COVID-19 A Year On - North East Herts MP praises constituents for 'stoicism' in face of lockdown

North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald.

North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald. - Credit: Archant

North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald has shared his thoughts on how life has changed during the pandemic, and his hopes for what the future will look like as the world returns to normal.

The past year has created a new world for everyone, and this includes members of Parliament.

I have been able to spend more time in Royston, but I have seen far fewer people and only at a distance or behind a mask. My usual visits to schools, businesses and voluntary groups had to stop and my advice surgeries had to be replaced with phone calls.

Like many of my constituents, I have spent more hours in front of a screen than ever before.

My email inbox has never been fuller – more than 300 messages a day - with many constituents having time to share their thoughts about the UK’s place in the world.

This is in addition to the many individual cases raised with me across a wide range of issues, including the scope of coronavirus support packages. Local shops and businesses are suffering and I only hope that our economy can bounce back over the coming months.

I have been struck throughout the pandemic by the reaction of my constituents, which has been overwhelmingly stoical, considerate and understanding of the severity of the challenge.

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With very few exceptions, our friends and neighbours have been accepting of the restrictions, grateful for the unstinting work of our local emergency and medical services and welcoming of successes such as the development of the vaccine programme.

British sang-froid is alive and well. When I went to the Grafton Centre in Cambridge for my first jab recently, the man next in the line said to me: "Well, we’ve got a nice day for it.”

The House of Commons has continued to function as a legislature, but there have been challenges.

To take part in a debate, I have to put in for a daily ballot and this has reduced the opportunities to speak. There are only 18 seats available on each side of the Chamber, so most colleagues are taking part virtually and are at the mercy of broadband connections.

Constituents write in asking me to attend a debate in Westminster Hall, not realising there are only seven seats due to COVID restrictions.

Often, MPs discuss issues together privately in places like the Tearoom, “a word in your ear, what do you think about this issue”  type conversations. They are the informal way to gauge the mood on particular issues and necessary alliances are formed. It is just not the same in a WhatsApp group.

There have been sad moments for many of us as relatives and old friends have passed away during COVID, in many cases without their loved ones with them or without a proper send-off.

At Westminster we have lost members of staff including Julia, a kind lady of only 54 years, who had worked in the Tearoom since she was 18 years old and had cheered up countless MPs at difficult times with her friendly manner.  The Speaker has announced that the Tearoom is to be re-named “Julia’s” in her honour.

I mentioned that we are now in a new world, because I think COVID-19 will change many things forever.

In our area, for example, many people might not return to daily commuting. I expect to see more online retail, fewer shops and perhaps more services and homes on our High Streets.

We seem to have taken well to virtual medical appointments and procedures, where appropriate, staycations could increase and walking and cycling will continue to expand.

There has been more debate, albeit online, and people have had time to think. I have noticed that since people have spent more time in the countryside, they are expressing their commitment to improving our environment, not only through tackling global climate change, but locally by clearing litter, avoiding plastics and increasing recycling.

So, it’s been a horrible year, but with major implications for the future and some of them good. I hope we can be back to a more normal world soon.