I have spent the last couple of weeks seeking the views locally of the NHS, businesses and those with the most skin in the game when it comes to the decisions on how to deal with coronavirus this winter. But we all to a greater or lesser extent still have our lives on hold, so please let me know what you think.
There is a surprising consensus between the health and commercial sectors, challenging the cliché that this is a lives versus livelihoods debate. The tier system looks to be the worst of both worlds. London is now tier two so there are restrictions on trade as well as social contact, enough to hobble many businesses but not enough to bring the virus under control and protect the NHS.
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are moving towards a circuit break and this is what Keir Starmer has called for. In other words, a full lockdown for at least two weeks (and probably more) to bring the infection rates down to the levels we saw in the summer, followed by an easing of restrictions in time for Christmas.
The advantage to businesses and their staff would be a proper compensation package during the break rather than the little or no help they are getting at present. The hospitality industry was barely recovering when the 10pm curfew and restrictions on who could meet inside venues clocked in. The events and entertainment sectors remined shut throughout the summer and have had precious little help since the start of the crisis. This is a vital part of our local economy and one I have spoken about repeatedly in Parliament.
So, would a circuit break work? The majority scientific view is yes though how long a break and how long the relief would last is disputed. It is possible we would have to repeat the exercise in the New Year. But as a way of getting through winter and into spring with a chance of really squeezing out the virus, but without destroying viable businesses, it is the best option available until a vaccine is developed. As this is also the view of the government’s scientific advisers it is inexplicable why they will not take this course.
Arts and Ents. Some good news last week for our wonderful theatres and music venues. The arts council culture fund finally paid out and saw sums of between £50,000 and £850,000 for Riverside Studios, the Lyric, the Bush, and also to Bush Hall, Bush Studios, the Bhavan and the Irish Cultural Centre. As I pointed out in the Commons, these were all thriving and expanding until lockdown and can be again but have had little help until now.
The grants will help with debts so far, but reopening is the priority. I recently met the new management team at Riverside and they are already partially open (the cinema, café and restaurant) and starting productions next month. On Saturday I went to a trial-run performance at the Bush – Testing 1,2,3. It was great to see a live performance for the first time in seven months and I can’t praise highly enough the performers or the staff who made us both welcome and safe. Please give them all your support this autumn and winter.
NHS. Meanwhile the NHS is gearing up for a bad winter, with flu and the backlog of surgery, treatments and diagnoses in addition to Covid-19 meaning a triple whammy. Imperial now have an excellent clinician-led management and have always had the most professional and dedicated staff and they are ready for the challenge. We owe it to them to follow the rules – even where, as discussed above, we are sceptical about the current regimen.
Numbers of inpatients are still low at present but rising. In the past week they went from 19 to 31 and the number in intensive care from two to nine. But the worse news is down the line as infection rates grow especially in west London, with Ealing leading and H&F not far behind. Unless action is taken now some of these will be ICU cases in November.
A few more stats. H&F continues to have one of the best records for protecting are home residents and the council generally is one of the most proactive in its public health role and keen to do more.
Charing Cross and Hammersmith are working at about 80% of their non-Covid capacity, and hope to be at 100% before Christmas, but of course that means the sizeable backlog is still growing at present. In part this is patients nervous about attending, even when in pain or for potentially life-saving screening. Please get in touch if you have been waiting a long time without an appointment or if you are worried about attending one.
The government re-announced its ’40 new hospitals’ programme, the way governments do. Virtually none of these is a new hospital and there was still no money attached, but it was strangely cheering in bleak times to see Charing Cross, Hammersmith and St Mary’s still on the list. Charing Cross will be remodelled – the tower will stay but there will be a complete refurb and it will look a lot different from the outside. Hammersmith will be part-refurb and part-new build. Mary’s will have to be completely rebuilt – it’s literally falling down.
We should have some plans to look at before Christmas. To be honest I am just pleased every time I look and CXH is still there. How would we be coping now without its 360 beds?
We can do better. So that is a summary of what is and isn’t happening virus-wise, but the pangolin in the room is that we should be doing much better and that is the fault of a government that keeps making the wrong choices for the wrong reasons. Slow lockdown, too little PPE and untested discharge into care homes put the country on the back foot. Coming out of lockdown sloppily, the failure of test and trace and the lack of support to business have kept us there.
I don’t want to labour (no pun) the point as I think everyone knows it but here’s one example. It is true that both the NHS and public health were run down under austerity, but they are still where the expertise and knowledge lie. So why did the government pour billions into SERCO and other private firms that have proven to be useless at the essential test and trace programme?
Four weeks ago, I asked a series of questions about some of the consultancy firms brought in to run the programme. Thus far the government has refused to answer – revealing in itself – but some of the data has been leaked to the press. It shows individuals are being paid up to £7,000 a day to run a failed project. Asked about this at the weekend, Michael Gove said it was good value for money and needed to protect the NHS. That level of dishonesty and incompetence is not going to get us through this crisis.
