The news this week of a vaccine to protect people against the covid virus, that appears to be highly effective, and could be ready by the end of the year, is the best news we’ve had for a very long time. Obviously, it will take time to manufacture and distribute the vaccine, and I think we will be living with covid restrictions for quite a few months to come, but we are all hoping this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Meantime, MPs were also told this week that mass covid tests, which are already happening in Liverpool, would be made available in Greater Manchester. That’s also good to hear, though it turns out ‘mass’ testing doesn’t actually mean enough tests for all Manchester residents, so I’m waiting to hear more about who they’ll be offered to.
The government has also issued information on how students will be able to return home safely for Christmas. They’ll be offered tests, classes will stop early, and they will be able to travel home during a ‘window’ between 3 and 9 December. There are, however, quite a few difficulties with this. Will enough tests be available? Will students be able to book affordable tickets on public transport? (I’m told fares have already rocketed for the first weekend in December). Some students have placements they have to complete, running right up to the week before Christmas – what happens to them? This year, it’s likely more students than usual will remain on campus over the Christmas holiday, so what arrangements are in place to look after their health and wellbeing? Most crucially of all, we still have no idea whether, when, or how, the government expects students to return to university after Christmas.
Nor do we yet know much about how school exams will be run fairly next year. This is incredibly unsettling for pupils, parents and teachers. This week, Labour called on the government to come forward with a plan for next year’s exams, and we made a number of our own suggestions, including more options about which questions students would answer, reserve papers if they’re unable to take an exam on the allotted day, and ensuring that any standardisation process to guarantee results are fair takes account of different regional experiences of covid. That’s really important to us in Greater Manchester, where our high infection rate means students will have faced more disruption to their learning than in other parts of the country. I’m hosting a zoom call for year 11-13 students in my constituency to discuss these matters, on Friday 20 November at 530 pm, so if you’d like to attend, please email email@example.com and we will send you full details.
As ever, my role as shadow education secretary has dominated my week in parliament, but on Tuesday night, I participated in a troubling debate which highlighted a particularly arcane aspect of parliamentary procedure. Until May, I served as a member of parliament’s committee on standards, responsible for MPs’ conduct. In that role, I was a member of the recruitment panel that was set up to appoint two new external, non-MP, members to the committee. These were important appointments to create confidence in the independence of our complaints procedures, and so the selection process was rigorous. But the government decided to interfere, and to challenge the panel’s recommendation. This was a shocking decision by ministers to move the goalposts, totally unfair to candidates, and making it likely that future potential applicants will be deterred from putting themselves forward for appointment – to parliament’s detriment. You can watch the debate at https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/cd472df6-8cc3-4272-9781-d4f6f982af99?agenda=True (go to 18:59 hours), or read it at https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-11-10/debates/05DDC1F8-9A73-4AC3-9510-E5FD11F96F55/CommitteeOnStandards. It was encouraging to see some Conservative MPs standing up for the integrity of parliament, but the government’s conduct was unedifying.
Finally, although covid meant we couldn’t mark Remembrance Sunday in the usual way this year, I was honoured to attend a small private ceremony at Trafford Town Hall, and to lay a wreath in memory of all those who gave their lives for our protection. It was a quiet, but very moving, occasion, and I was glad to be able to attend it. We owe so much to our brave uniformed services, who put themselves in danger in order to keep us safe. It is right that we remember and honour them.