‘Light and life are stronger’: dealing with a pandemic in Gloucester
Answers to key questions about Coronavirus
In the face of a pandemic, government had to re-invent very fast how it delivers public services to protect the nation: and us citizens have had to adapt immediately to an Emergency situation.
Out of that massive disruption has come huge increased appreciation for both our NHS in particular and public services in general, including (for example) Care Homes, waste collection and supermarket staff.
And the speed of change has also raised thousands of questions - my mail box ranges from ‘what does this mean for democracy?’ to ‘can I walk my dog off its lead?’
So let me share my answers to some of the most frequent questions constituents have put to me:
How badly affected are we in Gloucestershire?
In one sentence we are the most affected county in the least affected region in the whole of Great Britain (see chart)
As of Sunday night we have 768 COVID19 positive cases across Gloucestershire with 22 patients in the GRH/CGH Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), and 18 on ventilators. 113 have died in Hospital and an estimated 40 in Care Homes. 217 people have been released from Hospital after being saved from the virus.
To all those and their families affected go my deepest sympathies. The poet John Donne famously wrote ‘Do not ask for whom the bell tolls / It tolls for thee’ - we’re all diminished by any individual death. So I strongly support the NHS Glos ‘Every Name is A Person’ campaign.
Has our NHS locally got enough ventilators, testing equipment & PPE?
Our Hospitals Trust has now got 5 times as many ventilators as it had when we went into lockdown, which should be enough for the worst case scenario.
The NHS can also test 10 times more staff and others a day than it could a fortnight ago, with results within 24 hours.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), Public Health England (PHE), other medical bodies and unions have agreed what PPE is needed in every situation. There have been different supply problems at different times - and the current national and local one is gowns.
At the same time NHS Glos is resourceful in supplementing national supply chains with local supplies and welcomes any potential supply of gowns (to firstname.lastname@example.org).
More delivery from national bodies is critical to continue to give our amazing NHS what it needs. All six of us MPs in Gloucestershire have weekly calls with our NHS Heads, have made representations to Ministers and will do so whenever needed. We can never be complacent about PPE and supplies for some items are very tight - but our local NHS Trusts are doing really well.
Is enough attention being paid to care homes and carers at homes?
This is vital. Almost all our Care Homes in Gloucester are well rated, doing their best to manage a difficult situation and working more closely now with the NHS, including on PPE. Care staff with COVID19 symptoms are being tested. While the situation at each of the 236 Care Homes in the county differs I’m in frequent contact with the Gloucestershire Care Providers Association to monitor the situation.
And what about GP surgeries (Primary Care)?
They’re coping very well with only 10 GPs infected and off work - the lowest figure of the last month - and some coming back to work after retirement.
The GP ‘Hubs’ in each district (2 in Gloucester) treat those with the strongest symptoms of COVID19, and are open this and next weekend too. Meanwhile other GP appointments are currently online or by telephone. This may be a longer term trend.
Both GPs and the NHS are worried there is a backlog of patients with non COVID19 issues building up who do need attention. Their message is please don’t be shy - if you’ve got a serious problem they want to treat it now.
Who’s helping the elderly who have to be ‘shielded’ for 12 weeks and can’t get supermarket deliveries?
Most of the very old and very vulnerable will have either family members, friends or neighbours to help with shopping/medicines and you can also sign up for help on the County Council’s Help Hub. You’ll then be matched with one of 3,000 volunteers who live nearby. Email me if there is a problem. This is being implemented in Gloucester by the City Council and Street Ambassadors are overseen by my Senior Caseworker and Council Cabinet Member, Jennie Watkins.
The most vulnerable are also getting national food packages (over 250,000 have been delivered so far across Britain), distributed from Gloucester across the county. Anyone who thinks they should be on the ‘most vulnerable’ list should check with their GP.
Dentists are closed. What about emergency dental treatment?
Yes the first such emergency dental clinic, run by the Gloucestershire Health & Care Trust, is now up & running (in Cheltenham). Constituents can apply for an appointment via 111 or direct on 0300 421 6440.
What are Gloucestershire individuals, businesses and organisations doing to help the NHS?
We’ve seen donations, fundraising, manufacturing and sourcing agents all creatively helping. Accommodation has been offered to the NHS by Universities and schools, free car parking for NHS staff, sanitiser gel made by gin distillers, at least 3 Gloucester companies involved in components for ventilators, PPE screen printing, ‘scrubs’ sewed - and more. Punchline is full of examples we can be proud of.
