I’m back in Wesminster, but contrary to the Government’s rhetoric that MPs are finally “back to work” in Westminster, I have been as busy as ever during the lockdown. My team and I have been working through a huge volume of casework, writing letters to government ministers on behalf of local business owners and working with Gateshead Council, our wider public services and community groups, to make sure they have the resources they need.
My diary has also been packed out with visits, some “in person” while socially distancing, and some virtual, to a whole range of community groups, whose efforts have been nothing short of heroic over the last three months. Amid the tragedy and hardship my spirits have been lifted time by the acts of kindness, creativity and hard work of thousands of volunteers.
I was pleased to talk to Hannah Katherine of Chopwell & Rowlands Gill Live at Home Scheme, whose telephone befriending services provide real support and good company to residents who are shielding. Their socially-distanced care service and group activities have kept spirits up and on VE Day they delivered 175 “Hope & Glory” treat boxes and led local residents in a traditional wartime sing-along.
I visited Ryton Health Hub too, whose volunteers have cooked over 300 hot for vulnerable people each week during the crisis. During May, the sunniest month on record, they took the opportunity to teach our local children gardening, with free sunflower seeds, environmentally friendly compost and pots for school children for a special home learning project.
Age UK Gateshead have harnessed the support of over 2,000 volunteers to provide a life-line for our older folk. They’re delivering hot meals, picking up shopping, doing DIY, dog-walking and lawn-mowing for those who need a helping hand, plus essential dementia and respite support.
Gateshead Foodbank are busier than ever. They delivered 17 tonnes of food to local people in April alone. This compares to around 7 tonnes in a “normal” month, and in doing so they helped to feed 1,200 people, more than double the number in an average month.
For the last eight weeks their warehouse, run by volunteers, has been open Monday to Friday, with volunteers packing emergency food parcels for Gateshead Council’s local food hubs.
I visited the food bank in person and it was an inspiring trip, which served as a reminder that there are people right now in our communities struggling and in need of our help. If you are able to, please donate to keep Gateshead Foodbank going, to ensure local families have the food and essential items they need
Pickle Palace, based at Greenside Cricket Club, has also delivered over 1,000 food parcels to those in need, and they don’t stop there. This much-loved social enterprise has been rescuing food donated from local supermarkets to feed the community.
While there I met Chopwell-based Digital Voice, who are really rising to the challenge of continuing their purpose of educating and empowering people, even throughout the current pandemic.
Winlaton Centre volunteers are up at the crack of dawn to provide hundreds of food parcels and hot meals to the most vulnerable. The centre currently has no income and they’re running on a shoestring, using their reserves and public donations to fund the work.
Donations from FareShare North East pay for the van and help to fund free meals, food parcels, stopping food from going to waste, filling the holiday hunger gap and other activities.
Chopwell, Winlaton and Birtley shielding hubs continue to provide support across Blaydon constituency. From providing food, to signposting for advice, they’re doing so much to tackle these issues and support people.
At Birtley Hub I met council staff and volunteers, supporting local people with food and advice and was delighted to join the Skills4Work group who have moved their activities online.
There’s plenty of work going on and our community groups will be increasingly vital, as the economic shock will inevitably lead to further job losses and business closures.
So in volunteers week, I’d like to say a huge “Thank you” to all the brilliant volunteers keeping our communities going – you’re brilliant!
Kids say the wisest things. My young constituents, Zoe, Shevanewe, Jack and Alfie, proved this to be true on my recent Zoom call with children across Blaydon constituency.
“When will schools re-open?” “How is the government keeping vulnerable people safe?” “Why are some housing estates better looked after than others?” were just some of their thoughtful questions at my Kids Question Time event. We explored these questions, with plenty of follow-ups coming from our discussions and I am grateful for their ideas for tackling the challenges we all face at the moment.
Visiting schools is something that I’ve really missed during the lockdown, so it was uplifting to spend time talking to them and more importantly, listening to their real concerns about themselves and their families, but also the wider community, as we face “lockdown” together.
Many children will be feeling deeply unsettled right now, seeing less of their parents if they are a key worker and less of their friends. Most won’t be spending as much time outside and, of course, some won’t have access to a garden to play and relax.
And with school closures and limited access to social workers, sports and youth clubs, many of our young people just aren’t being heard by adults and decision-makers, so I have scheduled in further online Q&A sessions, to give our children a platform to share their stories and ideas for coping with these difficult circumstances.
National charities such Barnado’s and the North East Child Poverty Commission have highlighted significant vulnerabilities for children in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, and are urging MPs to take action to support them in their constituencies.
We must do more to support our at-risk children through the crisis, including those from families with a history of abuse. They may now be isolated from their usual support systems, so it’s our duty to speak up for these children and highlight these issues. So, I’ll be feeding the ideas of our children and young people into the Government, now that Parliament has resumed.
The PPE crisis continues, and despite platitudes from government ministers, the reality is that many of our key workers are still without the basic supplies they need. So I’m delighted by the work of Frontline Friends, a local volunteer group of twenty or so women who are sewing scrubs for NHS and care work staff. The army of volunteers has raised over £1600 so far to pay for materials, and they are now in the process of making around 100 sets of scrubs to go to our local services.
With the Queen on the telly, a national effort to manufacture equipment, talk of our heroes and some of our usual rights and freedoms temporarily withdrawn, there has been much talk of the war-time spirit carrying us through the Coronavirus pandemic. I think we need more than spirit, great though that is : we need a clear strategy and set of actions to protect us in this next phase.
Many great plans were put in place to mark 75 years of freedom tomorrow, on VE Day. I’m disappointed not to be able to spend the day with some of our senior citizens as planned, to hear their stories, but VE Day organisers are still asking the nation to take part.
The recorded speech by then Prime Minister Churchill on 8 May 1945 will be broadcast by the BBC into our homes at 3pm tomorrow and we’re asked to stand at 3pm within the safety of our living rooms, gardens, front doors or balconies and undertake the nation’s toast to the Heroes of World War Two, using the following words, “to those who gave so much, we thank you,”.
VE Day offers a unique opportunity to pay tribute to the many millions that gave so much, at home and abroad, to ensure we can all enjoy the freedom we share today.
I invite you to join me, from your own homes, in paying tribute to those who fell 75 years ago and those who endured and survived. And of course, to pay tribute to the millions of frontline workers defending our lives today. We will remember you.
Age UK has issued some excellent advice on how we can safely help older people in our family or neighbourhood. Here are five tips from Age UK for making their lives easier during this difficult time.
1. Keep in touch
Phone your older relatives and friends and ask if they need anything and let them know if they do, you can help out. And while you’re on the phone, why don’t you have a chat?
You could set up a rota with other family and friends to make sure someone is regularly giving them a ring to see if they’re OK.
This might also be a useful time to introduce older relatives and friends to technology that might prove helpful during this period, such as Skype or FaceTime. We’ve also written a guide to video calling.
2. Lend a hand
If you’re feeling well, why not offer to pick up shopping for an older neighbour or relative who might not be able to or is too worried to go to the shops? If you are helping someone who is self-isolating make sure you leave the shopping on their front doorstep, knock on their door and step back while you ensure they safely receive it. Make sure you stand 2 metres away from them at all times.
You could help an older person who lives further away from you and isn’t familiar with technology by doing an online shop for them. It’s worth checking before you offer to do so, though, as some services have suspended deliveries due to overwhelming demand.
3. Show you care
Why not make homemade cards (which is a great project to do with the kids), send a postcard, even post small gifts to keep people’s spirits up or just write a good old-fashioned letter to an older friend or relative?
Why not get creative with it? Share any pictures or videos of what you’re up to by tagging our Instagram or Twitter accounts, or emailing: email@example.com.
4. Share these numbers
It can be helpful to know who you can call, especially if someone’s feeling isolated.
For practical information and advice, call Age UK Advice: 0800 169 65 65
For a cheerful chat, day or night, call Silver Line: 0800 470 80 90
Please note: as this is a very busy time, if you’ve contacted Age UK’s telephone befriending service, it may take a bit longer for us to match you up with a befriender.
“The NHS belongs to the people.” The bold opening line of the National Health Service constitution reminds us of the power of the state and citizens working hand in hand for mutual benefit. And there has been no greater example of that principle in action, as over recent weeks.
Like so many, I was deeply moved last Thursday when, at 8pm, I stood on my doorstep and joined millions of others in applause to express thanks to the heroes working in the National Health Service.
From our porters to our admin staff, nurses and healthcare assistants, clergy, paramedics, surgeons, doctors and managers, all are pitching in and playing a heroic role, risking their own lives each day, in order to care for and heal others.
And the deaths of three dedicated doctors, Dr Amged El-Hawrani, an ear, nose and throat consultant, Dr Habib Zaidi, a GP, and Dr Adil El Tayar, an organ transplant specialist, serve as a stark reminder that the risk to the workforce is real.
Gestures like the national round of applause are important; they recognise selfless hard work and help keep spirits up. But on their own they are not enough. Day after day we have listened to Government ministers telling us they are “ramping up testing” and that much needed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is “on its way”.
The Government must now deliver on those overdue promises, so that our NHS can function at its most effective and staff can attend their shifts and return to their loved ones unharmed.
For the elderly, the poor and workers on zero-hour contracts, this crisis presents entirely new challenges and new disparities, the likes of which we are not adequately prepared for.
We must, however, remain positive and acknowledge the collective show of strength, and the resilience of our workers and volunteer force. Only last week we saw grassroots organisations popping up everywhere to aid the NHS, and over 750,000 people signing up to the NHS Volunteer Responder app.
This army goes far beyond the health service, with so many of our wider public sector workers; care workers, refuse collectors, social workers, emergency service workers, teachers, school staff and so many others, all playing their part to keep our communities ticking and providing meals and support to the families that need them. And let’s not forget the essential role our armed forces and shop workers continue to play.
Ministers should work much more closely with councils, charities and care homes to ensure resources are made available, so no one is forced to suffer unnecessarily because of this crisis.
The charitable and voluntary sector has taken a huge hit in this crisis, with community fundraising efforts being hindered and presenting a challenge that third sector simply hasn’t faced before.
St. Oswald’s Hospice have, this week, launched a campaign to raise £1.25 million to keep their essential services going, and they’re not alone. FACT (Fighting All Cancers Together), based in my constituency, continues to drop food parcels to their services users, some of whom have had their cancer treatments paused during the crisis.
Charities like St Oswald’s and FACT rely heavily on fundraising events and income through their high street stores. We need their services more than ever, but these charities need the Government to provide urgent funding to help the sector and workers on the frontline.
There are some great initiatives going on within my constituency and the wider Gateshead borough. Age UK Gateshead, for example, are combining their resources with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Edbert’s House and mutual aid groups to protect the most vulnerable, elderly people who have been asked to stay at home for 12 weeks.
Isolation and loneliness can really affect our older people and last week they made and received over 2,400 local phone calls to check in with our older people and make sure they have the supplies they need.
So, thank you to every one of the local heroes who are making a real difference to peoples lives. Please know you are not alone in this fight and we salute your selfless work.