Thursday, 24 February 2022

Living with Covid and an Escalation of Ukraine-Russia Crisis

Earlier this week we made another important step towards the return to normal life after the Covid pandemic with the announcement by the Prime Minister that all remaining restrictions would now be removed.  The huge success of our vaccination programme and the roll out of booster jabs means that the impacts of the Omicron wave were greatly reduced with hospitalisations held low and with both infection rates and hospitalisations now falling quickly we can make this further step.

From Thursday the 24th of February the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid-19 no longer applies but it is still advised to limit contact with others as far as possible if you test positive until April, if you can.  The guidance that encouraged teachers and students in school settings to routinely test twice a week has also been removed.  The emergency powers that were given to councils to impose restrictions on venues locally have been taken away, and from April new, more general public health guidance will be issued. 

During the pandemic we had to take some extraordinary and draconian powers to control the spread of the virus, but these were only ever temporary.  The freedom of society and individual liberties really matter, and it is essential that government actively take down the emergency powers and rules that were put in place and allow people to return to life as normal and make their own judgements about risk and their personal safety.   Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children. As such, we must use other measures such as the further expansion of our world beating vaccine program.
 
Since the beginning of last year, the UK has consistently been ahead of the rest of the world in protecting out population and we were the first European country to give booster doses to at least half of our population. It is because of this success that we have now been able to withdraw almost all guidance around Covid-19 and are now able to end mandatory self-isolation from today.
 
However, we also want to help the rest of the world emerge from the pandemic.  The UK developed one of the first vaccines to be used.  We have now distributed 2.5 billion doses of the UK-developed AstraZeneca vaccine, just 1 year after the first dose was administered here in the UK. This has undoubtedly saved countless lives and will have made a substantial difference to end the pandemic but there is further to go in other countries and we are supporting programmes like Covax which is operated by the World Health Organisation.
 
There is a broad consensus now among much of the medical community that we are approaching the Endemic stage of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and that we will need to live alongside it much as we already live alongside seasonal flu or colds.  While we will almost certainly see further variants emerge and will need to maintain some surveillance, we are on a definitive route back to normality.
 

Escalation in Ukraine: 
This week has also seen a considerable escalation in the situation in Ukraine, which has been building for some time. On Tuesday, the Russian Parliament authorised the use of Russian troops abroad and the Government formally recognised the states of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine. The safety and security of British nationals in Ukraine remains a top priority. The FCDO continues to advise against all travel to Ukraine.
 
In response to the actions of the Russian state towards Ukraine and Russia’s breach of international law and attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by sending troops into eastern Ukraine, the government announced in Parliament new sanctions on five Russian banks and a group of oligarchs.  It is important that we take steps to place sanctions on Russia for the actions it has taken.

Thursday, 17 February 2022

National Apprenticeship Week 2022

 Last week was the 15th National Apprentice Week which brings together businesses and apprentices across the country to raise awareness of the positive impact that apprenticeships make on individuals, businesses, and the wider economy.  In recent years we have started to see emphasis switch back from university degrees towards apprenticeships as a choice for many young people.  It means that they earn while they learn and do not have to take out student loans.  There has also been a growing realisation that an apprenticeship can offer a better career path than a degree for many and that there are no longer any glass ceilings that prevent people from progressing to the top because they embarked on a vocational learning path.

I have always been a strong advocate for apprenticeships. When I was a student, I studied at Cornwall College between 1987 and 1990 for a BTEC National Certificate in Business Studies and then after that a City and Guilds in Agricultural Management. I have always looked back fondly on my time at Cornwall College and valued the skills that I learned there.

The College has a deep-rooted history in our area and has been at the heart of all further and higher education in Cornwall for the last 80 years or so. It is a vital local asset delivering work-based learning in our area, with students able to learn a variety of skills such as plumbing, carpentry, car maintenance, or engineering.

Colleges and higher education providers such as Cornwall College will be vital to people’s prospects and chances as a result of the changing economy and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Work is changing, and it is important that people develop the skills they need to create new and better jobs.  The various Covid restrictions have interrupted the education of many including those taking degrees and apprentices and we need to help them pick up where they left off.