Where can I get support for mental health or domestic abuse?
Living at home so long does increase the risk of mental health and domestic violence incidents. If you, or anyone you know needs support then do check out support services on my website.
What about schools and nurseries for the children of key workers and those with EPHC certificates and hot meals at lunch for everyone?
Yes schools are still open for these children, including during the school holidays. Other children will have online lessons this term. Adjusting has been a major task and I’m grateful to all here too.
Free school meals have been organised in different ways by different schools and all parents will have been contacted by their school about the arrangements. More guidance can be found here.
Have the businesses eligible been given their cash grants and told about new Business Rates?
Yes: all relevant businesses should have been told about their new Rates, a new portal was created by the City Council for fraud control and they’ve distributed £15.6 million of cash grants to over 1,135 businesses in Gloucester. Free phone queries on 0300 303 5050 or the usual helpline 01452 396396.
When will businesses ‘furloughing’ workers be reimbursed by the government?
The HMRC furlough portal opened yesterday and can handle 450,000 registrations an hour: firms who pay staff now will be reimbursed by the end of the month. Guidance and the portal are now online.
What’s being done to protect the homeless and rough sleepers?
The government required councils to find everyone homeless or sleeping rough and accommodate them. All those in Gloucestershire have been housed in hotels. The NHS, City Council and Police have been providing support for the many challenges associated. You can let the Council know about rough sleepers via Streetlink.
For those not working, and not eligible for the furlough or self employed support schemes, what welfare schemes are available?
The Universal Credit (UC) platform has taken on over a million new registrations nationally and annual financial support increased by over £1,000. UC now pays up to £1,800 pm for those with <£16,000 savings.
Locally JCP Gloucester, despite less staff, has helped more constituents than ever before and is still physically open for very vulnerable individuals with communication difficulties. Advice is also available from Citizens Advice (01452 527 202) and other support groups as well as my office.
How can those in the greatest difficulty afford to pay Council Tax and utility bills?
The Council is working through the details of our local Hardship Fund but those in real difficulty can already apply for help on www.gloucester.gov.uk. All the utility companies (eg www.stwater.co.uk) have similar schemes.
Why is our rubbish sometimes not being collected as usual?
The City Council and their contractor Amey are doing well to keep almost all services going, despite much higher volumes and less staff. The government has prioritised collecting black bags and food waste, then other recyclables, with green waste being collected if resources allow.
In recognition the City Council is giving green waste subscribers 4 extra free months (from Oct to Feb). More details from their website.
What about MOTs and Blue Badges that have expired or are about to expire?
The validity of both has been extended:
- MOTs due after 30th March will be automatically extended for 6 months. Vehicles must be kept in a roadworthy condition.
- Local Authority Parking Teams will not issue Parking Penalty Notices to individuals using a Blue Badge with an expiry date of 1st January 2020 onwards. See council website for details.
Meanwhile what about the claim that MPs are getting £10,000 more during lockdown?
IPSA (the independent body that decides such things) have made that sum available in our budgets so that MPs can eg buy laptops for staff working from home and reclaim against receipts. I’ve made it clear I won’t be drawing a penny for my own working purposes, and although it's important my team has the right equipment to answer record numbers of emails I don't expect to draw new budget allocation much, if at all.
When will the lockdown rules be amended?
A huge question with health, business, economic, personal and other aspects. We can all agree it would not be helpful to open up and then have to close down again because of a surge of COVID19 infections - risking the NHS, despite a huge amount of extra capacity, suddenly being unable to cope.
So in my view there will have to be phases - and each will need as much scientific and medical consensus as possible and public acceptance. I don’t think we’re there yet.
Lastly what about the future - what are the longer term implications?
That’s a good question for a future e-news. But for me lots of jobs are always key to the health of our city. So we’ll need our businesses at their creative best when we’ve got through this pandemic. For now it’s all about helping the people and our city to survive - with resilience and an approach of Community First and Love Thy Neighbour. We did that well in the 2007 Floods, and the partnerships between all the public services and with other organisations are even stronger in this crisis.
I know it isn’t easy but everyone is doing their bit, and so a big thank you to all residents.
Meanwhile here’s my info update page with lots more detail of useful tel numbers, etc.
Stay Safe - and as Churchill put it: KBO.
MP for Gloucester
PS If you need any help mail me on email@example.com. I got behind on answering e mails in late March - I’m sorry for that - but caught up over Easter and I hope service now is as prompt as it usually is.
Do also send your thoughts on if, when and how lockdown should change.