Covid, debt and desperation: an MP’s caseload in struggling Hull

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While much of England counts down the days to their first beer garden pint or a long-overdue haircut, Emma Hardy will be watching the government’s Covid dashboard nervously. The Labour MP is looking forward to a trim, but she is also very worried that her Hull constituency risks being forgotten again.

Coronavirus has hit Hull so badly that last month Hardy quit her job on the shadow frontbench to devote her full attention to her constituents’ woes. Like many deprived northern English cities, Hull has had three Covid waves rather than the two that have hit London and the south: the first one in spring last year, a second in autumn (when at one point a quarter of all Hull children were off school isolating) and a third in January. Each was more deadly than the last.

Case numbers in Hull remain “stubbornly high”, says Hardy. The latest figures show 115 cases per 100,000 people in the city, a 23% drop from the previous week but still more than twice the English average. Hull’s Covid death rate across the whole pandemic is significantly higher too: 246 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 198 for England as a whole.

There appears to be growing desperation in the city. Over the weekend the footpaths on the Humber Bridge were closed after six suspected suicides in five weeks, prompting the local paper to demand action to prevent future tragedies.

In a sign of the plethora of problems striking just one place and just one MP, Hardy’s constituency caseload has doubled during the pandemic: 5,177 cases in the past 12 months, up from 2,599 the previous year. All this alongside a second job as shadow minister for further education and universities and trying to sporadically home-school daughters aged 11 and 12.

Graffiti on a bridge in Gipsyville
Graffiti on a bridge in Gipsyville. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Something had to give and Hardy, an ex-teacher who took over from the former home secretary Alan Johnson as the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle in 2017, decided it would be her position on Labour’s frontbench. “I felt like I was being a bad mum, a bad shadow minister and a bad MP,” she says. “Now at least I can try to do a decent job with two of them.”

The Guardian spent a day shadowing Hardy to try to understand the pressures in a constituency like hers, in the fallout from the pandemic. By teatime she had had 10 meetings covering an array of topics: how to help a 11-year-old girl debilitated with long Covid; complaints from Hull’s Salvation Army homeless hostel that they don’t have testing kits for their 109 residents and staff; the “mountain” of debt being racked up by residents behind on their rent who could soon face mass evictions and prosecutions; and whether she will be the parliamentary ambassador for a campaign to return the Viola, the world’s oldest viable steam trawler, to Hull.

All of the above takes place behind closed doors via phone or video call, and will do little to help her keep what is now a marginal seat. Hardy has a majority of just 2,856 and probably would have lost in 2019 had the former Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry not stood for the Brexit party, splitting the Tory vote.

To win again, she needs to be seen out and about, which is how she finds herself in a back alley in one of the more troublesome corners of her constituency. Kirstie McKeown, an energetic anti-litter campaigner in the Gipsyville neighbourhood, is describing how she recently discovered one passageway filled with bottles of urine and carrier bags of solid human waste.

Emma Hardy
Emma Hardy: ‘We cannot be the inconvenience the government is happy to forget about.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

As an MP, Hardy has no powers to deal with flytipping, pavement fouling or pothole fixing – the spontaneous demand of one woman in a mobility scooter who judders past on the Hessle Road. But she has come on this walkabout with officers from Hull city council to get a sense of how some of her poorest constituents are living.

When the Guardian visited Gipsyville in November, it was in the grip of a brutal second wave. Infection rates had soared to nearly 1,130 per 100,000 people and residents felt so gloomy that more than one suggested there was a government conspiracy to let the virus kill them off to save money on its benefits bill.

“It seems like they are trying to get rid of us,” said one man. “That way when it’s over they won’t have to spend so much money around here. Let the kids go to school, spread it to their parents and then let them all die. Most of the people in the country who are on benefits will be dead.”

The challenges of a place such as Hull have only been exacerbated by Covid. Youth employment in Hardy’s constituency has increased by 65% year on year, with almost 500 more 16- to 24-year-olds out of work in January. General unemployment reached 10.6% in the same month, more than double the rate four years ago. In 2018-19 just over 30% of children were living in poverty, compared with the British average of 18.4%, figures certain to have increased in the pandemic.

A government poster urging people to continue to stay at home
A government poster urging people to continue to stay at home. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“Hull is in danger of being forgotten again,” says Hardy. Two weeks before the Easter break, a third of all Hull schools had bubble closures because of infections among students and staff, according to the local council. But officials believe the high infection rate across the city is more due to the high number of people working in manufacturing: Hull is the caravan-making capital of the UK, an industry anticipating a bumper summer, and there are many large food processing factories including McCain and Cranswick.

Hardy is worried that society may open up too quickly for Hull to get infections under control. “It does sometimes feel like decisions are made based on what’s happening in the capital and we are again facing a similar situation now, where the country is on this roadmap out of lockdown and we’re back in the situation of going ‘hang on, we’re back [towards] the top of the league table’. As the country talks about summer holidays and lockdown easing, we’re going ‘excuse me, we still have very stubborn rates here’. We cannot be the inconvenience the government is happy to forget about.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid, debt and desperation: an MP’s caseload in struggling Hull

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