The news has been dominated by allegations that Dominic Cummings “broke the rules” by travelling from London to Durham after his wife displayed symptoms of Covid-19. Understandably, people are emailing to ask why. Since the start of lockdown, I have been contacted by constituents seeking my opinion on whether a journey they wanted to make was within the rules. The guidance, which I have pointed out, states travel is permissible “for any medical need” or “to provide care or help to a vulnerable person”. In the situation faced by Mr Cummings, his four-year-old son was vulnerable and circumstances were exacerbated by the fact his home in London has become a target for protesters. He has given a full account, which is online. He has made clear that reports he returned to Durham for a second time were false, as was the suggestion he had simply gone to visit his parents. He stayed in a separate building.
Mr Cummings has long been a hate figure for many. But whatever anyone thinks of his actions, he clearly was not embarking on a trip for the fun of it. During his detailed explanation, Mr Cummings said “reasonable people may disagree” with his decision. I would hope reasonable people would at least look at the statement before rushing to judgement.
Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May) was a good moment to reflect on the fact one in four people will suffer from a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Getting more access to counselling at an early stage to prevent self-harming is vital but, unfortunately, it is a part of the health budget which is easily overlooked. The effects of the lockdown, especially on young people, is something I fear we will be dealing with for years to come. In making decisions about lifting restrictions, we not only need to think about the immediate health benefits of doing so, but also of the long-term health effects of keeping them in place. Getting that balance right is the great challenge for ministers across the UK and the scientists who advise them.
Some children will hopefully be heading back to school soon, possibly next week in England. The headteacher of my local school queried last week’s column when I said “online teaching has been patchy to non-existent”. I happily accept that in the case of my own children, homework has been sent out. However, online work is not the same as online teaching where there is a live interaction between pupil and teacher. Online links will never replace a teacher in a classroom, and an occasional team meeting will not replace daily contact with teachers and friends. A phased return to school might involve smaller numbers going back for less than a full week, or a less rigid timetable, but for the sake of our children’s education and future mental health we all need to show flexibility to ensure it happens quickly.
*Published in the Monmouthshire Beacon on 27 May 2020 and the Abergavenny Chronicle on 28 May 2020*