It is good to see businesses across Cornwall taking advantage of new government support which has recently been increased by £170 million to £2.7 billion in 2024-25. Local Companies such as Blue Flame work with Camborne college and have trained over 60 apprentices since the company’s inception. Similarly, Rodda’s has also supported many young people in learning new skills under their various apprentices’ schemes.

Since I was first elected, I have made clear that regeneration and job creation have been my top priorities and that includes ensuring that we are opening new routes for people of all ages to learn new skills and enhance their productivity. I look forward to continuing to support apprentices across the Camborne and Redruth area as we continue to build back better from the pandemic.

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Levelling Up

Last week the Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities announced the much-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper that set up the Governments vision for redistributing much of the wealth in this country away from London toward places like Cornwall. Since I was first elected twelve years ago, I have made clear that economic regeneration in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle was my number one priority so it is very positive to see that the Government is developing the vision for how we can improve all areas not just focusing on the large cities such as Manchester or London.

The new White Paper has set out a new vision for Cornwall within the United Kingdom as we have been designated one of the nine counties invited to negotiate a new ‘county deal’. This will give local leaders more control over areas such as transport, skills, and infrastructure and is part of the largest devolution of power from Whitehall to local leaders in modern times. My hope is that as this develops, substantially more powers will be given to Cornwall Council and Cllr Linda Taylor to help address the housing situation in Cornwall and I am very supportive of the proposals for a revised planning policy on holiday homes and other potential solutions.

The Levelling-Up White paper also referenced and confirmed some funding that has previously been announced, including the £23.7 million packages for Camborne through the Town Deal. Projects such as the ‘Fibre Park’ tech hub, the new funding for the rugby club, and projects regenerating areas in the town centre will make a genuine difference and are a welcome boost for the town.

The traditional, 20th century model of retail taking over the town centre and residential being primarily on estates around the outskirts of town may have run its course.  We need to rethink the purpose of our town centres and more and more retail goes online and goods are delivered directly to the home.  We need to get better at making our town centres more of a mixed space for living and working and improving the public realm and streetscape. As more people opt to be self-employed and often make use of digital media to work from home, there is likely to be a change in what our towns are for in the decades ahead. This new funding for Camborne will give us the finance to promote some of the changes that can secure our future prosperity.

While much has been made of the slogan ‘Levelling-Up’ since the 2019 election, I am very pleased to see the government is continuing to deliver on that agenda and I look forward to meeting with my colleague Michael Gove in the coming months to ensure that this progress is only built on in the future.

Thursday, 3 February 2022

Reducing Sewage in our Rivers

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 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. Our beaches, in particular, have been a source of comfort to so many of us. 

However, Cornwall, like many parts of the country, has long suffered from the excessive use of storm overflows leading to raw sewage being released into our rivers and oceans and, as flash rainfall events have become more frequent, our Victorian sewerage infrastructure has struggled to cope. Local organisations such as Surfers against Sewage have done a great deal to raise awareness about this issue.

When I became Environment Secretary in February 2020, I made it a priority to clean up our rivers and seas.  One of the first things I did was to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows as a matter of urgency.

Through the Environment Act, we have put in place a package of measures to reduce the harms from storm overflows. This includes new duties on water companies and government and increased monitoring and transparency through the Storm Overflows Taskforce. Monitoring of the network has increased 14-fold in the last five years and the Environment Agency will monitor 100% of storm overflows by next year. We will be publishing a statutory plan by September to tackle storm overflows. We are also bringing the strongest enforcement action against water and sewerage companies that damage our environment, including a record £90 million fine against Southern Water.

This week, we are publishing that new statement and set out our priorities for the water regulator, Ofwat, to make sure that the water industry is delivering for the environment and for consumers. Ofwat, as the economic regulator, is responsible for setting out what water companies should focus their investment on during each spending cycle. The Government is responsible for setting the policy priorities for Ofwat, and we have never been clearer. Ofwat and water companies can and must prioritise action to improve the water environment and deliver a resilient and sustainable water supply.

This builds on other actions that we have taken to improve water quality and the health of our natural environment. We will continue moving forward, improving policies, and working with industry and regulators to clean up our rivers and seas. We will shortly be publishing a public consultation on targets for the priority areas in our Environment Act, including water, and this will be yet another mechanism to drive forward improvements for the water environment. 

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. With the measures we are putting in place, we will leave the environment in a better state for future generations - and turn the tide on the decline that we have seen in recent decades.

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...