundaries after marking. These manipulations had four aims:

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The geopolitics of COVID-19: Can liberalism win the day?

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The pandemic is an unprecedented global challenge affecting all humanity, which is suffering the consequences at very considerable social and economic cost.

The world was already in disorder before COVID-19 made its appearance but the crisis has undoubtedly deepened the great power rivalry between China and the U.S., aggravated by a far-reaching trade war starting sometime before the pandemic hit.

Trust in international systems of cooperation have been impacted. Although coordination is better right now, and concrete initiatives are underway to try and ensure that the eventual vaccine is a global public good for health, the scramble between countries to be first to have their populations vaccinated will sorely test the world’s ability to cooperate together again.

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Last minute Northern lockdown is “beyond comprehension”

Responding to the Government’s change in guidance stating that separate households will not be able to meet indoors from today in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire, Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson Munira Wilson said:

Throughout this crisis, the Government’s communications have been an utter disaster. To announce a regional lockdown of millions of people not only just hours before it’s enforced, but with no clarity on the new rules coming into place, is beyond comprehension.

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Will the next LibDem Leader have national ballot appeal?

Who are the Liberal Democrats? How far does their leader embody their party? In what way would their leader be a desirable UK Prime Minister?

As Liberal Democrats go to the polls to elect a leader these should be the questions members of the party have at the front and centre of their minds. These are the questions voters will ask. We need a leader who has manifold capacities to govern the country, providing sound leadership on a global stage into the next decade.

Many will not believe such a thing possible. Many unbelievers will be Liberal Democrats. But just think for …

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100% face masks in English shops on Friday? They’re having a laugh…..

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We’re sailing breezily towards Friday when, suddenly, everybody is meant to be wearing face masks in shops.

It’s not going to happen.

I see hardly any face masks being worn out at the moment.

To expect a sudden pivot on Friday is just ridiculous.

The police aren’t going to enforce the rule to any significant extent.

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Neo-liberalism is deceitfully plundering society

We face interactive networks of problems. Some were and are easily perceived, some not. All need analysis and addressing.

The U.K. is amongst the worst performing nations in the protection of its citizens against the current plague.

A chronic cause is under-investment in national health infrastructures.

An immediate cause is serial governmental ineptitude.

A foundation cause is the power of the theory of Neo-liberalism, with its policies of social programme cuts, the transfer of wealth to the wealthiest, the reduction of the costs to “Big Business” and its associates, the opening up of public infrastructures for profitable exploitation etc.

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How the Social Contract idea can serve both our party and the country

It is easy to be high-minded about the Social Contract idea, which may be why it is not yet universally known or accepted. Yes, it is a vision of addressing the main social ills of this country, campaigning to have them put right. And yes, it gains legitimacy by assuming the mantle of William Beveridge, the Liberal who produced a great Reform plan during the Second World War, including a demand that ‘five giant evils’ of the time should be destroyed by following his plans.

What could be more appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to campaign on, than a plan developed during the current world crisis, to tackle the huge social ills which are modern equivalents of those which Beveridge saw? It can also meet the present mood in the country for major beneficial change, which is comparable to that felt by the British people suffering in that devastating War

To demand a new post-COVID Social Contract, the equivalent of the post-War Social Contract is not just poetic; it is practical and far-reaching. Just as in Beveridge’s time, the social ills here today existed before the present crisis, and are likely to worsen as the immediate remedial measures come to an end.

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Two options

I never thought that I would end up having a fear about my job! I currently have two part-time jobs. One, there is no problem at all, but the second has become quite a worry. That is because it is working behind the bar in a social club, and I have type1 diabetes, which I have had for 34 years.

I have pretty much had the concern about starting back behind the bar since we went into lockdown. As the months have flown by, and more of the restrictions have been lifted, I have realised that I have a constant niggle in the back of my head!!

With certain things, I am not so perceptive, but with other things, I am extremely observant. None so more than when I have been out shopping, or for prescriptions. This constant niggle, which I have become very aware of, is from my observations of people while I have been out, which is once a week. Are they wearing a mask, have they sanitised their hands when walking through the shop door, how far away from others are they, and so on.

My impression is that a lot of people have pretty much gone back to the way we were before isolation. I thought that might be where I am currently living in England, but after observing what is happening around the rest of the UK and the world, this mentality does not seem to be restricted to just where I live.

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Every so often, it’s worth having a look at this table…

OK, I know that countries have very different ways of reporting deaths from Covid-19.

But this table, from Worldometer (excluding a couple of micro-states), gives us some idea how the UK is doing in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million of population.

Badly.

We are second in the world for the rate of deaths, after Belgium.

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Boris on Care: wrong words, right target

The corporate voice of the care sector is up in arms about the PM’s comments on care. Of course, his remarks about care homes, not following procedures were sly and clumsy, but he is right that the care sector should shoulder some of the blame for the virtual decimation of their aged residents.

Clap for carers was a touching display of community empathy for people in the front line but neither this outpouring nor the tragic deaths of care home staff should make the care sector itself exempt from criticism in the forthcoming debate on social care reform.

Just before this crisis …

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I went to the pub…light the blue touchpaper and stand well back

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I figured that last weekend would be a bit crowded in pubs, so I reserved time in my (not-so)busy diary to visit the pub yesterday. Monday is the new Saturday.

