Thursday, 28 January 2021

Schools and Young People

One of the most difficult aspects of the current lockdown is the effect on children and young people.  The government really wanted to avoid having to close schools again, but in the end, the rapid growth in infections right across the country meant that there was no option. The new strain of the virus was more virulent and this would place intolerable pressure on our NHS.

Locally, our schools did an amazing job making sure that they could offer a safe environment during the autumn term.  Timetables were adjusted to try to reduce the disruption of students moving between classes and ending up in crowded corridors, with some putting more time between lessons so that teachers could move from one class to another more easily to reduce the movements of students.  Year groups were sometimes separated into different parts of the school and bubbles were created in individual forms.  

Our schools continue to do their utmost in these very difficult circumstances with most offering a full programme of online lessons.  It is crucial that education continues in any way it can but, of course, nothing can be a substitute for actually being able to physically attend school.  For those in year 11 or taking their A-levels, there is going to be another year where exams are disrupted, like last year and we need to ensure that the process for awarding grades is fair and takes account of the difficulties.  Universities are going to have to take a much more pragmatic and grounded approach to assess students who want to go to university rather than just lazily looking at hard grades as they normally would.

However, the closure of schools does not just have the obvious effects around disruption to exams and teaching.  It is much more profound than that.  Children in both primary schools and secondary have been separated from friends.  Children’s birthday parties can’t happen as they normally would and should.  School sports events are not happening.  We humans are social creatures.  Friendships and the company of others is important.  Forming those bonds and friendships is a really important part of growing up, whether it is in the formative early years as children start their first years as infants at primary school, or whether it is in those tricky teenage years as young people wrestle with all the insecurities and concerns that accompany that stage of life.

For all of these reasons, we must ensure that we do everything we can to get schools back as soon as we can.  As important, when they do return, we are going to have to pay special. attention to help all those children and young people who have been affected by the lockdown to get back on track.  It’s much more than just making sure they catch up on subject knowledge.  There will be some who have lost confidence, drifted away from friends or have insecurities exacerbated.  They are all going to need support to overcome the trauma of this episode.  For now, it falls to families and parents to do everything they can to provide a supportive home environment.

Celebrating Cornish Heritage: This week a new website launched called Cornwall Yesteryear, trying to spread positivity by highlighting how unique Cornwall is and how proud we should all be in our heritage, head to cornwallyesteryear.com to check it out. 

Thursday, 21 January 2021

2021 G7 in Cornwall

Last weekend the Prime Minister announced that the 2021 G7 summit will be held at Carbis Bay in June. Some have asked, “why Cornwall?” But I say why not? Major summits like this don’t have to be all about London or Manchester. They are a chance to shine a light on some of the world-beating work going on in other parts of the country.  This will be a great chance for Cornwall to showcase its leading role in green energy, great food and our beautiful landscape.

The G7 is an annual summit of the world’s major democracies to discuss global challenges. It is made up of the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US. The EU has also been invited. This year, Australia, India and South Korea have also been invited as guest countries. This is one of the highest-profile summits in the international calendar, bringing some of the world’s most powerful leaders together.

This year, as the holder of the Presidency, the UK will direct the agenda for the summit, choosing to focus on issues that will help the UK and the world build back better from coronavirus. There will be a lot of focus on international coordination to tackle pandemics learning from experiences in the current one and the environment and nature will also be prominent on the agenda. The G7 is an opportunity for the world’s most influential democracies to use our shared values and diplomatic might to create a more open and prosperous planet.  

Some have raised concerns about the numbers of people coming for the summit and whether this poses an increased risk from the virus. The numbers who attend the summit are quite limited being restricted to the seven world leaders and their support staff and the media who will cover it, but steps will be taken to ensure that it is Covid secure and, of course, we all hope that by June we will have turned the corner on this virus. As with all such events, wherever they are held in the world, there may be some protesters but this should not prevent democratic discussion about important issues like the environment from taking place.

Cornwall has a rich industrial heritage, in particular our area around Camborne and Redruth, leading to some of the most important inventions and discoveries that this country has made. We retain a distinct cultural identity, including our own customs and traditions, and are recognised as one of the six ‘Celtic nations’. While we are proud of our industrial heritage, today Cornwall leads the way in some of the green technologies of the future, bringing new jobs and investment to our region. For example, in Hayle, the Wave Hub project has diversified in recent years utilising its existing infrastructure for the deployment of Floating Offshore Wind. We are also world leaders in geothermal technology. Cornwall is also a natural source of lithium which is an important part of electric car battery production and there are numerous tentative projects in Cornwall to develop a new industry around this natural resource. 

As a leader in green innovation, Cornwall is an ideal location for global discussions on building back better from the coronavirus pandemic. A warm Cornish welcome awaits world leaders in June!

Thursday, 14 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.

Thursday, 7 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.