Bridge news (or lack of same)
I don’t know what is more exasperating, not being able to use the Bridge or the response we are getting form the government taskforce to reopening it. I was genuinely pleased when the taskforce was set up as it meant the government was finally taking an interest. Six weeks on not a penny has been forthcoming for the tasks we all know are needed: quick provision of a route across – a ferry in other words; a temporary walking and cycling bridge; emergency stabilisation works to reopen the river and prevent collapse; and a guarantee of the funds for full restoration even though that will take several years. There: it’s not difficult to set that out, and money is going into roads schemes around the country.
But instead, to add insult to injury, we have the Conservatives making a bit of political capital while not delivering the goods. They can’t have both. The Tory candidate for Mayor, in a filmed interview, profusely thanked the Transport Secretary for providing the full funds for repair. I wrote to confirm the money was on its way and this is what I received by reply – zilch.
I was hoping that there would be funds in the Transport for London settlement last Friday, but that has been postponed for two weeks. The auspices are not good. Despite the seriousness of the situation – for TfL generally I mean not just the bridge – politics is being played. Sadiq Khan is being told the government will only keep the tubes and buses running if he extends the congestion charge zone to the north and south circular and gets rid of the under-18 and over-60s travelcard (I should declare an interest here having been the possessor of the latter for the past two weeks). Meanwhile the Tory candidate is saying he would never introduce such policies. These silly games could continue right through to the election in May.
An evil plan
When I tell my MP colleagues that I am at any one time working on a couple of dozen local planning schemes they look at me sceptically – as if I were going around looking for more work. But I have always thought planning and development was highly political and fundamental to the area we all live in.
Some of the biggest battles of the last ten years: Charing Cross, Earl’s Court & West Ken, Shepherds Bush Market, sale of empty council homes, Hammersmith Park, White City and the BBC, Old Oak and the OPDC, have been around the tension between developers after a quick buck and residents who oppose too much of the wrong thing on their doorstep. You learn a lot about politicians from which side they take.
At present there is a fad for tall buildings – like the hotel complex on the site of the Magistrates’ Court next to the Ark, or those up Wood Lane and Scrubs Lane. These will change the local landscape but there is little evidence that they are providing essential services. The commercial towers may never get built, the residential ones don’t appear to have learnt the lessons of Grenfell in their design.
Thankfully, we have an active and informed community, led by amenity groups like the Hammersmith Society, Fulham Society and H&F Historic Buildings Group. The opposite of NIMBYs, they articulate a vision of how to improve the borough and speak up in favour of affordable homes as well as good design.
The scales are already weighted against objectors – there is no right of appeal as there is for developers whose plans are rejected. Nevertheless, we have won many of the battles fought thus far. The latest hopeful news: Shepherds Bush Market after a ten-year war of attrition and several false promises has found a new owner who is promising to restore and improve without losing the essence of one of London’s great street markets – Yoo Capital the owners of Olympia also undergoing transformation.
But all this is about to get sidelined if the government gets its way. Having already pushed though the right to extend building upwards by two floors without planning consent and to build schemes of 50 homes with none affordable (it’s nine at present), they now want to remove residents from the planning process altogether when it comes to individual schemes.
These zoning plans in the recent White Paper could destroy whole neighbourhoods and see overdevelopment with no regard to standards or local need. It is the biggest shake up in planning since the War. I spoke on this in the Commons recently. This is the toughest planning battle yet, but I am sure we are up to the task.
Keen viewers may have spotted that my speech got 5.7 million views on Twitter. I like to think this is an acknowledgement of my position on permitted development but I think it had more to do with the MP behind me cleaning her glasses on her mask.
A few nibs
With the weather closing in and the virus on the rise, helping our neighbours is important. Here is a reminder of the schemes running in the borough.
If you haven’t already done so consider signing Marcus Rashford’s petition to extend free school meals into school holidays.
The new all-singing and dancing Hammersmith Police Station opened two weeks ago. Costing £60 million and housing 1,000 officers and staff it is has all the cells and stables we could possibly need (I hope). It’s great to have it open again after four years though the loss of Fulham and Shepherds Bush stations is the price to pay.
I am doing a lot of zooming, especially with schools, but it is also good to do a few socially distanced visits. Pleased to go and see IntoUniversity at St Andrew’s, Fulham Fields – a great national enterprise getting children from poorer backgrounds to think about higher education from a young age. I went litter picking the Grand Union with Powerday as part of their civic programme. And to visit POSK’s 40-year celebration of the Solidarity movement. I should also plug POSK’s community-run cinema club which has just been voted best film society in the UK.
As we may be doing more working from home (a sore point at the Commons where forbidding remote speaking and voting limits rather than enhances democracy), a constituent directed me to www.workingden.com for tips on how to stay sane.
I fear we will not get a temporary main post office in Hammersmith Broadway this winter, which with the added constraints of social distancing is causing queues at nearby offices. But King’s Mall’s new owners are hoping to get the permanent new site open before the rest of the Mall – including IKEA – is relaunched next April.
If you want to follow more of what I am doing in Parliament – debates, questions, motions, it is all here in a new and more accessible form. Apart from the above I have been doing my duty on the Justice Select Committee, speaking on Palestine and this week will be debating the use of secret foreign office funds and the collapse of Legal Aid.
Just trying to keep busy.