All went well. The pub I visited seem to have lots of measures in place, and well-trained staff.

I enjoyed an excellent couple of pints of a local brew (Loddon Brewery’s Citra-Quad, since you ask). I had a meal which was obviously well-familiar with the inside of a microwave but still, as they used to say, “filled a hole”.

So far, so uncontroversial.

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The herd and the unheard!

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There is a current running through this government. It is one of confusion. But, despite my best efforts to not impune motives, I am coming to the view that the current running through this government is one of callousness. Not always intentional, but incredible, too.

Sometimes the callousness is because of the confusion.The one caused by the other. So we have loss of life due to Covid-19 in the highest numbers per head of population in the world, caused by lack of testing, tracing, PPE, etc. But that is only a part of it. Confusion here is in the delivery, but what I am more worried about is callousness in the decision making.

It was very welcome to see a centre-right chancellor acting like a centre-left one. It is very surprising to see a centre right PM think he is a New Deal President. But this is only a part of it.

What is the reality now is that we have a government in denial. It cannot see that it is all well and good having support packages, in part through pressure from other parties, but what’s the use, if they are stopped? It is fine to have schemes to rebuild, but what is the point if we tear down the support for people!

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The Independent View: Overcrowded housing, BAME groups and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 era has progressed, more and more data has pointed towards a deeply harrowing truth – the virus is having a disproportionate impact on BAME groups. According to research from ICNARC, approximately one-third of the COVID-19 patients admitted to Intensive Care Units (ICUs) have been from BAME groups, despite the fact that just 14% of the UK population is BAME.

Added to this, black ethnic groups have experienced the highest diagnosis rates, and both black and Asian groups have experienced higher death rates than the white British majority. In order to understand this disparity, it is important to take a close look at one of the factors thought to play a part: overcrowded housing.

All minority ethnic groups are statistically more likely to live in overcrowded housing than the white British group. Taking the Bangladeshi ethnic group as an example, just short of 30% of households have more residents than rooms. For white British households, this figure stands at just 2%.

Overcrowded housing is of huge significance for two main reasons. Firstly, it dramatically increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, as the virus can spread easily among those who live in close proximity to each other and share facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. Secondly, it makes adhering to self-isolation guidelines essentially impossible, as a person cannot minimise their contact with others if their circumstances are such that they did not have enough personal space to begin with.

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Looking back: How investing in our communities laid the foundations for tackling Covid-19 in York

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Just over a year ago I was appointed to the role of Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities in the new Lib Dem/Green partnership running City of York Council following the May elections of 2019.

I’m hugely proud of the way our team in York rose to the challenge presented by Covid-19. Lib Dems in local government (particularly those fortunate to be leading Councils), love nothing more than tweaking policy, putting values into practice, and pouring through budget papers with highlighters. We are no different in York. Little did we know 12 months ago that this effort was to be critical in stopping residents reach poverty and keeping them safe, with food in the cupboards and prescriptions delivered.

Our priorities for my corner of the Council centred on devolving budgets down to neighbourhoods and investing in community support. As we entered the Covid-19 crisis, these priorities came to be the bedrock of our community response.

In 2019, we announced a £4.5 million ward funding programme, to be spent by local councillors in ways that support their respective communities. Getting cash from the decision makers in the Council’s offices, to residents sat around the community centre table, was a point of principle we fought hard on in the local elections. For a community like mine, this meant our local area would benefit from £251k over the life of the administration. That’s already being spent on funding activities for young people, tackling adult isolation and improving infrastructure; new benches, bus shelters and road resurfacing.

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Building back better

After Covid-19, we all must rise to the UN challenge to ‘build back better’. The impacts of the pandemic and the lockdown have accelerated changes that had been predicted would take decades to happen. We all have a new appreciation for housing, outdoor spaces, community services and the welfare state. The uncongested streets, cleaner air and slower pace of life have hopefully served as a sign that we could do things differently.

The planning system has a critical role in making the ‘new normal’ a better one. The government’s policy statement in March, perhaps due to its timing (written at the beginning of lockdown), seems to miss the public mood. For its laudable commitments on brownfield regeneration, infrastructure first and better design, government thinking on planning continues to be based on the Conservative obsession with home ownership. For sure, home ownership should be more accessible, and I acknowledge the pledges on affordable housing, social housing and the rental sector. Unfortunately, I think the statement missed the need for the planning system to take a more holistic approach – fulfilling the right to decent housing, making liveable places and delivering sustainable growth with wellbeing and tackling the climate emergency at its heart.

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Post shielding face masks for extremely disabled passengers

I have been shielding for months due to a medical condition listed as extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 but keeping in touch with work. Over the last few months, I’ve been updated with changing company policy and watching the Government updates closely.

Workplace pay was revised in line with the Government’s change of advice for those who no longer need to be shielded. If my condition had been less severe, I’d be back to work now instead of staying safe at home.

Around the same time, TfL emailed me to say that from the 15th June face masks will be mandatory on public transport. They ought to be already based on video and photos I’ve seen. Buses will not take the usual number of passengers to allow for social distancing aboard so spaces will be limited, and people might have to wait for the next bus. Not all bus stops have seats, many disabled people can’t remain standing for long, and drivers can’t recognise hidden disabilities. Many buses are still using middle or rear doors too for driver safety.

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