Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Access to Nature

One of the things that we have valued more during this pandemic is the ability to have access to the natural world and outdoor spaces. With all of the restrictions in place and three lockdowns which have required us to stay at home, the ability to get out and exercise, and form a connection with the natural world has been important.
There has been growing recognition and evidence over several years that access to the countryside and a connection with nature can have a really powerful role in our lives and improve our mental health and wellbeing. There are a number of projects that aim to help those suffering from some mental health conditions to get out and others that use outdoor spaces and nature as a teaching resource for children.
Last year the Government commissioned a review by Julian Glover into our various National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to see how we could reform and improve the way we manage them to increase engagement and get more people to visit them. The Glover Review made many important recommendations. Our new Agriculture Act also recognises access as a policy objective and something where we can pay and reward farmers for improving access to the countryside. This can range from supporting educational visits to farms to investment that improves access for the disabled in some of our National Parks and AONBs.
The current network of National Parks and AONBs were established shortly after the Second World War. In both cases, they are afforded strengthened protection in law, with National Parks having their own planning authority and AONBs having a special designation within the planning system. The Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is quite unique in that it is a cluster of sites right across the county and including most of our coastline. In fact, at the time the area was almost designated as a National Park but the nature of the landscape and the uniqueness of Cornwall meant that it didn’t quite match the criteria for either designation so, in the end, we had a rather unique AONB. 
AONBs have for too long been something of the poor relation to National Parks in terms of the support and investment they receive and the attention given to them. One of the conclusions of the Glover Review into National Parks and AONBs is that we should seek to narrow the gap between them and that we should also do more to join up strategic oversight of the whole network nationally so that there can be more emphasis on building back nature and supporting nature’s recovery in these areas through national policy. 
Once this pandemic is over, we will have an opportunity through our new policies to do more both to increase and improve the number of people who access our beautiful countryside and to do more for nature’s recovery within these designated areas.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

National Lockdown

This week the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have advised that if action is not taken the NHS may be overwhelmed within 21 days. As a result, the government has made the difficult decision to reimpose a national lockdown. 

We tried our best to avoid this outcome and, in particular, wanted to try to keep schools open.  Access to the school is incredibly important for the social confidence and education of young people. We recognise that this will mean it is not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal, so alternative arrangements will be put in place. We also know that these constant interruptions to life are deeply frustrating.  They are incredibly difficult for businesses like pubs, tourism and the hospitality industry.  However, there is now a new variant of Covid-19 that is between 50 and 70 per cent more transmissible – that means all of us are considerably more likely to catch the virus and pass it on.

In Cornwall, we started in tier one restrictions and levels remained at a relatively low level but like other parts of the South-West, the case numbers have been rising quickly recently. We are particularly vulnerable, as we have an older population and because we are at the end of the line, it is harder to share resources around the NHS so the capacity to deal with a surge in demand is more limited. It was vital we take swift and strong action in order to prevent our local health services being overcome by this new variant.

This lockdown will be very similar to that which we undertook back in March. We are all being asked to stay at home and only leave for essential purposes such as food shopping or for work.  We can leave the house for exercise once a day and support and childcare bubbles will remain in place.  Those who are able to work from home should but many in Cornwall will work in food retail or distribution, in factories or in trades like construction and are able to continue to work.

As part of the set of measures that the Prime Minister announced, the Chancellor has announced an extension of the economic support available. There will be one-off top up grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses worth up to £9,000 to help businesses through to the Spring. Additionally, there will be a £594 million discretionary fund also made available to support other impacted businesses. This comes in addition to £1.1 billion further discretionary grant funding in Local Support Grants worth up to £3,000 a month and extension of furlough and SEISS scheme through to April.

However, while this lockdown is similar to last year there is a major difference: the vaccine. We are rolling out the biggest logistical program in this country’s peacetime history. With the arrival of the UK’s own Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, the pace at which vaccinations are taking place is accelerating. We have already vaccinated more people in the UK than the rest of Europe alone. By the middle of February, we realistically aim to have offered the first dose of the vaccine to everyone in the top 4 priority groups including everyone over the age of 70.

During the last 10 months, we have all looked out for each other and pulled together to support one another as a community. Our unique Cornish spirit has shone through, however, in the weeks ahead we all need to draw on this again and continue to support one another through these difficult times.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Happy New Year

