Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.
Yesterday, MPs voted through new coronavirus restrictions that effectively put our country into a third national lockdown. The new measures are a last resort; none of us want to restrict your freedoms, but with public health at the front of centre of our decision making, this really is the only option.
Health experts now believe one in fifty people in the UK has the virus, and it is spreading exponentially across the UK. Hospital admissions are rising day by day and our NHS is under intense strain.
Here on Tyneside, we have been living under strict measures for some time now, and I know how difficult another lockdown will be for families across our region after everything they have already sacrificed. Despite this government’s many failures on covid-19, Labour supports the new restrictions as a national effort to protect the health service and save lives.
But our support for the government’s measures is in no way intended to let them off the hook on their broader mishandling of the crisis. There are serious questions for the government to answer on why they didn’t impose restrictions sooner, given that the scientific advice informing this lockdown was first presented to ministers over a fortnight ago.
As Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labour will continue to support the government where it gets it right and provide constructive criticism where it is failing. So, we’ll be pressing the government on a range of issues over the coming days.
Health ministers must explain why Serco’s testing system still isn’t working. And on vaccinations, we need a clear plan. We believe the NHS can deliver two million vaccines a week, but the government must clarify whether enough doses will be available and how they plan to remove the red tape that is making it difficult for retired health professionals to volunteer.
The chancellor must come to the house to explain why, once again, millions of working people have not been given the support they need, especially those three million self-employed who have been left without support for almost a year now. This is nothing short of a scandal.
Our lowest paid key workers need clarity on whether the government still plans to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit from April and whether they will implement the planned public sector pay freeze, which will affect the same nurses that have kept our country and our NHS going over the last 10 months.
On education, we face an unprecedented crisis. Last Sunday, despite growing evidence from the unions, our schools were deemed to be safe by Boris Johnson. By Monday afternoon he decided to shut them to most children, with no timescale for full re-opening, in another failure of his government to act swiftly.
Most children are now at home seven days a week, and for the most vulnerable this will have a detrimental impact on their learning and in some cases their well-being and safety, too.
Yesterday I asked the prime minister to keep his promises on levelling up. That means accelerating plans to provide laptops to the 1.8 million children without one, and a new national plan for education, to close attainment gaps exacerbated by the coronavirus.
My inbox is full of messages from constituents on issues like statutory sick pay and support for those self-isolating, nurseries, the ban on evictions that is due to expire in the cold of winter, provision for homeless people and local authority funding. On these and many more issues, I’ll continue to raise the questions and press for solutions.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Thanks to our brilliant scientists, there is hope of a way out of this nightmare with the vaccine. Every aspect of our national life must now revolve around an ambitious vaccination programme, to re-open society and the economy, and get children back in school as early as possible.
Until then, I urge you to stay at home to protect our NHS, so we can get Britain vaccinated in 2021.
For many of us, Advent is a time of hope, preparation and anticipation in the run up to Christmas. And this Advent has started like no other. Yesterday’s announcement that the United Kingdom is the first country in the world to approve the use of a vaccine is a welcome step in what has been a long and painful journey for many of us. But while the end is in sight we must be prepared to wait a little longer, and to keep public health at the forefront of everything we do.
We must recognise the scale of the challenge that has been overcome. Our world-leading scientists have succeeded in the monumental task of delivering a brand new vaccine for a novel virus in under ten months – a process that would usually take ten years in normal circumstances. So, I would like to pay tribute to our scientists, who alongside our NHS and so many key workers across many sectors, have been the true heroes of the 2020 story. Despite the failings of the Government on coronavirus – and there have been many – it should come as no surprise that Britain is the first to sign off a vaccine.
We have an outstanding reputation in the field of scientific research and development around the world, which is why I am calling on the Government to listen to leading medical research charities, who have come together to propose a way to ensure that vital research for both rare and widespread conditions can continue throughout this period of financial difficulty. They are asking the Government to create a life sciences charity partnership fund over the next three years, starting with £310 million in year one to meet the financial shortfall. I raised this in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on charity-funded medical research and will continue to do so where I can.
