As the days slowly start to lengthen, there is some hope that we may see easing of some lockdown restrictions in the Spring. No final decisions have been made yet, but an important date for the diary is 22nd February, when the Prime Minister will set out the roadmap out of lockdown. Case rates, deaths and hospital admissions are all falling but we need to be cautious about relaxing restrictions too soon. The speed at which the NHS has rolled out coronavirus vaccines is to be applauded and effective vaccine distribution is our ladder out of this crisis. I want to say a huge thanks to everyone involved in this amazing effort of vaccine roll-out.
Major local news for us this week is that sadly the Strategic Review of Newton Rigg has not been able to recommend a new body to take over the College. I know this news will be incredibly upsetting to everyone as we have been working hard on the campaign to find a way forward. My thoughts are with the staff and students who are adversely affected as well as the wider community. I would like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thank you to all of the Newton Rigg staff for continuing to provide such first-class education to the young people of Cumbria throughout this difficult period. Although this news is not what we as a community would have liked, I want to affirm that this is not the end. It is vital that we continue to fight to maintain Land-Based education for our young people in Cumbria. We already have strong local and national support as well as political support, and I am continuing to work with stakeholders near and far, as well as local government and national government to ensure educational provision in some form can continue. This will aim to give us the platform from which a new Newton Rigg can emerge. Live discussions are continuing and plans are taking shape to look into other potential solutions for continuity of educational provision in Eden. I am pleased to say that we now have been able to get Myerscough College and Penrith’s Ullswater Community College to come on board to work with local stakeholders to secure some educational provision here in Eden. This innovative partnership offers a lifeline of support and I am very grateful to them. I am continuing to work with Ministers to ask for their continued support in this.
Since my last column, the vaccine rollout has gathered apace. Whilst there are plenty more vaccines to be administered, we can be proud of the speed at which the most at risk folk in our society are receiving this vital protection. Cumbria has been very efficient in its rollout to date and thank you to all the NHS staff, pharmacists, the military and countless volunteers, this would not be possible without you.
An issue that I know is a source of constant concern for people across Penrith and The Border is connectivity. This can mean both virtual (through poor broadband speeds and phone signal) and physical (bus and train networks). I am working with my neighbour Guy Opperman MP, and the Railways Minister to see if we can progress plans to re-open the station at Gilsland. It will be such an important shot in the arm for our local community. It will improve connectivity for local people, help the economy and help people enjoy the fantastic environment in this part of the world. Rural bus services also provide a vital service to communities across the constituency, but I think provision can be improved. I have therefore raised the issue of the County Council not using government monies to subsidise commercial services with both the Council and in Parliament with the Government. I urge Cumbria County Council to revisit their decision of 2014 and help support rural bus services and make full use of the Government support available. Carlisle Airport also received the good news that they can apply for a government grant worth up to £8 million; it has been hit hard by the pandemic and hopefully this will help its recovery.
Securing better digital connectivity is a campaign I have been fighting hard on since my election. The covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the need for a decent download speed and reliable broadband. Whether it is young folk logging on to attend virtual lessons, people running their businesses or parents trying to work from home or complete online shopping, the internet is truly becoming the fourth utility and a vital component of everyday life. The government has made some progress, with £5bn committed to rollout gigabit broadband. Furthermore, it is working with industry to target a minimum of 85 per cent gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, with the ambition to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100 per cent as possible. Whilst the government support is welcome, it will need to go further if the hardest to reach rural areas of the country are to receive a good broadband coverage. Some of my constituents have been quoted inordinate amounts of money for new cables to be installed, which are clearly unaffordable. I continue to work with stakeholders and press Ministers on this so that we can try to improve connectivity in our area.