This month we finally had some good news about the Coronavirus pandemic. With the start of the vaccination programme in Cumbria and across the UK, this good news means we are turning a corner. I pay tribute to everyone who has been involved in the development and rollout of this vaccine technology, from the NHS workers, scientists, trial volunteers. pharmaceutical companies and Government Departments and Ministers to name but a few. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that the vaccine should be delivered to people according to clinical priority and I would urge people to get their jabs when the invitation comes. On the day the programme started I was able to question the Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the Commons about rollout in rural areas, such as here in Cumbria, and the possible challenges. I do not underestimate the task that the Government has of rolling out vaccines to those who need it as a priority and then to the wider population. I am reassured the Government recognises the challenges of the vaccine reaching rural areas and that when they get to the primary care and community rollout they will make sure we get the delivery as close to communities as possible. It will be a number of months before everyone can be vaccinated, so it is so important that in the meantime we continue to observe the measures put in place to control the spread of the virus. Remember: hands, face, space.
I was glad to see that we came out of the national Covid-19 restrictions on 2 December with a return to a regional tiered approach. This has only been possible thanks to the dedication and stoicism of folk who have managed to help combat the virus by abiding by the restrictions to date. We need to keep going with this and the Tier restrictions still mean we have to think carefully about how we go about our daily lives.
I do not underestimate the impact the pandemic has had on people and businesses in Penrith and The Border. Throughout, I have been working with those affected, advising and trying to secure support for them. The Government’s financial support for people and businesses during the pandemic has been a lifeline. But many people have not been able to access support such as some self-employed people, business owners, freelancers and company directors, including many in the tourism and hospitality sectors that are so important in Cumbria. This month in the Commons I questioned the Treasury Minister about support for these people. I was encouraged with the response that the Minister gave, showing a willingness to work with me on this. I have written to him about possible options to help those struggling to access Government support. I have been pressing on this issue for many months and commend the work of the Gaps in Support All-Party Parliamentary Group on this, of which I am a member. I will continue to raise this issue with colleagues in the Government in the hope of redressing the imbalance.
As I write this (again having raised Newton Rigg in meetings this week with the Education Secretary and Further Education Minister) the Government-led Strategic Review of Newton Rigg College that I triggered in the summer is coming to its conclusion in the coming days. Bidders have come forward with plans to take over the College and they are being evaluated as we speak. I have continued to engage with stakeholders and interested parties throughout this process and have been in repeated discussions with Ministers and the Department of Education where I continue to press the case for saving this precious College which is so important for our area and the wider UK.
I was also able to respond in the Commons to the Prime Minister’s Urgent Covid-19 statement to push for Outdoor Education Centres to be allowed to re-open for residential visits. Some centres are facing possible closure, which may lead to many job losses in Cumbria and the surrounding area. I am now a Vice Chair of the newly-formed Outdoor Learning UK All Party Parliamentary Group that is working to support this vital sector. I will continue to work with the Government on this issue as it is important not only to the businesses themselves but also for the life opportunities of the young people who benefit from these visits.
The Government has announced a £16 million winter support grant to FareShare, which will provide meals for those in need over the winter period. I am really pleased that the Government has listened to our cross-party EFRA Select Committee’s call for them to extend this FareShare Scheme through the winter. This welcome increase in funding will provide additional support to provide fresh and healthy food to some of the most vulnerable folk in society.
Finally, as we start the journey that brings us one step closer to the normality which we all long for, may I take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year.