Our reputation was, however, diminished, following the announcement by the Chancellor last week that the Government are to cut our international aid budget – a cross-party achievement that showed our commitment to those in most need. As the vaccine is rolled out the Government will be judged on how it ensures that the poorest around the world will benefit from immunisation. This will be a critical test and one I will certainly be holding them to.
Fairness must be at the heart of the next phase of the Government’s coronavirus response. Earlier this week Labour abstained on the vote over the Government’s new restrictions. We support the need for measures but the new tiers continue to punish the North and there was nothing new for businesses across the country crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
Too many hard-working people have been left to fend for themselves, especially many self-employed and freelancers who have been excluded from the financial support packages available to other businesses. Hospitality and retail have been let down again and we still don’t have a functioning test and trace system.
While yesterday’s vaccine announcement is welcome it has still come too late to save many jobs. The collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams alone in the last 48 hours, putting at least 25,000 thousand jobs at risk, is a real tragedy for many of my own constituents. For areas like Blaydon, retail is a major sector for employment. I can’t imagine the challenge that some families now face in the run up to Christmas. That’s why Labour is calling for urgent action to protect jobs, pensions and communities.
In the coming weeks we will start to see the roll out of the largest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS. With no time to learn lessons from our neighbours, this is no easy task. Boris Johnson likes to portray himself as a great heir to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But with backbench rebels rising Mr Johnson’s premiership is showing signs of trouble. If he is looking to secure a legacy, he must finally get serious and take control of this virus so that lives can be saved, our NHS can be protected, and our economy can start to rebuild in 2021.
Accusations of chaos and incompetence continue to dog the Government as they stumble from failure to failure in dealing with the Coronavirus.
Keir Starmer was clear on day one of his leadership of the Labour Party back in April that he would support the Government where they are getting it right, but challenge them and hold them to account where they get it wrong.
At a time of pandemic, thats the very least the British public would expect from Her Majesty’s Opposition; to work constructively and present alternative approaches, in the national interest.
When Keir Starmer called for a circuit breaker three weeks ago, he was proposing a short and effective intervention to drastically cut the number of contacts between households as the “R-rate” rose. With the first week aligned with the school half term, Labour’s proposals, backed up by many in the scientific community, would maximise effectiveness while minimising disruption to children’s education.
So, it was bitterly disappointing to see the Prime Minister’s response to our suggestion, and our offer of cross-party working, as opportunism. Fast-forward to last weekend, another televised address from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister performing another of his well-practiced u-turns, following a leak believed to be from within his own Cabinet to the press.
But the decision to block a circuit-breaker was shared by the man next door living in Number 11. Along with Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak’s stubborn refusal to address problems of his own making until the last possible minute is risking lives, costing jobs and causing chaos.
Only days earlier, the Government said workers under regional restrictions would only receive two thirds of their pre-crisis income because 80% was impossible – the country could not afford to subsidise Northern workers forced to stay at home. But, as soon as restrictions were introduced in London and the South East of England, everything changed!
Over a million people have lost their jobs since the crisis began, and many more are expected, yet the Government still hasn’t acted to fix Britain’s broken safety net to help them. The Chancellor, held in high esteem by many people for his interventions early on in the crisis, is now well and truly stuck in a cycle of denial, dither and delay.
There were huge holes in the Government’s support packages in the first lockdown, especially for many self-employed people. But there is still no new support for those excluded from support since this crisis started.
The safety net is at risk of becoming thread-bare. Yesterday I learned from the mental health charity Mind, that anyone who does not attend or participate in a telephone assessment for Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit will risk having their benefits reduced or cut off altogether. This would affect thousands of disabled people including many with mental health problems.
When telephone assessments were first introduced in March, the DWP put in a safeguard so that no disabled people would see their benefits stopped if they missed a telephone assessment or were unable to take part due to Coronavirus. But we now know this safeguard for some of our most vulnerable has been rescinded by the Government.
The burden will now be on disabled people to prove they have a good reason for missing an appointment. If the DWP does not accept their proof, they risk seeing their benefits stopped.
