Like everyone, I’m deeply concerned by the rising number of Coronavirus cases we have seen recently. Here in South Yorkshire, the rate of infection (‘R’ rate) has roughly doubled and is heading in the wrong direction – fast. We’ve already seen large parts of the North East, North West and West Yorkshire subjected to local lockdowns. This week, the Prime Minister announced additional measures on home working, pub closing times and tightening up the ‘Rule of Six’ on socialising to get the ‘R’ rate back under control. The situation, both locally and across the country remains incredibly precarious. Without concerted action, we risk sleepwalking into a second Coronavirus peak and national lockdown – putting tens of thousands more lives at risk and causing further disruption to our daily lives.
That concerted action needs to come from the top. The government have had the summer months to prepare for the likely rise in cases that were expected as schools, universities and workplaces reopened and we headed towards the winter – with the usual strains that the colder months brings upon our NHS. Instead, we’ve seen the NHS test and trace system – which the Prime Minister declared would be ‘world beating’ back in May – descend into utter shambles. People with symptoms who urgently need a test in order to go back in work, or who are waiting for their kids to get a test so their education isn’t disrupted further, have been left in the dark. I’ve heard from local people refreshing the NHS website until the early hours of the morning. Residents calling the testing hotline repeatedly, without success. Across the country, we’ve seen people be told to travel hundreds of miles to get a test. Rather than taking responsibility for this shambles the Government have tried to lay the blame at too many people wanting to get tested.
The Government must get a grip of the testing crisis as a matter of urgency and make sure we’ve got the test kits and laboratory capacity to ensure that anyone with symptoms can get a test within 24 hours and a result 24 hours after that. To be blunt, a functioning test-and-trace system is the only way that we will be able to mitigate the awful impact of this disease until a vaccine is rolled out. Whilst it is welcome that the Chancellor announced eleventh-hour support for businesses yesterday, the Government must ensure that Northern Leaders and Mayors have the powers and resources to rebuild and renew their regional economies – starting with backing our £1.7 billion South Yorkshire Renewal Action Plan.
Although the Government should lead from the front, we’ve all got our part to play. That means following the new guidance from to limit unnecessary social contact and observing social distancing in public spaces. It means continuing to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport. It means washing hands on a regular basis to prevent the virus spreading. It means self-isolating for 14 days if symptoms develop. We’ve all got to do everything we can to overcome this virus and avoid the need for a second national lockdown.
I know how difficult this year has been. Life as we know it has been on hold, and it’s been especially tough for older and more vulnerable residents, those who live alone and families with young children. As both the local MP and as the Mayor, I’ve been supporting the families, businesses and community groups hit hardest by this pandemic, and have heard some truly heart-breaking stories. The last thing anyone wants further heartache and disruption. So, please, follow the guidelines and stay safe.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 25 September 2020