Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 6:04 pm, 18th November 2020

I appreciate this opportunity to pay tribute to some of my constituents who have had such a tough time during this pandemic and during the lockdowns and restrictions. The businesses in Richmond Park have had a really difficult time, but I have been so impressed by how they have responded to the challenge, made themselves covid-secure and continued to deliver for my local constituents in whatever sector they are in. I pay tribute to those who have gone above and beyond and made a difference to the community. I am thinking of my favourite pizza restaurant in north Kingston, Peppe, which has been providing pizzas to NHS staff every time someone has bought a pizza from it.

Our cultural organisations, which we value so highly in Richmond Park, have had a really tough time. They were all opening up again and having record demand for tickets during October. Then, of course, we had the current lockdown, and we are hoping against hope that they can still open in December. I am particularly looking forward to going to see “Rapunzel” at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes in December. It is billing it as “The Original Isolation Story”, so I think that is something we are all looking forward to.

I want to take this opportunity to draw attention to people who have been without financial support during the lockdown. I welcome all the Government’s efforts on furlough, and there is absolutely no doubt that that has been critical to the survival of many businesses not just in my constituency but elsewhere. However, I want to highlight the lack of support for those on contracts and the self-employed, which we raised in the Public Accounts Committee hearing with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on Monday. That is a big issue in my constituency. We have lots of people who are employed by the live events sector, which of course has been really badly hit during the lockdown, and it struggled to come back before the second lockdown. I just do not understand why we cannot do more for this particular group of people who have been paying taxes for years. All the records are at HMRC, and there is absolutely no reason why more could not have been done for them.

The children in my constituency have suffered huge disruption throughout the summer. I am so pleased to see them all back in school. I was speaking to year 6 at the Vineyard School in Richmond just this morning, and it was wonderful to see them all there. I very much look forward to being able to visit them in person soon. I would also ask the Government for some clarity on what will happen with exams next summer. That is what headteachers are asking for, and they need a decision now. Are exams going to be cancelled, as they have been in Wales by the Lib Dem Minister for Education there, or will there be a different source of assessment? Something needs to be done, and teachers ideally need to know before Christmas, so that they have time to prepare.

I was speaking to the management team at my local hospital, Kingston Hospital, last week, and that reminded me why we are doing this lockdown. They have had a big increase in hospitalisations, which, at the end of the day, are what we need to be careful of. I want to reiterate what the Minister and my hon. Friend Tim Farron said earlier, and it is the message from my local hospital too: “Please, please, please continue to attend”. I have heard some distressing tales of cancer sufferers whose conditions have worsened through not being able to access health services during the first lockdown, and I really do not want to hear any more.

I pay tribute to all the voluntary organisations in Richmond Park. I was speaking to FiSH, which looks after the elderly residents of Barnes. Its particular issue has been isolation, and I am so pleased about all the work that it and all the other excellent neighbourhood charities in Richmond Park have done, with befriending calls and so on.

Finally, it is such welcome news about the vaccine. We are all very excited about that, but there is an urgent need for clarity about how we get from here to where we have all been vaccinated and can operate safely again. I urge the Government to bring forward announcements on that as soon as they possibly can.