This week saw the creation of a series of lockdown calendars. A countdown to 8 March for all pupils to get back to the classroom; 29 March to sit in your neighbour’s garden; 12 April to get a haircut (very welcome); 17 May to have a pint inside a pub. By the 21 June, all legal limits on social contact should be removed.
I was in the chamber when the Prime Minister gave his roadmap to Parliament. I was pleased that we got an entire timetable rather than just the first wave. I would have liked slightly earlier dates, given we have vaccinated 90% of mortality risk. Most people seem happy with the balance so I’m supportive and looking forward to people being able to get out, restart their businesses and enjoy life again.
During that statement, I made the point to the Prime Minister that, for areas such as ours, the restart of hospitality, tourism and retail was vital for so many who rely on the sectors for work. I also asked for more detail on when international travel can resume. It’s not just for your summer holidays abroad but it delivers £18 billion to the UK economy over summer. In next week’s budget, the Chancellor will grimly remind us why we need money being generated if we are to continue spending it. I’m hopeful that rules on testing and vaccination proof will allow quarantine to be replaced for the safer destinations (assuming countries abroad are keen to have us). I don’t have an issue with demonstrating that I have had a vaccination (when I get one). I have to prove I am a British citizen when I travel so I don’t mind proving that I am unlikely to get seriously ill from COVID.
Speaking of vaccinations, it was fantastic to spend the recess week visiting all four vaccination sites across the constituency. I started at Heathfield where I sat in for the morning with Dr Sarah Jacques as she vaccinated patient after patient. I then visited Dr Sean Brink at the Bexhill vaccination site in Sidley. The Bexhill GP network were the first to vaccinate locally and had set the standard. Then it was off to Ticehurst where the pharmacist, Hardik Desai, has worked with over 150 local volunteers to turn the village hall into a vaccination centre. An amazing community effort which got name-checked by the Prime Minister in his Downing Street press conference earlier that week. Finally, I visited Etchingham village hall for the rural Rother and Battle centre. Due to the urgency, the site was scaled up to deliver both vaccinations. From a later start, they have delivered 16,000 vaccination within 30 days. The manager, James Bowey, is a 747 British Airways pilot who is taking an extraordinary career break. All of these amazing people who work in the four centres have ensured that 90% of the most-at-risk local community are now vaccinated.
The immediate upside of the immense vaccination effort is the reopening of school classrooms to all pupils. This is great news. It will require another big effort for school staff to get the pupils tested in the first week back. I do hope that parents and pupils will be patient. It’s going to cause logistical issues for many who work full-time and have children who travel by bus. However, this testing effort will give confidence that the setting is safe. I’m disappointed that we are now directing secondary school pupils to wear face coverings in the classrooms. The World Health Organisation advice on coverings has not changed since the schools opened without masks in the classroom last September. Given the vaccination programme has started delivering, it seems bizarre to now increase restrictions. The Government say it is down to the schools to determine if social distancing difficulties require it. This is the same as requiring it because no school is going to take the risk. It’s not fair to pass the buck onto schools.
Better news on summer grading - exams will be replaced by teacher assessments and there are no predictive models this time. I would like to see some form of national benchmarking of coursework, to avoid teachers being pressed by parents and reduce grade inflation, but this is a good set of rules which I hope will serve pupils and students well for the summer.
If all of those at the forefront keep the progress going, and the public continue to follow the rules and the guidance, we can look ahead and mark the days off the lockdown calendar.