The New Year has always been regarded as a time for hope and optimism. For some, it is a chance to turn over a new leaf, stop smoking or start exercising. For others, it’s a chance to take up a new hobby.  
2020 has been a particularly difficult year and one we will all be happy to turn the page on.  Let’s hope that 2021 is a better year and there are many reasons to be optimistic. Despite a deteriorating situation now, the vaccine for the Coronavirus is being rolled out which means that we should finally start to turn the corner by the Spring. We finish 2020 with an agreement for a future partnership with the EU which finally puts to bed a long-running saga stretching all the way back to 2016.   Compromises had to be made to reach a final conclusion but the agreement reached means we have free trade with the EU but without sacrificing our ability to make our own laws.
Since I was first elected, I have made clear that economic regeneration in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle was my number one priority. Our local towns were once at the heart of the industrial revolution and our expertise in mining engineering was second to none.
The work on Hayle Harbour at North Quay is progressing well with the first phase nearing completion and later phases should progress over the next 18 months or so. I grew up near Hayle and the regeneration of the harbour area has been talked about most of my lifetime. When the project is complete, it will transform the harbour area and will be a major boost to Hayle. It will be good to see the harbour area finally regenerated after decades of being overlooked.
In Redruth, the new Kresen Kernow Archive is an excellent start. Projects like Krowji and the work around the Butter Market also show just what is possible with some imagination, passion and local leadership and we now have funds to help facilitate further work. In recent weeks further funding of an additional £1.68m was announced, by Heritage England, to support the regeneration of the town, particularly focused around Fore Street.  Redruth has some incredible architecture particularly from the Victorian era and the new funds will help to restore some of this. 
Finally, in Camborne, plans to revitalise the town have been stepping up as the Towns Fund Board is continuing its work on a number of interesting ideas that are being talked about including the potential to redevelop the old bus station and breathe new life into the high street. Early in the New Year, decisions will start to be made about the final shape of our town’s bid to secure funds for regeneration.
2020 will certainly be a year to remember, but it has also brought out the best in people. We have seen key workers from the NHS to food production and supply really step up.   As we look forward, we should give thanks to those that have supported us over the last year and reflect back over how we can improve personally in 2021. I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Christmas Message

As I write this column, Parliament has just broken up for the Christmas period and the final Christmas Cards have been sent, ready to catch the last post in order to make it before Christmas. This year, as in previous years, I enlisted the help of local primary schools in the area to design my Christmas card. As always, I was very impressed with the many talented artists we have in this part of Cornwall.

2020 has been an unexpectedly difficult year. However, while many have spent much of the year inside and unable to meet with friends or family, it has also brought out the best in people. We have seen how vital the brave frontline workers are to our country, particularly those working in the NHS who have been working tirelessly to protect lives and slow the spread of the virus.

Social distancing has made people value friendships and family connections as many had perhaps started to under-appreciate them, given the frantic pace of life in the modern world. People have also discovered a new connection with the natural world during the full lockdown as access to public spaces was just about all we had.

In an increasingly digital age, where a Facebook post or digital Christmas message has become the norm, it’s refreshing that the tradition of Christmas cards plays a vital role in keeping touch with old friends and family. Throughout life, there are always old friends who we are in danger of losing touch with. Sometimes because they have moved away, changed job or are preoccupied with other priorities. The annual Christmas card is often the final thread that prevents you from losing touch altogether, so time writing cards is time well spent.

We should also be looking ahead to 2021 and the chance to turn the corner in this pandemic and try to get back to life as normal. The UK was the first country to approve the Coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer. This is the culmination of months of rigorous clinical trials and is a brilliant reflection on the world-class scientists and clinicians that we have in the UK. In the months ahead we will be rolling this out to millions of people starting with those who are most vulnerable to the virus.

We should also see 2021 as an opportunity to press reset and build back better from the pandemic. For the first time in nearly 40 years, we will be an independent trading nation, abiding by laws set in our borders, not on the continent. 2021 will be a new start for the UK and I am confident we will seize that prospect readily. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Brexit Update: End of the Transition Period

As I write this it remains unclear whether or not there will be a free trade agreement with the EU and the negotiations, that have been going on for months, hang in the balance.
It is important to remember that this is no longer about “Brexit”.  We left the European Union at the end of January.  We are no longer a member state.   It is also no longer about “no deal”.  There is already a Withdrawal Agreement that is in place and that resolved how border arrangements would work, protected the rights of UK citizens who were resident in the EU and vice versa and settled how remaining EU funding programmes would be treated.   Last week, discussions on the precise technical arrangements to make things work smoothly in Northern Ireland were finalised and agreed.  
After we left the EU in January, there was an 11 month “Transition Period” during which current trading arrangements remained in place and both parties agreed to discuss what tariffs there might be on goods that are traded from 2021 onwards.  The Government has always been clear that it is not asking the EU to agree on anything exceptional or unusual in such an agreement.  We simply seek an off-the-shelf free trade agreement similar to the one that the EU has with countries like Canada or South Korea.  This would enable us to cooperate on trade and reduce tariffs in both directions but, crucially, not compromise our ability to make our own laws in future.
The sticking points in the discussions all stem from the fact that the EU has been in denial about the fact that we are no longer a member state and that we are now an independent, sovereign country again. They are seeking to retain all the privileges they enjoyed while we were a member.   Therefore they continue to request the same fishing access rights to our waters when that is no longer possible under international law.  They have also been trying to get us to agree to align our regulations with theirs but the whole point of leaving the EU is to regain control of our own laws.
Many people are concerned that any “deal” will constrain us and some will be thinking we should just walk away without a further agreement and let tariffs be applied.  After all, the EU has more to lose from tariffs being applied than the UK because they are so dependent on access to our market to sell their goods.  It may well come to that and only time will tell.  However, the EU is our nearest neighbour and, although this is very frustrating, it is right to persevere for now to try to agree on future arrangements on trade.  Eventually, the EU will reconcile themselves to the fact that we have become an independent country again and, after years of fraught negotiations, we should seek to rekindle good relations with our neighbours when that time comes.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

