From social media requests to video conferences with ministers, this is a chance to overhaul some of parliament's outdated reliance on the physical spaces of SW1by Marie Le Conte / March 31, 2020 / Leave a comment
On January 23rd, health secretary Matt Hancock stood at the despatch box to talk about a new outbreak in Wuhan, China. Though the situation was being carefully monitored, he explained the risk to the UK population was “low” and the country was “well prepared and well equipped” to deal with any potential British cases.
“I remember the first coronavirus statement to the House of Commons,” says Conservative MP Alicia Kearns. “I went out of a foreign affairs interest, and no-one was really there, no-one really paid much attention to it.”
Fast forward two months, and at time of writing, there are nearly 20,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, over 1,200 people have died from the disease, and the UK is in lockdown to avoid overwhelming the NHS. Kearns, meanwhile, is back in Rutland and Melton; like all other MPs, she was sent back to her constituency last week when Parliament shut down.
“I do weekly updates for my constituents of what I’ve been up to; yesterday, we did one and I said that we’d helped 567 residents with just coronavirus related problems this week,” she explains. “And I’m answering maybe 50 to 100 questions a day on social media from people who asked me about what support they can get, what they’re entitled to.”
She isn’t the only one in this situation. Most people only ever turn to their local MP when they feel they have no other avenue left to explore—but the pandemic has meant that MPs are now being submerged by correspondence from desperate constituents not knowing what to do.
“The amount of work coming into my inbox has multiplied approximately eight or nine fold, it’s been phenomenal,” Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire explains. “It’s a real mixture of people desperately needing help, who have been plunged immediately into really difficult situations.”
Because the crisis is so all-encompassing, help is needed on all fronts. “That can be someone who has social care and their carer is self-isolating and they don’t know what to do, or someone who’s self-isolating and can’t get food because they don’t have anyone to do it for them and there’s no booking slots in supermarkets. It can be someone who’s self-employed and lost all their work. And then there’s people needing…