Ipswich MP: Protecting elderly and giving young people hope is difficult balancing act amid Covid-19

PUBLISHED: 06:21 09 October 2020

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: PARLIAMENT LIVE TV

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: PARLIAMENT LIVE TV


Soon after the national lockdown was announced in the spring, I set up a “Talks with Tom” phone service for those who felt lonely during self-isolation. I personally wrote to over 7,000 constituents over the age of 70 offering my support and I shaved my hair off to raise money for Age UK Suffolk. Sadly this was not enough to save the charity which has left the county at precisely the time it was needed more than ever.

Clearly over the past few months, my thoughts and concerns have stayed with those who are most vulnerable to the virus and have often had to go through very challenging periods shielding. The virus continues to be a threat to the lives of those of a certain age and with underlying health conditions and while positive case numbers increase we need to continue to be alive to this.

A great part of my mind is also occupied by the impact of this virus on young people who are, by and large, the group least vulnerable to the adverse health effects of the virus yet are paying an enormous price as a result of the measures and restrictions that have been put in place.

The learning loss that has been caused by school closures has impacted those from disadvantaged communities the most. The reduced opportunities to have fun and play. And of course, the economic impact of the virus and what this will most likely mean for youth unemployment.

I said in my column last week that before adopting positions on these measures I would carefully consider the impact of any measures introduced to tackle the spread of Covid-19 on the “lives, livelihoods and liberties” of my constituents before coming to a conclusion. It’s for this reason that this week I’ve come out publicly against the 10pm curfew being introduced at a national level.

With Ipswich we have an example of a large urban area with a sizeable hospitality sector where disproportionate numbers of young people are employed. We also have an area with comparatively low levels of Covid-19 compared with other areas of the country, despite the increases we’ve seen this week. Therefore it really does beg the question as to whether the economic harm and damage to peoples livelihoods likely caused by the 10pm curfew is really worth it bearing in mind the public health case for introducing a curfew is much more limited.

One of the key conclusions I come to here is that wherever necessary, measures should be localised in focus and not one size fits all nationally.

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I appreciate that when pubs and bars reopened there were some examples where social distancing wasn’t respected. I saw the pictures and can understand why many of my constituents were angry about this. However, having frequented many of our town’s pubs, bars and restaurants over the past couple of months I’ve seen first-hand the huge efforts our pub landlords and restaurant owners have made to keep us safe whilst being able enjoy a fun and enjoyable evening with our friends and family.

For many the introduction of the 10pm at a time where Covid levels remain comparatively low must feel like a bit of kick in the teeth. And let’s not forget that disproportionately, it’s our young people who rely on the roles in our hospitality sector for their livelihoods.

We’ve heard a lot also about how university students have been impacted by Covid-19 and this week on the Education Select Committee I raised the issue of students’ mental health, particularly the mental health of first year students.

I remember vividly being dropped off as an 18-year-old by my dad in Manchester as a fresher. I’d never lived away from home and I remember sitting in my room when my dad left and for half an hour I was a nervous wreck. I also remember how within the next 24 hours I’d met over 100 other first year students in exactly the same position and the nervousness quickly vanished into excitement.

The sad reality is for many first year university students the experience could not be more different. In some parts of the UK instead of spending their time freely mingling in bars and lecture halls, many have been forcibly confined to student flats. Often their entire tuition has been moved online and more and more will be beginning to wonder whether the investment of over £9,000 was worth it. Add to this some of the draconian language we’ve heard from some university authorities including threats of them potentially not being able to go home for Christmas and you can see clearly why unless we’re careful the mental health of our university students could become a real crisis.

Fortunately in Ipswich, partly because of our low levels of Covid-19 as it stands, the University of Suffolk has not taken such an approach. But I’m well aware than many of my constituents will have sons and daughters at university elsewhere and they understandably have real concerns.

Covid-19 is a cruel virus that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of people including some of my own constituents. However it’s cruel in more ways than one and that’s what makes tackling it so difficult. Yes, we must protect lives, however we must also seek to guard against the destruction of livelihoods and the dreams of our young people as far as possible.

Young and old, we suffer together and we all have a stake. It can never be one against the other because we need each other now more than ever before.

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