The Approval of the Vaccine

 Last week the UK became the first country to approve the Coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and this week deployment of it began. Developing a successful vaccine has been the only way out of this difficult pandemic and a huge amount of work has gone into dozens of different candidate vaccines as the world has wrestled with this most difficult challenge.

The government accepted the recommendation from the Independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for use. This is the culmination of months of rigorous clinical trials and is a brilliant reflection on the world-class scientists and clinicians that we have in the UK. The MHRA is confident that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. 

It was clear from the outset that producing a safe and effective vaccine quickly would be a huge challenge. The reality is that most vaccine projects fail and vaccines usually take many years to discover and develop. But some big advances in vaccine technology emerged over the past decade and they have come right to the fore in this pandemic.

Time has been of the essence, but science cannot simply cut corners. It is a discipline that works only if it is rigorous, transparent, scrutinised by regulators, and its findings published and peer-reviewed. Everything from the laboratory work through to the clinical trials is pored over by independent experts in the regulatory agencies. The approval of this first vaccine is a huge breakthrough in our fight against this virus.

However, we cannot let our guard down yet. Keeping the infection rate low is vital because that's what will allow us to push the virus into the ground as quickly as possible once vaccinations begin. Back in September and October, the virus was spreading rapidly in all parts of the country. As a result, the government responded with new national restriction measures and this brought the R number down and the virus back under control. The newly revised tier system will help ensure we do not waste that success and keep the numbers down.

The vaccine will be rolled out in earnest over the next few weeks with the first doses arriving at hospitals and care homes across Cornwall this week. The priority will be to vaccinate those most at risk in our society, including care home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and the clinically extremely vulnerable, from there other age groups will be vaccinated in turn. The Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust is one of the 50 designated 'vaccine hubs' that will distribute the inoculations. Around 800,000 doses are expected to be delivered this week to hubs all over the country, with millions more in the coming weeks.

If we can keep the spread of the virus under the control over the next few weeks and months and remain cautious over the winter, then we can see light at the end of the tunnel and could turn the corner in Spring or early summer and finally get back to normal life again.


Wednesday, 2 December 2020

National Grief Week

This week is National Grief Awareness Week 2nd to 8th December.  Of course, we have got used to the growing number of “days” and “weeks” designated by campaign groups or charities seeking to raise awareness of their particular issues.  However, every single one of us, at some point in our lives, will lose someone close to us, so bereavement and grief affects us all.

 

Some experience grief instantly, others seem to cope but are then affected some years later. Some put on a brave face, others pour their heart out. But the first time anyone loses an immediate family member is often the hardest. There is never any shortage of well-intentioned advice about the need to 'move on' and 'get on with life' but that's not always helpful.

 

I remember an experienced volunteer at the Samaritans once telling me that losing someone close to you is a bit like losing a limb. You never really get over it but you do get used to it and can eventually learn to cope. Anniversaries of the date that a loved one was lost are often particularly difficult as can be family events like Christmas when the absence is felt more keenly.

 

In this current year, the measures that have had to be taken to control the Coronavirus have created new challenges.   Many will have lost loved ones this year, but the myriad of restrictions and limitations have left some feeling unable to come to terms with the loss.  It has been more difficult to visit loved ones in the hospital, funerals have been closed to all but the immediate family.   Families have not been able to reach out to relatives and friends for a much-needed hug and human connection, making the process more difficult than it already is.  Picking up the phone to those who have suffered a loss has never been more important and, when this pandemic is over, there will doubtless be many memorial services held in lieu of the funerals that could never fully be held so that we can properly remember those who were close to us.

 

The local charity, Penhaligons Friends, based in Redruth does fantastic work to support children and young people who have suffered a bereavement.  Learning to cope is every bit harder for teenagers who have a lot of emotional changes in their life as it is, and younger children who often struggle to understand why such a tragedy has happened to them and can often feel it might even be their fault and need reassurance. Penhaligon’s Friends is there for these children and teenagers. It has built up over 80 volunteers across Cornwall and, at any one time, will be helping and supporting hundreds of Cornish children. The charity runs some excellent support groups where young people going through the same grieving process can share their feelings and receive support. The volunteers have seen a lot of tragedy but, over the years, they have helped thousands of young people come to terms with what life has dealt them.

 

There are many other support groups available. At Heartlands, for instance, there is regular a grief cafĂ© available and volunteers will be available locally to support you if you should need it. You can find more details by going to the Good Grief Trust’s website. SEE HERE