Thursday, 30 December 2021

Happy New Year 2021/22

The New Year has always been seen as a chance for renewal, an opportunity to turn over a new leaf or to make a fresh start. At a personal level, many people will resolve to stop smoking, join a gym or make other changes to their life.  After two very difficult years for our country as we have wrestled with the Covid pandemic, here are a few areas where I think our country should resolve to make changes.

Firstly, we all need to learn to live alongside the threat of new variants of Covid and carry on with our lives. Emergency powers should never be used lightly and the restrictions required over the last two years, while necessary, have been quite draconian.  Now that the vast majority of the population is vaccinated and receiving booster vaccinations, we should resist the inclination to bring in restrictions on people’s lives and allow people to manage their own risks in their own way.  We do not want another year where people are told whether they can go to church or attend band practice.

Secondly, we need to finally fix the problems that have caused pressure on the NHS by joining up adult social care and health services.  While there has been a huge increase in funding for the NHS over the last decade, the demands have also grown and there are pinch points that need to be addressed.  A number of doctors surgeries are struggling to recruit the next generation of GPs and too many are relying on part-time GPs.  We are then getting too many people turning up at A&E and, because of staffing problems in nursing care, hospitals are also not able to discharge patients as quickly as they should.  This situation is exacerbated because the clinical staff at hospitals are sometimes too risk-averse in prescribing how much care support a patient needs when discharged which makes it hard to discharge them at all.  The government is making a further huge cash injection into the NHS funded through a new social care levy on National Insurance but we need to ensure that the structural issues that exist in the system are fixed as part of that package.

Thirdly, the problems of mental health have worsened during the pandemic and we need a concerted effort to get it back on track.  Some of it is down to the frustrations of modern life.  For the elderly, it can often be linked to loneliness and for the young, teenage anxieties are exacerbated in the age of social media which can be needlessly cruel.  Then there are all of the issues associated with drug abuse and we have been affected by the “county line” drug problem like many other communities.  Trying to nurture a culture across our society where we focus on wellbeing, recognise the value of friendships, family and nature in helping people stay grounded and encourage people to look out for one another is key.

Finally, here in Cornwall, we need to make further progress in addressing our housing shortages.  Some of it is due to second home ownership in coastal villages but it’s also more complex than that.  There are also many people who are choosing to retire to Cornwall for understandable reasons and in some of our towns, the problems of family breakdown mean more households divided which places pressure on housing availability.  We do need to build new homes but must build on brownfield sites before greenfield sites and we must go the extra mile to ensure that homes that are built are aesthetically beautiful and fit the local built environment.

The end of 2021 was a difficult one for the Prime Minister and the government with controversies and challenges on multiple fronts.  For our part, we will be wanting to put some of these problems behind us in 2022 and get to work on the big issues our country faces as it gets back on its feet.

I wish you a very happy New Year and a successful 2022!

Thursday, 23 December 2021

2021 Christmas Message

This week there was an extended Cabinet meeting to consider the latest evidence on the Omicron variant of Covid and assess whether further restrictions are needed.  The government has decided not to introduce any further restrictions at this stage but to keep the matter under close review.

There are times when you have to make big decisions on issues but with very limited evidence and the current situation reflects just that.  We know that the new variant is spreading very quickly but we always predicted that it would so that is not really a surprise and is in line with expectations.  The key doubts are around the severity of symptoms and the extent to which the vaccines that we have all had will provide protection.

The Omicron Variant was first discovered in South Africa and they are judged to be about 2 to 3 weeks ahead of us.  Infections also grew incredibly fast but are now starting to fall quite quickly which is encouraging.  There is also some evidence that the symptoms are milder than previous variants with those who do end up in hospital typically staying for 3 or 4 days rather than the average of 10 days for previous variants.  It is very hard to estimate the number of daily hospitalisations we might have and models range from a few hundred to many thousands per day, but the best estimate is that it might get as high as 3000 per day which is about 25 per cent lower than the peak earlier this year.  The 4000 per day admissions earlier this year put pressure on the NHS but was manageable.

