Kerry McCarthy Labour MP for Bristol East
Lots of my constituents have been in touch recently about coronavirus, so I thought it would be helpful to share the response I am sending out on this subject – you can read my update below. If you live in Bristol East constituency and have specific queries or concerns, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for getting in touch with me recently regarding Covid-19, also known as coronavirus. Please accept my apologies for any delay in responding to you – as you can imagine, I’ve been receiving a very high volume of correspondence in recent days and weeks!
I have written this response in order to address as many of the concerns you have raised with me as possible, and to provide you with as much information as I can about this rapidly evolving situation.
First and foremost, I want to extend my condolences to all those who have been affected by coronavirus thus far. From those who have lost loved ones, to those dealing with symptoms, through to those facing the prospect of weeks without pay, this is an uncertain and emotional time for many. We must be sure to support and look after one another, as well as to take necessary precautions to protect the vulnerable.
I’d also like to express my thanks and gratitude to NHS staff, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Advisor, and low-paid workers such as cleaners, all of whom are working exceptionally hard to keep us safe. This letter on supporting doctors summarises my thoughts in this regard.
As you may know, on 12 March 2020, the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK has moved to phase two of its four-part plan on coronavirus, which is known as the ‘delay’ phase. The Government is considering a ban on major public events, and is advising that anyone who suspects they have symptoms of coronavirus, such as a cough and fever, should stay at home for at least seven days in self-isolation, consulting NHS 111 if necessary.
During the Budget, the Government also announced that extra funding is being made available for the NHS and social care sector in order to aid the response to coronavirus. My Labour Party colleagues and I will be pushing Ministers to announce when exactly this funding will be made available, and how it will be allocated, because I am especially concerned about the gap in social care funding at this time.
Several of my constituents have raised their concerns about statutory sick pay (SSP) as well as provision for those who do not qualify for SSP because they are self-employed, or are on zero-hours contracts, for example. I am glad that the Government has announced that SSP will be available from day one of self-isolation, but many low-income workers are still faced with the choice between self-isolating and losing income, or going to work and risking spreading the virus. More broadly, the rate of SSP in the UK (£94.25 a week) is significantly lower than in other European nations – and would barely cover rent in many parts of the country. As such, I would like to see the rate of SSP increased, and would also like to see it extended to zero-hours workers and self-employed people, too. I urge all employers to offer contractual sick pay to those self-isolating, in line with ACAS guidance. If you have further concerns, this page has useful guidance from an employment solicitor, and this page has further clarification on sick pay entitlement.
Travel guidance is being updated regularly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office based on developments in individual countries. There is a link to this advice below. If you are a teacher, the Government is now advising against overseas trips for under 18s organised by education settings. Many UK airlines are cancelling flights to affected areas, and offering flexible rebooking options. I know some people are concerned about the lack of testing for Coronavirus at UK airports, but there have been questions about how effective this is, in any case, because symptoms can take days to appear. The World Health Organisation has advised that it is best not to apply travel restrictions, apart from for temporary periods.
On schools, at present, the Government is not advising that schools close unless they are specifically instructed to do so. I do understand the anxiety that this may cause, however, this decision has been made to minimise effects on parents, and because scientific advice implies this could do more harm than good at this stage. If there is a surge in cases, guidance will of course be updated, and in the meantime, it’s important that schools communicate what information they have received from the Department for Education to parents, and that good hygiene practices are widely promoted to staff, pupils, and families.
It is not an effective use of NHS resources to test everyone in the UK for Coronavirus. At present, testing is occurring only for those who have been to affected areas in a certain time period, as well as for those who have been in close contact with confirmed cases. You can read more information about testing here, and can access NHS 111’s dedicated Coronavirus advice here. Regular updates on UK cases can be found on the Government’s website, a link to which can be found below.
The Government has temporarily relaxed restrictions on supermarket food delivery hours to ensure stores are well stocked, and has reiterated there is no need to stockpile goods. Individual supermarkets are employing some sales restrictions in order to maintain stock levels, too. I would welcome further action from the Government to ensure those who are self-isolating can still access basics, particularly if they cannot shop online, have caring responsibilities, or rely on foodbanks.
I know this will be a particularly nerve-wracking time for small businesses, and I am glad that the Government has announced financial support to help meet costs, which you can read about here. I understand that funding will be available via local authorities, and am awaiting further details of how this will work.
Locally, Bristol City Council is working to ensure the most vulnerable can access all the help they need, and the Mayor, Marvin Rees, has provided an overview of Bristol’s response here. As MPs in Bristol, we have each been allocated some priorities to follow up with national Government, which we will pursue as a matter of urgency.
Lastly, I do share concern about media reporting on Coronavirus, as well as language use from some politicians! We must all take care to remain objective and factual, taking advice from experts and avoiding sensationalism which contributes to panic. At the same time, it is important that we do not devalue the lives of the vulnerable, such as older people, the chronically ill, and people with existing pulmonary health issues. This means we should all follow guidance to minimise the risk to ourselves and others, particularly by practicing regular hand-washing.
Legislation is due to be brought to Parliament imminently with regard to keeping vital public services running and supporting businesses – I will keep you posted of developments. Public health and safety must come first, and my Labour Party colleagues and I will continue to do all we can to ensure the UK is well-prepared for all eventualities.
NHS guidance for members of the public: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/
Government updates on UK cases and risk level: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public
Government Coronavirus Action Plan: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-action-plan
Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus#latest-health-advice
World Health Organisation (WHO) rolling updates: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen