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.