The key unknown factor is the extent to which the vaccines we have to reduce the severity of symptoms.  The big drive for people to get their booster jab is for the very good reason that the early evidence suggests that having a booster significantly reduces the chances of infection, perhaps getting up to an 80 per cent reduction. Almost all of the older, more vulnerable cohorts and many others have now had their booster jab and those who have not yet got round to it should try because it is crucial to our efforts.  The double vaccinations will provide some protection against symptoms but limited protection against infection and uncertainty about the extent to which a double jab will reduce the severity of symptoms is where the doubt lies and the risk exists.

We have had two years now of using emergency powers to impose exceptional and highly illiberal restrictions on people’s everyday lives: telling them where they can meet, how many people they can meet, whether they can attend band practice or play sport or go to work.  You can’t maintain those sorts of extraordinary powers indefinitely which is why the government is trying to chart a different course this time, being honest about the risks we face, unable to rule out the possibility of taking further legal restrictions but being deeply reluctant to do so and instead relying on individuals and families to exercise their own judgement and manage their own risk and try to reduce their exposure in their own way.  There is evidence that they are doing just that which makes the impact of further legal restrictions more doubtful.

Despite the uncertainty we face, Christmas must be is a time for hope and optimism. It is an opportunity to speak to family members and spend time with friends without the frequent pressures of work or normal life. I am pleased that Christmas will be proceeding as normal this year.  The social distancing needed to slow the spread of Covid-19 over the last couple of years has made people value friendships and family connections and realise the importance of these relationships. Given the frantic pace of life in the modern world, we had perhaps lost sight of this as a society at times.  While many may be finding it difficult this Christmas, we must all try to make an effort to maintain the important links to those most important in our lives and continue to look out for one another.

I wish you all a very merry and happy Christmas!

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Visiting Pool Academy

Last week, I visited Pool Academy and met a group of students to discuss some of the key issues concerning them ranging from the environment and climate change to housing issues in Cornwall and economic opportunity for young people. The questions were thoughtful and we had a detailed discussion around some of the challenges facing the local area.  

On climate change, we talked about the progress that had been made at Glasgow and the importance of having hope and optimism rather than a culture of despair.  On housing, there are specific challenges in Cornwall and we talked about the proposals from Cornwall Council to require planning for change of use to a holiday let or maybe a higher council tax for second homes.  And on local opportunities, we talked about the development of a new computer software industry in the area.  In fact, the founder and Managing Director of Bluefruit, one of the leading new businesses in this area, was a former pupil at Pool School and has now set up a world-leading software business here.

Throughout the Pandemic, young people, in particular, have been affected by the lockdown restrictions since the start of the pandemic. The decision to close schools earlier this year did 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 are 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.

However, young people are also remarkably resilient and all schools in the area are reporting that, while education has been set back, young people have bounced back quite quickly.  As we see more uncertainty about the threat posed by the new Omicron variant of Covid and Parliament introducing some further measures to try to curtail it this week, let’s hope that we are all able to avoid having to take any further steps.

Stepping Up the Booster Campaign:
In light of the increased threat of the Omicron variant, the Government has decided to enact the ‘Plan B’ measures set out in the summer and designed to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. While the restrictions we are having to consider now and have had to implement on Covid over the past two years have been deeply frustrating and many emergency measures have been draconian and highly illiberal in nature, they have not been done lightly. It is absolutely clear: the vaccine is the UK’s best way out of the Pandemic.

As such, I strongly encourage you all to get your booster vaccine as soon as possible. In line with the Government’s goal of offering everyone a jab by the end of the year, the Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group have stepped up the rollout including reopening the mass vaccination site at Stithians Showground and other pop-clinics across Cornwall. Head to their website to find your nearest one as soon as you can. 

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Harnessing Cornwall’s Natural Resources

In Cornwall, we are privileged to have access to a beautiful landscape with a wealth of resources and have a rich history of leading the world in new and innovative technologies. Many of these were highlighted with G7 being held in Cornwall earlier this year and Climate Change dominating much of the agenda.

