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Britain must return to a spirit of “national togetherness” and grassroots volunteering, the communities secretary has said, as Boris Johnson admitted the public was furious at the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amid growing frustration and confusion over local lockdowns and a widening north-south divide, Robert Jenrick said energising community help for the most vulnerable during the second wave of coronairus was of greatest concern.
Jenrick said ministers would do more to help the homeless, the lonely and domestic abuse survivors, but he put the onus back on communities to revive the support shown to isolated people six months ago.
In an interview with the Guardian, the cabinet minister also said the economic crisis kept him awake at night and he feared the financial fallout would effect a generation.
Tacitly acknowledging national division and fatigue, Jenrick said communities must have the same level of focus as on the brink of the toughest restrictions in March and April, when thousands of mutual aid groups rendered the centralised volunteer programme virtually obsolete. He also:
Told rebellious shire Conservatives furious at planning reforms that the party has a moral mission to build homes and signalled that he was prepared to face down his party critics.
Signalled more Treasury aid for trapped leaseholders of buildings with unsafe cladding.
Denied there was a communication breakdown with local leaders, even though some have complained of a five-minute warning of the detail of new Covid-19 curbs.
Jenrick also used the interview to announce an extra £6m to help survivors of domestic abuse. The funding is intended for accommodation and support services to help councils fulfil new obligations under the Domestic Abuse Act, which comes into force next April.
He spoke about visiting a shelter in his constituency in Newark, saying he would never forget meeting a woman who “had no front teeth whatsoever, she just escaped from an abusive relationship in another city, and had been directed to the refuge in Newark, knowing nobody at all in the local area”. He said it was clear provision had needed to be stepped up during lockdown.
Though there had been a rise in domestic abuse cases since the pandemic it had not been not as steep as predicted, prompting fears people were not coming forward for fear of exposing themselves to the virus or of breaking restrictions, he said.
“Nobody should feel trapped in an abusive relationship for fear of breaching the rules or fear that there won’t be sufficient good quality, safe accommodation and support for them and their children available,” he said.
“One of the areas that gives me greatest concern is how we can help the most vulnerable people now. If you go back to the beginning of the pandemic, there was a huge sense of national togetherness.”
Government initiatives such as the NHS volunteer programme had proven unnecessary because “there was just so much organic desire to support people”, he said.
Research points to growing resentment fuelled by rule-breakers such as the prime minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings. Jenrick himself drove 40 miles to visit his parents during the initial lockdown period, but defended his action saying he was giving them vital support.
Speaking separately on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Johnson admitted the public were “furious at me and they’re furious with the government” over local coronavirus measures, but said: “This is the only way to do it.” He said people should “behave fearlessly but with common sense” and carry on with their lives as much as possible while obeying the rules.
Jenrick acknowledged much would be different in a second wave. “I think this time around, this autumn and winter, we need to try to recapture that,” he said. “And to help people to come together, once again, and to have the same level of focus on the most vulnerable groups, lonely people and domestic abuse victims, those sleeping rough on the streets.
“It’s hard to sustain anything for a long period of time, and we need to make sure that everybody understands the seriousness of the situation now, and that we in government redouble our efforts to support those groups in particular.”
In a cabinet divided between those who want to further open the economy and those who fear it would unleash another devastating death toll, Jenrick refused to define himself as a “health hawk” or “fiscal dove”, but said his brief often pulled him in different directions.
“By nature I’m a Conservative who wants to allow people to live their own lives how they want to,” he said. Asked if the scale of the economic crisis facing the nation kept him awake at night, he said: “It does. I think the autumn and the winter are going to be very challenging periods.
“I think the long-term scarring effects of unemployment upon society are huge and very long-lasting. Every small business that goes bust, or every individual who ends up unemployed, that can have a profound impact on them and their children.”
Jenrick’s department is spearheading a radical new planning agenda which has drawn criticism from housing charities and Tory MPs alike.
In Conservative-controlled rural and suburban areas, the requirement for new-builds increases substantially under an algorithm used to determine the number of new homes required. In Tory areas such as Chichester in West Sussex, the annual target would rise from 425 to 1,120 and in Reigate, Surrey, from 460 to 1,091.
“If we’re going to address the very severe affordability issues being faced by young people in particular … that does mean significantly increasing the number of homes that we’re building as a country,” he said.
“And that will mean all parts of the country. I do think this has to be viewed as part of the moral mission of the Conservative party, and our best chance of success in the long term.”
Jenrick said he wanted to do more for leaseholders trapped in homes with unsafe cladding, facing huge costs and holding worthless, sometime un-mortgageable property. He suggested he would lobby the Treasury to help those in “an appalling situation”.
Asked whether he thought contracting Covid-19 would change Donald Trump, Jenrick laughed and said: “I wouldn’t write him off.”
Source: The Guardian
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