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Sun, 5 April 2020

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Lords Diary: Baroness Thornton

Lords Diary: Baroness Thornton

Credit: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto/PA Images

4 min read

Into Parliament fresh from my local Clinical Commissioning Group meeting, where I witness serious discussion about managing the growing pandemic of Covid-19. When would GPs’ protective suits and kit arrive? How useful are video links for consultations? Which patients might be seen in person? How to safeguard the very vulnerable, and ensure medicine supply? The importance of good communication with social services and community care. And the crucial role of domiciliary and care workers.

As well as a thorough discussion about the running of our local NHS, we also considered how best to keep people out of hospital as long as possible. Here, there was real concern about the consistency of information and time spent waiting on 111 calls. I was struck as ever by the skill, compassion and dedication of our GPs.

I press the Lords health minister when we take the latest government statement, quizzing him on the epidemiological evidence for moving so rapidly – and in such a strange way – from containment to delay to try to halt the spread of the virus. It has been very stressful for all concerned, including MPs but judging from the Labour health WhatsApp group, there is also plenty of humour and mutual support.

Colleagues in the Commons were facing a really difficult time locally because they are expected to have answers. All while being bombarded by reports from around the world suggesting that the UK was in potentially dangerous waters. Imperial College suggested 250,000 people could die if efforts remained focused on slowing down the spread of the virus, and that we had “no time to lose” in changing tactics.

Labour is adamant about the need to provide income support for the millions who are self-isolating

The calm leadership of shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has been crucial. We met to discuss the emergency legislation and how to strike the right balance between supporting the science and scrutinising government proposals. What was completely clear is that No10 communications ‘strategy’ was a bit of a shambles, although there have since been improvements.

On the bill itself, Labour is adamant about the need to provide income support for the millions who are self-isolating – whether through immediate access to sick pay, or for those who are self-employed or on zero hour contracts. Testing is also essential, especially for key health and care workers. If cleared, they could be at work rather than stuck at home because someone else in the family is unwell.

As well as the absorbing Covid-19 scrutiny, I have for some time been actively working to get Keir Starmer elected Labour Leader. Establishing myself as a phone banking expert, I have won a red ‘TEAM KEIR’ sweatshirt as my reward for 1,500 calls. A small proportion of the quarter million made by his volunteer supporters.

Perhaps the highlight of my week was visiting Yardley Gobion Women’s Institute to discuss the work of the Lords – who they view as “Men in Tights”. The WI were a great bunch. A school friend from Bradford invited me so the introduction referenced some of our younger exploits. We all elbow greeted each other and sat a respectful distance apart, and later sang a fine rendition of Jerusalem.

I used the excellent presentation that the Lord Speakers office provide when we do ‘Peers in Schools’ visits but the WI wanted to talk Covid-19. I was very impressed with their plans to support fellow residents in their villages – including telephone trees and identifying those most at risk. It was very like discussions we are having in Gospel Oak, supported by councillors and community groups.  

My weeks ends hearing that many peers are self-isolating, with one case confirmed. Two of my favourites in the House, Helene Hayman and Margaret Jay bid me goodbye until at least after Easter – maybe beyond. The Usual Channels in the Commons and Lords are reviewing future work so we can continue to do what we exist to do. Watch this space – and don’t forget to wash your hands! 

Baroness Thornton is a Labour peer and shadow health minister

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