Climate change and environmental concerns more widely have risen the agenda in recent years. Fifteen years ago, David Cameron made it a central part of his agenda when the Conservatives first came into office in 2010. Now, following COP-26 in Glasgow and the G7 in Cornwall, the UK has a firmly established place as a world leader on Climate Change and the goal of Net-Zero.

Historically, Cornwall has an important place in this country’s industrial development with Camborne and Redruth being two of the wealthiest towns in the land at the height of the copper and tin mining eras. Camborne, in particular, was home to Richard Trevithick who invented the steam locomotive and epitomised the contribution made by Cornwall to the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are continuing this tradition by helping the whole country in cutting emissions and establishing a pathway to protect our precious environment for future generations.

Across Cornwall, there are several businesses across Cornwall that are working hard to create new, green industries that sustainably make use of our natural resources. From harnessing the ideal conditions with floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea to reviving the Cornish mining industry at South Crofty and United Downs- where there is some of the highest-grade tin and lithium in Europe.

The first deep geothermal power project in the UK is here in Cornwall at United Downs. Geothermal Engineering Ltd (GEL) is a small Cornish company that has successfully proved the concept by drilling two deep wells, one to bring the naturally hot water to the surface and the other to deposit the used fluid back underground. Geothermal electricity is known as baseload, because it is generated 24/7 regardless of the weather at the surface, balancing out the peaks and troughs of other renewable energy sources.

This week, I am visiting United Downs to meet with GEL to discuss some of their potential future projects across West Cornwall. While I am very supportive of Geothermal Power and harnessing some of Cornwall’s natural resources in a sustainable environmentally friendly way, any work must be carried out with the consent of Cornish residents. I look forward to hearing from GEL about what they are doing to address any concerns highlighted by residents.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Cornwall is in a unique and historic position. With the right support from the government and some innovative thinking, we are developing into the Green Energy capital of the UK and could well play an important role over the course of the next decade.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

The Omicron Variant

This week the Prime Minister set out a proportionate set of actions to tackle the newly identified Omicron Variant of Covid-19 that was first discovered in Southern Africa.  It includes new temporary and precautionary measures that will allow scientists time to better understand how the new strain of the Covid virus has developed. This was an extremely difficult decision.  None of us wants to return to the sorts of restrictions we have had to endure over the last two years, however, there are some uncertainties around the new variant, so we need to make the space to better understand it.
These measures include making face coverings will be compulsory in shops and other settings such as banks, post offices and hairdressers, as well as on public transport and requiring all travellers to take a PCR test when arriving back in the UK, on or before day two of their arrival. We have also placed South Africa, Botswana, and other African nations on the red list as a precaution to prevent unnecessary spread of this variant.
The main concern is that the Omicron variant contains a large number of spike protein mutations as well as mutations in other parts of the viral genome. Urgent work is ongoing internationally to fully understand how these mutations may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments, and transmissibility. Vaccines remain our best line of defence and experts remain confident that our current vaccines will provide protection against the new variant, but the extent of this continues to be investigated.
However, our extensive vaccination programme and test, trace and isolate system continue to be the most effective way of reducing transmission, along with practicing good hygiene, keeping spaces well ventilated, and wearing a face covering in enclosed or crowded spaces. Over 16 million people have already come forward for their booster jabs, and we have seen a fall in hospitalisations and deaths. All adults who have not yet received their first or second dose of the vaccine, or those who are eligible for their booster should be encouraged to come forward to help protect themselves and others.
Both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have been clear that these measures will only be in place for as long as is strictly necessary and not one day more. If it proves to be the case, as many initial investigations indict, that the Omicron Variant of COVID-19 is no more deadly or significant that the Delta variant, these restrictions will be reversed. As such, the government has committed to a review three weeks from now.
Cornwall has been particularly vulnerable throughout the pandemic, and with the existing pressures on our health service we have to act with caution when considering the risks on new variants. However, it is important to understand that vaccination is our best way out of this pandemic and put us firmly back on the road to normality. As such, I strongly encourage you to have both your first and second vaccine and your booster when called up.

The Food Strategy

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister was at a farm outside Hayle to announce the government’s first-ever food strategy.  SEF is one of a nu...