Research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has found that over half of people with mental health problems find engaging over the phone difficult or impossible. The same proportion say they need support from others in order to engage with benefits agencies over the phone. This change brings with it the real risk that people with mental health problems will see their benefits cut-off during a winter lockdown.
Here in the North East we were asked to make big sacrifices to get the virus under control under Teir-2, and we saw some early signs of progress. But as we move into a new national lockdown the Government must play their part to protect jobs and guarantee that no-one will be at risk of losing their benefits this winter.
Westminster is now in recess, but my diary is as full as ever, with daily visits to local charities, community groups and kids summer activities. I’m also using my time in Blaydon constituency to visit our brilliant independent businesses, new and long-standing, to see how they are getting on in these difficult times.
Last week I joined local councillors Chris Buckley and Alex and Freda Geddes to congratulate the staff at Stargate Chippy, who have fed so many of our older and vulnerable people, working with Ryton Health Hub to provide fish and chips to local residents.
I would also like to recognise Winlaton’s Hilton and Son Butchers, who are just one example of a local business that has continued to operate throughout lockdown, with queues stretching down the street at times. Like so many of our small, family run shops, they offer a free delivery service to shielding and self-isolating residents, in a real show of community spirit.
I’d like to pay tribute to two of our long-standing business owners. Tamara from Buttercups and Daisies in Crawcrook has been running this wonderful florist for 17 years, with over 25 years experience going into this business. Les, who runs a local greengrocers on Dean Terrace, Ryton, has been there 22 years and is still attracting new customers after all this time.
There are far too many independent businesses to mention, but my visits have really affirmed how these entrepreneurs are often the backbone of our local communities. They often go without credit too, working long, hard hours to make their dreams a reality whilst adding life and colour to our towns. Run by local owners, keeping local people in local jobs and driving the local economy, the more we can support them, the stronger our communities will be in the months and years ahead. The current pandemic serves as a reminder of that.
Following my Kids’ Question Time a few months back, I have continued to call for more support for our young people. Coming out of lockdown it is vital that our young people have access to the support they need, with the last six months being immeasurably tough for them. So, last week I joined Kim McGuinness, our Police and Crime Commissioner, and Councillor Gary Haley, at the opening of the new headquarters of NE Youth, who have relocated to Blaydon after 85 years in the West End of Newcastle.
With schools, colleges and workplaces closed, NE Youth continue to ensure that our young people have the opportunities they deserve. This move demonstrates the commitment of NE Youth to all our communities, including the smaller and more rural villages. I look forward to seeing their engagement with young people in Gateshead grow.
I also paid a visit to the Mount Community Association in Eighton Banks with Mayor Michael Hood, Mayoress Janice Scott and Councillor Sheila Gallagher. For two years the team there have been making exciting plans, clearing the space, digging up muck and raising funds to transform the site into a beautiful community centre, which serves as both an indoor and outdoor venue. It’s surrounded by green space and nods to our heritage, and it couldn’t be a more inspiring place for young people.
I was pleased to attend a number of children’s activities too, armed with an array of fresh fruit from Les’ greengrocersfor the kids. Our community groups and schools, supported by Gateshead Council, are offering a brilliant #BrightentheDay programme, which builds on many years of work across Gateshead to provide much needed food and activities during the summer holidays.
The family activities range from bike rides and nature walks, to healthy cooking ideas and much more. For more information on the activities available for you and your family, visit the council’s website at http://www.gateshead.gov.uk.
We all know volunteers, groups, organisations and businesses who have worked solidly to keep our communities going during the pandemic. It is important that the contributions of local people are recognised, so with this in mind I have launched the Blaydon Angels Awards.
I would like to hear about those unsung heroes, those who just get on with it without making a fuss, but who make a real difference. If you think someone living, working or volunteering within my Parliamentary Constituency of Blaydon should receive an award for their contribution, you can make a nomination on my website http://www.liztwist.co.uk or by telephone on 0191 4142844.
The pandemic has doubtless dealt a hammer blow to our towns and villages, but as Anne Brontë once said, ‘the ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine’. I, for one, am proud to say these ties are stronger than ever in Blaydon constituency.
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!