Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 
Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 

As we enter Autumn the messages on what rules social distancing, mask wearing and the numbers of people we are allowed to meet indoors and out continue to change. It sometimes appears to be a new policy a day with conflicting statements from Government ministers and officials as to what the policies actually mean for us.

Amid such uncertainty, we have been exhorted to return to the workplace, ‘eat out to help out’, get the kids back to school and  – the latest it seems – forget about Christmas!

Getting the economy moving again is Whitehall’s number one priority but there seems little doubt now that once the furlough scheme ends, coincidentally and perhaps appropriately at Halloween, on the 31st October unemployment will rise with thousands of jobs disappearing, if not overnight then very rapidly.

The measures currently due to start on 1st November – £1000 one off payment per job retained, £13 per day stay at home payments where local lockdowns are imposed, and a youth employment plan offering just 25 hours a week for only 6 months –  appear inadequate to the task ahead.

And while everyone supports the return to school, given the amount of time children have lost in their education, over 540 schools nationally have been hit by Coronavirus since going back last week. Locally, Year 2 pupils and their households  and some staff at  Five Acres Primary in Ambrosden have been told to self-isolate for 2 weeks following a confirmed case of Coronavirus within the school community. Such incidents can only put more pressure back on children and their parents who may have already returned to work. Not everyone can work from home.

In Bicester, with a heavy reliance locally on service sector employment –  hospitality, retail and wholesale, and administration and support – the furlough scheme has undoubtedly helped many families to sustain themselves through the summer lockdown. The risk is that the confusing messages, withdrawal or downgrading of Government support and local outbreaks of the pandemic either lead to people being laid off or, where given the option, returning to work and taking their chances with the virus.

However we look at it, the chances are that Winter 2020/21 will see the UK economy in recession. So it’s critical that, those affected most by the recession get concerted support. It means local councillors and representatives working with business, trades unions and concerned citizens to pressure the government into investing in policies that make sense of the local needs of the people they represent.

The problem is not going to be solved locally. It goes way beyond the resources of local government and local employers alone. There is little doubt that, given a growing number of Coronavirus cases in the population and school incidents like Five Acres nationally, the furlough scheme itself should be extended well into for at risk employment sectors like those in Bicester.

One new initiative, the national jobs coalition, supported by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East and led by Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggests extending the furlough scheme where there are local lockdowns, subsidies for part-time working through 2021 in key slow-to-recover sectors and  a youth guarantee scheme, to give all under 25s the chance of work, training or education. Given the impact of both the pandemic and a likely recession, all these measures together with a boost to childcare provision would help Bicester families and ensure a safe return to work.

Bicester Advertiser column from Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP

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